The countdown to Thanksgiving has begun. Here’s a preview of what’s in store as we prepare to host our 13th annual family celebration.
I’ll kick off the week with a fit of denial. Even though the calendar indicates that Thanksgiving is late this year, and as of today Christmas is only a month away, I’ll spend a large part of today questioning how the holiday has snuck up on me once again.
Over breakfast we’ll review the Thanksgiving Day seating chart. The challenge of squeezing twenty plus people into our ten person dining room is akin to a blivot (That word spent several years at the top of my favorite word list. It has since been replaced by ubiquitous. These sorts of digressions are exactly why I will be in the weeds on Wednesday.) But for two engineers who enjoy problem solving, figuring out how to weave the big and small people in our life around a communal table can be, well, fun. Except when it’s not fun, and we disagree on what constitutes adequate personal dining space. You would think that we’d have it down to a science by now, but every year is different. Last year Kalina was in a high-chair and this year she’ll be in a big girl chair. It goes like that.
Tonight, I’ll finalize the menu, while Greg puts the extra leaves in the two dining tables and test drives our seating arrangement, moving like Goldilocks from chair to chair and flailing his arms. He claims he’s simulating the diner’s experience, but unless we’ll all be tossing 14-inch rounds of pizza dough it looks a tad excessive. If I’m smart, I’ll keep that bit to myself while he works.
The menu for the most food-centric, tradition rich holiday could write itself, if I’d let it. But when Thanksgiving is still four days away, and I naively believe that time is infinite, I like to add a few new sides to the already full buffet. That kind of experimentation is how we discovered that our family loves Brussels sprouts. Now, five years later, they’re a staple. I’ll run my menu ideas past Greg, who somehow manages to forget that I love this stuff, and will say something like, “Don’t overdo it.” Or, “Just keep it as simple as you can.” I always overdo it. And there is nothing simple about cooking for 24 people. Besides, when you order three turkeys (two for the deep fryer and one for the oven), you’ve already closed the door on simple. So why hasn’t he learned to indulge me and say something like, “Wow, those maple glazed turnips sound delicious. You should try them.” And why haven’t I learned to stop asking for his advice on the menu?
Before bed tonight, I’ll sit down at the computer and make new turkey day playlists, a mellow one for dinner and an amped up one for the afterhours clean up. I’ll download the new Daughtry album and then start clicking my way to other songs wishing all the while that those New Direction songs weren’t so darn catchy. Greg will call me to bed again, and again and eventually drift off. I’ll make it to bed at last then have trouble falling asleep myself with all the music playing in my head.
Tomorrow I’ll grocery shop. On the way home from the produce market the car will be pulled to Marshall’s like a moth to a flame ostensibly for something necessary, like, well, I can’t think of anything right now, but by tomorrow I’ll have something in mind. I will slip into that store like Alice down the rabbit hole, emerging an hour later with a bag full of things that doesn’t include what I went there for. Then it’s home to make pie crust, bake bread for stuffing, make and freeze dinner rolls, and clean the house, in between writing proposals and answering emails for work. I’ll also squeeze in a workout, not in anticipation of the feasting but to quiet my mind.
We’ll go to yoga before the sun is up on Wednesday though I will likely have been lying awake in bed long before the 5:15am alarm sounded. It will be one of those classes where the stillness pains me. I’ll lie on my mat and twitch just thinking about everything that has to come together in the coming 36 hours. The new living room curtain rods will arrive that afternoon. If I were a sane woman, I’d stow them in the basement and swap them out on Sunday when the house is ours again and quiet. Instead, I’ll pull out the ladder and rush to get them in place before Greg gets home with our turkeys even though I already know that the house will be so full, no one is likely to notice. This mild obsession could spark an argument with Greg who will ask a simple, logical question while I teeter precariously on the ladder, “Have you made the pies yet?” By Wednesday, time is no longer infinite and there is a manic edge to my movements through the house. If pressed Greg would admit this is not what he loves most about me.
In an ironic twist, the same man who insists I keep it simple and stay off of ladders in favor of pie baking will ask me if I have time to give him a long overdue haircut. Cut to the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed little girl’s eyes roll back in her head. There will be no masking my disbelief.
Later that day my two nieces will arrive on the train from Joliet. This tradition, now in its fifth year, is one I relish. Admittedly, when the girls were young, they were less help, though still fun. Now that they are solidly in their teen years, it’s like sharing the kitchen with girlfriends (minus the wine drinking). Bailey, the youngest, comes with a plan for a new dessert for us to try. They are never simple, but making the time to turn a cupcake into a turkey is something I’m happy to do even if it means we have to scratch that new turnip recipe.
