Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reflections and Resolutions

It's 2015...almost and, like everyone else, I'm looking forward and looking back and trying to take stock. We've got a little tradition of writing small notes and dates on the corks of celebratory bottles of beer and wine throughout the year, and on one evening before the new year arrives, we concoct a festive beverage, dump all those corks out on the bar, and read them out to each other. It's something we saw somewhere a few years back, and it's fun.

2014 was a year of major change and new beginnings for us. After almost two years of near constant transitions and a leap of faith that took us across two states, we now feel our feet firmly planted on the ground in a place we love. It's kind of amazing how new places can steal your heart. Could be the morning mist drifting down mountains, the smell of the mud and grass, the waddle of a chubby porcupine out back, the discovery of hummingbird moths, the warmth of a sunbaked porch swing, or the dappled shade offered up by a certain tree. Doesn't matter. There's just a moment when the flow of incessant racing thought stops for a split second and your senses take over. It's intense. You feel deeply alive, and that's it. You're in love with that place and that feeling.

This is not to say there aren't days when the suck of mud on your boots or that inch of ice on your car doesn't drain your being to the core and make you want to stay inside in flannel pajamas drinking adult beverages. That happens too. Only somehow even that's more okay in the place you love. Day after day, the place you love just IS. You come to accept the mud and ice as part of the package. You buck up and grow to wear it as a badge of belonging- the kind of stuff you can laugh and bitch about with the old timers at the coffee shop (once they get over your New York transplantiness and your ridiculous Wellies).


Just being in the place sets the tone. My morning coffee tastes better as I peer out the kitchen windows at the giant pines in the backyard. Their trunks are gnarled and swirly with rough bark fallen away in spots and yet, they're entirely grand. I often wonder about all they've weathered over the years, and I feel a little more fortified just for knowing them (full disclosure: also often pray they don't come crashing down on our house). During moments like this, a place reaches out to you with all your weathering and crooked parts and gives some sort of celestial bear hug. It's so damn reassuring. It puts you more at ease with the flow of life, makes you sincerely happier, and maybe even lends you greater clarity. Let's hope!

So enough reflecting, on to 2015 resolutions. I'm skipping the dead-end lofty goals that are destined to become new year roadkill after a couple of weeks (days?), and focusing on the stuff I feel ready to stick with. Committing to the list this year means it's time to part ways with the daily social media fix.  It's going to require self discipline for sure. I'm a bit sad already as I know we risk losing touch again with many folks we enjoy. And we'll miss the wonderful photos, the witty commentaries, the jokes, the recommendations, and the convenient news and articles, but when I'm really honest, too often I spend too much time just surfing around without much true joy, connection, or meaning. So, the plan is to spend more of that time in the three dimensional world admiring trees, reading books, gardening, making stuff, taking walks, cooking, writing, taking photos, watching the kids grow up, having celebratory beverages, and enjoying family and friends face to face.

We'll be sharing from time to time on this blog, or you can always reach us by email or phone. I do hope many of you will connect with us once in a while and let us know how you are or come here, stay, and share the latest. Wishing you all a wonderful new year and more time with the ones you love in the places that inspire you. All the best in 2015!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

too much dough, too little time, just enough tradition

I love my job. I love the holidays. That said, juggling the mom work thing isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Some years, I can pull off the family holiday traditions with ease and joy, and we all have a blast. Other years, I find myself frazzled and ragged rushing around with a "get 'er done" attitude that doesn't exactly ooze holiday magic. This year I was somewhere in between.

For example, the night before the annual Christmas cookie baking and decorating, I pulled the big basket of cookie cutters out of the pantry, gave each of the kids a giant bowl and asked them to pick out the cutters they like best. That was a first, and it worked pretty well to help me achieve a good and fair mix of their favorite cookie shapes. Then I made a huge batch of dough and left it to chill overnight. Pretty satisfying for a Friday night after work when I was mostly wanting to crash on the couch. When I eventually got there to watch some mindless TV and nod off, I was feeling like a pretty spiffy holiday momma. I had a jump on the thing, right?

