Make food that tastes good.

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Bake sale, July 2013

“Your blog reminds me of Julia Reed’s books,” a friend said to me a year or so ago. “Really?” I answered, pretending I knew what she was talking about. “Yes,” she said, “The one I really think about is Ham Biscuits and Hostess Gowns, but all of her books are great. They’re about the new way of being Southern, kind of like what you write about.”

I did not know this was what anyone thought I was writing about, so I bought a secondhand copy of Ham Biscuits as well as a copy of The House on First Street, and I started reading. As I read I was very flattered that my friend would have thought of me in this same general context. And when I started reading I was completely, totally, absolutely unaware that the Julia Reed who wrote these books was the same Julia Reed whose columns in Vogue I had once admired (back when I had time to read Vogue), because the Vogue columnist was a cosmopolitan jet-setting New Yorker, not a Southerner. When I finally did make the connection, I was surprised in the way one might be surprised to know a cousin, third-removed, married into royalty.

There is a part of me, sometimes tiny, sometimes large, that wishes I had used my Ivy League credentials and connections to catapult out of an ordinary Southern orbit and into something grander. Usually when I have regrets along these lines, I’ll reconnect with someone who does live in New York and who does live the Big Life, and I’ll realize how deeply thankful I am not to have the obligations and burdens that accompany that lifestyle. Choices have consequences, even at the high end of the choice spectrum.

And then there’s Julia Reed, green pepper jelly bookends on a Prada suit: Southerner-New York sophisticate-Southerner.

Saturday morning, instead of editing, revising, and finishing one of my many drafts and meeting my self-imposed 10:30 Saturday morning jenny’s lark deadline, I went to the Mid-South Book Fest to hear Reed talk about Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. I stayed for the signing so she could autograph my copy of the book, a copy acquired through alibris thanks to the Fresno County Library’s stamping it OBSOLETE and putting it up for resale. Those poor deprived Californians do not know what they are missing.

Julia Reed book signing

I did not have time to go to this event because the weekend is my only catch-up time, and I am overwhelmed with chores and obligations. My pantry and refrigerator are almost empty (seriously). And we’re out of dog food. And my half-finished book, the one I have no idea what to do with next, is collecting dust on my work table. And the cat has vomited hairballs on my daughter’s bed once a week for the last three weeks, and all three weeks’ worth of linens are in a pile at the top of the stairs because I don’t feel like going to the laundromat to use the big industrial washer. And I need to work on my Sunday school room, the room that really isn’t my room but to which I am now assigned. And I really, really need to get a grip on the school wrapping paper sale that starts Friday and that I volunteered to run again for one last time since this is my daughter’s last year at our beloved elementary school. And raising a 7th grade boy is, and really there is no other way to put this, kicking my ass. And the world is an absolute heart-breaking mess; clearly, there’s that.

So, logically, I abandoned all of these worries and went to the book signing.

This was my impression: like most writers and artists I know, Julia Reed would probably rather be part of a roundtable discussion or dinner party (Southern, of course) or even working kitchen crew than speaking to an audience in an auditorium. Addressing the (unfortunately tiny) group of faithful readers, Reed was as charming, gracious and funny as I expected her to be. But I don’t see a Ted Talk in her future, at least not (I’m guessing here) by her choice.

What I did hear clearly, though, was the honest reflection of a Southerner who reconnected with her Southern roots thanks to food and her mother’s wisdom. As she writes and as she affirms in her talk, while preparing for a party in New York Reed consulted her mother, a consummate Southern hostess, for menu advice. Reed’s mother’s food mantra, identical to my own mother’s, was this:

“Serve food that tastes good.”

Good food is the love connection that brings us closer to other people, to our roots, and to ourselves. Even in the big life of New York City.

Happy week.

******

Food | Week of September 29, 2014

Some Southern comfort food seems in order this week. If you’re nervous about the cholesterol, eat oatmeal with walnuts for breakfast and go for a walk during your lunch break. Actually, do those things anyway; they’ll make you feel better.Fall greens

Fried Chicken | Parslied Potatoes

My mother did not often make fried chicken, but when she did she had one consistent rule: Crisco. Do not break this rule. I do not know why. For the batter my mother used a buttermilk/paprika/cayenne/salt concoction that she never actually wrote down, but that’s awfully similar to this recipe from Alton Brown. For the potatoes, boil some small new potatoes (smallest you can find – or halve larger ones) until they are just tender. Drain and pat dry. Melt a copious amount of butter in a skillet or sauté pan; when the butter is hot but not browning, add the potatoes and sauté until they begin to brown. Toss with finely chopped fresh parsley and kosher salt.

Macaroni & Cheese | Braised Field Greens

Mama’s macaroni & cheese, likewise never transcribed in detail, was a stovetop affair: cook and drain the pasta; stir in butter, cream cheese, milk, grated cheese, a dash of Worcestershire, a dash of cayenne and salt to taste. If you feel like spreading all that in a casserole, smothering it in buttered Ritz cracker crumbs and baking for a bit, then that will work, too. If you are in the South and have access to greens (turnip, mustard, collard), then triple wash those greens, cut out the stems, and braise the greens in chicken broth, onion, ham hock (or salt pork) and a pinch of sugar for at least 90 minutes, adding more liquid as needed. Season with pepper vinegar at serving. If you are not in the South, or if you don’t feel like making from scratch, look for the Glory Foods brand turnip greens in your grocer’s canned foods section.

Sour Cream Chicken | Green Rice (Adapted from Party Potpourri)

For the chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large shallow bowl, mix together and let come to room temperature: sour cream (1 16 oz. container), paprika, celery salt, lemon juice, salt, Worcestershire and 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed. In a separate bowl crush 1 sleeve of Ritz crackers (or you could use saltines or matzo). Pound 6 chicken breast halves until they are 1/2 inch thick; cut into strips, if desired. Coat the chicken thickly with the sour cream mix, then coat with cracker crumbs on each side. Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and bake for about 50-60 minutes, until cooked through. For the rice: Cook 2 c. jasmine rice (or other rice) while you’re preparing the chicken to go in the oven; when rice is cooked, and while it is hot, stir in 1/2 stick butter; add 1 package thawed frozen chopped spinach (drained), 1 c. chicken stock, 1 c. grated cheese (sharp cheddar is good), a dash or two of onion powder (don’t judge), and some finely chopped fresh parsley (up to 1/2 c.). Salt to taste. Beat 3 eggs in a separate bowl, then stir into the rice mixture. Spread in a buttered casserole dish and place in the oven with the chicken for about 30-40 minutes.

Green BeansCorn Soufflé | Steamed Green Beans| Rolls

My mother made corn soufflé mostly the way she made cheese soufflé – in fact, her corn soufflé was basically her cheese soufflé (2 c. white sauce, 1 c. grated cheese, dash of cayenne, dash of Worcestershire, 4 egg yolks, 4 egg whites beaten until stiff and folded in) with the addition of frozen corn kernels (thawed and drained, added with the egg yolks) and maybe some minced chives, baked in a rectangular Pyrex instead of a soufflé dish. I do not expect anyone of French origin to understand this. If you need more direction and structure, this recipe from Food & Wine is pretty good, if not remotely Southern. Serve with steamed green beans (or broccoli), tossed with butter and kosher salt, and some warm Sister Schubert rolls.

