being the mother

When I was a little kid, I was terrified of werewolves. Terrified, I say.

I remember laying in my bed, straining to hear the click of clawed feet on our linoleum kitchen floor or heavy, wolf-like breathing in the hallway. I avoided looking out the window in my bedroom, sure that if I did I would be face to face with gleaming teeth and yellow eyes.

My one comfort and hope was my mother. My mom is  the kind of mother who put the fear of God into any monster our fertile imaginations could dream up. Because of this power, my middle of the night bathroom trips always ended with a stop in mom’s room where I would ask her to stay up for a bit and watch T.V. while I fell back asleep. She never complained, never denied and I never questioned or doubted her, I would simply trot back to my room and lay down in utter peace – mom was awake, I was safe. No werewolves could get me.

Now, being this young, I never once thought, “Gee – mom was up all day long taking care of us, she must be exhausted!” I always took it for granted that as she had the ability to defend us from evil, she would be willing to use it no matter what time it was. I had no guilt, I only remember this intense and overwhelming assurance of being protected. Trust. It’s one of my best and most comfortable memories.

Well, I’m a mama now and it makes me see my own mother in a breath-takingly new way. I am now the one who is counted upon to be there *all the time* day and night, to feed, warm, comfort, entertain, protect, defend, clean, and sit up and watch during the night to make sure all is well. My son doesn’t doubt or even think for a moment about whether or not I will feed him or love him or be there for him when he needs me, he doesn’t consider that it’s the umpteenth time he’s been up that night, or that it’s the fourth time he’s needed a new change of clothes in a two hour period and you know what, I hardly notice it myself. He is enveloped in a sweet, oblivious trust. I think about all the years my mom cared for me without me ever realizing exactly what all that entailed. I never realized that I don’t ever remember my mom being tired, or sick or hungry or needing to use the bathroom or needing anything throughout my entire childhood. In my memory she is this incredible person who could do anything and do it all with nothing to work from and four little beings trailing along behind.

This past week I contracted a chest cold and have been gimping around with a cough and slight fever for a couple of days. Strangely enough, my illness didn’t seem to affect my three-month-old at all! He still needs to eat every other hour, still needs to be changed almost as often and seems to fall asleep in my arms just as the tickle in my throat becomes unbearable.

When I am sick, food preparation is usually the first thing to suffer (which is why there is no recipe this week) and we all suffer with it! I don’t know what my mom had going on yesterday, I don’t think we asked. I just knew that if I needed her help, she’d be there – and she was. Like the work of a good fairy, delicious food appeared and my husband was fed before he went off to work.  Chicken noodle soup, eggplant parmesan, baked french toast – she cares and feeds and gives like it were as easy as breathing. I gulped down her homemade soup and knew that health and healing were right around the corner… I guess the same Super-Mom Power is as effective against illness as it is against werewolves!

 

 

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shrimp – they’re just not that scary

I cooked shrimp for the first time in my life yesterday.

I know what you are thinking – how can a reasonably intelligent and adventurous home-chef like myself go for so long without having dealt with shrimp? I’ll tell you – fear. Clammy, white-knuckled fear and intimidation.

Growing up, shrimp was an expensive, exotic sort of food that was reserved for New Years Eve. I remember dunking my chilly, naked crustacean in cocktail sauce then relishing the way the mild, snappy shrimp mixed with the extremely pungent horseradish in my mouth. Oh my – good times.

My mom and I were the only ones who truly appreciated the delicacy, all three of my brothers avowing that they would never – under any circumstances – eat something that looked like a “sea bug”. It was one of the only foods my mom never insisted that they try more than once. Nope – more shrimp for the girls and that was always desirable.

For a long time I wondered if it wasn’t actually the cocktail sauce that I was addicted to, but one year my mom cooked Shrimp A’la Meuniere for my birthday and my doubts concerning the true nature of my love were set to rest forever.

I loved Shrimp and could love it without cocktail sauce. It was a revelation.

Now I ask you, how do you go about cooking a food you have so elevated? It’s somewhat terrifying. The thought of ruining a dish that contained shrimp was almost too much for me and yet for the past 18 months I have lingered at the seafood counter, gazing at the packages of fresh frozen shrimp before walking on, convinced that this was one culinary risk I was too timid to take.

My mom, whose fearlessness in the kitchen has yet to be matched by any single cook I have met, recently convinced me to buy my coveted bag of shrimp. “It’s not that hard…” she said, “… just thaw them in some cold water then cook them. Just don’t overcook them or you will loose that delightful *snap*.”

Oh, the delightful snap – something I dreaded loosing to be sure!

