I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a decent honeydew in my life. To me, they always taste like cucumbers pretending to be melons. I’m just no good at picking them out, and when I ask the produce guy to pick one out for me, it's barely any better. It’s disappointing because I read food blogs where the writers wax poetic about the nectar-perfect honeydew they just tasted and I want to experience the sweetness of which they speak.
So I tried growing one myself.
It was the last melon plant in the school garden to set fruit, and then it just took forever and ever to grow. It pretty much didn’t change size at all in September despite the heat and my attentive watering. With a hard frost projected last weekend, I finally had to pull the plug on my runty garden-grown honeydew. It didn’t smell even remotely fragrant, but I cut it up anyway. It was very green inside. Too green. I tasted it. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste any worse than supermarket honeydews, but it was clearly underripe. Rather than throw the whole thing in the compost, I tried something. I tossed the green melon cubes with 1 tablespoon of honey, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice, and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest. Wow, what a difference! The 12YO and I ate the whole melon in less than a minute. OK, the melon was tiny, but still, it was suddenly delicious!
Now I know what to do the next time a melon lets me down, although I’d probably double the syrup for a full-sized honeydew. Who knows, maybe it would work for cucumbers, too!
Turkeys aren’t the only visitors to the school garden. Here are some other garden friends:
A milk snake. I was gathering ground cherries from underneath the branches when we took each other by surprise. She was so pretty—the picture doesn’t do her justice. She was much more strikingly colored in person (or maybe surprise sharpens the contrast in your mind’s eye). Her head was elevated up off the ground in an S-shape, probably a defensive posture, poised to strike if necessary.
I’m embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did was very carefully remove my phone from my pocket, gingerly type in my passcode with my thumb, and snap a photo before she could flee. Probably my first instinct should have been to move my other hand out of harm's way, the one holding the branch directly over her head. But I was bolstered by something that the 12YO repeats often: There are no poisonous snakes in Massachusetts. (Actually, according to the University of Massachusetts, there are in fact copperheads and timber rattlesnakes in certain secluded areas of the state, but they’re so few and reclusive that, for all practical purposes, the statement holds true for suburban Boston anyway.)
But even non-venomous snakes can bite. She didn’t, luckily. I lowered the branch as gently as possible and let her be.
Here’s a black swallowtail caterpillar on the parsley. He picked a good host plant since parsley grows like crazy in the school garden. We have plenty to spare. I can’t find the photo I took of an adult black swallowtail butterfly earlier in the season, but they’re really pretty and look like this.
That’s a bumblebee resting on the top of the stake. I thought it was dead because I never see bees stop moving for even one second. It wasn’t dead, just a slacker bee. The queen will not be happy when she receives my report!
We have plenty of pollinators in the garden: bumblebees, honeybees, yellow jackets, and one gigantic black wasp that seems to love the oregano flowers. The latter turns out to be a type of solitary digger wasp that feeds its larvae by parasitizing grasshoppers.
Hey, grasshopper. Stay away from the oregano plant!
I also saw a raccoon ambling about in broad daylight. He didn’t look too rabid, just fat and unconcerned by my presence. I’m moving him up to Suspect #1 for this summer’s corn atrocities. No photos for you, Masked Corn Thief. You shan’t be immortalized on this blog!!! (Post to self-destruct in 10…9…8…7…)
We saw a gaggle of turkeys in the school garden yesterday, and it reminded me of a funny story. Back in the spring, I had a kindergarten class outside getting ready to plant some carrots and radishes. We were sitting in a circle on the grass talking about the rules of the garden—how if you pay attention and walk instead of run, you can actually see lots of different wildlife. One of the little boys gestured over toward the back of the school and said, like that? He pointed at what appeared to be a very large wild turkey going through its death throes in plain view of the children. Somehow I had failed to notice this spectacle during my lecture about being aware of your environment.
Seeing turkeys in the school garden is pretty commonplace, but this particular turkey was flapping his wings, kicking his legs, and flopping over in a violent, unpredictable fashion. I explained that it was a wild turkey and he was just taking a nap. The turkey was clearly not taking a nap, but it was the best I could do on short notice. I didn’t want them all running over and witnessing nature’s brutal truths firsthand. Let the turkey die in peace!
But the turkey wouldn’t die. He continued flailing about for quite some time. It was very distracting as I attempted to take the kids on a tour of the garden plants. They kept wandering over to spy on the turkey. He’s just dreaming, I assured them. Maybe he’s going for gold in the Turkey Olympics!! But I fully expected to have a dead turkey on our hands at any moment. This is not what people want out of their school garden, I can assure you. And yet nature isn’t always the nurturing, life-sustaining wonderland we want it to be.
About ten minutes later while we were planting seeds, I witnessed the bird get up and walk away, purposefully and with a surprising amount of dignity considering what had just happened. Look, he woke up, shouted one of the kids. After they all went back inside, I walked over to the spot where the turkey had been. It was a sandy spot literally inches from the back of the school with a shallow, turkey-sized circular pit. And then it dawned on me. He was taking a bath! Have you ever seen sparrows and other small birds taking dust baths? They’ll flap around in a sandy patch of ground for a little while, and then fly away, leaving a small dusty depression behind. Sometimes they’ll congregate in small groups and take turns. It’s cute when the birds are small, but take it from me, it’s just plain alarming with a full-sized turkey.
I’m glad to know the local turkeys take personal hygiene so seriously. Plus now I have a more plausible explanation for the turkey’s behavior—something better than the world’s most restless, tormented nap!
Sweet corn ice cream has been making appearances on late summer dessert menus all over town, from Commonwealth to Moody’s Backroom, so I decided to make some myself with fresh, local corn. After all, sweet corn is one of summer’s masterpieces. I love it boiled, grilled, chowdered, even raw. Why not celebrate all that sweetness?
What I came up with tastes exactly like corn on the cob. Like, exactly, down to the butter and salt. It’s uncanny, which can be good or bad depending on whether your mind is willing to accept two seemingly disparate worlds colliding: the world of ice cream and the world of corn on the cob. These flavor/texture hybrids can be very polarizing. The 12YO and I were in agreement that it was delicious, but the 10YO refused to try it and Husband hated it. Why? Because it tastes exactly like corn on the cob...but it's ice cream.
The salt content is intentionally high to give it that special stand-alone corn-on-the-cob flavor. For a less salty variation to be served alongside, say, blackberry cobbler, reduce the salt by half or more to taste, but do keep a pinch.
4 ears of corn, husked
2 cups milk
2 large eggs (local or pasteurized)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups heavy cream
Using the large holes on a box grater, shave the corn off the cobs and add to a medium saucepan along with the cobs, broken in half. (Alternatively, you can cut the corn off the cobs and run the kernels through a food processor.) Add the milk to the pan and bring to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture infuse, cobs and all, for 1 hour. Cover the pan and place in the refrigerator to steep overnight.
Remove the cobs from the mixture and discard. Strain the milk mixture into a medium bowl, pressing down on the corn with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Reserve the strained corn for another use.*
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then the salt, and whisk for 1 minute more. Add the strained milk mixture as well as the cream. Whisk for another minute until the sugar is dissolved. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes). Transfer the churned mixture into a freezer-safe container. Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours.
