it’s definitely yellow

I’m not sure what it is about gaudy fingernail polish- but it inspires me.

I bought a little bottle of “Heaven-Help-Us-It’s-A-Shirley-Temple-Lemon-Drop-Yellow-Nightmare” nail polish and stashed it away in my dresser drawer where it has quietly existed for a week or more next to all the random beauty products I never *really* intend to use.  I like to think about it sitting there, waiting for the moment when I need something to spark my imagination. Waiting for tonight.

You know, it looks absolutely awful. Absolutely awful. The color is lovely on it’s own (if you’re into lemon-drops and bananas and caution tape), but in all honesty, it makes my already less-then-lovely fingers look like they belong in a Carmen Miranda dance number.

What does that say about me?  Sometimes I don’t want to know.

But here I am, waiting for my distressingly cheerful nails to dry, feeling rather smug and pat and ready to complete my latest exam in which I will describe- in not less than 75 but not more than 100 words- three things that a freelance writer must do once an assignment has been accepted.

The night is young- I may even take on the next lesson as well…..

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Church of the Misfit Brethren’s Fellowship Lasagna

I’m not going to share a recipe with you this time, simply because mine is rather annoying and disconcerting.

I made lasagna last night with no recipe and a surprising lack of intuition. I know my mom has made lasagna before, I know I have helped her- but do you think I could remember how to make it?

I cooked the noodles in the only pot even remotely big enough for such a job and quickly understood it to be the Wrong Pot for Lasagna. It *is* my biggest pot, and yet only about a quarter of the noodles were in the water and I had to flip them from time to time until they were sufficiently relaxed enough to all sink in together. While they were cooking, I snatched my other ingredients from their hiding places and set them out on the work table. A quart of ricotta cheese, a bag of mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, and the sauce I had made two days in advance and hoarded in an old ice cream bucket in the fridge.

“Has anybody ever made lasagna before? Does the cheese go *after* the noodles, or after the sauce?” I asked our dinner guests, who were exiled from the kitchen and sitting in the adjacent living room- waiting. I had my ricotta in a bowl and was stirring in the garlic, Italian herbs and parmesan cheese- nothing measured, nothing gained.

“I like your apron, dear, I think your name should have been Petunia.”  This was the supposed lasagna ‘expert’ speaking, and I immediately felt ill at ease- she couldn’t remember the proper order either.

“Come on now, Susie, think, cheese first or sauce? You have to remember…. You used to make lasagna all the time.” Her friend prompted.

“Oh, I used to make lasagna all the time, with cheese *and* sauce. I think it a much prettier food when it’s out of order, don’t you think so, Lynn?”

“Prettier, yes, but much less like Lasagna. Sue, come on, Andi needs you to think about it. How does it go? Noodles, sauce, cheese- or noodles, cheese, sauce.”

“Oh my. Oh my. My dear, I think the right answer must be noodles, sauce, cheese. Will you cut out the tag in my sweater before I kill myself?” She looked at me and smiled in her sweet way, and after the tag was removed, I thanked her and dashed back behind the angled corner and assembled my casserole.

Do you know how hard it is to spread ricotta cheese on chunky spaghetti sauce? Nearly impossible. I think the first option discussed was the right one, and now I am sure- Noodles. Cheese. Sauce.

I used too much cheese, too much sauce ( I have a phobia of dry lasagna) and made the swampiest, soupiest, cheesiest, most disorderly lasagna mess I have ever had the horror of encountering. It tasted beautifully. I think Sue was right, it was much prettier out of order.

 

 

 

 

gentle food

Some days you don’t want something heady and exotic.

Some days, the thought of mixing one more ingredient into your life is too much. Doctor’s appointments, work, worries, they gang up on the horizon like oncoming storms and the mere idea of doing anything more complicated than scrambling eggs is enough to send you in search of a hole to hide in.

These are the days when you need Gentle Food. Plain, homey dishes that come in and embrace you with their delicious simplicity- you don’t have to be brave or stalwart in order to enjoy them. Food that understands a rough day or wayward month and isn’t going to challenge you or ask you difficult questions like, “Is there too much pepper in this?” or “How long do I roast this eggplant?” You need food that *answers* questions, that sends reassuring messages to you through your tastebuds when the super-simple cheese recipe you tried earlier on in the day utterly flopped, or the dinner casserole has permanently burned itself to the bottom of your new casserole dish. You need, “cheer-up-it’s-all-going-to-be-ok-in-the-morning-but-it’s-alright-if-you-need-to-have-a-good-cry-now” food. Gentle food.

