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September 27th, 2011 | 8 Comments »

I’m writing today, just because. Because I love writing, and I love Heather.
Just because it’s almost October and change is everywhere. The trees, the clothes in my closets and shoes on my feet.
There is change in the foods on our table, the light at dinnertime, the sound of school buses on the street; 7:15am and it’s the Middle School, which returns at 2:45 and the high school bus roars by at 8:00am, back again at 3:20, or thereabout.
There is change in the house as my boy navigates his Senior year online, via a virtual high school so that there is no more despair trudging to a bus that takes him to a school where he’s never connected with anyone; a despair that leaves my strong boy in tears sometimes, who begged for a change. And this change? This is good. My boy is content, focused, happy. Focused. You should see this boy concentrate on his school work. I am in awe. And so proud of him.
There is change in me. My iced tea pitcher lays abandoned, the electric teakettle hums now for me each afternoon, and Sir Earl Gray has returned, kindling our chilly weather love affair with bergamot and steam. The salad days are gone, and the oven sings and whirs and the sugar has disappeared from our cupboards because I bake sweet things for sweet men who love me. 
There are apples. It is Fall. My head swirls with possibility. I finger the skins, red and taut, dreaming of crisps, cakes, bars, breads.
And the breadmaker stands on the counter, and grinds out a loaf, filling the house with warm yeast, a tall dome rising on the countertop, burnished crust and heady crumb. I think, as I savor the flavor, that there is not enough sweet cream butter in the world for my bread addiction.
There is change in me. Did I say that already? Fall does that; the melancholy it brings, the sense of impending cold and snow (which I love) and the way that Winter forces me to stop, to think, to dream as I gaze on the white landscape, to slow down and appreciate the warmth of home and flickering candles and knitting. And soup. I miss soup by the time September rolls around. There are different birds in the yard that I watch carefully, noting their features and comparing them to the book kept close at hand. Migration fascinates me, the instinct that drives creatures from warmth to warmth, seeking the means that nature has to sustain them. I am always seeking new birds to add to my list.
The garden has certainly changed. We had frost, and it nipped the tops of the plants, but left the fruit intact. Tomatoes are ripening from sheer will, I believe. The peppers too. Herbs survived, and thrive in the cool September. I cross my fingers that it makes it to my table, sweet and luscious. It does. And I am grateful. By now, by early October, I am ready to bid the garden goodbye, as bittersweet as it is.
Change. It’s good. It’s normal. It happens and we roll with it. From season to season, month upon changing month, moon phase from a slim sickle to a full round orb of light, we shift through change, mostly without knowing. I embrace and revel in it.

always a different view

October 10th, 2010 | 12 Comments »

Eyes on the prize, we are; the human race that’s always striving and reaching for the next greatest thing. We race through our lives, our days and hours with little thought to what is happening around us. We watch traffic, we keep track of our kids, we watch the weather to see if we need a sweater, an umbrella or our sunglasses. We keep watch over our house, our To-Do lists and our spouses. We watch out for each other. We’re focused, with razor sharp precision. And life goes beating a pulse by us, days that we miss because we’re just watching out for what’s next, what’s going to happen tomorrow. Our view of our lives is only what we can fit inside a neat little box, with occasional forays into a view that’s maybe a bit different, or unusual.

Living in Minnesota is living with a palette of seasons that changes almost daily. This is one of those times, this particular season, that the best view comes from looking up, surrounded by the glory that is called October.

Although we can see quite a bit of what makes life so beautiful in this season even when our eyes are on the ground.

It’s important for perspective to look around too, not just ahead at what’s to come, or down to avoid stumbling over any hazards. By looking around, we catch those almost imperceptible moments where we realize there isn’t just one path to follow.

But then again, when we glance down to be sure we aren’t treading on unstable ground, we might catch sight of something that we realize is bigger than what we ever could have imagined.

Or we discover a gift left behind, a way of showing us that we’re not alone.