Wrong. Baking the cookies took most of the next day. I felt like I might never be done rolling and cutting that giant glob of dough, but it eventually happened at around 2 PM. Whoa. In my working mom mind, this cookie thing was supposed to be a great weekend MORNING thing. You know, the kind of thing a mom can enjoy in her pajamas- mug of steamy coffee in hand, gazing adoringly at creative offspring, and musing over the possibilities for the free afternoon ahead. I had fallen victim to my usual working mom fatal error: fantasy projections of weekend time.

What happened to that great jump I had on this thing? It slipped through my fingers like sand as I eventually came to realize this was to become my whole Saturday. The kids, tired of waiting for me to get on with making the various royal icings and set up the table with sprinkles, etc., took to their sleds, peeking in every half hour to ask, "Mom, are we ready yet?" Sigh. As I rolled out the dough for the 20th tray of cookies (still in my pajamas), I experienced two epiphanies: 1. Making a giant glob of dough will not only mean having a giant mound of cookies, it will also mean a giant glob of your time and 2. Making the icings and setting up the table the night before would have been a hell of a lot more of  a "jump" on the thing. Duh. This is what comes of Friday night post-work brainstorms. Lesson learned...sorta.

When I finally got around to those icings, I was delighted to discover that our pantry contained only leftover Easter food colorings. Oh joy. It will suffice to say, one can go quietly mad trying to create festive Christmas colored icings out of such stuff. In essence, it was an ill-timed art and science lesson. When the kids got all the snow gear off and sat down for our "fun holiday tradition", I saw them eyeing the stuff quickly and explained the deal. They were great, but by the time I sat down with them, my inner voice was coaxing me to remember to refrain from profanity and muster the appropriate enthusiasm instead.

So yeah, not one of the easy, joyful years for this one. But, the cookies mostly didn't burn and tasted fine, and after putting on some holiday tunes and ignoring the messy kitchen, I looked up to appreciate the four of us sitting around the table. It was 3:45 and nobody cared that mom was in pajamas with flour in her hair. Everyone had a cookie, a paintbrush dipped in a bunch of odd Eastery Christmas goo, and a look of concentration. Soon announcements began. "Finished!" and we stopped to admire each other's work, steal each other's ideas, and giggle over silly faces on cookie gnomes and ninjas. And without me even noticing, the stress I was feeling about time and messes and food coloring began to melt away. Even with Eastery goo, we made some pretty damn festive cookies. Go, team!


All the perfection we see and all the pressure we feel during the holidays tends to meddle in traditions. In the thick of it, it's too easy to forget what the holidays are all about. I'll never be able to live up to the moms who get the Christmas shopping done early, the moms who get the wrapping done early, the moms who are perfectly fit and coiffed, the moms with the perfectly stocked pantries, the brilliant moms, or the moms who make it all look so easy. I'm the mom who can sometimes make some stuff look easy. The mom who can sometimes be neatly coiffed. The mom who knows some stuff worth knowing. And mostly, I'm the mom in the T-shirt, sweatshirt, flannel, or pajamas who's a little slapped together and a little disheveled, but always meaning well. For all my faults and lateness, I'm still the mom passing on the traditions my mom passed to me.

And the cookies were gobbled up. And the kids said they had fun. I eventually got out of those pajamas and into snowshoes that weekend (though I'm still not that fit). And after work the following Monday, I picked up the kids from school and they asked me if they could decorate some more cookies. I enthusiastically replied, "Of course!" (like a really together, cool mom)....because I had already placed all the plain leftover cookies in the freezer and picked up real food colorings. So, tomorrow when we do it all again, I can be the coiffed, dressed, make it all look effortless mom. Plus, I'm on vacation! So, viva tradition and cheers to moms! Eat the cookies, wear whatever, and be merry wherever you are.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Silence, Solitude, and a Significant Cricket

Things are quieting down about this time of year. Not as much birdsong in the morning. Fewer buzzing insects fleeting about. Some are still hustling and bustling though, squirrels amassing their hoards, etc. I feel more akin to them at the moment. Lots to do at a quickened pace. Still, I try to take a moment here and there to note how the vibrant greens of the garden are fading and withering to browns. A moment to step outside and feel the tingly burn of frosty night air in my lungs.