Calling back the memory of my beloved birthday dinner – the simple lemon, butter, garlic and herb sauce that so perfectly and delicately adorned the shrimp, I decided to do something of the same and serve it on pasta.

Shrimp with Garlic Butter, Lemon and Capers

1/2 lb  raw, fresh shrimp (thawed if you are using frozen)

3 Tablespoons butter plus a splash of olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, minced

2 teaspoons green capers

juice from 1/2 a lemon

grated Parmesan cheese to top

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb pasta, cooked and strained

Ah yes, shrimp and butter are the stars here. I figure the low calorie nature of shrimp allows for some extravagance, and I think I’m right. So there.

Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil (which should keep the butter from browning too much) and then the garlic and capers. Let them sizzle until the garlic is slightly brown and then toss in your raw shrimp. Stir well as they will cook relatively quickly. Once the shrimp have begun to curl on themselves and turn pink, add the lemon juice and some salt and pepper. The capers are pretty salty on their own, which is really nice in the sauce but you will want to taste it before adding *more* salt. A few moments more and the shrimp should look tight and plump and very pink. Turn off the heat and liberally decorate with parmesan cheese. One final stir and you’re ready to serve on top of your pasta with a side of salad or steamed veggies.

It was a quick, simple sort of meal but very delicious and worth the daring of finally deciding to cook shrimp. It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I had imagined! What food fear are you near to conquering? Let me encourage you to dive in and face it, you may end up with a dinner to be enjoyed and remembered…

Enjoy!

Cooking with Quinoa

There has been a lot of talk about Quinoa. It first appeared as a food that would put those who ate it in the “Health Nut” camp but has recently become more of a mainstream curiosity.

Quinoa (pronounced ‘Keen-wah’) is a funny little food – at first glance people are tempted to call it a “grain” when indeed it is a “seed”. A very small seed and prominent member of the Goosefoot species of plants. I’m sure most of you have fought valiant battles against quinoa relatives who love to pop up in the fertile soil of your garden year after year. Back home we called them ‘ironweeds’ or ‘pigweeds’ or even ‘lambs’ quarters’ and when young they actually make a tasty and nutritious substitute for spinach at the dinner table – but that’s beside the point.

Quinoa is an ancient food from Peru and surrounding areas. The Incas considered it to be a sacred crop which caused their new Spanish neighbors to hold quinoa in distain. It was even outlawed for a time and the natives were forced to grow the more European wheat. What the Spanish didn’t know and what we are now finding out is that the Incas had good reason to hold their quinoa dear. Though it be tiny and a relative of plaguing weeds, quinoa has an impressive resume. Full of fiber, magnesium, iron, calcium, as well as being a complete protein in its own right, quinoa is gluten free and easy to digest. It’s also a smart plant, having a built-in defense system which causes it to be distasteful and even gastrically upsetting when eaten before the outer coating has been removed. The crop is easier to protect from critters that would sneak in and steal it before harvest. Most quinoa sold in the grocery stores has already been processed to remove the coating so when you purchase it (which I sincerely hope you do!!) it’s ready to be cooked and enjoyed.

How do we enjoy it, you ask? I have read that it can be considered ‘an acceptable substitute for rice’, but other than giving you a good idea of the broad range uses, I don’t think it does quinoa justice. I have found it to be so much more than ‘acceptable’ and so much more than a ‘substitute’!

My mom taught me to cook quinoa with a basic ratio of two parts liquid to one part quinoa and I have never had that fail me. Adding one cup of quinoa to two cups of slightly salted boiling water or stock, letting it cook until the water has boiled down to the level of the quinoa (8-10 minutes) and then putting the heat to low and covering it to ‘steam’ for 10 or so minutes more will give you a delightful, 2 cups (roughly) of cooked quinoa to serve plain as a side dish or to use in another recipe. The portions I just described will serve about 4 people.

Cooked quinoa is tender but still has a nice texture to it. It isn’t lumpy or soupy or mushy but can be ‘fluffed’ with a fork and the seeds will be separate. Another way you can tell is that the slim white ‘tail’ on each seed becomes loose, giving them an artsy look, as if they are wearing hats adorned with long feathers.

Once you have the basic recipe down and are ready to have some fun with it, there is certainly fun to be had! My latest quinoa craving has been satisfied by adding sautéed onions and chopped raw kale to the quinoa as it is cooking. So easy, so healthy, so very delicious. Another favorite method in my house is to start out by sautéing fat slices of sweet leeks in a bit of olive oil before adding chicken stock and then the quinoa. Oh. My. Word.

