Look 5 lbs. thinner in just 10 minutes.

a minute after midnight 2014

So, yeah, it will be a proverbial 5 pounds. But I promise you’ll feel lighter, like a weight has lifted, and others will see it.

A couple of fellow bloggers (Tales from the Motherland and Musing Off the Mat) posted comments to my piece from last Saturday, 50 happy things from 2014, letting me know they were going to write lists of their own. Then at dinner with friends last night, a couple of women told me they’d given their husbands the challenge – that it was just the ticket for a grumpy afternoon.

Dawn at Tales from the Motherland suggested (I agree!) that we should make this “a thing,” that we should encourage other bloggers, followers and friends to build a flood of gratitude with this simple writing challenge:

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes (or any other amount of time you like, but 10 would be a good starting place).
  • Write as many good things from 2014 as you can remember. If you need something to jog your memory, take a minute to look through your photo stream or day planner.
  • Don’t worry about how many things you can list, just write. If you get stuck, write something like “having warm water” or “not running out of toilet paper yesterday” – anything to keep your brain going.
  • Don’t feel like sitting alone to write just your stuff? Do it as a family or group of friends over dinner. Set the timer and start talking. Record it, if you want, or ask one person to scribe.

Feeling better already, eh? (Be gone, 5 lbs., be gone!) How about sharing the idea with others so they’ll feel better too? And if you feel like sharing your list, post a link in the comments below.

Happy writing. And special thanks to The Daily Post for the 10 minute free-write prompt last week that got me started on this year’s look back. It’s been a great year.

50 (ish) happy things from 2014.

summer camp 2014

This time last year, on a particularly stressful day, I challenged myself to a 30 minute free write. My task was to list, in no particular order, as many good things from 2013 as I could remember. Before I got to 10 I was feeling better and building momentum. By the end I was at number 50 and almost weepy with gratitude, the insignificant hiccups of the day a distant memory.

2014 had plenty of ups and downs, laughs and challenges alike, with much to be thankful for, all the way around. When Thursday’s  daily writing prompt was a 10 minute free-write, I knew it was time to repeat the drill, so I took a few breaths to get in the right frame of mind, set a timer and hit Go. I suppose having done this last year gave me a bit of preparation, so it was easy to cross the 50 mark by the time the alarm sounded. Again this year, as last, writing the list filled me with appreciation. And again this year, I could easily have kept going after the allotted time ended. (Yes, I did clean up the list afterward; if you saw the original scribble, well, just trust me that it needed a bit of tidying. And pictures.)

Having a less than perfect day? Give this exercise a try. You’ll feel better in no time, I pinkie swear.

50 Happy Things from 2014

  1. Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize.
  2. Teaching myself to make macarons, and filling them with bittersweet chocolate ganache.
  3. Starting the year with sparklers in the front yard.a minute after midnight 2014
  4. Completing 52 straight weeks of #postaweek.
  5. Finishing the dining room chair painting project.dining room table
  6. Cory Booker’s “Selfies with Senators” photo campaign.
  7. A tennis party on my birthday, complete with champagne and Philip Ashley chocolates, thanks to some wonderful girlfriends.Delta Sol Zinnias July 2014
  8. Well deserved recognition and accolades for Soldier Girls, a terrific book by my friend Helen Thorpe.
  9. The Car Talk tribute to Tommy.
  10. The Skimm, the best daily news brief ever, delivered right to your email inbox.
  11. Going to Julia Reed’s reading/book signing on the spur of the moment with my friend Marjorie.Julia Reed book signing
  12. #likeagirl
  13. #EverySimpsonsEver
  14. Watching my daughter learn to play the upright bass.
  15. Not paying for haircolor.
  16. Tennessee Brewery Untapped. Tennessee Brewery April 2014
  17. “Dear Mom, I know you love me, even when you’re mad at me.” (Mother’s Day note)
  18. Making chocolate soufflé with my fellow cooking gal pals.
  19. The galvanized tub that has become the neighborhood kids’ fire pit & gathering spot.
  20. Being picked by Hipstamatic for my Thanksgiving Day “Have a Carrot” pic.red and orange carrots
  21. Paddleboarding for the first time (to my kids’ disbelief).girl on paddleboard september 2014
  22. The Bitter Southerner membership drive.
  23. Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York UN tour.
  24. Picking out new bikes for my children’s birthdays and watching them race around the neighborhood.neighborhood bike brigade
  25. The Beta Club induction ceremony.
  26. Finding a New Orleans chef in Plover, Wisconsin.
  27. Staying at the Hotel Monteleone.hotel monteleone
  28. She’s Come Undone, by Wally Lamb (if you haven’t read it, make sure to get the 20th anniversary edition and read the forward).
  29. Fun blogging friends, including Michelle, Jen, Ray, Dawn, Wendy, and Roger.
  30. Front porch crafting.beading project
  31. #JaxStrong and the McCulley family, whose tiny, fragile baby inspired a multitude of blood donors.
  32. Taking a mother son trip to Sacramento.
  33. Seeing dear Harriet, my sweet neighbor who moved away, while we were there.Our good neighbor
  34. Anne Lamott.
  35. Jeanne Shaheen.
  36. Garlic scapes.garlic May 2014
  37. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen.
  38. Being Freshly Pressed twice in one year (for this post and this post).
  39. Wanting to write something good about my hometown, sitting down to do it, and being overwhelmed by the great reader response.
  40. Ski Welsh Village.I Ski Unca-Nard
  41. Bramble cocktails.
  42. Bernard’s quitting the FedEx night shift.
  43. Awesome, now a code word among friends who follow my blog.
  44. Sorting through my mother’s books.decorating with books
  45. Being driven around Houston by a cab driver from Bethlehem, the real Bethlehem, and talking about figs, olives, farms and family.
  46. My Paris Kitchen.
  47. Figuring out the secret to Stouffer’s Spinach Souffle (hint: nutmeg).
  48. 40 Hours at Bratton Green.southern solace
  49. My son’s asking to buy a collared shirt instead of my forcing him to wear one. (teenage boy and his buddies head to a boy/girl dance, and the world changes entirely).victory huddle 2014
  50. Last minute getaway to Nashville over Labor Day weekend to see my sister and her family.
  51. Seeing a real goldfinch in the school garden.The Goldfinch
  52. Having a brand new Fresh Market store in my neighborhood.
  53. My bountiful basil harvest.basil 2014
  54. My equally bountiful green onion harvest.
  55. Morning Edition’s new book club.
  56. Fruit, almost fully ripe, on my Meyer lemon tree. Finally.

Lemon blossomHappy week.

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Food | Week of December 15, 2014

les fromagesNothing fancy this week, and nothing you haven’t seen here before. Go with what works, I say, and leave the stress behind.

