December 24, 2009

Cookie Tradition


I come from this long line of bakers. A great grandfather was a chemist and invented the commercial cake mix, owned a bakery or two and provided me with a wonderful baking grandmother who taught me with a combination of German and Scottish precision and prudence. My great grandparents on the other side owned a bakery where all the family worked including my other grandmother who also taught my sister and I cooking baking with joy and a song. Today, my Christmas Eve delight is in beginning the tradition with my own girlie. We made Grandma Edith's 1-2-3 Cookies with precision and flair. (I'll post the recipe later.) The results are beautiful and will be out the door soon for neighbors and friends.
There is much joy in the sharing and experience tradition.

The Long Conversations over Christmas Cookies

Last night, over a failed batch of my Grandma Edith's 1-2-3 Cookies, my sister and I spent our night on the phone. I'd called to see what was wrong with the recipe my mom dictated an hour earlier. Somehow, after Edith's passing, my mom, the one who doesn't bake and doesn't really like to cook, hung on to Grandmother's recipes and gave her Treasured Burgundy Binder to my sister. The binder is something that would have been purchased at a Five & Dime in the day, its about 5 x 7 and filled with loose leaf lined paper. All the very treasured recipes are there. Green Pepper Egg Foo Young, Toffee Bars, Mrs. Blethen's French Dressing, all that she served as we grew up. She must have created it over the years and brought it with her when she moved from the mid-west.
Each recipe is written in Grandma Edith's beautiful cursive, flowing in the Palmer Method,  in fountain ink - mid-blue, from her Parker 51. I inherited a love for the fountain pen from her. (And a Parker 51.) But the style is uniquely her own and a constant in our lives. She wrote hundreds of cards and notes in this lovely hand and we new the curve of every letter, my sister and I. Last night when I opened the 1950's Mirro Cookie Press to make the 1-2-3's, I found a note she'd undoubtedly written to Mom: "Darling's, think of Mother when you use this,  Mother." Uniquely Grandma.
The note has faded from her Azure Blue to a deep midnight and the paper yellowed, but Grandma was there for a few minutes. No doubt she too, wondered what I'd done to the recipe.
My sister quickly identified the mistake, I'd only used one stick of butter, when two were called for. Each is a quarter pound. I'd momentarily lapsed. So the sandy dough, the one gone wrong,  will be used for something else and I moved on to my other grandmother's Orange Meltaway cookies. As I was working. My sister and I just continued to talk. We covered much, kids and cookies and our mother, our grandmother and each other. Familiar, comfortable and uncomfortable things.
My sister and I talk just about every day, touching base, sharing points of view. But this conversation went beyond that and meandered in the history of our family and into the nighttime words in the room we shared and even into the tradition of baking cookies for friends and neighbors with Grandma at Christmas. She never knew that  Grandma's Toffee Bars were my personal favorites and faxed the recipe as we talked. And I never knew she liked the Date Balls best. We both rummaged for the recipe which is noted in the Burgundy Binder, as being found on Page 31 of the Bethany Union Church Cookbook. We immediately called Mom to obtained the precious directions but Mom, who redid her kitchen 10 or so years ago couldn't put her hand on the book and wasn't really willing to get up on a ladder to go through the cook book area. (Recall, this is the mother who doesn't like to bake or cook so these are relics of the past, not treasured friends she touches often.)
This experience lead to the return to our fat-chewing about the holes in our upbringing which lead us back to the thing that's so very important and comes out in the long conversations - the bonds of love. Somehow, when we keep going - discovering, recovering, uncovering and returning - we remember just why we want to talk so very long. It's nice. Lovely and nice and sweet and really, even if it starts with failed cookies, it's about the person we know will be willing to help us get where we want to be, now or much later, because of the thing that unites all things, and us: Love. It's often found in the long conversations.

December 22, 2009

The card update


Well, I must say the idea of addressing all the Christmas card envelopes before the end of November was genius! What a stunning sense of order and ease. Ah! Kinda.
As it turns out, about three quarters were done by the third of December. I did feel that marvelous ease and calm. The photos came, I wrote a bit, but, as my common practice has been, the last few went out yesterday. (Perhaps it's the joy of candlelight, carols and a staying up late, late, late.) Nonetheless, the early purchase and start to the season, even in a task before it started, did something surprising and delightful. I began enjoying the season of Christmas early.

My whole family and a fabulous organizing friend spent the Monday of Thanksgiving week clearing and organizing the garage. Out it went! Space was made. Breathing space, and lots of it. As we rearranged the boxes - the decorating boxes cried out a bit and the Christmas lights went up. And from the Monday after the yummy holiday on, we've enjoyed the edges of Christmas. That beginning made way for more enjoying. I built an ersatz Christmas tree or two of bamboo (think: stick tee pees with lights) in the garden and planted seedling Sweet Peas which are vining their way up the lighted sticks. Ornaments are hanging from dormant Redbuds and little lights sparkle in flowers outdoors.
As Christmas neared, the things of Christmas have gathered in and out, and there's been a place for each: the stalks and blossoms of Amaryliss, the pots of pointsettias and Christmas treasures to emerge from their waiting boxes.
Somehow, some way, a Things to Do thing to do, became a way to think. And I have enjoyed each minute for what seems like a long, long, time.

