Archive for the 'Food' Category

Saint Michael Pumpkin Scones

Dec 10 2020 Published by under Food

I made pumpkin scones last weekend, refrigerating the dough on Saturday night and baking it on Sunday morning. I was skeptical; pumpkin is so moist, I thought the result would be pyramid-shaped pumpkin bread. And Husband, who gets really into the chemistry of all cooking and baking, called them “wedge muffins” before they were even in the oven. But the recipe worked, and yielded eight beautiful triangles of scone-ish texture that smelled like fall and possibility and happiness.  

Then I had a dream that involved St. Michael, the Archangel, handing out pumpkin scones to thousands of people, including me. His foot, large and gladiator-sandaled, was on a rock, and under the rock was a giant slug of some sort. We were not at the gates of Heaven though; we were in the Target parking lot, and Saint Mike was pulling the scones from a lime green plastic bucket, like the ones kids use at the beach. And he was wearing Airpods, their white stems pointing down his cheeks like sideburns.  

I’d been wondering, at the end of Mass that day, if there were any scones left at home, and the green bucket in the dream was exactly like the one in the garage at my dad’s house on the Maryland shore, where the kids and their cousins played in the “waves” (barely lapping tide) when they were small, their spindly baby-legs poking out from tiny swim trunks and ruffled suits. The Airpods made an appearance in the dream because one of the kids wants them for Christmas; the real ones and not a knockoff. Saint Michael was defending and protecting the masses (thus a Target parking lot and not a cathedral), and his foot on a slug symbolized good crushing evil. (I really hate slugs, and if I were a Renaissance painter I’d put slugs under the saint’s feet in my work, or maybe those beige, hump-backed crickets that terrorize suburban basements.) The bucket represented change and nostalgia. And the scones were the good, nourishing, happy gift he was handing out from God. But dreams are weird: I was wearing a tutu in the dream and my dream-self felt really awkward and chubby, and Carol Burnett was there and told me my house was a mess and I should really be getting home. I told her I needed to buy contact solution in Target so I couldn’t leave.

Still, it meant something, this dream. Saint Michael defends us in battle, and not just the kind soldiers and marines fight. We are all of us fighting some tiny personal demon or another, in addition to a virus that cannot really be fought. My college kids are in a battle daily with secular culture and very liberal professors who try to tell them America is bad and conservatives are dumb or evil. The younger kids are battling anxiety and ennui and a culture that doesn’t really care about faith and values and kids, and one of them is making some big decisions about what to do after graduation. And the quotidian battles that must be fought around the house (laundry, meals, housework) are no small thing, and then there’s the conflict between my need to eat scones and my need to fit in my jeans.

But these scones: they are good. If you can manage to have just one, they are life-affirming and a little bit astonishing. They smell like both autumn and winter, bridging the Thanksgiving/Advent gap nicely. I feel like they are the ammunition a person needs to fight battles big and small, and I’m making them again tomorrow. If there are any left, I might keep them in a bucket.

For the Scones

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1  tsp ground nutmeg

1  tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3 Tbsp granulated sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter , cold and diced into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. canned pumpkin, chilled (save a Tablespoon for the glaze)

3-4 Tbsp buttermilk or homemade “buttermilk” (put a tsp of white vinegar in the milk for 5 min)

1 large egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter until the pieces are pea-sized. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the wet stuff (everything else.) Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, then mix with a wooden spoon or baking spatula until combined, but try not to over-mix. Flatten to a disk a little over an inch high on wax paper or parchment and chill until you want to bake it. (Or bake; does not have to be chilled!) Cut into 8 wedges like a pie and bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes. (If dough was cold; will cook faster if warm. Check at 10 minutes to evaluate.)

For Glaze: 

Mix up 1 Tbsp pumpkin, 1 Tbsp milk or half and half, ¾ cup powdered sugar, and ⅛ tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. 

