Yes, we have no bananas.

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Callie 2014

I know. You’re thinking, “dear God, another dog story?” No, actually. This is a post about breakfast. But it starts with a (short) story about a dog.

One of our dogs has become a banana thief. I write “one of our dogs” as if I don’t know full well that it’s the dainty female chocolate Lab, an otherwise well behaved(ish) dog who stands primly on on her tiptoes and walks at heel on voice command. She is very pretty, but she can be very naughty. She is not the lone naughty dog among our four, all of whom eat things that aren’t intended for canine consumption. But I know it is she stealing the bananas because consuming whole, unpeeled bananas eventually leaves physical evidence.

I might not have cared about her new fruit thieving habit if she hadn’t ruined my breakfast routine. I may have confessed before that I am not a morning person. My sister got the crack-of-dawn gene from our father; I got the night owl gene from our mother. I can will myself awake at 5:30 a.m., as I must do these days; but it will never, ever be natural or pleasant for me. As creative and free-wheeling as I am come dinnertime (when I’m awake), I am a creature of strict convention on the forced march of breakfast assembly: cereal on Mondays, eggs on Tuesdays and Fridays (test days), yogurt with fruit and granola on Wednesdays, peanut butter and banana on Thursdays. Sounds boring, I know, but it’s just the best I can do before my natural waking hour of 8:00.

So I was stumbling around one morning a few weeks ago, trying to get breakfast prepared for the child who has to arrive at school at 6:45 a.m., and I couldn’t find the bananas. They were on the counter Wednesday night; Thursday morning they were gone. I knew Bernard hadn’t eaten them because he likes only green bananas, and these were fully ripened.

It was Thursday morning, and there were no bananas. On Thursdays we have bananas and peanut butter for breakfast. We have a routine.

“It’s fine, Mom. I’ll just have a piece of turkey and some orange juice,” boy child said. Harumph.

A week later, the bananas disappeared again, forcing me again to have to rethink the first meal of the day.

“It’s ok, Mom. I’m kinda sick of bananas and peanut butter anyway.” Harumph.

Breakfast, I realized, is the redheaded stepchild of our house. It seldom receives any creative inspiration. It is lacking in variety. It’s a utility meal with military enforcement, a victim of its own time constraints, prepared by a sleepwalking zombie. How could I make it better?

A few years ago I was at a conference at The Charles Hotel in Cambridge. It’s a lovely hotel that won instant favor because it serves Harney & Sons teas, my favorite brand. The breakfast buffet, served at a reasonable 7:45, was entirely unlike the mainstream hotel standard. It included boiled eggs (free range, local), preservative-free meats, soft cheeses, fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts, and whole grain breads. In many ways it was more like a lunch or afternoon snack buffet than a breakfast one.

As a confirmed night owl, grazing at a breakfast table is about the best I can do. But I don’t like sugary pastries, and fruit alone isn’t enough to jumpstart my brain. I remember coming down from the elevator my first morning at the hotel, seeing that lovely display of un-breakfasty food and wishing I could live at The Charles forever.

Maybe we needed a bit of The Charles in our morning routine.

So I’ve been experimenting with breakfast, thanks to my banana-eating naughty dog. I’ve been stocking items to make mini-buffets on short notice: boiled eggs, dried fruit and nuts, granola, cheese and meat. It’s really not any harder to assemble while sleepwalking than any of the items from the rigid routine, and the bit of variety has actually improved the atmosphere of the early, early morning. Breakfast, one day I might even like you.

And yes, we found a new storage spot for the bananas. I’m sure the poor banana-deprived doggie will find something else naughty to steal.

Happy week, and happy Easter.

*****

When we made carnitas recently, using Alice Waters’s recipe from The Art of Simple Food (highly recommend), Bernard made a green sauce we called chimichurri on steroids: cilantro, parsley, garlic, lime juice, salt, olive oil and green chile. We can’t get enough of it, especially now that parsley and cilantro are making their spring appearance. For dinner this week, we’ll be making things that taste even better with a dollop of green sauce, so why not experiment with a batch of your own?

Farmers Market Memorial Day 2013Pork Medallions | Brown Rice with Cilantro | Spring Greens

The recipe for St. Nicholas du Pelem pork was a hit back in December; the preparation is simple and lends itself to easy modification. I will serve with brown rice (I use short grain) that has a bit of fresh, coarsely chopped cilantro tossed in after it has cooked and cooled a bit. Simple spring greens on the side, maybe with strawberries tossed in and with a lemon juice/olive oil dressing. And green sauce.

Black Bean Burritos | Citrus Salad

If you have time to make Deborah Madison’s black bean chili from The Greens cookbook (not available online but widely reproduced on other blogs – search “Deborah Madison black bean chili”), then make it. Hers is still my favorite recipe for preparing black beans. If you’re in a hurry and doing this on a weeknight, however, sauté some garlic, onion, and bell pepper in a bit of olive oil; add a can of black beans, some chicken stock, cumin, oregano and cayenne; cook until the liquid is mostly absorbed. Serve with rice (use leftover brown from the night before, if you have it), tortillas, limes, cheese, sour cream, cilantro, whatever, especially green sauce. A tangy citrus salad like this one if you still have good citrus available at your market.

drunken woman, frizzy headChicken Caesar Salad

If you remember to put the chicken breasts in a vinaigrette marinade (yes, you know it, I use Brianna’s) for at least an hour, then this is the easiest, most foolproof dinner you can make: (for four split breasts) preheat the oven to 360 degrees; mix a cup of Panko (or bread crumbs, seasoned if you like), with a cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Take the chicken breasts one at a time and coat with the Panko/cheese mixture, pressing it in; place on a baking sheet (I cook them on a Silpat mat); bake for about 25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the chicken. Let cool slightly; slice into strips. Serve over any firm-leafed lettuce dressed lightly with Caesar dressing. If you have some day-old bread, cut it into cubes and sauté in a skillet with some olive oil for delicious homemade croutons. Not sure how green sauce will go with this one….

