Things that come to mind, and the people who come with them :: {Portugese Bread and Garlic Soup}

Christmas tree pick-up was this morning.  We dragged ours out to the curb, and looked up and down the street at the other dejected trees patiently waiting in the January drizzle.  Christmas decorations have all been stowed and the house looks a bit empty, like it's waiting for the spring sunshine to fill the empty corners. 

This is the time of year that I wish I remembered how to knit.  I've learned a bunch of times.  Once when I was very small I managed to complete a set of wrist-warmers.  These might be a Swiss phenomenon, but if you can remember that fingerless gloves still can keep your fingers warm, imagine how hand-less gloves might keep your hands warm.  The point is, they do.  Another time I learned to knit was my freshman year in college, when one of my hall-mate's dad's taught us.  It was January term, which meant we only had to take one class, and it was pass/fail.  We had lots of time on our hands.  In the evenings, we would all gather in one room, listen to Barry White, and knit.  I have absolutely no recollection of what I was even working on.  I doubt any of us do.

My great aunt, who had a story more harrowing than most, was a great knitter.  She knit me an army of pink sweaters when I was little.  I especially liked it when she chose yarn that had sparkles in it.  Throughout her difficult life she managed to maintain a child-like joyfulness, so I wouldn't be surprised if she chose the pink sparkly yarn for her benefit, as well as mine.  She was also a great maker of Schnitzel, and I fondly remember going over to her apartment to eat a huge steaming platter of it, decorated with lemon slices and served with potatoes, bread, and a salad.  After lunch, she would knit while all the grown-ups talked.  She's the only person I think I'll ever meet who actually kept her current knitting project tucked in her bosom.  This fascinated me as a young girl, and it was as good as a magic trick when she would reveal first one arm, then two, then the entirety of a full-sized sweater from her voluminous cleavage.

Tante Emmy and Onkel Paul ready for feasting.  Note the amount of Schnitzel she prepared for three people.

She left our family a great legacy -- she was the only one of her siblings who was strong enough to recount the stories from the war, the only one brave enough to face life with perpetual cheer and generosity.  Perhaps one of these Januaries I'll relearn how to knit again, perhaps when my daughter's old enough to do it, too.  Until that happens, I have a big box of pink sweaters, some with sparkles, that I hope Tante Emmy sees my little girl wearing, wherever she is.  They would have had a good time together, those two.

Portuguese Bread and Garlic Soup
This soup is many things: it is fast, frugal, a good use for stale bread, delicious, simple, comforting, and healthy.  As with most simple things, the quality of the ingredients is crucial, but these are all things that you either have on hand, or are easy to find.  You can have dinner on the table in 10 minutes.  Adapted, barely, from The Mediterranean Kitchen.
Cut thick slices of day-or-two-old crusty bread, a piece or two per person.  Heat a soup pot (or a small pot if it's just you) over medium-high heat and add a pretty generous glug of good olive oil (probably about 1-2 tablespoons per person).  When the oil is hot, fry the bread in a single layer (do as many batches as it takes), on both sides, til nice and golden.  Remove bread and rub with the cut side of one clove of garlic (per serving).  Place bread in soup bowl.  Add another glug of olive oil to the pan, roughly chop the garlic you just used, and add it to the pot.  Garlic burns quickly, so stir it around for only about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.  Add a soup-bowl-full (per serving) of chicken or veggie broth (homemade if possible) to the pan and bring to a simmer.  Lower heat to medium and crack an egg (per serving, and one at a time) into a cup or small ramekin and carefully slide into the simmering broth.  Use a spoon to nudge the whites around the yolks.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the whites are completely opaque.  Repeat with as many eggs as you need, but cook no more than two eggs at a time.  Ladle an egg into each soup bowl, adjust the seasoning of the broth with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the broth evenly amongst your soup bowls.  You can enjoy this as is, or you can garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro, red pepper flakes, or Parmesan cheese.

How to draw with children, for non-majors :: {roasted tomatoes}

In our house, drawing is a team effort.  The grown-ups do the outlines, and Heidi the Toddler colors (read: scribblesveryenthusiastically) inside, outside, and on top of the lines.  It's like an on-demand coloring book.  I used to be the only Outline Draw-er, my theatre-major husband clutching his chest as he exclaimed how he wished he could draw, but alas!, Mama will have to draw the cat.  Again.  It got to the point where I was drawing about 50 cats a day.  Heidi would thrust a crayon in my hand and shout, "MEEEEEOOOOOW!!!!!!" and I would draw a cat for her to scribble upon.  I am incapable of denying her artistic desires.