November 03, 2009

Do we live and learn?

Each year I wait for Christmas with eager anticipation and each year the beautiful holiday seems to sneak up on me. So here I am for a test. The Christmas cards, ordered in early October, have arrived. They sit on my dining room table. Can I, is there a way to, reorder my routine and have these envelopes addressed by the end of November? That would be delightful. I'd avert any rushing on a Christmas project I adore. The question becomes the quest. I challenge my own divide (into weeks) and conquer (the less considered) mentality and only time will tell. A weekly post shall suffice.

October 28, 2009

Being known


I celebrated my birthday a few days ago and among the wishes and thoughts and gifts and treats, I found myself simply glad. Glad to be celebrated on my day and glad to be marking the day. There was one outstanding offering that I think I shall treasure for all the days in front of me. A card from my husband. The picture of a planked garden gate set about with stone bricks, peppermint geraniums and foxglove, displayed Joseph Priestly's quoted observation,

"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day...with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning."

It is rich to be known. To have been observed. And to celebrate the things that are intrinsic to our joy.

October 19, 2009

The dog in our lives.

I was born on a Monday and my first dog was born on the Sunday before me. He was my friend and because of his breed and bloodline, my protector. The Skye Terrier is not a terribly popular breed largely due to their somewhat aggressive nature -- they aren't easy. They have the terrier pluckiness and interest in life, but they tend to be one-man-dogs and have fearfully powerful jaws. This particular dog was bigger than many in his breed. He was as smart and as loyal as a dog can be, but that loyalty was to one person, my dad. He spent an entire day once when my great grandmother was visiting, lying on the bed draped over Dad's jacket, growling each time the dear woman neared the room. He was guarding property. His loyalty to me, though mixed with great affection, was based on his job. I was his charge. My mom, to whom he was not loyal in the least, learned about his commitment when she went to spank her rather impetuous and certainly defiant, child. As she was attempting to land a swat, the dog caught the sleeve of her sweater and produced a hole there that clarified his position on spanking. There was to be none. And there was none in his presence. He chose to sleep at my dad's feet and occasionally mine. He was attentive and communicative and lovely and his absence, when I turned eight, left a great hole in the sleeve of my heart.
When I bought my very own first pup (after many, many family dogs) it was a terrier, a Cairn. He was a fabulous specimen. Hearty and joyous and funny and truly, truly a girl's best friend. He was a traveler, a follower, a greeter and one of the most interested personalities I've ever known. He lived a lovely life and just two weeks shy of his 17th birthday, passed on to the green, green rolling hills that any good Scotsman longs for.
My life is now inhabited by a beautiful, noble, handsome, German Shepherd Dog who will never leave a footprint on my heart because he's taken it and stashed it in his doggy pocket. He lives right in the middle of our lives and each of us has our own relationship with him. He delights in lying next to my youngest for a cuddle. He walks the blocks with our eldest. Goes to the park in the car with his master and for long walks with me. We might each think he loves us the most. But the focus is on me, my comings and goings. He has studied my ways from the morning's alarm to the turning of the covers at night. He reads my pants and knows every shoe choice. There is a leap when they communicate, "go." I certainly haven't earned this loyal following. But the minutes, when his eyes grasp mine to figure out the next step, are filled with collusion and excitement. We have secrets between us. We've been somewhere together without the others. It is a magical bond. And at the end of the day I revel in all the dogs I've known when he's welcomed up on the bed for those sweet minutes at the close of the day. He circles in that doggy circle and lies down, making sure his back rests against my leg. In this space of peace and connection, I drift off to sleep, connected to the many and the singular, this marvelous creature: the dog in my life.