And speaking of stress relief, I’d say a suitable alternative, any night, is a cheese plate with some fresh whole grain bread. And wine. Or sparkling pomegranate juice. And maybe a tiny bit of dark chocolate.

Simple Pasta with Meat Sauce (adapted from Marcella Hazan’s recipe)

If you’re a fan of the weeknight Bolognese recipe that I’ve shared several times, then you’ll like this (and it’s super easy): Sauté an onion (chopped or finely chopped) in some olive oil until onion is soft.  Add a pound of ground veal or turkey and cook until all of the meat is browned.  Add a can of diced tomatoes and a bit of tomato paste, only if you have a can or tube open (it’s not essential).  Cook until liquid is mostly evaporated, about 10 minutes.  Stir in 1-2 Tbsp. butter.  Serve over wide noodles (pappardelle or No Yolks dumplings) paired with a simple green salad.

Tandoori Spiced Chicken | Basmati Rice | Carrot Salad

carrotsNeed a fragrant, cozy dinner to settle your hustle-bustle schedule? This is a good one, and not nearly as hard to prepare as you’ll think: Tandoori Spiced Chicken, the Basmati rice and mustard seed pilaf, and carrot salad.

Creamy Parmesan Polenta | Roasted Butternut Squash | Garlic Roasted Cauliflower

Time for the old reliable, Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?  In case you don’t have the book, all of the recipes are available through the Food Network; here are the links:  Creamy Parmesan polenta, roasted butternut squash, garlic roasted cauliflower. An alternative would be some roasted winter root vegetables – parsnips and turnips are better than you think, especially when tossed in good olive oil, roasted in a hot oven until they just start to brown, and then sprinkled with kosher salt.

Bangers & Mash

This dinner is as easy as breakfast for dinner, and just at well-loved at our house.  I usually buy bangers at Fresh Market and use Yukon Gold potatoes.  Any chicken or veal sausage will work, and here’s a recipe for Ina’s mashed potatoes if you need one.  I serve with a variety of mustards, although, as you know, my kids will always ask for ketchup.

lettuceCheese Ravioli | Garlic Spinach

When the going gets tough, the tough buy ready-to-serve.  Cheese ravioli fits the bill perfectly when there’s no time to cook.  If you’re super ambitious and have extra time on your hands (seriously?), cheese ravioli is surprisingly easy to make.  This recipe from Food & Wine is similar to the techniques in Marcella Hazan’s books.  It’s less than two weeks until Christmas, so I’ll buy Contadina.  I usually just toss it in butter and top with a bit of grated cheese instead of using sauce.  I will make the garlic spinach, at least.  Here’s Ina’s recipe for that, if you need one. And another green salad is always a good idea, especially during peppermint bark and salted caramel latte season.

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All words and images belong to me, Jennifer Balink. Want to borrow? Please ask first.

The book tree.

decorating with books

family room bookshelfThe first Christmas we were together in Memphis, before we were married, before we had children, Bernard gave my mother a puppet named Book Worm that he purchased from a local bookstore. Book Worm was a green velvet – well, book, with a place to put your finger in the underside so when you opened the front flap you could wiggle the bookworm. I’d show you a picture, but I put Book Worm in a safe place and now can’t find him. You get the idea, I’m sure.

Book Worm was the perfect gift for my mother because my mother was a book hoarder. Our house was the Hotel California for books, as had been both of my grandparents’ houses before us. Crappy Nicholas Evans book, received as a get-well gift? Keeping it. Dog chewed the spine off Webster’s Dictionary? Yep, keeping it, too.

the big book unpackingWhen my mother died, almost a decade ago, I inherited all of her books, including the books she’d inherited from her in-laws when my father’s parents died. Bernard would be quick to tell you this was an endowment I did not need, as I was already solidly book-hoarding in my own right. The four books in the Twilight series? You betcha, read ‘em and kept ‘em. Ditto the entire Sookie Stackhouse series. No, I don’t know why. It’s a sickness, and that’s the end of it. Though guilt did prompt me to donate a couple of popular fiction books to the library. Once.

I hung onto all of my mother’s books partly through instinct, partly for sentimental reasons, and mostly because, just before she died, my mother whispered to Bernard, “Don’t let Jennifer take all the books to Goodwill; some of them are very valuable.”

For almost a decade now my mother’s books, valuable and not, have rested in boxes packed by Bernard and our friend Louie because we all agreed that having relative strangers pack my mother’s belongings, especially the books, was the most efficient and expeditious way to do things. Otherwise I’d probably still be in a corner of my mother’s house re-reading the juicy bits from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

On January 1 of this year I decided that the books must be dealt with before year’s end; the baggage was simply too heavy. So I spent New Year’s Day moving 104 boxes from their sunroom resting place into our living room, right out in the middle of everything, thinking that if they were in the way of our everyday living then I’d be more likely to deal with them.

It took me a couple of hours to move all the boxes and then six hours to get through the very first box I opened, the one that held my mother’s 1963 date book and all of the letters between my father and her during Mama’s stint as PR manager for the Maid of Cotton tour.

decorating with booksSo the other 103 boxes sat there, on the floor of the living room, until October when my children were on fall break and I took a week off from work. Carefully, diligently, I unpacked every single box, stacking the books wherever there was an open surface. I stacked them without much of any attempt at sorting, other than to consider some basic laws of balance and physics.

From October until last week I’ve wondered, “What now?”

I should catalog them somehow, list them for inventory purposes. That’s what I should do, alphabetical by author’s last name:

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours.

Davidson, Sara. Loose Change.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

But if sorted them that way then “Peters, Tom. Liberation Management.” might end up next to “Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.” Ironic, but probably not appropriate.

I could look up their library call numbers, label each book by unique identifier so they would be sorted by genus and species, as it were:

Mayle, Peter. Chasing Cezanne. followed by McEwan, Ian. Atonement.

Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times Cookbook. followed by Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times International Cookbook. Or would their call numbers be separated because of geography? Never could understand the Dewey Decimal System.

Anyway that would be conventional, but boring. And what about the old books? What would I do with my grandfather’s set of Harvard Classics, the book set he bought to reward himself after working as a night janitor to pay for law school? And what about the 1886 Anna Karenina, which, to be honest, is just beautiful to look at?

No, we are not The Library, and we never will be. Nor are we The Rare Books Room. Nor The Book Swap. Nor organized, catalog-writing, list-making inventory takers by any name.