As it turns out, however, that heart-clutching wish of my husband was easy enough to grant.  I devised a Very Easy way to draw a cat taught him to do it.  And now I will teach you, just in case your 2012 resolutions include drawing more with the children in your life. 

Without further ado....the Very Official Running Snail & Rainbow Way to draw a cat, dog, bunny, owl, and frog (you're more than welcome to right click to download the images, print them out, keep them handy):

Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted, barely, from The Italian Country Table, which, as I've said before, is a book you should own.  Enjoy these when it's not tomato season -- transform a can or two of lowly plum tomatoes into meaty, intense, luxurious, and supremely versatile gems.  As a bonus, these smell almost as good as bacon when they're cooking.  Almost.
Open two cans of plum tomatoes, squeeze them gently, and pry in half with your fingers.  Place close together on a lightly olive-oil-ed baking sheet.  Drizzle with some more olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  If you want to get fancy, you can sprinkle on some fresh or dried herbs, or tuck large slivers of garlic between the tomato halves.  Place in a 300° oven for 1.5-2 hours.  Check after 1.5 hours to make sure your edges are not burning.
Cover with oil and store in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.
Things to do with roasted tomatoes: 
  • Marinate in olive oil with fresh herbs (like rosemary or thyme), garlic, and chilies.  Serve with an antipasto spread.
  • Purée and use as a sandwich spread: think tuna melts, grilled cheeses, hummus and veggie sandwiches. 
  • Purée and use in place of sauce on your next pizza 
  • Toss with whole wheat spaghetti, walnuts and garlic toasted in olive oil, and serve with a generous glop of ricotta on top (this is my favorite).
  • Use in any recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Stir purée into hummus, cream cheese, or greek yogurt for a great dip.
  • Stir purée into mayo or aioli for another fab sandwich spread.  Try it on a burger.

And may all your books come true :: {Pepparkakor}

There are a few books from childhood that linger in the back of one's consciousness as one grows.  They can inform anything and everything; sometimes both, and all at once; sometimes without you knowing it, and sometimes creeping up on you later.

One of my favorites, especially at this time of year, is "The Runaway Sleigh Ride" by Astrid Lindgren (which I'm horrified to discover is now out of print, so if you find a copy, POUNCE!).   It's about a little girl with wild curly hair who goes to town to go Christmas shopping, hops on the rails of a strange sleigh, and gets carried off into the woods on a snowy evening and has to find her way home.

Beautifully illustrated -- a requisite in our library -- by Ilon Wikland.

I owe this book lots of things, but here are three of them:

1. My love of Pepparkakor, the crackly-thin Swedish ginger cookies that perfume the house on the evening of their annual bake.  Almost as much as eating them, I love the way the dough holds smudges of white flour top as you cut them into beautiful Christmastime shapes.  There's an illustration in the book with flour-smudged Pepparkakor, and it's perfectly imperfectly beautiful.

2.  The dark winter night pressing against the windows.  This book evokes all the romance, mystery, and coziness of black evenings, and, in the midst of winter, when we all crave a bit more sunlight, the imagery helps me embrace the 4:00 twilight.

3.  This book is what makes "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost my favorite poem.  I like to think of Frost's poem as the grown-up counterpoint to this story.  Almost as if the girl, now a woman, goes back to the woods where she was once lost and listens to the silence of the snow falling.  This time, she might rather stay in the woods a while longer.  There's always been something sublimely sensual about both the children's book and the Frost poem, and I can't recommend highly enough that you set out to read them back to back.  Preferably with freshly-baked Pepparkakor in hand.