When scones are mostly cooled, put a sandwich bag over a cup or jar and fold the edges down, then spoon in the glaze. Close the end of the bag with your hand and snip one corner, and squeeze out the glaze in pretty lines across the tops and serve on a pretty plate. 

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If I Could Eat Anything for a Day

Nov 29 2018 Published by under Essays,Food


If I could eat anything–if calories didn’t matter and the normal laws that govern human  stomachs were revoked–I’d start my day with pie. I don’t know why Americans are so rigid about breakfast food. We seem to have acceptable breakfast foods, like eggs and toast, various meats and very specific starches, but not, say, a hamburger. A hamburger makes a very good breakfast, but it’s not acceptable to ask for one at seven in the morning. Pancakes, waffles, danishes and doughnuts are fattening but acceptable breakfast foods, but not, say, snickerdoodles and milk. Snickerdoodles and milk can’t possibly be as bad for you as some of the garbage at iHop and Taco Bell, but nobody ever serves cookies for breakfast. The thing is, my snickerdoodles are light, fluffy pillows with Madagascar cinnamon and just a dash of nutmeg; they are so lovely that they really ought to be given to people with clinical depression, just to help raise their endorphins. They would make a very encouraging breakfast, but not a culturally acceptable one. Lasagna is also taboo in the morning. Eat cold lasagna for breakfast and your husband, all smug with his greek yogurt and coffee, looks at you like he found you at the kitchen counter picking lint out of your toes.

Pie, though, seems to me to be a perfect breakfast food. Sweetened, baked fruit, cuddled by a buttery blanket and served warm! On a fantasy day, I’d start with pie and a cup of tea. Not a store-bought pie; this would be homemade pie I would eat when I woke, up, the peach pie I made the summer my husband built the playhouse. It was 2003, we had two small kids and a baby on the way and he spent several weekends in the heat, building a playhouse in the backyard, the kids fluttering around him and in his way every moment while they pretended to be Peter Pan and Wendy. I made a peach pie without using a recipe, crust and all, sprinkling in turbinado sugar and nutmeg on instinct. I sat outside and fanned myself while it baked, listening to them chatter (“Come on, Wendy!  We can fly to the lagoon and see mermaids and alligators!”), named it Peter Pan Peach Pie, and then served it to everyone with cold milk. It was the best peach pie in the history of the world, made even better by my fondness for my strong, clever husband and outrageously winsome children.

I’d follow up the pie and reading with protein: grilled salmon, the way my husband does it. He is not a “foodie,” though people sometimes call him that. He enjoys food and cooking but really dislikes name “foodie” because foodies are often people who class-signal by advertising their affinity for branzino or truffles or anything with the word “confit” in it. People who own cookware that costs as much as a mid-size Toyota, and have their dairy products delivered by an “organic” farm so that they can feel virtuous and slightly better than the rest of us without actually admitting they feel this way.

My husband buys groceries at Walmart so he can buy batteries and lighter fluid at the same time. His favorite pot is a cauldron in which to make jambalaya over a fire, and he named the pot Adalida, like the George Strait song. His grilled salmon is the best salmon in the world. He seasons it with salt and pepper and honey, then grills it on an old garage sale grill til it’s perfectly moist and golden, and I like to eat it a couple hours after pie. With a caesar salad. And a diet coke.

After the salmon I’d be temporarily full, and I’d do some things, like go parasailing. I went parasailing once, and it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life, up there with bringing home each of my babies, seeing the Pieta, and going on the To Fly! ride at Disneyland.

Then I’d take a short hike near a waterfall of some size, maybe read a little more of a great novel–I might re-read All the Light We Cannot See or Bel Canto or begin Jane Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, and then it would be time for a snack. I’d snack on honeycrisp apples and potato chips. Potato chips are terrible for you, if you’re going to eat them you might as well start smoking and drinking too, so I would pair them with apples. I don’t normally buy honeycrisp apples, since they are roughly five bucks per apple, they spike your blood sugar as much as Skittles (it’s true) and are about as addictive as crack. But they are sweet and crunchy and beautiful. They are the pretty, popular, rich cheerleaders of apples, and I tend to buy the band geek apples that cost less, but honeycrisp are my fantasy apple; biting one is like taking a bite of happiness.

