Spring Awakening

“Until I moved to the ranch, the coming of spring had been a gradual and painless thing, like developing a bust.”

Though I’m not sure pubescent girls would characterize bust development as “gradual and painless,” I’ve never encountered such an evocative description of spring as Betty MacDonald‘s in her 1945 classic book The Egg and I. 

If you are from Washington State, you’ve likely heard of MacDonald and of this very funny book, which describes her experiences living on a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula with no running water and no electricity.  Ma and Pa Kettle (modeled after MacDonald’s slacker neighbors) originated in The Egg and I, and were featured in its 1947 film adaptation, starring Fred McMurray and Claudette Colbert.

They may also have originated the concept of the “spin-off.”

Ma and Pa Kettle (film)

Ma and Pa Kettle (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I didn’t realize until reading The Egg and I, is that Betty MacDonald was a trailblazer in the art of food writing.

“..there was so much of everything and it was so inexpensive and so easy to get that it was inevitable that we should expect to eat like kings,” she writes of Pacific Northwest bounty, such as fresh field mushrooms, clams, oysters, steelhead salmon and Dungeness Crab “We’d go on regular crab sprees –eat cracked crab with  homemade mayonnaise well-flavored with garlic and Worcestershire, until it ran out of our ears. Have deviled crab, crab Louis and crab claws sauteed in butter and served with Tartar sauce.”  At the time, she notes, she could buy a gunnysack full of Dungeness crabs for $1.

Sadly, she was not a fan of geoduck.

It's the largest burrowing clam in the world, and a local favorite.

Still, all that natural bounty from the garden and berry bushes could be oppressive come canning season.

MacDonald describes herself as “lyrical with joy” when her pressure cooker blew up.

“I was free! Free! F-R-E-E!”

Her practical husband calmly picked up the Sears Roebuck catalogue and ordered her another.

Global warming notwithstanding, MacDonald’s 1945 description of Seattle springs holds true today:  “Seattle spring was a delicate flower of the pale gray winter –a pastel prelude to the pale yellow summer which flowed gently into the lavender autumn and on into the pale gray winter.  It was all very subtle and we wore the same clothes the year around (note that this was written long before the invention of fleece – our native dress) and often had beach fires in January but found it too cold for them in June..”

From Tim Jones' (a self-described minivan-driving soccer dad) blog "View from the Bleachers."

What she means is that despite the changes in season, we can be cold here, all year round. I write this, wrapped in a blanket, looking out the window as sunlight strobes on and off my plum trees, which are already past their bloom.  It hailed last week, and all this week the weather has ping-ponged from lion-like to lamb-like and back.
So it’s lucky that we have seasonal bounty to warm and sustain us and especially lucky that we can leave the growing to the trusted professionals, yet still eat like kings and even can at our discretion.
Like most Sundays, this past Sunday I walked to the Ballard Farmers Market to see what was new for spring.

My favorite fish guys.

 I emerged with beets, radishes, stinging nettles, jerusalem artichokes and freshly caught salmon and had fun all week cooking lighter spring fare.  David Lebovitz was generous enough to share on Facebook that Amazon was offering a special promotion of Dorie Greenspan cookbooks.
 I was among the lucky who nabbed Around My French Table and Baking: From my home to yours for $10, including shipping.  We ate Dorie’s salmon with tapenade and Jerusalem artichokes roasted with garlic, and Three Beet Caviar with Endive and Goat Cheese and Nettle Frittata with Garlic and Ricotta (the latter two recipes from Deborah Madison’s inspirational book “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets”  Urged by Dorie Greenspan, I whipped up a batch of creme fraiche, and while I was at it, replenished my supply of preserved lemons.
I’m ready for spring.

A tulip field in the nearby Skagit Valley.

