Wednesday, December 31, 2008

J-Yah Strikes Again

Cousin J-Yah is an inveterate garage sale shopper; she cruises garage sales almost every Saturday morning and finds wonderful things for a song. When she sees culinary bargains, she often thinks of me.

This was her latest find, a handled metal basket for grilling veggies and cubed meats on the barbecue. I can't wait to try it out - I'm already imagining the smoky taste of grilled zucchini and mushrooms.

Because you often have good ideas that you are willing to share with me, I thought I'd also ask if you have any favorite ways to use a pan like this? I know it's winter and not exactly barbecue weather but think of it as a way to recapture those delicious memories of summer.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Puppy for Christmas

I have had five important dogs in my life but I've never gotten a puppy for Christmas, one of my longest-standing wishes. This year, my wish came true, or at least pretty close. It wasn't quite Christmas and she's not a puppy any more, but you get the idea. Two days after Christmas, we were approved for adoption and Cora was delivered to our house.

I heard about Smiley Dog Rescue from my friend the Evil Empress who has fostered dogs for them and even adopted one of her fosterees, the delightfully goofy Dell. Smiley Dog is a good organization, staffed with caring volunteers who take animals out of kill shelters and keep them until the right home comes along.

I had seen Cora's picture three months before on the Smiley Dog Rescue web site (, if you are looking for a dog to love), but two emergency trips to Connecticut and a vacation to Hawaii intervened, so I wasn't at all sure she'd end up with us. I filled out the adoption application and hoped for the best, keeping in touch with Smiley Dog all that time, letting them know what was happening and, while they didn't make any promises, they kindly kept her a little longer.

Initially, I thought I'd probably change her name, as Cora seemed like an old lady who smells of lavender but now that she's been with us for less than a day, I think we'll keep it. She is very ladylike in the house, very gentle when she takes food from your hand, quiet (except when the leash appears and there's a chance of a walk - then, she becomes a whirling dervish of delighted excitability) and sweet-natured. At the dog park, she's all Border Collie (although there are clearly some other genes in there, too), running like the wind, herding the other dogs and playing boisterously, but at home she's refined, calm and peaceful, as if she had crocheted doilies on her end tables.

Cora. Corazon. Perfect.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Child

Not having children of my own, I had to borrow some for previous Christmases, notably my Fairy Godchildren, Mark and Louis. Their mother was always generous with sharing them as they grew up, but this year they were both in Michigan with her, a sweet surprise for their parents as they are both adult and independent now.

This year, we've had the joy of sharing Christmas with a nearly-two-year old, our granddaughter, Mia. This picture tells it all - she's into the rip-and-tear school of present opening, enthusiastically shredding her way through Christmas wrap and tissue paper. My Dad would have approved, being a kid at heart and a devotee of that school himself; he could unwrap a small mountain of gifts in short order. And being nearly two, she is far more interested in the wrappings than she is in what's inside; I trust that will change with age.

She has been the bright spot this Christmas. She came over for dinner the day after Christmas and kept us lively, every five minutes or so, trying to anticipate which new way she'd find to kill herself. If she wasn't headed for the top of the stairs at a dead run, she was marching into the kitchen to seek out the hot things, or searching the house for all the lethal edges we keep unknowingly within her reach. And, she giggles as she goes!

I made an ultra-simple dinner, shrimp cocktail for starters and chicken with fingerling potatoes roasted in the same pan for dinner. The only difference was that I substituted a mandarin orange for my usual lemon squeezed over the top and tucked inside, and sprinkled it with Hawaiian Red Salt (a gift from Mia's parents and aunt) as well as Herbes de Provence before roasting. When little kids are at the table trying out their first real silverware, it's not really about the food, is it?

Wanna know the best part? Mia loves me. She mimics my greeting of "Hi, Sweetie Pie" with her own version, "Hi, PeaPie!" and runs to give me hugs and kisses. She melts my crusty old heart.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008


As I mentioned in an earlier post, a single pound of beans can just about wipe out world hunger - and when there are only two in the household, they last a long, long time.

We loved the hearty beans but I have to admit that I may have cooked a teensy bit too much. By the time we were nearing the bottom of the pot, we were more or less beaned out for the foreseeable future.

Another oops I made was to purchase a local smoked Cornish game hen, supposedly ready to eat. It was so hideously salty and almost slimy in texture as to be inedible and, believe me, not many foods fall into that category around here; we are the kind of people who stretch the Five Second Rule, despite the state of our kitchen floor.

I bundled the hen into a baggie and fridged it although, frankly, it was so salty I doubt if it could have spoiled, hoping to be inspired with some way to use it in subsequent meals.

