Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October 31

I’ve been thinking about all of you in Sandy’s path. I’ve stationed myself with my laptop at the kitchen counter, checking updates, aware of how paradoxically peaceful our gray, damp days have been in comparison. Much of the time I’ve been on the phone with and texting my sister in Connecticut. Yesterday, I sat and watched the rice cooker chug away as I heard about her husband’s efforts with a chain saw and the tree blocking their driveway. It could have been worse for them. I’ve never lived through a hurricane. In the Hanukah Eve windstorm of 2006, hurricane-force wind gusts resulted in our loss of electricity for five days, and felled trees that ripped holes in our roof and the side of our house. It could have been worse. Cal, who was two at the time, drew pictures of windstorms for years afterward.

This evening, we'll head out in the drizzle to trick-or-treat. I’m someone for whom Halloween has always been just OK. I’ve never really liked dressing up. My kids, however, start daydreaming about it over the summer. They love that chance to assume another persona, and think long and hard about who  – or what – they want to be. We have a box full of costumes – Star Wars characters, occupational wear, and anything that involves a weapon as an accessory – purchased for Halloween, though many never debuted on the holiday. Exhibits 1-4, Cal the Shark: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008. Last year I declared a moratorium on costume purchases. I’m not going to try and predict what Cal will decide to wear this evening. Abbott plans to be a ghost.

The routine we’ve developed has increased my enthusiasm for the day. We trick-or-treat at the homes of neighbors who, I’m sure, buy candy almost exclusively for us; our street is off the beaten path. Someone bakes sugar cookies in seasonally-themed shapes for the boys every year, and embellishes them with frosting and sprinkles. After we leave our street we'll head out into the neighborhood, stopping at the home of Marie, a colleague of Alexi’s. She and her husband invariably offer us a glass of wine, and we’ll accept, or not, depending on our timing and the stamina of the kids. We’ll knock on the door of friends from hockey who have a boy Cal’s age and a boy Abbott’s age, and see if they want to canvas the neighborhood with us. Then we’ll hit all the houses within a few block radius, taking in the parade of costumes and the houses tricked out for the occasion. Our last stop is always Henry and April’s house, where we might be offered chili, or briny oysters; we might have a glass of wine with them, and stay until it’s far too late.

Before we leave home for the evening, we’ll have what I usually make for the occasion due to the ease with which it comes together, and its popularity. A casserole, in fact. Yep, it’s the kind of thing you’ll see alongside jello salads with marshmallows and walnuts at a church potluck. But it’s good – rice and beans, essentially – and convenient, and kids eat it. I picked up this recipe from my friend Karen when our kids were toddlers. It takes about 10 minutes to assemble; the only thing you have to do in advance is cook the rice.

Karen’s Mexican Casserole

15 oz whole kernel corn – fresh, previously frozen, or canned
2  25 oz cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1  15 oz can of tomatoes with green chiles (if your store doesn’t carry it, a small, 4 oz can of diced chiles along with a can of crushed tomatoes will work just fine)
8 oz sour cream
8 oz jar of picante sauce (Sometimes I leave it out; sometimes I use mole sauce. Use what you like/what you have on hand.)
3 c cooked long grain rice
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
optional: 1 small onion, chopped
optional: 1 or 2 avocados, skin and seed removed, cut into pieces
chopped cilantro, for garnish

Combine everything in a large bowl, except the Monterey Jack cheese. Spoon the mixture into a 13 x 9 baking pan, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake at 350F for 50 minutes. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Yield: 8 servings

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

a momentary welling of joy

A year or two ago, I listened to a radio interview with one of the owners of Canlis, arguably Seattle’s finest restaurant. The essence of what I heard sticks with me to this day. He described mistakes in the kitchen as opportunities for learning, growth; something his mother taught him long ago. I have disasters on a major scale, minor disappointments, and everything in between in my day-to-day life in the kitchen. Upon my questioning, one of my boys might say he likes, but doesn’t love, something I’ve made, and I’ll say that I agree, if I do, and offer my thoughts about the reason for the outcome, if I have any. “Yes, I overcooked/underseasoned that. Next time, this is what I think I’ll try to do differently.” “It would’ve worked better if I’d sliced those more thinly, I think.” “I’d like to try it another way I read about some time.” And so on.