This is a prized recipe to my family, coming from a dear friend and real Swede, Lisa.  We spent one magical Christmas in Sweden with her and her family, one with dark nights, meatballs, and plenty of spicy cookies.  The dough is to rest for 24 hours before baking.  It also freezes well.  The measurements are in grams, but if you have a kitchen scale, this will be no problem for you. 
100 g unsalted butter
125 g sugar, half light brown, half white
100 mL molasses
2 Tbsp dried ginger
1 tsp cloves
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp baking soda
100 mL heavy cream
500 g flour

Mix butter, sugars, and molasses til creamy.  Add the spices and baking soda.  In another bowl, beat the cream til foamy.  Add to the butter mixture.  Fold in the flour.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and let rest for 24 hours, or freeze until ready to use.  Take out the dough, roll very thinly -- about 1/8" thin (with plenty of flour, or between sheets of waxed paper).  Cut out with pretty cookie cutters and place an inch apart on a buttered baking sheet.  Bake at 175 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) for 8-10 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack and store in tins.

Firsts :: {lemony spinach salad}

Tonight my daughter Heidi figured out that she could chew raw leafy greens.  She's been reaching for my salad for months now, but before she would just suck the dressing off, or sometimes almost choke on a leaf that she tried to swallow whole.  Tonight she tried again.  She sucked off a few leaves (thoughtfully draping the spent leaves back in my bowl), and then she realized that it tasted even better if she chewed the leaf up.  She sat in my lap, feeding me a leaf and then herself a leaf, wiping lemon juice and olive oil all over everything and both of us, and laughing at the sourness of my hastily made, poorly balanced salad dressing.  Perhaps "first salad" is not an achievement many parents consider a milestone, but we all have different values.

I also couldn't wait to get a crayon in her little hands.  I offered them to her months prematurely, just because I didn't want her to miss a moment of drawing pleasure just because we didn't have the right materials at hand (and by "at hand," I mean quite literally placed on the play table next to whatever else she was doing).  We spent a few months practicing not eating the crayons, then we practiced gripping them and applying pressure to the paper.  (We're still practicing staying on the paper and off the furniture, books, and clothes.).  Once she knew what the crayons were for, she caught on pretty quickly.  Then on July 21, 2011, she did something amazing.  She drew a dog.

 "Do[g]" | Crayon on Mama's leftover newsprint from figure drawing class. |  7.21.11

My first titled drawing, as you might already be aware, was "running snail and rainbow" (I was a tad linguistically precocious).  When I couldn't decide what to name my Etsy store, and I was over-thinking it horribly, and trying in vain to be clever and catchy, I remembered with what authority Heidi had told me that what she had just drawn was a dog.  "Do[g]."  Period.  My mother reports that I said "running snail and rainbow" with the same sort of authority, and since I can't imagine that I've ever had that much confidence about anything since then, I thought the name was perfect.

Heidi's first "Dog" hangs framed on the wall, and several other dogs, cats, horses, balls, and "softs" are filling up the rest of my abandoned newsprint pad left over from college.  This weekend I'm opening running snail & rainbow, and it'll be another big first for me.

Lemony Spinach Salad
This is what you should eat when you crave something that tastes like a tasty nutrient bomb.  I eat it when I'm sick, when I'm well, when I'm sad, and when I can't think of what else to eat. 
Make your dressing: combine one crushed clove of garlic, a forkful of dijon mustard, a soup-spoonful of yogurt, a pinch of salt, two soup-spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil, and a soup-spoonful of lemon juice.  Stir or whisk it together.  Adjust the flavors to your preference, adding more lemon or more oil or more salt til it tastes perfect to you.  I (obviously) like mine on the lemony side.  Toss with spinach.  Eat it and be happy and well.

The Leaves that are Yellow :: {Frontier Pie}

The Very Strange Tree
We have a very strange tree in our back yard.  I think it's a baby tree because it has a slender trunk, but the leaves are the size of umbrellas.  I've tried to find out what kind of tree it is, but the closest picture I can find is in a Dr. Seuss book.  The leaves are already starting to turn yellowish brown and wrinkle up a bit -- a sure reminder that it is, indeed, September, if only the beginning. 

We had a mulberry tree in our backyard when I was growing up.  It was a good for nothing tree, which killed the grass with its stinking, fermenting berries in the summer.  The most dreaded summer chore (second only to deadheading my mother's sticky petunias) was sweeping, nay, smearing, the fallen berries from the center garden path.  You had to hold your breath while you did it, to save yourself from the smell of rotten fruit.  To further recommend this tree, it lost its leaves all at once.  They didn't even change color first.  One day they were on the tree, green and waxy looking, and then next morning they'd all be yellow and on the grass.  My brother and I would be sent out that very day to rake them.  They weren't lovely and crisp like autumn leaves should be, nor did they rake into a big puffy pile of wonderful colors.  They stuck to the rake because they were still moist, they smelled like old socks, and they sat in a great heavy heap on the grass.