The inspiration came a day later when I thought of dilution as the solution to all that sodium pollution. I decided to try making soup stock from it and leaving out all salt from the broth. I covered the hen with water, threw in an onion and some celery and simmered it until the meat was firm (and no longer glutenicky {new word}), boned it and returned the bones to the broth for a longer simmer with the veggies. When strained, the stock was richly yellow, full of flavor and only lightly salty. Returning the meat to the broth along with some diced carrot, onion and green beans, I remembered the last two cups of beans that had been simmered with the ham shank, so I threw them in as well to simmer with the veggies and smoky chopped hen.

The resulting soup is rich with flavor layers, one of the loveliest soups I have made, enough for lunch today and some nice leftovers for the freezer. We made piggy slurping noises, enjoying the last of those has-beans.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Egg Roll

I seem to be on a roll with egg dishes these days, notably eggs plopped on top of things.

Having made this huge pot of beans (did you know that a single pound of beans will feed a small army?) while My Beloved was away on business, I wanted him to taste them on his first night home. He's not a huge beans-and-franks fan and the beans already had ham in them, anyway, so I was at somewhat of a loss as to how to dress up the dish.

Inspiration! What about a pair of poached eggs with golden, runny centers atop all that brownish-red goodness? It had worked like a charm with the butternut hash, so why not?

He inhaled it. He scraped up the last lingering slurp of sauce. He looked around for more.

I'm on a roll, an egg roll.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

Sometimes, things just happen at exactly the right time. Serendipity. First, my butcher explained that ham shank would be better than ham hock with my beans - she said her Irish family always used the shank and who am I to argue with a fellow Irishwoman? Especially when she is wielding a large knife.

Then, while I was simmering a big pot of Rancho Gordo cranberry beans with said ham shank, water, tomato sauce and some chopped, softened onions, I happened to read Peter's post about the penitential meal he was making for his little family, having pigged out on Za-zagna (I love Milo's name for it!) the day before.

As always, Peter was tossing in a dash of this and a dollop of that (he likes layered flavors) to his beans so I decided to follow suit with mine. Having no idea what shichimi is and being too lazy to look it up, I only added balsamic vinegar and a little maple syrup to mine. I left out his soy sauce suggestion as my ham shank was already adding plenty of salt.

More simmering and tasting as they got softer and softer, and finally they were ready. The ham had fallen completely off the bones in chunks and the marrow had dissolved into the sauce. The color was a rich browny-red and the flavors wafting up were literally mouth-watering. While perhaps not as complex as Peter's beans, they were deeply satisfying and homey with a little kick in the pants from the vinegar to keep them from being boring.

I'll be back to thank the butcher this week and herewith go my thanks to Peter - I got high on these beans - with a little help from my friends.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

I can only imagine how much work it took to cover this enormous tree with Christmas red lights. For reference, that's a street light to the right of the tree. It stands in Darien, Connecticut.

Merry Christmas! I hope that you get lots of presents and they are just the ones you hoped for, that you find relaxed cheer among your loved ones, and that 2009 will be your best year yet!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Aunt Virginia's Fruit Cake

When we returned from Connecticut, we found on our doorstep, delivered that very day, a box I have been anticipating ever since I was a very small child. Every year at Christmas, no matter where in this crazy world our family was stationed, we received a homemade fruitcake from Aunt Virginia, my Dad's baby sister.

Aunt Virginia has always been a favorite of mine, and my inspiration. She has a lovely singing voice and even sang on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in her youth. She was in the first class of the WAVES during World War II, adding the fifth star to my grandmother's window. She and Uncle Arthur raised five great kids, all of whom are delightfully quirky and solid members of society, while she pecked away at a Masters in Library Science. She went to work at the Jervis Library in her home town of Rome, NY and really never stopped, claiming that she needed to earn her "gin money." (And, indeed, she does drink a martini each evening). She worked part time until this year when she retired from active service. "Retired," however, only means that she's at the library two or three afternoons a week as a volunteer. I'm not sure she'd like me to divulge her exact age in so public a forum, but she still drives herself to Boston or NYC, attends numerous social events weekly, takes a single pill a day and makes delicious fruitcake in her eighth decade.

Double wrapped in plastic and foil, Aunt Virginia's fruitcake is densely heavy for its size and redolent of brandy, preserved fruits and rich nuts. Cutting a slice requires a balance of strength and finesse, strength to cut through all the goodies held in place by the merest hint of cake and delicacy to keep the thin slice from falling apart. One eats only thin slices of this rich, rich dessert - I defy anyone to finish a larger piece.

This year's cake came in a box gaily decorated with a small fortune in flower stamps, an unexpected bonus of color and cheer, much appreciated on the receiving end. Each year, Aunt Virginia threatens to discontinue making fruitcakes as the ingredients are increasingly difficult to find but, so far, we have continued to benefit from her generosity and culinary skill.

Merry Christmas Eve! Don't you wish you had an Aunt Virginia? I thought so.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stove Envy

Cooking for a crowd of hungry mourners is a pleasure when you have equipment like this. Not only do you get to offer a kind of solid comfort to people you love, you also get to play around on a cook's dream.