Then I would go see a Broadway musical.

I have a friend who thinks musicals are so weird they are surreal, what with the characters bursting into song and dance, and this friend is beautiful and cool and wears clothes from stores that aren’t a chain. She is witty and casually sophisticated, and if I’m honest, a little jaded about everything, and she cannot stand musicals. I think they pain her a little with their dorkiness. But I like the bursting into song, the goofy, unapologetic old-fashionedness of it all. And Broadway isn’t our parents’ Broadway anymore, they’ve modernized. Now there are musicals where famous colonists rap about the Declaration of Independence, and musicals where the plot revolves around a suicide, but somehow it’s funny and uplifting. But I would go see a classic, one where you laugh and cry and get transported back in time, like Carousel or Camelot. I want to cry a little when Julie Jordan’s ghost is singing You’ll Never Walk Alone to her daughter, or when King Arthur tells the little boy to go tell everyone that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory that was known as Camelot. And if I can’t see it on the actual Broadway, I want to at least be at a performing arts center where the soprano lead is so good that I can’t even be jealous.

Then it would be dinner time, and I would eat Vietnamese infusion food. American food is where my heart is–I’d be fine with a great burger, or chicken pot-pie made with herbs and white wine, or maybe a garlic-rubbed, roast pork loin with peach-rosemary gravy. But if I’m going to pay for dinner at a restaurant (which I probably will after seeing a Broadway show), I want to be wowed. I want to eat something I would never make myself, and that would be something like  “Bo Xao Vit,” or “flank steak and scallops with gingered haricot vert and cilantro-peanut sauce, served with coconut rice and caramelized onions,” which is served at a local restaurant called Sunday in Saigon. I like that name, and Vietnamese food is so yummy, I think if our soldiers and Marines had been introduced to it during Vietnam, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad. I’m never going to make bo xao vit, but I would love to have it served to me with some not-too-minty green tea, in a restaurant with soft, pretty music, sitting on a cushion that is not under the air conditioning vent.

I’d be full at that point, so I’d go home, get into pajamas, and curl up with a movie about time travel or space travel or aging backwards; a movie that really grips you and takes you on an emotional journey and has you still thinking about it the next morning. Interstellar, or Benjamin Button, or A Beautiful Mind. Something like that, where I am completely sucked in, and I’d watch it with a warm homemade brownie (the things you make from a box are not as good, don’t fool yourself that they are) with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a cup of earl grey tea. Decaf, but black, not some herbal nonsense.

That’s it. That’s how I’d spend a day where I could eat anything. If there was time, I might squeeze in a couple more things: a bowl of gnocchi from a restaurant we discovered in Florence,  the “Duke of Windsor” sandwich like the one my aunt bought me at the mermaid bar in Neiman Marcus in Dallas when I was nine, or a cup of warm “vanilla milk” like my mom made me when I was thirteen and came home crying because John Lambert, the class heartthrob, did not want to go to the dance with me. I think it was just a mug of warm milk loaded with sugar and vanilla extract. It was comforting, and my lady-like mother served it to me on a saucer and said John Lambert was “kind of a butt-head anyway,” which was also comforting.

 Of course I can’t eat anything I want, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and I’d fall into a glutenous rut wherein I wouldn’t appreciate food anymore because I’d be eating whatever I wanted. But a girl can dream. People who think food is just fuel and should not be tied to emotions has never eaten Peter Pan Peach Pie for breakfast. 