Larry, the dad I adopted when mine was taken from me too soon in college, will come barreling in later that night. He’ll be exhausted and in desperate need of a break from his life in Pittsburgh. He will take up residence in the middle of our living room floor for the next three days. My maternal instinct will kick in, and I’ll try to restore him over the course of his stay, except for the hours immediately preceding the feast when everyone is on their own while I focus on the mission.
In between welcoming guests, there will be baking: a rich and creamy pumpkin pie, a pumpkin roll, a chocolate glazed walnut cake, a cranberry walnut tart, something triple chocolately that we can use as a birthday cake for my sister-in-law Karole, and whatever Bailey has dreamed up. The cranberry sauce will be checked off the list too if the curtain rods don’t consume me and the ladder doesn’t tip.
Game day starts too early. I’ll likely wake to fresh dreams of screaming turkeys roasted with their feathers on or some other Freudian nonsense. By 7am I’ll be elbow deep bringing together the stuffing in a soup pot. My full cup of coffee will be ice cold by the time I get a second sip. Greg’s family will begin trickling in around noon. I’ll mix up a batch of cranberry sangria to share with my mother-in-law, who’s a big fan of my bartending skills. From there the day that I’ve been preparing for all week will pass by in a flash of forkfuls and sound bites.
Three turkeys two ways. “Grandma’s pulling all the skin off the turkey again.” Sweet potato casserole with brown sugar and pecans. “Grandma, it’s me, Bobbi, Greg’s wife.” Maple Dijon Braised Brussels Sprouts with sprouts from Erik and Karole’s garden. “Who is Greg?” Kristy’s Roasted Butternut Squash with Gorgonzola. “Has anyone seen Lucy?” Mom’s Broccoli and Cheese Casserole (gulp, yes the one with Velveeta, but hey it’s once a year). “Where should we set up the karaoke machine?” Sausage and Mushroom Stuffing. “What time are Bill and Lori getting here?” Jean’s Corn Bread. “Go Steelers!” Parker House Rolls. And don’t forget the gravy.
Around nine I’ll mix up three bourbon and Cokes, one for me, one for Greg, and one for his brother Bill who, like Greg, can make me laugh until it hurts. It will be the first drink I finish all day. My other glasses are half full and scattered throughout the house in the exact spots where I left them when the oven timer chimed. The first of the family starts to pack up for the night, over-tired little kids, missed bedtimes, and the like tugging them home. I’ll get a touch of the blues that the party is winding down when I’m finally ready to relax.
Alone again in our kitchen with the clean up play list doing its part to keep us awake, Greg and I will scour a few more pans and start the list of what we’ll do differently the following year. Shortly after midnight we’ll crawl into bed exhausted, the last round of dishes whirring their way to clean in the dishwasher. Greg will wrap his arms around me and tell me thank you, something he hasn’t always done. I’ll thank him for thanking me, because I never take it for granted. My last thought will be of my breakfast the next morning: a cup of hot coffee in the quiet kitchen with a slice of Greg’s mom’s apple pie drenched with warm milk, the way my mom used to eat it the morning after Thanksgiving. I’ll fall asleep fast, and that night my dreams will be sweet.
Chocolate Glazed Flourless Walnut Date Cake
oil or butter for the pan
3 cups walnut halves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
finely grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3/4 cup chopped pitted dates
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon honey
1/3 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped, for topping
- Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch-round cake pan and line with parchment paper. (You can also use a deep tart pan with a removable bottom.)
- Put the walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar in a food processor; pulse until finely ground.
- Whisk the eggs, orange zest, vanilla, and salt in a small bowl until frothy. Fold in the dates, then fold in the ground walnut mixture. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 22 to 25 minutes. Let cool, then run a knife along the sides and invert the cake onto a platter.
- Make the glaze: Combine the chocolate, butter, and honey in a heat-safe bowl. Microwave or heat over a stove-top double boiler until the butter and chocolate melt. Whisk until smooth. Cool slightly, and then pour over the cake. Top with toasted walnuts.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
And for a woman that endured the loss of both parents and her brother at a young age, I can’t imagine what it took to scare her.
The adrenaline rush triggered by fear can make me tingle all over with an undeniable sense of being alive, but I’m too much of a chicken shit to actively seek fear on any regular basis let alone every day. Besides, I scare so easily, fear finds me, employing the ever-effective element of surprise without me going to look for it. Changing lanes on I-94 is enough to make me sweat through my favorite leather jacket. A single, unannounced sneeze out of Greg can send me off my chair, which is how I earned the nickname “Froggy.” (Really, I don’t know anyone who sneezes as loud as he does.) With that in mind, it’s possible that I rack up 365 scares in a year without even trying. To my credit, fear has never kept me from doing something that thrills me, like traveling to Thailand, jumping out of what my horrified family members called “a perfectly good airplane”, or getting a tattoo. Of course those were all premeditated events with conscious choices. Most of the time fear comes fast and furious without warning: that damn sneeze or a fat rat racing across my sandaled foot in the alley.
