Tomato, to-mah-to

Since my tomato day in the kitchen, the crop has begun to roll in. I’m guessing BLT’s for supper?

Most of us can agree that fresh garden tomatoes are one of the gifts of summer. Personally, I’m happy eating them warm from the garden, a tomato in one hand, the the salt shaker in the other. However, the cook in me knows there is so much more to do with summer’s best crop: sauce, roasted on the side, chopped for bruschetta. And then there is tomato pie or tart. This year I’m trying to take my tomato repertoire up a notch.

For some time now I have been eyeing various recipes for tomato tarts. They’re pretty and colorful, and seem like they would make a nice summertime appetizer, first course or side. And last week I needed a new kitchen project anyway.

Our garden tomatoes are just now ripening (this is Chicago, after all), so I supplemented with tomatoes from the store to test these recipes. My first try was this tomato tart from the New York Times. I have been having great luck with their recipes lately and this was no exception. The recipe called for heirloom tomatoes, but my grocery store didn’t have a good selection, so I settled for a smaller vine ripened variety.

This recipe starts with a fairly simple, blind-baked crust that is then topped with a thin layer of pesto (which I made myself from some of our garden basil), then mozzarella cheese topped by a simple egg and cream mix, then the tomatoes. We enjoyed this as a side with grilled chicken, but it could easily have been a light entree. It was certainly filling and fresh. Even my husband, who prefers his tomatoes in spaghetti sauce, endorsed it!

And I’m so sorry I didn’t take pictures along the way, but here’s the finished product. This recipe’s a keeper!

A few days later I made Ina Garten’s recipe for Anna’s Tomato Tart from Cooking for Jeffrey. This recipe has fewer layers, starting with a dough made in the food processor. After chilling the dough for about 30 minutes, giving you time to slice the tomatoes and prepare a seasoning mix of parsley, basil, thyme and olive oil (also using a food processor) it’s time to roll the dough into a rough 11 by 17 rectangle. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it bakes in a sheet pan, so you want to achieve that general shape.

After rolling the dough out on a floured surface and transferring to a parchment-lined sheet pan (per Ina’s instructions), I realized it would have been easier to roll it out on the parchment, then transfer the paper and dough to the pan. Next time. After baking the crust, it’s layered with a coat of dijon mustard, then grated gruyere cheese, then the sliced tomatoes tossed with the herb seasoning, more gruyere and a final dusting of parmesan. This all goes back into the oven to roast the tomatoes and melt the cheese. After cooling a bit, I cut it into squares and we ate it warm, though you could also serve it at room temperature. This was good, but very cheesy. As much as I like gruyere, I would use less next time.

This made a bigger recipe overall, so it may work better for a larger group. In the end, Steve and I decided we preferred the NYT recipe, but agreed that the Barefoot Contessa tart would be a fun — and different — party app. Bonus points since it doesn’t need to be served right out of the oven.

So, after all this tomato talk, what did I serve to friends who socially distanced with us over the weekend? Good old bruschetta. I  used a carton of red, yellow and green cherry tomatoes — quartered — seasoned with minced garlic and onion, a dash of red wine vinegar and generous doses of salt and olive oil. I do this by taste. I used toasted baguette slices for serving and this time, to avoid too many hands on the food, I assembled them ahead of time, spreading a thin coat of ricotta (or you could use goat cheese or buratta) on the bread slices, before adding the tomatoes. In pre-pandemic times, I would have served the toasted bread in a basket and the tomatoes in a pretty bowl.

Which leads me to another question: if you are hosting the occasional guests in these pandemic times, what are you serving and how are you serving it? I did beef sliders and individual ramekins of potato salad a few weeks ago. And I pre-plated it to avoid too much handling. What are your thoughts?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

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

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

Moving along

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Those remarkable Hayes girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Five books by cooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you again next time!

Five to share

A field of poppies in France.

