Sunday, September 30, 2007

Alright, enough already.

I don't think personally I will be able to keep up with any kind of "Express" lifestyle. We had friends drop in today, and I started off gamely enough, but lost steam midway through the afternoon when my junior visitors kept pelting me with requests for juice and milk and cake and peanut butter. They were like locusts, descending upon my kitchen, grabbing an orange here, an apple there. Swiping graham crackers and guzzling water from the fridge dispenser.
At one point, I was trying to cut up a slice of watermelon for myself before I might keel over from a precipitous drop in blood sugar. Three different children managed to steal my food. I'd cut up a slice into a bowl, and another child would wander up and look at me like little Oliver Twist. I'd hand over the bowl, and then start over again for myself.
The gathering started off swell with me offering a thirst-quenching pitcher of water with slices of oranges & cucumbers. So refreshing! Try it! It's what they serve in Calistoga, where people go to relax and rejuvenate themselves in the hot spring waters.
I then made a very easy dish which most people love, but some snooty people have said it makes them want to gag just at the thought of it. It's an old party dish I garnered in Grosse Pointe, where not only are the residents generally cheap, but they also generally don't cook or eat very much (they prefer to drink).

-Can of whole cranberry sauce
-Packet of dry onion soup mix
-Half bottle of creamy French salad dressing

You combine the above ingredients in a pot and let everything simmer until the chicken is cooked through.
Next, I made rice with chicken broth, and green bean casserole with Cream of Mushroom soup.
Granted, this is not Larousse Gastronomique, but it's good food and it seemed befitting of a breezy, cool fall day here.
The children were sugared-out from having earlier raided my supply of jelly bellies (left over from Harry's birthday party) and a giant chocolate chip cookie that Harry won at school Friday during his school carnival cake walk.
So, once the food was ready, I bossily sat them all down at the table and placed bowls of hot food in front of them.
Oh, the faces! Sulky and brooding, noses crinkled. I could see my popularity plummeting with each passing second as the steam rose from their little dishes.
And that's when I began to lose all graciousness as a hostess.
"Can I have a peanut butter sandwich?" asked one of my sons.
"No!" I answered sternly.
"What is this?" asked someone else's son.
"It's chicken!" And rice! And green bean casserole!" I shouted. "It's GOOD!" This last statement was issued more in the tone of a challenge.
"Can I have some cake?" begged a young voice.
"No!" I barked.
The table fell silent and I could feel their death rays shooting at me from across the room.
I knew what they were thinking.
This sucks. We're never coming back here again.
I felt smugly triumphant for about 15 minutes, sort of like an old orphanage matron who would teach her charges to be accepting and grateful for their hot gruel. And then I begrudgingly admitted that I really didn't want them to go hungry, even if they were slightly spoiled as a generation and making me feel like a short-order cook. My concession was to dole out cheese sticks, crackers, and apple slices.
The adults were happy with the food and wine, and probably happy to have a brief respite from the food-battle frontline. I say brief because you know they're at home right now making plain pasta for their hungry children. I can feel my ears burning.
Maybe I can only do express-like entertaining if I pace myself. Maybe people popping in left and right is just too much for me, even with food made largely from canned goods.
I tried, but frankly, I am wondering if I have the constitution for this. I'm off to read my book now. And I really don't want to see anyone until, say, Thanksgiving.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The pizza remains the same

Many moons ago, when I had no husband, no children, no pets, and not much, I left home to fend for myself. However different things may have been back then, I was already an Italophile. All these years later, my feelings of affection for the country remain, and I still cherish one of the very first cookbooks I was ever given: Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook.
Their were two printings of this book, one a glorious oversized coffee-table book, and the version I received, which was in the form of a small datebook. It was a Christmas present to me from a family friend, who'd pulled my name out of a hat after Thanksgiving dinner in 1990. We "kids" used to arrange a gift swap every Christmas, and Italy the Beautiful was chosen for me based on a rather obvious hint I'd supplied: "I really want this!" I'd been ogling it for months at Border's during my after-work forays.