Rice Noodle Chicken Soup (yes, otherwise known as Pho Ga)

So here’s the deal: I do prefer homemade chicken stock, but I never have time to make it. And since I love chicken soup, I’ve just decided to get over myself and use prepared stock, doctored with lemon juice and often de-concentrated with a bit of liquid from poaching chicken breasts if I poach them in water/wine instead of chicken stock. Poaching chicken takes about 30 minutes, total. Here is Martha Stewart’s recipe, which is pretty much like Cook’s Illustrated but doesn’t require logging in to read it.

And now here is Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipe for Pho Ga, which entirely realistic for a weeknight dinner IF you have poached chicken and chicken stock on hand. It’s a really simple soup, also appropriate for breakfast (!), that should please even the pickiest eaters. Yep, dollop of green sauce instead of Sriracha.

Swimming, Shelby Farms, November 2012Pizzas (children will make plain cheese; we’ll make arugula with prosciutto)

Save this dinner for a night when you have time to make pizza dough (needs an hour to rise), because homemade dough is just better. I used to use the classic Silver Palate recipe for dough but recently switched to Mark Bittman’s recipe which, for the record, is almost identical anyway. Our children still prefer plain cheese pizza, with mozzarella and Parmesan, sometimes with a bit of ham or bacon. Bernard and I will top ours with the arugula from the market and some prosciutto, like Ina Garten’s recipe, but with green sauce somewhere in the mix.

Always pack a sandwich.

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Always pack a sandwich

My friend Fredericka, Colorado native, retired horse trader, and daughter of a fresco painter, never left home without snacks.

Fredericka and I met when we both taught at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA. She looked pretty much like you’d think a Colorado native, retired horse trader, daughter of a fresco painter would look: trim and leggy with long, straight hair and a perpetual lightly freckled, sun-kissed glow. She, her fly fishing Boston banker husband and their young son lived in old farmhouse in Dover, MA. Her son was about five when we met, and I, entirely disconnected from the world of young children at that time, thought it was so great that she, an art history teacher, had helped him name his toys Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello.

A couple of times each year we took groups of students on museum field trips, occasionally hopping the train down to New York to let them explore the Guggenheim and Metropolitan. Preparing for the several hour journey, Fredericka would pack a picnic cooler full of enough food to feed a family of six for a week, as long as meals consisted entirely of snacks like nuts, granola, hummus, sesame crackers, Bordeaux cookies, dark chocolate, fruit and triple cream imported cheese.

She’d met her first husband through the horse business, and they apparently spent many long days on ranches in the middle of nowhere, far from any food source other than sagebrush. So Fredericka learned to pack snacks.

Traveling with Fredericka, even if just to the MFA downtown, meant never being tempted to stop at a fast food joint on the way home. Staying after school to hang a student art show meant never being tempted by a vending machine full of Cheetos, provided that Fredericka was one of the teachers helping hang the show.

I think of Fredericka often, for a hundred different reasons. I laugh every time I look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles DVD on our movie shelf. Every spring when dandelion greens appear, I’ll harvest some that hide from dog traffic paths and remember the first time I had them, on their farm in Dover. I was thinking of Fredericka in particular these last couple of weeks when talking to friends about dinner, meal planning and avoiding last-minute pizza traps. Most often, at least for me, poor food choices are crimes of opportunity, sparked by lack of planning.

At 5:55 p.m. if I lack the energy to pull a rabbit out of a hat from the random ingredients in my pantry and don’t have at least a vague plan of what to cook for dinner, then we’re most likely going to eat quick mac ‘n cheese, which is still junk even if you buy Annie’s organic.

As much as I sometimes don’t want to maintain the weekly discipline of planning ahead, I remember the simple truth: If we’re going to eat food, not too much (still working on that), mostly plants, then I have to spend 30 minutes every week doing the equivalent of packing a sandwich for a field trip. I don’t always stick to the plan, but it’s there when I need it, just like the cheese and crackers on the train ride from Boston to Grand Central.

Happy week.

*****

spring tulipsThis week we’re doing a bit of spring cleaning, trying to use what’s in the freezer now that spring is finally here and the farmers markets are open. What do we have in our freezer, you’re wondering? Salmon fillets, marinated chicken breasts, ground lamb, chorizo, lady peas and green chile (lots). Everything but those last two ingredients should be easy to find in your grocery, if your freezer isn’t stocked exactly like mine (how weird would that be?). Hatch green chiles are often available in the freezer section of specialty stores or Mexican markets, if you want to go on a hunt. Your reward will be some green chile Hollandaise for your salmon, if you’re up for trying something that takes a bit of effort but is indescribably delicious.

Grilled chicken skewers | Green salad with strawberries and goat cheese

When I’m freezing chicken, I usually add some marinade to the bag or container (a trick learned from Nigella Lawson), so the meat will marinate while it’s freezing and again while it’s thawing. It’s really a great trick, even if most of Nigella’s recipes are not. If you’re not harvesting from your own freezer full of pre-marniated chicken to skewer and grill, here’s a great recipe from my beloved Ina Garten that you can use instead, just remember to put the chicken in the marinade before you leave for work (or school, or whatever) in the morning. For the salad, I’ll put some strawberries (halved), chopped scallions and crumbled goat cheese in a bowl with dressing (you know it: Brianna’s French vinaigrette), let them sit while I prepare the meat, then toss in green leaf lettuce right before serving.

Oven roasted (or grilled) salmon with green chile Hollandaise | Jasmine rice | Green saladeggs april 2014

Ok, so this isn’t a 10 minute weeknight dinner, but it also isn’t as hard as you’re thinking. For the salmon, just about any simple preparation will work. I like using cedar planks in the oven (on the grill rack over a baking sheet), but it does require at least an hour’s forethought to soak the planks (if you want more tutorial, here’s a good one from The Kitchn). While the planks are soaking, wash the lettuce and stick it in the refrigerator. Start the rice (it can sit for a while after it’s finished cooking), then turn your attention to the green chile Hollandaise (Note: Bernard and I created this recipe about a year ago, and I posted it with one of my first weekly menus here. We’ve made it a couple of times since, with a couple of minor adjustments, and it’s always yummy).

