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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.

embracing the inevitable

November 13th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

There’s just no point on grumbling when the first snow falls thick and hard. This is Minnesota and it’s just how life is here. I mean, look at those photos. How can you grumble about something so beautiful? Walking through the woods after a thick snowfall is to know peace and solitude and Nature at it’s finest. This is what we are. And as certain as the snow falls each year, it’s always followed by Spring. Always.

Today, as predicted, the snow is falling fast and furious. It’s heavy and wet and the roads are slick from what I’ve heard. But I have no agenda for today, no plans. There’s nothing to do but sit back, a content feline on my lap and take in the coming Winter. I love snow, as I love cross-country skiing. The more the better as far as I’m concerned. Last year we had a stellar winter in terms of snowfall. And I can only hope we get half as lucky this season.

I can’t wait to get out there.

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.