Add quinoa to soups instead of noodles or rice, use plain cooked quinoa in casseroles and and quiches. You can even cool it and sprinkle the seeds on salads. Your possibilities boarder on being endless and you will certainly not be doing any harm to incorporate this amazing food into your diet!  So go forth and enjoy…

 

pregnancy spaghetti

Oh spaghetti, how I love thee. I love thy smells and tastes and the way your deeply tinted sauce stains the front of my new white t-shirts, proving to the world that I am not ‘the cool girl’. You have stained my heart forever, dear food, and if I needed one more reason to love you, it would be this – you seem to be one of the only foods my pregnant stomach can stand.

We’ve all heard of pregnancy cravings and pregnancy food aversions and somehow they always have to do with pickles and ice cream – which makes me wonder exactly who it was that started that fad – but I’m here to share with you my first pregnancy craving, my mom’s spaghetti with meat sauce. Oh boy. It’s like magic, it is. I can be green at the gills all day, come home and whip up some spaghetti and suddenly there is a break in the nausea and my stomach actually growls, a weak, pathetic sort of growl, but all the same it is the unmistakable sign of actually Hunger. Sweet, sweet success.

I know most of you reading this probably aren’t pregnant, but why go and deny yourself this good thing? It may not be the *only* thing you can eat but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, right? Of course right. This is why  I am going to share the recipe with you. It started out something that was uniquely my mom’s, I have been making it with her all my life, but like all good recipes it came to its new home and was slightly altered in the moving. That’s the beauty of timeless dishes, they stay true to themselves while adapting to whatever kitchen they find themselves in. Hopefully it does the same for you.

 

Spaghetti Sauce

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1/2 lb sausage ( I like to use sweet Italian, but you could use something a little spicier)

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes plus 1/2 can water

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon crumbled, dried bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon sugar

Cooked pasta of your choice

 

I like to make my spaghetti sauce in a deep cast iron skillet, but you could very easily use a three or more quart pot. Heat the pan over medium high heat and then add the olive oil. The olive oil will look very liquid and shiny when it is ready. It shouldn’t smoke, but you want it rather hot. Add the onions and garlic first, stirring them and letting them saute for a bit until they are fragrant and the onions begin to look translucent. Add the sausage and a little water (like a 1/4 cup) – this will make it easier to break up. As the sausage cooks, crumble it into uniformly-sized pieces. Once it is all browned, you might want to remove some of the fat that came off the sausage while it was cooking. You can spoon it out or drain it – whatever works best for you. Now add the crushed tomatoes, water, salt, sugar and herbs. My mom taught me this trick to add some sweetening to the sauce, it helps to cut down a little on the acidity of the tomatoes and deepens the overall flavor  – a trick well worth knowing.

Turn the heat down and let the sauce simmer while the pasta boils. You could let this cook all day, or make it fifteen minutes before serving – I’ve done it both ways!

As I mentioned before, one of the best things about a good spaghetti recipe is it’s adaptability. This is the sauce recipe I use when making lasagna, I swap out the sausage for ground beef when I have it or skip the meat entirely and use the sauce for pizzas. It freezes fantastically and makes a quick meal even quicker when the need arises. How can you not love that? Let’s just say that, pregnant or not,  spaghetti is a real winner of a meal!

because it’s the right thing to do

There is something so *Right* about family traditions.

Every family has its own web of traditions that is uniquely their own. No one really knows how they start but we all think that ours are the best and *most* unique and relish in the annual opportunity to drag them out, dust them off and use them as the foundation of our festivities.

Cranberry Molded Salad is such a tradition for my family. It seems a really common sort of tradition when you first look at it, but when you remember that no two families ever make their cranberry salads alike, it becomes something reminiscent of the ancient clans of Scotland with their intricate family tartans. You bind yourself to your family’s recipe with a fierce and nearly blind loyalty – nothing will EVER taste as good as what you had growing up. It’s a bit of an unspoken rule we whisper to our babies on their first Thanksgivings, cementing the truth that this is the Only Legitimate Cranberry Salad on Earth, accept no substitutes.

I’ve been at family gatherings where a tart jelly is served in a ridged roll, slid from out of a can. It’s tradition for them and their mouths water at the sight of it’s crimson self, quivering and glistening in the holiday lighting. I’ve seen it made with jello and chopped carrots and even marshmallows, I’ve seen it scoop-able and pour-able and even non-existent.

Every year I can remember, I have eaten my mother’s cranberry molded salad at Thanksgiving – not really a relish, definitely not a sauce but absolutely the perfect foil to the rich line up of foods that tradition orders on that holiday. We never vary, we never waver, we never subtract or substitute. There must be cranberry molded salad, we must all have a hand in making it and it must be eaten almost as an after thought. We eat it with seconds and for days thereafter in sandwiches and with leftovers. It is the last dish to be scraped clean, after we have been thoroughly saturated with Thanksgiving goodness.