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Bad Hair and Blueberry Muffins

Aug 13 2015 Published by under Food

I was in seventh grade. I had glasses and braces and hair that did not confine itself to looking bad once in a while, but betrayed me daily and especially if there were school pictures, a birthday party or school dance. I’d always had disappointing hair; I have memories of getting home permanents as young as six years old in order to “give my hair a little life,” as my mom said. I wanted curly ponytails like Cindy Brady and instead I looked a little like Bobby. But seventh grade was the year I really felt my hair’s deficiencies, the year I began to panic with the thought that this bad hair thing might be a permanent situation. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined, as those sort of things never are, but at the time I thought I had nearly the worst hair in the world, almost as bad as Shannon Fitzer, class weirdo, and that was her own fault because she never washed hers. Or maybe she had a disorder that caused her hair follicles to produce a hundred times more oil than the average person, I don’t know, but it was limp with grease and an indeterminate shade of brownish-gray, even though we were twelve.

My own hair was blond, which, in the eighties, was like hitting the lottery. But my good luck ended there: it grew outward instead of down, it was oily at the scalp even though I washed it nightly, and it was dry everywhere else, maybe because I washed it nightly. My mom said it was “fine and silky,” which was eupha-mom-stic; it was just thin. My mom’s Southern friend Shirley, who was stuck in a mid-western town but was basically a character in a Tennessee Williams play, once told me, “Sweetheart, that hair of yours ain’t never gonna listen; you’d  best just chop it off.” The hairdresser who tried to put something like an up-do  in my short hair for the eighth grade dance stepped back to appraise her work and said, “I put enough hairspray in there to hold a few small dogs on your head. If that doesn’t work, nothing will.”  My date–my first date ever, if you could call it that–gingerly touched my head, as you would a porcupine, and laughed so hard he had to hold on to the banister, until my dad shot him a look that silenced him so severely he was unable to put on my corsage, and it was a wrist corsage. My mom had to do it for him.

In early high school, my hair was even shorter, a style they were still calling a Dorothy Hamill, which is designed to make your hair stack up in the back and look thick. I did not have the high cheekbones and turned-up-nose to pull this off, but it was stylish enough, and daring enough–most girls stuck safely to long hair and teased up bangs–that I got by. My self-esteem didn’t suffer too badly, in fact that short hair may have boosted my confidence into the realm of “cool.” I was edgy. I was different. I had short hair and took art classes, wrote for the school literary journal and adopted the cool indifference of a girl who is not like all the other girls, though of course I was. (As a side note, my fifteen-year-old son recently said, “I can’t stand it when girls try super hard to be all edgy and “different,” they’re all, like, “I’m so different, I wear Converse to prom!” But really they’re like everyone else.” And I thought: crap. I was one of those girls…”)

The thing is, despite the stacked-up cut, it took a lot of hairspray to keep my hair looking like Dorothy’s, and mine never flew gracefully around behind me when I skated on the town lake. It clung to my head like the helmet that it was in the winter, and in the summer it plastered itself to my cheeks in surrender. My sister called it ‘Shawn Cassidy hair” and warned against it, though she was a fan of the Hardy Boys reruns and I believe her first crush was on Parker Stevenson. When my hair went limp, she would flash her eyes at my head and say “Da-doo run-run,” and I’d run for a can of Finesse. If I used a curling iron and turned my hair under, I could make it look a little like Valerie Bertinelli’s on One Day at a Time, or Mindy in that one season where she briefly had hers cut short and Mork made that joke about a human Q-tip.

So I eventually got fed up. The Dorothy Hamill wedge wasn’t working for me anymore; I tried to grow it to my shoulders or at least into a sleek bob, but the awkward in-between stage was always too much for me. Friends wasn’t on yet so Rachel hadn’t shown us all how to grow out our hair gracefully, and layers weren’t a thing. I’d chop it back off, cry a little and start over.