Cheese Grits | Maple Sausage Links | Biscuits

Let grits cook in a mix of chicken broth and milk. I use coarse grind grits (Delta Grind brand) and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grits. Toss in butter and cheese at the end and stir to mix until the cheese is melted. Serve with maple-flavored sausage links and Marshall’s biscuits. If you want to make biscuits, then this recipe from Gourmandistan is excellent (as are their other recipes).

On being a Jennifer.

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summer camp 2014

My mother wanted to name me Guinevere, but my father would not have it.

Mama was convinced that her family was descended from a line of Celtic royalty, that something had gone terribly amiss, and that it was her destiny to research and reclaim their heritage. I am exaggerating only very slightly. And I exaggerate not all her desire to give me the proper name of the famous Celtic queen. This quirky obsession was part of my mother’s charm, and her knowledge of Arthurian legend and Celtic history generally were considerable.

But Guinevere was a no-go, so they compromised on Jennifer, the modern adaptation of Guinevere and a name my mother hoped would not become too common.

In 1966, the year after I was born, the name Jennifer jumped into the top 10 most popular names for girls in the U.S. Since I was still a baby, my mother suggested to my father that perhaps my middle name, Scott, would be more useful for me in case I ever wanted to write a book or get a job or buy a house or do anything for which a woman’s name on the application might be a disadvantage. But I was already my father’s little J-bird, so Jennifer it was.

Then, BAM, in 1970 came Love Story, and all Jennifer hell broke loose. “At least they’ll all be younger than you,” my mother sighed, the memory of being surrounded by fellow kindergarten Bettys still fresh in her mind.

For 15 years, 1970 through 1984, Jennifer was the most popular name for girls born in the U.S., a reign second only to Mary’s in the 20th century. Since I was born five years ahead of the crowning, there was only one other Jennifer in my first grade class, a few in the grades ahead of us, and a good number that came up behind our advance through elementary school. In my grade there was also Jenny, whose real name was (is) Martha; but that’s a different matter entirely.

Through high school, college and my early 20s I was always on the lookout for fellow Jennifers, expecting to find one on every street corner but never meeting the wave my mother predicted. And even through that 15 year run, our name atop every name list, you could feel Emily and Madison and Jessica coming up fast right behind us.

In 1992 the name Jennifer dropped out of the top 10, and in 2009 it dropped from the top 100. Like the Bettys of my mother’s generation, it appears we’ve had our run.

Maybe I’m reading into it things that aren’t there, maybe it’s my iteration of my mother’s Celtic quest, but I feel a bit of magic solidarity whenever I encounter a sister Jennifer, or Jen or Jenny. I watch young Jennifer Lawrence take the media to task and think, “Yeah, that’s a Jennifer. Do not mess with us.” I read Jen Groeber’s great mama art blog and cherish that new, but strangely familiar branch on the Jennifer family tree. We were a blip, we Jennifers, but maybe one that will leave a good mark.

Happy week.

*******

Food | Week of September 22, 2014

Green cabbageIn celebration of Jennifers everywhere, this week’s dinners will all come from Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: a Love Story, which a friend first shared with me a few weeks after I started posting weekly menus in January 2013. “Do you read DALS?” my friend sent by text. “What’s DALS?” I responded, and we went from there (proving, perhaps, that Jennifers really do all swim along a common current). Anyway, DALS often has recipes with ingredients we just don’t eat (kale), and sometimes the difference between a New York kitchen and a Southern kitchen are glaringly apparent to me. But I enjoy reading Jenny’s posts, and I am confident that the recipes are both a) her own, and b) well-tested. So here’s a sampling, taken from her What to Cook Tonight page; if you don’t like the five I’ve selected, I promise there are plenty more.Candlelight on the Farm

Chicken Chili with Corn and Black Beans

Steak Tacos with Pickled Onions and Cilantro Pesto

Braised Pork in Adobo

Chile-Rubbed Chicken with Shredded Spinach

Waffle Iron Grilled Cheese (come on, you know you want to, no matter how old you are)

 

A certain lack of certainty.

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summer dawn on the lake

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe in God.

And before you run off worrying that I’m about to go all come-to-Jesus on you, understand that I long ago decided to believe what I believe, relinquishing any desire to control what you or anyone else might choose to believe. You’ve got yours; I’ve got mine. One day one of us is in for a big surprise, and neither of us will be able to spoil it for the people we leave behind.

So, generally speaking, I’m a believer in a higher power, an architect of greater good; but I’m cool with people who are not, and occasionally I think they may be right. Seriously, how could an architect of greater good design ISIS and Ecuadorian drug lords? No, I don’t know either.

But just when I think that thought, something happens to give me pause; and that’s the story I have for you today. You can read it or not and believe it or not, but I swear to you it’s true, even if it’s sort of a silly story. And if, like me, you’re generally a believer in a higher good but sometimes you wonder if we’re just masses of atoms moving aimlessly through space, then maybe this story will at least give you a feeling of companionship.

(And if you’re just here for the dinner ideas, this week we’re having homemade pizza, cheese soufflé, chili, a butternut squash pasta dish, and tortilla soup. Go ahead, skip down; I won’t judge.)

As a teenager, like so many other teenagers then and now, I wanted to save the world. Through the years of high school and college and teaching art to middle schoolers I kept waiting for the sign of what I was supposed to do to save the world, because I’m generally a believer that the Architect provides signs. But the sign never came, and so I ended up in marketing.

One day when I was busy not saving the world but instead promoting satellite communications, a man came to our office and gave a great speech about how we – meaning the 20-somethings I worked with and I – needed to give blood because our parents were at the stage in life that they were going to need it, and since our parents had done so much to get us to the point of having these jobs and apartments and cars, we owed them. And so I marched out to the bloodmobile and gave blood.

one gallon jennyEight weeks later the blood center called me and told me I was eligible to give again, so I went back. Eight weeks later, the same routine. In February 1991 I gave my eighth pint of blood, making my total a gallon, and they took my picture and gave me extra cookies and told me I was a hero. So I kept going back, every eight weeks, because having someone tell you you’re a hero and that you’re saving the world makes you feel pretty special, special enough to hang on to a Polaroid snapshot of yourself wearing bad early 1990s glasses but looking oh-so-trim in your 25 year old body.

Then I moved, and I moved again, and a third time, all in the course of five or six years. And during that time I probably would have continued to donate blood except for one thing: no one asked me, so I didn’t give it another thought.

Fast forward.

We were walking the dogs around the lake at a local Memphis park, Bernard and I, back in the summer of 2001, and we met a man with a Weimaraner named Sophie who liked to chase tennis balls as much as my dog Ella did; so we and the Weimaraner and the man became walking buddies.

We were walking the dogs one day, exchanging pleasantries and talking about what we did for work, when the man said he worked at Lifeblood, the local community blood center. And as soon as he said it, I knew I was going to work there. If you’ve had this experience, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then I’m sure it sounds ridiculous and no amount of explaining will make it sound otherwise.

Six years later I was raising money for an early childhood literacy program, and our fundraising consultant introduced me to his friend, an experienced fundraiser who was raising money and managing marketing for the blood center. We had lunch to talk about fundraising strategies for early literacy, and at the end of lunch she said I didn’t need to be soliciting money for books; I needed to work at the blood center and ask donors to save lives. “Yeah,” I thought, “I know.”

Lifeblood donor fest 2014So for seven years now I’ve worked at the local community blood center, raising money and recruiting donors and trying to help save the world, one pint at a time, just as I knew I would.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve actually made a difference. Sometimes I feel I’ve had a good idea or helped move a project along or engaged a group that wouldn’t otherwise give. The victories are awesome and humbling: the donor who will drop everything, hire a babysitter and come donate for a critical patient; the staff who will stay late or come in at midnight to get the work done; the patients and families who tell stories about what it means to be alive because some stranger gave blood and other strangers got it to the hospital. On the good days, it’s pretty incredible work.

