Mother’s Day Musings

I never expected to be a mother. I could not envision it. I feared failing at it. So I locked up my heart and my imagination and told myself not to wish for it. The spoken contract of my first marriage precluded procreation.

As the youngest of three daughters, I had little experience with babies—a few stints as a babysitter does not prepare you for parenting duties. Mostly, I babysat intelligent, well-behaved toddlers or older children. As a result, my diapering and drool-wiping skills were non-existent.

Then I met David. I was not looking for love again. I did not expect it and shied away from hoping for it. But love surprised me. Marriage and children followed.

The parenting journey sent me alternating between focused reading and skill-building, out-reach to more experienced moms, and no few moments of wild panic. Instead, the power of maternal love spurred me onward. Love poured out of me. And I prayed I was good enough, deserving enough, that I would do no harm.

I mined the role models in my life:

  • My gentile, creative mother.
  • My resourceful, savvy older sister.
  • The neighbor who trusted me to babysit her children and became one of my most cherished life-long friends and mentors.

Armed with their shared wisdom and inspiration, I toiled on. Luckily, my life partner toiled by my side, honoring the co-parenting vow we made: never break camp angry, always resolve to present a unified front, remember the grace and gift of the child in your arms—not a burden of responsibility, but an opportunity for love and joy. Always find the laughter.

And when you are wrong, be humble. Apologize with a heart full of love.

On this Mother’s Day eve, I look at our children in wonder. They made it to adulthood relatively unscathed: well-rounded and well-read productive citizens who practice gratitude, share easily, laugh readily, and stand up for themselves and others.

When I received the card below from our far-away daughter, I was overwhelmed. It’s too much. But I will take it and cherish it and try to live up to it.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and all motherly influencers. May parenting and mentoring bring you joy, make you a better human, and help shape someone who will be a gift to the world.

Where Were You on 9/11?

 Until 9/11, this was the defining question of my generation: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” For our children, the question is: “Where were you when the towers fell?”

I remember hearing a shriek and shout out in the office hallway at work. There was a small TV in the employee break room that we identified as the ruckus source. Shortly after, the intercom phones and our lines started ringing. For the next several hours, people called to cancel appointments, friends and family reached out to check on us, and stories unfolded. One co-worker stayed vigilantly by her desk phone, awaiting word on her son-in-law, who was scheduled for an equipment service appointment that morning at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the North Tower. His wife prayed he either missed the meeting or arrived late due to a traffic snarl, hoping he never made it into the building. Five hours later, we got word another technician took the assignment at the last minute. He perished in the fire and rubble. Unimaginable grief and guilt hovered in the air.

That morning, my husband attended an inspection walk-through on our soon-to-be-forever-home. With our savings and a small inheritance from my mother, we bought a “lightly renovated” home in a neighborhood with yard space for our children and dog to play. Due to the house’s age and lack of concrete slab foundation, the inspection was essential. The inspector took a call from his children’s school twenty minutes after the planes hit the towers. They attended a private academy at The Jewish Community Center. The JCC staff feared that targeted attacks might follow attacks in other cities. They sent all their students home to safety.

This year, as Corona19 terrorizes the world, and international travel stands almost still, we witness a rise in what the news cycle and politicians and law enforcement call “domestic terrorism.” When will we be safe again? How can we be safe? These are the questions that deserve our attention. We must put what divides us behind us and unify in common need: safety, equality, clean air and water, improved lives for those with less or at risk, respect for all living creatures, all of the earth.

The only answer I have is finding a starting place: our shared humanity.

Sheltering at Summer’s End: Buckle-Up Your Peaches

Happy accidents might seem like an oxymoron, but not for this cook. The irony of today’s cooking episode lies in the reality that I don’t typically eat or make dessert unless it promises to be “ultimate.” I spent years in my youth seeking out best-ever meal endings: first apple pie, then blueberry pie, then cheesecake. Every summer road trip, every time I pulled out a cookbook, my family knew exactly what I was going to order or prepare by whatever the search-for-the-perfect-something was at that time. Double the irony when a decade or more later I found myself working in restaurant kitchens and assigned the job of desserts. Armed with completing the pastry certification class at Francois Dionot’s L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, I took on the task, but not with much enthusiasm. I did not find my professional juice as a chef until I was allowed behind the hot-food line on Saturday night service. Now I was truly cooking! 