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

One: Recommended reading

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

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

Two: the non-graduation graduation

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

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

Plane trees along a road in France.

Three: I need to go to France

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

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

 Four: Bonus reading

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

Five: What I’ve cooked

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

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

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

 

Looks, books and cooks from a pandemic, part 1

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

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

Conversation

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

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

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

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

Keeping busy

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

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

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

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

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

Too much news is just too much

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

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

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

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

 

Avoiding the rabbit hole

I’m doing all I can to make lemonade out of the lemons this virus has handed us.

Last week my daughter told me one of her co-workers had gone right down the rabbit hole over the coronavirus. In the co-worker’s scenario, everyone was quarantined, their clients’ businesses failed, subsequently my daughter’s employer let everyone go, and they all lost their health insurance.

Whew! Time flies when your imagination runs away with you.

So, how are you dealing with this? Are you taking it in stride or stocking up on hand gel? Learning all you can or avoiding the news altogether? Last week was a tough one. In addition to the spreading virus and the stock market free fall, our favorite neighbors announced they are moving to Arizona at the end of the month. Does bad news come in three’s?

And of course the rabbit hole continues to deepen. More victims, More talk. More uncertainty. I’m thinking about an asphidity bag (an old-fashioned “cure” of various herbs tied in a piece of cloth and worn under your shirt). My best friend and I had a running joke about them growing up, largely because her uncle was certain that as a child he never got the Spanish flu because he wore one. Barb’s mother insisted that its only medicinal value was in reeking so much of garlic that no one came near him.

But, then again, it’s one way to maintain the recommended 6 feet between you and everyone else.

See what I mean about the rabbit hole?

I think it’s important to be informed, but I also think it’s important to keep both feet on the ground. So here are some things that are saving/distracting me right now.

Sunshine. Seems simple, but it’s been in short supply. I’m “cashing in” when ever it’s available. I’ve been walking more outside, but the really good news is that I’ve been able to work a bit outside this weekend too. It’s a little too early for a major clean-up in the yard, but not for cutting back the hydrangeas I never got to last fall as well as cleaning out planters so they are ready to go.

Diving into a good book. I’ve continued reading through Chief Inspector Gamache’s mysteries as told by Louise Penny. (I’m on #10!). I’m about to finish Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, an historic novel as told by the title character, who happens to be the wife of Winston Churchill. I suspect it’s a little light on historic truths, but I’m listening to it on Audible. The narrator has just enough of an upper class British accent and her imitation of Churchill’s bluster is entertaining.

My book group just read and discussed The Overstory by Richard Powers. Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s in a whole other category than my other reads. The novel is populated by truly distinct characters who are individually introduced, by their own stories, in the first section of the book. They merge into a more complex story later. This is why I’m a member of this book group. I would not have chosen this book off the shelf, but it is such a beautiful read that I would have missed something special.

Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers are like a slice-and-bake cookie. Mix and refrigerate or freeze the dough, thaw and bake when you need a quick appetizer.

Mixing it up in the kitchen. As you know, my kitchen is my happy place. I spent an entire day this past week re-stocking my pantry with homemade granola, the freezer with Ina Garten’s parmesan thyme crackers, and making a homemade pizza crust (and then a pizza) based on Martha Stewart’s crust recipe in the March issue of her magazine. This recipe uses yeast, which I’m not good at, but the recipe was so simple even I got it on the first try!

Next up? Retail therapy. When in doubt, shop for shoes.

How are you handling these crazy weeks? I would love to hear your thoughts. It looks like we’re going to be in this — together — for awhile.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

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.

Looks, cooks and books in August

My looks this month can be summed up in three words: Charleston window boxes. They are charming, creative, and put a welcome face on homes and businesses across this charming and historic city.

I think of window boxes as decorating/gardening details, the kind of exclamation point Charlestonians always add and the rest of us wish we had thought of. I love them all and I can’t stop taking pictures of them when I’m in Charleston.