On one particularly bad day in about 1988 I was so distraught that my mom found me in my room crying while reading a book for English class, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Like so many high school reading list books, it was overtly depressing and upsetting and not remotely related to anything we were studying in any other part of school. The book involves war, depression, mental illness, prostitution, and a lot of death–perfect for a teenager, yes?–and and the teacher had told us was satire, which was “the smartest kind of humor.” There was nothing funny about this book, but I was crying about my hair: there was a party later that evening and my hair looked terrible. Fresh from a bad cut by the only barber in town (yes, barber),  limp with humidity and orange-ish because a friend had mistakenly told me that you could put QT in your hair and sit for a few hours in the sun for natural looking highlights. It must’ve been bad because my mom took one look at my tear-stained face and said, “The book?” I shook my head no and she looked sympathetic and said only, “Oh. The hair, then.”

She didn’t say it wasn’t that bad. She didn’t say what my dad said, which was something along the lines of “Suck it up. Be happy you have hair at all.” She just took my hand and pulled me off of my yellow flowered bedspread and to the kitchen, and placed a metal bowl in front of me and her copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cook book, which she just called “Betterhomes.” I rolled my eyes, but the well worn binding and the red and white checkered cover were comforting:  it was already working. I made blueberry muffins. The blueberries were going to go bad anyway, my mom said to convince me, because I’d rather have drown my sorrows in a pan of brownies, or one of those snack n’ cakes that came with its own little pan. But those berries were round and firm, and the resulting muffins were perfect. The crumb was more firm than cake but less dense than bread, they had just a hint of both lemon and almond, and they crackled on top with a sprinkling of demerara sugar. I know you’re not supposed to teach your children emotional eating, and muffins are not health food, but this wasn’t about eating, it was about creating. She had me make the muffins, like she always did when I had a bad case of the blues.

It’s not the food, it’s the stepping out of yourself. The focusing on something other than self pity, and producing something beautiful that also happens to double as breakfast the next morning. Something that makes everyone happy, and fills the house with an endorphin-raising aroma. At some point my mom said something about me being beautiful, and that we are not defined by our hair, but mainly she just told me to put on some happy music and make muffins. It was a gentle “get over yourself” disguised as part benign chore, part sympathy. Really it was the same thing my father was saying, but with–literally–a spoonful of sugar. Happily, my hair got slightly better in my twenties, I am not sure why, and even better when I had several children and my veins were coursing with all those hormones that are supposed to make your hair terrible. The hormones figured they couldn’t make it much worse, the only thing to do was make it better. It’s actually pretty thick now, though I still have to keep it short because when I grow it out, I look like someone in an ad for Prozac, or the “before” version of someone getting Queer-Eyed. And even if I still had bad hair, I wouldn’t care nearly so much. I’m older, wiser, and much, much less focused on myself. For example, I don’t think I remembered to put on make up today. But one of my daughters, though she is beautiful, has  hair that is fine and slippery and rarely does what is asked of it, and the great sadness of her childhood has been her “skinny” ponytails. I tell her that this, too, shall pass. Or not. And that she is gorgeous and no one else is noticing this, and it does not define her. And even in the dead of winter, I keep a lot of blueberries on hand.

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Dec 30 2014 Published by under Food

Everyone has their thing they make at Christmas. Or maybe it is a thing their mother made, or grandmother. A sweet thing that was made on the night they decorated the tree, or on Christmas Eve, or Christmas day. A specialty that was given to neighbors on a foil covered plate with a bow. A scrumptious little thing, or a weird, rolled up cookie that came to the New World with Nanna or MorMor or Oma, and no one can bear to stop making it because it is a tradition. When I was a kid it was Scottish shortbread; little circles punched down with those stubby-handled, ceramic coated cookie punch disks. We had three, the outsides of which were pea-green, mustard yellow and rust-red; the colors of the 70s. The pea-green one would punch the cookie with tiny holly leaves around the edges; you knew the cookies were done when they rose just enough that the holly leaves became fat.