*If your poached corn still has some flavor left as mine did, don’t throw it away. You can toss it with cooked Israeli couscous or orzo, halved cherry tomatoes, slivered basil, and goat cheese for a delicious lunch.
We went camping in New Hampshire over the weekend with my BFF and family, and she made popcorn right over the campfire! Well, not over the flames exactly, but over the glowing coals from an earlier bonfire. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better popcorn in my life.
Note to self: Acquire a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven with feet and rimmed lid before next camping trip!
Granted, it’s comically small, but it’s as sweet as can be. Also, it wasn’t just me: the seedlings originally came from Waltham Fields already strong and healthy, and the school garden volunteers have done an excellent job watering the garden this summer. Go team!
I hope we have as much luck with the cantaloupes. Tuscan melons, rather. Those I grew from seed.
Have you ever sincerely believed that you came up with something totally original, only to Google it and realize that at least 45 other people thought of it first? This happens to me a lot. It’s very humbling. It makes you wonder if you’re even capable of a single original thought.
So when I had the idea to combine Nutella and Grape-Nuts into one super-duper ice cream flavor, I was sure I was several years too late to that party. Chocolate? Hazelnuts? Crunchy malty bits? Sounds like a match made in ice cream heaven to me. Surely Ben and Jerry's has a copyright on that. But my Google searches didn’t turn up anything at all. Not with those two ingredients together anyway, and that’s the key. Nutella ice cream is delicious on its own, but the crunch of the Grape-Nuts, slightly mellowed by all that cream, takes it to a whole other level—like an ice-creamified Ferrero Rocher. Both kids and I devoured the quart.
Or, if you prefer the classics, here’s a more traditional Grape-Nut ice cream recipe minus the chocolate and hazelnuts.
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup Nutella (well-stirred)
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup Grape-Nuts cereal
Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl for 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar, little by little, and whisk for 1 minute more. Add the Nutella and whisk until fully combined. Gradually whisk in the cream. Add the milk and vanilla, and whisk until well combined. Pour the mixture into the bowl of an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes). Add the Grape-Nuts during the last two minutes of processing. Transfer to a container and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours.
Note: I make my ice cream the old-fashioned way: with organic raw eggs. You are under no obligation to do the same. If you're worried about salmonella, your options are many: Use pasteurized eggs. Or leave out the eggs entirely for a very serviceable Philadelphia-style ice cream. Or pull out your favorite cooked custard-style ice cream cookbook (like David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop) and modify this recipe using egg yolks and a thermometer. Or pull out your favorite cornstarch-based, egg-free ice cream cookbook (like Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home) and modify her base. It's your kitchen after all.
Summer is finally here! Which means while the kids are away enjoying some much-needed time off, the garden will be growing like crazy (we hope).
Nine classes came out to the garden this year, as well as the neighborhood Daisy troop. Thanks to all of those snow days tacked on at the end of the school year, two of the classes got to harvest what they sowed: radishes and sugar snap peas.
The rest of the classes will have to wait until the fall to see their carrots, green beans, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, and nasturtiums. Some of those will come up in the middle of the summer and will require a second secret planting to satisfy expectations. Kids don’t want to hear your excuses about the length of summer vacation versus the speedy growth habits of certain plants. They’re not impressed with your multitude of photos set forth as proof of a bountiful harvest. All they know is someone ate their carrots and it wasn’t them. They want to see and hold and taste the actual thing they planted.
I get it. Lesson learned.
Other things I learned: Corn takes up a lot of space.
Ditto for pumpkins. But this year, we have a pumpkin patch!
(A major shout-out to all the families helping to water and weed the school garden this summer. I really appreciate it!)
Luckily, the pickling process is pretty simple, and you can start pickling your hot peppers at the beginning of dinner prep and have them ready by the end. This particular recipe for quick-pickled cherry peppers is my favorite so far. These are the hots I used on last week’s Italian grinders and they’re also great in antipasto salads and on grilled summer burgers. I highly recommend them.
(BTW, my sources confirm that "she" actually does sell seashells by the seashore, but she doesn’t make very much money due to her poorly-thought-out business plan.)
This process works for any kind of hot pepper, such as jalapeños and serranos, though you might find me sneaking in some coriander seeds in that case.
1 lb. hot cherry peppers
1-1/2 cups white vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
1/2 cup water
2 cloves garlic, peeled, mashed with the side of a knife
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. kosher salt
With a paring knife, cut a circle about 1/2 inch in diameter around each stem and pull off the tops. Most of the seeds should come out with them. Shake out the rest. Slice the peppers into rings (or keep them whole if you’re in a hurry or plan to stuff them with something like goat cheese).
In a small pot, combine the peppers rings, vinegar, water, garlic, bay leaf, and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Pour everything into a quart jar and keep refrigerated for about a month, pulling out pickled peppers as needed.
*Be sure to wash your hands very, very well after handling hot peppers, and do not under any circumstances touch your eyes.
Boy, it’s been a busy few weeks. The kids are just now winding down from all of their end-of-school activities: final exams, the middle school’s rendition of Mary Poppins, the Little League baseball playoffs, and band and orchestra concert season, which culminated in a whirlwind school trip to New York City and Philadelphia by bus over the course of 2.5 days. (Thank goodness for the Serial podcast.)
Needless to say, meals have been an afterthought. It’s basically just been sandwiches for dinner until further notice. But I happen to think an Italian grinder is a perfectly good dinner. Here’s how to make one at home just like the sub shops.
Bake 4 hoagie rolls in a 375°F oven for 3 minutes until the tops are gently toasted. Split the rolls lengthwise, keeping them attached on one side. Top each roll with 3-4 slices of mortadella (or ham), 4-5 slices of capicola (or prosciutto), 4-5 slices of Genoa salami (or pepperoni), and 3-4 slices of provolone. If you get a half-pound of each cold cut, you’ll have plenty. Bake the open-faced sandwiches for 5 minutes until the cheese melts. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried oregano. Pile on your choice of toppings: sliced tomatoes, chopped pickles, sliced onion, hot peppers, and shredded iceberg lettuce. Drizzle each sandwich with a bit of red wine vinegar and olive oil. Then close them up. (I find this easier to do with the back of a long knife pressing everything down while I fold each sandwich up, otherwise the condiments tend to escape. Just be careful sliding out that knife.) Devour.
Despite the complete and utter lack of rain, the school garden is in great shape. Just look at all those strawberries I picked yesterday, and it’s not even June yet. Luckily, the deer haven’t figured out how to crack my strawberry defenses. Give them time. As some of you may recall, the deer mowed down every one of my two-dozen plants last year leaving only stems. That makes this year’s fruit doubly sweet.
The garlic I planted in the fall came up. Huzzah!
The rhubarb looks great as always. It doesn’t ask for much. I like that in a plant.
The cherry blossoms have come and gone on the Nanking and Montmorency cherry trees. In their place, I’ve spotted a whole bunch of young cherries, which the birds are eradicating one by one even though they’re not even remotely ripe. There’s one bird, a finch song sparrow I think, who keeps energetically cheeping at me from the exact opposite side of the cherry tree’s crown as I circle it with my accusations. It’s almost as if I’m the one invading its territory instead of the other way around (there’s no nest in there, I checked). My arguments have fallen on deaf ears. It’s hard to stake a valid claim on a tree against a bird when you don’t even know how to fly. They don’t take you seriously at all.