That’s how it found me in Colorado, 14,000 feet in the air, approaching the apex of Quandary Peak. Greg and I had climbed from 10,850 feet to just over 14,000 in two plus hours, covering nearly three miles of precipitous, rocky ground. Quandary Peak reaches 14,265 feet above sea level, but from where we were, I couldn’t see the summit. The climb ahead was steep– steeper than an attic staircase in an old house and steeper than any climb I’d faced before. To reach the top—wherever it was—we’d have to scramble up a terrain that resembled the surface of the moon except that in the video of Neil Armstrong touching down, the rocky, cratered surface looked flat. I was facing a wall of rock, standing on legs that were already quivering with fatigue.
From the beginning, I was never sure we’d make it to the top. We’re in good shape—still capable of running eight-minute miles without audible gasps and doing pushups without getting our knees dirty—but climbing a mountain is, uhm, a lot different. This is a good time to remind you that Chicago, where I make my home, sits at an elevation of approximately 600 feet above sea level and is flat with a capital “F”. The climb and what it would do to my quads worried me, but the altitude worried me more. A few years back Greg and I climbed Mauna Kea (EL 13,796 ft.) on the Big Island of Hawaii. On the hike Greg experienced his first bout of altitude sickness. We’d been together for six years, but I’d seldom seen him weak or vulnerable, and it scared the hell out of me. He doesn’t remember the altitude sickness. The memory that is permanently lodged in the score-keeping side of his brain is that the entire sole of his left foot was covered in blisters, or “one giant blister”. The Guinness Book of World Records blister was, as I learned on our way to the top of Quandary Peak, my fault, because I was the one who insisted on going on “and on”, intent on reaching the top.
But Mauna Kea was thousands of miles and many years away. Here on Quandary Peak our feet were as yet, blister free, and our breath while shallower with each short step wasn’t yielding to the woozieness that overcame Greg in Hawaii. We stopped for a water break when Greg announced that we’d made it to 14,000. He handed me the bottle for a luxurious sip. The air temperature was just above freezing with a strong, chilling wind blowing from the valleys below, but we’d built up a lot of heat in the climb so the cool water was refreshing. I let out a deep sigh as I swallowed and casually turned around to take in the view that I’d been missing due to my laser focus on the unstable trail.
Cue up the music from the shower scene of Psycho here: I nearly lost it right there. When we stopped my throbbing quads were singing, “dang, that was steep,” but the view from 14,000 feet screamed, “crazy lady the only way you’re getting down is if you roll off the edge into that pristine mountain lake below.”
I’m not sure what I said or if I said anything, but something prompted Greg to say, “We can stop here. I’m okay if you want to stop. I’m just happy we made it to 14,000.”
“Are you worried about how we’ll make it down on shaky legs?” I asked. If he was afraid, he was doing a bang up job of hiding it.
“No, but I can tell you are. Bob, we don’t have to do it.”
Maybe I was a bit woozy after all, but I was suddenly overcome with gratitude tainted with a healthy serving of shame. I knew that if the tables were turned, I would be prodding him—blistered foot and all–to get to the top. Like a well-intentioned but obnoxious cheerleader, I’d recite various incantations meant to inspire, but would likely have the reverse effect (Remember the first marathon we ran together sweetie when you “hit the wall”?) I mean well in those moments, I really do. I believe that I’m helping him, me, his biggest fan, his wingman. With the clarity of hindsight I see those moments are selfish on my part. I’m hell bent on accomplishing the mission with or without him, but I let myself believe that he will thank me when we get to the finish line or the top, even if his foot is oozing puss. (Please let the record show that this is not a part of me I’m proud of.)
While this may have been our first “14er” as the avid climbers call the 14,000 plus foot peaks, Greg has a lot more alpine hiking experience than I do. If he wasn’t scared, why should I be? More than that though, I trust him to look out for me. Greg isn’t a big risk taker especially when it involves my safety. If the guy who reminds me to be careful every time I strap on my running shoes thought we were in grave danger, he would never suggest we push on.
