Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Been A While

A lot has happened since we last visited.

My husband and I have different jobs.

We've moved further away from the city and our lives have somewhat settled into a routine.

In the past few months we've enjoyed some sunsets ...

Fed some deer ...

Chased away more of these than I care to count ...

And even experienced a few earthquakes and the longest, hottest summer on record. 

It may may sound crazy, but I am actually looking forward to old man winter
and all that it entails.

And I hope to do more things like this ...

Cook in my new kitchen.

Set by a fire...

Read a few books.

But giving our extreme weather, what will probably happen is this ...

Enjoy the season.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reading List

For me, summertime has always meant reading time.
It's a trait I inherited from my mother who used to sunbathe and read paperback novels while my younger siblings and I splashed about in a kiddie pool in the backyard.

Mother was a compulsive reader. And every time she finished a book she would proclaim, "now that was the best book I have ever read!" Until she finished another book then that would become the best book she had ever read.

Of all the books Mother read, the one that sticks out most in my memory is Herman Wouk's The Winds of War. (You just don't forget a novel as as enormous as that lying around the house for weeks on end.)

One tranquil summer afternoon, sprinklers swishing and lawnmowers humming in the distance, mother put her swimsuit on, spread a blanket onto the lawn, and scurried my brother, sister and off to play so she could sunbathe and finish The Winds of War.

Hours passed as she read obsessively while my younger brother and sister and I frolicked about. Until finally, down to the very last page, she got up for just a moment, as many avid readers do, in order to give reverence and pause before finishing a good book, and returned to find our beagle, Deacon (thusly named because of an uncanny resemblance to the deacon of our church) gnawing and slobbering all over her "Winds of War" and the very last page was missing. 

This was bad, I remember thinking to myself. Up until that point in time "Old Yeller" had been the longest book I had ever read and it seemed like a tome. I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to read something so long and embattled as this and not be able to finish the very last page. "Whatever will you do?" I remember asking my mother. We had no money to buy a new book and the library was closed. And lord knew no one else in our nonliterary circle of friends had this atrociously long novel lying about.

But mother was a sly one. Swiftly she threw on a blouse and some flip flops, scurried my younger brother and sister and I into a finned station wagon and nary a word, drove like a mad woman down to the local drugstore, where she strutted in, sunburned, bare-legged and resolute, three soggy kids in tow, straight toward a spinning rack of books, picked up The Winds Of War, read the very last page, then gently placed it back upon the rack, turned and strutted back out the door again.

Three elderly townsmen stared, jaws agape, at this spectacle they had just witnessed. And as the car eased from the curb, mother proudly proclaimed, "Now that was the best book I have ever read."

I was impressed with my mother that day and never forgot The Winds of War. And years later, during a late night game of Trivial Pursuit, before my drunken college buddy could slur the words out of his mouth, I knew the answer to: "Who wrote The Winds of War?"

It is rare moments like these when I cherish my kooky, crafty mother the most. She didn't give me much, but she instilled in me a love of reading and for that I will be eternally grateful.

So what's on your summer reading list?

Nothing so long as The Winds Of War, I hope.

I am needing some ideas.

These are the books I have read so far.

Anymore suggestions?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Henry and Edith

Society seems to be stuck in the fast lane.

Busy these days seems to be the norm.
Sometimes when I bump into friends, I find myself compelled to convey an illusion of busyness. Just because one feels inferior if one is not busy. 

Heaven forbid you have a quiet day with nothing to do but set beside a pond and think and read a book.

If Thoreau could see us today...
That is what I keep telling myself.
But I know better.

Because if there is one thing I have learned from reading and literature, it is that mankind, over time, has changed very little.

Henry David Thoreau escaped to Walden's pond in search of a simpler life and wrote: "Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand;"

In a trance of endless social engagements and mindless activities, Edith Wharton wrote Twilight Sleep, a book about a family determined to escape the pain, boredom and emptiness of life by living in a very "busy" world.

These two writers had a lot in common.

Thoreau died in 1862.

Edith was born in 1862.

One began where the other left off.

Both keenly aware of the fact that mankind, throughout time, has always been busy.

Or are we just busy being mankind?

Walden Pond

I know Thoreau well.