I tried putting a net over the tree, but I can’t reach the top and the netting keeps falling off and blowing away. I’m worried some unsuspecting animal is going to get trapped in its web. I base this fear on how many times I’ve ensnared my own hand during this process. Instead I may settle for netting a few individual branches with a zip tie so we at least have a prayer of seeing some ripe red cherries this year.
What else? Oh, the oregano, thyme, lavender, and sage came back this year. That was nice. They’ve never come back for me before. The rabbits or some other nibbling thing chewed a hole through my plastic chicken wire enclosure for the collard greens, kale, and cabbage, but so far they haven’t done nearly as much damage as the deer have done in the past. The peonies are almost ready to bloom. The ants are standing sentry on the swollen bulbs, putting up their little fists whenever I come near. The tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings from Waltham Fields went in over the weekend, and we’re trying tomatillos this year, too. I just put my seed-grown cucumbers and melons in yesterday.
We’ll see what June brings!
For someone who says she doesn’t like to have a lot of stuff, I sure do have a lot of stuff. So when the PTO of our elementary school announced they were having a giant yard sale to benefit the school, I quickly raised my hand to ask how many stalls one person could reserve.
I’m serious about yard sales. I’ve tried to have one every year to stay on top of the clutter that inevitably comes with parenthood, but I fell off the wagon a few years back. Things got too busy and my will to lug boxes up and down multiple flights of stairs wanes every year. But without those annual purges, the various piles of treasure layered with household junk have expanded and multiplied, taking over whole closets and threatening to devour entire rooms. Enough!
I’ve already gone through most of the house and put together 20 boxes of stuff destined for a new home. I’m sure to fill even more. As always, I was ruthless in deciding what can stay and what has to go. The result is that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t garbage at all—I just don’t have space for it—and I’m selling it for practically nothing. Things like brand new cookbooks, decades of food magazines, cool aprons, and dishes that we’re all sick of seeing on this blog. I know I could house an incredibly large cookbook collection if I wanted to, but I’m capping myself at 100. For me, cookbooks are like jeans. I find the ones I gravitate to over and over again and stick with those. I wear them nonstop until I bust up the knees and then I turn them into cut-offs that fray well beyond what could ever be considered fashionable, and yet I still refuse to throw them away even though by now they’re one size too small (at least).
The point is, you don’t find cookbooks, cookbooks find you. And some of mine are still looking for their rightful home. Also for sale will be the usual gently used shoes and clothing, not-so-gently-used toys, lots of non-food books, some small furniture items and rugs, and the cutest, most compact stair master you ever saw in your life. It’s totally functional, but if there’s one thing I don’t need right now, it’s more stairs.
Long story short, please come and take my stuff. Bring cash. Sales will benefit the school and my sanity. It will be held this Saturday 5/16 from 8:30 am to 1 pm at the Stanley Elementary School, 250 South Street, Waltham, MA. Should it rain, the sale will be moved inside. Local people, please spread the word via Facebook and Twitter. Who doesn’t love a good yard sale?
One benefit of all that snow we had this winter is that I decided to take spring into my own hands. Using my salad green containers that were destined for the recycling bin, I started some seeds indoors for the school garden.
I tried this last June, and those plants turned out well, so I was dismayed to observe that my mid-March seedlings were shaping up to be stringy and pathetic. I consulted my magic Google box and learned that a north-facing window with approximately five hours of weak sun per day is not enough light to produce robust seedlings. They just keep growing taller and taller and taller trying to find more light that never comes. You green-thumbed readers probably already knew that, but I have to learn these things for myself, apparently.
I tried to give the seedlings a pep talk, something to the effect of “if you need more light, why don’t you grow more leaves?” Then I watched as the nearest seedling miraculously grew six inches right before my eyes, then 12 more as it twined itself up in my direction and, in a final burst of energy, slapped me hard across the face with one of its yellowing, paddle-shaped leaves before flopping over in defeat.
Wow, photosynthesis really packs a punch!
To redeem myself, I did some research on supplemental lighting systems and, lo and behold, I discovered what we already knew: that I’m too cheap to shell out that kind of cash for a head start on the season. Then I came across this excellent tutorial on how to build a four-foot-long adjustable grow light out of PVC piping and a standard fluorescent shop light using only a drill and a hacksaw. I drilled the holes and cut the PVC, and then the kids helped me assemble the piping and fittings. It reminded me a little bit of the tinker toys of my youth, except the end result was both functional and perfectly presentable. Then I shoved the rest of my half-dead seedlings under the light and waited.
Within just a few days, the plants started to perk up, and then they just took off growing multiple sets of big leaves that were destined to weigh down their long, wiry stems. But the seedlings that had the benefit of beginning their charmed lives under this homemade grow light from the start look like something you’d find at a garden center. Now I have dozens and dozens of plants ready to go into the garden: kale, collard greens, swiss chard, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, parsley. They just need to spend a little time outside getting used to the wind and the sun (not to mention weaning them off my faux opera falsetto they’ve been forced to endure because drastic times called for drastic measures).
The whole setup cost less than $50, including the automatic timer that turns the lamp on at 6:00 am and off again at 10:00 pm. I was so excited about it that I went out and bought the materials to build a second one.
Look, I’m the first one to tell you that I’ve never been one for veggie burgers. Stop trying to pass vegetables off as meat. I know the difference. But these aren’t trying to be meat at all. They have their own unique character and there’s something about the sweet smokiness that I absolutely love. I can’t stop eating them. The recipe makes seven or eight patties and I ate them all myself the first week. Then I made them again last week and same deal. Of course it helped that no one was fighting me for them. Husband’s on his low-carb diet again and the kids, well, I only made them take one bite, more out of selfishness than mercy. Hands off my beet burgers, kids...and quit it with the mock vomit noises.
Full disclosure: you have to have an open mind when making these. They create a lot of dishes to wash and they’re very weirdly constructed. Let’s list a few of the more unusual ingredients: Beets (yes, we’ve already covered that, Tammy). Lentils. Walnuts! Raisins?! This is weird and wacky stuff. I admit I was initially drawn to the recipe because deep down I was like, there’s no WAY this is going to be good. Sometimes I like to follow a path to its inevitable ridiculous conclusion just to see what happens. Usually my instincts are correct about the impending train wreck ahead, but once in a while, I’m pleasantly surprised. This was one of those times.
But even if I can’t convince you to dig some beets out of the murky depths of your crisper for this experiment, you’ll still want to check out the cookbook this recipe came from. It’s called The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia and it’s an absolute stunner, all rose petals, pistachios, and pomegranate seeds. It’s a keeper.
Sweet and Smoky Beet Burgers
This is a great use for leftover rice. I skip the bun and ketchup, and opt instead for a dollop of tzatziki with lots of dill. The smoked paprika is essential to the flavor. Do not substitute.