For some, thick macaroni and cheese is gentle food. Others may enjoy the ever-elegant peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off, or a bowl of ice cream. I know someone whose ultimate comfort food is a slice of meatloaf.

When I need gentle food, I often turn to potatoes (are you surprised?). This is my favorite potato recipe; it is, for me, the epitome of gentle food. The taste is friendly and kind, the preparation incredibly rhythmic and eating it is something akin to therapy. Here you go.

Mom’s Scalloped Potatoes

This recipe will feed four people (or just me on a rough day)

4 potatoes (I used heartier russets today and really liked how they kept their shape. If you can bear a little variety, feel free to substitute one or two of the white potatoes for sweet ones)

1/4 cup flour

4 cups milk

salt and pepper

an 8×8 casserole dish

350 degrees

There you are, how can you not already like a recipe that calls for only four ingredients? Scrub, then slice the potatoes rather thinly but the thickness is really up to you. This is gentle food, it isn’t going to demand anything too strenuous. Peeling is optional unless of course you have decided to use some sweet potatoes, then you had better peel those. Next, grease the casserole dish. Now you’re going to put a layer of potatoes down on the bottom of the dish, roughly two slices deep. I lay a single layer down and then go back and lay a second, covering the gaps left by the first- almost like laying bricks- only not that hard.  Sprinkle some salt around on the potatoes- this is another step that is entirely dependent upon your taste. Remember that potatoes have a habit of being salt gluttons… I probably use around 1/8 tsp or thereabouts. I *also* have a reputation for being a bit of a salt glutton. Sprinkle pepper on the layer, then a tablespoon or two of flour evenly distributed around on top of that. There’s the pattern- go to it. It doesn’t matter if you mix the sweet potatoes in with the white ones, or if you layer them separately, but you are going to fill the dish making sure to gently season and flour each layer. You may not use all the flour, and that’s ok. No pressure. Now for the milk, poured right on top of the potatoes. It should come a little more than halfway up the pan but more or less isn’t going to hurt anything. Hug it with aluminum foil and send it to the heat. I baked mine for a good hour before I had to take it out to make way for the eggplant that had been impatiently waiting in line for 20 minutes. In an ideal world (or perhaps just a world where ovens have more room), it would bake for 45 minutes to an hour covered, and then I would take off the foil and let it cook for another 15 minutes or so, so that the ‘sauce’ could thicken and the potatoes brown. Keep your eye on it, don’t let it get ahead of itself and burn to a crisp. Gentle is the key. As it stands, mine came out of the oven looking a little northern and pale, but cooked through and good enough to eat.

And eat it, we did. Mildly sweet, comforting, milky, gentle. Perfect.

Serve hot, with lots of consolation and good hope.

i expect

Someday it’s going to come.

It’s going to come.

We’ve had our time of tears,

we’ve come to love the marks our bands have made upon our wrists,

but it’s close to being over,

this bondage.

This fearful song we’ve sung over and over again like it was the chorus of life itself-

it’s almost played out.

I hear the final notes being wept over in the back row seats.

Can you feel it?

Don’t your feet ache to move and dig naked toes into free soil?

The ghosts and skeletons are enjoying their last hour of haunting.

The chains are getting heavy and limp as link by link their strength melts away-

It cannot last for long now, we are in the final moments of our captivity.

Soon you can leave.

Your arms will miss the weight at first,

Your legs will tremble and your feet will be bewildered by the choices-

right or left

back or forth

north or south.

Your eyes will sting in the light and your lungs will burn with every new breath you take.

It will be a fearsome thing, but you’ll get through it.

I know because that is how it was for me

when it came.

When that first shackle broke and fell and startled me awake with its noise.

I felt afraid and empty and naked.

But that’s the last thing to go, that angry empty feeling,

The final sign that what you’ve been waiting for all this time has really come.

I expect

Someday you’ll be writing a random poem about the marks on your wrist where bondage used to be.

Someday you will bathe in the sun instead of turning from it.

Someday you will dance instead of shuffle.

It’s going to come.

Hang on.

because that’s how Julia does it

I always cut the butter in by hand. Always. No exceptions.

I used to be one of those old-fashioned Midwest types who believe that a fork really *is* the only kitchen tool you need (try it sometime- you might be surprised…) and painstakingly forced chunks of butter into noncompliant flour with a fork that kept bending. Then I graduated to using a pastry blender- much easier, much faster, much less frustrating. And Then (another one of the famous ‘and thens’ of history, destined to be stored among other great moments such as, ‘..and then Columbus saw land..’ or, ‘..and then they realized that they had discovered soap..’ or even, ‘…and then they lived happily ever after..’) and then, I watched Julia Child make Pate En Croute and she used her fingers to cut in the butter for her pastry dough.