September 20, 2009

Belief

When I graduated from the Professional Cooking program at UCLA, I was thrilled to consider applying my refined, as well as newly found, culinary skills. I'd mastered duck and dacquoise. I'd also had a brilliant pistol of a teacher, Cecilia d'Castro. Cecilia worked with Wolfgang Puck in his Ma Maison days and taught us from a "new from old" perspective. Everything comes from French Cooking. And new ideas come brilliantly by relying on old methods but certainly not being bound by them.
Shortly after that graduation, my mom mentioned to a friend (who happened to be the wife of a fabulous chef with his own restaurant) that I'd graduated. No one could have been more happy for and excited about this accomplishment. Mom never really mustered too much exuberance for the kitchen. She loved the idea that I'd connected to this aspect of family history. So on the day she mentioned my accomplishment to Amy, Amy mentioned right back that her husband, Steve, needed a pastry chef and quickly. They were about to open their second restaurant. 
A minor crunch presented: In my romantic mind, I was ready to leave the world of clients and strategies and commercial shoots and trips to New York behind, for the world of batter and finish. Playing in the kitchen sounded a thousand times more wonderful than anything I could imagine. Even First Class on American Airlines with make-your-own-sundaes, silverware and mimosas. I ran into reality though, when I ran the numbers. A pastry chef, especially the I-just-graduated-from-culinary-school type only makes single-digit-an-hour numbers. This is quite different than Advertising Executive money. You can live on Ad Exec money. You can even shop when in New York and drive a late model car. But pastry chef money barely pays the rent, even if you live in a rent-controlled apartment. I ran the numbers over and over and found out that it doesn't really matter how many times you run numbers. Numbers are true to themselves and their order. I fretted. A romantic and perfect dream was about to be pulverized by reality. And then a week or two went by and I struggled with another reality. I loved my strategy, client, collaborate, go-get-‘em world. In the midst, the best reality presented. The chef didn't really need a full-time pastry chef for the new restaurant. He just needed one on Friday and Saturday nights. Really? Really? I could just add this fabulous, wonderful, thing that I loved into my life and stay up 'til way past midnight in the kitchen? I was in. In and ready. I trained with the full-time pastry chef for a month one night a week and picked up her methods for the chocolate ganache, the deep dish chocolate pecan pie, the souffl├ęs. It was more than exciting. I loved the mix of precision and flourish. And I loved, loved, loved being one of the kitchen staff. They were incredible. Individual, hard working and officially chefs. Every last one of them.
As time went on I proved my capacity to follow and perform. The chef sent me off to work for his wonderful younger brother, the Sous Chef who became the Chef de Cuisine at the new restaurant. Life was grand. I worked all week at my agency job and then on the occasional Friday and every Saturday, donned my chef whites and went off to do the joyful work.
In early fall, Chef Steven White, having been acknowledged by the California Restaurant Writers Association, was asked to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York City. He planned a beautiful dinner with a nod to the essence of French creation including the Beggars Purse and meringues with strawberry coulis. He was taking his brother, Carlos, to assist him and when I noticed I, too, had to join a client in New York that very week, I offered my services. The week, the experience, the picture of cooking with these two talented men in James Beard's kitchen (and Dean and Deluca's basement) is the stuff I dream about. Before, during and after. I stood next to both Steven and Carlos as they were being congratulated for the beautiful dinner and delicious dessert. And I contributed. Prepping and cooking fruit, baking meringues and plating a Pavlova-like dish that was completely beautiful.
The inspiration, that day, was in the Chef's belief in me as a member of his team. He left me for hours in that basement kitchen, prepping. And he coughed out orders to me, just as he did his very experienced brother, as we prepared each plate for the invitees. It didn't really dawn on me that I might be a liability to this man until we were in the crunch of finishing plates. A moment when the best chef can be filled with self-doubt. Rather than wonder if I could cook, I looked into this Chef's face and saw that I was his pastry chef. An assistant of value with work to do. A contributor.
I learned a valuable truth that summer's night: There is great encouragement in belief.


Check out Cecilia's cooking school:

www.academyofculinaryeducation.com

Meringues

I start with this fact. Meringues can be difficult. But, if you know the rules going in, they are can be a simple pleasure.
2 parts sugar (granulated or 1/2 granulated & 1/2 confectioners)
1 part egg white (only egg whites and if this means pressing the whites through a CLEAN fine sieve, do it)
A bit of lemon juice (You can rub this in a bowl. I work in CLEAN glass, it provides the most promise.)

Start with the whites on low with a hand mixer. When the whites are fairly frothy, mix in 1/4 of the sugar, mix to a stiffer state and add the rest of the sugar a little at a time. You'll want to  mix these until they're very stiff. When you think they're ready, test a small amount between your fingers for smoothness. If they aren't smooth, keep beating. When you have smooth, stiff peaks, pipe out the size you wish onto a lined baking sheet. Bake at 225 degrees F for about 30 minutes. If, at that time they are stiff but a bit sticky, turn the oven down to 175 degrees for another 30 minutes and let them finish drying. Humidity in your home will determine drying time. Meringues may be kept, air tight for a couple of weeks.

I love to plate them over a raspberry or strawberry coulis. Made small, they can be cookies. There are many other inspiring methods for serving. Pavlova style. With shaved chocolate and on a plate decorated with syrup. Under or over ice cream. With a flourish of fresh seasonal fruits.

The most important things to remember about meringues are: CLEAN bowl and utensils, you need a little ACID (cream of tartar or lemon juice unless you work in a copper bowl), NOT a speck of egg yolk or any other fat, cook to done and then dry at a low temp.

Here I'll share that practice is the best teacher. I also love consulting the experts like: COOKS ILLUSTRATED - America's Test Kitchen, Julia Child (cream of tartar) or Alton Brown or any of the myriad internet options at your hand.

September 18, 2009

Happy Birthday Pop.