My autumn fun not to be stymied by this tree, however, I always jumped into the soggy pile and happily flopped about.  Every year, my brother went lumbering off to tinker with something more interesting, leaving me to imagine the leaves into confetti, a cloud, a dune.

The last fall I ever jumped in the leaves was the year my brother came lumbering back, apparently having found nothing more important to do other than shatter my illusions.  "Phe," he reported with a convincing amount of conjured wisdom and self importance, "There are probably slugs stuck to the bottom of those leaves.  They'll go down your shirt, and then you'll have slugs down your shirt."  And he went lumbering off, smiling, I'm sure, as I catapulted myself out of the leaves and started shimmying and squealing.

This fall both of us are doing, more or less, the things we did then.  My brother is starting a weekly radio talk show on NPR where he'll relay facts to the listeners about where they live and what they might want to do about it.  It probably won't have much to do with slugs, but knowing my brother and his limitless capacity to find interesting nuggets of life everywhere you least expect it, slugs could very well be featured.  As for me, I'm still imagining things, but this time I'm going to do something about it.  See?  Not much has changed.

Frontier Pie
I figure if shepherd's pie is made with lamb and cottage pie with beef, then if you use bison meat it must pie!!  Of course, you can adapt this recipe to use any kind of ground meat.  Bison is becoming increasingly more available, tastes great, is lower in fat than beef, and is grass-fed and humanely raised.
{serves at least two very hungry grown-ups and one toddler, with leftovers}
Coat the bottom of your pot or large skillet (a deep cast iron skillet works brilliantly) with olive oil and place it over medium to medium-high heat.  While the oil is heating, chop one onion, two stalks of celery, and two large carrots into small dice (about 1/4 inch squares).  Add this to your hot oil and saute, stirring frequently, until your veggies start to develop some nice color and your onions go translucent.  Strip the leaves off about five twigs of fresh thyme or a teaspoonful of dried thyme and add this to the pan.  Season with salt and pepper and empty the contents of the pan into a bowl and reserve.  Add a bit more oil to your pan and when it's hot add one pound of ground bison meat.  Season with salt, pepper, and a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, breaking up the meat with your wooden spoon and moving it around the pan until it's nice and browned.  You might need to turn the heat up a bit to get some nice color on your bison.  When it's lovely and brown, add your veggies back to the pan, and a giant heaping spoonful of tomato paste, and stir and fry to caramelize everything.  Sprinkle over a heaping tablespoon of flour, and cook this, stirring, for a minute or so.  Now add your liquid.  You'll need about a cup and a half of wine, broth, water, beer, or a mixture.  I used wine and broth.  Turn the heat to low and simmer while you make your potatoes. Taste and season with salt, pepper, or more Worcestershire sauce if you need to.
Now, I had an epiphany about potatoes as they are concerned with pies like this.  You need a fairly dry mash so that it holds up as a nice crust when you serve it, but you don't want the mash to be dry for lack of unctuous dairy and butter.  Here's my solution: bake (don't boil!) your potatoes.  You can either do this ahead in the oven, or at the last minute in the microwave.  I never use the microwave for real cooking, but in this case it's absolutely forgivable -- just remember to flip your potatoes half-way through cooking.  You'll need about 4 large russet potatoes for this dish.  After you've baked or microwaved them, cut them in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.  Add about 2/3 of a stick of butter, a splash or two of milk, and two heaping spoons of sour cream and mash until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust.  The consistency of these potatoes should still be quite dry.  They should look almost unappetizing.
Transfer your meat to an ovenproof dish (if you've used cast iron, you're all set!) and dollop the potatoes on top.  Smash them around until they're more or less even and all the meat is covered.  Now take the tines of a fork and rough up the top surface -- this will give you lovely little crunchy bits.  Put a few little pats of butter on top.
Bake in a 375 degree oven until everything is bubbly and the top is beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.  If the top isn't browning well, you can broil it for a few minutes at the end of the cooking time.  If you're more patient than I am, let this sit for about 10 minutes after you pull it out of the oven -- it will hold together better while you're serving.