I attended a talk today in which the speaker raised the question of when we play. I had to think about it. I decided my primary play is probably in the kitchen, in making something from scratch, trying something new, especially at a time when I might have taken a shortcut. I like to think these efforts also convey a sense of warmth to my family in harder times; in the days of full schedules and homework loads; a momentary welling of joy. A breakfast of pancakes or eggs on a chilly school morning when the expectation might have been a bowl of cereal; a dinner of comfort, even if eaten in a rush on the way to a practice.

When I shop, I generally don’t bring a list. I work my way through the store a couple of times a week, starting with produce. I see what looks good; what’s new since I was last there; as I slowly wind my way through each section. I mentally construct meals as I push my cart. Sometimes I get home regretful of not having thought to buy a certain ingredient, but generally it works for me. I have a theory that this approach also sharpens my memory – trying to recall recipes; memorizing what we’re running low on rather than writing it down – akin to the way working crossword puzzles is supposed to cut down on the risk of Alzheimer’s.

I love any friend who brings up braising over tea. Last week, Kira told me about a recipe that involves braising beans and leeks together. I remembered our conversation as I shopped yesterday morning. After I ate lunch, I pulled out the book she said the recipe was from, and got a pot going before I went to pick up the boys from school. There is very little, it seems, that doesn’t stand to benefit from the slow, barely-simmering method. I know I'll be making this combination again and again.

Braised White Beans and Leeks
From The Sprouted Kitchen

1 pound dried white runner or cannellini beans, rinsed and picked over
3 large leeks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 celery stalks, diced
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Soak the beans, uncovered, in a large bowl of cold water for at least 4 hours, or up to overnight. Drain and set aside.

Arrange a rack in the lower third of your oven. Preheat to 225F.

Trim the leeks, discarding the tough green tops. Halve them vertically, and rinse well in cold water, cleaning out any dirt trapped between the layers. Slice into thin half circles.

In a large Dutch oven or ovenproof casserole, warm the olive oil. Add the celery, garlic and leeks, and cook until the vegetables are softened, 3-5 minutes.

Add the beans, thyme, herbes de Provence, and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the vegetable broth and ½ cup water, and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Cover the pot with an ovenproof lid or cover it tightly with foil. Place it in the oven and cook, checking occasionally to make sure the pot is never dry, until the beans are soft throughout but not falling apart, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. If the pot seems dry, add water in ½ cup increments and stir once or twice. Adjust the salt and pepper as necessary.

Remove the pot from the oven and turn the heat up to 500F. Sprinkle the mozzarella and Parmesan on top of the bean mixture and put the pot back in the oven, leaving the lid off. Cook until the cheese is completely melted and brown in spots, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Thursday, October 18, 2012

in my tribe

Early, I felt Alexi disentangle himself from me, as he does every morning. I lay in bed a while longer, surfacing from my dream, trying to remember where I was, stretching, emerging to thoughts about the day. When the scent of coffee wafted into the bedroom, I made my way downstairs to make oatmeal and get going with the day.

On the walk from the car into school, the kids and I got to talking about the election, spurred by a yard sign we passed. Cal, holding my hand as we walked, asked questions about the presidency. “Does the President have to live in the White House, or could he live elsewhere?” “Does the President make as much money as Dad?” I thought to myself, “His paradigm for life is exclusively, or mostly, in the personal, in home, in the survival of one’s family.”