Yesterday was my dad's birthday. He would have been 81, but he slipped through my hands in a hospital room a couple of years ago. Actually, he slipped through my hands when I was little and he left our backyard for greener pastures. My thoughts of him recently have been wide and wondering. I have thought about his deep rich voice and his love. I've thought about the unanswered questions that didn't go unanswered for lack of asking, but for the lack of clarity, depth and self-knowledge required. I have thought about his laughter and the way I often felt like he was in cahoots with me in some way of thinking or adventure.
A week or so ago, my friend John took us on a ride around the block. John is taking care of his brother's '63 VW Van (in perfect restoration). My eldest dug the backseat with the refrigerator and surfboard. And my youngest giggled with laughter, sitting in the front seat, being bumped as the very long stick shift shifted. The sound of the motor and the feel of the drive brought to mind the winter, turned spring then summer Dad restored my own VW. A '72 bright orange Superbeetle Convertible we'd bought for a song (well, actually, an aria) that went from wreck to vision in those long months. I thought about the anticipation, the updates, the long drive home when it was really mine and the music of the radio as well as the engine. I recalled the drives around the block to see how she was running and the thrill of knowing that this project would be mine.
Last night my daughter showed me the cover of her new journal, entitled "Dear Grampa." Without a word between us, she too has been thinking about him a lot lately. When she showed me the book, she explained that it's not for me to read. It is instead, a special place for her to share the things that grow in a young girls heart with the man who gave her five nicknames in five minutes, took her on her first nighttime swim and snuck candy to her from behind his back while I (kinda) wasn't looking.
So in this day my heart is full of gratitude, in the midst of oceanic loss, for the small things. And I realize with great relief, that small things drenched in the acting of love and held in our hearts, are sometimes the very big things in our lives.

September 15, 2009

The changing garden grows.

There is a beautifully written song which entered with the little littles in my life. My friend Ivan made me buy my first Raffi album: Banana Phone. Who would know it included the sweet, poetic loving song? "The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell" is a song about the relationship between two neighbors. I'm moved by the idea of this younger man learning about the older through visits to his home and garden. One of the lines sticks with me. In reply to a direct question about a photograph of the young Mr. Bell with a woman and child, Mr. Bell says, "See how the garden grows. It's always changing every day." For me there's full poetry in the sentence.
I love the literal truth of the changing garden. Since we've inhabited this old house of ours, I've planted, replanted, transplanted, placed, replaced and ultimately loved my garden spaces much. There have been years of more and less attention, a particularly hilarious weeding venture when I was eight or so months pregnant (nesting is not restricted to the indoors), help from friends and family and a year where I learned that winter gardening was a profitable method for working through my dad's passing. When I moved past the trial and error method and studied a little, I began to notice each plant's contribution to the garden through it's timing.  I learned, and left behind the thought that all the joy comes in the springing. I found myself this week waiting and waiting for the sun's move and the blooming of my Japanese Anemones (which are really Chinese). They have finally sent their blooming shoots up and buds are puffing, gestating.
The freesia will soon follow. I was plucking their stems out of the big clay pot they inhabit thinking they were volunteers from the neighbor's many palm trees. Now, I await them. The pointed leaves preceding stems that give way to the dear flowers with the tea-like fragrance. The roses are still prolific and the hollyhock spent.
My friend John, an artist, made a passionate recommendation for my Western Redbud trees when there was space for the planting. He pointed to the beauty they provide each season. The pink buds of Spring, the Summer's green-then-purple seed pods, the leaves turning and dropping in Fall, then the Winter turned-brown pods on the gray of the wood. They are green now, but beginning to hint about the browning to come. All coinciding, all contributing to the changing nature of the changing garden. 
From the literal I'm reminded of the metaphor. Here is where I'm willing to be a bit to be more aware of the wilting and blooming cycles accompanying life's vicissitudes. And perhaps, in this awareness, I can be a little more welcoming of the less productive, less beautiful parts of the cycle and trust the unapparent processes. That which contributes to the changing of the garden.

These are Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida) layered in front of Lambs Ear (which loves to run wild in my little front garden patch).

September 11, 2009

Holding the flavor of summer

I really have no reason to wish for summer's end. I live in a beautiful part of the country. The weather is hot and lovely, but the chief signal to the end of summer has appeared. School is back in. The trees are still green. Flowers in bloom. Pools still perfect for an afternoon swim. But a neighbor down the street has marked the change of season by decorating her door with paper fall leaves. Not I.
Dinner the first day of school was barbecued steak and  a green salad of summery crunchiness. There was no dessert planned but we behaved like we might in the middle of July and went for little cups of summer delight at our neighborhood Yogurtland (a brilliant execution of make your own frozen yogurt -western states, I hope you have one nearby).
The second night we had grilled hot dogs and fennel slaw (another brilliant recipe from my FNBFFL - Melissa D'Arabian) with corn on the cob. So as my eldest went off to do homework - it was with a heart full of family foot dragging on the letting go of our time in the season.
Last night I starred the watermelon on my kitchen counter dead in the eye and knew we had another summer extender at hand - the granita.
My first encounter with the granita was at a family coffee roaster about one hundred miles from my home. I was on a reconnaissance trip of sorts for a new business pitch for work. The first sip slayed every frozen cappucino or coffee soda I'd tried forever. Coffee, sweetened and with a mix of milky creaminess and ice crystals all throughout. Since then I've made several versions - and ventured into the full granita category even making one from applesauce*.
This one particular granita delighted our palates and our hanging on to summer hearts. Icey watermelon with just a hint of sugar to heighten the rich melony flavor and bit of lemon. The trick to the granita is attention to the forming ice. As it freezes a quick stir from the top and sides of the bowl just about every half hour makes the just-past-slushy texture perfection.
So that night, we ate our granita on the yard with the patio bistro lights. The sound of a pool splash from next door and the unspoken promise that we won't mention the word fall until it's official arrival by date, temperature and the pile of leaves on the ground from the Ginko tree across the street. 
Until then, we'll go to school, do the homework, even play the sports of fall, but we'll do it with the facing into each other of summer and a ear of corn on our plates. 

