Nelly chased it, and him. The rest of us wandered between conversation and our own thoughts on the short stretch of beach exposed at high tide. Glenn Miller emanated from a neighbor’s home, loud and festive. I wondered if it was Irma’s cooking music, or if they had a houseful of guests already. Perhaps if I listened harder, I’d hear the clinking of silver on china.
Alexi’s father flew from the Bay of Fundy to join us for the week. The day before Thanksgiving, he helped Abbott work on his Rube Goldberg machine for school - it cuts a baked potato and will (hopefully also) fill it with toppings - while I made pie dough, sliced apples, prepared pumpkin for becoming pie filling. I baked cornbread to go in the stuffing I’d make the next morning and boiled together the ingredients that would become cranberry chutney. Nelly spent the day checking on an apple slice she buried in the yard a couple of days ago.
We decided to abandon our holiday stroll when Nelly started rolling in something putrid behind a piece of driftwood; laughed as she dug in her heels to stay. In the lightness of the moment I realized I’d shed the claustrophobia built up from all the time in the kitchen and the everyday trials of family life. Separately and together, we got what we needed on that walk, at least for that moment in time. Back inside, we sat down to a feast: turkey, cornbread sausage stuffing, blanched green beans lightly tossed in walnut oil, buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes, cranberry chutney so good I could eat a bowlful of it straight up, Kathleen’s mother’s famous sweet potato soufflé. Despite being so full we couldn't see straight, we followed up the meal with a small slice of each of the pies. For the first time in years, I didn’t make a single thing I hadn’t made before, and everything came together with ease. Alexi was in charge of the turkey; he always is. As we shared the kitchen that morning he also measured out the sweet potato recipe’s ingredients for me, and commented, “This has a LOT of sugar in it!” I gave him a wry smile, thinking to myself, “If THAT bothers you, it’s a good thing you don’t know what’s in all the rest of it.”
Over dinner, the boys told Robert/Grampy about an experience we had a few days before he arrived. They raced up and down the beach playing Frisbee with a neighbor until dark. As we prepared to head inside we noticed a flash of movement in the water; our eyes strained to follow it in the low light. To our amazement, whatever it was swam closer and closer to where we stood, oblivious to our presence. It became evident that a little river otter with a squirming crab in its paws was approaching, the crab clearly the only thing on its mind. It walked right past us and into a cave-like space between several large rocks on the beach. When we began to hear cracking and scraping noises, reluctantly, we went home. It was obvious the otter wouldn’t be out again anytime soon.
The days since the holiday, just as in the days before, we've gone out for one last walk before the light is gone, sometimes listening to eagle songs, always taking in the aching loveliness, the stillness of approaching winter.
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
Tomorrow we’ll eat the last of our pie for breakfast. The next time we want apple pie I’ll make this breakfast crisp which is in heavy rotation around here; more virtuous than pie, as it isn’t all that sweet. I’ve made it with apples, pears, peaches, plums, blueberries… we’ve loved it every way we’ve tried it.
1 pound of fruit of your choice
2 tablespoons (65 grams) sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Pinch of nutmeg
4 tablespoons (55 grams) butter
½ cup (65 grams) sugar (granulated or natural turbinado)
½ cup (40 grams) rolled oats
½ cup (65 grams) all purpose flour, or a mixture of all-purpose and whole wheat)
Good pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sliced or chopped almonds
Yogurt of your choice, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the fruit into bite-sized pieces and place it in a small baking dish, such as a 1-quart gratin dish. Stir in the sugar, flour, and a pinch of nutmeg.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the sugar, then the oats, then the flour, and lastly the salt and almonds. Continue stirring until large clumps form. Sprinkle the mixture over the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes; up to 40 minutes if using apples or pears. Eat warm or chilled, with a scoop of yogurt of your choice.
Yield: 2-3 cups (about 3 servings)
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Monday, November 11, 2013
After a brief walk in the pitch-black of early morning, I fixed myself a cup of coddlingly creamy, bracingly strong coffee. Then I turned on our switch-activated fireplace and settled in next to it on the couch, mug in hand, watching the sky become sapphire, then lighten to a wintry, robin’s-egg blue. Briefly, the stippled sky’s wisps of clouds took on the glow of a sunrise not evident from my vantage point; strips of cotton candy for that moment. There was no need to hurry to make breakfast, a luxury thanks to Veterans Day. Eventually, I bestirred myself and set about melting butter in a skillet, cracking eggs to beat with salt and cream, warming leftover gingerbread.