Yearning :: {green pesto}

A typical summer evening in 1984.
When you've lived in more than one place, you always miss the other place when you're not there.  And when you're there, you miss the first place.  I can't think of a time where I've felt such a distinct emptiness, a hole that I know can be filled by being in that first place. That picture up there is where I spent my first six years, playing amongst the lines of drying laundry in the sheep pasture, cooling off in cow fountains, eating purple clover in the meadow, going with my brother to collect the evening milk in our pale green bucket with the red wooden handle, our mother skimming the cream off the top.  The cream tasted like the wildflowers I would gather by the armful everyday. 

One summer evening, when the hills made undulating shadows fall across the meadow, I followed our cat into the apple orchard.  My back toward the house and my face toward the darkening forest, I imagined myself an orphan, miles from home, following this cat as my guide.  I trudged up the hill behind him, the breeze quickening, and a tingle of danger swirling around my insides. The cat leapt up a tree and I huddled at its base, ready to sleep there. I started wondering how cold it would get in the night, if the cat would leave without me, if....and just when my imagination started to get the best of me, I turned around to the winking lights of the farmhouse, and saw the outline of my brother against the lights, swinging the milk bucket in his hands.  "Phe," he shouted, breaking my reverie, "Mama says it's time for dinner."

I know the yearning has gotten especially poignant because I want to share this with my daughter.  I want her to see cows and sheep and wide open spaces everyday.  I want her swimming pool to be a fountain in a pasture, and I want to feed her cream that tastes like flowers.

A word about my cooking, since this is the first food post (from here on out consider yourself warned): I don't follow recipes, and therefore I'm not going to be able to tell you in tablespoons and pounds how much of anything goes into anything.  All you have to do is pay attention to what you're doing, and think about what you're doing, the flavors, the textures, etc., and you'll be fine.  Really being present when you cook is what makes it so enjoyable and rewarding, anyway.  Enjoy this part of your day.

Green Pesto with Whole Wheat Pasta and Zucchini

Think about pesto this way: you know how in the winter you use up all the odds and ends in your fridge in a big pot of soup?  What vegetable soup is to winter, pesto is to summer.  Think beyond the basil, parm, pine nut version and use (almost) whatever's in your fridge.  Throw some vegetables in the pasta pot like the Italians do.  Is there a better reason for doing anything?

{Serves at least one adult and a toddler.  Easily doubles/triples.}

Put your big pot of pasta water on to boil.  Salt it.

Now make your pesto.  I had some spinach that I needed to use up, and I have a huge shrub of neglected basil in a pot by my kitchen door. You'll need three generous handfuls of green stuff. Rinse it and toss it in your food processor/hand blender cup/mortar and pestle. Don't worry about drying it off because the water actually makes it nice and creamy. We'll add more water later, in fact. When you're selecting your greens, keep your flavors and pungency in mind. Mint, for example, is delicious in pesto, but you'll want it at about a 1:2 or 3 ratio to something else, like arugula, or even peas.  Now throw in a couple cloves of garlic.  I used two small ones.  Next come nuts.  I used a handful of pistachios.  I've also used walnuts to great effect.  I never use pine nuts because I'd rather spend that amount of money on wine.  This line of thinking stops when it comes to Parmesan, though.  Don't bother with anything but the real thing.  If you don't have/want Parmigiano Reggiano, then by all means try something else in your pesto.  Feta would be delicious with the arugula and mint version we were talking about earlier.  You'll need a big handful of cheese, whatever it is.  Add several healthy glugs of olive oil, just enough to get your blades moving through all your ingredients.  Now if your pesto seems dry, add some more olive oil.  Leave it just a bit dry, though, so that we can add some of the pasta water at the end.  The pasta water is the trick.  Taste and add salt if you need it and pepper if you want it.

Your water should be boiling right now.  Add about third of a box of your pasta of choice.  I like the corkscrews because they catch a lot of the pesto.  Some Italians also put a cut up potato or two and green beans in the water to cook with the pasta.  I didn't have either of those things, so I grated half of a medium zucchini which I added raw when I tossed everything together.  Don't overcook your pasta.

Before you drain the pot, get a ladle and add a splash of the pasta water to your pesto.  Give it another pulse to bring everything together.

Toss your pasta and veggies (now would be the time to add raw stuff, like the zucchini I did, or tomatoes would be great, too) with the pesto.  You can serve this with extra cheese on top, or not.

Big fork, little fork.