* http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/melissa-darabian/applesauce-granita-with-maple-yogurt-recipe/index.html

Watermelon Granita

6 cups watermelon seedless (or seeded if you must) OR one tiny watermelon
1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
juice of a lemon
Blend the watermelon in your blender until it reaches a very smooth consistency. Pour into a glass bowl. Mix in the sugar and lemon until sugar dissolves completely. Place in the freezer and set the timer for 30 minutes. Every thirty minutes for four hours or so, scrape the top and sides of the mixture to distribute the forming ice crystals. When it's just past the slushy stage. Serve in little glass dishes or cups. A lemon twist is a nice garnish. If you leave it in the freezer overnight, you can always take it out for about 30 minutes and crush it back to granita stage.

I believe I should give Emeril Lagasse credit for this recipe. My recollection is that it came from the book jacket of his fabulous kids cookbook, EMERIL'S THERE'S A CHEF IN MY FAMILY. My youngest prepares his Fettucini Alfredo to our great delight!

September 06, 2009

Our Gals

This photo seemed to suddenly appear on the counter of my barbeque this week. Magically, the day after my neighbor removed years of jungle growth from his backyard. It may be someone who lived in our neighborhood. Though for me it has a Midwest sensibility. Or is that Hollywood? There is the possibility It is one of those nameless photos placed in a frame as it's readied for display and sale. 
Whoever they are, whomever they belong to, I like them. I love the collusive head touch. The color of their dress. The expectancy of secrets, plans, joys, meals and tears shared. All that comes with being a gal with our wonderful, deeply meaningful friendships.  
As I gaze at the girls on the yard I get to feel the pleasure of my mom and her 60's Club that met every Tuesday night at one of the neighborhood homes just to be the girls in the neighborhood. I live filled with the days on end language of my own sweet sister and I turning over every conversational stone possible. And then I feel the giddiness of high school conversations, every day, especially the phone chats with Gail. The hours of gabbing with Val in college at the donut shop when we should have been elsewhere. The deep working and praying it through with Krissy. The wonderful discoveries of Momhood with Michelle. The trading fours of a conversation with MP. The knowing love of MT. The company of Mary. The way Lori really listens. And the delight of "reasoning it through" with Jemma.
I love the sitting on the bed and talking face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart with my own girlie. The list is long. I live with the joy of the women on the journey and the gals who walk in the neighborhood. What would I do without those girlfriend words, "You're singing my song, sister!"
For me this is what abundance and blessing looks like. 
Rich and with a touch of a giggle.

September 04, 2009

Observe the shape of the heart

On a summer trip with my dear friend visiting our dear friend, we poked our selves into a little store with wonderful pieces designed by hand and intended to delight the eye. A beautiful silver heart with a lovely poem on a long, heavy silver chain whispered from inside the glass cabinet and started making promises about a life together. I loved it the moment I saw it. I loved it as I looked at it. And when the proprietor let me hold it. When I tried it on and when I asked the price handing it back. I continued to love it after we left the store and when we were all at the table eating and when all the parents and the children were in bed  and in the mornings and days that followed. I was using my rational price vs. value mind when I wrestled with the idea of taking it home and when we went to the store to look again. To hold it. To wrestle.
Finally my dear friend looked at me with her dear friend wisdom pouring out all over and said, "you might need to buy this just because you like it so much."
I did. And it has been with me for several years, bringing me much joy. Worn over sweaters and T-shirts. To the theater and management meetings and kiddie parties. It's become a symbol of love and faith for me.
It's been lost and found more than once. Once it was given to a friend who asked simply if she could have it. Much was learned in the process. Giving whatever is asked of you in a Book of Luke kind of way. She learned about what she was supposed to do over the weekend of ownership and gave it back to me with a letter of love.
Recently it went missing for a good 6 months and when I finally decided to let it go, my husband came to me and made me close my eyes when he dripped the heavy metal thing back into my hands. It had been lodged between the dresser and the wall in an unfortunate dusting accident. He gave me back my heart. So the necklace became a gift to me. But not in the purchasing. It was in the vision of my dear friend and in the returning that the shiny silver heart has shaped the way I see it. By its weight, its words and its homecomings.
Jeanine Payer is an amazing jewelry designer. Check her webstore or head to San Francisco.

August 29, 2009

Living in service.

When I consider the life of Senator Edward M. Kennedy I am moved by his constancy in service to the people of Massachusetts and our country. I have neither political eyes, nor thought. My heart is moved to this recognition that our greatest opportunities are found in serving each other.

Losing the last of the Kennedy brothers certainly marks the end of an historical era. And simultaneously, it offers the opportunity to remark a legacy. My hope is that as we watch and listen and read about Senator Ted Kennedy, we are called to remember not the tragedies, but the accomplishment on behalf of others. A life redeemed not by his service, but for service.