Other times, like several weeks ago, I’ve felt like I have accomplished nothing. Working at a community blood center is hard, really hard, and there’s never, ever a finish line. There’s never enough blood, there are always issues with staff or regulatory compliance, hospital cost-cutting has shifted the emphasis from mission to money, and despite all the super creative gimmicks we come up with the marketing message is exactly the same, day after day, year after year.

While I was in that dark corner, sure I’d wasted the best years of my career, certain there was no grand plan after all, I decided to donate platelets because at least I could do that, and since platelets have only a five day shelf life, there are always patients who need them, all year long.

Platelet donation, if you’ve never tried it, is about a 2 hour procedure. I was using the still, quiet time to reflect on my irrelevance, the lack of impact I’ve had in this work I’d been certain I was meant to do. As I stared out the window, I saw a van pull up.

“I think that’s Action News 5,” one of the nurses said.

Yeah, I thought, they’re probably going next door to Firestone to get their tire fixed.

A few minutes later one of the reporters from our NBC affiliate walked in and said to the nurse at the desk:

“I wonder if you can help me. We had a call from a family whose baby is in critical condition and needs blood, and I know we’re supposed to call ahead and get approval from the PR people, but the family said it was urgent, so I came straight here, and I wonder if you have any donors who could talk on camera and if you could call your PR folks and get it cleared for me to interview them.”

“Well isn’t it your lucky day,” the nurse said, ” ’cause that’s our boss there in the chair giving platelets, and since she’s the one who’ll have to approve the interview and she’s the only donor in the center right now, I bet she’d be glad to help you.”

Happy week.

16 for 16

********

Food | Week of September 15, 2014

September windowBoth of my young people have braces now, so dinner is a bit more of a challenge than it was. I can either prepare two dinners, one for adults and one for children, or I can try to make things that everyone can eat. Last week the adults had a variety of salads, and the kids had yogurt, ice cream and scrambled eggs. This week I’ll try to suit all four of us, making homemade pizza, cheese soufflé, Texas chili, a butternut squash pasta dish, and tortilla soup that has become a standard favorite.

Pizza | Fruit Salad

Yes, you can make pizza from scratch on a work/school night. The trick is to get the dough started the minute you get home, as it needs to rise for an hour. I make dough in a stand mixer: 1 oz. yeast (1 packet or 2 1/2 tsp.), 1 cup warm water, a pinch of sugar, 1 Tbsp. kosher salt, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and 3 cups flour. I proof the yeast first (yeast, water, sugar), then add the flour, oil and salt (flour 1/4 cup at a time) while the mixer is running (dough hook attachment). It takes about 5 minutes, start to finish. Then I coat the ball of dough in a generous amount of olive oil and let it sit, covered with a dish towel, in a warm place for an hour. Punch it down, split it into two balls, and roll it into two thin 12-14″disks (or you could make smaller, fatter rounds; we prefer thin crust). Preheat the oven to 450 degrees while you top the rounds with whatever suits you. I make one plain tomato sauce/cheese pizza for the children and one more exotic (this week it will probably be roasted heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese and basil). I cook the pizzas on baking sheets that are lined with Silpat mats. I turn the oven down to 400 degrees as soon as I put the pizzas in. Serve with some fresh fruit or a green salad.

Cheese soufflé

Cheese soufflé was one of my mother’s kitchen basics, and this tasty dish is much easier to make than anyone thinks. There are plenty of recipes online if you want more specifics, but I make it the way my mother did and it works every time. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish and coat with grated cheese (Parmesan works well). Make a white sauce: 3 Tablespoons butter, 3 Tablespoons of flour (melt butter; stir in flour to make a roux), 1 1/2 cups hot milk (whisk hot milk into roux to make sauce). Remove sauce from heat and stir in 6 ounces cheese, grated or cubed (Gruyere is the standard; I use whatever we have, which is often just cheddar). Separate 5 eggs. Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the cheese sauce into the yolks to warm them up, then add warmed yolks into saucepan and whisk well. Season with salt, and a bit of cayenne pepper. Beat eggs whites until stiff. Add half of the whites to the cheese base and mix well. Fold in the other half of the whites (you’ll see egg white showing), then transfer to souffle dish. Put it in the oven and reduce heat to 375/380 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes.

butternut squashButternut Squash Gnocchi OR Orecchiette with Squash, Chiles & Hazelnuts

I love butternut squash, and one day I hope my family will, too. Maybe if I mix it into other things they like, it will work. If time permits, probably on a weekend day, I’ll try this new recipe for butternut squash gnocchi; if not, then I’ll try this one for orecchiette with squash and chiles (I will use dried orecchiette, and I will leave out the hazelnuts – may substitute roasted pumpkin seeds).

Chili

We’re partial to New Mexico style red chile pork (carne adovada), as you probably know by know; but my children prefer more traditional chili con carne made with ground beef (or turkey), kidney beans and chili powder. I have yet to find a perfect recipe for this type of chili, but this one from the Food Network Kitchen has proven family-friendly and easily adapted to adults who prefer more spice (just add more chipotle pepper/sauce). I serve with lots of lime, chopped white onion and cilantro, things everyone in my family enjoys.

Tortilla Soup

I found this recipe last year and have made it many times now. It is delicious prepared exactly as written, which is saying a lot.

“Sure, I’m lucky.”

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the lure of the ball

A few things you may not know about Lou Gehrig:

  • Seven times – seven different seasons – he batted in more than 150 runs, an unparalleled feat in American baseball, to this day. Babe Ruth broke 150 five times in his career, Sammy Sosa only twice.
  • Gehrig still holds the AL single-season RBI record (184), and he’s in second place overall, right behind the Cubs’ (NL) Hack Wilson (191).
  • For 56 years Gehrig held the record for most consecutive games played (2130), which required playing through ailments and injuries that once included a broken hand. Gehrig’s record was broken by Cal Ripkin, Jr. in 1995, but Gehrig still holds 2nd place in American baseball history.
  • Gehrig’s grand slam record (23) held for 75 years, until A-Rod hit #23 in 2012 and #24 in 2013.

As my friend Stan would say, Gehrig could hit the snot out of a baseball.

I’ve been thinking about Lou Gehrig as I’ve watched countless friends, children of friends and acquaintances try to sit still through an ice bucket dump. I’ve been thinking about Lou Gehrig the man, the ballplayer. Sometimes I wonder if people today would even know Gehrig’s name had he not developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the rare and horrible neurodegenerative disease that ended his career, took his life and then adopted his name.

Gehrig, dubbed the Iron Horse, spent the first half of his career in the shadow of Babe Ruth, the second in the shadow of Joe DiMaggio. Ruth and DiMaggio were big personalities, larger than life sports icons. Gehrig, in contrast, was the guy who showed up every day, did his job (really, really well), and went home. He was, by all accounts, a consummate gentleman and good sport – one whose name is familiar these days mostly because of the disease that killed him.

Google “Babe Ruth quotes” and you’ll find plenty, including “I didn’t mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.”

Search “Lou Gehrig quotes” and you’ll find few, mostly taken from his July 4, 1939 farewell address in which he said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.