Though Jeff is resigned to the fact that you won’t find me working in our garden (I’ve finally had to stop bragging about the 50 bulbs I planted on Daughter #1’s first day of pre-school 11 years ago), you will find me happily in the kitchen.
Soon the sun will become a more familiar presence and our markets will abound with fava beans (the fresh ones are labor intensive, but great in so many ways, especially with pecorino cheese) and pea vines and fiddlehead ferns and shoots of all sorts and morels, glorious morels.
I first learned about Betty MacDonald when my kids were little and we read the hilarious Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, in which kids were cured of their bad habits by this magical woman who lived in an upside-down house (my favorite:  the kids who refused to take a bath and was allowed to get so dirty that her parents were able to plant radishes on her).
When daughter #1 started kindergarten and I was perhaps a little weepy, I decided that, like the mothers MacDonald wrote about, I would greet her after school with a freshly baked cake.
It didn’t last long, but over the years I’ve tried various recipes for French yogurt cake, which along with tartines, is a popular after school snack a la francaise.  
Dorie Greenspan has a recipe in her baking book, which I made this week, and Molly Wizenberg has a nice, lemony recipe which first appeared on her blog Orangette and can also be found in her book A Homemade Life.  I’m including it here.
It’s a nice pick-me-up when the sun goes behind the clouds or you are agonizing over the gradual and not always painless emergence of your bust, or for that matter, the inevitable drooping of said bust at mid-life.
Bon appetit.
If you are interested in having a modern version of the Betty MacDonald experience, check out my friend Joshua MacNichol’s Urban Farm Handbook:  City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading and Preparing What You Eat.

Upstairs, Downstairs

First week of the new year and I feel like I’m recovering from jet lag, despite the fact that I didn’t go anywhere.  I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., am exhausted by 9:00 a.m. and brain dead by 8:00 p.m.  Though I didn’t exactly vacation during the holidays — there were special meals to prepare, houseguests to host and lots of laundry and dishes — the absence from our usual routine was refreshingly stress-free.  We slept in, watched multiple episodes of Downton Abbey and ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

No sooner did January begin, then the onslaught of emails and calendar commitments began, along with a series of professional and personal deadlines, resulting in a feeling of impending doom.

It doesn’t help that the Seattle winter rain has begun in earnest, making excursions, especially evening ones, bone-chilling and soggy.  No wonder Daughter #1 wants a cloak for her birthday.  Cloaks make venturing out in nasty weather seem dashing and romantic, not mundane and pitiful.

Let us be off to piano lessons!

Thank goodness for books.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish the ever-growing stack of books on my bedside table.  Usually I have so many magazines and newspapers to read that the flow of my book reading is constantly interrupted (kind of like trying to work with the alluring distraction of email, Facebook and Linked in). I’m in a Mother-Daughter book group and a grownup book group, so am often juggling multiple tomes. Plus, I’m usually so tired by the time I crawl into bed that I tend to fall asleep with the book, newspaper or magazine on my face.

I have a pretty big stack of back issues of the New Yorker too

But while I was sick, I took to my bed for a few days and read.

Books.   One at a time, for hours at a time.  Just like I used to do when I was younger and didn’t have to contend with the competing distractions of electronics and other people.

I read Iranian-American chef Donia Bijan’s delightful memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie (and used her mother’s delicious fruit and pine nut stuffing recipe for our Christmas dinner) and finished A Tale of Two Cities, a book I hadn’t read since high school.  There is something very satisfying about reading a book with a famous first line and a famous last line, though when you try to apply these to say, the middle school experience, sometimes people don’t fully appreciate the comparison.

I read Day of Honey, journalist Annia Ciezadlo’s memoir of food, love and war (complete with recipes) in Baghdad and Beirut, which also includes such universal topics as mother-in-law clashes and spousal career clashes (as in, “I gave up my job to follow you to a war zone, I’m just beginning to establish myself as a freelancer and now you want me to leave?!”).

One of my favorite scenes in the book is Ciezadlo’s description of dodging gunfire aimed at her kitchen window to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked —  a woman after my own heart.

She has an especially garlicky recipe for melokeya that enticed me to buy some of the dried leaves so I can try it.

The women of Downton Abbey don’t appear to read books,  but the “upstairs” ones seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms resting, despite the fact that they have no jobs or household responsibilities, other than plotting and dressing for dinner.  Their bedrooms are like fortresses, impenetrable from the demands of public life.