We are book people who live among books, a wild, unsorted, illogical collection of books. Innumerable words, unfathomable stories.

our family books - a venn diagramAnd what narrative do our books tell about us? If we list them could they sum us up, start to finish? Would 100 items on the list be enough, cradle to grave, across generations? (I did try; here’s a look at the 100 books on the Balink family book list.) Would any list, no matter how long, show our full dimension, our loves and hopes and fears?

When I look at all the books, the decades on decades of accumulation, I see our whole family, like a complex Venn diagram. Books my mother and grandfather (father’s father) loved to share. Books we read as a family, my mother, father, sister and I. Books my mother and I both cherished, even if we never discussed them. And then there’s I Go Pogo, the book that lived on the table where my grandfather taught me to play gin rummy. Everyone in our family loved I Go Pogo, and we were all ruthless gin rummy players. Perhaps they go hand in glove.

But neither a list nor a diagram could capture my father’s poring over Robert F. Kennedy & His Times, Volumes I & II while my mother tucked into bed with Games Alcoholics Play. No list would know that A Wrinkle in Time jumped from 1979 to repeat itself with my own children in 2010. No schematic could predict that King Lear would foster a bud that would eventually reach for The Book Thief.

No, our collected books are more than a contained container of titles. They’re the organic roots of what we think, dream and believe. They take us to new places, help us imagine new realities, illuminate mistakes of generations past. They are more than chapter and verse. Through them we grow, we change, we evolve.

the book tree
The Balink family book tree

 

And that is how they’re now shelved, in an order only we would recognize.

Happy week, and cheers to all my St. Jude Memphis Marathon runner friends.

(This post was inspired, in part, by the weekly writing challenge Countdown. To learn more about writing challenges, prompts and blogging with WordPress, visit http://wordpress.com.)

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Food | Week of December 8, 2014

The book that someone, somewhere is writing right now tells of the unsettled times we’re living in. Someone, somewhere will make sense of it, I’m sure. Until then, I feel like eating grilled cheese sandwiches and curling up under a blanket. You? Right. So how about we have some easy comfort food this week and give ourselves extra time to think.

Grown-up Grilled Cheese | Winter Fruit Saladlimes

In theory, a grown-up grilled cheese sandwich calls for good cheese (Gouda, brie, extra-sharp Vermont cheddar), good bread (perhaps even brioche), and a bit of flair like bacon or basil. But if you want to make yours with Kraft American, mayonnaise, and Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse bread, no one around here would dare think ill of you. Serve with a side of this simple lime-spiked winter fruit salad (make a double batch), and you’ve got a balanced dinner.

African Peanut Soup | Jasmine Rice | Grilled Bread

This recipe from Real Simple is easy and tasty. I prefer jasmine rice, but any variety will do. Cook a double batch of rice so you can use the leftovers later in the week. Serve with grilled or toasted bread.

Linguine with Pesto | Winter Fruit Salad (again)

basil 2014Three options: buy some exceedingly expensive fresh basil from the store and make fresh pesto; harvest pesto from your freezer (that batch you made summer before last); or buy prepared pesto from the grocery. Any of the three will taste pretty much the same as the others, so suit yourself. Toss with some linguine and serve with the remainder of the fruit salad.

Blue Cheese Burgers | Oven Fries

Many groceries now sell prepared patties with blue cheese (or cheddar) in them. If you don’t want the cheese mixed into the meat, then here’s a recipe that should work for you (super easy). Serve with oven fries like Alexa sea salt waffle fries, my family’s current favorite.

Vegetable Fried Rice | Vanilla Ice Cream

Jo's CarrotsFried rice is really easy to make, and it’s also easy to vary according to your own preferences. Here’s a basic recipe from Real Simple that’s even faster if you use leftover rice instead of cooking the rice the same night you toss it with the veggies, oil and egg. If you use a good amount of vegetable matter, then you have a complete dinner; all you need is some vanilla ice cream for dessert, and everyone will be happy.

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All words and images here belong to me, Jennifer Balink, 2014. If you’d like to borrow, please ask.

A dog, a rat, and Thanksgiving.

The Jackal

Perhaps to keep us from falling into the abyss that is pre-Christmas commercial madness, here is a story about Thanksgiving that includes a dog, a rat and the frivolity of Starbucks. You should know up front that the dog dies and the rat escapes, but it’s really not a sad story, I promise.

In my family, Thanksgiving was always a big deal: formal meal, Sunday dress, fancy manners, lots of dishes that had to be washed by hand. When my parents divorced Thanksgiving became a double big deal, one meal with each parent, which became rather exhausting and more than a little stressful.

So the Thanksgiving after our son was born, Bernard and I decided to play the “new baby” card and claim a pass. Our plan was to spend the day at home in our pajamas. We would drink coffee with Baileys, watch the parade, eat grilled cheese (maybe with turkey), take naps, and relax. It’s the only reason we were home that day, there to receive our unexpected guest.

Our two Lab-ish dogs announced his arrival. They jumped onto the red front window seat cushion and began the tail-thumping, tongue-wagging happy dance that dogs do when they’re excited. This behavior was reserved for friendly visitors, so naturally we thought a family member had dropped by with treats. We looked out to find instead a small, mange-covered black and white puppy, sitting in the driveway, mirroring the wagging tails and happy dog smile.

As it was Thanksgiving morning and the shelter was closed, there was nothing to do but put him a kennel in the garage (with food and water, of course, and a blanket, or two, in case it got chilly). The next day we took him to our vet who confirmed the mange (“very contagious; you’ll have to keep him quarantined”) and offered a deep discount on neutering so he would be easier to place with a forever family. A family other than our family, that was the plan. We had two dogs and a baby, and we were just settling into a gentle family rhythm.

Tidbit 1I could tell you all the ins and outs of how Tidbit (a “tidbit” of a snack for our 120 lb. yellow Lab, Bernard said) became a member of our family. But most of the details are uninteresting and, in the end, unimportant. He allowed our infant son to crawl on his back and tug on his ears, and the other two dogs enjoyed him. Those were the things that mattered. And he was exceedingly clever – exponentially smarter than the incumbents.

One night after Tidbit graduated from quarantine, he made a show of understanding that dogs were not allowed in the kitchen. He was lying down properly, front paws touching the edge of the threshold between the dining room and the kitchen, nose between his paws, eyes alert. Whatever I was cooking that night required frequent trips to the refrigerator, and I saw him every time I walked by the open door. What a good dog he’ll be for someone, I thought.

Then, in a flash, on my fourth or fifth trip, he pounced. The leftover roast chicken was whisked away to the living room, plate clattering to the floor. He’d been plotting, timing my every door opening. As I said, he was exceedingly clever, even if he wasn’t well-mannered.