I spent a lot of time gazing at the beautiful photographs and reading the explanations of the food traditions in the various regions of Italy. And, over the course of years, I spent many evenings attempting to make the dishes pictured in the book, learning how to make Beet Greens with Anchovies, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Zuppa Pavese, Gnocchi alla Romana, Beet Ravioli, and Radicchio with Bacon. But my favorite, by far, was the simple Pizza Margherita. Even though the book is ring-bound, with no spine, it still generally falls open to this page because I made this pizza so often. It was my favorite. Yesterday I made it for the first time in a while, and it is just as good as ever, and still one of my favorite foods.

Pizza Margherita/Traditional Pizza
1 oz. (30 g.) fresh yeast or 1 envelope dry yeast (2 tsp.)
4 cups (1 lb./500 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 lb. (500 g) plum (egg) tomatoes, peeled and cut into thin wedges
10 oz. (315 g) mozzarella, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/3 cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) extra virgin olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup (4 fl oz/125 ml) warm water. Heap the flour in a mound on a board, make a well in the center and pour in the dissolved yeast. Add enough extra water to form a soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Cover with a towel and let rise in a large bowl until doubled in volume.
Press and stretch dough out in a circle 3/8 in (1 cm) thick on a floured board with the fingertips; do not use a rolling pin.
Flour a baking sheet and place the dough onto it.
Cover the pizza base with the mozzarella slices, top with tomato, sprinkle with oregano and drizzle the oil over. Bake in a 450F (230 C) oven until the crust is lightly browned. Serve hot. Serves 4-6 [not really].

Sometimes I make the dough, sometimes I buy it. Sometimes I have sliced mozzarella, sometimes shredded. Sometimes I have plum tomatoes, sometimes diced, or sauce from a jar, even. You make do with what you have. Over time, the only lasting tweak I can recommend is a sprinkling of salt added to the tomatoes. When I was in Venice last winter, I carefully watched a pizza maker using the same simple ingredients, and noticed that he added salt directly to the can of tomatoes, which he then gave a stir. Seems like a good idea, for evenness.
It feels sweet to see my husband and sons enjoy this now, because this pizza is a part of my history, a part of me; and I wonder now if perhaps I felt lonely eating it alone! It's so nice to share it with people I love.

While the 1991 datebook is no longer available, you can still get a copy of the cookbook Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza De Medici

Friday, September 28, 2007

Express, and yet...not.

I could no longer stand the suspense, waiting for the U.S. publication of Nigella Express on November 1st, so I ordered a copy from In recent weeks, I've been like a horse wearing blinders, trying not to read about the recipes and look at pictures and especially Kelly-Jane's blog, so that I would be opening the book with as few preconceived thoughts as possible on the content. It's been killing me, though, so I broke down. The book should arrive next week.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about how Nigella often says she has friends dropping by during the week, and seems to have many opportunities to throw together a meal for pals popping in for dinner. I thought, "Really?!" I never have people over during the week. I'm too frazzled! The boys get home from school, they're starving, so I start throwing food at them the minute they walk in the door. Then they do homework and run around, and it's the craziest time of the day. Plus, my friends seem to all be doing the same thing at their houses, so they don't think to drop in. Nevermind the additional fact that we live in the middle of nowhere, so the act of dropping in practically requires a map, compass, and helicopter cable with a hook.
And then, miraculously, it happened. I had a school-night dinner party! And it was impromptu! I felt almost as crazy-cool as Nigella.
Thursday morning we were devoid of all food and drink. There was hardly a crust of bread in the house, and so I did a big grocery shop and came home with a chicken for roasting, the makings of lasagne, and ground beef for Sloppy Joes or something. I also had fruit, a couple huge bottles of juice, some fresh vegetables, and chicken broth.
In my ongoing campaign to Force Autumn, I also bought cranberry sauce, thinking that we could have the chicken, some green beans, potatoes, cranberries, and get into a pre-Thanksgiving mode. And as I put away groceries, I thought, All this food, I should invite the neighbors over for dinner. [Beat.] Nah.I'm beginning to think my default is laziness.
After school, our charming little neighbor, Nina, came over to play. Nina is loved by the boys, and was ever-the-more welcome, this week, since they've been bellowing about needing a Princess Leia, and I said "no" to the request for a sister. So Nina came over, along with Leslie, her mother. Leslie stayed and we talked and talked, and then Mark, Nina's father/Leslie's husband, rang the doorbell and joined us. Things were getting exciting when Troy offered Mark a rum drink and Mark accepted. I had a bubbling feeling that Something New was happening here, and though nothing was said, I threw the chicken into the oven and set the timer.
Finally, after another hour, I set about trimming green beans and peeling potatoes, and insisted that everyone stay for dinner. There! I'd done it! And we all went into action, setting the table, refreshing drinks, lighting candles, and, eh, changing a diaper (Cooper's impeccable timing). This week-night, impromptu dinner felt like a fĂȘte. I was very impressed with Mark's chicken carving skills.