With my head full of thoughts about the particulars of the presidency, I headed to a favorite neighborhood café, a place where I suppose you could call me a regular. The scent of bacon suffused the sunlight-flooded room as I walked in. I met up with my friend Kira, who I know from Abbott’s preschool days a surprising number of years ago. Perhaps it was a tribal instinct, my desire to connect with this friend with whom I shared the anxieties of the elementary school admissions process, as I begin looking at middle schools. We drank tea as we talked, and bought after-school snacks for our kids on the way out: blueberry muffins and cookies embedded with candy corns. As there always are at this time of day, there were sets of friends scattered throughout the café. I saw a woman I recognized from school, there with her preschooler having a snack. Some people sat alone, reading; some worked at laptops. The same kind of scene you could see, midmorning, at neighborhood cafés everywhere, I expect.

Midday, I ran errands at an outdoor shopping area. Today was one of those days that makes autumn famous – optic blue sky, a slight chill in the sunny air, color-coordinated piles of leaves embellishing the sidewalks. I replenished my stock of Bad Gal mascara. I bought Cal a book entitled Cheerful I knew he’d love, got Abbott a pair of jeans, socks for everyone. I stopped in the candy store, as I invariably do. I have always loved candy indiscriminately. I have a particular weakness for Halloween sweets: the candy corns, the little orange candy pumpkins with green stems.

When I got home and checked the mail, I inhaled sharply at the unexpected surprise of a new Lego catalog, just as I knew Cal would, and did, when I handed it to him after school.

Then there was hockey practice, with players in pink laces and pink stick tape for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Now, before too much time passes, I’ll find my way back into bed, looking out for a minute at the same kinds of lights on passing boats I saw when I got up this morning, and entwine myself with Alexi for safekeeping.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

his name was Keith

The first record I bought, purchased with allowance I’d saved up, was the soundtrack to Grease. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie when it came out – I was only eight at the time – but I loved the music. After that, all of my allowance went toward expanding my record collection. Whenever I hear Another One Bites the Dust at a hockey game, I think back to how I used to dance on our brown shag rug to The Game.

As far as I know, “I’d like to learn how to play the viola” never crossed my mind, but somehow I found myself, in Junior High, learning to play. I still remember how Eine kleine Nachtmusik stirred me. The viola section consisted of two of us: me and Keith. I was second chair; Keith was first. Keith was stout, with a mouse colored crew cut and brown plastic glasses. He never talked to me, despite my attempts at chattiness. He gave me sidelong looks whenever I played a wrong note or was slightly off-tempo. Sometimes he would sigh in response to my mistakes. Eventually I gave up the viola, but whether it was due to Keith’s evil eye, I can’t say.

I like to think I’ve raised my boys to love music. I always have something playing in the background at mealtimes. Monday afternoons, they take piano lessons. Their teacher, Amanda, is young and hip; they have as much fun riffing with her as they do learning the music. When Abbott gets assigned a song he loves, he runs with it. For him, this means playing it repeatedly, as fast as he can, improvising his own rhythm. And completely neglecting any other music he’s supposed to be working on. When Amanda called him on it yesterday, based on the fact that he didn’t know the other song he was responsible for at all, Cal was Abbott’s Keith. She asked, “Hey Abbott. Why is it you can’t seem to make it through one of these pieces, and the other you can play with your eyes closed? Haven’t we talked about this before?” Cal sighed, and gave him a sidelong look.

Meal for an autumn evening

When we got home, I put on some music, made myself a ginger sidecar, and started to cook. I took the package of pork chops – center cut, about an inch thick – out of the fridge, opened the butcher paper, and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. I pulled out my cast iron skillet, heated it on the biggest burner for a few minutes, then added a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Next I added the pork chops, over high heat, and turned them around for several minutes, until they had a nice brown color all over. I added white wine to the skillet, 1/2 cup or so, along with a minced clove of garlic, and let the wine mostly cook off. Then I added some vegetable stock – half a cup – to the skillet, covered it, and let it all cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat, until the chops were tender. I moved them to a plate, added a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice to the pan liquid, then poured the mixture over the chops, and garnished with some chopped parsley.