He was also exceedingly loud, at least when company arrived. While the Lab-ish dogs greeted guests with wags and slobber, Tidbit charged the door with a bark similar to hyena howls. He’d found his place, and he wasn’t about to let anyone threaten it. As a result we went from being the Sunday night cooking and gathering house to the one that required earplugs and protective gear.

The howling came in handy on morning runs, however. One day when we were out before sunrise Tidbit took off for the treeline, a jackal on the hunt. He emerged a few minutes later chasing a man who was desperately trying to pull up his pants while also trying to avoid the ferocious dog.

The Jackal

But the episode that really set Tidbit’s legacy was this:

One early morning, not long after we moved from our tiny farmhouse into the Money Pit, I heard Tidbit making an odd sound downstairs.

“I think there’s someone in our house,” I whispered to a happily snoring and oblivious Bernard. “Bernard! Wake up, dammit! There’s somebody downstairs, and I think Tidbit has him cornered.”

Reluctantly Bernard dragged himself out of bed, reached for the Mag-Lite, and padded down the stairs. He was back minutes later, hands held in front about 12 inches apart.

“What is it? What’s happening?!” I asked. In response he said nothing but emphasized the 12 inch spread of his hands.

“No. Tell me it’s not a rat. We do not have a rat in this house.”

Yes, we did have a rat. In our house. A 12 inch rat, tip to tail. And Tidbit had that damn rat cornered under the radiator in the den, no way to escape. He’d been there for a good while, long enough for a substantial puddle of drool to accumulate from all the excited panting. It was a rich tableau: Tidbit and the rat, eye to eye, still as statues.

In our pre-dawn haze we decided on a plan that, in hindsight, was clearly flawed. Bernard and Tidbit would hold the rat in situ. I would go to Walgreens and buy every kind of trap available – glue trap, snap trap, whatever. We would set the traps around the exposed perimeter of the radiator, drag Tidbit away, and let the traps do the rest. Honestly, at 4:30 in the morning it sounded reasonable.

I pulled a pair of fleece pants over my nightgown, threw on a jacket, headed to Walgreens, and bought every trap in the store. It was 4:59 a.m.

Since it was very cold and very early, and since we were surely not going to get back to bed, and since people are as distractible as dogs, I noticed that Starbucks next door had just turned on its lights. Coffee! I thought, as an otherwise heeling dog might think, Squirrel!

5 minutes too late, that’s what I was. I arrived home, bags and coffee in hand to hear Tidbit lapping water in the bathroom. “He made it as long as he could,” Bernard said, “but he needed water, and as soon as he moved the rat took off for the basement door. He’s g-o-n-e gone. What took you so long, anyway?”

Poor Tidbit, deprived of his prize, his one lifetime trophy, because of the addictive lure of Starbucks.

Clever and protective, wild and smelly, he never stopped earning his keep, fearing his welcome was only short term. In fact we really did keep trying to find him a home, in denial that his home was already found. We were his, and he was ours.Tidbit 2

Osteosarcoma, in case you’re wondering, that’s what claimed Tidbit, my rat-deterring, flasher-chasing jackal. He did outlive the incumbent Lab-ish friends, but only by a few months. It was relatively quick, and he spent his last days happily doped up on Tramadol until one night when the pain broke through and I slept with my whimpering friend in the bottom bunk of my son’s bed, stroking his rough muzzle and promising a final trip to the vet first thing in the morning.  A dignified protector deserved no less.

To this day, a decade after that 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and five years after Tidbit loped off to the Rainbow Bridge, we’ve never seen a rat inside our house. The warning tale that one explorer told must have carried through generations.

If you follow along here regularly then you know we now have other dogs. We made it two weeks after Tidbit died before a pair of chocolate Labs lured me on PetFinder. This time around we were going to hold firm on a two dog rule. Our house would be calmer, happier with only two.

The Wolfman Yoda danceFour months after the two Labs settled in, a scrappy, smelly, unneutered mutt showed up in our front yard, his wagging tail met with equal wags on the front porch, just in time for Thanksgiving. His name is Wolfman Yoda. May the rats beware.

Happy week.

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Food | Week of November 17, 2014

Short food note, because a couple of friends have asked: I am compiling an index of all the recipes I’ve shared, and I plan to have the page up by year-end. My plan is to sort by main ingredient, but if you have a better idea then please share. Someone also asked why I often stick to such traditional recipe sites like Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart. Well-used sites like these that draw from magazines and high profile chefs typically have a solid vetting process, both for the recipes and for the authenticity. If you’re looking for something a little funkier, try using the main ingredient of the recipes I’ve listed to do a search of your own – use it as a starting or focal point.

This week we’re having a couple of meals that have store-bought options, along with a couple that require some real cooking. And then there’s the homemade pizza, always a bit hit around here. Enjoy.

Spaghetti Frittata

Bernard has been itching to make a spaghetti frittata, for reasons I cannot begin to explain. He got the idea in his head, and it’s still there. I started with this simple recipe from Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad). I liked it, but it was too plain for Bernard’s taste; so his plan is to modify with Italian sausage and lots of fresh parsley. Note: I did not have leftover pasta or sauce, so I cooked, drained and cooled to room temp all in the same night. Worked fine.

fall greens 2014Crab Cakes | Green Salad

I was in New Orleans last week for a meeting and was treated to a marvelous dinner at Arnaud’s. I’ve been craving crab ever since (not that I’ll be able to match theirs), so crab cakes seem in order, and here’s the recipe I’m using. If I run out of time – if my idea is bigger than my calendar, then I’ll buy prepared crab cakes from Fresh Market. For the salad, here’s a recipe for simple lemon vinaigrette that will complement the crab.

Bourbon Salmon | Green Beans | Rice

My people aren’t crazy about salmon, but they’ll usually eat it if its well-marinated and has a sweet edge to it. In a time crunch, the bourbon marinated salmon from Fresh Market is a go-to dinner; cook at home or buy it already cooked. If you want to experiment with flavor and have time, here’s a simple recipe to try at home. Serve with jasmine rice and steamed green beans.

Butternut Squash | Spinach Cake | Herb Saladeggs april 2014

Michelle at Gourmandistan and I share a love of butternut squash. A few weeks ago she sent me a link to this wonderful recipe, one I’ve made several times since. I peel the squash with a vegetable peeler, cut it into big chunks, remove the seeds and then chop in the Cuisinart. It isn’t as pretty as a hand-cut dice, but it’s much faster. Note that the garlic intensifies over the long cooking period, so I suppose you should use sparingly if garlic isn’t your thing (never a problem in our house). Serve with an equally hearty vegetable dish like Dave T’s Spinach Cake, and you’ll feel warm and full.

Pizza Margherita

Homemade pizza on a weeknight is not as impossible as you think, provided you use a good dough recipe. This one from the Splendid Table comes together quickly, reheats well and is easy to customize. Makes for a fun family activity if family dinner is in order.