I turned my back on the majestic view and the path of our descent to face the wall of sharp rocks before me. And we pressed on. Several yards up the trail we caught up with a group of sure-footed mountain goats. Their hard hooves clicked and clacked as they ambled up the mountain. I briefly considered whether or not I could climb in hard, rigid shoes, let alone be so nimble. A rock gave way under my foot as if in answer. Though I’m far less graceful than a goat I managed to regain my balance. I kept climbing and watching my feet. There would be no looking up until I was at the top with but one choice: to go back down.
A half hour after the fear inducing water break, we reached the summit of Quandary Peak. Two more goats were there waiting for us, perhaps hoping we’d invite them to our Clif Bar and apple lunch. We took turns signing the scroll, proof that we had indeed made it to the top. Then we found a smooth rock to sit on and rest our Jell-O legs. Greg took pictures of me and the curious goats, while I took in the view, this time without flinching. Ice-capped mountain tops undulated across a blue sky in every direction I turned. My fear was nowhere to be found. I didn’t want to leave, but not because I was afraid; I was sad to leave such beauty behind me. I turned slowly in a final circle without blinking, hoping to permanently imprint the magnificent view in my mind’s eye, where I could turn to it later when inspiration was hard to come by. Another hiker reached the summit; it was time for us to go. We left him the same gift that greeted us—the view, alone, and started our way back down, following the goats that had welcomed us to the top. One foot in front of the other, eyes on the trail, and my fear in my wake.
Gluten-Free Honey Pear Crisp with Hazelnuts and Thyme
4 cups pear slices, skins on
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot
1/2 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour mix (You can substitute white whole wheat or all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skins removed, and coarsely chopped
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 10, 1/2-cup individual ramekins or an 8×8-inch baking dish.
- Combine lemon juice, honey, cinnamon, and cornstarch together in a bowl. Add the pears and gently stir to coat.
- Whisk together flour, oats, brown sugar, thyme leaves, cinnamon, and salt. Add butter and honey; using fingertips, rub in until moist clumps form. Rub in the hazelnuts.
- Evenly divide pear filling between ramekins or pour into baking dish. Sprinkle on topping.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes or until filling is bubbly and topping is golden brown.
- Serve warm.
I love beets. Really, I love them, even crave them, the way that some people crave chocolate or donuts. If there was a time in my early years when I didn’t love them, perhaps choosing instead to hide them in a napkin or offer them to our dog, those memories have since been overwritten with nothing but beet love.
Roasted. The first time I prepared beets in my own kitchen they were roasted. It remains my go-to method for cooking them, not just because it’s foolproof and easy—wash, wrap in foil, roast at 400°F ‘til tender, peel, and smile—but because high roasting temperatures coax out the natural sweetness of the beets. My favorite beets, however, aren’t roasted, they’re pickled by my sister Annie.
The beets we were raised on were also pickled, never roasted. In our house veggies were only boiled or fried into submission. Mom’s beets were slightly sweet, gently spiced, perfectly tart—a flavor profile I couldn’t get enough of then or now. On pickling day, a highly anticipated annual event in my childhood kitchen, the vapors floating out of the simmering vat of vinegar and beet juice were so pungent they brought tears to my eyes. But I didn’t mind. Mom made me keep my distance as she filled the waiting quart-sized Mason jars with chunks of boiled beets and the scalding, inky brine. Her worn, masculine hands were stained a vibrant magenta from peeling and chopping the beets, their juice collecting and concentrating in the deepest cracks.
One particularly eventful pickling Saturday those stained hands dumped a cooled pot of leftover beet juice over the back porch railing and onto the neighbor’s blonde, wiry haired yipper dog. Sandy was fond of doing his business in our yard and peeing on our clothes baskets while the clothes dried on the line. No longer so aptly named, Sandy left our yard in a hurry wearing his new purple coat and howling the whole way home. No amount of shampooing could restore Sandy’s coat. It faded gradually over the next few weeks like the 28-day, semi-permanent hair color that I’m too familiar with these days. Sandy stopped peeing on the baskets or coming into our yard at all, and his owners stopped speaking to any of us. Mom believed it was a price worth paying.
When Greg and I moved into our home in 1999 and immediately dug and planted our first garden, beets were the first seeds we planted. An entire pack of tiny black seeds were sown in two tidy rows. I could hardly wait to harvest them and fill my own home with the scent of sweet, spicy vinegar. By then pickling had become a family pastime practiced only by Annie and mom was losing her battle to cancer. Instead of pickled beets I got a painful lesson in soil science. Our beets, all four of them that survived that summer, clawing their way into the hard clay that dominated our soil, were no bigger than unshelled pecans. Over the years our soil and our beet harvest has improved, though we never had a harvest large enough to warrant the necessary labors that canning and preserving require. Fortunately Annie graciously shares a quart or two of her pickled beets with us each Christmas when we visit. And her beets are even better than mom’s.