I wish to see and be moved to act by his compassion, his dedication, his service, his faith and faithfulness. I want to move in giving the bread to the least of these and the cup of water also.

August 21, 2009

Inspiration can be found by vacating your life.


What will come of standing on a beach?
Greeting sunsets.
Sunrises.
All from that watery point of view.
I'll go find out.

August 20, 2009

Latin Jazz

I simply love music, the song I'm singing, the sound someone else is making, the brashness of a new trumpet player slogging through the new-to-him notes, wafting in my window, all of it. I grew up surrounded by music and especially the music of parents singing with the HiFi or the radio. In the kitchen, from the bathroom, filling the car. Music. In that prehistoric pretape era, we were the car singers. Dad had long lists of songs that didn't require a radio and very often were followed with the slick segue, "And then I wrote..." standards, sea shanties. The challenge was, of course, to know each word, each note and to find a place in the harmony. Traditional American songs, the kind Dan Zanes, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen serve up with such generosity. Men knitting with the threads of the country and my family history. We listened to the jingle the rumble and the roar as the Wabash Cannonball, all verses, filled the station wagon or the Jag roadster. No matter the car, the soundtrack was fabulous.
Dad's dad, my mystical Gramps, drove a T-Bird and in drives back and forth to his house, opened the door to classical music for me. I sat at his side, in my bucket seat, listening to the different symphonies offered on the radio and was completely taken by the intricate dance of harmonies in Corelli's Christmas Concerto and Handel's Messiah.
When given the option of choosing a musical instrument to play, I jumped at the chance to play the strings. Which began a journey of unfolding sound that continues. Whilst majoring in music, I walked into a rehearsal hall with friends to listen to the Studio Jazz band rehearse. In that moment, Dad's Dixieland jazz became the music of foundation.
Which brings me to Latin Jazz. We are a family of iPod holders. Each one of us has their collection of songs we want to hear and love to play for each other. A battle can ensue over who gets to connect and control and when there's more of this business than I find enjoyable, we turn to the car radio and very often to jazz. Our particular jazz station, the only jazz station we have, seems to have a soft spot for Latin Jazz. I seem to too. Maybe its the rhythm of the timbales, the congas, vibes or the trumpet guys singing punctuations. It moves me. There is something inclusive that reaches through. It can be Arturo Sandoval or Antonio Carlos Jobim. The music never notices that I'm a classically trained violinist. It just floats in and asks me to join in the samba.
How beautiful. How lovely. And here, we're called to stop being where we are and move.

August 17, 2009

Melissa D'Arabian

A gal, new to my cooking world, has managed to influence my kitchen musings in short order. Melissa D'Arabian, a mom with 4 kids, a husband, a new TV show, and a new house in Seattle has lots to offer in the way of inspiration. Her show, $10 dinners, on Food Network, might be passable by name. $10 dinners sounds like I'll be saving money with cheaper cuts of meat, big box yields and storage considerations. Instead, I'm thrilled to be listening to stories about the time she lived in Paris and her French mother-in-law. This is about eating beautiful food with 3 other people and for me the price is, as it turns out, quite secondary. Melissa weaves tales of where she's been (Paris and Tunisia so far) as she recites her process and brings great interest to what she cooks and what she cooks with. I'd not thought of serving an African meat ball or adding soy sauce to my Dijon Vinaigrette, but taking it in, I'm ready to dive deeper. North African. Meatballs. With cilantro no less.
Ah, inventiveness.
http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/melissa-darabian/north-african-meatballs-recipe/index.html

Salmon and the grill

A big artist's palate of a piece of salmon came into my hands a couple of nights ago. It was huge and salmony orange-red in that salmon red way. While it sat on the blue glass dish with a thin coat of olive oil and a couple of lavender stalks waiting for the barbeque, the possibilities floated. With what?
This is where the kitchen seems to speak. Rice? Greens? How green? Fresh? Cooked? What's yellow? Where do we go? On this particular night, the salmon seemed to be calling out for some purple onion slabs on the grill. The yellow of pineapple and the green and green again of, well, mixed spring greens. In this case, color inspired. Color inspires.
So we dined on things from the grill: Salmon with just a touch of olive oil and sea salt, Bermuda Onions and pineapple rounds a good inch thick. Along side Wild Rice with scallions (and a smattering of grilled onions) from the stove, and a glorious Parisian green salad of mixed greens, julienne cut carrots and chunky croutons.
And whether the color or anticipated flavor, gave birth to the plate of flavors and textures, the sum was pleasure.
Eyes, stomachs and hearts, all full.

NB: Melissa D'Arabian, the newest Food Network Host, provided a lovely new turn on Dijon Vinaigrette with her Cafe Green Salad - http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/melissa-darabian/cafe-green-salad-recipe/index.html

Wild Rice

Wild Rice is such a great side dish. It's actually a grass more than a grain. A grainy grass.
Trader Joe's has a Fully Cooked and ready-to-eat pack that serves well when you want to eat beautifully by compiling great ingredients but don't have the luxury of slow cooking. You won't find microwave instructions here either. Not on my radar.