Ingredients: 3 roasted green chile peppers, peeled, stems removed; 3 egg yolks; juice from one medium lemon: 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temp.; salt to taste.

Combine chile and lemon juice in blender and puree until smooth.  If you are using a large blender, you’ll have to scrape it down after every other pulse until it gets liquid enough to drip back down on the blades.  Add egg yolks and pulse until well mixed (5-6 pulses); scrape down sides.  Add butter in a thin stream while the blender is running.  Scrape the sauce into a bowl that will fit on top of a saucepan of simmering water (double boiler). Do not let the water touch the bottom of the pan.

Turn your attention back to the salmon: put it in the oven, on the grill on in the skillet. any of those methods should take about 15 minutes of cooking time. While the salmon is cooking, heat the sauce (you’re actually cooking it at a very low temperature) over the double boiler. Keep the temperature low, and whisk constantly, or the sauce will curdle. When it is warmed through and thickened, turn off the heat (or remove from stove); salt to taste. Assemble rice, salmon, sauce and serve with a green salad.

Roasted asparagasparagus 2014us | Grits | Lady peas

It seems like an eternity since we had simple vegetable plates on a weekly basis, so it was a real joy to find fresh asparagus at the farmers market this week. I’ll make plain coarse-grind grits, with butter and salt, and will serve the last bag of lady peas from the freezer.

Chorizo tacos | Guacamole | Pico de gallo

I was looking for chorizo recipes that didn’t involve eggs (tired of chorizo and eggs), and I stumbled on this one from Emeril for chorizo tacos. Surely I could have thought of this on my own, right? I will likely prepare some season ground turkey as an alternative for my children, since I can’t remember how spicy this particular chorizo is.

Lamb Köfte with Yogurt Sauce and Muhammara

Ok, so this recipe isn’t a 10 minute weeknight dinner either. And yes, if you’re going to make the entire recipe exactly as written, then you’ll be going on a scavenger hunt for pomegranate molasses. Consider the muhammara a nice to have, not a need to have, and you’ll start feeling better about this recipe instantly. And the lamb is delicious, I promise.

 

 

Like what you like.

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I Ski Unca-Nard

Bernard, with our 2-year-old nephew on his first trip down the bunny slope. He liked it.

What would a Saturday morning be without a BuzzFeed quiz? How else would I know which actress will play the screen version of me (Emma Watson), the city match for my soul (Portland, OR), or my style icon (Jenna Lyons)? And yeah, I had to look up that last one, too; she’s style director for J. Crew. Apparently the BuzzFeed algorithm thinks I’m cooler than I really am.

The real fun in these quizzes, for me, is then seeing results and comments from friends. “Paris – AMEN!” my daughter’s godmother wrote in response to her perfect city quiz. And, in fact, chic Paris is as much a perfect match for her as earthy Portland is for me.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, it might have been disastrous for two friends to get such different answers. Once upon a time, we cut our teenage teeth on the never ending series of self-knowledge quizzes in Seventeen and Glamour. Are you Punk or Preppy? Floral or Woodsy? We usually took them in groups at slumber parties, where there was little actual slumber and lots of M&Ms, Doritos and Diet Coke. Answering the questions as a group, the outcome was typically that we, friends, miraculously all liked the same things and got the same results (Preppy and Floral for my little group – we were definitely not the Woodsy or Punk type).

It’s a basic ritual of budding friendship, learning that someone else likes the same things you like and figuring out what else you might have in common. It’s now also how Amazon, in particular, amasses a fortune, suggesting that if you like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series you might also like Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels.

It’s easy to explore what you might like at Amazon, with the comfort of anonymity (maybe) combined with the comfort of masses. How could 8915 reviewers be wrong? Seems like a safe bet to try something new, especially if it’s a $4.95 paperback book.

It’s a little tougher, but not too much, to go exploring in the real world. Try on a different style of clothing, sample some weird cheese at Costco, see a movie that wouldn’t normally make your list. Take a picnic, go snorkeling, visit a history museum, eat at a new restaurant. Try new things. Take suggestions from your friends, real people who like some of the things you already like, and expand your horizons. Why? Because you can’t possible know everything you’ll like unless you’re willing to try new things.

Then, as you discover and affirm the things you like, remember this: Like what you like.

Like what YOU like. It’s important. It even made Leah Froehle’s list of the 101 things she’ll teach her daughter (great post). It’s an essential part of being who you are, little snowflake.

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean you have to like it. Everyone else at the slumber party answered “C” when you picked “D”? Own up. Your preppy friends already see the punk in you. Believe it or not, they’ll respect that you like what you like even if they don’t like the same things. If they don’t, well then you’ve learned an important lesson about friendship, even if it smarts a bit.

Like what YOU like, and do it with gusto.

Know, though, that with the freedom to like what you like comes the responsibility to respect that others have that same freedom. As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s the philosophy behind the Three Bite Rule in our house. When I make something new for dinner, my children have to try three bites. If they don’t like it, then they may have something else, usually a peanut butter sandwich. My hope is that they’ll feel comfortable trying new things, safe in their ability to like what they like, and accepting of people who may like something different.

One day when BuzzFeed tells them they’re headed to Portland and their friends to Paris, I hope they’ll realize how much fun it will be to visit and how comforting to get back home.

Happy week.

****

Food | Week of April 7, 2014

How do I know that I do like bratwurst but do NOT like blutwurst? Yep, tried both. (Sorry, you’ll have to look it up. Writing the word is all I will ever have to say about blutwurst.)