Now, normally, if I'd had another family over for dinner, I would have prepared twice as much food as what I had. Yet the last-minute element imbued me with a feeling of "make-do" resourcefulness, and removed all concerns about having enough food. I felt that we'd make do, and if people were still hungry after eating what was set out on the table, we'd simply take it from there.
And here's where the "express" part ends. Once we started eating, there was no rush whatsoever. We sat at the table and continued talking and talking until it became so late, we knew we had to get the children to bed or we'd all suffer horribly in the morning when the alarm went off for school.

Everyone packed it in, I left the dishes on the counter, and went up to bed.
I just wish I'd taken a picture of someone texting over the boiling pot of potatoes!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Being Dead is No Excuse

Imagine my delight when I found this wonderfully funny book combining three of my obsessions: death, food, and The South.
Being Dead is No Excuse, written by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes, is subtitled The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.

Listen, I know it might seem a bit morbid, but I can't help it: death informs my life. The losses I've experienced have left their mark on my personality and I don't mind discussing it. Death is a part of life -- later than sooner, if we're lucky -- and yet I can't help feeling like it's often hovering about. What that means, for me, is that I try to communicate as best as I can to the people I know and love. I am never afraid to say "I love you," and I am happy to acknowledge good times while they're around, because, as we well know, they don't last forever.
One of the things I love about the South is the sense of community. For good or bad, there are towns with a tight-knit sense of belonging and roots, and that's something I don't really have, and probably wouldn't even do well with -- but I like my ideal version of it. The idea that you can live somewhere your whole life, and the old woman who lives down the street has known you since you were a baby, and knows your entire family. I'm sure that in reality I would find it oppressive, but there's some good to it, too. And the good aspects are covered in this book with grace and humor, talking about exactly how death is -- and has always been -- handled in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville.
The ladies begin by saying that a death in the family is one of three opportunities in life for a Southerner to bring out all the good china and silver, and many a Southern lady has used silver polishing as a form of grief therapy while preparing to accomodate all of the family, friends, and neighbors who descend upon the deceased's house after the funeral. Now this is a big deal. And well it should be!
The traditions of Greenville are respectful to the dead and living, with the kind of humor that makes these times more bearable, like when the ladies discuss how they invariably get lost when trying to exit the cemetary after visiting a grave. They chortle, "This is a hard place to get out of."
On belonging to St. James' church in Greenville:
"In addition to the dignified ambience and many other attractive features, St. James' is right across the street from the old Greenville cemetery. Talk about location, location, location."
One Lola Belle Crittenden ("bless her heart") planted a huge hedge around her ancestral plot at the cemetary. Why? The neighbors. "They're so tacky," Lola Belle huffed.
Now that is funny.
If only we all had the support of such people in the worst times of need.
The boys and I recently went to visit my Mom's grave, and I'll be damned if it wasn't the hottest day of the summer, and we got lost in the cemetary because I could not find the grave. There we were, wandering around, sweating like you wouldn't believe, the boys all red-faced, and then they said they had to go pee. I still hadn't found Oma's grave, so I wasn't leaving, so I let them discreetly water a clump of trees -- no headstones within spraying vicinity! So, please don't think I'm disrespectful, and don't tell anyone in Greenville ("Yankees!").