This is Nelly, our 11-week-old Corgi. We adopted her just over a week ago. Since she joined the family, I’ve failed to do much of anything aside from taking her outside at regular intervals and attempting to redirect her chewing efforts, the latter with variable success. She’s learned how to climb into the clothes hamper and fish for socks, her favorite thing to have in her mouth, and she’s quiet when she does it, and fast. She chases the cats and they hiss and swat at her. She gets along famously with our UPS man. Today, in our absence, he left a treat for her on top of a package.
I sleep with one ear open, a sweatshirt beside the bed, and a flashlight next to the door. If I hear a whimper from her crate, I take her out to the yard to do her business. My dreams have been strange and vivid in between awakenings. Last night, the world around me was a vision of snowflakes as large as baseballs, and I was out in it, happily so, in a white embroidered cotton nightgown, like a snow angel standing up.
We take walks with Nelly, long and short, in the wind and rain and sun breaks, sidestepping leaf-stuffed puddles, stopping for her to meet neighbors. At the beach, she follows the boys, scrambling up and across driftwood, with the occasional need for a boost. When she gets tired, she sits. We rest.
When Nelly and I pick up Abbott at his middle school, there is an instantaneous clustering around her, like flies to honey. Kids compete to pet and hold her; girls photograph and make videos of her with their phones. There is nothing like a puppy. I overheard Abbott say to a pretty, pony-tailed seventh-grader eating a cookie, “I’ll let you hold her if you tell me where you got that …”
I’ve filled our home with the comfort foods I crave to smooth over the edges of my fatigue: batches of thick, creamy tomato and squash soups; aromatic roasted vegetables; spicy, eye-opening chili; velvety Penne alla Vodka. I’ve baked gingerbread filled with cranberries, sticky and jammy; cornbread and muffins; a luscious, citrusy olive oil cake. Nelly is always underfoot, ever hopeful for the errant ingredient that might fall her way. Sometimes she falls asleep, prone, on the kitchen floor, limbs splayed in front and behind her, like Superman; the sleep of the dead that only children and puppies can manage.
At day’s end, in the gloaming, and then again in the pitch-black, we repeated a version of this morning, and now we’ll sleep while we can.
(The Best) Tomato Soup (You’ll Ever Have)
Adapted from The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook by Tom Douglas
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and then smashed with the side of the knife handle
5 cups canned San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes in juice (one 28 oz can and one 14 oz can)
1 cup water
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt; more to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper; more to taste
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or ½ teaspoon dried oregano)
1 tablespoon sugar
Heat the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan. When the butter is melted, add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, water, cream, salt, red pepper flakes, oregano, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and purée in batches in a blender. Return the soup to the pot, reheat to a simmer, and season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
Yield: 6 servings
Posted by Lecia Phinney at 11:17 PM
Friday, October 18, 2013
Earlier in the week I spent a morning at a day shelter for homeless women, laptop in tow, to lend a hand with a résumé workshop. It is immediately apparent, after walking through the front door, that Mary’s Place is a well-run ship. The staff exude warmth and efficiency. The space looks organized and sparkly clean; the restrooms smell of bleach. The women present, some of them pushing babies in strollers, come to shower and eat and have someplace warm and safe to be, until they have to go elsewhere for the night. As some of them opted to join me and the other volunteers where we were set up at tables with our laptops, I put aside my misgivings about my ability to manage any computer formatting issues that came up. I decided it didn’t matter that I last drafted a résumé over a decade ago. I had a laptop, and a template, and I’d done it before.
A somber-faced woman with long, silvery-blonde hair approached me. She had a look of vague familiarity that I wasn’t able to place. I introduced myself; she told me her name was Sadie. She pulled up a chair, and we got to work. I learned she’d managed a busy downtown bar for years and had been in charge of security and bouncing, among many other things. She’d been responsible for approximately $100,000 at any given time – everything in the cage – while working at a casino. Because she doesn’t know how to use a computer, finding work became an insurmountable problem for her. Even Burger King requires an online application. When she graduated from high school, in 1974, computers weren’t in the classroom, and she never ended up picking up any technological skills. We wrestled to craft phrases; tried to choose just the right words to describe her experiences and skills. We hammered out a résumé. I sent her on her way with a dozen copies in hand and grim determination on her face. What she has been through is private; I’ll never know why she was at the shelter. I don’t know her pain, what she longs for. I said a prayer as I watched her leave, feeling tired and elated all at the same time. I realized how happy I was to be there. It felt wonderful to be doing something that may have really helped someone else.