Then came beet harvest 2013. Beets, beets, and more beets. At long last, it was time to pickle our very own beets.
“Call me. Need to talk about pickled beets,” I texted to Annie when I hit a road block in her recipe: pickling spice.
“Hey, I need your recipe for pickling spice,” I said when my beet mentor rang a few minutes later.
“I don’t have a recipe,” she replied.
What??!! This was a surprising setback, because Annie is a “make-it, don’t buy it” kind of kitchen operator. She went on to describe the spice she buys and where she buys it, information that was of little use to me when my beets were burbling on the stove and darned near “fork tender” and ready for peeling. The remainder of her tips proved useful and timely. Unfortunately, I was still left with the matter of concocting a pickle spice. And so began a mad internet recipe search. Every pickle spice recipe was different, yet common themes emerged: allspice, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and bay leaves. I ravaged my spice cabinet and got to work on my own mix, tweaking the recipe mashup as I went. No dill, a little more star anise. How could I know how much, if any, of those spices were in my favorite pickled beets? I seldom fear kitchen failure, considering each an opportunity to learn, but the thought of this long-awaited, beautiful bounty going to waste was more than I could stomach.
My beets aren’t Annie’s beets, just as Annie’s aren’t my mom’s. But they are some damn fine pickled beets, so fine I didn’t mind the hour it took me to clean up the sticky purple blotches that peppered the kitchen counters and floor. I poured the extra beet juice down the drain without a thought. A few minutes later Morris the Cat’s twin came strolling through our yard again. The collarless, blonde stray has converted the mulch pile under my favorite backyard bench into a litter box. If next year’s harvest provides us with enough beets to pickle, you can bet I’m going to hold on to that inky juice.
6 pounds fresh, whole beets, greens trimmed and scrubbed clean
5 tablespoons Pickling Spice
3 cups granulated sugar
6 cups white or cider vinegar
4 cups strained beet water
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 teaspoon crumbled mace
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
4 bay leaves, crumbled
2 star anise, broken into pieces
- Place beets in a large stockpot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook until fork tender, about 20-60 minutes depending on the size of the beets. If beets vary significantly in size, put the biggest ones in first and simmer for a bit, then add the smaller ones. Drain, reserving 4 cups of the beet water. Cool, peel, and slice the beets into chunks if large.
- Secure the Pickling Spice in cheesecloth. Combine the spice bundle, sugar, vinegar, and beet water in a soup pot over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the spice bag. Add the sliced beets and bring to a boil again then remove from heat.
- While the pickling liquid simmers, sterilize jars and lids by immersing in boiling water for at least 10 minutes.
- Fill each jar with beets leaving 1/2-inch head space. Carefully pour hot pickling liquid into each jar, covering beets. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp paper towel. Add caps and bands. (Note: If the jars, beets, and liquid are hot, water bath processing isn’t necessary.)
This month my new business Conscious Crumbs turned a year old. Arguably it’s time to stop using the preface “my new business”, yet it still feels new to me. Each client, every party and event is different from the next. There are food allergies, intolerances, and sometimes mysterious aversions to work around: “I don’t eat wheat. We can’t eat dairy. Shiny foods scare me.” There are attitudes to adjust: “I can’t cook unless I have a recipe to follow. I don’t have time to cook. My kids will never eat vegetables.”
Logistics provide additional challenges. Have you ever taught a buzzing group of teenage girls the art of French pastries in a small galley kitchen dominated by a worm composter? (That was actually one of my favorite lessons, watching their eyes widen when they got their first taste of homespun lemon curd.)
I catered a grand opening celebration for a local business and assembled the dishes in an adjacent unfinished warehouse populated with old mattresses and dusty, long-since forgotten furniture. I set up my folding table in the middle of the vast room and lit it with a forty watt bulb in a shade-less eighties floor lamp that my husband Greg found sandwiched between two worn mattresses. The bare bulb cast a dim glow over my portable oven, both of which were powered by a daisy chain of extension cords reminiscent of Clark Griswold’s holiday lights in Christmas Vacation.
Planning for each lesson or event is nearly as satisfying as the execution. Discovering what foods people gravitate towards and why is endlessly fascinating. I’m not fond of recycling menus. Crafting a unique menu rife with the foods and flavors my clients enjoy most is more gratifying. I nudge them ever so slightly from their comfort zones (Okay, so you hate tomatoes, but have you ever tried them roasted?) yet keep the foods familiar and accessible. Grandma’s 80th birthday celebration is no time to break out the quail egg ravioli.
