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Monday, November 30, 2009

Tile, Tile on the Wall

I love ceramics. I always have. I have my grandmother's china and my great-grandmother's china. And my own. And a couple of yard sale purchases. So as we approach the end of the first phase of the Market St. remodel, I am thinking about what the second phase will hold, and I want to include more tile. The decision is two-fold: where and how.
The first time I saw tile being widely used for decorative as well as functional purposes was in Barcelona in 1992. Park Guell took my breath away. Gaudi used many overstated architectural elements to create a memorable statement (something he referred to as evolved Gothic architecture). While I love the buildings and the design elements that are characteristically Gaudi, what I brought home from that trip was a love of what could be done with broken tile, beyond the mosaic.

Gaudi did do some representational tiling, but the things I love best are those that are free-style murals of color. At the time we were finishing our guest house and I did a Gaudi inspired countertop, breaking all the tile myself and arranging it into a cautious design. I am not going to do a countertop in this house--but a backsplash? Maybe in the kitchen? I think it will be too busy and there is already alot going on there.

The second place that I saw ceramic decoration outdoors was in Thailand--this photo is from the Royal Grand Palace, but I saw it everywhere. I don't know how they achieve this effect, but it has the appearance of pieces being cut out, glazed, and then put together in a 3-dimensional mosaic design. I am not ready to do an outdoors major art project (benches for the upcoming deck would be one option, but it might be too grand--I am already having trouble finding the creative energy to re-upholster the seats of the mismatching dining rooms chairs I have picked up for the house!). Maybe the upstairs bathroom? That would entail taking down the fake tile wall, putting up green wall and then tiling, but that might be a forgiving project in terms of not many eyes on it while it is in progress. I am starting to visualize white subway tiles, then a wide band of broken tile, maybe a foot wide encircling the room, with another two to three white tile rows on top of the broken tile band to set it off. Maybe a black cigarette tile above and below the band to set it off, maybe not. That might be a good start.

Let Them Eat Stock

I agree with Martha Rose Shulman--after Thanksgiving it is imperative to make stock, and then to relish that accomplishment by making soup and risotto with it for days if not weeks to come. Her recipe for stock is a reasonable approach, and her idea for "what to do with leftovers" is a good one. Unfortunately we do not have enough left over food to be dismayed about this year (the ratio of great food was correctly balanced by number of guests, so while the equation ended up being in the positive, the leftovers were not enough to even fill a refridgerator shelf).

At our house, we cooked 2 turkeys this year. We are going local, so they were born and raised in Wellman, Iowa, had a free range life, and were neither injected nor were they particularly able to be compactly arranged after death. Something about those Butterball turkeys is that they end up in a neat little bundle at the end of their lives--not so with ours. More like limbs akimbo. The good news about that is when we took them out of the freezer, we created enough space to accomodate the stock.

My spouse is so enamored with making stock that we also collect carcasses from friends and neighbors--if someone is going to throw their bones away, we encourage them to bring it to our house instead--we are a home for unwanted bones. If we can't manage to store all the stock in our freezer from collected bones, we freeze the bones in a ziplock bag, providing for future stock. Our rainy day bones. We have 4 turkey carcasses this year, and may get a fifth one if we are persistent.

The idea of turning last night's dinner into tomorrow's soup is a time honored one at our house. However, the post-Thanksgiving soup this year is lentil soup. It can be made in a slow cooker or on the stove. This one is adapted from Staff Meals at Chanterelle by David Waltuck and Melicia Phillips (which is a rich resource for delicious, simple to prepare comfort food recipes):

2 c. diced onions
4 carrots sliced
2 c. diced celery
4 cloves of garlic, crushed then chopped
2 c. French green lentils (this is a must--no brown lentils, no red lentils--this is the secret ingredient, along with the thyme)
8 c. stock
1 tsp. dried thyme crushed between your fingers as you add to the soup
salt and pepper to taste.