I’m reflective, yes. October does that to me. Transition does that to me. The job is over and right now, there is nothing else to fill my time. For a short amount of time, laziness will be welcomed but that won’t last. I will need to work again. Yet this season, this glorious thing called October beckons me to run out into it’s blazing sunshine and enjoy every moment I can grasp. And I do.

So on an unseasonably warm October day, a trek through my favorite regional park was the perfect balm for getting the last throes of my chaotic summer out of my system. I had written a post about my job back in early September, nearly 1300 words that spilled out of me in about 4 seconds flat, but as I read over what my mind churned out, I realized that it was written solely for me, a purgatory means to end that stranglehold. I both loved and hated this past summer and I’m still figuring it all out, it’s purpose in my life and what I can take away from it. I may never be able to verbalize it or even make sense of it because a great deal of life’s lessons come to us at inopportune times, when we least expect our brains to wake us up to what really happened.

But I can make sense of right now, right here. I can stop the crazy Merry-Go-Round of life with it’s clanging calliope of noise that’s impossible to shut off. I can ignore the To-Do list. I can take some time for myself. I can go on my rigorous hike through the woods, seeing it as a metaphor, something that applies seamlessly to where I am and use it to keep centered. Life isn’t about always keeping a forward face, never looking back or wearing blinders through your days. It isn’t always about keeping to a schedule, checking e-mail or looking over the calendar to see what’s coming. We miss some pretty glorious moments by being far too focused. We miss out on the season, the one that’s happening right now, in a stupendous and beautiful way.

There’s quite a perspective to be found when walking through tranquil woods, surrounded by towering trees and a shower of leaves with each gust of wind. And nothing makes you feel quite so humble as laying back, and really seeing what is above you.

And of course, there’s food too. I can’t just wax poetic about Autumn in Minnesota- well, I can, yes- but the best part about being away from the confines of my job is that I am bowled over with the urge to get back in the kitchen, the kitchen where Kate is most comfortable and the vehicle for this entire blog. I want to cook again, and I’m so eager to share all of it with you.

So, let’s start with this typically Fall muffin. I happen to be resurrecting it from a post back about a year or so, but it’s no less relevant now. And it’s perfect for this time of year.

These delicious and moist muffins can help with an attitude adjustment too, and be a great means for using up the bounty of squash that’s available this time of year. Although the recipe calls for sweet potato, any type of squash will do. Chock full of oats and cinnamon, they speak softly of the visual blaze of October and are perfect for lunch boxes and after school snacks.

Oatmeal Sweet Potato Muffins
from the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission

1 c. old fashioned rolled oats
1 c. flour (AP or Whole Wheat, or both)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1 T. ground flaxseed
1 c. cooked and mashed sweet potato
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. canola oil
1/4 c. skim milk
1 large egg
1 t. pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°. Line two standard muffin tins with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, whisk oatmeal, flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and flaxseed. In another small bowl, combine sweet potato, brown sugar, oil, egg, milk and vanilla, whisking to blend well. Pour over dry ingredients and stir to combine. Mix until just moistened. Scoop into muffin tins and back for 15-20 minutes. Check at the 15 minute mark- these bake up quickly.

This recipe doubles really easily. I doubled it using both AP and whole wheat flour and the result was nice and firm. You can substitute pumpkin for the sweet potato, or use garnet yams. Be sure that the vegetable is cooked and mashed well. I used soy milk in mine and it works just fine. For one batch of these, I added 1/2 c. of flaked coconut, and I think chopped and toasted pecans would be wonderful in these. As always, the ground flaxseed is optional.

For an extra level of flavor, you can top these with a crumb topping made from 1/4 c. oats, 1/4 c. flour, 1/4 c. brown sugar, 1-2 T. softened butter and 1 t. vanilla extract. Combine these well and sprinkle over the muffins before baking. I have not used it, but imagine it would be excellent.

it’s fall

September 23rd, 2010 | 11 Comments »

And not like ‘The calendar says it’s September’ kind of Fall, which seems appropriate even though the first few weeks are still Summer; no, this is the real deal now as the sun has passed into the appropriate spot in the sky that says ‘Hey everyone, here I am in all my red gold glory and yes, Summer is really over.’