Every year, without fail, my mother says something to the effect of, “Why don’t we ever make this any other time of the year, we like it so much…” and every year we all wonder for a minute about what would happen if one of our holiday foods were to escape and wander into July or March and we realize that it would be Wrong. We eat cranberry molded salad at Thanksgiving. It’s our tradition and it’s a good one. Let’s not tamper with it.

 

The Best Cranberry Molded Salad Ever

2 bags fresh cranberries, washed

2 whole oranges, washed

4 apples, cored

4 packages unflavored gelatin

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup cold water

1 cup boiled water

1/4 cup lime juice

 

This makes enough to feed a small army.

We like *our* recipe because it’s actually rather healthy for you. The fruits aren’t cooked and that means they are still in possession of their enzymes, making it the perfect thing to finish that incredibly filling meal with. That’s why we eat it last. Aha.

In a food processor, you are going to grind the cranberries, apples and oranges ( skin and all, folks!) together then dump the whole lot into a big mixing bowl. In a small bowl, add the cold water to your gelatin and let it soften. Stir the sugar into the ground fruit *well*  and add the lime juice. Once the gelatin is soft, add the boiled water and dissolve completely. Add this to the fruit blend and stir again. Cover and put in the fridge to ‘set’. This can be made a day or more in advance, it will keep quite nicely!

I’m not sharing this recipe with the suggestion that anyone should try it in lieu of their own, perhaps this could be your Fourth of July side dish and it will see other parts of the year, something it never would be able to do in our house.

At any rate, enjoy your festivities this week – eat heartily and be at peace!

 

perfection bread for beginners

I have a *pearl* of a Mother-in-Law, have I ever mentioned that?  I have never met someone so generous with praise and encouragement. She is, without a doubt, the most positive, upbeat and open soul I’ve ever known – but she’s not candy coated. She’s not icky sweet – she stood right next to me and agreed that the trunk of my Volvo would be perfect for hauling groceries… or dead bodies. She’s lovely and smart and interesting and vibrant – and she loves my bread. So I made her a loaf of the bread Alex and I eat week to week and she, true to her self, went wild.

“Ann! This bread is perfection!”

I didn’t have the heart to argue that it was slightly overdone, which means that it would be drier than one could desire – far from perfect. I doubt she would have seen it even if I had pointed it out. So I quietly accepted her big hug and wished that everyone could have someone like her in their life – someone who is just tickled to death with them. Everyone needs an Elaine. Lavish praise, encouragement – however dark the prospects look, someone who always believes that you did your best and is thrilled that you tried.

You would think – or at least I would – that such a reaction would make someone loosen up, be sloppy, not do as good of a job since they knew it would nearly always be accepted with thanks and a smile, but I find it helps me to do even better. I check the bread more often so it *doesn’t* get over done, I knead it more thoroughly – I truly want it to be as delightful as it can be when my loved ones have a slice. It’s a special event for me, not a chore or a test.

So now, on Tuesdays when I get out the ingredients to make my bread for the week, I have to smile because I think of Elaine and how perfect she thinks it is. She has helped me to look at life a little kinder, be a little more patient with myself and others, to be a little quicker to be thrilled and excited than nitpicky and obsessive, to be a little bit braver to get in there and do my darndest.

Perfection Bread

2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1/3 cup honey

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups warm water

2 1/2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons flax seed

1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill 10 Grain Cereal

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour (I use the King Arthur brand White Whole Wheat)

3 cups White Unbleached Bread Flour (again, King Arthur is what I use)

Extra flour for kneading, about a 1/2 cup

 

Notes:

I buy Bob’s Red Mill Hot Cereal, which can usually be found in either the baking aisle or the specialty foods aisle. The flax seed I use is usually whole, but you could definitely use ground. To make a simple, plain white loaf, just skip the whole wheat flour and use all white, don’t add the flax or cereal mix. You will have to use a little more flour (1/2 cup) to make up for the missing grain, that is all.

I will try to write out the directions for someone who has never made bread before, so if you are a bread master, bear with us. Everyone starts at least once and I had a great teacher who was very thorough and informative (thanks Mom!). No one is born knowing how to do everything! Now, you beginner, go to it with a brave heart – whatever the outcome, we will applaud your hard work and willing hands.

Directions:

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Warm is the key here, you don’t want to kill the yeast by making it too hot, then it won’t work properly. A good rule of thumb is if you can stick your thumb (or any finger) comfortably in the water – it’s not too hot.

