Kids come into your life when they are born into the family, then they tenderize
your heart so thoroughly you never entirely recover. You dote.
Scottie was the three-year-old who had to sit by his pre-school teacher during music concerts, but music was always and still is, a source of joy for him. He had that innate
sense of music, although he’s not playing right now, being in college and all. I’m hoping
that it’s enough of a soul calling that he goes back to it at some point. He’s a brilliant musician, one who can play the simplest melody and turn it into music. Not
everybody can do that. Do I want him to become a rock star? Not so much, I like the
engineering course he’s on better. But I would like it to become a source of
comfort, self-expression, and creativity at some point. Well, maybe that can happen.
He’s an engineering student, in the trenches where the workload is the worst: hard duty, lots of it. He’s tired, the first time I’ve seen him like that. He’s irritated with how UNFUN it all is. I’d like to reassure him of this: Learning the foundations, the basics of any craft are incredibly difficult. Nobody likes it. But where it gets fun again is where you create things that matter to people. You use everything you learn, all the time, unconsciously, anybody lucky enough to learn important skills and an ever increasing knowledge base. But it is in the creativity and the building of a thing that your joy pills kick in, and you love it. Plus the engineering jokes are great.
He has a playful gene, one that kicked in last summer, when he purchased an aging
sports car on e-Bay for not-too-much money. He had it insured before his folks got
home in the evening. Trouble is this: he used some of his college book money to buy it, in an economy where teenagers were having the teensiest bit of trouble finding summer jobs. Since his folks already had gotten him a great car with fabulous gas mileage, they were somewhat less than enthused about the purchase. I got over it before they did.
My favorite Scott memory: just a week after he turned two, we had Thanksgiving at Steve and Maggie’s house, his folks. Scottie sat beside me in his high chair, an angelic little boy in long golden curls and blue eyes the size of dinner plates. Long eyelashes.
He could reach my right arm and his mashed potatoes. I was wearing an expensive purple jump suit. Scottie had one hand in the potatoes and was using that hand to pat me, over and over again. After dinner, I was covered in potatoes. I ditched the jump suit and kept the memory.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
It was a cookbook, I fell in love with, Japanese Hot Pots, by Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat. I already had the pan, a beautiful simple cast iron pot. Hot pots are a traditional cooking method, used by Japanese mamas for millennia.
Here’s the procedure: You cut up everything into bite-sized pieces or slice the meat and veggies very thinly. It helps if they are partially frozen first, then marinate them for a couple of hours. Heat the broth until it simmers. Add the meat, noodles, and veggies at the table and watch them cook. The family is gathered by then. It takes about five minutes to cook and the food is so fresh, finely flavored. That’s dinner from far, far away.
So it was my turn to cook, our first evening in a mountain cabin, whose generous windows looked over a gorgeous meadow. I was there with a group of friends, other writers from the Pacific Northwest. I’m in my early 60s, and the other women are in their late 50s to mid-70s. They are stunning cooks, so it pays to come packing recipes from around the world and foods that are fresh from the farmers’ markets. We’ve been writers together for about two decades. When we started out, we were students of Joan Logghe, a poet and mentor from New Mexico. But mainly, it was a way to write about our lives: stories generational cooking experiences, a broken foot in the wilds of New Zealand, what it’s like to have a long-lost daughter reenter your life, and the agonies of a troublesome in-law or two. It’s where we tell as much truth as we can muster in a safe and invigorating environment. It’s one of the places and the ways where we can render a challenging journey into a rich and worthwhile trip.
Here’s my own tough patch. Julie, my cousin and a cancer survivor, ran into some trouble with her bones and needed a 2nd tough surgery. I was her caregiver, but this surgical diagnosis put me into a psychological malaise, a scary detachment. Over lunch, I told them about my weird headtrip and my hopes of crawling back to the side of compassion at some point.
Over the next three hours, they told me their own stories of caregiving, and what strange things that task can do to a fragile mind. They told me what was normal and what needed attention. They told me what kind of acceptance you need in order to be a real support to your relative and what wasn’t at all helpful. They were as reality-based and truthful as you could wish, and they got me back where I needed to be. It was immensely comforting.
This is whom I am cooking for, and I had to do a good job.
I wanted to do a Japanese hot pot for a summer evening in the mountains. Here’s what I made.