The first few ALS ice bucket challenge videos were hilarious to me (and, yes, they also made me think “why didn’t WE think of doing this to challenge people to donate blood?!”). My favorite video was my friend Nicolle’s, because Nicolle’s teenage son used the iPhone slo-mo to capture the stunning impact of freezing water. Completely hilarious.

I watched, I laughed. And I prayed that the fad would fade before someone challenged me. I’m not above a good gimmick, but I am quick to tire of them. This one, I reckoned, would soon grow old or take a turn toward parody.

And it did. But the traction lost among jaded adults was gained among kids, who changed the game and expanded it. Seriously, what could be funnier than dumping freezing water over your kid friends’ heads, taking videos and posting them on Instagram?

What could be funnier? Well, parents. Parents could be funnier. Whose mom or dad will be the clown in the tank? Whose parents will get soaked through to their underpants, on camera, and then walk home with everyone watching?

“Hey, Mama! You’ve been challenged!” my triumphant daughter announced, one Sunday evening around 5:30.

“You know, the purpose of this challenge is actually to raise money, not make videos. Do you know why you’re doing this? Do you even know who Lou Gehrig was?”

Yes, that’s what I said. And then I added, “Besides, it’s almost dinner time, and it’s a school night.”

Daughter, pleading: “Come on, Mom! All the girls want YOU to do the challenge!”

Me, cranky: “I am not doing the challenge. I will write the check. Are the girls collecting money? You know the goal here is really to raise money for disease research.”

“Come on, Mama. Please? So-and-so, and so-and-so (other parents) are doing it. Won’t you at least come down there with me? Please?”

I got dinner to a holding place, took off my apron and walked (arms folded) down the block to the neighbor’s yard. The girls were giddy with excitement. Ahead of me (or what they hoped would be me) was a lawyer dad whom all the kids adored.

As I watched the girls fill buckets with cold water from the hose (sprinkled with ice from the thinning ice supply), I realized I had been missing the point. The challenge wasn’t about money, not entirely. It never had been. This challenge was about being a good sport, and I was definitely not being a good sport.

You choose how you feel, I say at least once a week to my children at home or my “children” at work. You can choose happy or unhappy, lucky or unlucky. Sure, circumstances beyond your control can make it easier to choose one over the other; but in the end it’s still your choice. You choose to be a good sport or not.

2130 consecutive games punctuated by a speech declaring himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth despite the fact that he was battling a terminal illness? Pretty high bar for sportsmanship, I’d say. And a pretty humbling challenge to try and live up to, at least for me.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of September 8, 2014

fall greens 2014Here are two things I believe to be absolutely, positively true: The secret to a happy life is being a good sport; and the secret to a good salad is salt.

I’ve been working on my salad skills, studying what I like in other people’s preparations and making some mental notes. I’ve long been a fan of the Brianna’s brand of salad dressings because they aren’t overly sweet, and they have simple ingredients. And they require zero preparation – good for the rush hour cook. I’ve been trying, for years actually, to get to the point of using only olive oil and lemon juice, but the salads always tasted bland to me. Then, a few weeks ago, we had dinner with a neighbor and one of the other dinner guests brought salad – best salad ever, I swear. The dressing, she said, was just olive oil and lemon juice (equal parts). “Oh, and salt, of course; a good bit.” Try it; you’ll see.

Fall Salad with Maple Viniagrette

A friend brought us a quart of maple syrup from Michigan, and we’re down to the last few tablespoons – not enough to serve a family full of pancakes, but definitely enough for this salad from Martha Stewart. Top with poached chicken breasts or shredded chicken meat if you need meat.

Arugula Salad with Roasted Butternut Squash, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

The ingredients in this salad from Saveur are some of my favorites, individually and together. Some chopped pancetta would probably work, if you can’t go vegetarian. A whole grain boule would also be tasty (with butter, of course).

eggs september 2014Croque Tartine Parisienne with Green Salad

This recipe isn’t as hard as it might seem – béchamel is really very easy to make, and the instructions in Saveur are good. It’s really a baked ham, cheese and egg sandwich with a yummy sauce. For the side salad just toss some tender greens with (yep, you guessed it) olive oil, lemon juice and salt.

Roasted Fall Vegetables with Lentils

So, no, I probably don’t have a prayer of getting my people to eat and enjoy this roasted vegetable/lentil salad. But I am not giving up, because the three bite/peanut butter sandwich rule is still in place, and it still works.

Swiss Chard with Poached Egg

Yep, we’re the egg-eating-est people you’ll ever meet. We love them, and sometimes I can get my people to try new things (Swiss chard, perhaps) if there’s egg involved; so we’ll give this recipe, also from Whole Living, a test run.

Summer: the book report.

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end of summer 2014

Ah, summer reading, the special torture devised by teachers to deprive children of a carefree break from school.

I hated summer reading. I’m a slow reader, for one thing, and, for another thing, I have always had a penchant for reading junk fiction. My teachers didn’t care. They never, not once, assigned a Ken Follet novel even though Eye of the Needle was way better than The Mill on the Floss.

Lucky for me it’s been a long time since I had a required reading list, one sure to be enforced by pop quizzes. So I can’t really explain why Refinery 29’s summer reading list, a Feminist Guide to Fiction, caught my attention. Yep, an F word primer, not usually my thing, to be perfectly honest, but there it is.

Maybe it’s because the list was published around the time that Jill Abramson was fired and the Nigerian girls disappeared. Maybe it was just because I’m now old enough to appreciate perspective I dismissed in my youth. In any event, while my children plowed (with much discontent) through Tom Sawyer, Warriors Don’t Cry and Frindle, I plowed through the R29 list. I did not make it through all 17 books, and I skipped most of the ones I’d already read, except for The Color Purple, which I just felt like re-reading (and it was like reading something entirely new) and The Handmaid’s Tale, one of my favorite books, which was at least as good on second reading, all these years later.

In case you’re not up for clicking to the R29 slideshow, here’s the list, with my notes:

  1. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Judy Blume. Read it, if you didn’t when you were in 4th grade, and then give a copy to every 4th grade girl you know, especially if your daughter is one of them. No, I don’t care that you’ve already watched the Moon Party video with her; it’s not the same thing. Not at all.
  2. Little Women; Louisa May Alcott. Take this book to a mother daughter book club. If you don’t have a mother daughter book club, then start one and read this book first. And you will cry when Beth dies, even though you know Beth dies. Even if you’ve read Little Women before.
  3. Lysistrata; Aristophanes. Women stop war by withholding sex. Brilliant! If nothing else, your friends will think you’re super smart if you read this play (a comedy), and it’s pretty easy to read and not very long. And you might even like it.
  4. Sense & Sensibility; Jane Austen. I just love this book. Love, love, love. Better than Price & Prejudice. Love. But instead of re-reading it I re-watched the 1995 Ang Lee movie, which I also love, love, love, for 100 reasons, all 100 of which include Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon.
  5. The Color Purple; Alice Walker. If you read The Color Purple when it was first published, then read it again. The world has changed (some), and you’ve changed (probably more than some), and it will be like reading an entirely new book – a pretty magnificent one, even it it’s really tough and brutal.
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale; Margaret Atwood. Read the book, don’t cheat and watch the movie. It’s a really, really good book and very timely today, in 2014, almost 30 years after it was published.
  7. She’s Come Undone; Wally Lamb. If you read no other books on the list, read this one. That’s how good it is. I can’t believe I had never read this book.
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Maya Angelou. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I can’t believe I’d never read this one, either.
  9. The Optimist’s Daughter; Eudora Welty. It’s short and it’s good and it’s quintessentially Southern and I loved it. You might, too.
  10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Betty Smith. How had I never read ATGIB? Yeah, I don’t know either. If you missed it, too, then it’s time to catch up – and time to share it with the young adult readers in your life.
  11. The Mists of Avalon; Marian Zimmer Bradley. If you enjoy the intrigue on Game of Thrones but struggle with the violence, then here’s the book for you. It’s long but worth it (much more worth it than Goldfinch, IMHO).