That night, after dinner and homework and the boys’ bedtime routine I sat down with my laptop, again, in the comfort of my living room, and happened to discover a high school classmate on facebook. I learned in the few sentences we typed out to each other – how do you catch up on 25 years? – he’s now a father and an engineer. Trying to imagine him in his current life was confusing; in my mind he’s still a skateboarding, hockey-playing teenager with a cheery disposition. Yet our kids are approaching the ages we were when we were friends. Searing tenderness for both of our younger selves flooded me; I felt as if I’d peered into the clockwork of time, and could see us, then, knowing what our futures would be.
As I pulled up to the curb in front of Abbott’s school this morning, a ponytailed girl about his size opened the driver’s door of the car in front of me. She hopped out from behind the wheel, pulled a backpack out of the trunk, and waved over her shoulder to, presumably, her dad. He gazed at her as he walked around to the driver’s side of the car. My eyes also followed her; I watched her walk alongside Abbott all the way to the school entrance before turning on the car. As I pulled away, I dwelled on a memory of sitting in my farmer-friend Wendy’s kitchen last week. We wrapped our hands around mugs of aromatic, richly flavorful herbal tea, watching the rain, talking about vegetables, cooking, dogs and school. As I discussed the logistics of having the boys at different schools this year she shocked me by saying something about Abbott being able to drive himself and Cal around soon. I protested. “He just turned 11!”
Since my morning with the women at Mary’s Place, I’ve felt compelled to cook and bake breakfast every day; an antidote, perhaps, to the hard realities of life. One morning, Cal and I made scones. I chopped hazelnuts while Cal worked butter into a flour mixture until the mixture resembled sand. We filled the house with the fragrance of comfort.
Toasted Hazelnut Whole Wheat Scones with Maple Glaze
Adapted from The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook by Tom Douglas
These are the best scones I’ve ever eaten. They are addictive; consider yourself warned.
If you can, toast your hazelnuts the night before, and even chop them, if you have time, so they’re ready to go. Place them in a preheated 350F oven for 5-10 minutes, until toasted all the way through.
1 ¾ cups (227 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup (140 grams) whole wheat flour (I use white whole wheat flour)
¼ cup (60 grams) packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks; 200 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch dice
1 ¼ cups (195 grams) hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and finely chopped
1 cup (239 grams) cold buttermilk (I like to use Bulgarian buttermilk)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup (90 grams) powdered sugar
4 tablespoons (½ stick/57 grams) unsalted butter
¼ cup (71 grams) pure maple syrup
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 400F. Combine both flours, the brown sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the hazelnuts with a rubber spatula.
Combine the buttermilk and vanilla extract in a bowl, then gradually stir this mixture into the rest of the dough until it comes together in a soft, slightly moist dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead it with your hands for a minute or two to help it come together; do not overmix.
Divide the dough into two equal parts. Pat each piece into a flat round about ½ inch thick. Cut each round into six wedges with a floured knife.
Place the scones an inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until golden and cooked through, about 25 minutes. Rotate the pan halfway through the cooking time. Transfer the pan to a wire cooling rack and allow the scones to cool until they are only slightly warm.
While the scones are cooling, make the glaze. Sift the powdered sugar into a bowl. Put the butter in a small pan and melt over medium heat. As soon as the butter is melted and hot, pour it into the bowl with the powdered sugar and add the maple syrup, vanilla, and salt. Whisk until smooth, adding the cream last.
When the scones have cooled long enough so that they won’t melt the glaze, spoon it over the scones, letting it drip off the sides, and serve.