1/4 cup dried green lentils
1 yellow onion, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil, plus extra for searing
1 medium beet, peeled and grated (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
2 cups cooked short-grain white or brown rice, at room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a small pot of boiling water, cook the lentils until tender while preparing the other ingredients, about 20-25 minutes. Drain and let cool.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until shimmery hot. Add the onion and sauté until it starts to caramelize, 10 to 15 minutes. Turn down the heat slightly and add the grated beets along with the garlic, walnuts, raisins, and smoked paprika. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
Transfer the contents of the skillet to a food processor and pulse until chunky, about 20 seconds. In a large bowl, combine the onion mixture with the lentils, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1 teaspoon of black pepper. Replace the bowl of the food processor (no need to wash) and add the rice and egg. Pulse for 20-30 seconds until you have a coarse, sticky mixture. Add the rice to the bowl of onions and lentils and mix well with your hands.
Lightly oil your hands and make about 8 small patties not quite 1-inch thick. Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat and add oil to coat the bottom. Place the burgers in the skillet and cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes. Gently flip the burgers and turn the heat down to low. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, until they are cooked through and the burgers have a firm, brown crust.
Source: Adapted from The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia
Okay, you got me. We’re not really having fried chicken tonight—we’re having Irish boiled dinner, just as Husband’s Irish ancestors intended. But I have a big backlog of posts and none of them has an Irish theme, so fried chicken it is! We’re very loose with the schedule around here. You can still drink your green beer, though, so pipe down.
This recipe is based on my Southern grandmother’s version of fried chicken, with a few twists to make it my own. While you can deep-fry the chicken pieces until shatteringly crisp in a Fry-o-later or Dutch oven full of oil, I tend to use her shallow pan-frying technique instead, which uses far less oil. It still yields a crispy product, though I don’t fully understand how. It seems like covering the pan to finish the cooking would trap steam and make the coating soggy, but somehow it still stays plenty crisp. Huzzah! The kids love it.
Use a great-tasting, local-farm-raised chicken if you can for the best flavor. Then there's no need to brine the chicken ahead of time. Mashed potatoes and braised collard greens complete the meal. (See? I snuck some green in at the very end!)
Southern Fried Chicken
My grandmother dipped the chicken pieces in beaten egg, but I like to use buttermilk. Or, if we’re out of buttermilk like we were last week, I thin some yogurt with milk. The spices are all to taste. Use what you like. I never make it the same way twice.
1 medium whole chicken, cut up, or 2-3 lbs. of your favorite parts, bone in, skin on
1/2 cup buttermilk (I use Kate’s)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. dried sage
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Dash of cayenne
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Rinse and dry the chicken parts, and sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper. Pour the buttermilk into a small bowl. In a medium shallow dish, combine the flour and all the seasonings. You can either use this bowl to bread the chicken pieces, or you can toss the mixture into a clean brown paper bag. I usually do the latter so I can shake them around. Two at a time, dip the chicken parts into the buttermilk and then dip them in the flour, moving the pieces around until they’re fully coated. Shake off the excess flour, then set them on a large plate until ready to fry.
In a large cast iron or other heavy bottomed frying pan, heat the oil until shimmery hot, but not smoking. Make sure the pan has a lid nearby, or borrow one from another similarly sized pan. Fry the chicken in two batches, about 4-5 minutes per side, until golden. Return all the chicken to the pan in one layer if possible, or stacked if necessary. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 15 more minutes until cooked through to the bone. Transfer the chicken to a plate lined with paper towels and season with salt. Serve immediately. If there are leftovers, and there probably won’t be, don't heat them up in the microwave—use the oven or toaster oven instead to maintain the crispness.
*I’m not much of a gravy girl, but if you want gravy, here’s what my grandmother used to do. Pour off all but 1 Tbsp. of the oil from the pan. Over medium heat, whisk in 1 Tbsp. of any leftover flour mixture (or 1 Tbsp. new flour) and cook it for a minute. Then whisk in about half a can of evaporated milk (NOT condensed milk), whisking constantly to scrape up the brown bits and simmering until it reaches the desired consistency. (You could also use 1/2 cup regular milk—it'll just take longer to cook down to the right consistency, maybe 5-10 minutes). Season with salt and pepper, and any other seasonings you enjoy.
Maybe initially that doesn’t sound very enticing. Perhaps it conjures up images of congealed proteins bathed in sour juices. If so, that’s entirely the wrong idea. Think of citrus curd as a smooth, luscious pudding packed with tartness. The bright acidity hits you like a smack of cold air while the generous butter content swaddles your tongue like a warm blanket. Lemon curd is usually what people swoon over, especially when Meyer lemons are in season. But I love limes, and I’m here to tell you that lime curd can do battle with lemon curd any day of the week.
First, a bit about limes. Supermarket limes are typically Persian limes. You can make lime curd with these limes and it will be delicious (in fact, there’s a recipe for curd using regular limes in my cookbook). But I had the great fortune to end up with Mexican limes the other day. Mexico grows two kinds of limes, the ubiquitous Persian limes I just mentioned and a slightly smaller native lime, a variety that is better known as the famous Key lime. Here in the States, when limes are labeled as Mexican limes, you’re usually just getting Mexican-grown Persian limes. But every once in a while, you’ll end up with Mexican-grown Mexican limes. You probably won’t even know it until you leave them on the counter for a while and instead of staying green (or turning brown), they turn yellow like lemons. These limes are more acidic and have a bracing complexity that's hard to resist. They are widely considered to be the very best limes by the people in charge of limes.
You know how crazy people get for Key lime pie, right? Well, this Mexican lime curd is like Key lime pie without the crust. You can just spoon it out of the jar for a spontaneous burst of happiness. It’s also good on biscuits, scones, or coconut macadamia shortbread (WINTERSWEET, p. 92). Mexican limes tend to be larger than Key limes, so it doesn’t take as many or as long to juice them, but the two are interchangeable.
This curd is magical. It is delightful. And it is yours.
I’d recommend organic limes for this recipe since you’ll be using the outer peel. If not, you’ll want to scrub them well. Also, just a note that the finished curd is bright yellow, not green. That’s no mistake. The color is influenced more by the egg yolks than the juice or zest.
1 Tbsp. finely grated lime zest (shiny outer part only, not the bitter white pith)
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs, well beaten
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice from 6 Mexican limes (or ~12 Key limes)
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Pinch of salt
Place a large bowl half-full of ice water near the stove. Next to that, set a wire-mesh strainer nested inside a medium metal bowl.
In a medium saucepan, rub the lime zest into the sugar with your fingers until moist and fragrant. Whisk in the beaten eggs and lime juice. Add the butter and salt, and set the pot over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the butter melts and the mixture thickens, 5 to 10 minutes. Do not boil. Wait for when the mixture thickens to the consistency of a loose pudding. It should coat the back of a spoon, leaving a distinctive track when you run your finger through it. At this point, remove the pot from the heat.
Set the bowl with the strainer inside the ice bath, and quickly pour the curd through the strainer into the bowl, using a rubber scraper to force the curd through the sieve. (The ice bath halts the cooking and the strainer is insurance to remove any overcooked egg proteins that may arise. Be sure to scrape as much of the curd as possible off the underside of the strainer.)
Let the curd cool for a half hour before pouring it into small jars. The curd will thicken further and the flavor will intensify as it chills. Keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Okay, it’s official. I think I speak for everyone in the Northeast when I say we’re done with winter. Done with snow shoveling. Done with ice dams. Done with the wind and the freezing temperatures. Done with driving thru too-narrow streets and ripping the side-view mirror off my car. Done with arguing with college kids about parking. (This isn’t college math. There are six of you next door who are half my age. Go grab a shovel and dig out your own goddamn spots.) And we haven’t even gotten this weekend’s exciting freezing rain, yet, which will soak into all that snow like a sponge and collapse roofs and flood basements. Yay for arguments over insurance claims!