We all know that in modern life, we are more like “downstairs” women (see paragraph one), though not as properly turned-out.

So as an experiment, and out of desperation, during the first few days of re-entry week, I tried heading upstairs to my bedroom in the early evening to “rest” with a book. (Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Table).  I’ve since decided that books will be my “upstairs” reading and magazines, newspapers and Facebook (where I get many of my ideas about what to read, courtesy of NPR, Slate, Salon, the Atlantic and my other “likes”) will be left downstairs.  The true test of this approach will come this Sunday night, when I have to forego the temptation to get into bed with the Sunday New York Times, my guilty pleasure.

Someone I know will appreciate the extra space

Work will also be upstairs, in the office, instead of downstairs at the dining room table, where’s it’s too easy to throw in a load of laundry or soak the beans for Boston Baked Beans, the first of many colonial cooking endeavors we will undertake this month, courtesy of Daughter #2 and her creative teacher Ms. P.  (I am envisioning an amusing twist on European Chicken Night, a F**k You, European Tyrants! recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice).

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  By mid-life, we’ve had years of dueling January admonishments to eat a more healthy diet, exercise more, be more productive, but also to take time for ourselves to stop and smell the roses and unplug (see what Pico Iyer had to say in the New York Times on the joy of quiet.  I read it last Sunday night in bed).

We also know that come early February, all of this will be forgotten in the push to promote romance and expensive chocolate.

I sometimes entertain myself by imaging the editors at O magazine, fed up with devising countless different magazine covers enticing us to “live our best lives”, creating a “dummy” issue:

Don't Bother

Stick With Your Dead-End Job Till Retirement

You Can Buy Bigger Clothes in Smaller Sizes at Target

I leave you now to exercise and tackle those pesky deadlines, while the Boston Baked Beans are in the oven.

But know that tonight, when I head upstairs and take to my bed with my book, to paraphrase Sydney Carton, whose fate was far more gruesome and noble than mine will be this evening, “it is a far, far better rest that I go to…”

Food for Thought

Thanks to everyone who sent me get well wishes.  As it turns out, my illness was usurped by the needs of my family.  Jeff was diagnosed with pneumonia, there has been an outbreak of pneumonia in daughter #2’s school and though she doesn’t have it, she has had a cough she can’t shake, which necessitated several trips to the doctor.  Daughter #1 had to weather the slings and arrows of growing up this week and our rat-catching cat Cheeto awoke with one eye glued shut and a pitiful look in his other eye.   What choice did I have but to get better and fast?

In our family, this is known as “gazumping” ( taken from a mercenary British real estate practice but, as Lemony Snicket would say, a word which here means trumping someone else’s misfortune with more dire circumstances of your own).   As my friend and fellow mother Lauren ruefully stated, “You get three hours to be sick before everyone else needs to be taken care of.”

Ain't it the truth

So it’s only now that I’ve had a chance to compose that serious post-holiday entry I promised.

The people we shared our Thanksgiving dinner with this year ranged in age from two to 89. This is unusual for us and it offered the opportunity to consider life from a variety of perspectives.

As two year-olds do, ours looked upon everything with fresh eyes, brightening the most mundane of tasks with his enthusiasm. In the weeks since he’s been gone, as I shamble downstairs in the wee hours to make the morning coffee, I can hear the faint echo of his sweet voice counting the coffee scoops with me in English and in French. It keeps me going until the caffeine kicks in.

"Un, deux, trois, quatre...."

The 89 year-old is revisiting great literary works and told me that during a recent bout of insomnia, she deconstructed a T.S. Eliot poem.  I hope that when my life is no longer ruled by “To Do” lists, I will use my inadvertent waking hours as wisely.

And the 20 year-old college student, so sure of everything, reminded me of those heady days of discovery – foreign film, jazz, philosophy — and above all, certainty in the face of uncertainty.  Even if you had no idea what life held for you post-graduation, you were sure  that you were going to make your mark on the world in a way that your parents never had.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, we attended the memorial service for our friend Kim. Though, like any human being, he lived a full, rich, yet sometimes flawed life, much of the focus and many of the comments at the service dealt with his later years, when he served as a human rights advocate and a teacher, and especially the past four years following a debilitating stroke, when he served as an inspiration to everyone who knew him.