100 years of solitude.

merry go round

I saw my 29 year old self this week, standing underneath the replica of Sue, the dinosaur, in the United Airlines Customer Service line, Terminal 1, O’Hare.

She, young me, was explaining to the customer service agent, nicely at first, that she’d missed her connection and really needed to get home. Wasn’t there any way to make that happen quickly, please, maybe on some other airline? Nicely at first, as I said, then slowly more forceful. She thought she was losing because she hadn’t been strong enough in the beginning. Hard to blame her really; she’s still new at this. She doesn’t know that, no matter how many times she calls Johan by his name, the first answer he gave – that she’ll have to wait – is the only answer she’ll get. She’ll learn.

Next she’s on her cell phone, explaining that she might not make it home, that it might be “another banner night in the United Club lounge – such a damn nightmare!” She’s very cosmopolitan and worldly, this J. Crew-clad frequent traveler. Oh, and would someone please let her dog out at 10:00, in case she’s not home until morning?

Now she’s at the restaurant, trying to look busy and productive all by herself. She has her laptop out, and if she could just get connected to the damn Internet (could the waitress please check on that?) then maybe she could get something done, get ahead of the game, sitting there at a tiny table, wedged between a father-daughter reunion and another single women like herself only entirely different.

The father and his college daughter are headed, we all overhear, for an adventure that he’s buying with his million Marriott points. He’s the kind of traveler no one wants to piss off, he boasts to the girl, who is pretending her father impresses her. On the other side, at the table to the left, the very different 30-something woman is quietly reading a book and drinking a glass red wine. When she leaves two boisterous young men take her table and quickly start debating the merits of Irish whiskey chased with beer.

29 year old me stays oblivious and busy, ordering a kale salad but wanting ravioli, you can tell, because some small comfort sure would be nice. And a glass of Ferrari Carano, the fumé blanc please, and on a separate bill, if possible (expense review, you know). Honestly, it’s been a very long day, a dull thudding kind of long day at the end of the same kind of week.

Not one of them is paying the least attention to present me, updating an old-fashioned paper calendar, sorting receipts, eavesdropping on everyone’s conversations. Maybe one of them will have The Answer. Meanwhile, I am having the ravioli.

She doesn’t recognize it yet, young me, but eating underneath her surface is a constant irritation from things she thinks she enjoys, the things that seem important: conquering office politics and laughing at the salesmen’s jokes. And underneath that there is a general unrest from something bigger, deeper, more troubling. There it was, just days ago, right there in clear, hard numbers: the same people who want the government out of their damn healthcare want it very much in women’s reproductive rights, and seeing that just made everything feel wrong.

It’s going to be this way, I want to tell her, this weird dichotomy will always be here. It was here in 1994 – right here in this terminal at O’Hare, I remember. It was probably here in 1974, too, and it’s still here now. It’s an illogical human contradiction that will never, ever make sense to us, and it will always, incomprehensibly, be here.

But still be glad you voted, I want to add. Voting is a very great privilege. Just being here is a great privilege, actually. You’ll see. Don’t quit.

Finally we’re at our gates, she and I, hours later, about to board our flights. Please God, don’t let me be seated next to a smelly, chatty, overly large person, that’s what she’s thinking. I know it’s what she’s thinking because she still thinks that, even now, even after all these years.

They call her boarding group, the frequent traveling group, and she marches off, heading home with a sense of purpose, even at 10 p.m.

Minutes later I, too, am on the jetway, stopping briefly while an older woman gate-checks her bag. She’s silver-haired and comfortably dressed but with a definite style. She hasn’t succumbed to jogging suits or baggy jeans with printed sweatshirts like the rest of the 70-somethings on the flight. Come to think of it, she was in the restaurant, too, and the customer service line earlier, but I didn’t give her much notice until now.

“It will be there when I get there? You’re sure?” the woman is asking the man in black. She is friendly but direct, making him look her in the eye. “Yes, ma’am, we’ll bring it to you when you get off the plane in Memphis,” he assures her.

“I’m sorry I’m holding you up,” future me turns and says. “I do love visiting my grandchildren, but,” (in a whisper) “I just hate it when they lose my luggage.”

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of November 10, 2014

Christians Bistro Plover WisconsinOne of my Chicago-area destinations last week was Plover, Wisconsin, a city (town?) I expect you’re unlikely ever to visit. The clerk at the Hampton Inn recommended a restaurant not 50 yards from the hotel and promised us it was good, and local.  Christian’s Bistro delivered on her promise, and in a surprising way.

“There’s andouille sausage gumbo on here – in Wisconsin,” the guy from Shreveport remarked. I’d missed that because I went straight to the pulled pork sliders with Wickles. Strange, right? And the amberjack was served with sweet potatoes and collard greens.

So we enjoy our dinners, and a taste of rich, delicious crème brûlée that we shared around the table, and as we’re leaving we notice the fleur de lis magnet on the kitchen hood and the Commander’s Palace cookbook in one of the bar’s cookbook stacks.

Turns out the chef was sous chef at NOLA for 16 years (I remember dragging a sales team to NOLA in the early 90s, and how everyone marveled over it – swear to God). No, I don’t know how Christian got from NOLA to Plover, but it sure was a bright spot – and it inspired this week’s line-up at our house.

Sister Schubert Sliders with Wickles & Sweet Potato Fries

I’m going to start the week with something all my people will enjoy, because I’m going to test them as the week goes on. I use the Sister Schubert rolls that come in a tray – the original rolls, not the goofy bag of Sister Schubert-branded dinner rolls. The original rolls are tender, but they’re also small, so the burger patties (beef or turkey, you choose) have to be equally small, and you have to plan that each person will probably eat four. Dress with a dab of Duke’s mayonnaise and a Wickles pickle, the best pickles ever. Serve with oven fries – sweet potato ones if you’re feeling fancy.

Quick Jambalaya

Many people are partial to Emeril’s recipe, but for everyday cooking I prefer this one from Martha Stewart. It’s easy, and it pleases a wide variety of eaters if you provide extras like hot sauce. Crusty bread and a simple green salad on the side, if you must.

Delta Sol 53014Beet Salad with Grilled Shrimp

This beet salad recipe from Ina Garten is a favorite because it’s easy and always good (provided you like beets and arugula). If you don’t like those things, then there’s a salad recipe included in this one for Grilled Shrimp – just make both, and everyone will be happy.