Not through his books.

Oh, I tried reading "Walden" once and all I could think of was Show me the damn pond so I can throw myself in and spare myself the agony of this book(!).

I know Thoreau because I live with him.

My husband is Thoreau. He could spend two years setting beside a pond. Come to think of it, when we were dating, I lived beside a pond and while my husband was pretending to visit me, I know in reality that he was more interested in fishing at the pond.

Hmm... Should have been a sign.

Now I just realized that hubby and Thoreau share the same birthday.
Wow, that's a revelation because Edith Wharton and I share the same birthday.

Come to think of it, as I began this post, Thoreau and Wharton were the two authors who came to mind when I thought about mankind and how hectic our lives have become.

Each wrote, although in vastly different style, on this very subject.

And each were keenly aware of the fact that life has become too busy, too fast-paced, and too complicated in these modern times.

Henry and Edith were definitely ahead of their time.

Hubby and I not only share the same birthdays with these two authors, we also share a love of place.
Thoreau loved Walden's pond and preferred a simple life in the woods.

Wharton, on the other hand, appreciated the finer things in life and lived in a mansion and wrote The Decoration Of Houses.

So I guess it should come as no surprise when I tell you that hubby wants to live in the country, while I prefer city life with architecture and cultural activities.

Wharton split her time between The Mount and Europe.

Thoreau spent two years living on an isolated pond in the woods. zzzz ... zzzz...

The Mount

Hubby and I are the modern day equivalent of  a Henry and Edith: two complete opposites coming together through place and time with absolutely nothing in common but a love of place and an appreciation of books.  

Next month we will be married twenty-nine years.

It's a union of mutual respect.
I respect the fact that he likes to go fishing and wander about in the woods. He respects the fact that I am a town mouse and prefer cafes and libraries and big old houses on tree-lined streets.

So I guess the moral of the story is, when choosing a partner, don't rely entirely on their zodiac sign. Look up which author born was on their birthday ... then you'll find the true personality of your mate.

Edith Wharton

Henry David Thoreau

I think there's a resemblance! 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

I went to a family reunion last week.

It was strange seeing all my relatives who live in the country.

It was fun, but also hot and tiring, and it felt good to be back home again.

Travel, it seems, brings a new perspective on things.

I learned that I am a town mouse.

Oh, I love ducks and geese and flowers and big country kitchens and quiet afternoons strolling along the open prairie.

But country life is a lot of work.

And ironically, there is not much food on the prairie.

Also, there is a lot of hay fever.

Two hours upon arrival, my son began sneezing so badly that his face swelled like a balloon, then he broke out with a severe case of hives, and for a moment, we thought we were going to be making a trip to the emergency room. Thankfully, he is okay now.

My son is a city boy. If we had went to the ER, I could envision a conversation that would have went something like this:
Nurse: What is your son allergic to?
Me: The country.

Things had been a bit stressful lately, and as a family, we were looking forward to this trip.

But one weekend visiting relatives in the country ... eating meals of nothing but meat ... and bugs and chiggers and hay fever ... my two kids and I came running home so quickly it would make your head spin.

So much for the country life.

We barely lasted a weekend.

Tired, sunburnt and hungry, we hit Tulsa late Sunday afternoon and headed straight for Whole Foods where we ate like pigs and picked up enough produce and groceries to last a nuclear winter.

Warning: never go to Whole Foods after spending starving weekend with relatives in the country.

Even though our weekend in the country wasn't as spectacular as we had hoped, it did us good to get away.

Sometimes it's good to visit another persons world.

It allows us to reassess and learn more about ourselves and who we are.

This makes me think of a favorite book. When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to read The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse to me. And I always became giddy at the point when the town mouse took his friend "the city mouse" back home for an elaborate feast and then felt sorry for the lonely, impoverished existence of the country mouse.

Now I no longer feel sorry for the country mouse.

I have discovered that simple can be good.

But still, in the end, I always admire the city mouse.

Someday I will invite my brother from the country to my home in the city where we will share a great feast. And it will be a grand time. But something tells me ... that in the end, he will scurry back home to the country, while I remain happy and contented in the city.

To each their own.

So which are you? A Town Mouse or A Country Mouse?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cake Knife

Happy belated Mother's Day.