In turn my clients nudge me as well. And last month I got my biggest nudge yet: a 15-course gourmet dinner for eight people–five passed hors d’oeuvres on the patio and ten courses served in the formal dining room. Once the menu (pictured below) was finalized I spent two weeks testing and refining my recipes. Greg relished the experiments and almost got used to having multi-course dinners every night. My friends were equally happy to sit through my iterations of cauliflower puree (cream or no cream?), roasted figs (whipped cream on top or bottom?) and duck confit salad (crispy potatoes, yes, capers, no).
Scaling down the portions for the dining room courses proved to be the biggest challenge. My goal was three-five satisfying bites per course. Each dish was comprised of four-ten elements assembled on a six-inch plate. Too little or too much of any single element can drastically alter the flavor of any dish, but the effect is magnified for small servings.
When I entertain at home I seldom plate food for my guests even though I admire and appreciate an artfully constructed plate. I prefer the feeling of community when food is served family style–the passing of bowls, the warm, light touch of another’s hand grazing yours. It’s fun to watch what dishes guests are drawn to. Besides, I don’t want them to feel pressured to eat what’s on their plate. I prefer instead that they select what appeals to them. So no steaming pan of mushroom lasagna at center stage on the table flanked with a salad and crusty loaf of bread would do here.
And then there was the daunting matter of the wow factor. For me pretty usually takes a back seat to flavor when it comes to food, but these plates needed to look as good as they tasted. It was time to break out the tweezers. I wrestled with the colors, shapes, and textures arranged on the plates first making sketches, then bringing them to life for Greg’s dinner, all in the name of a perfect first bite. By the time the actual event arrived I’d sunk more hours than I could count into all the above, my hourly wage dropping into the single digits. But when the night was over, the last tiny plate washed, and eight sated and elated guests waved us goodbye, the check in my back pocket felt like a bonus. One year in and I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.
Roasted Figs with Basil Whipped Cream and Balsamic Glaze
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
12 large basil leaves
6-8 fresh figs
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
flaky sea salt, preferably Maldon
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted
- Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer until it’s the consistency of very thin maple syrup, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Blanch the basil leaves for 20 seconds in boiling water and drain. (This step is optional, but it keeps the whipped cream from turning a dull green color.) When cool gently squeeze the leaves to remove excess water. Combine the basil leaves with the heavy cream and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor. Puree until the mixture thickens to the consistency of whipped cream.
- Trim the stems off the figs and slice each in half lengthwise. Place them cut side up in a baking dish. Roast for about 15 minutes, until the figs are tender and glossy with their own juice, but not too soft–you need to be able to pick them up with your fingers.
- Place a dollop of basil whipped cream on each plate. Top with three or four roasted figs. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the plate and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt and a few toasted pine nuts, if using. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 starter courses.
My notebook with its soft, worn, black cover has been quietly watching me for weeks now, like a friend that asks little of you, but wants to reassure you that she’s there when you’re ready at last to talk it out. I put the notebook in a drawer. I don’t want to be reminded of who I am at the precise moment when I’m longing to forget as much, wanting if only for a day to be someone else. I lose time staring at the drawer. The thought of my written words trapped in the airless darkness is unsettling. I pull the drawer open just enough to peek inside. My notebook is still there, waiting. I open the drawer fully and pull it out. Still, I’m not ready. I put it on the kitchen counter and walk away.
It’s time to get to the matter of making breakfast. Our weekly vacation from smoothies or peanut butter toast is always a welcome production on weekends. No matter how long the to-do list, we take it slow. Tea. Coffee. National Geographic. Saveur. A little bird watching. Pancakes. Or waffles. Maybe veggie-packed skillets with eggs. Today it’s oatcakes. I’m drawn to their rustic simplicity and the way the batter sits and waits for me until I’m ready, like my notebook. I sprinkle Greg’s with flaxseed, a necessary step to keep him off cholesterol meds. Extra raspberries for me so fresh and delicate they break apart in my hand when I sprinkle them over the little cakes. We start our Sunday Times crossword. The living room paint can wait and so can the tray of coleus I bought for our shady window boxes.
“What’s a four-letter word for tiny building block?”
We take turns reading the clues out loud even though we’re both staring at the same puzzle.
“Bird that perches with its tail straight up?”
“You should know this one. What’s a stroke of the pen?” I don’t know the answer; I seldom do when he precedes the clue with “you should know”.
I return the volley, “What’s the fifth book of The New Testament?” We both laugh, knowing we’ll have to move on to the next one. The bible clues always stump us, our penance for abandoning our Catholic roots.