When I’m planning our weekly dinners I try to blend things we all like with samplings of things that are new. For Bernard and me it’s more often a new recipe, something we haven’t tried. For the children, I’ll add a food they might not have tried and see how it goes. This week the modified Chicken Marbella (adapted from the classic Silver Palate recipe), fills the latter slot; I’ve never made it for my children. The cracked wheat salad fills the former slot; Bernard and I both like cracked wheat, but the recipe I’ll try is a new one.

baby lettuce

Grilled Sausage | Fresh Fruit | Cracked Wheat Salad

Grilling season never really ends in the South, but the onset of spring does usually make grilling more pleasant. I’ll grill a mix of fresh sausages (chicken and apple, traditional bangers, etc. – I like the selection at Fresh Market). This new recipe for cracked wheat salad looks pretty straightforward; I’ll use bulghur that cooks in about 20 minutes and will prepare it in the morning and refrigerate all day. Then, while sausage is on the grill, I’ll mix the salad. For fruit I’ll cut up strawberries and pears then toss in some blueberries.

Couscous Salad, Cafe Samovar Style

If you’re in Memphis then you may remember the great Russian restaurant on Union Avenue, Cafe Samovar. The food was delicious, the people friendly. I was very sad to see their doors close. If I had known they were leaving, I would have begged for a couple of recipes. Instead I’ve made close facsimiles of my favorites, this couscous salad among them. It’s an easy dinner, and a good light night to balance the previous night’s sausage and cracked wheat. To serve four, start by chopping a head of green leaf lettuce (you could also use romaine). In a very large bowl, combine the lettuce with 1-2 cups prepared couscous, chopped red onion (1/2-1 cup, depending on how strong the onion is), dried cranberries (1/2-1 cup, depending on how much you like them), chopped cilantro (1 bunch, or less if you’re not fond of cilantro), and some crumbled Feta or goat cheese. Toss everything together with a French-style vinaigrette (you’re probably a good doggie who makes it at home; I use Brianna’s). You can top with sliced poached chicken for a heartier meal (or shredded roast chicken from the grocery store, if you don’t feel like poaching some).

the incredible edible egg

Mini Omelettes | Spring Mix/Citrus Salad

Inspired by the visit to my sister’s house, we now make mini one-egg omelettes several times a week for breakfast. They’re fast, filling and delicious, and they’re not overwhelmingly egg-y like a traditional two or three egg omelette. Since breakfast for dinner is always a home run at our house, we’ll have these this week. If you’re making omelettes for four, you’ll have to go through the individual steps four separate times; don’t try beating four eggs in a large bowl and ladling out what you think is just one egg’s worth. Voice of experience; trust me. To make the perfect one-egg omelette, beat one egg (duh) in a small glass bowl using a wire whisk, not a fork. Heat butter in a small, heavy stainless skillet. When butter is melted, but before it browns, pour in the egg, tilting the pan until you have a perfect little circle. Let it cook, untouched, for about 30 seconds; lay a slice of cheese (we like Swiss) on top, if you like. Turn off the heat, cover the skillet, and leave it on the stove while you fetch a plate (maybe a minute). Lift the cover and, using a spatula, fold the omelette in half. Slide it out of the skillet and onto a plate. Repeat. Serve with a light, tangy spring salad (spring mix/mandarin oranges/almonds would be a good combination).

Modified Chicken Marbella | Haricots Verts | Cracked Wheat Salad

The original Silver Palate recipe for their classic dish Chicken Marbella is time consuming to prepare but really delicious. In 20 years of making it, I have created a simpler version that mirrors the original but is possible for a weeknight dinner: place 3 pounds of chicken breasts and thighs (I use boneless/skinless because that’s what I like) in a large glass bowl and cover with a marinade of white wine vinegar (1/2 c.), olive oil (1/2 c.), dried oregano (2 Tbsp.), fresh garlic (4-8 cloves, pressed), pitted prunes, halved (1/2 c.), capers (1/4-1/2 c. – mostly drained), green olives (1/4-1/2 c.), bay leaves (3-5), brown sugar or maple syrup (2 Tbsp.), and the juice from one large lemon. Stir to coat all of the chicken, cover tightly and put in refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight (you can do this in the morning before you head to work, or the night before). To prepare in a slow cooker, pour the entire contents of the bowl into your cooker and cook on low for about 6 hours. To prepare in an oven, remove the chicken pieces with a fork and place them evenly on a deep baking sheet or dish. Spoon marinade over the chicken and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes (depending on your oven and how thick your layer of chicken is – test a piece at 25 minutes). While chicken cools, coarsely chop a bunch of flat leaf parsley; sprinkle over chicken right before serving. Serve with simple steamed green beans and leftover wheat salad (or just a loaf of bread, if the cracked wheat salad is gone).

limesCarnitas with Salsa Verde | Corn Tortillas | Watermelon Popsicles

This is a good dinner to save for a weekend night as the pork takes about 45 minutes to cook. The carnitas recipe I like best is from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food (p359, if you have the book – which I recommend). Waters doesn’t post recipes through online sites like Epicurious, but here’s a link to another food blogger’s test of the recipe; the pictures are great illustrations. Follow them, and you won’t be disappointed. You won’t be disappointed in the book itself, either. Lots of Amazon readers like it, as do I. A basic salsa verde (fresh herbs, olive oil, garlic and salt in a Cuisinart) is on page 45. You can serve the carnitas as part of a taco bar with traditional accompaniments like fresh lime, shredded lettuce and sour cream (note that corn tortillas will be better companions than flour). As an alternative, you could serve just meat, salsa verde and tortillas, followed by fresh watermelon popsicles from the Mexican market. That’s what we like.

Whan that Aprille.

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Before I conjure a tale of a silly daddy, wrong assumptions, finding your strengths, and (of course) dinner, I’d like to offer a warm welcome to new followers and gratitude to the WordPress team for my second Freshly Pressed nod. Howdy and thanks!

