Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Been A While

A lot has happened since we last visited.

My husband and I both 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 I can remember.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to old man winter
and all that it entails.

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

Snuggle by the fire.

And this ...

Cook in my new kitchen.

And this ...

Read a few books.

But what will probably happen is this ...

 And giving our extreme weather,

by the end of winter,

I may look a lot like this!

Enjoy the season.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reading List

Summertime is reading time.
I inherited it from my mother.

Back in the seventies, when I was a kid, my mother loved 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 proudly proclaim, "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 ever 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 big as that lying about the house for weeks on end.

One tranquil summer afternoon, sprinklers swishing and lawnmowers humming in the distance, mother put her swimsuit on and spread a blanket onto the lawn in order to sunbathe and finish "The Winds of War."

Hours passed as she read obsessively while my brother and sister and I frolicked about. Until finally, down to the very last page, Mother 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, gnawing and slobbering all over her book 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 as this and not be able to finish the very last page. For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my mother. "Whatever will you do?" I remember asking. 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 the car, 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, where she 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 wheels of our Ford station wagon eased from the curb, Mother blissfully 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 husband's 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 the 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.

Anyone have any other 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 that 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. He 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 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, it seems, 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(!).

No, 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 right 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.
Which is quite a coincidence 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 whose works 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 authhors. 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, that hubby wants to live in the country, while I prefer the 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, it seems, are the modern day equivalent of 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 just look up their zodiac sign. Look up the author who was born on their birthday, and you'll probably find their incarnate.

Edith Wharton

Henry David Thoreau

I can actually see a bit of a similarity!

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 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 the most severe case of hives I have ever seen, and for a moment, we thought we were going to the emergency room. But thankfully, he is okay now.

My son is a city boy... and if we had went to the ER, I would envision a conversation that 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 in the country ... with 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 one to reassess and learn more about ourselves and who we are ...

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to read The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse in order to lull me to sleep.

And I always became giddy 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 penurious 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 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 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 Shirley Maclaine has ever played.

Terms Of Endearment:
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, 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.

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 people, dinner with friends on a beautiful summer evening would seem no big deal. Tidy up the house, prepare a meal ...  it isn't splitting the atom. But for Mother, splitting the atom would have been easier. Small, trivial things annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life, and somehow this left her with very little patience or toleration of ordinary, mundane, day-to-day activities.

Now, back to the dinner.
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 she had came into contact with, completely and utterly miserable.

At this point it is helpful to know that as a family, we weren't exactly known for our housekeeping skills. 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 cleaning process, that the party and dinner itself had become an afterthought. But mother was intent on having this dinner party and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture mattered. 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 deter her gosh dammit!

That was my mother.

Next came the staging. For reasons I will never fully never understand, Mother severely wanted to impress these people, so the house had to be perfect. She wanted to convey the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, but 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 portable plastic 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 this had to do with anything, I'll never know. Then mother strategically arranged potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the cabinets 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. This dinner 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 over to my house and make me do all this work(!) she begrudgingly murmured to herself while scrubbing the tub. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of a roast haphazardly cooked in a 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.

Unfortunately, I do not remember 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 of life or death matters, 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 thing about the evening I do recall, however. A substantial thing ...

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 trivial thing. A benign little piece of kitchen arsenal. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world, this had become heavy artillery. This lady was big time. She owned a cake knife. In our world that meant organized, responsible, an outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well, serrated with fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife. In our world, this simple culinary tool represented the apex of all domesticity. And the lack thereof spoke volumes about my mother and her dolefully inadequate life. Mother's kitchen was filled with the odds and ends of a person who had seldom cooked, much less entertained: 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 our porch one fateful summers eve, I looked into my mothers eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen tool became a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life.

Mother never threw another dinner party and it was a long time before we ate cake again.

Mother always enjoyed a good chefs salad. And if I could, I would go back in time and prepare this salad for her dinner party. I found the Romaine lettuce, green onions, and even the cherry tomatoes at the farmers market. I topped it with pan fried chicken strips, homemade croutons, and Colby-jack cheese.

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

I know, 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. So in a pinch, I recommend this brand.

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 learned to cook what was then considered "exotic cuisine."

Masa was unheard of in our little town, so she bought tortillas in flat, round tin cans, and would fry them up by the dozens. It was my favorite meal back then and remains one of my favorite meals to this day.

It is also one of my husbands favorite foods. 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 would begrudgingly make midnight runs to Taco Bell.

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

So I started doing the math ...
I've been married for almost twenty-nine years, and figure, on average, 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 your tortilla package 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 didn't go 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.  It was serendipity. The lady there was very helpful and even spoke with a Spanish accent. She asked me what type of tortilla I was making 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, a couple of big chain grocery stores, and winced in embarrassment. (Here in Oklahoma City there's no place else to shop.)

Shaking her head, the nice lady 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.

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 all of a sudden my daughter (accustomed to seeing giant clouds of flour and messes in the kitchen) with a deeply concerned look on her face said, Mom, you're digging yourself deeper.

Truer words had never been spoken. I had been complaining lately about how much time I was spending in the kitchen.  And yes, making my own tortillas was more work. And I was wanting to make things easier. But this is definitely worth it. These babies are so 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.