Rancho Gordo Flageolet Beans | Black Rice | Pumpkin Seed Pesto

Yep, I’m making yet another push for Rancho Gordo beans, which you can usually find at Whole Foods. One day you’re going to believe me. This week, however, I’m not making too hard a sell because the beans are really just a vehicle for the pumpkin seed pesto that I’ve got a hankering for. The pesto would go just as well with grilled fish or chicken. And if black pearl rice seems too adventuresome for you, then just use plain jasmine or basmati rice.

Piri-Piri Chicken | Couscous | Cilantro Salad

This piri-piri recipe calls for a whole chicken, but you can use breasts and thighs if you don’t feel like messing with a whole bird. You do have to let it marinate for at least four hours, though, so plan this one in advance. Serve with plain couscous and a bright cilantro salad. Some yogurt sauce on the side might be nice, too, so here’s a recipe for that.

The solace of a Southern kitchen.

Butlers PantrySophie Coors, the Southern folk-style artist, taught my sister to blow spit bubbles. They were at some fancy seated luncheon, the kind with strict expectations for behavior – a wedding or graduation party or New Year’s formal event that required Margaret’s attendance, participation and compliance.

Margaret was not the compliant type, especially not at that age of four or five. She was deemed hyperactive by her teachers until my mother, and then the teachers, realized Margaret was just bored.

Sophie wasn’t really the compliant type either. Smart, talented, funny, and wildly bohemian, she was one of the few women my parents referred to as a woman, not a girl or lady. She had all the training and credentials for both Memphis society and fine art painting, and she balanced her overlapping worlds by looking fabulous in iconic 70s style while telling terribly dirty jokes.

That day at the luncheon Sophie apparently looked at little Margaret, recognized a sheep of her own bored flock, and decided spit bubbles were just the thing to get them both out of a pinch.

At least that’s the story that made its way back to our house. I wasn’t at the party but could imagine the scene, my imagination aided by Margaret’s exuberant re-enactment. She was so pleased with herself, my mischief-making genius sister who was probably, even at that age, calculating the tensile strength of saliva.

The spit bubble re-enactment was met with our mother’s firm but gentle disapproval as we sat around the kitchen table, forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right, napkins in our laps. But the correction was more gentle than disapproving, because in our house of family theatrics the kitchen was merely the green room, a place for getting the ya-yas out and rehearsing our parts, preparing for holidays and other special events on the main stage.

Our kitchen looked clearly not ready for prime time: mustard yellow linoleum floors, painted aluminum cabinets, mismatched furniture. Signalling a next-generation move to open plans and great rooms, it had a double window sized opening to the adjacent den. There were wooden shutters to seal the two rooms in privacy, but we never closed them.

The dining room, in contrast, featured a long table of deep green marble atop a Knoll base, French chairs covered in ruby velvet, imported gold leaf wallpaper, and twin buffet nooks painted bright coral and lined with mirrors. It was everything the kitchen was not: sophisticated, precise and adult. The swinging door between the two rooms might as well have been a transport device.

While we were in the sticky finger stage, Margaret and I were rarely allowed to eat in the dining room. And since we ate dinner as a family every night, every night we ate in the kitchen. We would clear the table of homework or Candyland, set it properly (with a bit of coaching), say ‘goddess great’ (really, I was 10 or 12 before I realized those weren’t the words), and enjoy whatever my mother had prepared, often chicken, seldom Brussels sprouts.

If all this sounds a bit too Norman Rockwell, know that I’ve left out the bits about how Margaret once poured a full glass of milk over my head and the million times we played the “see food” game. I’ve left out that we made up our own silly nonsensical language, intentionally excluding our parents. Whatever things we said to each other in that special code, we often laughed hard enough to snort, an unpleasant development if dinner included green peas.

I don’t remember being taught to sear meat, make a reduction or prepare Béchamel for a soufflé. These were just things my mother did while preparing dinner, and I learned by passive observation and occasional active participation. My mother wasn’t fussy about her cooking and even less so about her teaching. If something burned, she threw it out. If something turned out well, she tried to remember and write it down.

Her pots were all Revere Ware, a set given as a wedding gift. Once when she was making crepes the skillet handle got too close to the next burner, and it melted and then cracked to pieces when it cooled. Instead of replacing it, Mama just used a pot holder when cooking, saying it did the job just fine, just like the rest of the kitchen, the place where I learned to cook, to sort sets and subsets, to answer the phone, and, of course, to use good table manners.

Until very recently if you’d asked me what happened to our kitchen life, what knocked us loose from our moorings, I’d have told you it was solely and entirely my parents’ divorce. Just before I learned to drive, my parents separated and we moved, my mother sister and I, into an apartment without much of a kitchen or dining room either. It was only temporary, but even when we settled into another real house we couldn’t regain our old kitchen rhythm. Perhaps it was a floor plan fault, but honestly we were all a bit Humpty Dumpty by then, no matter how we arranged the furniture.

What I couldn’t see, not until lately, were the dozens of other factors conspiring to keep us adrift: the evolution from Shake ‘n Bake to Dean & Deluca, Sealtest to Hagen-Daz, from linoleum to granite. It wasn’t just our kitchen that disappeared, it was a polar shift from ordinary to glamorous that happened all around us, green rooms replaced by show rooms.

When I moved into a family house of my own, I wanted the kitchen to be its heart, the way my growing up kitchen had been. I was determined to regain purchase, to establish my own family equilibrium. I would make it better, stronger, faster than what I had known growing up.

But the chasm between adolescence and adulthood had distorted my vision. Instead of the familiar wobbly chairs and gate-legged table, I wanted what glossy magazines said Living should look like. I watched HGTV and Food Network. I clipped pages from Veranda and studied IKEA hacks for having the perfect life. Pendant lights and seasonal ice buckets and one cleverly placed upholstered chair, that’s what our kitchen needed. Perhaps some matching melamine plates for choreographed outdoor soirées.

Fortunately for me I have neither compliant children nor a conformist husband. I have spit-bubble-blowing pea shooters and mischief makers who, early on, plastered Incredibles and smiley-face stickers across the top of my pristine, whitewashed pine table. I have dogs that leave behind a constant dusting of fur and dirt. I have piles of homework papers and junk mail, and an Orbeez display that never seems to leave the windowsill no matter how many times I ask that it be put away. Despite my fervent Pottery Barn longings, I have mismatched pots, mismatched chairs and chipped dishes.

Until recently, if you’d asked me what I dreamed of I’d have shown you that picture perfect frame of a picture perfect family, seated around an artfully rustic kitchen table. Then one afternoon not too long ago, on no particularly special day, I shoved the stack of papers aside, begged for a short break in the sibling bickering, set chili on the table, and realized I was home.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of October 27, 2014

So, yes, if you’ve been following along and paying attention, then you know you just got an excerpt from a draft of the book I’ve been working on. And yes, it will also have recipes and photographs – at least that’s how it’s coming together in my mind. It may come together only in my mind, but it’s fun for me nevertheless.