We found Oma's resting place shortly after. By that time, there weren't many emotions left in me, so I nodded, said a little something in my mind, and we all piled back into the air-conditioned car and headed to our favorite Greek restaurant to get cold drinks and some food.

Food, food, food. In life and in death, it's got a central role. After my Mom's funeral, we all went to the church's community center and were fed the best fish I've ever eaten, along with skordalia and I-don't-remember-what-else. And it was the first meal I'd had in days -- I needed it.
The Greenville ladies talk about food and kindly supply all the recipes for everything you need to provide comfort to the living.

The Top Ten Funeral Foods
Tomato Aspic with Homemade Mayonnaise
Fried Chicken
Stuffed Eggs
Virginia's Butter Beans
Can't-die-without-it Caramel Cake
Homemade Rolls
Banana Nut Bread
Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake
Methodist Party Potatoes

The ladies supply details and recipes for these foods and many others, like Cheese Grits, Pickled Shrimp, and a Hot Mustard to go with the platter of deli ham that someone will bring.

Hot Mustard
1 cup dried mustard (Colman's preferred)
1 cup tarragon vinegar
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
Combine the mustard and vinegar, and soak overnight. Add the sugar. Beat the eggs and add them to the mixture. Cook in a double boiler over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick.
Keeps in the icebox for a long time...up to three months.
Makes about two cups.

And these dishes are made in the old-school tradition, but they're not complicated. The Homemade Mayonnaise makes use of a food processor. Each one sounds delicious. You know, if you're going to have to suffer, you may as well be surrounded by damned good food.
Finally, and most importantly, there's one particular line in the book that sums up its appeal to me, and that is, "If you can't find something to laugh about, you will end up crying."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Back with a four-year-old!

I guess it's time to get back here! I didn't do any of the things I'd planned on doing when I took a break, but I did manage to get the boys back to school (filled out a million forms), and am getting organized (more on that later).
I did not fish. But I did see "Star Wars" for the first time.
The big event, however, was this past weekend: Harry turned four!

We had a nice party for him, with family & friends, and it was an excellent day. I told the guests that the party would start at 2:00. My usual drill is that I get everything ready but myself, and then I scramble to get ready and the doorbell is ringing while I'm still putting on make-up. This time, I was dressed and sitting in a chair quietly at 2:00. By 2:12 I was muttering, "Where the hell is everyone?" and then I theorized (based on nothing) that the crowd that arrives late will be ready to party. This proved true.
We had Champagne, wine, chicken salad, roast beef, and turkey wraps. A huge salad with lettuces, Brie, rolled-up strips of ham, grapes, apples, walnuts, & edamame. Chips, Fritos, pita triangles with hummous. And cake! Harry had requested a blue cake, and so that is what he got. It was really good.

After eight years of birthday parties, I've finally figured out that there are really only two key things you need for a good party: cake and balloons.

That's it. Everything else is a bonus. Well, maybe wine for the grown-ups is a necessity.

Look at Lucky mingling with the guests; it looks like someone told a good joke.
We said our final good-byes at 8:30, and then dropped off, one by one.
Since Harry's actual birthday was on Sunday, I made him another cake, which was disappointingly filled with fresh apples and (more importantly) not blue. The boys weren't impressed. The entire time I was making the cake, Harry was harassing me from underneath the kitchen table, repeating, "Mom, make another blue cake. Mom, make another blue cake. Mom, are you making another blue cake?" It made Troy and me wonder if maybe we should administer birthday spankings with a wooden spoon.
When it came time to blow out the candles, Harry was taking forever and threatening to spray spit all over the cake,

so Troy jumped in and blew out the candles in what I can only guess was a fit of OCD spontaneity.

I then sliced the cake and re-lit the four candles on Harry's piece so he could try again to make a wish. And he did.
Probably: I wish I don't have to go to school in the morning.