But when summer reaches its’ peak, and plums and peaches and cherries abound, when Oregon and Washington and Virginia apples arrive in the market in September, I thumb through my files, dive deep into my archived recipe inventory on Dropbox, or begin the online search with keywords: Peach Buckle, Blueberry Crisp, Apple Pan-Dowdy.

So when is a peach buckle not a Peach Buckle? When you are convinced there are eggs in the buckle batter and add them. You realize the pan is a bit full, reference the recipe and see your error, grabbing a rimmed sheet pan on which to set the baking dish. You turn up the oven thinking, “Maybe this will be more like a Dutch-Baby Pancake, and the batter will set with higher heat?” You hope to avoid it exploding all over the oven bottom.

The brown-butter-infused custard rose up to embrace the peaches, but only just enough to enrobe them in sugary, crusty, caramelized goodness. I will ALWAYS make my buckles with eggs in the future.  

I attach the recipe for “Not a Peach Buckle” below. Get yourself some of this. 

This recipe was inspired by and adapted from David Lebovitz’s “Texas Peach Cobbler.”

Not a Peach Buckle

 

Rice is Nice, but Pilaf is Perfect

Not so often, but now and then, a meal I prepare harkens me back to the early days of my cooking in a professional kitchen at Jour et Nuit in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Recently we revisited a classic of the “Continental Cuisine” menu many fine-dining restaurants offered in the 60s and 70s. Filet of Flounder in a lemon-caper brown butter sauce served up with Rice Pilaf and Haricot Vert with Shitake Mushrooms (thank you to my sister Chetty for sharing “Carol’s Peerless Green Beans” with us this past Christmas).

My journey into a world food staple: rice weaves a thread through a lifetime of meals. My mother cooked white rice perfectly, tender to the bite, moist but not wet, carried to the dinner table in her gold-edged bone-china bowl, steaming, with a Sunday roast and gravy. On weeknights, we occasionally suffered the abomination of Minute Rice. One weekday evening in my childhood, when my sister and I returned from our piano lessons, Mom re-heated dinner for us. I don’t remember what else was on the plate, but the rice stood out. Off-color and scented like fruit, we tasted it carefully. “Mom, this rice is WRONG!” proclaimed my sister, always brave about speaking up. “There’s nothing wrong with that rice,” responded my dad, “Now eat it!” Mom confessed later that she tried a new recipe from the Ladies Church League Cookbook: Orange Rice Pilaf. For decades after that meal, I looked suspiciously at cylinders of frozen orange juice concentrate, as well as spiral-bound community fund-raising cookbooks.
 
As a teenager, I discovered sushi rice, rolled hot with raw egg, and Tamari into a softened sheet of seaweed, breakfast at my friend Lynne’s house. Her mother translated for the Japanese embassy. White rice took on a European international status when I learned the French method of soaking and rinsing the rice, parboiling it in salted water, and then finishing it in the oven with flaky salt and good butter. I embraced the chewy texture of unpolished brown rice, sauteeing it with onions, and simmering it in a mixture of beef consommé and white wine to serve with the best-selling Mediterranean Beef on the menu at my restaurant, The Purcellville Inn. I raised our family on Persian rice, aromatic with saffron, eager eaters arguing over the choicest parts of the Tahdig crust.
 
Now pre-cooked grains in shelf-stable bags and various dry gourmet blends fly off grocery store shelves: black rice with pecans, farro risotto with porcini mushrooms, five grains with flax seeds. I love most of them, but Rice Pilaf remains the hallmark dish my husband requests repeatedly. I vary it by mood, main dish, and whatever resides in my pantry or sprouts in my herb garden.
 