(I haven’t made it through these next ones yet; Mists of Avalon was long….)

  1. The Awakening; Kate Chopin.
  2. Their Eyes Were Watching God; Zora Neale Hurston.
  3. The Hero in the Crown; Robin McKinley.
  4. Weetzie Bat; Francesco Lia Block.
  5. Orlando; Virginia Woolf.
  6. Code Name Verity; Elizabeth Wren.

So how about you; what was your summer reading list? Hope it was as enjoyable and inspiring as mine and that summer treated you well.

Happy Labor Day weekend, and happy week.

********

Food | Week of September 1, 2014

Labor Day farmers marketSauteed Spinach | Roasted Fingerling Potatoes | Cheese Grits

Two starches in one dinner? Well, sure, why not? For the potatoes, just halve or quarter, toss in olive oil, salt and a pinch of herbs (Herbes de Provence, or just some plain rosemary) and roast at 380 degrees until they’re brown and crisp on the edges, about 25 minutes. While they’re roasting, let the grits cook in a mix of chicken broth and milk. I use coarse grind grits (Delta Grind brand) and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grits. Toss in cheese at the end and stir to mix. For the spinach, these days I’ve been first sauteeing some very thinly sliced fresh onions in a mix of butter and olive oil, just until they soften. Then I put about a pound of fresh spinach, along with a good sprinkling of kosher salt, over the top of the onions and put a lid on the pot to let the spinach steam. I leave the spinach leaves whole, but you can slice into ribbons. In a couple of minutes, stir the wilted spinach and onion mixture and turn off the heat.

Planked Salmon with Coconut Rice | Bibb Lettuce

The only trick to this simple recipe from Epicurious is soaking the cedar plank in advance – do it before you leave for work if you can’t come home for lunch. Other than that, it’s an easy weeknight dinner and quite tasty. A buttery lettuce salad on the side, with lemon juice and olive oil for dressing – well seasoned with salt and pepper, is the perfect complement for the meal.

Sweet Potato Risotto | Simple Saladtomatoes august 2014

I love risotto made with butternut squash, but butternuts aren’t quite ready yet. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are. So I’ll try this recipe from Real Simple, which is very similar to the butternut squash version. No, I have no idea whether or not my people will eat it. I’ll serve with a simple salad, again dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, seasoned with salt, of course.

Green Chile Chicken Stew

No, my little people probably won’t eat this, either. But we’ll keep trying, because Bernard and I are green chile people through and through. This recipe is a pretty basic one; we use Hatch chile and can’t really recommend any good alternative.

Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce | Wild Rice | Green Salad

Flank steak (or skirt steak, if you can’t find flank) is not an expensive cut of meat, and it’s easy to prepare. Pat it dry, rub with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and let rest at room temp for about 30 minutes before you grill it. While the steak is doing its thing, put a bunch of parsley, some fresh oregano (I actually prefer parsley/cilantro/mint to parsley/oregano, but parsley/oregano is traditional), garlic cloves, vinegar, olive oil and salt in a food processor or blender and mash them all together. If you need more specific directions, there are literally hundreds of chimichurri recipes online (here’s one to start). Once you make it a few times you’ll know what mix and ratio of ingredients suit you, and you’ll probably keep a jar of chimichurri on hand in the refrigerator for everything. I’ll make wild rice and a salad just to round out the plate, but the steak and the chimichurri are all I really want from this meal.

For the love of bitter humans.

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The Goldfinch

Life, I think, is like a champagne cocktail: best enjoyed while still fizzy, sublime in its bitter sweetness.

******

In my next life, if my karmic inheritance takes me to the next level of transcendence, I will return as a Quaker, serenely imparting peace among people.

If you’re wondering why I don’t just study up and become a Quaker right here in this good life (on the theory there may not be a next), understand that I am fully committed to completing this life as a lioness. Mess with one of my cubs and you’ll see just how un-Quaker I am. In fact, mess with one of my cubs and you’ll meet some fist-raising, foul-mouthed, redneck woman who somehow has my name on her driver’s license. Do not mess with my cubs.

Anyway, next go-round I’m hoping for Quaker. Not the made-up wanna-be Quaker, but real, genuine-in-my heart Quaker. And when I come back as a Quaker I’m hoping I’ll still be a writer, and I hope I’ll write articles like the one I read once about how we all should just say no to watching bad, violent, hateful things. If I could find the article, I’d just repost it; but I can’t, so here’s the gist:

Seeing the image of a bad thing happening leaves a scar on your soul. Once that image is seen, you can’t un-see it, and it leaves a terrible mark.

A friend, a Quaker, brought this article to me after we had a conversation about watching Law & Order. My friend is a lawyer, a former public defender, and on a regular basis I would ask her questions like “was the unspeakable thing that happened on Law & Order SVU really like that unspeakable thing that happened right here in Memphis, Tennessee last year?” And she would shrug and be non-committal, and then the next week I’d ask a similar question about a different unspeakable thing. There’s always something unspeakable happening, here, there, everywhere, so it was easy to spew an endless stream of ick.

Then one day she, my friend, brought a copy of her Friends newsletter, opened to the page with the article about how horrible things scar our psyches, and after I read it I didn’t ask her about Law & Order any more. In fact, I didn’t watch Law & Order any more because, once I thought about it, I didn’t want any of that mess in my head either.

Once you, too, give it a minute’s thought, you may also decide to give up Law & Order, or whatever other similar thing you watch. And if you’re a fine person who doesn’t watch TV and who instead just reads news articles and journals in print and online, then maybe you’ll think about scarred psyches and decide never again, for example, to read the comments that follow every Huffington Post article because all those comments do is give you nightmares of trolls, whether or not you believe in fairy tales. In fact, you’ll probably give up Huff Post entirely.

And once you give up Law & Order and Huff Post and you stop following any local news station or neighborhood security group (dear God, is there any end to the horror?), then just exactly where are you going to go when you want to look beyond your navel and see what’s happening in the world without scarring your psyche?

I’ll tell you. You’re going to The Bitter Southerner and Humans of New York.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already at least stumbled across Brandon Stanton’s incredible brain child, Humans of New York. It’s pretty darned close to my favorite thing in the world, outside of my family, dark chocolate, and champagne.

If you’re familiar with Brandon’s work but haven’t checked in lately, then go visit, right now. His UN series (he’s currently in Iraq) is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Each post is its own tiny champagne cocktail, fizzy, sweet and bitter in every marvelous sip.

Buy his books, follow his blog, and, for the love of everything holy, read the comments because that wise and clever Brandon, after realizing that it was pretty easy to tell the difference between people who were being constructive and people who were being dicks (his words), decided he was going to publish only the good stuff that could make us all believe in humanity again.

The Bitter SouthernerWhen you’re finished being amazed by all those wonderfully imperfect humans, take a slow stroll over to The Bitter Southerner, my favorite new publication, and let your love grow a little more.