Oh. My. Word.

Fingers- of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

It is raining outside, odd for January in Vermont I know, we are trying to just ignore it until the weather gets itself together, not unlike a group of people who purposefully forget the one among them that has committed some foul sort of social blunder. We’re going on as if this is how it always is and casting scarce glances at the sky, hoping that the embarrassment will be over soon. My husband has left for work, leaving me to the night and the rain and the lonely crooning of Billy Holiday. The laundry is all done, the dishes have been washed.

Time to make tea biscuits.

My mom made these for us all through our childhood and could hardly keep a batch in the house for longer than a few hours. It is a light biscuit, bordering on a scone in dryness of texture, comfortably flavored with cinnamon, cloves and ginger and adorned with raisins which also supply a good deal of the sweetness. They are *supposed* to be made and then let to sit for a day or so until the full flavor is able to develop. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a fully developed tea biscuit since we almost always ate them as fast as they were produced.  They make an exquisite snack for a winter’s afternoon when the sun has hidden itself behind a thick veil of moody clouds. Enjoy with a cold glass of milk or cup of tea and some good conversation.

Tea Biscuits

4 cups of flour  ( I used a blend of 2 cups regular white flour, 1 cup of spelt and 1 cup of whole wheat)

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 Tbsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp each ginger and cloves

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup nuts (very optional. I usually opt *no* on nuts…)

1 cup butter

1 cup light brown sugar

4 eggs

1 cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

I preheated our little oven to the required 375 degrees.

Next step is to sift together all the dry ingredients *except* the raisins (and nuts if you are adding them). Your flour should be slightly brown and wonderfully scented with warm spices. Next comes the fun part- cutting in the butter. I never used to enjoy this step, but now it’s my favorite. Do you know how to cut in butter *with your bare hands*?  I do it like Julia (of course) and this is an excellent recipe to practice with because you need a whole cup of butter. Anyone who cuts an entire cup of butter into a recipe gains automatic professional status- so take heart. I take the stick of butter and my thin paring knife and slice the butter into little chunks right into the bowl of dry ingredients. When all the butter has been chopped up, take clean fingertips and gently but firmly start to “smoosh” the pieces of butter with the flour. As you spread the butter out, it grabs a hold of the flour- do this over and over again until all the chunks have been spread into the flour. It may take a little while, this is a big amount, but keep at it and trust me, the butter will soon disappear. The goal is to have a flour which is rather like the texture of damp sand. It will hold together if you squeeze it in your hand, but you can easily knock it apart into grains again. Doing this step by hand raises these biscuits from being a common-place accompaniment for tea to an artisan treat that the finest of tea feels honored to share a table with.

Now, with that taken care of, add the raisins (and nuts) and pull yourself out another bowl where all the wet ingredients are going to meet each other. The four eggs need to be beaten until a bit foamy and then they’re ready for the milk and vanilla to be brought in. Introductions should be thorough, mix well.

Everything gets stirred together, the mess will be just that- a mess. Not dry enough to encourage kneading, just together enough to make one think that a little more flour is needed, and it is. Scatter a good amount of flour on your table, counter or pastry board (I used a good half cup) and then scrape the dough onto it. Flour the top enough so that it can be rolled out nicely to about 1/2 inch thickness. Next you’re going to cut them- use a biscuit cutter, free form into squares or triangles, or do as I do and use the lip of a small wine glass to make polite, dainty rounds. Place them on a lightly greased baking sheet, they need room to swell so make sure they aren’t touching, and then they can go in the oven.

These need to bake for 10-15 minutes, but as you always hear, it depends on a multitude of circumstances that none of us really wish to understand. Just check them often as the clock clears 10 minutes, the smell will make sure you won’t forget them, it is simply irresistible!

Bon Appetite!

 

in which the author finds herself chewing on erasers

I enrolled.

I like words that begin with ‘en’. Enlighten. Envision. Entrapment. Encasement. Enrollment.

I enrolled in a free, online creative writing course for aspiring freelance writers. (I also like words that start with ‘free’)

I aspire, therefore I park myself in front of my husband’s computer for some odd chunk of a morning hour and revisit my highschool days of note-taking and pre-test sweats. So far so good, the instructor approved of my sketchy introductory paragraph, hopefully she approves of my latest literary triumph- a one hundred word mini-essay on the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing. It’s very simple, easier to describe in ten words than a hundred:

one form is real (nonfiction) and one is not (fiction).