We work doggedly to piece together a five line George Carlin quote for how long I can’t say, because I always sit with my back to the clock on Sunday mornings. Greg shifts his weight in his chair, a sign that the day’s list is starting to tug at him. In my bird watching seat, I can see my notebook from the corner of my eye. We’ll finish the puzzle another day. I carry the raspberry smeared plates to the sink. As if it were nothing at all, I grab my notebook and pull my favorite pen from the drawer, a fine point Uniball with blue black ink. It’s time.
Pen to paper. Pen to paper.
One foot in front of the other. One word to follow the last. This word follows what came before, leading to what’s next. I don’t know what’s next only that I must keep writing now that I’ve started. Ink flowing, the side of my hand inching across the blank page below these words. Keep on keepin’ on they say, and today I do just that. I’ve given myself permission to write about nothing, the small stuff, the empty, meaningless bits, anything to keep the pen moving across this paper leaving its smeary, indigo trail.
There, I’ve done it now, opened the notebook, marred the pristine, college-ruled page. Look ma, I’m writing. Yah, I know it’s nothing, but it might be something. I never know when the good stuff is coming. It’s just as well. I can’t see when the crap is coming either, here on this page or in life. Oh, there are times when I think I’ve bumbled into genius with this pen and paper. Ironically most of those pieces are garbage. I’m at my best when I don’t know it, when I least suspect it, when I’m not even trying. Not like now, I’m trying, trying real hard here to connect with my writer. She will guide me through this in time like she always does. With her help I’ll eventually turn this pain into a story I can share and a story others can learn and heal from. Until then I’m staying small here, writing about nothing just to write, because in the end it’s all I know how to do and it’s how I heal myself.
Cinnamon Oatcakes with Raspberry Compote
Adapted from a recipe in EatingWell Magazine, March/April 2012.
2 cups almond milk or skim milk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon butter
2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen (thawed)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
pinch of salt
- To prepare oatcakes: Whisk milk, egg, and vanilla extract in a medium bowl. Combine oats, flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in another medium bowl. Stir the dry mixture into the wet mixture and let stand for at least 20 minutes. The mixture will thicken as it sits.
- To prepare compote: Meanwhile, place raspberries, maple syrup, and salt in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries are mostly broken down, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
- Coat a griddle or large nonstick skillet with butter; heat over medium heat. Using 1/4 cup of batter for each, cook oatcakes until bubbles dot the surface, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until browned, 2 to 3 minutes more.
- Serve the oatcakes with the warm compote.
Try my other favorite breakfast cakes, Lemon Scented Polenta Pancakes.
I turned forty in 2011. It was a milestone, but as a firm believer in the notion that wisdom comes with age, it wasn’t one that I dreaded. The worst part of turning forty was the qualifier that people started adding to compliments:
“She’s in good shape for being forty.”
“She looks good for forty.”
The majority of these tainted comments were easy to ignore, because I felt good for forty, maybe even for twenty. I’m diligent and at times a bit obsessive about my health. My dad was a two-pack a day smoker and alcoholic. My Type II diabetic mom resembled Jabba the Hut from the thighs up thanks to an affinity for fast food, Hostess snack pies, and mindless eating. Both of my parents died when they were sixty-three.
This, I vowed, would not happen to me.
With a nod to Julia Child’s edict of “everything in moderation, including moderation,” I eat anything and everything as long as the ingredients on the label are recognizable, real foods, and I work out six days a week. Before you let your eyes roll back into your head, consider this as well: I drink two cups of black coffee every morning; I drink wine every night while I make dinner; and I have no shutoff valve when it comes to pizza or homemade ice cream.
My diligence has paid off. I’ve never broken any bones or suffered a serious injury. My experience with surgery and anesthesia is limited to having my wisdom teeth removed and a decade later a tiny, but painful bone spur in my hand.
Then, in my mid 30s, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease (DDD) in my lower back. DDD isn’t really a disease; it’s a condition that occurs when fluid escapes from the discs that separate the vertebrae in your spine. The discs act like shock absorbers for the vertebrae. As the discs lose fluid, there is less padding between the vertebrae, and they come closer together creating instability and sometimes pain in the spine. My x-rays indicated that this had happened to four discs in my lower back. And as my doctor put it, “You can’t get the jelly back in the jelly doughnut.” She recommended a traction machine, so I could hang upside down and relieve the pressure in my back. At her urging I limited my runs to four times a week and started practicing more yoga. She also gave me exercises to strengthen my core, a word that I once thought only referred to the part of an apple that’s not worth eating. Traction, yoga, core strengthening, they did the job.
And then I turned forty-one.