Now, full steam ahead, eh? On y va.

farm field

In my growing-up house the division of labor between my parents was pretty clear. My mother, an English major with a Master of Arts in communication who owned a children’s clothing store, was responsible for helping with reading, writing, and training bra shopping. For math, science and jungle gym assembly, my sister and I turned to our UVa engineer dad who worked as a general contractor. There was very little crossover or competition, although my mother did once tackle the math lesson of sets and subsets, using oranges, apples and lemons, because my father wasn’t very visual and didn’t understand the need for lesson props.

So imagine my surprise one night at dinner when I was telling my mother we’d started reading Canterbury Tales and Daddy busted out (technical term) with a sing-song:

Whan that Aprill-y with his sure-ah SOOT-ah

The DRUCCCHHTT of March hath pear-said TOE the ROTE-AH!

He continued, his delivery as dramatic as a man channeling a demon spirit. He was delighted with himself both for his sharp recollection of the words and for his colorful performance.

Until that point I really didn’t think Daddy, the math and science guy, had read anything other than Ian Fleming. But before he was a misbehaving Cavalier, my father was a misbehaving teenager dispatched to boarding school in Bell Buckle, TN. In keeping with the school’s mission to educate “accurate scholars,” the curriculum included required memorization of many verses, the prologue to Canterbury Tales among them. (Apparently Canterbury Tales was a big hit with Daddy and his mates because they were all clever enough to recognize the gross and dirty parts even written in Middle English. Boys.)

After the Canterbury Tales debut, Margaret and I saw a new dimension to our parents’ divided buckets of expertise, even if we didn’t realize it consciously. Daddy became the go-to tutor for memorization tests, including the ones in English class. Mama evolved into the expert on interpretation and perspective, often required for science assignments.

Sometimes to see your strengths, or those of other people, you have to look through a different prism. A year ago Bernard, for example, would have told you he was a terrible cook, that culinary wizardry was my purview. I can open the pantry and freezer, take a quick inventory, and create dinner from (in his view) thin air. He cannot. He is, however, exceedingly good at following directions. If a preparation calls for precision, Bernard’s actually your guy, which is why he prepares the meal when I want to test a new recipe. So he is a good cook, just in a different way.

How about you, traveler? As you dust off the vestiges of this long cold winter, why not take a fresh look at yourself, maybe from a new angle? What special talents do others seek out in you? What are your true strengths? Find them, and maybe they’ll take you on a journey you didn’t expect. Make them into a good tale and you might even win a free meal, you Canterbury pilgrim you.

Happy week.

*****

flowers make the meal complete

Farmers Market, you’re just around the corner. I CANNOT WAIT until your gates reopen so we can have fresh spinach and peas. Alas for now, we’ll continue to go Krogering….

In the spirit of honoring strengths, this week features four tried-and-true favorites that I can make without thinking and a new recipe for creamy leek soup. Both the spinach/potato/chicken and the flank steak/wild rice meals are easy to make in larger quantities if you’re the leftovers-for-lunch kind of family.

Farmer's market, January 2013Garlic Spinach | Roasted New Potatoes | Grilled Chicken

I know it’s heresy, but I prefer making garlic spinach with frozen spinach (thawed). While the spinach is thawing (microwave or stove top), warm some crushed garlic in a bit of olive oil (I sometimes add red pepper flakes, too). Add the thawed spinach and stir. For a heartier dish, add a beaten egg to the spinach, stirring constantly as you pour the egg into the greens. Salt to taste. Top with grated Parmesan. Spinach can sit on the stove or counter until everything else is ready. 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. While the potatoes are roasting, grill a couple of chicken breasts, which are always better if marinated beforehand but just fine with a little salt and pepper if you’re having a disorganized day.

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, is the perfect complement for the meal.

Risotto Primavera | Watercress Salad

If you’ve been reading here for a while then you know that I’m not a devout recipe follower. When I make a spring risotto I typically use whatever I’m in the mood for, which almost always includes green peas and prosciutto. This recipe from Bon Appétit, which I was happy to find on Epicurious because the cut-out in my aging recipe journal didn’t include the original source, is a good one if you don’t want to wing it. You can use canned artichokes instead of preparing them yourself. The directions in the recipe are really good and clear, though, if you’ve always wanted to tackle a real artichoke but have been afraid to try. Fresh watercress was one of the few joys for me associated with having to spend every weekend of my youth in a cabin on the Spring River where snakes and brown recluse spiders roam free. If you can’t find watercress yet (it’s just coming into season), you can substitute arugula or any other young peppery green to counter the sweet risotto. If you do luck upon it, here’s a simple recipe for preparing.

the mintCreamy Potato Leek Soup | Berries with Mint

No, my people probably won’t eat this, although I do have new hope since Bernard was so fond of the celery soup a couple of months ago. This recipe is actually pretty similar to that one. I’ll serve with some fresh berries tossed in a pinch of sugar and chopped mint from the yard (yes, the mint is already up and about, but the picture is from last summer).

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 (Bernard), there are literally hundreds of chimichurri recipes online. 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.

 

Sex, poop and periods.

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in the woods

If you were born after 1980 then you may have a hard time believing what I’m about to tell you; but I wouldn’t lie to you, especially not about this:

Once upon a time, in my lifetime, it was taboo to talk about breasts. There were no self-exam posters on gym locker room walls; there were no “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirts. Boobs were off limits, whether called by their formal or informal name. Breasts were considered private parts, requiring cover and secrecy, unless you were one of those bad girls who nice boys weren’t allowed to go out with even though those same boys had different kinds of bad girl breast self-examination posters in their bedrooms.

You may take issue with the Komen Foundation for missteps in recent years, but you have to give credit where credit’s due. Because of Komen’s long public advocacy, we’re now able to talk about breasts, breast care and breast cancer without blushing or feeling shame, which is good news for everyone, especially women.