Shrimp Hot Pot
In a large cast iron or roaster, put a skim of oil and add 3-5 finely chopped garlic cloves and an inch or two of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped. Saute the garlic and ginger, until they are soft.
Pour two 32 oz. boxes of chicken broth, one no-salt and one salted, in the pot. Let it come to a simmer. We did this on the stove, but you can do it at the table if you have candles appropriate for cooking there.
In the meantime, thaw a couple of pounds of frozen medium (or larger) shrimp. Marinate the shrimpies in garlic, soy sauce, ginger for about an hour. Don’t peel them. The shells add a lot of flavor.
Add 1 pound of shitake mushrooms to the broth. Remover the stems and give them a good swish in the sink.
Add ½ pound of pea pods to the broth. Wash thorough one bunch of scallions, although you can trim the ends just a bit. Leave them whole and keep them together. Add two packages of already cooked noodles to the broth. Add ¼ cup of soy sauce.
The mushrooms and peapods will cook in about 5-7 minutes. About 4 minutes in, add the shrimpies, peels and all, and let them cook 3-5 minutes. They are done, when they are opaque. Add the whole bunch of scallions along the side of the pot. They will cook and absorb the flavors. Everybody that wants one, gets one. Tell people they need to peel the shrimp; provide a couple of bowls for the shells.
At the end, add a skim of roasted sesame seed oil, some roasted sesame seeds and a little bit of fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro as a garnish. Let everybody serve themselves. The pot is too heavy and too hot to carry to the table. This recipe isn’t in Ono and Salat’s cookbook; this is a simplified and blended version of several of their ideas. They are thoroughly faithful to Japanese cooking, and some of the ingredients aren’t easy to find.
Friday, March 16, 2012
We’re at our local health food store, where the shelves are stocked with manchego cheese, cans of salt-free black beans, and teas from England. It’s a place where you really want to hang out, because there is stuff in there you haven’t seen before. Promise.
I’m standing in front of the deli case, trying to decide between chicken salad with cashews and green onions or cooled asparagus and raspberries in vinaigrette. In comes my friend, Leslie, and her son, Kyle, who is less than two years old. Leslie and Dan are brilliant, creative people both, with hard-core jobs, in nursing and computers. Kyle, their number one son, is tiny, which makes his intelligence so imposing and amusing
My mythology is this: that you need to get down to kid level to really hear what they are saying. So I squat down in front of the counter. So does Kyle, And we carry on an adult conversation on our haunches—about dinosaurs.
Are you a little nervous about t-rexes?
‘Cause they dead.
Can you say Pachycephalosaurus?
Do you want to say Pachycephalosaurus?
Do you like to learn about dinosaurs?
Which kind of dinosaur would you like to be?
They in the movies.
Yes, yes, they are.
It’s time to move a bit. There are eight or ten adults in line, and we’re holding up the
works. I get up, so does he. He’s the kid you take seriously. I smile. He grins.
Monday, March 12, 2012
We don’t come into this life being fully mature, generous, adept . . . at anything. It turns out we’re interns for life, sometimes informally, mostly informally. And our mistakes. . .Yowza.
I don’t know about you, but it turns out that I never forget a lesson I learned the hard way. I run into the problem again, and that old situation just comes up, shining through hard, and the memory is back, full-tilt and full-force. I’m lucky if it doesn’t burn a hole in my retinas.
So, in the mistakes count category, here are three doozies.
First pie. I was a sophomore in high school, in charge of lunch for the farm hands, which included Bobby, the sweetest of all possible guys. My mom was running errands. Left to my own devices, I decided to make a cherry pie. There was a big can of pie cherries in the pantry. So, I made a homemade piecrust. I only put a tablespoon of water in it, so when I rolled it out, the crust was a half an inch thick and only made one crust, instead of two. I had to literally bang the thing into the pie pan. There wasn’t enough left over for much of a rim and the tenderness factor was missing.
Onto the fruit. I opened the can, and there was plenty of juice, but what I didn’t realize was that there was no sugar. I spooned out the cherries, ladled some juice over, and stuck it in the oven. The piecrust was so tough and thick, that it never cooked. The pie came out of the oven pretty much the same way it went in: Raw and magnificently tart.