Oh my.

 

 

beware the recipe

that begins with a request for,

“Too many onions, thinly sliced.”

It sounds like someone is making it up as they go along. (Don’t be fooled- someone is…)

How many onions are too many? How thin is ‘thinly’? I know for a fact that my personal ‘thinly’ is slightly thicker than most people want their thin to be, and I have yet to meet the dish that has ‘too many onions’. I am addicted to their weepy sweetness.

But- we march on. We weigh out our onions, we take off their papery wrapping, we slice them *thinly*, we lay them aside and read on.

“Two large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.”

I love garlic. I love large cloves of garlic, but I prefer them minced or grated and yet sliced is what is required, so they too are undressed, sliced and sent to sit next to the onions. They don’t mind.

“Heat oil in a large pan and saute onions and garlic until soft.”

I add a generous (but not too generous) amount of oil to my heated pan and throw in a fat pat of butter for flavor, then add the onions and garlic. They disperse in the oil and immediately fill the air with their pungent, sulfur-like fragrance. I wonder if the busy sound of their frying is going to echo down the hall into the bedroom where my husband sleeps, utterly ignorant of the culinary adventures that are afoot. I doubt if I could sleep if there were onions cooking, steaming, sizzling, sweating in hot oil along with two large cloves of thinly sliced garlic. I would steal away from dreams and find my way out to see what mesmerizing things were happening on the stove. Thankfully, my husband has better sense and continues to sleep.

“Season to taste.”

To taste. My taste has settled somewhere in the sweltering Middle East, a land laced with spices where intricate dishes are served artfully and eaten effortlessly with soft rounds of flat bread. I’m thinking of the daals and curries and the masalas and the poories and the yogurt drinks refreshingly flavored with salt and mint and honey. I’m thinking cumin and tumeric and cardamom and coriander and nutmeg and ginger and dusty black pepper. The dark spices cast a red glow on the onions, now silky and compliant, melting together with the garlic and oil, murmuring, and what was a mere perfume has become an incense. My little angled kitchen is fragrant and exotic and the plants on the window sill lean in to see what happens next.

“Two potatoes, cubed.”

The humble spuds, anything but fragrant and exotic, are scrubbed and then cubed as directed. Cubed, squares about the size that could comfortably sit on a nickel. I am almost morally opposed to large chunks of anything, especially potatoes. I want them to be soft and surrounded by flavor, so that each little cube can be enjoyed thoroughly, without having the interruption of needing to break it apart in order to get it into your mouth. Potatoes tossed (nicely) into the crockpot.

“Chicken breast, sliced.”

I rescue my chicken breasts from the cool water they have been defrosting in and slice them using my Big Knife. My Big Knife is a fancy-dancy chef’s knife we purchased after Alex and I got married. It stays in the drawer where the Other Knives live, but it and I both know that it is different from the Other Knives. It is my Big Knife, my fancy knife with a ceramic coating that keeps food from sticking to it (do most people have a lot of trouble with food clinging to their Big Knives? It brings a whole new aspect to the word ‘cleave’, doesn’t it?) my knife that is the big brother in a set of knives which exist out there in the kitchen world and are all color coded to prevent cross-contamination (go ahead, make your low noise of approval and awe). Mine is rose colored. How appropriate.

The chicken gets put into the pan with the mellowed onions and garlic and then is cooked with them until it’s done.

“Add yogurt.”

I have no yogurt, so I’m using Kefir instead. Kefir has been called “The Champagne of Milk”. It is a thick, cultured product that is surprisingly and delightfully effervescent, not unlike a sparkling version of the intended ingredient. The entire concoction is stirred enthusiastically for a minute or so and then poured into the waiting crockpot.

“Let Cook.”

For hours and hours and hours. Let it cook on high until my husband grows alarmed at the energetic way the steam is unsettling the cover, and then lower the heat for the duration.

Our crockpot stays on the kitchen floor because it is the best place for it. We have very little counter space and no outlets nearby, so when we need the device it comes out of the cupboard and sits on the floor by the one outlet that does exist. Before we rearranged the furniture, it was hidden under the table, which gave an ordinary crockpot meal a sort of secretive, mysterious attitude, but now it’s simply sitting there in the wide open, looking awkward and a little bit exposed. It works though- so we don’t mind.

Now that, my dear readers, is the recipe for what we are having for tomorrow’s dinner. Our yogurt braised chicken will be served on a bed of cooked spinach that has been splashed with a little lemon juice. If my ornery arm can be persuaded into it, I will make soft buttered flatbread for a side.

Not bad for a meal that starts off with too many onions.