The bad news is that there are still plenty of other taboos that cut off what could otherwise be helpful dialogue. We’ll scarcely say even their common names, much less their formal ones. Seriously, would you be reading this right now if the title had been “Intercourse, Feces and Menstruation?” Of course not, and that’s just fine. Rose by any other name, blah blah blah. Whatever we call them, we need to acknowledge that some things in life are no less real, important or worthy of discussion just because they’re awkward.

Today we’ll talk about three of life’s realities that need unshackling from the shame shed. You already know what they are; I’ll be quick about the first two so maybe you guys (and I literally mean the guys) will stick around for the part about sex, which I’m saving for last.

Every four weeks (or so) healthy girls and women between the ages of puberty and menopause have periods, unless their uterine linings are supporting fertilized eggs (a reminder that we’re working toward a discussion about sex). The end.

If a woman speaks sharply to you, it’s more likely because you were an idiot than that she’s having her period. Yes, fluctuating hormone levels can increase irritability; but dismissing a comment you don’t like by saying “she must be having her period” is just insulting. And don’t for a second think only men make comments like that. Gals, you know you do it too, and you know it’s insulting, and you know it’s just not right, so quit it.

If you are a parent of a girl age 10-14, please do everyone a favor and watch the Camp Gyno video with her. Laugh about it, put the word “period” in the bank of normal words, agree that periods are part of life, and move on. Your daughter has important things to do with her life, and being ashamed about the period no one wants to talk about is just going to get in her way. If you’re the parent of boys, they also need to know that girls have periods and that periods are as basic a part of life as balancing the checkbook at the end of the month. Capiche?

See, that wasn’t so bad. This won’t be either.

As much as you fellas don’t like talking about periods, you seem to love talking about poop. It’s all fine and dandy for you guys (and again, I literally mean the guys) to joke about the bounty of your daily output, but the ladies? Forget it. We’re far too dainty and polite to discuss solid waste elimination, its frequency or composition. And we all still snicker and blush at the words anus and rectum.

Here’s a true story: my mother, a very ladylike and educated Southern woman with access to good healthcare, was too embarrassed to discuss her bottom and what came out of it with her own doctor. For five or six years she talked very obliquely about her symptoms but shied away from ever describing in detail what was happening with her body because the parts that were having trouble were too impolite to mention, even to her primary care physician. Her gynecologist was finally the one who identified that she had colon cancer, that’s how long things went unattended.

Everybody poops; there’s even a book about it. Those of us with intact colons all do it the same way, hopefully every day (but please, if you can wait, not in the shared bathroom at work). If you start noticing something out of the ordinary with your poop or your pooping parts, please talk to your doctor about it – directly, specifically and in detail. If you have trouble working up the courage just think about how much I wish I could laugh at the Camp Gyno video with my mother if only she hadn’t been so shy and ladylike.

Still with me? Ok, let’s talk about the other thing that we all do, I suppose some even daily, although surely you people must be tired.

Last week my friend Dan Conaway posted this great rant about the Tennessee General Assembly’s House vote, 69-17, to condemn University of Tennessee students who organized Sex Week, a week of events intended to bring the issues surrounding sex, its implications and consequences into open dialogue. The debacle even made the Huff Post.

As Dan is quick to remind us, it’s not news that humans have been having sex since the dawn of civilization. All those Begats in the Old Testament? Sex. Every last one of them.

In the last several years we publicly chaste book-buying readers somehow made E.L. James the bestselling author in British history, but we still can’t say S-E-X by name outright without feeling we’ve said a bad word. (For those of you living under a rock, E.L. James is the author of 50 Shades of Grey, “an unreadable soft core pornographic novel written as a fan fiction tribute to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, which, by comparison, reads like Dostoevsky,” according to my beloved Daily Pessimist.)

We’ll whisper the letters S-E-X when we don’t want the children to know what’s in the movie they can’t watch, even though those same children can very well see the multitude of public billboards displaying every enticement and consequence related to S-E-X, from adoption and abortion to gentlemen’s clubs and syphilis.

Not sure you want to include sex as a regular dinner table topic? No worries. But there are at least three crucial conversations that you must be willing to have, openly and without delay when the time comes.

1. If you are a parent, you must talk to your pre-adolescent/adolescent/teenage children about sex. At the risk of offending all the earnest parenting blog world parents, I’ll go on a limb and suggest that it doesn’t really matter whether you talk about the penis and vagina or the ding-dong and the hoo-ha as long as you are having an honest and respectful dialogue with your child that takes the word sex out of the forbidden zone and into safe conversation.

You must talk about what you want your children to know as they grow into people who will actually have sex, too. No, leaving a book on their bedside tables doesn’t count. Yes, you can outsource the actual content delivery to your neighbor who’s raised four healthy and well-adjusted children; but you’ll have to make it a threesome because you need to be right there with your own child while your neighbor shares the good news. Yes, you did sign up for this, precisely at the moment you were having sex mid-ovulation cycle. Now be the grown up, name it, and have the talk.

2. If you are having sex and don’t like what’s happening, then you must speak up. Your body is yours, and sex should be a partnership built on trust and respect. Words are essential if your partner is taking you outside your comfort zone without your agreement. If what you don’t like requires just a minor adjustment, however, I might suggest looking for words other than “no, you idiot, not there,” as those particular words are unlikely to have the desired effect.

3. If you are having sex and it hurts, make an appointment with your doctor. Trust me, he or she has had more conversations about sex than you could ever imagine, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. (S)he won’t even snicker when you say ding-dong and hoo-ha because you still struggle with the proper names. If you are hurting, you may have an issue that requires medical attention – might not be any big deal, but it might.  (Wo)man up and talk to the doc.

Why lies beyond these three sex basics? Well, there are probably another hundred worthy conversations any of us (all of us) could have related to sex, sexual politics, sexual health, and cultural norms. Start by getting comfortable with the word, and see where that leads you. Who knows, once you’re able to name it out loud, you might find it’s not nearly as big a deal as you thought. Just like poop and periods. And breasts.