“Bitter Southerner?” you sneer. Yeah, we’ll that’s sort of the point. You see, a few ingenious folks from Atlanta got their hackles up that people were always dissing the South, so they decided to do something constructive about it. And what they decided to do was tell stories, more specifically one great story every Tuesday, that could open the heart of the South, its threads of bitter and sweet, for all to love.

Not sure where to start in this unfamiliar terrain? Try this quintessentially Southern short story, Abba Dabba Dab. Or, and surely you’d know I’d include this, read The Republic of Swine, a tribute to the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Contest. Or if you just want the gestalt, read first BS post, We Are Bitter, and you’ll get it, even if you’re not from the South. And you won’t feel one tiny bit scarred or bitter. In fact, you’ll feel better, wherever you live. And then you’ll want a cocktail, but in a good way, enjoyed with friends and laughter and a touch of Quaker-style peace.

Happy week, y’all.

*******

Sunflowers May 2014

FOOD | Week of August 11, 2014

So, not that you need to send me presents or anything, but it’s my birthday week (month), and we’re celebrating. I pledge to drink champagne and eat dark chocolate every day, mostly likely when I’m helping my children with their math homework and struggling against the denial that school has started. In this week’s food line-up you’ll see that every dinner leads with a champagne cocktail, paired with appropriate food. Why we would ever do that pairing in reverse, I just don’t know.

French 75 | Sausage, Grits & Greens

A French 75 might be my favorite cocktail, preferably made with Hendrick’s gin instead of cognac, but really I’m an equal opportunity drinker when it comes to French 75s. The easiest way to make one light enough to drink on a weeknight is this: 1 T. gin, 1 T. fresh lemon juice, 1 T. simple syrup, and champagne to the top of the glass. Vary those ingredients to suit your taste, or swap the gin for cognac if you want to feel warm and frisky. The gin version is a light, refreshing drink that can handle some sturdy food like basic grits and braised greens, with or without some grilled sausage.

Arucana Lulu

Mimosa | Poached Eggs, Sourdough Toast & Canadian Bacon

Breakfast for dinner is a popular concept in our house, and since it’s birthday breakfast for dinner, a traditional mimosa seems appropriate: just OJ and champagne, maybe with a fresh raspberry or two. Bernard is the master egg poacher in this house; I just stand back and watch. If you’ve never poached eggs, here are Jamie Oliver’s instructions, which are a good place to start. Serve with buttered sourdough toast and some grilled Canadian bacon.

Champagne Mojito | Pulled Pork Tacos

The food part of this meal is a cheater’s dinner: I’ll buy pulled pork from The BBQ Shop instead of cooking at home (birthday – hello!). I’ll then serve it family style at the table with corn tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, tomato, sour cream, lime and some salsas. It’s as popular a meal as breakfast for dinner at our house. The cocktail is a new one, with a recipe from John Besh for champagne mojitos (how could that be anything other than tasty?).

True Vine celery

Kir Royale | Smoked Trout Lettuce Wraps

For a lighter turn, how about some smoked fish and a classic Kir Royale? This recipe for lettuce wraps with smoked trout is a twist on the traditional pork preparation that somehow seems more festive and summery. Smoked salmon would work in the place of the trout, if that’s easier to find.

Champagne | Linguini with Caviar

If you want an elegant and festive dinner that feels extravagant but really isn’t, this pasta dish is it. I’ve had a similar recipe from Gourmet in my cooking journal since 1989, and every time I make it I wonder why I don’t make it more often. The bonus for this week is that one of my favorite farmers at the market had beautiful fresh parsley that he’s nursed along all summer, truly a gift of our unseasonably mild summer.

 

A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.

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Dogface

Some days involve dog vomit.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have dogs. My days never involve dog vomit.”

But everyone has dog vomit days, I promise, even you people who don’t have dogs. Flat tires, fallen trees, freezers that go on unannounced strike and leave behind a mess of melted gelato. Dog vomit by any other name smells just as foul.

In our house of four dogs, of course, some days include literal dog vomit. Lucky for us the dog with the tender tummy prefers the cheap rug we bought on eBay over the Serapi I inherited from my mother. At least I think she called it Serapi. I don’t really know anything about rugs other than that my mother loved them, and she befriended a rug dealer who asked her to ghost write a book about his long family history in the rug trade; and in exchange he gave her a rug, the same rug that I think is a Serapi that’s magically vomit-free. I wonder sometimes if my mother cast protective wards over that rug before she died. If you knew my mother, you’d believe such a thing possible.

If you were raised Presbyterian, like I was, then you might take that dog vomit, literal or figurative, as a sign of what’s ahead in your pre-destined day, part of God’s grand plan. This is why I’m now an Episcopalian.

If you were raised Catholic, like Bernard was, then the dog vomit might be a reminder that you are inherently bad and in dire need of confession. This is why Bernard does not go to church.

Of course, irrespective of your religious upbringing (or lack thereof), you could look that dog vomit and just say, “Awesome.”

Awesome has become our code response to life’s stupid adversities, a word we use to summon equanimity. Boy’s braces and oral surgery will cost three times as much as my first car? Awesome. Water heater is leaking and washing machine starts making a strange noise that sounds like a drum section? Double awesome. “I fell off my bike, and I think I broke my arm.” You know it: awesome. The refrigerator needs replacing, in the same week we get the braces news? Yeah, awesome. Really. Awesome.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, we responded to situations like these with expletives, high blood pressure, and three-day depressions. We would sulk and be moody and snap at our children. We did not say “awesome” even in a snarky, sarcastic way.

The trusty VolvoThen Bernard, fatigued from working nights, blacked out on his way to pick up the kids from school and totaled his car, along with the 50 foot concrete light pole he hit. But he walked away completely uninjured, and since he hadn’t yet made it to school the kids were also uninjured. And when we got the report that he wasn’t supposed to drive for six months, and that the insurance on our remaining car doubled, and that the 1989 Volvo wagon that saved his life had $0 replacement value, and that our portion of the hospital bill was $2700, we looked at each other and said, “Awesome.” Because, really, what else could we say? In an accident that could have been devastating, we were all fine. Inconvenienced and in debt, but fine. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

That was a little over a year ago, and it would be dishonest of me to write that the time between then and now has been easy. In the months since the wreck we’ve met a constant stream of little struggles, like when the downstairs heat went out the day before the first polar vortex hit and the replacement part took a week to arrive. It was 9 degrees outside and 46 degrees in our kitchen despite a near-24 hour cooking program, having 10 space heaters lent by kind neighbors, and tacking blankets over all the windows (ours looked like a meth house); so we huddled together upstairs, all four of us in one bed, and watched The Shawshank Redemption for the 57th time, and the kids said, “this is awesome,” and we just had to smile.

Some days involve dog vomit, and you can either learn to laugh through them or let them kill you. Once upon a time, not too long ago, we were on that second path. Then a little voice whispered that some things are just life’s little jokes, testing our mettle, our ability to recognize the difference between simple inconvenience and real tragedy. As long as no one is critically injured or terminally ill or doing grave harm, we practice saying awesome and try to find a bit of humor.

A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, because they have dog vomit days, too.

Happy week.

******

FOOD | Week of August 4, 2014

raspberry patchThe thing with the freezer/refrigerator was a real thing this week at our house. And the awesome part (seriously) was that we figured it out when the freezer goods were thawed but still fully cold. So all the meat that I’ve been buying a little at a time from Renaissance Farms, saving it for winter, was suddenly ready to be cooked. Right now. Awesome! Instead of the salads we planned to eat we had a couple of spontaneous, no-recipe stews that were pretty tasty – tasty enough that I wrote them down, after the fact, and will share them.