By then, my mom was home and Bobby was in the kitchen. My mom was horrified, thinking I was up to toasted cheese sandwiches and warmed over chicken noodle soup, which I had done none of. Bobby was so gallant, he tried eating a bite or two, and stuck up for me, said it wasn’t too bad. He didn’t grimace once although the temptation for that was compelling. My mom having none of it, rescued him by trashing the slice of pie and promising him a better meal, the next day.
So, forward 20 years, my post-Germany summer. I was so homesick for that beautiful country that I was going to make a cake, like the ones I’d had there. This one: white cake, whipped cream for frosting, and fresh fruit. Friends were coming for dinner, eager for a German meal and dessert.
Cake layers, done and sliced in half, so there were four layers. Whipped cream, whipped to fairly firm, plenty of sugar. A plethora of fresh fruit: fresh cherries, kiwis, strawberries, green grapes, some of them were sugared for the top.
I carefully stacked the layers: cake, cream, and fruit—four times. It was glorious. So I put it in the fridge, it needed to be chilled.
Four hours later, I opened the fridge, while the guests were there, and there it was: the cake. It wasn’t that it was flatter, it was that it had taken a little journey, from the plate to the refrigerator racks—and fallen through the slates on the refrigerator shelves. It was resting on pieces on the veggie bin, having sieved itself on the racks. I had to dig it out of there with a spoon.
Later that summer, I asked my buddy, Carla from Germany, what had gone wrong. Apparently, the bakers use a stabilizing agent with their whipped cream cakes. Who knew?
Last summer, July. One of my church buddies, Rick, has a two-state family. His wife, Suzie, and his children and a darling grandchild live in one state. He lives in my state, because he has very specific computer skills and you need a large organization for that. In this case, state government. So last summer, everybody traipsed over to my state and Rick hosted a party so we could get to know his kids: two beautiful girls, one of them is the mother of the beautiful Ellie. My job was to bring the cupcakes.
So, all afternoon I made cupcakes, chocolate, maple, and strawberry. The chocolate and the maple ones were great, but I was losing time fast, so I didn’t let the strawberry ones cool for the hour or so required before you frost them. The frosting was butter based, actually thawed strawberries, powered sugar, and butter. It was a hot day, so the frosting was pretty soft. I got them all done, before my five o’clock deadline, and went to get ready for the party.
When I came back, I chanced a look at the dining room table. The frosting had fallen off the cupcakes. They were as naked as babies. I had some frosting left and I whipped in more powered sugar and I stuck the cupcakes in the freezer for 15 minutes and then refrosted them. I was an hour late to the party.
Ray, of Ray and Katie, soon to be newly weds, liked the cupcakes. He seemed to be someone who’d eaten prepared or processed foods most of his life, and the real stuff was a revelation. I left most of the cupcakes for him.
We’re friends for life.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
I’ve made it for men I’ve adored, my niece and nephew for family dinners, writing conferences with famous writers, some of whom I knew and one I had no clue about. It’s a timer-consumer, labor intensive, and a mess, but there is nothing like the smell of homemade Italian food, an herb or two, and maybe some sausage. It’s easier if you go in steps and clean as you go, otherwise, it’s a two-day project: The day you make it, and the day you put your life back together.
The noodles: 1 package of lasagna noodles (the old-fashioned kind) or
1 package of pre-cooked. The precooked ones really cut down on prep, and I can’t tell the difference.
Heat a big kettle of water to boiling. Add 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook the noodles until they are just tender and still a little underdone. (They will finish cooking in the oven.)
Drain them and use them within about half an hour. Line the bottom of an 8 x 10 (or close) inch lasagna pan with three noodles.
Or use The Pre-cooked Variety
Put 3 dry noodles on the bottom of the pan. I know this seems weird and you can
see some gaps. (The spaces fill up when the noodles are in the oven.)
Spinach layer: Put a skim of olive oil in a large skillet. Heat it up, until it create little
waves. Add ½ chopped onion and fry that until the onion is soft. Add 2 mashed up
garlic cloves. Add 1 bag of baby spinach and cook it down. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a good grinding of sea salt. Press the spinach mixture on top of first layer of lasagna noodles and cover with another layer of noodles.
