Summer: the book report.

Featured

Tags

, , , , , , ,

end of summer 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Labor Day weekend, and happy week.

********

Food | Week of September 1, 2014

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

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

Planked Salmon with Coconut Rice | Bibb Lettuce

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

Sweet Potato Risotto | Simple Saladtomatoes august 2014

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

Green Chile Chicken Stew

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

Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce | Wild Rice | Green Salad

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

The moon is like China.

Featured

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

the moon is like china

Either because our mother was a writer or, more likely, because we were born this way, my sister and I have always been comfortable with the language of abstract concepts. More than comfortable, actually. Abstract is our preference; when things get too literal, we start to feel itchy. As a result we’re both pretty good at offering interpretive solutions and completely inept at keeping yard maintenance routines. We’re the kind of people who can read recipes, envision how they’ll taste and decide to use them for dinner; but we’ll likely neglect to confirm we have all the required ingredients and equipment before we start cooking. You get the idea.

One day, many years ago, we were riding in the car and my sister, staring out the window, said, “the moon is like China,” and as I pondered what that might mean she turned to me and explained, “I never want to visit either place.” And we laughed, because I understood perfectly, and from then on “the moon is like China” became a code phrase that we would use for all sorts of situations, usually when we found ourselves surrounded by extreme literal thinkers who made us feel itchy. That phrase was just one in our large (and still growing) book of secret language, my sister’s and mine, developed through a bond that is unique to oddballs like us.

We were never, either of us, like the rest of the kids we grew up with. Our parents were older than the other parents, and they, our mother in particular, were always a bit unconventional, never fitting in completely with their peers. They were oddball parents, and we were their 1970s oddball children, and at the risk of making too much of things that might seem silly and superficial, we oddball children might have felt entirely disconnected from the world around us if not for one another, and for Kermit and Mork.

Our mother was a writer and a musician and an intellectual, but she nevertheless allowed us to watch plenty of TV. We didn’t have cable, so the offerings were limited to things like Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days and, in the afternoons, re-runs of I Love Lucy and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Given the five years between us and the fact that we had only one small television, Margaret and I had to compromise on the afternoon viewing because she wanted to watch The Electric Company and I wanted to watch Hogan’s Heroes. This is why she is now a medical doctor and I am a spin doctor.

We alternated shows in a way that I don’t remember fighting about, although I suspect we were then very much like my own children are now and that we fought mightily.

The Muppet Show was Margaret’s show, which she watched from a position very close to the TV, sitting Indian style (this is what we called it in the 70s) on the floor while I sat in our father’s turquoise vinyl recliner and pretended to do my homework. She would marvel over the Muppets, and I would tell her, from my armchair position, that I knew all about those Muppets because I remembered the very first Sesame Street episode ever. I was a pain-in-the-ass older sister whom Margaret often referred to as Miss Piggy.

It was hard not to love those goofy displaced Muppets, the ultimate cast of oddballs, Kermit in particular. And it was equally hard, a couple of years later, not to love Mork when he landed from outer space as Laverne’s blind date and made such an impression that he got his own show.

For children too young to digest The Catcher in the Rye, The Muppet Show and Mork & Mindy provided a kind of affirming assurance for kids who didn’t fit the norm. “You think you’re weird? Watch this!” they offered. So we watched, and we laughed, and in the subtlest way we felt a little more at ease, a little less alien, even if we didn’t fully realize it at the time.

I remember the day Jim Henson died. I was driving home from work, speeding along Sam Cooper Boulevard, and listening the All Things Considered, and weeping like a baby as they played “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” and knowing that voice, the real Kermit, was gone. Sure someone else could imitate the cadence and keep the character alive, but that voice, the wisdom of the knowing outsider, was gone. I felt much the same way when I learned Robin Williams had died.

Events over the past few weeks, in the U.S. and abroad, have provided ample opportunity for reflection about what it means to fit in, to belong, to be accepted. In many parts of the world today, if you don’t fit in then you might be subject to ethnic cleansing or persecution by drug lords, which might lead to untimely death. In other parts, the parts we call the civilized and democratized, if you don’t fit in then you might find yourself subject to racial profiling or isolation due to mental illness, either of which might lead to untimely death.

The lovers the dreamers and me, well we’d like to know exactly where that Rainbow Connection might be in these situations. Exactly where is that connection that might allow people – people who feel different and who are different – to accept one another, even maintaining our differences? Wait, I know: we’re it.

I can’t fix Ferguson or Iraq or the Urkraine or Ecuador or depression, and neither can you. But, at the risk of making too little out of something overwhelminingly large, I can reach, hand by hand, to people who feel disconnected by differences. I can teach my children that being together doesn’t mean being the same. I can listen for someone to tell me the moon is like China, and try to understand.

Happy week.