Fall is transition. It’s new things like school years, shoes, clothing and meals. It’s a warmer blanket or longer sleeves but it’s still full of sunshine, ample blue sky and a mosquito bite or two. We still can feel too warm during the day, but just watch out for that sunset because whoa now, the temperature drop is precipitous and it helps to have a comfy sweater on hand. And slippers too.

Fall for me is a time of melancholy, and this goes way way back in my life to being very young and watching, probably for the first time, how the light changes from August to September, the way the sky darkens so much earlier and how life just swiftly grinds to a halt from carefree summer to the routine of another school year. So it seems appropriate that I always yearn to be learning in the Fall, that I wish to be back in school, with empty notepads and fresh books full of promise and mystery. I admit to being a lifetime learner, and heaven help me if I ever decide that I can stop getting better at this thing called life. Please make sure you knock me on the forehead if I do, ok?

The food of Fall, for me anyway, is highly anticipated. The richness of a bowl of soup, the scent of apples baking in the oven and the comfort of something steaming in your hands keeps the thought of winter at bay. At least, it can if you close your eyes and think really hard. Like the seamless steps from Summer to Fall, that sneaks up on us too, and often Fall seems like the shortest season around. But I love this time of year for multitudes of reasons. Maybe because it’s so fleeting that we need to grab it tight and enjoy it. It could be the colors, because oh those colors are spectacular, aren’t they? It might be due to soup too.

This is one of my favorite recipes, dug out from my cookbook cupboard when I recently felt brave enough to go in there and conquer the mess it had become. One drawback of being focused so much on the foods that we eat is that I collect a great deal of recipes culled from every conceivable source available. Which, I’m sure we all know, is astronomical. It’s endless, for certain. And I’ve been known to go ‘Hmm, THAT looks wonderful!’ on many, many occasions, print out a sheet and then somehow lose track of it. And either I make it and swoon, or I just don’t get around to it. This recipe for Zuppa Arcidossana was in a large and jumbled ‘To Keep” pile that was stuffed between a few good books in the cupboard, but ultimately, and sadly, forgotten. As soon as I pulled it out, I had that lightbulb moment of ‘Oh my word, I loved this soup!’ and was so glad it felt cool and temperate enough to embark on another pot of it. Because people, THIS is soup. This is that hearty, steaming, chock full of veggies soup that we dream of when the sun makes that inevitable turn and we finally tuck away our shorts and tank tops. This is what soup should be; it’s warming but it isn’t too heavy. It’s simple to make – like wayyyyy simple folks – but tastes complex and full of depth. It’s versatile beyond imagination. It’s delicious far past any normal words, unless you count ‘Oooh’ ‘Mmmmm’ and deep contented sighs to be normal. Which, around my house is completely fine if you do. In fact, it’s expected.

Zuppa Arcidossana (Italian Bread Soup)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 cup 1/2-inch-diced carrots
1 large onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 cup stale bread (use coarse, country-style bread), cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 pound spinach, trimmed, washed and roughly chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup ricotta salata, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (feta may be substituted)
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley, optional.

Put oil in a large pot or deep skillet and brown sausage over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When sausage is cooked through and leaving brown bits in pan, add carrots, onion and garlic, and continue to cook until vegetables begin to soften and brown, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Add bread to pan and stir for a minute or 2; add spinach and continue cooking just until it wilts, a couple of minutes.

Add about 2 cups water and stir to loosen any remaining brown bits from pan. This is more of a stew than a soup, but there should be some broth, so add another cup of water if necessary. When broth is consistency of thin gravy, ladle stew into serving bowls and top with cheese and some freshly chopped parsley if you have it. Serve immediately.

Mark Bittman, NY Times, 4/29/09

I reversed the order of cooking and browned the carrot, garlic and onion first for quite some time before adding in the sausage and giving it a good searing as well. Since you are only adding water, the fond on the pan will add an immense depth to the pot. You can, however, use any good stock on hand. Fresh bread actually works fine in this soup too, if you don’t have any stale on hand. You can toast or broil fresh bread to stiffen it before adding to the pot.