God, I can’t wait for spring. I’ve already placed my seed order for the school garden in anticipation. I even mapped out the whole rotation plan. Usually there is no plan. None at all. That’s how desperate I am to see some green.
And speaking of healthy food, it’s hard to get back on track with sensible eating during the winter doldrums, but here’s some salad inspiration anyway. You can make the dressing with that big jar of tahini in the back of the fridge that you bought to make hummus that time. This dressing really brightens up a winter salad and seems to make it heartier, which is something you need on these frigid days. Try it with mixed greens, some sliced cucumber, shredded carrots, a little chopped grilled chicken or pile of chicken salad, and some torn-up mint leaves or cilantro. You could even add some cubed avocado or sliced Asian pear.
The original recipe also called for 1 Tbsp. Asian chile oil, which I didn’t have, but I thought the dressing was plenty flavorful (and already had a decent kick) without it. Add back if you see fit.
1/4 cup tahini
3 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tsp. chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp. sambal oelek or Sriracha
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the tahini, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sambal oelek in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until blended. With the machine on, slowly drizzle in the oil until incorporated. Transfer to a half-pint jar and season with salt and pepper.
I bumped today’s exciting salad post in favor of something sweeter. What can I say, Cupid wasn’t really feeling the greens. He tried to shoot a head of lettuce at my face with his bow, but it bounced right off.
Anyway, it’s snowing again here in Boston. Another day, another blizzard, and I’m going to need something more powerful than love to help me heave all of this snow over the existing 10-foot snow banks. Something that will give me the strength and agility to do so in subzero wind chills while simultaneously dodging all of those dagger-like icicles hanging from the rooflines.
So consider this toffee recipe my form of blizzard insurance. With any luck, it’ll get me out there and back inside in under three hours. That it might also pass for something Valentine-y is purely coincidental.
Sometimes I add 1/2 tsp. of vanilla to the toffee if I want a stronger, more butterscotchy flavor.
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Pinch or two of coarse sea salt
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, sugar, water, and salt. Stir constantly until the butter and sugar melt, and then stir occasionally until a candy thermometer reads 300°F. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture into an ungreased 13x9-inch pan.
Let the toffee sit undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes until it stiffens a bit (don’t touch it with your fingers—it’s hot; you just want it stiff enough to hold the weight of the chocolate chips—set one on top and see if it sinks). Once the toffee has cooled a bit but still radiates heat, scatter the chocolate chips on top. Let them sit for 5 minutes to melt, and then spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee, all the way to the edges. Scatter the nuts on top, pressing gently to adhere. Sprinkle with sea salt. Let cool completely for several hours.
To remove the toffee from the pan, stab it with a butter knife near the corner to crack it and remove a piece. Continue to break off irregular pieces with your hands or remove the whole slab to a cutting board. Store the pieces in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
My fling started with a salad disguised as dessert (my favorite kind). It had ripe slices of persimmon, creamy burrata cheese, crunchy homemade sesame brittle, and pomegranate seeds over arugula, dressed with a maple-balsamic vinaigrette. It was very tasty (you can find the recipe from Food & Wine here). We've been eating the leftover pomegranate seeds ever since: just plain, with Greek yogurt, and sprinkled over the remaining burrata.
A few words about burrata. I didn’t have a full understanding of what this Italian cheese really was before I bought a container from Maplebrook Farm. I knew it was a soft, mild cheese, one that was vaguely mozzarella-like, but apparently I was confusing it with bocconcini, the little balls of fresh mozzarella. So I was surprised when I opened the container to find one large ball of mozzarella.
When I removed it from the container with a spoon, it seemed to quiver like a water balloon. I was perplexed, but I forged ahead. I placed the cheese on a board and cut right into it, which caused an explosion of cream and runny cheese curds to spray forth all over the counter, running down my kitchen cabinets. Turns out it was a water balloon! Just one made out of cheese and filled with creamy goodness. (If you’re as interested in how they make it as I was, check out the process here).
I learned three things from this experience. One, maybe ease up on the stabbiness when it comes to portioning out burrata (and do it over a shallow bowl to catch all the exploding cheese). Two, that I love burrata. And three, that I love burrata with pomegranate seeds. The tart, juicy pop of the seeds against the soft, milky curds is just wonderful. It would make a totally indulgent Valentine’s Day dessert that’s very fresh and not too sweet.
How to Seed a Pomegranate: If you look at a pomegranate, you’ll notice it has fat ridges that run from pole to pole like thick longitudinal lines. If you cut gently just through the skin down one of those long ridges, and then again down another one of the adjacent ridges, you can pull a wedge of mostly intact seeds out of the fruit. Then you can just loosen the seeds gently with your fingers, pulling out the thin white membranes that enclose them. I store the remaining fruit in a sealed plastic bag in the fridge until I need to cut another wedge. If you need a lot of seeds at once, it’s often more efficient to submerge the wedges in a bowl of water so you can move a little quicker without the seeds squirting juice all over you. Then you can drain off the water and scoop out the seeds.
Wait, where am I? Do I have a blog? Oh yeah!
Sorry about the uncharacteristic absence. It's just that I’ve been very focused on this new book. I can be a little obsessive at times, don’t know if you’ve noticed. Once I get involved in a project, I don’t want to do anything else. But then the kids get hungry, so I have to stop and fix something. And then right when I get going again, my bladder refuses to hold on for just one more second, even though I’ve only been holding it for the past 3 hours, come ON, so then I have to get up. And then everyone’s hungry again. And then the peeing. And then I accidentally fall asleep on the toilet. Those are the highlights anyway.
As far as blog-worthy material, what can I say, I’ve got nothing. I made some excellent clam chowder last night, but I already posted that recipe. Husband made his amazing blueberry pancakes for dinner the night before that, but I’ve posted that recipe, too. Before that, it was chicken noodle soup all week for the little one with the flu. Again, already posted. You know what? Maybe it’s time to revisit some of those favorite recipes, especially because all three go so well with blizzard conditions.
Stay warm and safe, everybody. See you on the other side of the Blizzard of 2015.
Our friend B is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. That means not only does he recognize all of the landmarks in Breaking Bad, but he also makes a mean posole. He makes this spicy pork and hominy stew every year for the holiday caroling party that he and his wife host, and every year they have to tear me away from the crock, even the times when it’s so spicy that my eyes burn and turn bloodshot and I break out into hives. I may look like a meth addict, but, fear not, it’s just a pepper problem. Half of my taste buds say yes, and the other half (along with my entire immune system) say nooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
This is my toned-down gringo version of posole. It has all the authenticity of the traditional dish with none of the pain. I add half of the pepper paste in the beginning of the cooking time. Later, I taste and tailor how much more I add at the end depending on how potent my particular peppers are. Then I serve more pepper paste at the table for people to customize their own bowls. Feel free to increase the peppers even more if you enjoy the sensation of a thousand Africanized bees attacking your face.