I also remember my mother making cheese fondue at Christmas, (in a greenish yellow fondue pot of course) and a big roast for dinner, and there were the years when my older sister attempted a bouche de Noel from scratch because her French teacher promised extra credit. But the shortbread cookies (a pound of butter) and the fondue fell by the wayside when my dad’s cholesterol got high, and the Christmas log cake was a pain in the neck, and we are not French. So when I got married, I didn’t really have a sweet thing that I made at Christmas.

But my husband did: his grandmother’s gingersnaps. I was ambivalent about non-chocolate desserts and cookies: if it’s not chocolate, why bother? But then he whipped these up, made a couple alterations, and whipped them up again a week later. They made the kitchen smell like Christmas, and the kids begged for more. They were little that first gingersnap year. We have a picture of them sitting on the kitchen floor on a blanket, both wearing USMC t-shirts for pajamas, dipping gingersnaps into milk and laughing. They are tow-headed and cherubic and innocent and that picture makes my heart break a little.

These babies smell like Christmas and Santa and happiness, and they will be the thing my kids remember that we always made in December. Like the best of their cookie brethren, they need to be eaten with milk, like my kids did that first time. And unlike the shortbread and fondue of my childhood, I’m going to make these forever.

It helps to weigh the flour on a kitchen scale if you have one, because the amount of flour in a cookie directly affects the texture and bendy-ness. And when they are cooled off and you put them away to store, make it an air-tight container with a piece of white bread in there. The cookies will suck the moisture out of the bread and stay bendy, instead of getting crunchy and stale. This recipe has been a secret for years, but I am feeling generous.

Makes about 20 cookies. Doubles nicely. I have never not doubled it…

3/4 C or 1.5 sticks butter, 1 C sugar, 1/4 C dark molasses, 1 egg, 2 and 1/2 C OR 12.5 ounces flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp salt, 1.5 tsp cinnamon.

Soften the butter in the microwave but do not melt it completely. (Or leave it out on the counter for 2 hours. It should be soft, but NOT melted.) Add to stand mixer if you are using one. Add sugar and molasses and mix on high, then add egg and mix again until fluffy. In a different bowl, whisk dry ingredients. Add them to the wet ones and combine well but do not over-mix.

Place dough in wax paper and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 375. Form the dough into ping-pong ball sized balls, and roll each one in sugar-in-the-raw. Regular sugar is fine if you don’t have sugar-in-the-raw. Place balls on cookie sheet lined with parchment if possible. Bake 15-20 minutes, until cracked on top but not over-baked. Slightly under-done is better: they will harden as they cool. Let rest on cookie sheet for 5 minutes. Enjoy! Store with a piece of white bread.



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The Soup Whisperer

May 04 2014 Published by under Food

Life-affirming soup. I used noodles in this one because that’s what I had. It looks even prettier with wild rice. You can throw green veggies in there too, but then it looks like you have an agenda. This way is more comforting.

I make this soup. It’s not really one kind of soup; it’s any; it’s many. It starts out the same every time, but it ends up different if I want it to, and I know how to make it because my mom died eighteen years ago.

I had to count up those years in my head just now because I can’t believe it’s been that long; it seems like just a few years ago she was walking around in a Lands End down vest and jeans (still a good look, I might add), and chatting with me, sewing, watching re-runs of Newhart. Laughing, at everything I said. She thought I was so funny. She died in a freak accident that I wasn’t there for and left us all pretty broken. And no good came of it, either. All those aphorisms about how something good comes of everything, how we will see the wisdom in God’s plan years later; all those do not apply. No good came of losing my mom, period, and definitely not one large enough to make up for the gaping, yawning hole that was left in my family. But if I had, I mean absolutely had to think of something good, or sort of good, that happened in the years that followed that might not have happened if I hadn’t lost my mom, there are two things: I became a little more compassionate, and I learned to make soup. Seriously good, comforting, delicate-yet-substantial soups that warm the soul literally and figuratively.