It can all be added at once in the morning or evening into the slow cooker and harvested 6 or so hours later, or it can simmer on the stove top for a couple hours covered. Sometimes a cup or two more stock needs to be added at the end. Makes about 3 quarts of soup.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Children at Risk for Hunger in America

Food for thought on Thanksgiving, both heart warming and heart breaking at the same time. A school in rural Missouri started filling backpacks with food for children they suspected weren't getting enough to eat over the weekends. They started in two places--the kids who ate breakfast and lunch at the school were one at risk group, and then the kids who just seemed listless. The program was under the radar, but families who were in it referred families who weren't, and families who regained employment started donating food for those who were without jobs. They thought about what food to provide--it had to be healthy. There needed to either be no preparation or food that could be prepared by even a young child (like Ramen) because often these kids are left alone. They put the food in ordinary backpacks and the kids who are in the program just go by the office and pick them up after school lets out on Friday, bring them back on Monday, and no one is the wiser (until this article was published, at least). They were very careful about privacy, avoiding shame and stigmatization.

The article brought tears to my eyes. Literally. Ethan is studying the Depression, and the issue of shame was a big one then too. Until people realized that they weren't alone and communities started to see that they were in it together and needed to band together and help each other. Those who had room took in boarders. The boarders provided money for food for all. Lots of people left home related to poverty and shame, but those who stayed and faced their situation were helped by those around them.

I hope we are equipped to deal with hunger on this level again. The backpack program has tripled the number of children in it over the past year. Now that the combination of unemployment and those deemed unemployable is hovering close to 20%, that number is likely to rise. It represents a barometer of how the country is faring through this economic crisis--these are the canaries in the coal mine, and what they tell me is frightening and I am not sure what to do about it.

One thing is to start talking about it. I think this is the softly ticking bomb that won't go off for another decade when these undernourished kids don't reach their educational potential because they didn't have enough nutrition for brain development. While I contribute a can or two to food drives and am philosophically attuned with donating extra food at large catered events to the folks that feed those in need every day, I think this is probably no where near enough. It is time the backpack program to happen everywhere. Children hoarding their backpack food so that they can make it through Christmas break should not happen.

Entree to Judiasm

Entrée to Judiasm: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora by Tina Wasserman (2009)
One truism—the Jewish cookbooks do seem to have the longest titles, and this one is no exception (nor is the previous one). The cover says a lot about the contents of the book—so in this case, you can judge a book by it’s cover. It is gorgeous. The book opens with a story from the Talmud—so this is seriously Jewish work here, kosher throughout and replete with history, stories, and cultural context in addition to the recipes.
The book is divided into two large portions—the first is a description of the Jewish diaspora: where people went, why they went there, how they interacted with the predominant culture, and the foods that they eat. The recipes predominate, but there is a story to be told in each section as well. The author’s style of writing recipes is my favorite—the recipe opens with some commentary: where the recipe comes from, what other foods you might serve with it, and an idea of what you are getting into if you choose to make it. The ingredients are set apart from the instructions in a clear manner, and are highlighted in another color so you can easily find them. The instructions are numbered, with a lot of space between them and easy to follow as you are cooking. Each recipe has a section, also well-marked, called “Tina’s Tidbits, which are bits of additional information—Can you freeze this? If fresh isn’t available can you use frozen? What are common pitfalls with the recipe? The sort of information you might get if a friend gave you the recipe, but which is not as common in a cookbook.
The second portion of the book is devoted to the holidays and recipes associated with them. The same practical approach to cooking is presented here as in the first part—including things like a drawing of how you should assemble Hamantaschen (pg. 302) and both a pareve and a dairy dough recipe for them. There are many good ideas here, and some that I have not seen before. One that appealed to me is to use risotto to make pancakes for Chanukah (I use leftover risotto, and add an egg to it), and another is the linzertorte recipe for Passover looks like something different from what I’ve made before. This book could go on your coffee table or your bookshelf, and my only complaint is that more pictures would have made it even better.