Writing recipes for others to prepare is more daunting than I might have thought. Cooking has always come naturally to me, so I find I’m quick to leave out important details and instructions. Work in progress, that’s what it is. While I’m still working those things out, I’ll keep sharing proven recipes in my weekly line-up. As always, if you find something you like, please let me know.

fall carrotsGrit Cakes | Balsamic Roasted Beet Salad

Grit cakes are the Southern equivalent of fried polenta squares – same basic ingredients and process. They are a nice substitution for meat in a dinner, especially good with a hearty helping of vegetables like Ina Garten’s Balsamic Roasted Beet Salad and maybe some fresh fall carrots.

Spiced Lamb in Pita | Mediterranean Platter

These lamb pita pockets are easy to make and well-liked by my children. Serve with some stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers and an assortment of olives, all of which should be available at your local grocer or specialty market.

Slow-cooked Greens | Cornbread

Use collard or turnip greens, or a mix from the farmers market (most farmers have a cooler full of mixed cooking greens this time of year). The cooking liquid and ham hock are what give the greens their good flavor, of course. If you need a recipe, this one from Tyler Florence is good and easy to follow. Serve with cornbread, made from scratch or from the Jiffy box. It’s summer, no judging.

True Vine celerySimple Green Salad | Grilled Chicken | Crepes with Berries & Cream

Salad and dessert, you may recall, was one of my mother’s favorite dinner combinations. A simple green salad (lettuce, celery, cucumber, maybe some red onion) with a basic vinaigrette and some simple grilled chicken breasts is plenty for dinner if dessert is the star. We froze berries early in the summer and are now starting to use them so there’s no danger of freezer burn. I like to serve the crepes alone with fruit and whipped cream on the side; the option is to roll the fruit inside the crepe and top with cream (or ice cream).

Cheese soufflé

It just wouldn’t be right to write about my growing-up kitchen and not include my mother’s cheese soufflé recipe (again).  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.

The fish, the pond; they’re relative.

summer dawn on the lake

Before I launch into this week’s story, a couple of postscripts to my last two posts (ante-post postscripts?):

First, thanks to the WordPress team for my third Freshly Pressed nod (given for Idiometry), and welcome new followers! So glad to have you here. Second, thanks to all who have commented – here, on Facebook and to me directly, about my post on the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment. I especially appreciated the information about the current legislative bills that would eliminate the ratification deadline. Time for us all to get busy.

And now for a little reflection (followed, of course, by this week’s dinner suggestions).

camp swim testOne night in late August 1989, my mother and I celebrated my return to Memphis with dinner at El Chico followed by a movie, sex, lies & videotape, at the Malco Quartet. I had seen the movie once already, right after it was released, when I was still in Dedham, MA, 20 minutes from Boston and light years from knowing what I would do next. A fluke call had led to a job, one that required a temporary move to Memphis. Temporary. Six months, tops. That was the promise, and the promise was key because when I left for college in the fall of 1983 the only thing that was completely clear in my head was that I was never, ever going to live in Memphis again, ever.

I didn’t really have a plan, however. A month before I graduated college an acquaintance had called about a job, an internship teaching photography at Noble & Greenough School. Since I had no plan I took the train to Boston, met with the school folks, was offered the position and took it. The job was a two year stint. The first year I would intern and co-teach; the second year I would fill in for the department head while he and his wife took sabbatical to New Zealand.

Scheduled to move to Dedham in August, I had the summer to fill and needed money. So I used my mad typing skills to get a job as a temporary secretary, thinking it would be easy cash with no commitment and as good a way as any to pass a summer in Memphis.

The temp agency placed me in a telecommunications company working for the son of the CEO. The son, who had grown up in Virginia, attended a prestigious boarding school, and earned a master’s from Columbia, had been working at a hot shot ad agency in New York when his father called him into service, prompting a move to Memphis, a city he hated at first sight.

When I reported for work the first day, the other women in the secretarial pool (it was 1987) looked at me with pity and wished me luck. I quickly figured out why. My temporary boss was hot tempered and feisty. He barked orders and used expletives and smoked in his office (again, it was 1987).

Toward the end of my second week, he mentioned he was traveling to New York. I don’t remember exactly what he said, what place he referenced, but it was one familiar to me. So I said something to the effect of “I like that place,” and he said something to the effect of “you’ve been to New York?” and two minutes later, having compared our credentials, the dynamic had shifted. After that my assignments included research and writing, not merely transcribing, and the rest of the summer flew by.

Then I moved to Boston. When my two years of teaching came to an end, I was once again planless and started interviewing for jobs. One job looked pretty good, but as a matter of course I would need references for the interview. The only reference I could think of was back in Memphis.

“You don’t want that job,” my former temporary boss said. “Boston’s too expensive, and you’ll get tired of the winters. You don’t want that job, you want to come back and work for me. I’m starting a new company, and we’re moving to McLean (Virginia). Six months, tops, is all you’ll have to spend in Memphis.”

So there I was, in the lobby of the Malco Quartet movie theater, the Saturday before starting a new job in the city I thought I’d left, feeling some vague camaraderie with the handful of Memphians sophisticated enough to appreciate Steven Soderbergh’s odd humor.

As we filed toward the door we ran into some old friends, a mother and daughter we’d known my whole life. The daughter was a few years my senior, a girl I’d always admired and looked up to. She had some big, important job, this fellow girl from Memphis, a job at Westinghouse or GE, I can’t remember which. She traveled extensively and was working on her MBA.  She told us about some big, interesting project she was leading, all of which sounded a bit overwhelming to me.

“So what are you up to; are you just here for a visit?” she asked, and I told her an abbreviated version of how I landed back in Memphis, starting a new job.

“Well,” she responded, her disapproval clear, “I guess if you want to be a big fish in a little pond, you can. But I don’t know why anyone would, especially you.”

I’ve thought about that encounter many times over the last 25 years, particularly when I got the news that this friend, this girl who became a big fish in a big corporate pond, died unexpectedly a couple of years ago, the high pressure environment having taken its high toll.

I think about her still, my late great big-girl friend. I think about her choices and her advice, her hopes and dreams. And when I think of her, what I think is this:

The fish, the pond; they’re relative.

Happy week.

********

farmers market october 2014So sometimes the farmers market is a bust, usually when we’re in between growing seasons. And just when I’m about to give up, the fall harvest comes in and I come home with an overflowing bag of fresh goodness. Of course, maybe it’s just that I like the things that are in season in the fall: sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cabbage, lettuce and basil. Since those are the goodies that came home with me, those are the goodies we’ll eat this week.