I’m a very competent cook when it comes to weeknight dinners and sweet breads. I make great pot-roast, decent pot-pie, and adequate quiche, but I’m gifted at soup. I don’t like to brag, but I am. No recipe, just me and the contents of my fridge and pantry, no matter what they are, and I can make a soup that is amazing. My husband names them after me: there is ‘Paigestroni’ and “Paige-sta e fagioli,’ and my favorite, “Myrtle-ini.” (Don’t ask.) The guy is a bit of a foodie, too, and holds the culinary world to very high standards. He recently called me ‘the soup whisperer.’

Here is how it happened: my mom died, I lost eleven pounds in three weeks because I couldn’t choke down any sort of food, only nobody noticed except my roommate and my boyfriend, and then I learned to make soup. One night as I sat grading papers, because life just marches on in your face and you have no choice but to do what you’re supposed to be doing, my then-boyfriend stopped by with chicken parmesan from the Italian place downstairs that I liked until I stopped eating. I loved their chicken parmesan, and he tried to coax me into taking some bites. He held them out on a fork for me, like I was a toddler, begging me to just have some, because I needed to eat. I was teaching full time, six different classes with five different “preps” because the school I taught at was using me as a workhorse, and I was driving home to Alexandria three nights a week and leaving food for my dad. Casseroles, mainly, that he wasn’t eating. The boyfriend sat back on his haunches and asked if there was anything that I would eat. Anything that sounded good, and he’d go and get it for me, or make it for me. I came out of my stupor for a minute when I realized he seemed about to cry. (And by the way, it’s not that I was too thin–I could stand to lose eleven pounds then and I definitely could now. It’s just that my rapid weight loss was such an obvious symptom of my sadness, he thought if he could at least fix that, he’d have done something good. It wouldn’t have fixed the sadness, it was pure man-think, but he meant well.) I thought a minute and said, “Soup. I could eat soup. But…I think I want to make it myself.”

He was so pleased. I hadn’t wanted to do anything myself, let alone anything involving food, which he believed holds near-sacred qualities if prepared in a way that gives glory to God and food itself, and is consumed with family or friends. Really, I just wanted to make it myself because I wanted to make extra for my dad so I could skip a couple days of casserole-making. And I kind of wanted to be alone in my grief, because I was miserable company and knew it.

My boyfriend and my roommate got all excited, fluttering around arranging spoons and spatulas and cutting boards for me in the tiny kitchen of the hugely overpriced two-bedroom apartment. It was a crummy little place with peeling paint and stinky, sticky carpet and raccoons in the attic, but it had a kitchen with gas burners and a long countertop. “Do you need anything?” they kept asking, so I sent them to the store for chicken broth while I got to work chopping the one little onion we had. They said they’d get more onions, but I didn’t want more. We were on a tight budget, all of us, about half a shoestring each, and I wanted to see what I could do with what we had and very little else. The self-denial was strangely cathartic.

In the 20-year-old fridge we had some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, (my roommate had a touch of carnaphobia, or at least wouldn’t buy any meat that looked too gross in supermarket cellophane. We pooled our money for groceries sometimes, and I went along with her need to buy more expensive cuts of meat because they had less fat), two carrots, and some milk. In one of the 1975 cabinets, we had a box of Corn Pops and a single can of cannellini beans with an expiration date that was two weeks in the past.

I got to work. I began with a recipe on a recipe card in a recipe box that had been my mothers; the recipe was attributed to her friend, Sue Schultz, a neighbor in the late 70s. The recipe card was yellowing with age and had roosters on it. It was a recipe for “Anything Soup,” and the first thing it had you do was chop onions. Then it had you sauté them, then add flour, right to the onions, making a weird, chunky paste in the bottom of the pot. Then it had you pour broth on the weird paste, slowly, until there was a lot in there. Then you brought it to a simmer, adding things. I didn’t know I was making a roux, or that this could be the base of many soups and sauces. I only knew I was cooking, really cooking, and despite the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job that was exhausting me and the fact that my father didn’t like my boyfriend, whom I wanted to marry, (quickly if possible, because of the grief over my mother and the crummy apartment and the job), some tiny part of me felt happy. My roux smelled good. It is really hard to be totally sad if you are working with your hands and smelling sautéing onions.