This year my children have finally begun to leave the nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never made Mother's Day cards that seemed to fit her.

I could go on and on, but there is no use telling you about my mother, because you already know my mother. She is the embodiment of virtually every single character that the actress Shirley MacLaine has ever played in a movie.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain it's breathing, then, reassured, walks away. My mother. Every scene including that final screaming at the nurses ... totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. That pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt ... so my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer ... the embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years, most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother. The thing that makes me sad is that she tried so hard to be normal. But normalcy eluded her.

I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, she invited a co-worker and her husband over for dinner one evening. Now to most normal, lower middle-class people, dinner with friends on a beautiful summer evening would seem no big deal. Tidy up the house, prepare a meal ...  it isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small, domestic trivialities annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this profession left her with little patience and zero tolerance for ordinary, mundane, day-to-day activities. She rarely gave thought to food or meals or housework. It wasn't even unusual for her to forget to grocery shop and cook ... leaving my siblings and I (too young to cook) scrounging on after school snacks of uncooked macaroni and giant globs of peanut butter straight from the jar. But for some reason this time was different, and mother fussed and fretted so much in anticipation of this party that, by the day of the event, she had made our lives, along with any one else's who had crossed her path, completely and utterly miserable.

At this point it is helpful to know that as a family we weren't exactly known for our housekeeping abilities and when it came to domesticity, mother always felt woefully inadequate. So on the morning of the event, mother began barking orders ... there were curtains to be hung, shopping to be done ... the house was a mess. Now most people on the day of a dinner party would attend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table, tidying up. But not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into one single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged the furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. Now we were so caught up in the actual cleaning process that the party and dinner itself had become an afterthought. But to my mother this was no matter. She was intent on having this damn party and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her. For one day out of the year she was going to cook, entertain and be a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and nothing was going to stop her god dammit!

This was my mother.

Next came the staging. For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress these people, so the house had to be perfect. She wanted to convey the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic, artistic people living in a big nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our home(!). So after our manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down out of the closet and place it conveniently on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. What the hell that had to do with anything, I'll never know. Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were exhausted. But for a moment all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together. This party just may be a success, I thought to myself.

But mother was an irascible woman, and the longer she prepared for this party and its venerated guests, the more she began to resent them. So much so, that she began to despise them. How dare they come to my house and make me do all this work(!) she murmured while scrubbing the tub. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of a roast, carrots and potatoes haphazardly cooked in a tarnished metal cake pan, along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this I do not recall much about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bare to stay and watch my mother, a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life or death, make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening was strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned and given her a lifeboat, now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one tiny thing about the evening I do recall, however.

Just as the sun fell behind the elms and cast it's shadowy tendrils across the lawn, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest arrived bearing a tall, white, layered cake, and along with it, she'd had the forethought to bring (Dum-ta-Dum!) a cake knife.

Now in reality a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial piece of kitchen arsenal that normally carries no meaning. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world, this had become heavy artillery. This was big time. This meant organized, responsible, an outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife. To my mother it represented the apex of all domesticity and reminded her of her dolefully inadequate life. Mother's kitchen was filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, knife wielding guest stepped upon my mother's porch one fateful summers eve, I looked into my mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had become a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life.

My mother never threw another dinner party. And it was a long time before we ate cake again.

On a brighter note, in the summertime we feasted on fresh vegetables from my grandparents garden and mother always enjoyed a good chefs salad made with these ingredients. 

If I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for mother's dinner party. I found the Romaine, green onions, and even the cherry tomatoes at the farmers market today. To satisfy the men in my life, I topped it with pan fried chicken strips, homemade croutons, and a local Colby-jack cheese.

This salad dressing is a winner. I like to make it in a Mason jar and store it in the refrigerator.
You may have noticed the spice container in the photo: Target's Simply Organic dried basil.

I know, I've committed a mortal sin. But I went to three different grocery stores, all of which were out of fresh basil. And I felt this was a vital component to the recipe, so I substituted. And you know, it wasn't bad. Not great. But not bad. So in a pinch, you do what you gotta do.