My favorite remarks at the service were made by Kim’s brother-in-law Kevin, who met Kim as a young man often at odds with the father whose namesake he was, and with whom he maintained a 40+ year- relationship.  Kevin read excerpts from the eulogies both he and Kim had made at Kim, Sr.’s funeral.  By then Kim, Jr. had made peace of sorts with his father.  It was interesting, Kevin told us, how many of the qualities he and Kim had admired in the father could also be attributed to the son. Thanks to Kevin’s remarks, I got a glimpse of the full measure of our friend as he developed over a lifetime.

The morning after the service, Jeff told me he had had trouble sleeping.  In what I now characterize as our “quiet desperation” conversation, he said that when he considered the impact Kim had had on the world, he worried about his own contributions or lack thereof.

For here we are at 50 – not two, or 20 or 89. We have mouths to feed, to-do lists to work through and events, both fortunate and unfortunate, to contend with. Though we, as Voltaire suggested, strive to tend our own gardens with care, raising responsible citizens, making soup for sick friends, volunteering at schools, coaching soccer teams and occasionally donating money for tsunami relief and holiday food banks, during those inadvertent waking hours, we may wonder if our contributions are enough and whether we  feel fulfilled by the choices we have made in our lives. No matter how pressing our own needs, there is always someone who can gazump us with far more urgent problems.  There may also be lingering regrets about roads not taken.

A 900-word blog is not the place to provide answers to the big questions of the human condition, which philosophers and religions have grappled with since time immemorial.  But it can be a venue for discussion, especially now, during holiday and resolution season, when many of us strive to be our best selves.

For those of you approaching, at or past mid-life (however you choose to define it), I’d like to know your thoughts on this.  How have you reconciled your life choices? Do you have plans for your senior years that involve “giving back” in some way? Or will that be the time when you finally get to sing your song?

Forgive me if this seems irreverent, but I have a recipe that I think complements this train of thought .

I often feel like my best, most virtuous self when I eat kale.  Given the preponderance of kale recipes I’ve seen lately, I sense I am not alone. This one comes from Food 52.  It’s very easy to throw together and is a welcome, crunchy change from self-indulgence, yet is fulfilling all the same.  Don’t tell your kids they are eating kale.  Call it salad and they will eat it. And don’t forget to use the nifty method for separating the kale leaves from the stems that I learned from the Garum Factory. I feel as wide-eyed as a two year-old whenever I do.

Kale Salad with Apples and Hazelnuts (adapted from Food 52)

Serves 4

5 cups curly kale and mustard green leaves, torn into small pieces

(I used only kale and it was fine)

2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the bias

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar

(I used regular, unseasoned rice vinegar)

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 tart apple

1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped and toasted

1/4 cup pecorino romano or parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler

  1. In a large bowl, combine the kale, mustard greens, scallions, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix with your hands to really blend the dressing and rub it into the greens. Let the salad sit while you prepare the rest.
  2. Core the apple. Thinly — like, super thinly — slice the two halves from stem to flower end. If you have a mandoline, that’s the easiest way to go. Add the apples to the salad and gently fold together so they don’t break in half. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  3. Spread the salad on a platter. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and cheese shavings.

courtesy of The New Yorker

Seeing the World in a Grain of Rice

Last week was one of sugar highs and lows.  Halloween on Monday, resulting in way too many Snickers bars lying around the house in plain sight,

disheartening presentations on education reform Tuesday and Wednesday, and the early morning discovery of a dead rat at the bottom of the stairs,

The guilty party

an exhilarating Thursday (culminating in a satisfying European Chicken Night featuring a simple recipe for Chicken Dijon, courtesy of the October issue of Food and Wine magazine) and a dismal, rainy Friday in which we learned of the passing of our dear friend, Kim.

Saturday morning was brighter than expected. I headed to Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood to Book Larder, a new community cookbook store, to see Adam Gopnik, long-time New Yorker writer, and author of the new book The Table Comes First  Family, France and the Meaning of Food, a book he says is about how food comes to us from our hearts and minds.