While the meat cooked, I washed a head of cauliflower and separated it into florets. I put the florets in a steamer basket inside a pot with water just below the bottom of the basket, heated the water to boiling, and cooked the cauliflower. When the cauliflower was tender, I gently tossed it with salt and pepper, and a little bit of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and chopped parsley.

Friday, October 12, 2012

an October evening

The weather has changed. Until a couple of days ago, by noon, the slow-rising sun would burn off the fog we've been having and pour in, abating the autumnal chill, and I would feel the need to open windows. Overnight, our deck became a mosaic of rust-colored maple leaves as big as doormats. The sky assumed the color of steel. I feel an indolence, a slowing, a shift in the direction of my productivity.

A couple of nights ago, while Abbott was at camp for the week and Cal and Alexi were at hockey, I made a meal to take and share with a friend who has a newborn baby. Beef stroganoff. I had planned to roast a chicken, but started craving the combination of noodles, meat and mushrooms as soon as I took in the mood of the day. After grinning at the beautiful baby girl until she got hungry, I plated the food while my friend nursed her baby. There was a pleasure in inhabiting her kitchen. Rummaging through the vintage china, each piece unique, choosing just the right one for each of us. For the first time, I noticed her husband’s old college ID held in place on the fridge with a magnet; studied the picture of him looking so young. I stood barefoot, as I do, just as I had in my kitchen an hour earlier.

As we ate, we caught up on what had happened - the mundane and the startling - since we’d seen each other the week before. Our time at the table was brief, as it is in any house with a newborn. After the table was cleared, we bundled up for a walk. We strolled the quiet streets illuminated by the occasional streetlight. One home we passed had skeleton bone shaped lights outlining the front door. There were cartoonishly thick cottony cobwebs draped over ornamental shrubs and through tree branches, as there are in every neighborhood in America the weeks before Halloween. One window displayed a crayon drawing of a cat and a witch on a broom. As we walked, we exchanged stories of times before we were friends. I tried to describe how I found out I had breast cancer as a 28 year old, so many years ago, and the first thing that came to mind was how little I remember about that moment. I can smell the plastic of the receiver next to my face as I was on the phone with my surgeon, and picture the shoes I was wearing that I stared at as we talked, and feel the texture of the beige formica counter I leaned against.

When I think back to this night, I’ll remember the friendship, the way the baby slept the second we were out the door, and the complexity of personal archaeology.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

an October morning

Today I accompanied Cal’s second grade class to the Pike Place Market, as part of the preparation for holding their own market. I had an hour to kill between the time I dropped off my boys at the start of school and the trip, so I went to a nearby coffee shop. I was a double tall latte drinker for more than twenty years; I finally burned out on it. I now vacillate between the cappuccino and the Americano. I love the texture of an Americano, but sometimes find it hard going without any milk. I asked the smiling, young, tattooed, earringed barista if he would mind adding some steamed milk to my Americano. I chattered on, telling him I supposed there was an official name for that drink, an Americano with a bit of steamed milk, but that I didn’t know it, so I might not be ordering as efficiently as I could be. I proceeded to discuss how adding cold milk or cream totally ruins it for me, and recounted how one of my children, after I weaned him, would only drink milk from a cup if I’d warmed it, for years, building a case for the superiority of warmed milk. He visibly paled at the mention, the mere suggestion, of breast milk. I, in turn, squirmed in my Sperrys in line, and my cheeks burned with embarrassment at the discomfort I’d caused as I paid for my drink.