Check out the recipe–and notes for no-recipe-recipe variations.
And no, I have never forced orange rice on our children, but I do own a growing collection of community-fund-raiser and Ladies Church League cookbooks. That’s another story.

Are You Ready for Your Close-up?

A great deal of the content on this blog is about food–the food we grow or buy locally, or cook, or order in, or remember from childhood and travels. Sometimes the food evokes memories, sometimes it feeds my soul. But it always brings me joy. I don’t pretend to be a great food photographer (although perhaps I should make a study of that). I strive to tell a story or share a recipe or just make a link outside my sheltered space and mindset. It’s a big world out there. And while we are “stuck in here,” I will continue to search for ways to connect.

My passion for cooking truly sparked when my older sister, Pam, married and began preparing recipes from Gourmet magazine, Julia Child, and others. She gave me a copy of Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook after a particularly productive weekend of cooking with her at the pre-revolutionary farmhouse that she and her husband bought and restored outside of Leesburg, Virginia. Many books and recipes followed, some gifted by Pam or friends, others bought with my wages as a waitress and bartender at Marty Lafall’s Steak House in Washington, D.C.

When Marty’s closed, I knew I wanted to switch teams from the front of the house to the back of the house and train to cook professionally. I still dream of Saturday nights: slamming saute pans, tossing vegetables in butter sauce with the quick flick of the wrist, swirling the demi-glace into the red wine base for an “a la minute” steak sauce. I miss working on the line, tickets triple-stacked on the order bar, staff hollering “Pick up!” and servers jostling their trays for plates and garnishes.

Now I cook for family, for friends, for love. And I love a picnic. This morning I pulled out my favorite version of Blueberry Muffins from the Wolftrap Picnic Cookbook–another gift from my sister. This collection of recipes (hello, best-ever Green Bean Salad) and photographs is one part groovy-time-machine and a double dose of the type of preparations you might see in a spiral-bound fund-raising community cookbook.

My first edition copy lacks the cover (although I slipped it between the pages for safe-keeping) and bears the hallmarks of much use: food spatters, greasy finger-prints, perhaps some fossilized sugar tracings. I sent a copy to my friend Mary Mullally when she moved to Virginia, very close to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. I gave her the green bean salad recipe long ago, a dish much requested at her family gatherings. I forgot to ask her what edition of the book she received.

So I offer some photos, some from my kitchen this morning–the blueberry muffin definitely ready for its close-up–and several from the cookbook. Check out the hairstyles, the clothing, and the food. Enjoy!

The Majesty of Eagles

When we first moved to Florida thirty years ago and visited my husband’s family home on the lake in Frostproof, his parents would take us on walks to learn about the wildlife and the plant life in Florida. We watched an eagle family build a nest in the forested area on Route 630 at the top of Mullinsville Road, a road that terminates in what is now our driveway. The county paved if for the first time this spring. As our son grew from toddler to young boy, the eagles expanded their nest to a platform suitable for a treehouse, or forestry lookout station. Eventually, they moved the nest farther into the trees, no doubt, due to increased traffic on the road. We can no longer watch them delivering food to their young, but they often perch at the top of the oaks in our lakefront and hunt for fish and other prey until the sun turns golden, and the light fades. In the years in which they successfully hatch eggs, the young eagles fly from perch to perch, learning to wheel and turn and dive.

We don’t know how many families of eagles live in the stands of oak and pine along the Lake Wales Ridge, but we like to think our eagle family is among the oldest dynastically. We fear the road paving will encourage development. The farmer may sell the forested grazing land; the local citrus baron may plow under the grove beside it. We hope not. There are plenty of houses for our relatively small population. There will never be enough eagles.

Hope you enjoy the video link below, posted on Facebook by my friend Darlyn Finch Kuhn.
https://www.facebook.com/beautifulbirdsandanimals.daily/videos/1193959457638876/

A Little Morning Conversation

The cat and the birds cohabit peacefully. The cat watches the birds obsessively, and the birds ignore the cat.