Wild Rice And.
1 package Trader Joe's fully-cooked Wild Rice.
2 Tablespoons EV Olive Oil
1 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup diced scallions
Salt (your choice)
Fresh Ground Pepper
Lemon juice (optional, but yummy)

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium flame. Add red onion, cook until translucent. Toss in Trader Joe's Wild Rice. Cook on medium for about 10 minutes. Add scallions. Cook 5 to 10 minutes, to wilt the scallions. Salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze the juice of 1/4 lemon. Serve. 20 minutes max cooking time.

Variation inspiration:
- Add garlic salt
- Start with onion and minced garlic
- Without garlic and scallions add 1 cup chopped fresh or canned peaches
- Add chopped celery
- Add brown rice, butter, feta cheese, cilantro, fresh tomato, herbs, herbs, herbs
Inspiration is every where.

August 14, 2009

Tree irony

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
William Blake, 1799, The Letters

Poets inspire me, but that idea must be saved for another time. But they do. Words remind me of feelings and experiences. And I'm always astonished at how someone else's thoughts can tap so neatly on my ear and touch my heart.


Recently, I sat in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater. While everyone was chatting in the filling arena, looking at the moving crowd and anticipating the music of the night, I caught sight of the trees. They must be very old. They are very beautiful and stately. The theater was built in 1929 and in old pictures I've seen, there were trees pushing out of the hills then, preceding the seats.

Up they go. Skyward. Pines especially, with their reaching limbs and pointing faces. The layers of green color were lovely, no two colors or shapes really alike. Lights were trained on some of them for effect and offered an autumnal glow.

Reminded that these were the trees which held the "tree people" in the long ago Hot August Nights concert, I leaned to my husband who'd told me the story of his adventure that night. With the wisp of romance this idea held, I asked him which tree he sat in. He spun around to look, then caught my eyes: "Orchestra seats, 3rd row." With that, the lights went down and the trees became the standards. Catching sound. The observers of the evening.

August 13, 2009

Considering the lemon

It's a lovely thought: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Take life's tartness, use it to your advantage. I myself, become distracted at the first mention of the word. Lemon. The useful, giving, perfectly colored fruit. When I get my hands on the smooth, deeply rich yellow variety, my first thought is to get it onto a periwinkle or cobalt blue plate. Just enjoy the color. But then ideas begin to roil. Into a tart? A little lighter on the sugar so the nature of the fruit sings into the taste buds? Over the tender piece of slightly breaded chicken? Just the juice trickling over the savory bird. I was recently delighted by a drip of lemon juice squeezed over a piece of Japanese Red Snapper for sushi. Delight the lemon.
Occasionally though, inspiration comes from the literal. So in my house of lemonade lovers we've tried our hand at perfecting the perfect glass of lemonade. This, of course, begins with kids (or their kid predecessors) making lemonade-in-a-restaurant while w-a-i-t-i-n-g for the server to take the order or to finally bring the food. It's much more interesting than coloring the provided pages and requires just the glass of water you requested, along with some lemon slices, "please," ostensibly for iced water and that little box of sweet packages already on the table. Squeeze the lemon. Add the sugar, "is three packets enough?" and voila. A glass of water with lemon and sugar.
At home we've dabbled with a stand up simple syrup, or superfine sugar, different varieties of lemons and enjoyed the results but never quiet reached the ah ha! until we learned to muddle.
As it turns out, lemons really do wish to become a fine lemonade and one made not by a packaging plant bearing the name of a fabulous actor, but by the rest of us, in the kitchen.
Our first attempt at muddling brought wondrous squeals of surprise. Tart, yummy, real lemonade. The best, if you're a twelve year old boy. And there's fun in the making. Lemons are washed thoroughly because the skin is part of the secret. Ends are cut and dismissed. Lemons are sliced in their standing on end fabulous oval shape and everything goes in a flattish bowl except the seeds. We add regular old table sugar (and no hfcs) then mash away with a potato masher until the resulting liquid is thickish as well as juicy. The smashed lemons are removed and pushed through a sieve, water is added and there you have it: a glass of pure delight. The frangrance and the taste of summer.

Lemonade at our house

8-12 lemons based on size (you'll be working to your taste)
1 1/4 cups sugar
4-6 cups water (four is tart and allows for melting ice cubes, six is a milder lemonade, five might just be perfect)
Muddle to your delight. (Smash the lemons with a potato masher, mixing the juicings with the sugar) 4-5 minutes.
In two or three steps, remove the lemon rinds to a sieve or china cap. Press juices through. Dispose of rinds and seeds.
Finally, run remaining juice through the sieve if you like pulp free, or simply remove seeds.
Add water and, if you like, just a pinch of sea salt.
Stir.
Pour.
Breathe in.
Enjoy.