At the start of the field trip, we gathered in a conference room with a representative of the market. The energetic, upbeat man welcomed us, then excitedly told the kids he’d been lucky enough to procure a special market delicacy for them: fish noses. “Luckily, they’re fried. Some people don’t like the texture of fish noses, but frying makes everything good. Who wants to volunteer to be the first taster?” Cal’s hand shot up - the only hand that went up at all. So he was summoned to the front of the room, and asked to hold out his hand with eyes closed. Something large, round and fried was placed in his hand. I had an internal debate about whether or not I would try them. Lo and behold, the ‘fish noses’ were actually donut holes. We each got two; sugar coated, still warm, delicious. Later, Cal whispered to me about his disappointment at the bait-and-switch. He’d take seafood over sweets any day.

We walked the market stalls and streets, flooded with morning autumnal sun, with an eye for what was being sold, and what the various jobs were. A farmer grows and sells the vegetables, a baker assembles and bakes the piroshky, a busker entertains the crowds. We walked by a specialty food shop and one of the boys loudly exclaimed, “My dad would love this store. They sell wine!” I made a mental note to make a pact with the other parents. I won’t believe everything I hear about you, if you don’t believe everything you hear about me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Amongst the recipes I inherited from my grandmother Louise, I was surprised to find one entitled ‘Fresh Apple Cake.' She had an orchard of peach and apricot trees, and that’s all I ever remember having at her house when it came to fruit. She served her fruit fresh, canned and previously frozen; alone and in desserts.

When I was grocery shopping last Saturday, the apples were displayed prominently, piled high, noticeably less expensive than they’d been just a few days prior. The peak of apple season. I remembered the cake recipe. At the top right hand corner of the index card, in a darker shade of ink, my grandmother had written ‘good.’ And underlined it. Early Sunday morning, I baked her cake. The coffee pot steamed and gurgled as I stood in my chilly kitchen, reading her bold ballpoint script, gathering and assembling ingredients. The first of the oak leaves scuttled about on the deck outside in the slight breeze. My mind wandered to the last time I was in her kitchen exactly one year ago. How empty it felt to be in her house without her. As I baked I daydreamed farther back in time to when I was three and five and seven, busily working on mud pies in my tins under the apricot tree next to the garage while she, Grandmother, baked inside.

I got on the plane that Friday last October with a book and a gifted stash of salted peanut butter cookies to fuel me. After landing in Dallas, I found my way to the airport Marriott in my rental car. I felt like an orphan, preparing to travel to Grandmother Louise's funeral.

My brother and I got up at dawn for the drive across the vast state of Texas. There were long, comfortable pauses intermingled with our stories as we drove those roads on which you can see, seemingly, forever. Once we got to my grandmother's town, we had lunch with the other relatives who'd also come for the funeral. Some I’d forgotten about and some I love; many, I hadn’t seen in years. I walked into the funeral still smiling about something shared with one of my cousins. Afterward, I spent a final hour in the house my grandmother and granddad built together, not wanting to leave, not wanting to be there in its ugly chaos and strange emptiness.

I cleaned up the kitchen, and the cake came out of the oven. The street smelled of bacon and woodsmoke as I took out the garbage. I wondered, how can I exist without a grandmother?

Louise’s Fresh Apple Cake

Butter for greasing pans
2 ¼ cups vegetable oil
3 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¾ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 ½ cups peeled and cored tart apples, like Honeycrisp or Granny Smith, thickly sliced
juice from one lemon
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Butter, and then dust with flour, four loaf pans, two 9-inch round cake pans, or one 9-inch tube pan.

Peel, core and thickly slice the apples and then toss with the lemon juice, pouring off any excess.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the oil and sugar together in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. After 5 minutes, add the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, and beat until the mixture is creamy.

Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Transfer the oil, sugar and egg mixture to a very large mixing bow and stir in the flour mixture a little at a time, until just combined. It will be very stiff - don't worry! Add the apples and walnuts, if using, and stir until combined.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pans. Bake until the cake has a golden, caramelized appearance and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean: 40-45 minutes for loaf pans; about 50 minutes for 9-inch cake pans; approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes for a tube pan. Cool in the pan before turning out.