I had some leftover green beans from a previous dinner that ended up in the soup as well. I used shaved parmesan instead of ricotta because I love the rustic edge it gives soup. Swap up the veggies, adding whatever suits you, or you have on hand. Use a different sausage or skip it altogether. Fresh herbs are a must here; I used rosemary and thyme in ample quantities.

and just like that, it was gone

September 15th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

As I write this, there’s quite a cool, blustery wind outside whipping the treetops around. I’m in fleece, and slippers. This morning after Mike arose at his customary hour of half-past the cat alarm, I pulled a wool throw over the quilt to snuggle under. It was raining, a cool breeze through the crack of the window left open was whispering it’s inevitable words to me: Fall is here.

Sometimes the change in seasons sneaks up on you, and other years it’s as if you awake one day and the very air around you is different. The sun seems to weaken, the air has a certain scent to it that hums of cooler nights and impending frost and you begin pulling open drawers holding clothes you almost forgot you owned. The jump from August to September was quick and precise. August kept showing us her gutsy heat and blazing sunshine, then with a swift turn of a page, September chased August away and said ‘There, there…. I’ll give you some relief.’ Instead of a cool smoothie for breakfast, now I want a cozy bowl of oatmeal. Soup recipes are more appealing. It’s time to bake, a warm oven competing with the breeze through the window. School buses rumble by on the road. There’s homework, earlier bedtimes, earlier sunsets.

I kind of got lost in August, only posting twice here. I’m sorry. It was a hard month for me, and the view from my eyes shrank considerably. I worked a lot, a crazy amount of hours. I slept, or tried to, a lot. It seems like the only thing I did at home was drink coffee and do laundry; I tried to stay cool in the terminal heat of the professional kitchen as the sun and humidity slackened the air outside,  and I tried to keep my sanity through the seemingly never-ending parade of task after task after task. I sweated more than I ever have in my life. I missed my friends. I missed cooking in my own kitchen, the things I wanted to eat. I missed my life, quite frankly. I was caught in a vortex, and it was ugly. Then, like the seasonal change that’s happened outside, September brought it’s own reform to my life. Work slowed down considerably. On a few evenings I was able to leave while the sky was still light, miraculous indeed. I took some much needed time off and within a short weekend, there occurred several transforming events that filled the hollowness that had taken hold. I saw my friends. I became inspired. I met new people. I spent time with my family, splashing in the pool with Nina, snuggling in a hammock with baby Sara and getting that Love Bank filled to the brim. There were plenty of hugs and smiles. Life came back. And I took a hike.

And I spent some time in the kitchen. With apples.

Making Applesauce with maple syrup and cinnamon.

Really, can we be any more “Fall” than fresh Applesauce? Or anything with apples plucked right from an orchard tree? It’s quintessential. It’s perfect. It’s necessary. And this recipe is so, so simple. Any Applesauce recipe is, if you can manage the peeling and coring process required. I use one of those nifty devices that peels, cores and slices your apples all for the crank of a squeaky handle.

(photo courtesy of Nutrition Lifestyles)

I’ll tell you my friends, owning one of these is vital, even if I only pull it out in the Fall during Apple season. It makes any apple dessert almost like an afterthought because it does all the work for you. I placed it on the counter next to the stove, and as each apple came off the device, I simply broke it up right into the pot. In less than 10 minutes I had a 6-quart stockpot full of apple slices. I made an Apple Crisp too, and for almost the time it took to mix together the crumb topping and heat the oven, it was ready to bake. Kids love cranking the handle and watching their apples transform. And no, I’m not pitching anything, you blog-scoping watchdogs. Just telling it like it is.

But back to that Applesauce-

The recipe comes from Eating Well magazine. It’s three ingredients- apples, syrup and cinnamon. It takes about 20 minutes, not counting the time spent prepping your apples. After it was cooled I simply placed it in the fridge because I know we will devour it so there’s no need to think about canning. Does your family love applesauce, with thick chunks of fruit, a hint of maple and a nice warming dose of cinnamon? The markets are bursting with fruit and who doesn’t love a trip to an orchard, a walk among the sagging trees and the delight of plucking your own fruit to take home? This time of year your bag of apples will keep well in the garage, provided we don’t get too cold too early. Really, you have no excuses. Ok. Except time. I’ll give you that.