Jewish Cooking Boot Camp

The demise of Gourmet Magazine in November of this year is not just a 75-year old institution of writing about how to prepare and enjoy food coming to an end. It is also the end of the Gourmet Cookbook Club, my best source for new cookbooks to consider and try. In memory of Gourmet, I am going to try to do something of that sort here. To commemorate Jewish Book Month, I am going to start with two Jewish cookbooks that came out this year. The first is fun and young, the second is serious and beautifully presented.

Jewish Cooking Boot Camp: the Modern Girl’s Guide to Cooking Like Your Jewish Grandmother, by Andrea Marks Carneiro and Roz Marks (2009)
This is a cookbook replete with fun-to-read information about what foods are associated with what holidays, along with what those holidays are all about. The book begins with Shabbat, and then goes directly to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then proceeds in order throughout the Jewish year. This is not a new concept, but the presentation is full of cartoon illustrations (similar to the cover) that are inviting, and the book is quite short (200 pages) so you could read it in an hour. There are numerous “basics” covered, making the cookbook accessible to inexperienced cooks. The recipes are not numerous (only about 50) but they are simple to prepare. The book concludes with a couple of modern ideas—food that you can easily package to eat elsewhere and the other is Jewish comfort food. The best audience for this book is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or a newly married couple where one or both of them are unfamiliar with Jewish food and culture. If you are giving a gift for someone with a good grasp of the Jewish holidays and food associated with them, I think Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen (published in 1998, and available used on Amazon for $0.76) is still my favorite. One word of caution: this is cooking like your Jewish grandmother if she wasn’t all that concerned about keeping kosher. There is a recipe for crab dip included--which you could go imitation crab and be ok, but the fact that recipes are not kosher is not discussed, nor is the whole concept of kashrut mentioned. This limits the book’s usefulness, because the target audience for the book is not likely to know the rules of kashrut, and might bring something from this book to a temple pot luck thinking they were being very traditional and unintentionally offending someone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The House

The first thing I did for the second half of my life was to buy another house. A smaller, older, more beautiful ,and more complicated house. A much smaller house. The impetus for this is multifactorial.

The house that I live in now is going to be very hard to leave behind. It is close to work, in the woods, rural enough to not lock the front door and leave your keys in the car because that is where you are going to need them next. Over the 15 years that we have lived in it, it has managed to be flexible and meet all of our needs (including housing a homeschool for 17 children for 4 years). But already it feels a little big when everyone is not home, and when everyone is home it feels too small. Yes, I am Goldilocks, it is true. Just right seems to be eluding me. So I am not quite ready to leave this house but I can see a day when I will, and I want it to be something I look forward to not something to dread. So this house is for me in about 10 years. Which is how long I estimate it will take me to get rid of enough things so I can actually fit into this house comfortably.

What about now? Well, it is for the boys to live in as they pursue various educational opportunities in Iowa City. We have lived in our current house in parallel, and this house we will live in in series. I think it will be cool for all of us to have a relationship with a house that we don't live in together.

So, how has it gone so far? All of us, plus significant others have been working on fixing it up (with the help of a contractor for the things we really can't do, which are plentiful). Participants can comment (as if I could stop them) but I have really enjoyed it. The one thing that has been a little painful--both physically and mentally--is that I can no longer work on a home improvement project for a 10 hour day and then still be able to move the following day. At all. Not one muscle could be moved one inch without significant discomfort. What happened to me? The last time I did this kind of project I had no trouble? Well, 24 years happened. Turns out that is not an insignificant chunk of time. So I lost my ability to see myself as being able to do this, no problem. but the upside has been working side by side on things with my children, and for them to see that they can do this.

Where to Begin

As I said before, this is the year I became 50 years old. While it doesn’t feel the least bit momentous on the one hand, on the other I feel like it should feel momentous , that I should be reacting to this birthday. So here I am, working on that.

As I think about embarking on the second half of my life, there are two things that I love and want to retain 'as is'--despite the ups, the downs, the joys, the sorrows, the challenges and the demands. First is the five men in my life--spouse and offspring (pictured above). I literally do not have to leave my house to experience the world, because they live it and bring music, culture, art, and magic into our home. Everyday. That said, I also want to continue to spend time in and about the world around me--seeing new places, talking to people who live there, eating the food they eat. Walking around new places is my one true relaxation outside of reading.