Icebox Buttermilk Dressing
adapted from Art Smith's Back To The Table
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup mayo
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped rinsed capers
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and hot red pepper sauce, to taste
Place all ingredients in a jar and shake well to blend. (Keeps about a week in the fridge.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Digging Myself Deeper

Happy Cinco De Mayo!

My mother spent part of her youth in New Mexico. And although she seldom cooks - she does make a mean taco.

Keep in mind this was before Taco Bell and when she met my dad, her future husband, in Kansas in the early sixties, he'd never even heard of a taco. Back then, this was exotic cuisine.

She bought tortillas in flat, round cans and would fry them up by the dozens. It was my favorite meal and remains one of my favorite meals to this day. Along with enchiladas, salsa verde and anything else Mexican. I could eat it 24/7.

It is also my husbands favorite food. And for our very first meal together as a married couple, I prepared tacos from an Old El Paso kit, which he fondly remembers to this day.

When I was pregnant, I craved Mexican food so much, that my husband, begrudgingly, made midnight runs to Taco Bell. (Ick.)

Thankfully, those days are over. I haven't eaten at Taco Bell in years. But I still eat a lot of taco's...

So many, that I started doing the math ...
I've been married for almost twenty-nine years, and figure, on average, that I have made twelve tacos a week for the past twenty-nine years. That's a whopping 18,096 tacos! And every single tortilla (until recently) was store bought.

Have you read the ingredients on the back of those packages lately? It's a long list of unidentifiable things ... mostly preservatives. I don't know about you, but this concerns me. I knew I could do better. So I decided to try making them myself.

First off, I needed a press. I did some research online and decided to go with an inexpensive cast iron press thinking I could always upgrade later if things went well. 

Bed Bath and Beyond is only a few minutes from my home, so I stopped in one day and asked a store associate where the tortilla presses were.  Well I got lucky and the lady there was very helpful and even spoke with a Spanish accent. She asked me what type of tortilla I was making, corn or flour, and if I had ever made them before. Then she asked, Where do you usually buy your tortillas? Which I thought was an unusual question.

So I answered the usual big chain grocery stores, and winced in embarrassment. (Where I come from, there literally is no place else to shop.)

Shaking her head back and forth, she reprimanded me with a quick, No, no, no.

Where do you get your tortillas, I asked?

Oh, it's easy, she said, you just buy the Masa at the grocery store and use the directions on the package. Or you can go to Ted's. (The local Mexcian restaurant that everyone, except me, seems to love.)

So here I am, one week later, after a few bouts of trial and error, standing in the kitchen rolling, pressing and flipping corn tortillas like Rick Bayless on steroids. When my daughter, accustomed to seeing giant clouds of flour and messes in the kitchen, with a concerned look on her face said, Mom, you're digging yourself deeper.

Truer words had never been spoken. I had been complaining about how much time I was spending in the kitchen lately.  And yes, making my own tortillas was more work. And I was wanting to make things easier. But this is definitely worth it. They are much better than the ones you buy at the store.

So I am in deep now. Way deep.

Tips and Recipes
Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina, Golden Corn Flour is the best I have found so far.
Basically, all you do is mix Masa, water, salt, cooking oil - then roll the dough with your hands into small size golf balls - then press, and cook on a griddle or cast iron skillet for a minute on each side. That's it. Four ingredients, counting water. Compare that to the long list you see on your store bought packages. I had a slight problem with sticking and controlling the heat on my cast iron skillet - but I have a cheap, electric stove - so switched to a nonstick skillet and things worked better.
Homemade Corn Tortillas
2 cups Masa Harina
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water
Mix masa, oil and salt together in a medium bowl. Stir in water and knead dough with hands until it feels like a very wet cookie dough. Keep dough covered with a damp cloth so it doesn't dry out. Roll into balls with hands and press between two sheets of plastic (I cut a ziploc bag for this) on your tortilla press. Heat on a nonstick skillet, or griddle, for 1 to 2 minutes.

My kids like to eat soft tortillas for lunch - topping them with black beans, Queso Fresco, Monterey Jack, cilantro, salsa, and pickled red onion.

And nothing beats a fresh, homemade taco ...

For this taco, I ground my own beef with a Kitchenaid mixer attachment.

I am in so deep now, I may never see the light of day.