Yield: 12 scones
Posted by Lecia Phinney at 9:10 PM
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Monday, September’s end, I met my friend Sherri for our annual birthday lunch. We always celebrate together sometime within the vicinity of our five-day-apart birthdays. She’s one of the half dozen or so of my nearest and dearest with whom I share September as a birth month. The café we chose serves Southern food, and we both ordered buttermilk biscuit sandwiches filled with fried chicken, bread and butter pickles, and mustard, dripping with honey collected from the restaurant’s beehives. Between bites and finger licking, we caught up on the past couple of months since we last saw each other; beginnings to the school year, an upcoming bar mitzvah, a successful tennis tournament. As we ate the big, heavy meal my mind flickered to memories of Texas, the only other place I ever eat fried chicken, and the sound of big, loud laughter that I’ve only ever encountered there. I washed my lunch down with a Coke in a glass bottle, just like my granddad used to drink. Our conversation dwindled as we sank into carbohydrate comas. We said our goodbyes, and drove to our respective carpool lines. As I waited, I closed my eyes in the warmth of the sun streaming in through the windshield.
We’ve had a pleasingly slow, steady progression from late summer into early fall. The days sparkle and make my heart ache, like watching the graduation of someone you love, or playing with a baby. These days won’t last. Some have a snap to them. Many nights I’ve gone to sleep to heat, and woken to the sound of the wind moving briskly through the trees, rain on the roof, thick fog suffusing through the window. Some mornings the fog rolls in before our very eyes, thick as wool, and I squint to find the curve of the road on the drive to school. Not a day has passed without sunshine. The first of the leaves fell in a torrent onto the streets and sidewalks and our deck over the weekend as the wind blew fiercely and rain fell heavily. The gingko across the street has assumed its autumnal yellow. I notice it, always and only, in autumn.
These dark mornings feel earlier than the lighter ones did a month ago.
We’ve watched squirrels working with great diligence and focus as they, well, squirrel away their supplies for winter. Sometimes, when I’m cooking or baking with a kitchen window open, I catch the scent of a neighbor’s fireplace. Spiderwebs are everywhere.
Even though it’s been a month since school started, I still tend to mutter to myself as I make my way around the house midday, unused to the solitude.
Abbott is running cross-country on his middle school’s team. I get a lump in my throat as I watch him, happy, confident, enthusiastic among his new peers at the meets.
I have trouble comprehending having a son old enough to be in middle school; with the advent of my birthday, my thoughts have roamed to where I’m at in my lifespan. It dawned on me that I've been married to Alexi for more of my adult life than not.
After school today, we walked down the gravel trail to the beach. The sun was at its late afternoon, autumnal slant, the air clean and cold. My peripheral vision caught a flash of movement, and when I followed it, discovered an osprey with a fish in its talons, furiously trying to work itself free of the death grasp.
I try to memorize it all.
Posted by Lecia Phinney at 9:47 PM
Monday, September 9, 2013
Labor Day, we returned from Maine. We vacationed with my sister and her family, some of my brother-in-law’s family, and my brother and his son. Getting it in under the wire before school starts makes us feel like we haven’t wasted a single waning minute of summer. We’ve developed a tradition of spending the week before Labor Day with my sister and her family.
Alexi was born in Maine, and the house we stayed in was near the town where he first lived and the college his father attended.
I made my first trip to Maine shortly after Alexi and I were married. We flew from Seattle to Boston, drove to New Hampshire to see his maternal grandfather, and then went on to Maine to visit his paternal grandmother. I fell in love with New England. My presence there, among the unfamiliar accents and the Puritanism, represented that Alexi and I were no longer just sharing family stories; we were now a part of each others’ families and stories.
When Alexi visited his grandparents while we were dating, he spent hours interviewing each of them, on video, about their lives. I watched a significant portion of the filmed autobiographies, so when we sat down at Gram’s kitchen table with her, I felt like I knew her well, though I’d only ever spent time with her the week of our wedding.
In the years that followed that first visit, we made the same trip with Abbott as an infant; Cal as an infant, Abbott, a toddler; as they grew. Invariably, we drank cold Moxie and ate lobster so fresh it could have crawled away and sweet corn dripping with butter. We walked her beach and collected sea glass. I recognized my sons in the evidence of creativity all over her house.
In Maine again, our selves and boys older, those times were with us still. Gram’s absence from the world was glaring.
Our first full day, we ate lunch at a lobster place in an old-fashioned drive-in; the kind where you can put your lights on for service. We opted to eat on the patio in the shade, drinking iced tea as we waited for our food. My lobster was sweet beyond belief. The group of us ate in concentrated silence, interrupted occasionally by Alexi’s murmured explanations to the boys about how to get more meat out of their lobsters.