*******

This post was written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Power of Names. For tips on writing and blogging, visit wordpress.com.

A lesson for my love.

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a box of chocolate

My dear, sweetest daughter,

I see the day, coming like a freight train, when you will morph from geeky adolescence into a girl who cares about Valentine’s Day in an entirely new way. In a blink there you’ll be, sorting through matters of the heart and deciding on your own who is and isn’t worthy of your affection.  How will you know?

When I was your age my good friend’s family had a maid named Fanny. I know you’re shocked that I’ve written “maid” and not “housekeeper,” but it was Memphis in the 1970s and she would have introduced herself as their maid, not their housekeeper. As I’ve told you many times, we can’t change what happened before only what happens next. Anyway, Fanny loved to watch her stories (soap operas) while she ironed. After school or in summers my friend and I would watch them with her, swept up in the romance and intrigue. “Men,” Fanny would sputter, as the story portrayed some two-timing ne’er-do-well.  “They’re hardly worth the trouble.”

One day, during a particularly dramatic story, Fanny turned to us point-blank and offered this: “When you get married, just make sure that he loves you a little bit more than you love him, because, child, your love will grow.”

At the time this seemed sound advice, sound if not exciting. But even armed with the best advice, a girl’s gotta make her own mistakes and nurture her own wisdom. So I filed that advice away and shoved blindly ahead.

The boys I chased and who chased me in the years between hearing Fanny’s advice and marrying Dad, well, I’ll tell you that they covered a broad spectrum of ages, interests and appearances, and I’ll leave it at that. A few of them met Fanny’s criteria, but most of them did not.  The few who did were sweet but boring, and I doubt even Fanny would have voted on their behalf.

Then I met your father, who was (and still is) anything but boring.  He was, as you know, the best man in your aunt Margaret’s wedding, and I was the maid of honor.  At the end of the wedding ceremony, your father wanted me to skip with him, arm in arm, down the aisle and out the big, formal oak doors.  I chided him for being inappropriate; he teased me for being prissy. As I write this, 18 years later, I am still routinely chiding him for being inappropriate, and he is still routinely teasing me for being prissy.

What I liked first about your father, to be perfectly honest, was that he was handsome.  What I liked second, and within seconds of meeting him, was that he didn’t take himself or life too seriously.

He was the guy who would lose at pool on purpose to keep from rankling a hyper-competitive opponent (my brother-in-law).

He was the guy who sent a string of postcards from Ireland, each with a cryptic clue (lines from Van Morrison songs) to help me guess when he was coming back to the States.

He was the guy who rescued Ella-dog from under the ice ledge in the Snake River, who tried in vain 18 times to teach me to ski, and who made me his special enchiladas the night before my father died.

He was the guy who decided, after several years of long distance dating, to come to Memphis and “see what’s going on” even though hot, humid, roach-infested, mountainless, Southern Mafia-filled Memphis had precisely one thing to offer him: me.

I’ve been wondering for a few years now how to sum up what was different about your dad from the other contenders, what special quality in him told me he was the one.  And while I do think that he might once have loved me a little bit more than I loved him, I know now that love and marriage are not contests.  There’s no one winner, no player with the upper hand.  It just doesn’t work that way.

Love is complicated and messy.  It rarely listens to advice.  It is vast and overwhelming.  It does not lend itself to simple truths or one-line quips.  But I promise you this: you’ll know it when you see it.

And if sometimes it seems unclear, here’s one pithy piece of advice from your mother, my addition to Fanny’s guidance that you may file away and use at your choosing:

Lovers will buy you sex toys, boyfriends will buy you lingerie, but a husband will buy you tampons.  And if he’s super special he’ll draw funny pictures on the outside of the box.

May you always cherish yourself and be cherished in return, my girl.

love,

Mom

****

This post was written in response to the WP Weekly Writing Challenge: My Funny Valentine.  To learn more about blogging with WordPress visit wordpress.com.

Work like a dog.

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The Wolfman Yoda dance

You’ll think this is a post about dogs because, well, mostly it’s a story about a dog (though not the dog in the picture; he’s new). But it’s actually about how to listen to yourself, not the pressures around you, as you work and grow and achieve great things. Later, of course, it will be about dinner, and since this week we’ll be having salads followed by dessert every night, you may want to stick around and see how that works.

If you’ve been with me for a while, then you’ll remember Ella-dog, my first dog companion. Ella was majorly black Lab and minorly Other (we said the minor part was border collie when she was good and coyote when she was bad). Because I got Ella before I got Bernard, Ella slept on the bed with me. She nestled in the crook of my knee and scarcely moved from lights out until dawn. In the daytime she loved going to the park to retrieve tennis balls from the lake.

Better said, she loved chasing them until she didn’t. She’d retrieve a dozen or so with exploding enthusiasm. Then without any warning, she’d watch as I hurled the ball toward the water and shrug off in another direction instead of going to fetch it. I tried to spot signs that the shrug was coming, but Ella was a trickster and I’d invariably have to appeal to another dog walker to send his or her retriever into the lake to fetch Ella’s last ball. When she was on, she was on. When she shut off, there was no bringing her back.

Shortly after I moved to Omaha my sister, her husband and I met up in the Black Hills for a camping weekend. Those of you who know me in real life are wondering if I am making this up, because you know that my idea of camping is a weekend at the Four Seasons. Yes, I’ve twice been camping, meaning that I slept in a real sleeping bag in a real tent in the great outdoors. This particular weekend was the first of the two times. There will be no third time.

EllaAnyway, I brought Ella with me, and my sister brought her dog, Dayla. We arrived at the camp site on Friday afternoon, set up tents, let the dogs play in the water while we cooked hamburgers and drank beer, and then went to bed. During the night Ella leveraged her position at my knee to maneuver me off the Therm-a-Rest and onto the ground. I woke, reclaimed my territory and went back to sleep. Four times. I like dogs. I do not like camping.