Maple Cinnamon Applesauce
from Eating Well magazine, Sept/Oct 2009

  • 6 McIntosh or other tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 Golden Delicious or other sweet apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine apple pieces and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until the apples are very soft and falling apart, about 30 minutes. Mash the apples to the desired consistency and stir in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I made a 6-quart stockpot full of applesauce as we love it so much. It will freeze too, if you make a large batch and can’t eat it all within, say, a week. Adjust the syrup and cinnamon to taste when you make a larger quantity. I added some nutmeg too as it’s the BFF to cinnamon in baking recipes. My sweet apple was a PaulaRed, but feel free to swap the balance between tart and sweet to your own personal taste, and mix in the syrup accordingly. To make it ultra-smooth, place the mixture in a food processor or high-powered blender and process in batches until desired consistency.

this face, this life

September 7th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

{this photo makes me weep- it’s my Mom, and Griffin when he was 2 weeks old}

My boy is a Junior in High School this year. I repeat this to myself often, trying to implant it in my head in a way that makes it sound familiar enough, like I’m truly talking about my own child instead of some stranger who hangs around my life.

I only have a few friends with kids the age of my own. We can commiserate on parenting teenagers, watching them grow and evolve and it helps to see another set of eyes grow wide in wonder at the amazing transformation that happens right in front of us. But a lot of my friends are parenting young still; they’re experiencing potty-training, weaning, first days of school and all sorts of other milestones that have already faded to sepia tones in my own mind. They lament the startling rate at which their children are growing, and yearn to keep them young. I want to embrace them because I understand. But I also want to tell them ‘The best is yet to come.’ And I truly mean that.

I’ll never wish for my son to be young again. I won’t. Beyond the fact that he’s just so much of an amazement to me, I look back at our life then, and for us, so much was different. And it wasn’t always fun. I parented single-handedly, with a few dedicated adults that lent solidity to my son’s life. But it was a lonely and empty existence sometimes. There was no one to ease my worries as I sped to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night (twice in one month, people) with a sobbing, anguished child in the backseat. There wasn’t an option of rest at the end of a long and tiring day, someone to make dinner while I tried to push the stress out of my head. No one else was there to assemble the tricycle, teach the proper way to swing a bat or encourage the training wheels to come off. At the same time, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, no one else saw the first bowling strike, the first homerun, the first exclamation of “My tooth came out!!” or the triumphant first circling of the driveway on a two-wheeler. I get to cherish those memories alone. I got to teach the importance of a bike helmet by pointing out the dent that took that first impact. I got to hold the hand of a nervous boy the first time he sat in a dentist’s chair. I got to see his face as he confidently told me that he didn’t need me to walk into his Kindergarten class with him anymore. It is both lovely, and bittersweet. Even as the tone of them fades in my memory with the clang of an ever-changing clock, no one can take them away from me. No one.

There are times my boy comes rolling down the stairs in the morning and I am still shocked at the young man in my house. But I am not sad to see him grow, evolve and become the person he was created to be. This is exciting. This is an adventure. Those firsts are all behind us and his entire life is forming and beginning to unfold now. And I am amazed. I’m humbled. And I’m pleased. When people tell me how polite he is, I barely am able to thank them because I’m too busy thanking myself for never giving up on the constant, day-in and day-out reinforcement of teaching him manners, even when I would have rather torn out my fingernails before reminding him to say ‘Thank You’ or ‘Excuse me’ again. When the girl cousins tell me how nice it is that he puts the toilet seat down, again, I feel better about the thousands of times I hauled him back into the bathroom and made him put the seat down himself until he got it on his own. You put it up, you put it down. You take it out, you put it back. If you open it, you close it. Every day, every month, every year, for years on end thinking I would go mad with the repetition. When it pays off on it’s own, and my friends- IT WILL- you will feel the same that I do. It isn’t pride, really. It’s the inherent satisfaction of a long and difficult task that’s finally- finally!!- shown it’s just rewards.