August 10, 2009

The Squirrel Feeder


Birds, happily chirping in my yard were, for a while the music of the afternoon. My good friend, Carlos, had given me western birdseed and a copper bird feeder. And his lovely wife, Lori, my pal, knew I'd love the birdies and their sounds in my tree among the garden stalks and stems. It took a few days for the birds to notice the seed. And then, they were there with great gusto in big bunches.
My husband was none too thrilled about the feeder. He'd heard and read about how bird feeders can become vermin feeders and was no fan of the prospect of neighborhood squirrels or worse, the possums finding joy in the crunchy delight hanger.
I took care in hanging the feeder away from the trunk but the Red Bud is young and the branches still fine so, not too far out. I came home from one of my morning walks to the cheers of three kids who'd captured, digitally, and for all time, this plucky squirrel who was thrilled at the breakfast offering. He'd been hanging, feet on the trunk, paws on the food tray, from the tree. Before I could say a word about, shhh!, my son's best friend had posted the pic on his facebook account. And the word was out.
I walked out into the yard, certain that the squirrel would depart with haste at the sight of me. Instead, he sat there, having come down from his feet on the trunk position. I made noise. I walked closer. Nothing. He stood and looked at me like a defiant teenager.
Of course, I have the secret weapon. A big squirrel hating monster of a German Shepherd. He was more than happy to work for food, so he walked into the yard, and took quick note of the squirrel which caused the big fracas I'd hoped for. Up the tree, over the branches to the umbrella and then the roof of the house. Squirrel scolding. Dog barking. The jig was up.
At some point, the joyous sounds of the wildlife diner, the working dog working and the "you were right
Dad, there really was a squirrel in Mom's bird feeder!" brought response and the well-considered gift was removed.
This did not daunt the squirrel however, or the dog. The squirrel regularly revisits the scene of the crime and, was recently seen up on the divider fence a mere two feet from my kitchen door. Still not afraid of me.
The dog doesn't go into the yard without checking the tree. Because it's summer and he gets to spend more time out in the yard he actually sits watch for hours on end.
After all of it, there a few beautiful birdies who come and sing for a supper that won't be appearing any time soon.
We move on, determined. I admire that determination.

A new iron



Inspired by an iron. Really.
I grew up with a couple of powerhouse grandmothers. Grandma Edith came to live with us during the summer of 6th grade. She was a force to be reckoned with. Through her eyes, she executed her responsibility to me, by passing on the details of good housekeeping. (Be 12 with this gift.) Beyond the proud scrubbing and waxing of floors, furniture polishing and window washing, was ironing.

Grandma took the time to teach the details. Start with the collar of the shirt and finish there too. Be sure the iron is hot. Rub it, quickly, against wax paper if it sticks and if it really sticks, skid across a piece of beeswax. Iron the damask linen tablecloth and the embroidered pillowcases upside down, into a turkish towel to bring out the detail. And then there were the sheets. Folded in 4 and turned as I went.
Grueling? Some days. But other days, it was brilliant. Time alone. Time to think. And a small accomplishment. I do like the small accomplishments.
(The Yellow Door Paperie, a great blog, shares a quote by Vincent Van Gogh I've always loved: Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together. )
So, though I'm surrounded by plenty of dryer-to-hanger clothes, I'm (gratefully) accompanied by the few pieces that call for the iron. My son enjoys wearing a dress shirt once in a while, and cloth napkins are on our table each day.
My grandmother's iron is long gone. And when it went, the black and white fabric cord, and heavy metal wonder went with it. For our wedding, someone gave us the modern, lightweight, plasticized version. New, white, and really, really light. I've used it for the last minute finish on something that stayed in the dryer too long. Or my favorite linen shirt. But, truly, found no joy in the finish.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a new Rowenta. Highly recommended, heavy in hand, metal on the face, and steam from tapwater. I bought it with the zest that one might save for a the perfect pair of shoes or a new leather wallet.
Home it came with all it's weight and promise. I spent an hour or so, going over a couple of the boy's just-a bit-wrinkly shirts, ironed the couple of tablecloths resignedly folded in the drawer and then, with great enthusiasm went for the napkins.
Maybe it's the enjoyment of fabric. The layers on the rose red damask napkins. Or the lay of the vintage Robin's Egg linen tablecloth. The touch of the Ralph Lauren floral chintz napkins that seem 100 years old. The polish on the periwinkle cotton shirt.
Or perhaps it's the job-well-done echoing from years ago in my mother's kitchen at the ironing board with the beeswax.
But in many ways, the iron seems to have given rise to a crisp awareness of both color and order. Corners meeting. Books on a shelf. Flatware neatly framing the dishes on the table.
And a movement toward the pleasure of that which is regular and orderly.
Really, an iron.

August 09, 2009

Tie dye and plaid hats


I am often surprised and quite thrilled by what comes out of my girlie's bedroom. Today, with the honor of reading the scripture passage at church, she's wearing the tie dye shirt she was given yesterday at her new friend's birthday party. With a plaid chapeau. Oh, and ballet slipper shoes.

Color is everywhere. And not to be missed.

Inspiration is right there.

It occurred to me while reading my friend Karla's blog, that we find inspiration in many places. Karla created a beautiful card after a shopping trip to Pier 1. Apparently, an apron inspired her. An apron.
Her blog got me thinking:
Inspiration is around at almost every turn.
Perhaps we should mark the moments.

Birds on the telephone wire inspire me greatly.

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