******

Food | Week of August 25, 2014

Swiss chard 2014

So, speaking of the 1970s, let’s talk about Stouffer’s spinach soufflé.

My mother, as many of you know, was a very good cook. She was the kind of cook who could whip up dinner of pork tenderloin with orange sauce and pilaf followed by chocolate soufflé for dessert that would leave everyone raving about her meal. One of her favorite things to make for cocktail parties was stuffed mushrooms, and she made them – I swear on my life – with Stouffer’s spinach soufflé. She, my mother the cook, tried mightily to replicate that green marvel, all to no avail. I took up her quest when she died, and my most recent attempt is based on David Tanis’s spinach cake recipe from A Dinner of Figs. Tanis’s recipe, adapted, also appears on David Lebovitz’s blog, and that’s the one I’m sharing this week. (And yes, I know that’s Swiss chard and not spinach in the picture; I couldn’t find local spinach, but I did find other greens, including chard, that are volunteering a second crop on local farms around here. And yes, you can use any green instead of spinach for the cake.)

And since I’m thinking about outsiders generally and David Lebovitz (American in Paris) specifically, I thought I might share several other of his recipes and encourage you, if you’re in the market for a new cookbook, to try My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (link is to Amazon so you can see the book, but please buy from your local bookseller if you can). And if you follow DL’s blog and are interested about his book writing adventure versus blogging, here is a great interview with Dianne Jacob about that very thing.

Purple tomatoes August 2014Spinach Cake | Watermelon Salad

I followed this spinach cake recipe almost to the letter; the exception was that I put the leek/spinach mixture in the blender without the eggs/milk (leaving the top vented, of course), so I could taste it. I almost stopped at that point because the puree was so good I wanted to eat the entire batch. But I continued, and the result was delicious. I did bake mine in a rectangular Pyrex instead of a round deep-dish pie plate, which probably helped in the similarity to Souffer’s. Tanis recommends serving with an herb salad. I think some sauteed mushrooms and a watermelon salad fit the season better.

Tandoori Chicken | Chopped Vegetable Salad

Even my children like Tandoori Chicken, although they prefer that I de-bone the chicken first. Removing the bone does remove some flavor, but not enough that my children notice. Serve with a simple chopped vegetable salad – which should be crunchy, always, not mushy.

Salmon Spread | Baguette | Tomato Salad

I’ll confess outright to purchasing salmon spread at The Fresh Market, but it is easy to make and better if prepared at home. Here’s DL’s recipe for salmon spread (including ideas for adapting). Serve with some fresh crusty bread and a tomato salad (or leftover chopped salad).

Eggs and arugula August 2014Shakshuka | Arugula Salad

In my aged cooking journal, which I started in 1988, I have a recipe called Eggs in Purgatory, which I’ve made several times but not recently. This one for shakshuka from David Lebovitz is very similar and gives the option of canned or fresh tomatoes. At the market here there are plenty of tomatoes that look better for cooking than for eating in salad, so I’m going that route. The second crop of arugula is coming in, too, so we’ll have that as the side.

Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread | Farm-fresh Cheese | Green Beans

For you seriously gluten-free celiac people (yes, there is at least one bona fide celiac sufferer who reads here religiously, and oh how I love her), here’s a recipe for gluten-free bread that’s hearty enough for a summer meal, especially when served with some good cheese (I like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, myself) and perhaps some steamed green beans with a bit of mustard (or ranch, for my children) for dipping.

*****

all words and pictures here belong to jennifer balink – if you’d like to use some, please ask.

 

 

 

For the love of bitter humans.

Featured

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The Goldfinch

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy week, y’all.

*******

Sunflowers May 2014

FOOD | Week of August 11, 2014

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

French 75 | Sausage, Grits & Greens

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

Arucana Lulu

Mimosa | Poached Eggs, Sourdough Toast & Canadian Bacon

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

Champagne Mojito | Pulled Pork Tacos

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

True Vine celery

Kir Royale | Smoked Trout Lettuce Wraps

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

Champagne | Linguini with Caviar

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

 

A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.

Featured

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Dogface

Some days involve dog vomit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy week.

******

FOOD | Week of August 4, 2014

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

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

Chorizo-Chicken-Shrimp Stew | Basmati Rice

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

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

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

Greek Pasta Salad

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

Simple Beef Stew

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

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

Serve with crusty French bread.

eggs april 2014Baked Eggs with Toast | Grilled Peaches

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

Raspberry Chicken | Green Beans

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

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

12 articles of faith for a Memphis believer.

Featured

Tags

, , , , , ,

Life on the Mississippi, Memphis, April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of June 16, 2014

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

True Vine celeryCold Cucumber Soup

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

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

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

Pasta Salad

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

tomato harvestSummer Grazing Platter

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

Poached Chicken | Green Salad

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

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

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

Suspended requirements.