I may have, at some time felt the urge to keep my boy at a certain age forever, but as he grew I realized that I don’t have to wish for that anymore because it’s already there. It’s just there in memory, but it’s the sweetest memories of all because as he grows, I can look back and see just how far he’s come. I’m excited to see what his life will do in the years ahead. I do have my own wishes where his life is concerned, and they are far more selfish because they’re for me, not for him. I wish to never forget the first time he smiled, or laughed, or said “Ma!” or the sound of his voice before he went through puberty. I wish to never forget the look on his face when he finally got something, when he fully understood for the first time. I wish to never forget how empathetic he was a young boy, the time he sat by my side at the tender age of three, stroking my hair as I lay on the floor crying, trying to ease the pain of a terrible backache. Or the time, stuck in rush hour traffic on a snowy December afternoon and going nowhere, that we talked about how excited he was for Christmas to come, and he says to me- all of five years old- “Mom, it’s too bad that you have to spend Christmas without your Mom.” I wish to never forget, at maybe 2-1/2, when he wanted to call his beloved Uncle Mike, my brother (that’s them above, BFF’s now and forever), and when the answering machine came on he said loudly “Pees call me yater.” I wish to never forget how he loved to help me with everything I did, so I’d put a sponge in his hands or give him a dust cloth and allow him to clean to his hearts desire, even if it took him an hour to do one simple job that would have taken me 5 minutes. And I especially don’t want to forget when I told him that I’d met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and he smiled and said “That means he’d be my Dad, right?”

I can look at him now and see the person that I envisioned sixteen years ago, as he lay his chubby baby cheeks on my chest and gazed up at me with his perfect love. I can see that I’ve given him a firm foundation to base himself on, that he can speak for himself because I gave him a voice, that he can stand up for what he believes because I first believed in him, that he can laugh himself silly at how ridiculous life can be because I had to show him that even as beautiful as it is, it will never be perfect. I can see how resilient he is because he learned from me that not everyone will be his friend. I can see the good choices he makes because I gave him room to choose for himself. I see how he aptly deflects the pain of life because I never lied to him about how the world will hurt, how life is often unfair and how difficult some days may be. It went against the very instinct of parenting sometimes, but I knew he would never survive if I sheltered him, kept him safe within the circle of my arms or never let him know the truth. It’s better for him to see the world through the filter of my eyes than to be pushed into it with no ability to cope.

I loved him enough to do that for him, and to show him anger, frustration, pain, sorrow, grief and despair. I loved him enough to discipline him, sometimes with severity. Yet I also loved him enough to explain why I felt all those emotions, and why for his entire life he was going to have to follow rules so it was best that he start now, not to mention being strong and humble enough to apologize if my feelings made me into an ogre. I always made sure he was aware that it was his behavior that disappointed me, not him, and while I may not have liked what he did, I still loved him more than anyone else on Earth. As he grew and changed, I learned also to forgive myself for the bad times, for telling myself I was a horrible parent when we had a rotten day and for thinking I was doing irrevocable damage by those punishments. Because, you know what? He doesn’t remember it. He just remembers the love, the lap time, the stories before bed and the talking we would do before he fell asleep.

Two years ago when he entered High School, I knew it would be but a blink and a sigh before we were planning his graduation. I’m OK with that. I’m OK with the young man who roams my house, loves his friends and his music, his video games and God. I’m OK with the young man emerging, spreading his wings and learning to fly. I’m OK if he comes home and heads to his room, covering his ears with his headphones, tuning me out. I give him the space and he’ll come out eventually. I’ll be waiting for him when he does. I’m OK with requests for ice cream, Mavericks roast beef sandwiches, and the occasional steak. I’m OK with our cribbage games, even when he skunks me. And I’m OK with knowing that all too soon he’ll be off on his own and showing the world what he can do, with that amazing smile, his politeness and helpful attitude and the ability to put the seat down.