Book Larder has gotten a lot of well -deserved press since it opened last month. Born from the passing of another Kim, Seattle book impresario Kim Ricketts, it’s a place for people who love food to come together and is an important addition to our city’s independent booksellers.

Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon is one of the books that transformed me. I’m not sure whether Gopnik or one of his reviewers said it first, but his writing is about seeing the world in a grain of sand.

The book came out in 2000, when I was the mother of a toddler and soon-to-be- mother of a new baby and the way I viewed the world was already in the process of transformation. On our refrigerator hangs a Get Out of Jail Free Card, Good for a Reading by Adam Gopnik, placed there by my husband Jeff, who was watching me struggle to navigate the passage from world-traveling career woman to stay-at-home mother, and noticing how the small moments in life suddenly meant the world to me.  I’ve made use of the card every time Adam Gopnik has been to Seattle ever since.

You should know that Adam Gopnik comes across as a genuinely nice guy. Earlier in the week, I had attended a book presentation by another erudite East Coaster, who was arrogant and insulting to his audience.

Though Gopnik has been criticized for the denseness of his prose and smugness of his lifestyle and was even the subject of a New Republic book review with the opening sentence, “I sometimes wonder if Adam Gopnik was put on this earth to annoy,” in Book Larder’s intimate setting he confessed to reading recipes in bed (there were nods of recognition from around the room), admitted his kids eat junk food, and made it possible to believe that he, too, might possibly confront a dead rat at the bottom of the stairs and eat a Snickers for comfort afterwards, though he would then probably write about the origins of comfort food and reveal that the concept was the brainchild of Louis XIV.

The Sun King’s perfect Saturday included chocolate, shopping for shoes and kicking back with some chick lit.

Our friend Kim was a ruminator too, not the neurotic New York variation, but an outdoorsman, teacher and world citizen. After he was felled by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, in near constant pain and with compromised vision and speech, eating was a chore for Kim.  One meal could take hours and no sooner was it cleaned up, then it was time for the laborious process to begin again.  Yet eating became one of Kim’s pure pleasures.  He cut a dashing figure in the serape he wore because he was always cold, wheelchair anchored in a patch of capricious Pacific Northwest sunshine, reaching with his good hand into a pouch around his neck where he kept a stash of chocolate.

When we visited Kim and his wife Judy, we would often bring food, and the ceremonial meals we shared became the highlight of our time together. At the table, Kim’s irreverent wit and keen intelligence trumped his physical incapacities. The essence of our friend remained unchanged.

The last time we saw him, we dined on smoked salmon, bialys, blueberries, Judy’s brownies and Kim’s favorite — oysters. Jeff reminded me that oysters were also the last food we shared with Kim shortly after he and Judy returned from doing peace mediation work in Africa, and a week or so before his stroke of lightning, four years ago.

Tomorrow night I will participate in an international potluck dinner at my daughter’s school, an event I conceived eight years ago, after a chance conversation with a Mexican father about chilaquiles, one of my favorite comfort foods, reminded me that food (like children) is the great equalizer.

The above link will take you to a recipe by Marilyn Tausend, author of the fantastic book Cocina de la Familia, and to whom I owe a huge public apology for never returning the back issues of Sunset magazine that she lent me many years ago.  I hear Ms. Tausend is working on a new cookbook.  I hope when it comes out, she’ll be hosted at Book Larder and I can make the proper amends.

I’ll be making Sri Lankan Love Cake for the international potluck, in honor of Kim and everyone else I’ve shared meals with.

You may feel about Adam Gopnik the way some people feel about oysters, but there’s no accounting for taste.

The important thing is that the people around your table touch your heart and your mind.

Rest in peace, dear friend

By now you’ve probably noticed that I don’t create my own recipes, I just collect them (think of me as the Arianna Huffington of the recipe world).  I am happy to have found a way to share my favorites.