When I assembled the photos I most recently took, I noticed that most of these boxes featured far more greenery than flowers, perhaps a nod to Charleston’s steamy summer weather? I also think a lot of people replant the boxes with the seasons. However, look at the color and texture they get without flowers!

 

I am  a fan of ferns, so this box caught my eye right away.

 

And I thought this box mixed a lot of color although it uses limited  flowering plants.

 

This one also used colorful caladiums as well as some substantial traling plants. Here they pretty much reach the sidewalk!

 

This box was at a business.

 

And I loved this against the brick.

 

What I’ve been reading

We have a new, independent book store in our neighborhood. That alone is good news, but it gets better: the staff is friendly, low-key and eager to help you find something you are going to love reading. In my case it was Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray. This was my beach read, light but lots of fun. This is a dual story that moves between a modern American woman grappling with a family crisis and her French grandmother who cooked and eventually modeled for Picasso during his stay in Juan les Pins in 1936.

This sounds contrived and it was. But we actually stayed in Juan les Pins while in France last fall. Picasso and his artistic contemporaries are inescapable there as well as in Antibes and Nice. We visited the Picasso Museum in the former Chateau Grimaldi, which also makes an appearance in the novel. We loved this part of our trip, so it was really fun to read a novel in that setting.

After Picasso, I needed to read Where the Crawdads Sing for my morning book group. Everyone is reading this, it has been on the best seller list for dozens of weeks, selling more than a million copies since its release last year. It was also something of an unusual choice for AM Lit. We don’t typically pick something that current; on the other hand, we assumed we would all be reading it, so why not read it together?

Author Delia Owens tells the story of Kya’s survival as a child essentially alone in a remote marsh of North Carolina. Kya’s story is both disturbing in that she is left alone to fend for herself and inspiring in the way she handles it with the help of just a few others. Owens alternates telling Kya’s story with relating the events surrounding a mysterious death several years later.

Crawdads generated a lively discussion. This book raises so many questions, not the least of which for me is the role of a celebrity recommendation. In this case Reese Witherspoon chose Crawdads for  her book club. How much does that shape a book’s popularity and recognition with both critics and readers in general?

Then our discussion leader for this month pointed us to a recent article in Slate which detailed Owens’ role related to another murder. (And no, she is not a suspect.) If you have read the book, read this. It’s interesting to consider how this real life murder may have shaped the mystery in the novel. If not, wait until another time since the Slate article includes a spoiler about the book’s quirky ending.

Finally, I just finished The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin. And guess what? This is also a story told in two different time frames, but with an interesting catch. It begins in 2079 when the narrator and the youngest of the Skinner siblings is 102. I was totally unprepared for this opening, but quickly got caught up in the story. The plot is somewhat familiar: it centers on a group of four siblings who are forced to raise themselves after their father dies unexpectedly in 1981 and their mother takes to her bed for two years. They later refer to this as “The Pause.” Their bond is remarkable and the role each assumes in the family is unique. This engaging story caught me completely off-guard. I didn’t always like the characters, but I couldn’t put the book down.

What’s next on my list? My grandson has pointed out that I’ve fallen behind on my Harry Potter reading, so The Prisoner of Azkaban is next.

One quick cook

If you have not heard of sheet pain suppers, where everything is essentially roasted together on a standard sheet pan, you’re missing out on some delicious, easy cooking and clean up. Although a lot of these recipes are geared to larger families, I have easily modified them for the two of us. And it’s also easy to tweak the main ingredients to your preferences. My latest effort starred smoked sausage (my husband’s request) which I paired with halved cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers and slices of polenta. Despite the fact that the cherry tomatoes pretty much cooked down to nothing (I think I might try halved or quartered romas next time), we really enjoyed this. We had never tried polenta this way, but it roasted beautifully. The peppers were delicious, and I would add more next time.

That’s it lately. Pretty quiet actually, but that’s fine with me. Thanks for stopping by.

See you next time!

 

 

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!