My brother-in-law, his brother, and Alexi felt sure they had eaten at the restaurant before, in childhood, but remembered it as an A&W. A quick email to Alexi’s father confirmed that it had, indeed, once been an A&W. His father ate there for the first time when he was seven or eight, and all that seems to have changed is the signage.
After answering our question about the A&W, his father wrote:
“If you go to Thomas Point Beach, you might be able to dig some clams by hand or with a stick (check with fisheries or the beach management for closures). You can look across from the beach about 200 feet to a flat point with a few oak trees that block about half your view down the rest of the river. If they are still there, you should see on the point, two cottages, one on the right that is (or was) brown and one story, and one on the left that is, or was, two stories high, and white. They belonged to Augustus J. (for "Jordan") Snow, who lived directly above them. Maybe my one room, first studio, when I married Daisy, is still next to the brown cottage. A third cottage immediately across from Mr. Snow’s house was where the first baby shots of you were taken (Daisy in her nightie in the rocker, yawning). Your middle name came from Mr. Snow, because he was so decent toward Daisy and I through our courtship and marriage until we moved. He treated me like a son.
If I were there, I'd take you out to the mussel bar another 1/4 mi from the cottages with the tide out about 1/4 from high at 1:00AM. The bass would be noisily sucking in herring going over the shallow bar. It would drive you mad (as it did Doc Pinfold, many nights) and you would catch big bass (20 - 40 lbs)…”
It felt right to wake up and find the kids already outside with their cousins, or chatting with my sister over breakfast, or playing foosball with my brother.
Every morning after breakfast, we went walking. We passed a chocolate, cheese and wine shop on our route that had three plastic lawn chairs out front and window boxes overflowing with an array of flowers. My brother-in-law once went in to buy port, and discovered all they carry is blueberry. Their cheeses were delicious. We met a neighbor who had just returned from Oregon with her horses. She told us she’d been working there for years, as a cowboy, and came back because the horses need to rest. One of them was always standing next to the fence, eating crabapples off a tree on the other side of it.
My sister’s Columbian housekeeper, Sara, came with them from Connecticut, and her presence was an extreme luxury. When we didn’t eat out she cooked for us. The night we arrived, after nine in the evening, we feasted on fresh New England sea scallops she’d prepared.
Every day, after the afternoon’s collective and individual activities, we’d reconvene, open a bottle of wine, and commence with more eating and talking. Threads of conversation continued through the days, meals, walks and outings. The scents coming from the kitchen inevitably lured me in to see what Sara was up to. She taught me the secrets to her paella and spicy gazpacho. At some point in her life she went to culinary school. She told me about leaving Columbia in the nineties after there was an attempt to kidnap her daughter.
I kept experiencing my siblings and I as our child selves, briefly confused by our adult versions, with so much of the course of our lives already figured out. Watching our children together gave me a strange sense of déjà vu.
Posted by Lecia Phinney at 11:37 PM
Friday, August 23, 2013
I’m sitting outside on the deck off our bedroom for the last time this summer. Tomorrow, we’re boarding a plane, returning Labor Day. A cool, robust breeze is blowing through the night air; I can hear it in the trees and on the water. Some stars are visible; the sky is half clear or half cloudy, depending on your perspective.
Last weekend we returned from visiting friends on San Juan Island. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the island's ubiquitous deer and fox, or its wild beauty.
Every day, we took long, meandering walks with their dog, Otis, through woods and on the beach, as we always do when we visit. The boys run ahead of us, disappearing into the forest. On the beach, they played on a makeshift driftwood paddleboard.
At the county fair, we rode the rides and fought off the yellowjackets, took in the baby animals and ate sno-cones.
We all fell asleep instantly every night.
At the end of our stay, we participated in the Friday Harbor 8.8k Loop Run. Abbott and Alexi paired up; Cal ran with our friends. I had to walk, nursing a sore knee. I enjoyed the absence of the nerves I usually feel in a race, though I eventually found myself feeling competitive with the other walkers. Cal won a bronze medal in the ten and under division.
Cal’s ninth birthday was Monday. Instead of a party, he wanted total control over how it went; he wanted a day at home, with unlimited screen time, eating what he wanted to eat. Abbott agreed to play with him the whole day. For lunch, there were oysters and king crab legs with mashed potatoes. A neighbor rang the bell to see if the boys could play, and ended up staying for the rest of the day, and then spent the night. We had root beer floats for dessert.
I am going to miss this summer.
Posted by Lecia Phinney at 11:09 PM