I’ve added two new food-related sites to my blogroll:  The Garum Factory (check out their method for separating kale leaves from stems.  It was the most fun I had all week) and Food 52, Amanda Hesser’s online food community.  I got a good look at the new Food 52 cookbook and several other enticing food tomes and am hoping that anyone in my family at a loss for what to get me for Christmas, will give me a gift certificate to Book Larder.

Hey, Kids! It’s European Chicken Night!

Ever since I had kids and my international career came to an end, I’ve traveled the world without leaving my kitchen.  I’m an inveterate collector of cookbooks and an avid tester of recipes, known for my ethnic dinner parties, unusual potluck contributions and weeknight dinners that deviate substantially from the usual family fare. When the kids were little, I would sometimes pretend we were in the country of the cuisine of the evening, giving everyone new names and encouraging them to speak English with foreign accents.  It was fun and it saved me from the drudgery that caring for a young family can sometimes be.


Now everyone is older.  The kids have traveled to some of the countries we’ve pretended to be in and to others we never even imagined.  Our evenings are filled with the realities of homework, soccer practice and piano lessons and there doesn’t seem to be much time to pretend anymore.

Except on Thursdays.  This fall, I have dubbed Thursdays European Chicken Night.  Chicken – described as a blank canvas for the creative cook and the little black dress of the kitchen.  They do sublime things with it in France, mostly involving cream sauce.  While going through ten years of cooking magazines and reorganizing my substantial stash of cookbooks after a recent kitchen painting project, I unearthed mouthwatering recipe after recipe with chicken as the star and felt a sense of urgency that we had to try them before it was too late.

Week One:  It’s September, school has recently started and there is an unseasonable (for Seattle) chill in the air.  What better night to serve something the NY Times magazine (who adapted it from Chez Panisse Fruit) calls Poulet a la Normande and my French cookbooks confirm is indeed a classic from the Normandy region of France — chicken in a cream sauce flavored with apples and Calvados.  The kids remind me that they lapped it up like kittens.  I think European Chicken Night is going to be a success.

Week Two:  It’s too hot to cook, much less think about eating chicken. I find a vaguely Greek recipe for barbecued chicken skewers but I am missing some key marinade ingredients and make poor substitutions.  There is one odd ingredient in the recipe that we all agree is out of place.  The meal, the ingredient and the recipe are quickly forgotten.

Week Three:  This night will be unforgettable.  I have found a recipe for Roast Chicken with Apples that comes from the town of Metz in the Lorraine region of France, where the first Jews settled in 221 AD.  Though we are a secular household, I think this is the perfect dish to commemorate the Jewish New Year and I spend the day in happy anticipation.  Reality check:  one daughter comes unglued after school, my husband wants to know why no one ever told him about European Chicken Night, the daughter who hasn’t come unglued gets tired of behaving and I want to throw the chicken at all of them.  I wonder if French women ever feel that way.  But then, voila!  Small miracle.  We sit down and tuck into the sweetly cinnamon-flavored chicken and apples and everyone calms down.  I tell them about the Jews of Metz and about the history of the accompanying pilau, a rice dish which originated in Persia and has traveled around the world.  We happily reminisce about meals we have eaten in other countries.  This is my little tribe and I love them. (I got this recipe from epicurious.com.   It comes from Joan Nathan’s new book about Jewish cooking in France.)

Week Four is upon us.  My husband and I will be like two ships passing in the night.  He will return from a business trip only in time to eat whatever leftovers remain from ECN.  I leave the next morning for a long weekend.  He departs the morning after my return for another business trip, with more time in the air then on the ground. Everyone is battling a cold. Though my taste buds are craving the exotic, I know better than to impose my whims on the kids or to burden myself with an ambitious cooking project.  So I think I will rely on a favorite standby – the Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Fresh Sage in Patricia Well’s book Trattoria.  I’m sure Patricia doesn’t make this with defrosted Costco chicken breasts, but it doesn’t matter. There are some cookbook authors you can depend on no matter what and I love it when I can follow a recipe to a T. Anyway, if I weren’t a harried fifty year-old soccer mom in a rainy city with ravenous kids who will be gone before I know it, I might be dining peacefully in a charming trattoria in an undiscovered village in Italy.

I think it’s a night for pretending.

Some trusty classics