Yesterday, I woke predawn, the sound of my husband and son turning in their beds, the soft rumbling of their breathing assuring me of some peace and privacy. But the air filled with chatter from the living room as I sat down at my office desk. The birds twittered enthusiastically, then quieted, awaiting a reply. The cat mewed and purred, modulating her vocals to chirp-like sounds, albeit lower-pitched. Back and forth, the song and response continued for almost an hour.

I suddenly wished I had a morning companion, someone with whom to greet the day. As grateful as I am to rise each morning and sit with my thoughts and my journal, a little conversation would be welcome now and then.

 

The View from My Kitchen Island: Pasta on My Mind

In 1982, after two years of making pre-dawn 140-plus-mile-round-trip shopping forays from rural Loudoun County, Virginia to the wholesale food vendors in Washington DC and surrounds, my chief purveyor cut me a deal. If I placed all my orders through him, he would make the rounds twice a week and pick-up all the fresh foods and specialty items I could not get from the local orchards, trout farms, and truck gardens.

Tuesday and Friday afternoons became our deliveries of abundance: 3 lb wheels of hand-shaped Vermont White Cheddar, 10 lb tubs of cleanly filleted Sole, briny and fresh, 9 lb cans of imported Roland mustard, 40 lbs of the freshest chicken packed in ice, ready to be skinned, or boned, or sliced, or marinated, veal legs awaiting dismantling, ropes of the best Italian sausage redolent of fennel seed from Mangialardos Italian Market, tortillas still warm from the press and griddle, and fresh pasta in all shapes and sizes, stuffed and unstuffed, cut from steel dies imported from Italy, fragrant with fresh herbs, yellow with egg yolks. No other restaurants in the area served fresh pasta at that time.

Our signature pasta special became a regular feature, remaining on the menu for the next four years: Tortellini Alla Panna. The first pasta company went out of business, but our intrepid vendor, Rodney, found another source: Yankee Noodle Dandy. A new start-up that I would later learn employed my husband, David, just a few years out of culinary school. David and I met when he came as the date of a dear friend (for whom I would later work) on the last Sunday brunch on the last day that we owned The Purcellville Inn.

Yankee Noodle Dandy did not survive long after we sold our restaurant. They made a business decision to launch a line of fresh pasta into grocery stores, an idea poorly marketed by the company and poorly promoted on the sellers’ end. Home cooks did not know how to store it, cook it, serve it. It was an idea before its time. With limited shelf-life, semi-truck-loads of wasted products drove the company bankrupt.

And that brought my now-husband full circle into my life: he showed up at a corporate Christmas party my-before-mentioned friend contracted to cater. I was the executive chef of her company, Festival Catering. David arrived as a contract worker, his tuxedo bag slung over his shoulder, a bow-tie tucked loosely under his collar.

Yes, we offered what is known in the catering world as the ubiquitous “Fresh Pasta Station,” a cook-to-order feature at the event. And, yes, we served tortellini.

Last night, following a week of delicious, but labor-intensive meal preparations, I decided on a simple pasta and salad dinner. The freezer released a bag of frozen cheese-stuffed tortelloni, and we revisited what remains a favorite dish with a few added tweaks. Check out the attached recipe and let me know how you like it. I added some No-Recipe Recipe suggestions and look forward to hearing about your variations.

I should mention that I do not write this blog for self-promotion or product promotion purposes. But I suggest particular foodstuffs or brands that we enjoy. I receive no economic benefit.

That said, I do want to give a shout out to a friend who also enjoys cooking: Suzannah Gail Collins. A few years ago, she shipped us an unexpected gift box full of wonderfulness from Katz Farms in Napa Valley, California. We have become big fans. In this recipe and the last one I posted, I mentioned using their excellent Zinfandel Wine Vinegar. You won’t be unhappy if you order any of their bottles of vinegar.