Sausage and mushroom layer: Brown ½ lb. hot or sweet Italian sausage, drain the fat, and add a box of sliced white mushroom, ½ chopped onion, 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, 1 mashed garlic clove and salt and pepper. Cook until the veggies are limp and the sausage is a little bit brown. Add that mixture to the layered lasagna noodles and add a top layer of noodles..
Tomato sauce: Here are two different methods.
Method 1: Buy a bottle of spaghetti sauce. Use part of that for the tomato sauce on top of the lasagna. Works fine.
Method 2: Buy one can ( 15 oz.) of tomato sauce and one can of crushed tomatoes. Add ½ chopped onion and 1 cloves of garlic. Sweat those veggies down in a skim of olive oil.
Add canned tomatoes, 1 tablespoon oregano, and 1 tablespoons of basil, fresh or dried, and salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the sauce down and use that for the top layer. This version has more flavor, but it is one more pot to clean up. That matters at this point. There’s a possibility that you have thoroughly destroyed your kitchen.
The Last Step: Get a ball of fresh mozzarella, grate that. Sprinkle the cheese over the tomato sauce. Bake the lasagna for about an hour at 350 degrees. That long slow bake develops the most luscious flavors. Serve with a green salad.
I mean that, all your veggies can be green: iceberg lettuce, sliced celery, chopped up cucumbers and sliced green onions, a little bit of vinegar and good olive oil, salt and pepper, some flat-leafed parsley, fresh. This is so good. Hope somebody has it for dinner tonight.
Monday, March 5, 2012
In our city, we have a pretty little river. Old trees drape themselves over the flow, and there are islands, and eddies that are calm and safe, and places to picnic on the banks. One of those places has a bench, the wading pools are less than an inch deep.
So on a warm spring day, I am walking along the river, when I come to this serene and
welcoming spot. In the sandy pools, is a grandma and her grandbaby, a little boy. about 18 months old, in his swimming suit and itty-bitty rubber clogs. He is splashing water everywhere. squealing with real delight.
I haven’t squealed with real delight about anything in months. Work is intense and the deadlines are frequent. This baby is just the perfect antidote. And I can feel the stress and pressure lessen and evaporate.
Another walking mama with her newborn arrive and begin to splash in the pools, although this newborn is a puppy, a little cocker with that milk-rounded belly and an ever-so-soft golden coat. The two youngsters are instantly enamored with each other, fascinated and engaged in the most endearing way.
They play in the sun-dappled river along the sandy beaches. The little boy is so gentle in his pats, and the puppy constantly licks the hands and arms of the child. True, true love.
They dig holes, they splash through the clear pools, and they chase each other along the banks for the better part of half an hour. Kids and puppies are a meant-to-be.
Friday, March 2, 2012
So, it’s a snugglely night in rainy western Oregon. The family had a hearty stew for dinner and nestle on the couch, watching television. Mom and Dad, my cousins, and two older boys, one in high school and another in junior high, and two little kids, the second part of the family, one of them is a little girl. Our pathways will cross in the most unexpected way. In the mid-1990s, I’ll head to Camp Willowa, at a writers camp called Fish Trap. I head out for a walk, before seven in the morning. On my way back, there is a beautiful child on the road with me. There are only the two of us, and we begin to talk, I’m from one state, she is from another, although she has relatives in my state. “That’s interesting,” I’m thinking. She is off to get a cup of coffee for her dad and she missed the turn. “I’ll show you,” I say. “It’s just on this road.” We compare notes on distant relatives, when some of the names begin to sound familiar. “Wait a minute,” I say, “Is your dad Mike?” She looks at me as if I have three heads. It’s a little unnerving for us both. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m Barb,” I explain, “I’m your dad’s cousin.” Sure enough, we spend bits of the weekend together. Mike’s mom and dad are there, and all the brothers, a singularly splendid time.
But whom I really want to talk about is the number two son, the middle schooler. He’s the wanderer and the inventor, and a few things in school interest him, but not as many as his dad would like. That stormy night, our little guy is exploring, his room, the kitchen, the living room, the garage. Just in the middle of a great part of the television show, there is an horrendous bang, and all the lights go out, like the bang you hear when a squirrel gets tangled up in a substation. The neighbors still have lights, but the family is sitting in pitch black, wondering what in the heck to do next. Number 2 Son blasts in the living room door, he’s disheveled and recovering from the fright of his life:
“Dad!,” he shouts, “I made lightning!”