The next morning we rose early to hike Harney Peak. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not hot. After several slugs of coffee and some stretching, I felt almost human again. We arrived at the trailhead around 9:00, leashed the dogs (not what they were accustomed to, but a trail requirement), and headed out.

We were all in pretty good shape in those days. We were seven-day-a-week exercisers and high achievers in our day jobs. We had drive and stamina, and so did our dogs.

We marched at a good clip. Halfway up, the dogs started panting. We gave them water and pushed on. By the time we reached the top, they were pooped. We lingered a bit, took some pictures, then turned around. The trip down took forever. It seemed like the dogs needed to rest every 10 minutes, which was strange because they had been our frequent companions on harder, steeper hikes at the higher elevation in Jackson, where we all lived before I moved to Omaha. At one point they actually plopped down in the middle of the trail and refused to walk any farther, so we moved to the side and all took a little break.

When we got back to the camp, the dogs went straight to our tents and passed out. They were still wiped out the next morning when we packed up to head  home. Ella slept through the drive and wasn’t much peppier come Monday morning, so I called the vet to see what damage I’d done.

“You had her on a leash?” the vet asked. Yes, I told him, it was required. “You know, dogs aren’t really made for 10 miles straight at four miles an hour,” he said. “They sprint and they rest; they run and then stroll. They’re actually better at pacing themselves than we are.” Hour-long brisk walks or 30 minute jogs were fine for a leashed dog, he advised, unless the weather was too hot. For anything more strenuous I could find an off-leash venue, let Ella lead the pace, or leave her at home, my choice.

Our brown beastsWe humans, particularly in the U.S., fail astonishingly at listening to our inner pace monitors. We push ourselves, our children, our employees. We push until we’re so exhausted we either get sick or check out for a few days to recharge. When we do think about balance, we often try to schedule the intervals: run here, walk here, recover there (but not for too long).

How much more could we accomplish, and how much happier would we be, if we worked like dogs instead of humans?

Those bright mornings when we woke full of energy and vigor, we’d race like hell and enjoy every minute. Then when we were tired of retrieving soggy yellow tennis balls, we wander a different path, smell some different smells, think some new thoughts. Sometimes we’d rest. And if anyone dragged us around on a leash beyond our capacity to keep pace, we’d flop down and refuse to get up until things got better. Ah, the dog’s life.

This week our four current dogs (yes four, we’re nuts) are busy eating tender spring grass shoots that are finally appearing in our yard. This is not help-me-throw-up kind of grass eating but rather a spring ritual and odd delicacy for the canine palate. I can’t really blame them; I’m exactly that excited about the tender young arugula and lettuces growing on our porch.

To celebrate the end of a long crummy winter, and in honor of a dog’s life, we’re going to have salads followed by dessert all week. We’ll start with my favorite pairing, arugula salad/chocolate soufflé, and work our way toward spinach salad/lemon mousse. I promise, it’s an easy and delightful way to mark the start of a new season. With big servings of greens and modest servings of dessert, it’s also more balanced than you might think.

Happy week. May you wag more than you woof.

*********

seedlings 2014Arugula Salad | Chocolate Soufflé

Soufflés are much, much easier than you think they are, I promise. And if you’ll give up on the picture in your head of that perfect magazine shot, you’ll be much happier with your results. The are plenty of recipes online, but it you’re looking for something a bit different I recommend this one from Saveur or, if you have her book At Home in Provence, Patricia Wells’s Chocolate Gourmandise (p. 300). For the salad, I will literally toss baby arugula in Brianna’s French vinaigrette and top with shaved Parmesan. C’est tout.

Caesar Salad | Vanilla Ice Cream with Bordeaux Cookies

Once upon a time my children, when asked what they wanted for dinner, would respond “chicken fingers and apples.” They’re much more agreeable these days, but they still love a simple kid-friendly dinner. This is the new alternative: a plain Caesar salad, followed by vanilla ice cream (we like the 100% natural Turkey Hill vanilla bean – or salted caramel) and Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies.

Arucana eggsChopped Salad | Crêpes with Nutella

Although cucumbers and bell peppers won’t be in high season for several months, I’m buying the imported ones from the grocery because chopped salad isn’t really good without them. I chop the cukes (peeled and seeded), peppers, red onion, and carrots, toss them all together and serve with ginger dressing over a bed of crisp lettuce or shaved green cabbage. Crêpes are another intimidating-sounding food, easier to prepare than you think, although a bit trickier than soufflés. This recipe from Alton Brown/Food Network is a good starting place. Letting the batter rest for an hour is, in my experience, essential. Kids have fun helping with the cooking; they also like licking the Nutella spoon.

Pear & Walnut Salad | Lace Cookies with Berries & Whipped Cream

If you’re short on time or don’t like to bake, you can substitute any cookie (or none at all) for the lace cookies. But I do love lace cookies, and my all time favorite recipe is from Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open House Cookbook. Here’s the link to the Google books version, if you want to give it a try. If not, then just wash some berries, whip some cream, and be happy. The salad, at our house anyway, is sliced pears, chopped walnuts, and green leaf lettuce with crumbled Gorgonzola on the side because my silly people are in denial about how good Gorgonzola is. For dressing I’ll make a simple balsamic vinaigrette (or use Newman’s).

lemon mousseSpinach Salad | Lemon Mousse

My tattered recipe journal, christened in 1988 and now held together by rubber bands, opens with a lemon mousse recipe from Bon Appétit created by Michael McLaughlin (RIP, Michael McLaughlin). It’s labor intensive and requires a careful hand in cooking. I mention it so you’ll know how long I’ve loved lemon mousse. I found an easier, very similar recipe on Food Network that’s good, although not as rich. The mousse can chill while you’re making and eating a simple spinach salad, with or without eggs, red onion, bacon and mandarin oranges (why on earth would you make it without, though?).

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