Tortelloni Alla Panna with Shrimp

 

The View from My Kitchen Island: Finding Comfort in Cooking

Walls and fences and gates isolate lakefront homes in most neighborhoods of Florida. Not so in “The Friendly City” of Frostproof. The view out my kitchen window expands across five front yards and four driveways, reaching north a half-mile up Mullinsville Road as it cuts between the cattle pasture and the orange grove. Behind me, the kitchen island frames a wall of sliding glass doors and windows opening out to four-and-a-half-mile long Lake Reedy, unencumbered by fences, or boathouses. I track passing clouds by observing their shadows on the lake surface. On a cloudless day, a rare event in the summertime, I might be tempted to wear sunglasses in the house.

We do not take this beauty—the wide-open space, the views of water and sky and groves—for granted, not now during our time of quarantine, not ever. I give thanks and show gratitude by cooking. I do not paint; the plate is my canvas.

Cooking is collaboration, with other cooks, with old family recipes, herbs from the garden, vegetables from the farm stand, the dredges of wine left from the last dinner, deep-diving into freezer and pantry. I read food blogs and columns, restaurant menus and reviews, and watch the occasional podcast if it captures my attention. Cookbooks are my favorite mystery novels, historical romances, botany textbooks, and cultural touchstones. Words and pictures and food are my salvation.

I test recipes, making changes based on what is at hand–seeking the perfection and malleability of the “no-recipe recipe.” I offer up my findings. Feel free to tweak and change and share down the chain to other cooks, other kitchens. In the meantime, I chop vegetables on my kitchen island, gazing at the lake, watching the coming storm move across the water.

Dry-Brined Bone-in Pork Chops with Black Cherry Sauce

Protect Your Vote 101

Good citizens actively participate in the voting process. The reality is that it is YOUR responsibility to vote and take action to make sure your vote counts. There will be threats, accusations of fraud, gerrymandering, interference, obstruction, distractions, public safety issues, technical problems, staffing shortages, location issues, and personal inconveniences. Here is how you need to prepare:

1. Keep your eyes and ears turned to a reliable local news source so that you will know where your voting location is, the hours during which you can place your vote (or get in line to vote), and whether or not the voting site changes before election day.

2. Pay attention to the weather, the surrounding traffic (road construction or closures), public transportation, parking availability at voting sites–anything that might hinder you from getting to the polls in time to vote.

3. If you vote by mail, be aware that the risk of fraud is lower than the latest news cycle indicates. Vote by mail has long been in place and effectively used by most states. In the 2016 national election, 1 out of every four votes cast was cast by mail (information sourced from the Associated Press 7/30/2020). Voting by mail is not risky, but it is not without issues. You must understand your role in the process: read the directions that come with the ballot. Please complete it and place it in the envelope and seal and sign it as instructed. Then get it in the mail on time. The United States Postal Service recommends you allow at least a full seven days for your mail-in ballot to be processed and delivered to the appropriate location. If the undermining of USPS and threat to their support continues—pay attention and get your vote in the mail even sooner.

4. Or hand-deliver your mail-in ballot to the elections office yourself. I had not planned to do so until I learned that another threat to my vote exists: water. My mail-in ballot arrived wet after a soaking rain. As a result, the glue on the enclosed envelope sealed it shut. When your ballot arrives in the mail, inspect it! Please don’t wait until the deadline to get it in the mail.

If you receive a damaged voting packet, call the Supervisor of Elections office and ask what their policy and process is for replacing the ballot or the mailing envelope. Here in Polk County, I was required to present my ballot, the damaged envelope, my voter’s ID card, and my photo ID. While I was there, I took advantage of the secure ballot drop-off box and dropped my ballot in the slot. Yes, I made sure I signed and sealed the outer envelope first.

I hope we have a record voter turnout on November 3rd. We may not be united in the results we desire from this election cycle. Still, we can work together to ensure everyone exercises their right—and their responsibility—to vote.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Vote! Vote! Vote!