I love this time of year. The moment when one final vibrant burst of spectacle awaits before the drowsy winter. Thomas Hood, an English poet, once wrote: "I saw old Autumn in the misty morn stand shadowless like silence listening to silence." There's something very romantic about that line. The dreamy and contemplative personification of silence.

This concept has become more alluring to me as I've aged. It reveals itself in not so subtle ways. Over the years, my sensitivity to sound has noticeably increased.  Around this house, I'm the seemingly ancient one asking if you could "just turn that down a bit" or releasing frustrated sighs about the bassy pulses resounding from passing cars. And if the neighbors start mowing and weed wacking before 7 a.m well,... you know. My husband loves to poke fun about it and about the way I covet those huge Bose noise reduction headphones. He recently said he wanted to surprise me with them, but hesitated-  imagining me wearing the silly things around all the time. He's probably right. I would.

Of course, there's not much, if any, silence or even quiet to be had nowadays. But, I sure love whatever approximation I can get. Now, I'm not in any way saying I've become Nadine of Twin Peaks silent drapes fame, but I do find myself looking especially forward to the late evening hours when the house is quiet, the kids are sleeping, and we can have a little breather after being on duty all day. That's often when some reading is possible or canning of late (a new hobby).

There are a lot of pleasant quiet sounds that accompany this activity- the fizzy hiss of bubbling sugar, the squish of pulpy macerated fruit, and the rolling hum of boiling water. (Of course, the smell of fruits and spices wafting in the steamy air doesn't hurt either.)  For me, this is also a process that's been mostly predictable so far. It frees the mind a bit. The kind of thing that keeps one busily in the moment instead of mulling all the worldly realities that can too often gnaw and irritate at quiet times.

An evening of jam making might go something like this. The peeled and cut fruit, water, spices, and sugar go into the pot. (Click here for the recipe I used for this apple rhubarb jam.)

sugar, water, apples, cinnamon, and rhubarb bubbling away

mashing up the bigger bits of apple

sterilizing the jars- lots of steam



finished-  apple rhubarb jam

a little left over for sampling

Now, as I said, usually, this is all very relaxing. Only this week, I've had some unexpected company disturbing my solitude. Namely, a rather sizeable and vocal cricket who made his way in the back door and traveled to his prefered location- under the nearby kitchen radiator. Just within sight, but out of reach.

At first his chirping from just a few feet away startled me (not a good thing when handling hot liquids and such), but I figured I'd be able to escort him out easily. No such luck. By the second night, I suspected he might still be around, so I anticipated his chirp. I wasn't disappointed. Sure enough, he was still under there and he began his song again. An insect metronome. The synchronized pacing of my movements began unconsciously, then became a conscious lockstep. Every move in intervals of three. Chirp chirp chirp. Chirp chirp chirp..

During the following afternoon, I wondered if he'd made his way back outside yet. (His daytime silence was deceptive.) And I was hoping for us both. But, again, no luck. A mild but still tolerant annoyance surfaced. Why was he still hanging out under there? Didn't he want to get back to nature? Back to the steel washbasin of flowers beside the back door? C'mon, I'd seen him there a hundred times this summer- relaxing in the shade of Rudbeckia leaves. That had to be better than lurking under some century old metal radiator, right?

Of course, I'm sure he really would have preferred to get back outside (not much food to be had under the radiator to my knowledge), but I still could not coax him out.  He just stared back at me, quite content with his residence. And I will never know why he wasn't suddenly silenced or quietly terrified of me...a figure a million times his size..working with scaulding hot liquids, poking her face under a radiator- wide-eyed- scanning. But, ironically, I didn't appear to intimidate him in the least. I had to admire him for the bravado.

Night four? Well,  I skipped the whole late night sanctuary in the kitchen thing and sat down with a book in the living room. In all honesty, he drove me out of there, and even from the living room couch I could hear his singsong chirp-chirp-chirp (pause) chirp-chirp-chirp, a monotonous chorus that sounded well, just too loud to be on the inside of one's house. Finally, I turned on the TV for the competing sound, tossed the book, and called it a night.

I suppose I've always been sensitive to sound. Probably overly so. Growing up around a lot of loud music and crowds probably initiated it.  Working in one noisy building after another for over a decade, and parenting two sometimes loud little people has probably made it worse. But, regardless of the reason, I've long harbored an admiration of others' quests for peace and quiet- especially if they actually end up finding it. That's what drew me to two books recently.

The first of these I picked up in Maine. Its beautiful watercolor illustrations caught my eye, as did the text- intimately journalesque and recorded in lilting calligraphy. It's titled True Nature- An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude. I had glanced quickly at the jacket, figured it was easily worth its very inexpensive price, and grabbed it. Besides, it didn't look like much of a reading commitment and sometimes we all need to pick up one like that, right?

Upon sitting down with it weeks later at home, I realized it depicted an experiment conducted across four seasons in the nearby Catskills. It was also pleasantly surprising to discover that the author, Barbara Bash, is a Hudson Valley resident. (Another somewhat serendipitous Hudson Valley connection. Had several of these lately.)

Bash, like so many of us, feels pulled and fragmented by the many currents of life. She's a writer, a mother, a wife, a student,... well, you get the idea. The book recounts how once each season, she breaks away from it all and ventures up to a solitary cabin in the Catskills to face the difficult challenge of truly seeing and accepting herself. At times, the book is raw, even painful. Few authors expose their self-doubt so openly. Incredible courage is required.

At one very memorable point, she finally faces her common and innate fear of forest darkness by venturing to the edge of the nearby woods. Sitting there, perched atop a large rock, she watches the sun set and struggles to resist an intense desire to run back to the cottage- to "safety". She fears being attacked by large animals and/or savage humans in that forest. And though she realizes these fears are somewhat irrational, they are undeniably visceral. Ultimately, she stays in the forest for a while- in the dark late-night coolness... overcoming the fear, owning it, just listening and looking. And she walks out feeling a sense of accomplishment. The sweet relief of an ill fate avoided and an obstacle overcome.

During moments like this, she describes a heightened sensitivity, an acute awareness that is often foreign to our everyday lives. It's a hyperfocus of sorts. She sees and hears what would be overlooked in a "busier", more distracted moment. And there's something amazing about the realizations made in such solitude. Just no hiding in those moments. Bash grapples openly with these unnerving times. The times when we come face-to-face with ourselves and our shortcomings. The physicalities and frailties of the moment are palpable. The sights and scents...the thoughts, the sounds or "silence". And I guess that's sort of what lead me to the second book.

Came across this one back in the valley. The title made me smirk, and I knew my husband would laugh when I came home with it. It's called  Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence . Confirming my prediction, my husband later remarked, "Oh, you're going to love that one."  And he was right. I did enjoy it. But, not because it offered clear answers or a direct resolution. In fact, on the contrary, it left me with many new questions to explore about science, people, history, and that tricky thing we call "progress". Still, it offered the welcome affirmation of just how ordinary I really am. I'm but one of many who have sometimes struggled to think and coexist amid bodies of sound. In fact, the historical record of sound sensitivity and exploration is fascinating.

Foy, jolted into action by the auditory assault of three conververging and screeching NYC subway trains, begins a quest to find a space where zero decibels ("the lowest sound audible to average to healthy humans...below which is 'silence'") can be registered. He buys a Kawa (decibel meter- amazing how many makes and models of these are available for purchase) and begins measuring sound in his everyday environments. This produces some surprising findings that lead him to branch out-  measuring sound at a NASA shuttle launch, aboard a Trans-Atlantic flight, in a Parisian apartment (he's a professor and translator), at Lowell, Mass.'s Boott Cotton Mill Museum (a semi-active relic of the Industrial Revolution), in his Grandma's empty Cape Cod home, in Central Park, inside the specially built "silent bedroom" of media legend Joseph Pulitzer, in the woods in the Berkshires, at Harvard (where an anechoic chamber was once built, but no longer exists), at Ontario's SNOLAB (1.4 miles underground), and in Minneapolis' Orfield Laboratory which has a strangely disturbing anechoic chamber that is Guinness Book of World Records "quietest place on Earth". I even left some out.

Lest this sound monotonous, it's important to note that Foy balances his account of these journeys and measurements with a brilliant consideration of the use of silence in literature...and even music (as pauses). This discussion considers everything from Shakespeare's monologues and Greek mythology to the compositions of  George Brecht and John Lennon.  The historical accounts of how sound nearly maddened Thomas Carlyle and John Leech (a Dickens illustrator), Joseph Pulitzer, Anthony Trollope, and Charles Babbage didn't hurt either. Nor did the analysis of sound's ever increasing environmental and physical effects. Or the consideration of silencing in politics and war (sonic weapons).

Though this book was criticized by some for its resolution, I think that's a little harsh. Unfair even. Foy's quest IS satisfying because it's an evolution of thought, not a scientific formula or a literal statement of finite destination. There's just so much to think about in this book;  it's far from a disappointing read. It's the kind of book one can go back to time and again for a thoughtful passage to digest. A book inviting many dog-eared pages.

So, where does all the intense exploration of Bash and Foy leave me and that fearless cricket? Well, I think it's left me realizing that maybe looking or yearning for some mythic pristine silence or solitude is not all it's cracked up to be. As Foy says, "I want to love this relative peace...and I do; the quiet soundscape of wind...and small denizens of this land..." Yes.  Yes.               

There's a lot to appreciate about sounds...even the everyday ones- like squabbling children and lawnmowers, TV's, radios, passing motorists, and yes, even a denizen like a chirping cricket under the radiator in one's kitchen. These are all precise signs of life, of company in this great big cosmos.  And as things begin to slow and quiet down outdoors, with winter just around the corner, maybe it's the perfect moment to savor the sounds of tiny fearless summer creatures. Maybe they have just as much to offer as the nostalgic din of little feet running about, young voices play acting, arguing, and giggling, sugar bubbling, water boiling, or the crunch of newfallen leaves underfoot. Listening to that early autumn cricket song is strangely parallel to canning the last of summer's bounty. Symbolic of the fleeting nature of time and our attempts to capture it, remember it as it was. The way it was lived, experienced, tasted, and ...yes, heard.

 And when my cricket company was ready for his ticket out (a day or so later), he appeared right under my chair and released a loud and proud proclamation, his barbaric yawp. Chirp-chirp-chirp! Paper transport was quickly offered, and he came aboard straight away. Maybe he felt his job was done here.

So, I deposited him back at home base, beside the steel wash basin and in the crisp air of autumn evening. And ya know, when I went back inside, I smiled knowing I could still hear him out there...or at least some of his friends, just as I do right now.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Little Scraps of Paper

Shakespeare once wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on". Indeed, who can deny it? Or fault Shakespeare? The man was wise. Love IS grand, and music is essential. But I think a catchy tune is just as great when it recounts the love of food. Yes, I say. Play on.

The list of songs related to food is literally endless. So many come to mind from those early "visions of sugarplums dancing in [our] heads" to Van Morrison's beautiful "Tupelo Honey" and Strummer's funloving  "Bhindi Bhagee" or Spinal Tap's "Cups and Cakes". We love our food songs. There are even a few ambitious souls out there who've actually attempted to list them. Kind of fun to peruse and explore, especially on a rainy afternoon. (We've had many of these lately.)

I encountered a new food song while driving the other day. I was listening to a radio show (aptly or lazily) named Le Show. Some of you surely know it. Very dry, sarcastic stuff really, and I don't always tune in for it. But, on this afternoon, Harry Shearer played (between segments) a song with a chorus about chocolate. I immediately loved it. And even though I'd arrived at my destination, I waited to see if he would name the band. No luck. So, I resorted to my usual tactic, grabbing any old napkin, wrapper, or paper scrap in the car (with two kids, there are usually several handy) and quickly scribbling down the chorus and a lyric or two in the hopes of identifying it later. This may sound a little impractical or unlikely to some, downright silly even, but it has worked many times- thanks in no small part to my husband. An avid music devotee, he often narrows it down quickly from what's on that little scrap and sometimes even just rattles the name off straight away. Impressive to watch.  Admire that.

However, on this particular occasion, the song was new to him too, and after googling my scribblings, we quickly found the song on YouTube. It's called "Chocolate on My Tongue" and it's by the Wood Brothers. We knew nothing of them, but soon found that though they're from Colorado, they've recorded right here in the Hudson Valley- in Kingston even..and in Saugerties and Shokan. Small world. Having happily solved the puzzle, I tossed the scrap of paper. We made a plan to order it and moved on with life.

Well, sort of. I mean, he moved on. I, on the other hand, just kept hearing that chorus in my head. I heard it while I was folding the laundry. While I was cooking dinner. While I was typing at work. I think I even was hearing it in my sleep. Amazing how a little thing jotted down on a scrap of paper can haunt one so. Like when you write something important on an envelope or post-it, only to misplace it, and initiate a massive feverish search to retrieve it from maybe the garbage, or was it stuffed in that pile of mail, or under the catalogues, or tucked in a book, or did one of the kids grab it? Hmmm....

And all this, and that looping chocolate refrain, got me to thinking of another scrap of paper that had long been missing. One that my mom told me she had recently found.  This precious grease-stained scrap contained a handwritten recipe of mysterious origin, a somewhat unusual recipe for a chocolate cake made with boiled water. Mom couldn't remember where it came from, maybe a family friend or copied from a magazine. In any event, for years it had been tucked inside the cover of her hefty 1963 Good Housekeeping Cookbook. As a young teen, I would often come home from school and bake this simple cake for my family. It was the first thing I ever baked independently, and because everyone liked it, I baked it very often. In fact, I eventually knew that recipe by heart...and probably became careless with it. When mom found it after all these years, she was excited to tell me.

So, chatting on the phone, she recited it, and I took it down on a piece of scrap paper. Seemed fitting...and convenient.  And today I made that familiar chocolate cake. The one I haven't made for more than twenty years. Oh, how the smell of that batter brought back memories! And after dinner, I served it to my new family while we listened to the Wood Brothers. And I tucked that little scrap of paper into my own cookbook. Only, I did it carefully this time.

Ingredients into the bowl

Out of the oven

Served with warm apple ginger marmalade


Sunday, September 4, 2011

"There is No Frigate Like a Book": How an Inspired Memoir Sparked a Quest for Duck Fat, '70's Cookery Books, and the Author's Cassoulet

Emily D. was right. The old adage about just never knowing where a book is going to take you lingers for good reason. Some books transport to fantasy. Some mire in dark realities. Others, grounded in practicality, guide us to something new or better or to our new or better selves. Rarely, one does a little of all these things. Last week, I picked up a copy of Matt McAllester's memoir, Bittersweet- Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen and was treated to one of these experiences. It is a fusion of the adventures of a war correspondent who is also a spouse, a wanna-be parent, a mourning son, and a self-taught cook attempting to recapture the nostalgic flavors of his childhood to maintain a connection with his mom after her passing. I know. It all sounds a bit overwhelming and no, it is not fiction. Honestly, it's not maudlin one bit. It's frank and confessional with an uplifting revelation. It's one of those books with a voice that connects like a tried and true friend. I didn't want it to end.

One of the best aspects of this book is the skillful way McAllester weaves the narrative of childhood memory with the actual recipes he's exploring. He records the basic steps and ingredients for his mom's goat cheese omelette, strawberry ice-cream, drop scones, and cassoulet, just to name a few. Maybe more fascinating, are the allusions to the cookery books of the 70's that inspired and guided her cooking. The works of big names like Elizabeth David ( and Ruth Rogers (River Cafe fame) appear frequently, as they were the culinary heroes of his mother's world. He inherits these '70's gems after her passing, and teaches himself the recipes and techniques that were her passion. Late at night, I found myself on Amazon looking for these old books (markers of my own childhood era) and wanting them, even at their often prohibitive prices. What else is on those pages? I wondered. And wondered.

Intoxicated by McAllester's journey, I began to feel I really wanted to try making something from this book. I wanted to taste one of the savory and hearty dishes that were symbolic of the deep roots of family he recounted. My husband and I agreed the cassoulet sounded perfect.

Off I went for the ingredients. First, I headed for Fleisher's, our famed local butcher shop, but to no avail. (Their day off.) So, the local grocery had to do, and I did get most of what I needed...except the duck fat. Now, I've never purchased duck fat in my life, and I hadn't the slightest idea where to find it. But, I got lucky at the second grocery (, and I was soon excitedly on my way home with the goods.

                                                                 duck fat and inspiration

I wish I had words to convey to you the aroma of this dish. Bacon, sausage, onions melting and caramelizing, rosemary, thyme... it is seductive. You will want to sit down and have a glass of wine and daydream. Do that. (Just remember to get up now and again to give a little stir.)

Tons of recipes for this dish out there, but I found this one to be pretty similar to what's in the book . McAllester tries to keep it really simple, and I often simplify or change a few things anyway based on what I do or do not have around or just for taste preference. For example, I used grape tomatoes I had instead of buying plum, and mixed leeks and shallots in with the required onions. (I figured no harm done there.) Obviously, I also used the duck fat in place of actually cooking and adding duck. (All the duck I found was frozen anyway, and I didn't have time for the defrost.)

the bacon (used a smoked one this time)

bacon, onions, leeks, a few shallots, garlic, tomatoes, rosemary, thyme (added the sausage, duck fat, and beans to this later)

the finished cassoulet

So, what does it taste like? Hearty, smoky peasant food. Think pork and beans elevated. Elevated big time. Yes, you may want to take a nap afterward, but naps are healthy, wonderful things. Do this too.

All in all, this was a fun little journey. I never expected to love this book or this meal so much. But, I did, and I will make it again. Sitting around the table over plates of this felt good. We were together, filling our bellies with food that made us feel stronger somehow. Tougher. Heartier. More ready to take things on......well, maybe tomorrow that is, after our naps. And something else happened along this journey. Something simple, yet unexpected. As I was cooking, our son came into the kitchen busily talking of King Kong and all else, and he stopped mid-sentence, took a big sniff, and said, "Wow, that smells good, mom. What is it?" And we chatted as he examined scraps of this and that left over on the cutting board and peered curiously at the steamy pot on the stove. Afterward, I smiled thinking McAllester might have enjoyed this moment. The journey came full circle. So, I wrote my name inside the cover of this book, flagged the page, and placed it on the shelf with my other cookbooks. Hey, you never know who may own them someday.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Book, A Bear, and Some Boozy Marmalade

Bedtime books in this house run the gamut from Harry Potter and How to Know the Insects (with our oldest) to Sleeping Beauty and Ladybug Girl (with our youngest) and everything in between. Most nights, my husband and I have little choice in the matter and resign ourselves to reading whatever they select...even though we know there's often something much, much better juuuuuust over there, in the bookcase, if only........ And it is amazing sometimes how often they prefer to reread something instead of venturing into something new. Though I admit I'm not always excited to reread Snow White for the twentieth time, I admire the fervor with which they approach the reread.  They anticipate and delight in their favorite moments each night as though they were discovering them for the very first time (raised eyebrows, tensed muscles), and that's pretty interesting to observe. I wonder when people lose that ability. I mean, as adults, how often do we even get around to indulging in a reread at all? Ever?

Just last week I read a novel in which one of the main characters lovingly reread Wuthering Heights every year, and I felt a little twinge of envy (not that Wuthering Heights would be my first choice, but still). What revelations might emerge only after that second or third time through? It's all got me thinking once again that maybe I could take a few lessons from these kids.

There are however happy nights when they peruse the bookshelf and those fingertips reach for a book we know and love well. This happened the other night when our daughter reached for Paddington Bear "from Darkest Peru" and I felt an ear to ear grin coming on. We read about Paddington's adventures with the Brown family- eating jam cake, getting all sticky, running a bath, and being treated to marmalade by Mrs. Bird, the housekeeper. At the end, Paddington drifted off to sleep in a chair, our daughter thought he was very cute and silly, and I started daydreaming about that marmalade.

Maramalade is my mom's favorite. Having planned to make her some, I remembered recently seeing an interesting recipe for one made with whiskey in The River Cottage Preserves Handbook ( ). Whiskey marmalade- I loved the idea! So, the preparations began, and a day later, we've got lots of delicious, boozy marmalade around here, and we're wanting more of those nostalgic Paddington books. In the meantime, we're having fun playing Marmalade Mayhem on catching falling jars of marmalade, plates, and jammy sandwiches.

                                                         Soaking the orange peels overnight.
                                                                          Into the jars.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

4 a.m. Coffee, Running Sneakers, and the Refuge of a One-Pot Meal

Summer is coming to a close, and the back to school and work transitions are underway. The pace of life is picking up again. Our summer roadtrips exploring Maine, Vermont, and the Adirondacks are aging into memory, and plans for next year's summer travels are beginning to take shape. Nights are even cooling off a bit.

With two little ones on board, this summer's trips meant lots of indulgence in fish-fry, homemade ice-creams, and other roadside treats. (I'm not complaining, believe me. I was a willing, often eager, participant with a keen eye for spotting lobster or ice cream signs off in the distance, and my pointer finger was sometimes a handier navigation tool than our faulty GPS.) Luckily our trips encompassed just a few weeks. We could have happily indulged in crispy batters and creamy cones for much, much longer.

But, upon arrival home, mirrors couldn't be avoided and the pinch of snug waistlines wouldn't be ignored. While the kids were as spry and lithe as ever (jealous!), my husband and I had to face the music. We'd gained a few unwanted pounds. I knew it was time for me to break out the sneakers and reacquaint myself with our treadmill. (That is, after I first converted it back from the clothes rack and dusty storage area it had become.)

To rev up, I made myself a promise. Fifteen minutes a day. No more than that and at whatever speed feels manageable. No lofty aims of sprinting this time. Just fifteen minutes. "You can spare fifteen minutes!" has become my morning mantra. So, what's happenin'? Well, it's been four weeks now, and hurrah! I'VE BEEN REALLY DOING IT!

Only, now there's one little snag. I'm headed back to work. I won't be continuing to exercise at  a reasonable, sane hour like say 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Nope. More like 4:30, and that means a definite rising at 4 a.m. for a quick cup of coffee so I'm actually awake and don't kill myself on the thing. And this time shift makes me feel a smidge discouraged, cause I've tried the super early morning workout thing before and failed. Maybe some of you can relate. So far so good though. I'm five days in after the shift and holding strong. Three easy steps, right? Chug coffee.  Don running shoes. Do the fifteen. I can do this. I can do this. Even at 4:30. Even at 4:30? Well, we'll see.

And all of this exercise should be making me feel full of vim and vigor, right? Um, not so much. I mean, in the morning, yes. After work, depleted. After setting down the work gear, I'm just not feeling geared up to multitask for fancy meal preparations. I'm becoming a one-pot-meal mama. Like the other night, glancing at the produce I'd picked up earlier in the week (with more ambitious intentions), it came to me- frittata tonight. Grabbed some local eggs and milk out of the fridge, chopped up some leeks and red and yellow tomatoes,  a dash of Spike, some spinach and some grated New Zealand cheddar, and into the oven for 35 minutes or so. Voila! Everybody's happy, and I can crash on the couch for a catnap before the bedtime bath and book routine. Hey, if I can expand my one-pot repertoire, I might just be able to do this 4 a.m. thing after all.