We also worked at the school garden getting ready for students to head back on Monday (way, way too early), so we brought home raspberries and tomatoes and basil that somehow taste better to the kids because they picked them. Go figure.

Chorizo-Chicken-Shrimp Stew | Basmati Rice

What do you make when you have a pound of chorizo, two pounds of chicken thighs, and an undetermined amount of raw, peeled/deveined shrimp? A country-style stew, we decided.

  1. Chop a few onions (to yield about 2 cups) and fresh peppers (again, about 2 cups).
  2. Sauté onions in olive oil over medium-high heat until they just begin to brown.
  3. Add peppers and cook until they begin to soften.
  4. Add the chorizo (either slice or remove from casings, which is what we did) and cook for a bit and then add the chicken (we used them whole) and cook a bit more. NOTE: you could flip the order here, browning the meats (either together or separately), removing them to a plate, cooking the vegetables and then adding the meats back. We did not feel like going to all that trouble, and the end result was just fine).
  5. Add 2 cups chicken stock, some fresh crushed garlic (I like adding it at this point in the cooking instead of with the onions at the beginning so there’s no chance of burning the garlic), and either a large can of whole peeled tomatoes or some fresh ones if you have them, which we did not (peeling would be an important step if using fresh ones). If you have an open tube or can of tomato paste that’s going to spoil in your refrigerator-less kitchen then add a dollop; we did, but I don’t think we’d have missed it if we hadn’t.
  6. Season with oregano, cumin, black pepper and let cook for a while over low heat, until it’s not too liquid-y.
  7. Add the shrimp a few minutes before you’re ready to serve, stirring it around until it’s just pink but not rubbery.

If you want some heat, add a few dashes of Tabasco, Frank’s Hot Sauce or Sriracha. Serve with rice (we like basmati).

Greek Pasta Salad

To balance out more complicated cooking, here’s a quick summer recipe that tastes good either cold or at room temp and that should please just about everyone. We’ll probably use more cucumbers than tomatoes because the cucumbers are still plentiful, but the tomatoes are in their mid-summer lull.

Simple Beef Stew

Last winter, you may recall, I was on a quest to find the best beef stew recipe. I found a few that I liked, but no clear winner. Faced with thawed stew meat at 9 p.m. (too late to shop for special ingredients), I improvised and the result was delicious. I suspect this is a scalable recipe; I made it with a pound of meat because that’s what I had, and it was enough for four small portions or two very generous ones. The ratio of all other ingredients is 1:1:1. You’ll see:

  1. Preheat oven to 210 degrees (or have slow cooker ready on low).
  2. Sear stew meat in olive oil/butter in a medium Dutch oven.
  3. When the meat is brown on all sides and a bit crusty on the edges, remove it to a plate.
  4. Add more oil, if needed, and sauté a fist-sized onion, coarsely chopped, until the onion begins to brown.
  5. Return the meat to the pot and add 1 (scant) Tbsp. Herbes de Provence, 1 c. chicken stock, 1 c. dry red wine, and 1 Tbsp. tomato paste.
  6. Bring to a boil, cover, and transfer to the oven or slow cooker.
  7. Cook in the oven for 2-3 hours, until the meat is fork-tender, or in the slow cooker for 10-12 hours (this is what we did – and since we started at 9 p.m. we actually had it for breakfast. Weird, I know, but delicious.).
  8. About 30 minutes before cooking, thicken with beurre manié if needed.

Serve with crusty French bread.

eggs april 2014Baked Eggs with Toast | Grilled Peaches

As an early birthday present I received four small porcelain gratin dishes, which of course calls for shirred eggs. I keep pushing this particular egg preparation because one day you’re actually going to try it and see how different and delicious it is. This recipe from The Kitchn includes some different tips from the Mark Bittman and Ina Garten links I’ve posted before. If you want to fancy things up, serve with a small bitter green salad (dandelion or endive) and then follow with grilled peaches and ice cream.

Raspberry Chicken | Green Beans

Since raspberries are fragile, within a day of picking you need either to eat them or to prepare them in a way that will keep (sauce, jam, strudel, sorbet). This recipe from the classic Silver Palate Cookbook will never fail you, I promise, and it’s a great way to enjoy the raspberry flavor without feeling like you wasted too many in cooking. Serve with fresh steamed green beans and a fresh baguette.

All words, images and recipes are original to me, Jennifer Balink, 2014. If you’d like to use any, please ask.

12 articles of faith for a Memphis believer.

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Life on the Mississippi, Memphis, April 2012

I am a converted believer in Memphis, my hometown, the place I vowed never to live after turning 18. It wasn’t some great epiphany. Like many conversions, it was subtle and happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

If, generally speaking, places have a way of growing on a person, then Memphis is the kudzu of places: wild, seamy, tangled and invading with relentless consumption. Go ahead, call us a weed. Resistance is futile, you’ll see.

Like kudzu, in a bad way, Memphis sprawled through annexation over the last 40 years. Done is done. But like kudzu, in a good way, the heart of Memphis has also grown thick with vine runners holding together what otherwise might have eroded.

Dial back time and tell 1999 Jennifer that’s she’ll write this post; she’ll call you nasty names. But while she was busy reading her New York Times, pining to return to life at higher altitude, those renegade tendrils wound their way around her, the unlikeliest of converts, and pulled her to the pews of the Memphis faithful. They turned her into me.

Now as I reflect on 15 years of living in Memphis (hard to believe I’ve written that), I can point to a handful of things that inspired my eventual conversion. Looking back, I see them as true articles of faith, proof of a place where unlikely magic can happen.