To make things easy on me, I stuck to one source for recipe inspiration, Epicurious. I love the Epicurious database, mostly because it has such an exhaustive listing of recipes from my favorite food magazine of all time, Gourmet (RIP, Gourmet).

butternut squash and sweet potatoes 2014Sweet potato & Coconut Soup | Green Salad

So, no, I do not think my people will go crazy for this dinner, sweet potato and coconut soup with a simple green salad. I’ll probably be making a few peanut butter sandwiches., but maybe I’ll be surprised. In any event, I’ll enjoy.

Butternut Squash | Pork Tenderloin

If you’ve been here before, then you know how much I like butternut squash and that I’m committed to getting my family to like it, too. I found two new recipes, and might actually try both. This recipe for Parmesan-roasted squash is simple and probably hard to screw up. This one for roasted butternut squash salad (with arugula, pancetta and hazelnuts) is a bit more complicated but looks worth the effort. I’ll serve with a pork tenderloin using my mother’s recipe that is similar to this one.

red cabbageFlank Steak with Chimichurri | Braised Red Cabbage

Flank steak with chimichurri is one of our favorite dinners. Although my children don’t like the chimichurri, I hope one day it will grow on them (and until then, ketchup it is). Braised red cabbage with vinegar ought to be a good companion dish, only because we’re vinegar people. If you want something a bit milder to offset the chimichurri, try these velvety mashed potatoes (not from Epicurious, but always delicious).

Spaghetti with Meatballs | Caesar Salad

When I’m trying to get my people to be more adventuresome in their eating, I also respect that sometimes we all just want simple, predictable comfort food. In our house, spaghetti and meatballs usually does the trick. If you don’t have time to make meatballs, you can substitute frozen. (I know, the heresy. And I so don’t care.) Ditto using prepared Caesar dressing for the salad. Make it or buy it, it’s entirely up to you. Choices and options are good things.basil 2014

Basil Tabbouleh | Roast Chicken

If you like tabbouleh in general, then this recipe for basil tabbouleh should be a nice variation. Serve with a simple roast chicken, either from the grocery or using this super-easy recipe.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

winter sky 2014

lather rinse repeatFew chores accentuate the Groundhog Day aspects of life as well as cooking and kitchen cleaning. Boil, serve, eat. Tidy, scrub, sweep. Bask in the shiny kitchen millisecond, and then – BAM – do it all over again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We Westerners place high priority on good habits and consistent routines. We start the indoctrination early: make your bed, brush your teeth, read for 30 minutes. Do all of these things each and every day, sometimes more than once. We explain to our children, the way our parents explained to us, the threat of painful cavities, the consequences of being lazy. We explain these things hoping our young teeth brushers will grow up to keep their grass cut, their mortgages paid.

Some are quick studies, instant masters of their own universes. Others are non-conformist Lost Boys, even if they are girls, sure that regular showering means surrendering to The Man. Perhaps, they think, it’s an escapable prison, this tyranny of tedium. Don’t buy a house, don’t get a dog. Eat meals out and ride public transportation. No commitments, no regrets. Live free or die.

Then as we get older we learn that life isn’t ever a set-it-and-forget-it proposition no matter how few our possessions or relationships. Some amount of continuous care and feeding will be required, some degree of participation. For each of us, for all of us, there is always at least some thread of routine.

So we pep ourselves up with bright stickers and phone apps to remind us to change the oil every 3,000 miles, to perform monthly self-exams, to balance our checkbooks. We print colorful checklists and check the boxes. Just look at how much we’ve accomplished.

And when we turn to the new, unmarked checklist and see the tasks we’re about to conquer, so often we focus solely on the tasks, the history of mastery, the things that are always the same. We will clean that kitchen in 20 minutes or less, tidy one room each day, and still get the bills paid on time. We are well-rehearsed.

We look at those tasks, drawing on our past successes, and we miss the secret that’s hiding in the blank, unchecked box, the secret that we get to start over, start anew, no matter how many times we’ve X’d the same item on a prior list.

Lather, rinse, repeat. It means the day is ours for fresh eyes to see, even on an old familiar path.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of December 1, 2014

True Vine celery‘Round here, it’s time for something warm and cozy – warm and cozy and colorful, because it doesn’t take long for the early darkness to make me feel a bit down and sleepy. To the rescue come carrots, beets (don’t say you don’t like them until you’ve tried this, my favorite recipe), peppers, and all manner of greens.

Celery Soup | Ham Biscuits

It’s been a while since I first posted this recipe for Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup, one of only two keepers I’ve found on Food52. I use leftover mashed potatoes if I have them, which makes things move along quickly. Even with the butter and cream the soup is light tasting, so tiny ham biscuits make the perfect pairing. If you’re not up for biscuit making, then look for Marshall’s in the freezer section. If you’ve got the time and inclination to bake, these treasures from Gourmandistan are worth the effort.

Maple-Glazed Pork Tenderloin | Roasted Carrots & Onionsred and orange carrots

This pork tenderloin recipe from Bon Appétit  is now a staple in our kitchen. Slice some fresh carrots and red onion, toss in olive oil and roast 1t 370 degrees for about 20 minutes while the meat rests. Serve with some warm French bread.

Scorched Peppers | Jasmine Rice | Lamb Patties

Sweet peppers look festive, no matter the season. And yes, I know they aren’t in season anywhere near me; but the bit of brightness is important. This recipe from David Tanis is easy and delicious – and probably unlike anything you’re accustomed to. Pair the peppers with jasmine rice and lamb patties, or cook the rice in coconut milk and skip the meat for a hearty vegetarian dinner.

 Cheese Grits | Braised Greens | Roasted Beetsbeets

The cooking order here should actually be beets, greens and then grits, but I thought I’d lose you if I didn’t put the comfort part first. This recipe from Barefoot in Paris will convert even the pickiest beet-hater, I promise. Greens may be hard to find this time of year, but if you can find them then you’ll like this traditional Southern preparation. If not, then look for the Glory Foods brand in the canned section. I make cheese grits on the stove top: cook coarse grits in a mixture of milk and chicken stock, and stir in grated cheese at the end – takes about 20-25 minutes.

Pizza | Salad

My kids love pizza night as much as breakfast for dinner night, and pizza is much easier to vary for the different tastes in our house. This dough recipe from Mark Bittman, which I’ve posted several times before, is a sure thing. But if you are in a time crunch or just don’t want to fuss with dough, then you can purchase prepared crust at the store. The kids like plain cheese; Bernard and I like pesto and anchovy, or olive and onion – anything that makes the kids say, “Ew GROOOOOSSSSS!” And then I make them eat salad.