Late last fall, my back pain returned. Once or twice a week sharp pains in my lower back would wake me in the middle of the night. Sitting down for breakfast was often enough to make me wince with pain. I was certain my jelly-less doughnuts and obsession with running were to blame. Morning stretches to loosen the muscles in my lower back were added to my regimen and running was limited to three days a week. This helped, but by Christmas I was waking up with back pain four to five times a week. No matter how good I felt before bed, the pain returned while I slept. Simple yoga poses, especially balancing poses were getting noticeably harder and at times even painful. Worse still, my running pace was getting slower. Depression settled over me like dense fog. This is what it means to get old, I thought.
Greg frequently suggested I return to the doctor, but I didn’t see the point, not yet. On my last visit to the doctor she said that eventually my back pain would become intolerable and impossible to manage with yoga and traction. At that point surgery would be my only remaining option. Having watched helplessly from the sidelines as a close friend went through the same surgery over the holidays, I didn’t have the courage to make the call. Besides, the pain wasn’t unbearable, until it was.
Did you know that your hips move up and down as you walk or run? I did, but I didn’t know that only one of mine was doing this. According to my doctor my right hip had completely locked up and from the exaggerated asymmetry of my back muscles, which was the direct cause of my back pain, she was certain it had happened several months ago. She was surprised that I could walk let alone run.
So the excruciating pain I’d been experiencing for months had nothing to do with the lack of jelly in my doughnuts. And unlike my degenerating discs, the condition was treatable. My miracle worker had my hip unlocked after forty-five minutes of electric stimulation, acupressure, and joint manipulation. The knots and over-developed muscles that were compensating for my locked hip would take longer to goad back into their normal states. I was so relieved both physically and mentally that Greg’s litany of “I told you so”s didn’t even annoy me. But as they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The locked hip was likely the result of running on unyielding concrete sidewalks.
“Is there something you can do other that run outside?” my doctor asked without recognizing the gravity of her question. I’ve been a runner for twenty-five years, an outdoor, in any temperature or condition, treadmill-hating runner. I stared at her in disbelief as she naively continued, “How about the elliptical? Or even running on a treadmill would be better for your joints than running on the sidewalk.”
“But running is my thing,” I finally managed in spite of the giant lump that had formed in my throat.
“Well, I think you might need to find another thing.”
She didn’t get it. There was no other thing. Running is more than exercise for me. I don’t love it because of the cardiovascular benefits. It soothes me. It’s meditative, contemplative. My best ideas come when I’m running. Problems are solved when I run, big ones, small ones. I pray when I run. I practice gratitude when I run. I’m most alive when I’m running.
I’ll skip the part where this forty-something started to cry like a four-year old.
I agreed to give up running for two weeks while my doctor continued working on my back and the damage that had occurred from the locked hip. And my doctor agreed to let me try running again once my joints and muscles were in working order. It wasn’t my best case scenario, but it beat “YOU MUST STOP RUNNING, FOREVER.”
I got the long-awaited green light to run last Friday. Maybe it was because both hips were properly functioning or maybe it was my state of mind, but it was the best run I’d had in months. I ran again on Sunday. Two days later, I triumphantly returned to the doctor only to learn that my hip was partially locked again, even though I wasn’t experiencing any pain. Lying prone on the table with my face buried in a tissue-covered cradle, I waited for my doctor to deliver the bad news. At least this time she wouldn’t have to see me cry. My self-pity gave way to deep shame as I thought about the people who’d recently lost their legs in the Boston Marathon massacre; I could still walk even if I couldn’t run.
And then something surprising happened. “It’s not as bad as I expected it to be,” my doctor said. “In fact, your hip was pretty easy to unlock. Next week I can show you some exercises that you can do, so you can unlock it on your own.” I cried anyway as the tension gushed out of my rigid body. This old mare wasn’t ready for the bullet in the pasture after all. I would run another day. And I already knew my next run would be all about gratitude.
Strawberry Mint Springria
3/4 cup mint leaves
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 bottles of dry white wine
1 1/4 cups brandy or orange liqueur
2 pints of fresh strawberries, stemmed and sliced, plus more for garnishing
- Make mint simple syrup: Chop mint. In a small saucepan bring sugar, water and mint to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer syrup, undisturbed, 2 minutes. Let cool. When ready to use, pour syrup through a fine sieve, pressing hard on solids. Syrup keeps, covered and chilled, for 2 weeks.
- Combine the simple syrup, white wine, brandy, and sliced strawberries in a large pitcher or divide evenly between two smaller ones. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Pour over ice. Top with ginger ale and garnish with a fresh strawberry.