In a separate, smaller bowl, add the 10 grain cereal to the 2 cups of *hot* water. Doesn’t need to be boiling hot, just hot from the tap. It helps to soften the grains. Let that sit for about 5 minutes while the yeast dissolves. Then add the salt, honey, oil and flax seed. Stir well before pouring into the yeast mixture.

Now- get out a sturdy wooden spoon and measure half the flour into the bowl with the liquids. Mix well, until all the flour is wet. Add the rest of the flour, cup by cup, stirring well after each before adding another. When the dough gets firm enough that it’s hard to stir with a spoon, dump whatever flour is left from the 6 cups total onto a clean, smooth surface, turn the dough out onto it and begin to knead.

Ah, kneading. Is there anything more therapeutic than feeling a warm bundle of dough under your hands? The dough will still be slightly ‘wet’, or sticky, so incorporate the remaining flour in by getting the ball of dough real dusty with flour, put the heel of your hand on the center of the ball and push away from you, into the counter. Now, fold the stretched piece of dough back onto itself and push it again. Each time it stretches over the flour, it picks up a little more of it, and you’re working the dough so that it becomes glued to itself and makes a nice slice of bread when it’s baked. Every so many shoves, turn the ball of dough so that you’re pushing the opposite side. If your hands get sticky (as they might at first) roll as much as you can off your hands and keep them dusty with flour. I find they stay cleaner if I go quickly, almost smacking the dough with the heel of my hand and turning it quickly. It’s rather energetic once I get going! I don’t like to add too much extra flour lest the bread get dense.

You can knead as long as you like, but I generally go until all the flour is absorbed and I have a stretchy, smooth sort of ball of dough that doesn’t tear when I pull it. You want it to have a good deal of elasticity. Now clean out the mixing bowl and grease it up lightly, either with some spray oil or a rubbing of butter. Toss the dough bundle into it and flip it once so that the top gets some grease on it. Cover and let rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. As unlikely as it seems- it will get there! That yeast will do it’s busy work and the dough *will* rise. It helps if the temperature is right, somewhere around 80 degrees. My kitchen is never perfectly heated or cooled, but it’s the closest to a consistent 80 I can get, so the dough stays there. If it’s cooler, it may take a little longer, in the summer – my bread will rise in 45 minutes! You have to feel as you go, somewhat.

** Fancy time lapse **

The dough – – it has risen. It smells sweet and yeasty and looks ambitious enough to take over the world. Punch it back before it gets the chance… really. Put your freshly washed fist right into the heart of it and push straight down. It will whine a bit, but you’re doing everyone a favor. Grease up two regular sized loaf pans and set them aside. Gently work the dough a little in the bowl and then split it. If you are *that* person, weigh each half so that they are equal. If you are me, just make a good guess and squeeze it in half. Form each half into a loaf shape and place them in their pans. These have to rise again, until they have gotten taller than the sides of the pan. Again, this is a little variable depending on the temperature.

** Time Lapse **

Turn the oven on to 350 degrees, place your well-risen loaves into the oven gently.

They need to bake for about 25 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 190 degrees according to a thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the loaf, *or* until the loaf sounds very airy and hollow when knocked on.

Cool by placing on their sides, every so often flipping sides until the loaf pops out after a gentle nudging.    And there you have it – Bread. It takes a few times to get it *down*, you know? I’ve baked tough loaves, dry loaves, doughy loaves – but a couple perfect ones, too. It just takes time and practice – and a lot of toast!

It’s a good skill to have, homemade bread is cheaper and tastier than store bought (when you figure on buying the special, all natural 10 grain variety which is still not as good as something you can make yourself) and there is nothing more appealing than the smell of baking bread in a home. It’s aromatherapy at it’s best.

Have fun, make bread, applaud. Repeat.

Tuesday and Ten start with the same letter

And I was clever enough to figure that out….

Aren’t you impressed?

10 Invaluable Kitchen Things My Mother Taught Me

1) Hot pan, cool oil – food won’t stick.

2) Don’t let your man leave home hungry.

3) Buy meat on sale – even if you don’t really need it *this* week – it will be worth it when you do. Stick it in the freezer.

4) Have a stash. Keep your cupboards well stocked and you’ll always have what you need when you need it.

5) How to Make a Roux.

6) How to make granola.

7) How to be bold and daring and creative in the kitchen – keep things interesting.

8) How to make good biscuits

9) How to use my senses rather than a recipe.

10) My mother taught me to love my kitchen, to make it ‘My Space’, a workable, comfortable, joyful place for everyone to be – the real Heart of the Home.