But I find myself focusing more on how I want to live the rest of my life. What I would either like to better prepare for or out and out change. I watch my parents, who have rambled around in their too-big house for 25 years as they try to downsize in their 70’s, and I realize I do not want to start that late (thanks for teaching me that). I want to start now, to try to be purposeful about how I live, where I live, and why I am doing it this way. The good news is that at this point there is no hurry. I have the house that I have raised my four boys in, and with two of them moved out, I have a lot of room to maneuver in. That is the good news. The less clear issue is what do I want to do. I suspect this, too, will change over time, but here is where I start.

There are things about who I was ten years ago that I want to get back into my life. I have always had things that I do that are productive, because my job, while I love it, doesn't produce much in the way of tangible goods and I need to do that. Cooking has been a consistent way that I have expressed myself, as well as how I have shared with my friends, my family, and the greater community. It is a way to communicate who I am to the outside world. For me, it is very personal, but nobody really sees it that way. I am revealing a lot about myself without many people realizing it. The occasional person will have an 'aha' moment, and see that I am not all that social, but that the part of me that loves people is speaking through my much beloved macaroni and cheese.

So moving forward I want to continue to cook in an expansive way--I am not so much recapturing that part of my past, but reconnecting with the boundless creativity I had then, when I piped holly berries onto the hats of my snowmen cookies and meant it when I said it was no big deal.

Ode to Corn Pudding

There are several dishes that if I don't have them with turkey at least once a year, I feel I haven't had a proper Thanksgiving meal. Corn pudding is one such dish, so I made it for my pot luck today. In keeping with the original holiday perhaps (although their corn was likely to have been quite a bit different, more of a grain than a vegetable), there were quite a number of dishes on the table revolving around corn, and all in all the meal was a success.

So what is is that makes this dish so terrific?
I think it is a combination of textures and simple flavors that makes it magical--the crunch of the corn, the creaminess of the pudding, the sweetness and the savoriness properly balancing each other out, the nutmeg and the chive. It is a dish that dances well between the turkey and the tartness of the cranberry sauce.

This corn pudding is another easy to multiply ratio recipe:
1 egg
1 c. milk
2 c. corn
1/2 c. cracker meal
dash of salt, freshly grated nutmeg, and a handful of cut chives.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 min.


I turned 50 this year and I read a book that spoke to me. The combination of these two seemingly unconnected events led to the birth of my first blog. I believe that Thanksgiving week is as appropriate a time to start as any. It is consistently my favorite holiday, and while life to date has been far from perfect, I really do have alot to be thankful for. Today is the first of what I hope will be four Thanksgiving meals this week. We are having a pot luck at work, and I have made two of my favorite dishes as a contribution to the meal.

The first is apple crisp. We have two apple trees and our neighbor has four, and so every fall we have a veritable plethora of not-so-attractive apples that we collect up and store in a cool dark place for later use. "Organic" in our house means "pay no attention to it and hope for the best", but also includes some more standard definitions, like "no pesticides" and "organic fertilizer only for years on end". The realistic possible options for use of these apples are applesauce, apple cider, apple butter, apple cake, and so on but by far the most popular option at my house is apple crisp. As I was preparing the topping this morning, and trying to figure out how much to multiply it by to cover the pan I had filled with sliced apples, and I realized that the recipe is really a ratio of the main ingredients. There are equal parts brown sugar and oats, with half that much butter and flour. So I could make as small or as large a recipe as I wanted--I tossed the apples with less than a 1/4 c. each of flour and sugar, sprinkled cinnamon freely and for the topping:
1 c. butter
2 c. oats
2 c. brown sugar
1 c. flour
dash of salt and cinnamon
Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

I read Mark Ruhlman's book 'Ratio' this fall and loved it, and the above recipe's proportions are a direct result of what I took home from reading it.
Check out his blog:
And now I see everything within this framework. How do the ingredients relate to each other by ratio. It makes increases in recipes that I used to get my calculator out to make simple, something that you can do in your head.