Two huge ovens, six burners, a broiler, a grill and two warming lights. Heaven! It's my Belle-Mere's gas-fired Magic Chef, a beast so large that the kitchen was actually built around it by the previous owners, Texas millionnaires who apparently employed a professional cook - it would never have fit through the door.

You use matches from a big box of wooden ones to light it, a faintly exciting event with a delicious hint of danger about it. The puff of blue flame always slightly startles.

I have always coveted it and enjoyed concocting family food on it, but it really came into its own after the memorial service for my Belle-Mere when it was heating easily in a single oven a huge pan of lasagna, an equally impressive pan of mac and cheese and a medium-sized ham. We didn't even bother lighting the second oven!

My Belle-Mere was always a casual cook who bought impressive cuts of meat as the centerpiece of any meal she made and added a couple of veggies to round it out. She moved around her kitchen with a calm, unhurried air and the food always emerged perfectly cooked and served at the same time without apparent effort, on plates warmed under one of the warming lights. I think the Magic Chef was part of her recipe for culinary success but her own natural calm was the other ingredient. I have never seen her flustered, either in the kitchen, on her boat, or anywhere else. She had a marvelous personal peacefulness that one would call dignity in a stuffier woman, but her spark of humor and self deprecation rescued her from stuffiness.

Maybe hers was just an old soul, one of those that had recycled through the ages enough times that it had smoothed off its rough edges. Whatever the reason, I admit not only to stove envy but also to calm envy.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008


It has been a tough couple of weeks saying goodbye to a lovely lady and, for the most part, it hasn't really been about the food. Oh, we were grateful for the smoky goodness of the locally smoked ham we served at her wake and the carbo-heavy comfort food that friends and neighbors brought, but mostly we ate without tasting, lost in our grief. So, rather than talk about that, let me tell you a heartwarming story.

My Belle-Mere lived in a small Connecticut town bordering Long Island Sound that caters strongly to a summer crowd who come for two months in the heat of summer and leave early in September to return to their busy lives. They close the houses that are not winterized and shutter the windows against the winter storms. The house next door is like that, a large, rambling family "cottage" that is always full of laughing people in the summer but quiet and closed for most of the year.

One year in September, as they were putting up the dark green boards that protect their windows, my Belle-Mere remarked about how sad it looked from her kitchen window to see the boards and to know the family wasn't at home. So, quietly, they took down the boards and commissioned a local artist to paint bright, whimsical flowers, butterflies and birds on the shutters. For many years, she enjoyed these naive paintings all winter long. Bless those sweet people! To my knowledge, I have never met them as we rarely visit in the summer but I have to applaud their kind neighborliness.

I'll be back to my food blogging soon - we are headed home next week. In the meantime, I thank you all for your kind words and the light of support you've shown me with your comments in a dark time.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Reminders of My Belle-Mere

My blog friend, Katie from Thyme for Cooking, reminded me that the French word for "mother in law" is "belle-mere," which translates as "beautiful mother." Much, much more appropriate than the stern English term for My Beloved's mother! She was truly a beautiful woman, inside and out.

My niece, Ann-Marie, reminded me that the cocktail party in heaven just got better. Nice to think that she was welcomed there with open arms and cries of delight, given a martini (her doctor didn't allow alcoholic drinks here on Earth for the past several years) and sat down for a catch-up with some of her favorite folks.

This photograph reminded me of happier times spent with her. We took this picture on her 90th birthday, three years ago. She had to be sprung from the health center for the party and her doctor would have grumbled at that chocolate bombe that you see before her, but she relished having her children and grandchildren with her to celebrate - and she relished that cake, too!

I would need a book, rather than a short blog post, to begin to tell you what a wonderful woman she was, so I won't try. Suffice it to say that she will be missed by virtually everyone who ever knew her and that she leaves for me a daily reminder of how to live life well and fully.


Monday, December 1, 2008


Time passes. Life passes. If you're not careful, life passes you by. But, that can't be said of My Beloved's mother. She has had a fine life, all 93 years of it. She worked her way through Sarah Lawrence College, met and married the love of her life while doing what they both loved best, sailing, and raised three great kids.

She has four grandchildren, a great-granddaughter, and a whole lot of related and unrelated people who think of her as a favorite aunt. She has been a mainstay of her church and her local Meals-on-Wheels program, always giving back to her community whether it be as scout den mother or volunteer at her college.

She is leaving us. We got the call while here in Hawaii on vacation and we are flying back to the east coast as soon as we can get there (why are airlines so damned unhelpful at times like this?), but we probably won't be in time to say goodbye. We'll have to be content with the time we had with her a couple of weeks ago. Those memories and a long lifetime of stories and remembrances will have to sustain us once she is gone. We are thankful we had that time.