Hominy is a type of hard-kernel white or yellow corn that is precooked in an alkaline solution to remove the hull. The resulting kernels swell up to the size of garbanzo beans and they're equally tender. They add a mild, tortilla-like flavor to the stew. You can buy hominy in cans (Goya is one brand) in the ethnic section of the grocery store. You can also buy it frozen or dried. If dried, you will need to soak it overnight and expect a longer cooking time.
8-10 dried New Mexico chiles (look for big bags in the ethnic aisle of the store)
2-4 cups hot water
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lb. pork shoulder (with or without bone)
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
3 cups chicken stock (or two cups plus one cup of beer)
1 bay leaf
1 29-oz. can hominy, strained and rinsed
Salt and black pepper to taste
Diced avocado, fresh cilantro, and sour cream for topping
(Other options: shredded cabbage, sliced radishes)
Place the dried chiles in a large bowl and cover them with hot water. Set a small plate on top to weigh them down if necessary. Let them soak 15-20 minutes until softened.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Dry off the pork shoulder with paper towels and season it with plenty of salt and pepper. Brown the pork on all sides over medium-high heat, letting it sit on one side without moving until browned, then repeat on the next side, then the next, etc.
While the pork is browning, remove the peppers from the soaking water (reserve the water). Pull off the stems and remove most of the seeds from the hot peppers. Be careful not to touch your eyes or any other sensitive areas with your hands while working with hot peppers. You only have to learn that lesson once. Add the peppers to a blender and pour in enough of the soaking water to allow the mechanism to puree the mixture smoothly. You want a fluid reddish-brown slurry with no chunks. Pour the pepper mixture into a small bowl and set aside.
Remove the pork from the pot and place it on a large plate. Reduce the heat to medium and immediately add the chopped onion. Sauté until the onions are translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the cumin and oregano and stir briefly. Then add the chicken stock (and beer, if you like). Drop in the bay leaf. Stir in about half of the hot pepper paste. Add the pork and its juices back to the pot and increase the heat. Add enough of the reserved pepper soaking water that the cooking liquid comes halfway up the side of the meat. Reserve the rest of the soaking water in case you need to add more later. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a low simmer. Cook until tender, turning the meat occasionally, for about 3 hours.
Add the hominy and continue to simmer, uncovered, for another hour or until the pork is practically falling apart. Remove the bay leaf. Transfer the pork to a cutting board and pull it apart into bite-sized chunks. Return the meat to the pot. Taste to determine if it needs more pepper paste. Add as much as you want, reserving some for the table. If the broth is too thick, you can thin it with some of the pepper soaking water. Season with salt and pepper. Serve the stew with the toppings of your choice. I like cilantro, diced avocado, and maybe a bit of sour cream.
[To make this dish in a crockpot, you can brown the meat on the stovetop (or skip that part). When you get to the fourth paragraph, just add all of the ingredients to the slow cooker. Cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions, adding the hominy during the last hour or two of cooking. Pick up at the fifth paragraph where it says: Remove the bay leaf.]
One of my New Year's resolutions for 2014 was to write another book. Obviously that didn't happen or else you would have heard ALL about it, I'm sure. But I did manage to write two book proposals over the course of the year, and one of them just went under contract in December. I'm not sure if that still counts, technically, since the book isn't done, but I did write the first sentence before the ball dropped on 2015. I didn't say I'd "finish" a book in 2014, I just said I'd "write" one. What percentage was to be written, I wisely never specified. (My case is still under review by the International Resolutions Board.)
Consequently, my resolution for 2015 is to finish what I started, bookwise. Well, that and keeping on top of the laundry situation better so we don't end up with entire mountain ranges composed of clean-but-still-unfolded laundry. I'm optimistic about my first resolution, less so about the second if history is any indication. (Though now that I'm rationing out episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to be watched only when folding laundry, there might be hope. That is, until the episode ends and I look down to see my progress and find just one lone sock neatly folded without its match.)
Anyway, this new book is a dramatic departure from my last project. It's not about food at all, or at least not much. Sometimes a girl needs to step away from the food for a few minutes so she can crumple into a weepy heap and then come crawling back with a renewed sense of purpose. I've always enjoyed puzzles. Long-time readers may remember a cute little sparrow that was hanging around these parts some years ago with his pithy word games. Well, codeSparrow is finally going to have his own puzzle book featuring the funniest folks on Twitter. His cryptograms are projected to be the next puzzle craze to sweep the nation. They're the word nerd's answer to sudoku. At least that's what all the sparrows are saying. Blue jays scoff at that assertion, but what do blue jays know? They're the trolls of the bird world. Nobody listens to them.
The book will contain hundreds of secret codes to be cracked. Your job: to prove that the internet hasn't turned your gray matter into mush by solving the puzzles. Hack the comedic stylings of social media sensations Tim Siedell (@badbanana), Jason Sweeney (@sween), Alice Bradley (@finslippy), and many others, including stand-up comedians, authors, behind-the-scenes TV writers, as well as my favorite everyday funny people. Maybe you! These are not your typical newspaper cryptograms. These solutions will actually make you laugh out loud. And by that I mean audible sounds of unbridled mirth. None of this silent LOL crap.
codeSparrow can't wait to get started. He's been pooping on everybody's car all week in anticipation. The book is expected to be released in Spring 2016. In the meantime, codeSparrow has asked that all bird feeders remain fully stocked.
It's Christmas Eve! Also known as the time you finally remember all the people you forgot to buy gifts for!
Wow, that many? You're almost as disorganized as me!
Well, don't fret. And don't even think about going to the mall at this point in the pouring rain. Are you totally out of your mind? That's the single fastest way to lose all of your holiday cheer. Instead, rummage around in your cupboard and find some chocolate, preferably bittersweet. Do you have any dried fruit, like cranberries or apricots? What about nuts? Bacon? Do you have bacon? Of course you do.
Now get cracking on some holiday bark. The process is simple. Melt some chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water. Stir in some mix-ins, reserving some for the top. Spread the mixture thinly on a parchment- or foil-lined pan, and then sprinkle with more goodies and maybe even some sea salt on top. Let the chocolate slab cool and harden in the fridge, then break it into asymmetrical pieces. Put some in little baggies and slap on a few bows. There.
Christmas is served!
Deborah Madison has a great recipe for apricot, pistachio, and cardamom bark I make every year. She also recommends trying it with dried figs and fennel seed, which I'm trying next time. There's the white chocolate, dried cranberry, and almond version you can find in my book on p. 125. Feel free to sub in pistachios for the almonds if you want the whole red and green thing going on. And then there's the new version of chocolate bark I made up this year with candied bacon with hazelnuts.
Bacon in your chocolate? You bet!
Happy holidays, everyone!
Dark Chocolate Bark with Candied Bacon and Hazelnuts
If you don't have any chocolate, you can just make the candied bacon all by itself. It is absolutely delicious, especially dipped in Nutella, which I learned from TeenNiece. Quadruple the amount of bacon and brown sugar in that case.
5 slices high-quality bacon
3-4 Tbsp. light brown sugar
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (35-60% cacao)
1/3 cup blanched hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Sea salt, to taste
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lined a rimmed sheet pan with foil. Set the bacon on the pan about an inch apart. Sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of brown sugar. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes. Flip the bacon with tongs and sprinkle remaining brown sugar on top. Bake for 5-10 minutes more until the bacon is cooked and taking on some toasty color, but isn't burned (some of the sugar that melts off the bacon may burn on the foil, which won't hurt anything except maybe your pride, but you don't want the bacon itself to burn). Remove the bacon to a plate where it will crisp as it cools. In about 10 minutes, snap the bacon into small pieces.