12 Articles of Faith for a Memphis Believer:Rocky the Redbird

  1. AutoZone Park (Memphis Redbirds). Like Annie Savoy in Bull Durham, I believe in the church of baseball. But that’s not what earned Baseball America‘s 2009 “Minor League Park of the Year” top spot on my list. AutoZone Park did, in 2000, what 20 years of downtown development couldn’t do in a sustainable way: bring families back to the city core. Honestly, I never, ever believed that would happen.
  2. Memphis Grizzlies. believe memphisMy late mother was devastated when my PR firm was hired for the NBA Now pursuit team and then to represent the public building authority that oversaw construction of FedExForum. “Sweaty boys in undershirts” was my prim mother’s description of basketball, a sport she hated her entire life. But, Mama, despite your disdain the Grizzlies have ignited a fierce and gap-bridging loyalty in Memphis. They’ve rallied the congregation by being (let’s keep it going here) the kudzu team of the NBA. Spurs can trim the vine, but they can’t keep it from growing back stronger. Plus the Grizzlies are the believe memphis progenitor. Can’t really ignore that.
  3. PistacheMemphis Farmers Market. Sometimes it takes an outsider to engender faith. A byproduct of bringing the Grizzlies to town (yes, really), the downtown Memphis Farmers Market put a fashionable storefront on local farming, summoning pride among dirt diggers who’d been pulling crops from Delta soil for years. Markets that pre-dated MFM have grown, and new markets have spawned in the MFM’s wake of cool. Some of those spinoffs are working to address food deserts in Memphis, a problem no one was paying attention to 10 years ago even though it was just as bad. I believe we might actually fix it, and show the world how in the process. (And, to you regular readers: yes, the Cooper Young Farmers Market is still, and always, my personal choice for farmers markets. But MFM revolutionized farmers markets in Memphis, and there’s just no denying it.)
  4. AC Wharton’s election. Although critics chastise his consensus-building approach, AC (as the people’s mayor is known to everyone locally) changed the tone of public conversation in Memphis. Acknowledging my bias (I worked for him when he was Shelby County Mayor), AC makes me believe that civil discourse is still possible, even in Memphis, even in the age of ridiculous partisan bickering. And despite continued pressure from business, community and political camps, he will not bend to anyone else’s mold, a quality I admire and respect.Kelly English sweet potato pots de creme
  5. Kelly English. Full disclosure, because some of you who know me know this already: If I could pick only one Memphis chef to prepare my last meal, it would be Erling Jensen (he stole my palate before you moved to town, Kelly; it can’t be helped). But Kelly English, a Food and Wine Best New Chef of 2009, is my pick for game-changing local chef. He’s the guy who can make anyone believe Memphis belongs on the national map of both hot and haute cuisine. To boot he’s also a one-man Hall of Justice, ready to tackle the Joker and Lex Luthor at the same time. (You have to live here to understand that one; sorry.) And the cocktails at Restaurant Iris are just as, um, formidable as the food. Really, I may have to rethink that Erling Jensen thing.
  6. Friends forFirst canoe race Our Riverfront. Embrace progress, but don’t mess with the natives: that’s how I would sum up Friends for Our Riverfront, the grassroots group working to preserve the Mississippi riverfront as a public greenspace, protected from overzealous development and unnaturally cultured place-making. Small but mighty, they make me believe that David can still take Goliath.
  7. Broad Avenue Arts District. Like Friends for Our Riverfront, the Broad Avenue Arts District is proof of the marvel of grassroots activism. When Sam Cooper Blvd. was moved, Broad was cut off like an oxbow lake. So residents, local businesses and general do-gooders took charge, played up its existing assets, painted their own bikes lanes, and made it into a cool, quirky, thriving arts district, sort of without help. Even Guy Fieri has been to visit.
  8. The new LeBonheur hospital. So, it’s great, really great, to have a world-class children’s hospital in your city. Greater still to have two of them (counting St. Jude). But LeBonheur Children’s Hospital makes my list not because having a children’s hospital is great, but because keeping children front and center makes everyone believe there’s a future. Drive west on Poplar Avenue, and the most prominent icon on the skyline is the bright red heart at the top of the LeBonheur tower. The heart of the city; I love that.
  9. Overton Park Conservancy. Yeah, I know. Shelby Farms (also in Memphis) is the largest urban park in the U.S. And the conservancy to protect Shelby Farms was also created in the last 15 years. But commitment to an enormous greenspace in the most affluent corridor of Shelby County just doesn’t inspire the believer in me the way the Overton Park Conservancy does. Overton Park 5 Mile ClassicOverton Park was the Shelby Farms of Memphis back in the city’s heyday. So important was the park to city residents that they fought, and won, a decades-long battle to prevent I-40 from taking the land as highway right-of-way. The conviction and commitment remain strong, now reinvigorated by the formation of the Conservancy. When I look at what’s happened in Detroit over the last 10 years, I see hope for Memphis because of a resilient corps remains unwilling to let the inner city fail. Believe that all is not lost, ever.
  10. Levitt Shell. Free concerts in a beautiful outdoor setting (Overton Park). Family friendly. Great entertainment line up (tonight it’s Rosanne Cash). Did I mention free? What’s not to like about the Levitt Shell? (Except maybe the parking, until the zoo gets its act together and builds a multi-story garage.) Sometimes it takes just a single person’s planting a seed to sow a full garden of believers. Really full. As in totally and completely overflowing, every night.
  11. Overton Square. Midtown Memphis was the entertainment epicenter in the 1970s, when downtown Memphis was all but abandoned. Then Overton Square, 70s party central, died its own (almost) death in the late 1990s. Hearing the bell toll a few years ago a discount grocer moved to replace the iconic 70s Overton Square retail facade with a surface parking lot, and a few die-hard Memphians got their hackles up. In a good way. One of them anted up, put a substantial investment in redevelopment, and made a silk purse from a sow’s ear. (Ok, it’s an abbreviated version, but that’s the net of it.) Believe in the power of resurrection.
  12. Tennessee Brewery Untapped. Tennessee Brewery April 2014“Hey,” a couple of guys said one day, “here’s an idea: how about we pull together a crazy, spontaneous, vibrant effort to save the historic Tennessee Brewery building by creating a six-week pop-up biergarten?” Hell, why not? When you believe, you believe: Tennessee Brewery Untapped.

If you’re a local, then you’ve probably got at least a dozen more articles of your own Memphis faith to add. There are scores of them, to be sure; so please post a comment and build the list. These 12 are the ones dearest to me, the vines that reached my heart and made me a believer.

If you’re not from Memphis, come see for yourself and take stock – it will be like a scavenger hunt and pilgrimage at the same time. After all, we gave birth to the place that puts ice cream in snow cones; how could you not love us? Just watch out for the kudzu, or you might wrapped up and start calling this home.

As my friend Dan Conaway would say, I’m a Memphian. And I believe.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of June 16, 2014

It’s full on summer now, time to suspend the dinner schedule and shift to preparing foods that keep well and can be served whenever everyone feels like coming inside.

True Vine celeryCold Cucumber Soup

In a blender, puree 2 large fresh cucumbers (peeled and seeded) about 1/4 of a white onion, some fresh dill, celery flakes and 2-3 cups buttermilk; salt to taste. Chill several hours; will keep, wrapped and in a glass container, for several days in the refrigerator.

Creole Shrimp Salad (adapted from the Woman’s Exchange Cook Book, 1964)

Boil, peel, devein and coarsely chop about 3 lbs. fresh shrimp; place in a large glass bowl or container. Chop 2-3 stalks celery, some white onion or shallots, and a handful of green olives; stir together with shrimp. Mix 1/4 c. mayonnaise (or Greek style yogurt), 1/2 c. Creole mustard, 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil and a dash of white wine vinegar. Pour dressing over shrimp, stir and chill for several hours.

Pasta Salad

Boil a box of rotini according to package directions; drain and set aside. Coarsely chop 2-3 stalks celery, 1 bunch fresh scallions (or garlic scapes), a can of black olives and EITHER summer sausage OR cooked (or canned) tuna. Stir pasta, chopped vegetables and sausage (or tuna) with about 1/2 c. mayonnaise in a large glass bowl. Add some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Keeps for several days. Warning: if your people are like my people (even my children) then they will snack on this salad all day long, and it will disappear quickly. Make lots.

tomato harvestSummer Grazing Platter

On a large platter, arrange lightly steamed green beans (I toss with butter and salt while they’re still warm; I’m Southern that way), fresh cherry/grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sliced bell peppers, raw carrots and hummus that you either make yourself (here’s a good basic recipe) or that you buy (no judging; it’s summer). Sometimes I’ll put the platter, with some bread and/or crackers, on the counter and just let everyone snack.

Poached Chicken | Green Salad

Poach several pounds of chicken breasts (it’s easy; here’s a good primer if you need one), and you’ll have it for impromptu chicken salad, club sandwiches, or chopping up and tossing into some pasta. Make a batch of Ina Garten’s Buttermilk Ranch dressing, and you’ll be really set for the week, especially if you’ve got a head of fresh lettuce from the local market.

Today’s post was inspired mostly by Memphis but also in part by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Worlds Colliding. Find out more about blogging with WordPress at http://wordpress.com.

All words and images belong to me, Jennifer Balink. If you want to use a pic, please ask; I share with people who are nice.

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