I started making soup instead of casseroles. There is a place for casserole, but it not on the table of someone who is grieving. At least, not too often and not unless it is a really great casserole. Great enough that the sad person can overlook the fact that they are so sad, somebody gave them a casserole. But soup says I understand. It says Here, try a little of this, you’ll feel better. Slowly, glacier-time slowly, I did feel a little better and so did my dad. And my roommate, who had troubles of her own, ate well for a while until I married that boyfriend and she married hers and I learned to make a few other things.

Here is the point: you can make tons of soups with no recipe if you just learn the basics. Here’s how you do it:

1. Chop up an onion or two, and is possible several cloves of garlic.

2. Heat up a pot with a Tablespoon of oil and a Tablespoon of butter. When bubbling, put the onion and garlic in there.

3. Wait three or four minutes, stirring sometimes, until onions are tender. Then sprinkle roughly 3 Tablespoons of flour on there. It makes a weird chunky paste.

4. Cook about 3 more minutes, then pour on 3 cups (or so) of chicken broth or stock. If you don’t have it, use bullion and make it first, or use some combination of water and broth and wine. Beef or vegetable broth will work, white wine, something. Broth or stock is best but do what you can.

5. Bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer. Now, ADD STUFF.

Meat: (already cooked). Anything you have. Seriously. Chicken, beef, turkey, sausage, ground beef or turkey, leftover pot roast, whatever.

Herbs, (rosemary goes with chicken, thyme goes with beef, sage goes with turkey, and oregano makes anything taste Italian. That’s all you gotta know.)

A starchy thing: (already cooked). Pasta, rice, brown rice, beans, corn, peas, potatoes, etc.

Stuff from your fridge: leftover tortellini, quinoa with herbs, whatever. If you need to get rid of a leftover savory item and don’t want to eat it alone, you can probably add it to the pot. Unless it’s, like, a dessert, or has a bun on it, or has a really distinct flavor that doesn’t go with your delicate soup. Don’t put leftover chipotle tacos in chicken and rosemary soup, for example. No, wait, that could be good.

Seasoning: do this at the end, just in case the meat you added already had so much salt that it has seeped into the soup and you don’t need to add as much salt as you otherwise would. Try salt and pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, a pinch of paprika, etc.

Sauces: to make your soup Italian, add leftover spaghetti sauce and tortellini, or a can of tomato sauce or paste and a bunch of dried oregano, even a dash of red wine if you want.

Let it simmer for ten minutes. Set the table, toast some bread, grate some cheese to sprinkle on top. Relax. Eat your soup.

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The Stand Mixer

May 04 2014 Published by under Food

Three years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly a fifth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

Most people would call it a “Kitchen Aid,” in the way that a copier is called a Xerox machine even when it’s not; the way a soda was a Coke, where I grew up, even when it was Sprite. But my mixer is not a Kitchen Aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and counter-top precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Toyota 4Runner, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5-quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are ten speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

The day I got the gift, I used it to make a cake, meatloaf, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it bugged me. The paddle didn’t–still doesn’t–reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when our toddler is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors.  My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother… I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so fast that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. A friend of my daughter’s said “HailMaryfullagrace, the Lord is witty…” until she was twelve and no one corrected her. And there are Catholics who think that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Very Eat, Pray, Love. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. I really believe it was God talking to me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; four loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to help somebody with pre-algebra, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it a while, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. And it’s really not that loud; not really. And aircraft carriers do have a certain powerful beauty.

It has been a few years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself; you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray. But if there was some way to get the spiritual pay-off of hours of prayer but only pray for a few minutes, it would be tempting. Really tempting.

Four loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time. I’m just saying.

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