Line another pan with foil or parchment paper. Bring an inch of water to a simmer in a small pot. Chop the chocolate into small pieces with a sharp knife and slide them into a metal bowl large enough to easily sit on top of the pot of water. Set the bowl over the pot and stir the chocolate until it is completely melted and smooth. Remove the chocolate from the pot and wipe the condensation from the bottom of the bowl with a dishtowel. Stir in a little over half of the bacon and hazelnut fragments. Spread the mixture in a thin layer on the prepared pan. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining bacon and hazelnuts, as well as a few pinches of sea salt. Refrigerate until hard, at least an hour. Break the slab of chocolate into pieces.
Bacon: Chestnut Farms, Hardwick, MA
God, I love those things. I remember pocketing more than one at a time as a kid—a secret, bonus dessert on my way out. You don't really see them much anymore, though locals will note that the Chateau in Waltham still has them, individually wrapped instead of in an open, shallow bowl as in the days of old.
I recently came across a recipe for homemade buttermints in the latest issue of Organic Gardening magazine, and I was all, wait a minute, you can make them yourself? Apparently I was holding on to the childhood notion that they were made by fairies in some mystical realm, that these were something mere mortals could never achieve. Luckily (and dangerously) for me, they are easily achievable, and I had all four ingredients in the house.
The flavor of these buttermints is spot-on, but the texture is a little different than what I remember. Even though the technique involves setting the mints out to dry overnight, mine never got hard and chalky. They tasted like little bits of peppermint frosting that had crisped delicately on the outside, but stayed soft on the inside. They literally melt in your mouth. I guess if you left them out in the open air long enough, they would harden eventually. I tried to do an experiment to see how long it would take for them to harden fully, but I kept eating all the experimental ones. And then all the controls. (My scientific method has some flaws.)
You can tint these whatever hideous colors your heart desires with drops of food coloring, but I like mine the color of butter.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups confectioner's sugar
2 Tbsp. heavy cream
1/4 tsp. peppermint extract, plus a few extra drops to taste
Line two large baking sheets with waxed paper. In a large mixing bowl, whip the butter with an electric mixer until creamy. Blend in the confectioner's sugar 1 cup at a time on low, adding the cream and peppermint extract with the last cup of sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, increase the speed, and whip until well mixed. Taste and adjust the flavoring if you like.
Dust the counter with confectioner's sugar. Divide the dough into golf-ball-sized pieces and roll each ball into a long rope about 1/2-inch thick. Use a sharp knife or a bench scraper to cut the rope into small pillows. Transfer the mints to the baking sheets. Let the mints dry in a cool, dry place overnight. Store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 200 mints.
Boy, is time getting away from me these days. I blame the piano. I'm supposed to be holiday shopping and planning the school bake sale on Friday, but instead I'm trying to learn Vince Guaraldi's Christmas repertoire on the piano. Needless to say, things are not going well in any of these departments. *Cue wistful Charlie Brown music played by someone who's not me
So instead, I thought I'd share with you a list of Christmas ideas for the food-lover, the food-lover in question being me, mostly. But perhaps there might be some overlap with you. Could happen. Here are a few awesome gifts one might like to find under (or on) the tree this year:
1. Morel Mushroom Ornaments: I want you all to focus on the sheer awesomeness of finding one or more morel mushrooms hanging on your Christmas tree quite by surprise. Huzzah! It's not even mushroom season! Let's put aside the hefty $16 price tag for a minute and take a look at the detail. They look like actual morels. See? These ornaments are totally blowing my mind right now. What's that, Internet, you don't want any fungus hanging from your Christmas tree? Well, I don't even know what to say to you anymore.
2. Whisk Necklace: I'm not really into jewelry, but the simplicity of this silver whisk on a chain really spoke to me. It also strikes me as handy to always have a tiny whisk on your person because you never know when you might need to whip up a tiny batch of vinaigrette.
3. Pig Shirt: Somebody needs to be wearing this T-shirt right now. Is it you?
4. Pie Box: This is just a good practical gift. I recently got one for my birthday and it enables me to not smash every pie dish I own while transporting my desserts all over creation. Everything is good and protected and stackable. I do wish the box was maybe an inch taller for the deep-dish pies with the domed tops, but that's a modification for Pie Box 2.0.
One last reminder: my book is still awaiting a place on some of your kitchen counters. Don't let another holiday season pass you by without checking it off your list. You can purchase it at Amazon - B&N - and many indie bookstores. Thanks again for your support.
Last week I bought a piano. It was a bit of an impulse purchase. By that I mean I agonized over whether to buy it for a period of weeks rather than months/years. An 800-pound instrument is maybe not the best thing to buy on a whim, I admit, especially when you live on a steep ledge passable only by Sherpas, but you don't get to choose the form of your midlife crisis. Some people buy fancy cars, some people buy 100-year-old pianos off of Craig's List. (Husband wishes that, just once, I could end up in the regular category of person.)
The 9YO is the piano player in the house. He's been taking lessons for more than two years and has a real knack for it. He practices at home on a keyboard, which is fun but has its limitations. Lately, I've been playing, too. My doctor thought it might help with some of the memory problems I've been having. Retrain your brain and all that. I haven't noticed much improvement, but I'm having fun and it's amazing how my fingers can remember where the notes are even when my mind doesn't.
I started trolling the free piano listings months ago, fantasizing about owning our own, but it turns out that most free pianos don't sound very good. Some keys might not work, or they stick, or the whole piano is so out of tune you can't even imagine that it's tunable. And then free pianos aren't really free. You still have to pay to move them. You don't want to pay hundreds of dollars to move what could turn out to be a gigantic piece of crap.
This is when I was supposed to dismiss the whole idea as ludicrously impractical. But then I saw a listing for a piano for sale in the next town over, and practicality went out the window. The piano was the old upright style I like, simple but classy. It would look perfect in our living room. The price was reasonable. Not free, but still a bargain. The only question was how it sounded. The 9YO and I went over to try it out one night and we fell in love immediately. Well, "in love" is maybe overstating the 9YO's reaction. He smiled, but that's really something coming from him. I was the one in love. The tone, the look, the feel, everything was just right. And, as we all know, once I fall in love with something, it's nearly impossible to talk me out of it.
Here's a photo from my perspective, looking down from the front door, wringing my hands with worry as the piano movers wrestled that monstrosity out of the truck, into Wednesday's pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm, and up the 31 stairs to our house in the treetops. I'm not a religious person, but I might have said a little prayer on their behalf. Then I pounded a shot of tequila as soon as they left to calm my jangled nerves. I don't think that piano's going anywhere for a while. Luckily, the 9YO hasn't stopped playing it since it arrived.
I hope the folks at Allegro Piano Movers had extra pie at Thanksgiving because they really deserved it.
I hope everyone had a great long holiday weekend. Above is the 40-pound turkey we had for Thanksgiving. I didn't know turkeys came that big. I only just woke up yesterday from all the tryptophan. Many thanks to the Ms for being the hosts with the mosts.
Now that the holiday shopping season is officially upon us, here are a few local holiday-themed events coming up where I'll be signing books:
Concord Museum, Monday, 12/1, 5:30-7:30pm: That's tonight, folks. The Concord Museum is opening up its gift shop to give you first dibs on their unique selection of gifts, including jewelry, ornaments, books, and accessories. Refreshments will be served, and I'll be signing books and serving samples from WINTERSWEET. Gift-wrapping is included.
Well Within Holiday Sip & Shop, Sunday, 12/7, 7pm: For folks in Newton and the surrounding area, come support local women in business at Well Within's holiday shopping fête. For sale will be massage gift certificates, handmade soaps and candles, Stella & Dot jewelry and accessories, Indian-spiced chocolates, prints by local photographer Rachael DuMoulin, and signed copies of WINTERSWEET by a certain local author. Enjoy lots of tasty treats and raffle prizes, too. Conveniently located near the Newtonville Whole Foods. For more information, click here.
Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Wednesday, 12/10, 6-7:30pm: Worcester peeps, come on out for a pie-making demonstration by you-know-who with a very special guest assistant, my dad. You'll also have the chance to wander around the beautiful indoor conservatories and outdoor winter gardens lit up with 12 miles of lights, as well as do some holiday shopping in their lovely gift shop. If you've never been to Tower Hill, it's amazing in all seasons. The pie-making demo is included with the price of admission. For more information, click here.
Make a dent in your holiday shopping while simultaneously supporting the work of these great local institutions preserving history, art, and horticulture. Thanks!
Every time I get a request to give a lecture or demonstration to promote my cookbook, I die a little inside. It's not that I don't want to talk about my book—I love my book! It just means I have to contend with one of my more troublesome personal demons: my terror of public-speaking.
Somehow I manage to force a smile and say, yes, of course, I’d be happy to stand up in front of dozens of complete strangers and try desperately to win them over with my disputable charms. Then I try to plot a way to be out of the country that day. It never works out.
During the past year, certain patterns have emerged in terms of how I prepare for my execution these types of events. Here’s the basic low-down:
1. STAY OUT OF THE WOODS
A month before the dreaded talk, I start limiting my trips to the woods so I don’t end up with poison ivy all over my face again. (Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, WTF? Fool me thrice, well, I haven’t thought up a suitable punishment for myself yet, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen.) While it would definitely be a unique character-building experience to give a presentation with my face cracking open and oozing mysterious liquids, this is not exactly a recipe for booming cookbook sales.
2. WRITE MY SPEECH
A week or so before the event, I start typing up the whole talk word for word. Notes are probably a better practice, but I’ve found that I need to have the whole script in my hand like a safety blanket just in case my mind goes totally blank. Which it can and will. In that case, I need a full sentence to fall back on, and I never know which sentence I’m going to need. Best to have them all at the ready just in case. With enough practice, I don’t need to refer to the script much at all, but I still need to have it in my hand to keep the panic at bay. (I also have notes in my phone in case I lose my script.)
3. FIND SUITABLE CLOTHING
Several days beforehand, I make sure I have a complete outfit ready and try it on. I don’t dress up very often, so this is harder than it sounds. I’m always missing something obvious, like shoes, and I need time to make a hasty, frantic shopping trip. Normally I don’t give a crap about what I’m wearing (hello, jeans that I’ve worn three days in a row), but if I look like an idiot, I’m going to feel like an idiot. And I don’t want to feel like an idiot right out of the gate.
For several days, I practice my talk in front of a mirror to make sure my written words flow naturally when spoken. They never do. I rewrite sentences and entire sections as needed and try not to panic. Then I time myself to make sure the talk fits within the expected parameters. People have suggested that I practice my talks in front of a few supportive friends. I don’t do that. The only thing more horrifying to me than getting up and speaking in front of a bunch of strangers is getting up and speaking in front of people I know.
The day before the event, I go to the gym. I plan a hard workout, but no so hard that I’m incapacitated the next day. Just enough to exhaust me to the point where I don’t have enough energy to rile myself up into a manic frenzy.
I make sure I have a printout of the directions to the venue in my purse. I usually use my phone’s navigation system to get there, but never underestimate the many ways your phone can betray you, including running out of charge halfway there when you forgot to bring the cord. Punctuality is not my strong suit, but in this case, I make an exception.
The night before the event, I make sure to get a good night’s sleep. I am a rare breed of person in that I can fall asleep under almost any circumstance. My Circadian rhythms are so deeply ingrained, even abject fear can’t interrupt them. This may be the one thing I have going for me. I also check my clock about 25 times to be sure the alarm is set to a.m., not p.m.
8. POWER POSE
The morning of the talk, I take a shower, eat breakfast, check the traffic, get dressed, and then strike a Power Pose. You can learn more about this concept here, but basically it involves standing in a Wonder Woman-like stance: hands on hips, feet shoulder length apart, head high. The idea is that if you look confident and powerful, you eventually start to feel that way, too. Sounds kooky, I know, but whatever will keep me from vomiting all over myself is fine by me. (Wearing my Wonder Woman underroos under my presentation outfit also helps.)
Once I get the car all packed up with what I need (cases of books, business cards, speech, baked good samples, napkins, toothpicks, rubber gloves, boxes of cooking equipment, signs, pens, water, phone, directions, SPEECH), it’s time to fill up the gas tank and hit the road. Once I’m on the highway, I turn on my music LOUD. Then I start singing. Actually, it’s more like shouting than singing. It’s shout-singing. I don't shout-sing loud enough to actually lose my voice, but loud enough to release a lot of the psychological pressure I'm feeling while also getting some practice projecting. I don’t have a very strong voice normally so this works well to get my vocal chords properly primed. I’m sure it looks completely ridiculous to any passengers riding by who might happen to notice me. I’ve seen kids with their hands and faces pressed against the back windows of their cars, necks craned in my direction. Nothing to do but wave.
10. BATHROOM BREAK
Ideally, I’ve gotten to my destination with plenty of time to spare so that I can chat “leisurely” with my host and set things up “calmly,” all while mentally trying to talk myself out of a nervous breakdown. During this period, I visit the bathroom a ridiculous number of times. No, I’m not snorting cocaine in there. Anxiety renders my bladder unable to hold even a milliliter of water. And yet anxiety also makes me incredibly thirsty. See 11.
11. GET WATER
Water is not only a refreshing thirst-quencher, but also a way to pause during a talk to catch my breath, gather my thoughts, and generally get a grip if nerves are getting the best of me. Maybe you might prefer coffee, or Scotch, but water is my drink of choice. A few sips here and there have saved me. Not too much, though. See 10.
12. REVIEW NOTES
By now, I’ve already exhausted how much time I can hide in the bathroom, and subsequently I’m standing at the makeshift dais as people are filtering in for the talk. Sure, I have my script, I’m looking at it, I might even be seeing some of the words, but really what I’m doing is trying to breath calmly, smile at people once in a while to assure the audience and myself that it will all be over soon, but not so wide that they think I’m a serial killer in a dress. Then the host will indicate we’re ready to start and that’s where the adrenaline kicks in and I don’t remember anything else that happens after that.
Needless to say, after all this hand-wringing and preparation, I'm grateful when people actually buy my book!