Tags

, , ,

suspended requirements

Meteorologically speaking, I suppose a Southern thunderstorm isn’t too far removed from its Midwestern prairie-sweeping cousin or New England Nor’easter: warm air/cold air tussles, all of them, that range between small misunderstandings and full-blown wars. Meterologically speaking, they’re all alike, I suppose.

But there’s something transformative about an afternoon storm in the South, a change in barometric pressure that sucks any Calvinist work ethic right out of us, forces us to press the pause button and take a minute (or five) to regroup and breathe. A Southern thunderstorm, particularly one of those surprise summer events that sneaks around the weatherman’s radar, magically creates a feeling of suspended requirement. To-do lists and schedules and “have you started your homework?” and “what’s for dinner?” and grocery shopping and uniform pressing and car service and broken washing machines all have to wait until the warm and and the cold air can get things figured out. Just for a minute, anyway, there’s no pressure to make the most out of seizing the day.

The past three weeks have been no-rain kind of weeks, literally and figuratively, for me, for just about everyone I know and for many people I don’t. Push; go; deal with it. Repeat. Can’t get your arms around the big things happening in the world? Tough. No rest for the weary, not on a sunny day, because there is always something that needs doing, some responsibility to keep in check.

Friends, I need a good Southern thunderstorm. Today, if possible. Just for a minute. How about you?

Happy week.

*******

Food | Week of August 18, 2014

lettuceIf the atmosphere won’t give me a brief time out, then I’ll just have to carve one for myself. The best way to do that is to keep things ultra simple during the most frantic part of our day, dinner time. This week we’ll have food that’s easy to prepare and unlikely to cause whining – something I am particularly ill-equipped to deal with at the moment. Most of these recipes have options for increasing the gourmet content, if you’re so inclined.

Salmon Croquettes | Green Salad

Salmon croquettes (patties) are easy and inexpensive – a good substitute for crab cakes. This recipe from Southern Living has more binding ingredients (flour, cornmeal mix) and simpler preparation compared to this one from Saveur, which is my favorite but not everyone’s cup of tea. Serve with a simple green salad or as patties on toasted English muffins if your people prefer sandwiches.

Turkey and Green Bean Stir Fry

This recipe from Food Network is definitely geared toward family dinner and not adults-only fare. What I like, of course, is that it’s adaptable: you can add a smoky bit of Worcestershire or eliminate the pickle (not sure why that’s in there to begin with). We also prefer short grained brown rice with stir fry; the texture is a good match for the meat and green beans in particular.

Green BeansWeeknight Bolognese | Caesar Salad

If you didn’t make Ina Garten’s genius weeknight Bolognese when I posted it a few months ago, well here’s your chance. This recipe is so easy and so good – best with the orecchiette that she suggests but probably fine with any other pasta shape. Make a double batch and freeze the extra, and you’ll be in high cotton on that inevitable day when nothing goes your way and it’s suddenly 6:15 and you have absolutely NOTHING ready for dinner. Voice of experience here.

Cheesy Gnocchi Casserole

Here’s another family-friendly preparation from Food Network’s kitchen, this one calling for prepared gnocchi and quick assembly. If your feeling a bit more ambitious and looking for a fun kitchen activity (with friends, spouse and/or kids) making gnocchi is much easier than you think, although it does take some time. Here’s Mario Batali’s recipe, which has worked well for me the few times I’ve tried it. (Make no mistake; I am not making gnocchi from scratch this week, just giving you the option if you want it.)

Grilled Peach & Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese

Since figs have been scarce this summer (polar vortex consequence), I’ve been looking for some alternatives to my favorite summer salad: figs, arugula and goat cheese. Here’s one from Cooking Light that uses grilled peaches (easier to prepare than they sound) and a bit of prosciutto for contrast.

nomadruss in words and photos

photographer, wilderness guide, adventurer

jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Ask the Agent

Night Thoughts of a Literary Agent

Motivated Grammar

Prescriptivism Must Die!

Adventures in Spiritual Living

Riding the spiritual waves of everyday life

jenny's lark

the beauty of an ordinary life

Drinking Tips for Teens

Creative humour, satire and other bad ideas by Ross Murray, an author living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Is it truth or fiction? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

Joy, Fitness, & Style

Workouts, Healthy Living, Active Style, & Pacific NW Fun

Katrina Anne Willis

Table for Six: The Extraordinary Tales of an Ordinary Family

theadventuresofclaudia

The Adventures of a Porcelain Doll Named Claudia.

Butterfly Mind

Creative Nonfiction by Andrea Badgley

Musing Off the Mat

the wonder and simplicity of every day

Is this gentleman bothering you?

Simple Provisions

Food does not need to be fancy to be celebrated

Ron Kern Photographer

Photographs and Other Stuff

Refreshingly Random

Need I say more?

Helen's Journal

Photographer: Penrith, UK

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,143 other followers

%d bloggers like this: