Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

A Beginning, or the End?

train tracks vintage

For this child of Michigan, Labor Day formed a bridge from the freedom and contentment of sunlit vacation days to the anticipation and trepidation of a new classroom. The year I stood poised between childhood and adolescence stands out in memory.

A small group of neighborhood friends met outdoors after supper that warm September evening. We wandered the area, dissecting shared summer memories, and exploring our individual hopes for the upcoming weeks. The drama and self-reflection of several older girls in the pack were surely lost on the others my age, as they were on me. Strolling along the well-known back streets, we dared to cross the short train trestle with thumping hearts. Was that an approaching whistle in the distance?

Humid air began to cool, and a chill descended. Everything about that little town, and our protected space within it, offered a sense of safety and familiarity. Yet the impending months loomed ripe with uncertainty. Without voicing the decision, we turned toward home before parents’ voices called into the gathering dusk. An indefinable sadness wrapped around me when we parted ways, so full of certainty that my life would never again be the same.

 

 

Breathing New Life into the Memory of a Recipe

 

Most of us who enjoy cooking have our favorite go-to formulas that are permanently tattooed on our brains. If you’re like me, you also keep in mind those great dishes you haven’t made in a while, knowing where to find the directions with a flick of your magic wand. Until…something goes awry. Your hard drive crashes, and all your bookmarks have vanished. You experience a fit of housecleaning frenzy, or move, unintentionally throwing out important folders. Maybe you lose half of your beloved cookbooks in a divorce settlement. Whatever. It’s a sad state of affairs, when you reach for the recipe for that squid stew you’ve been craving, and it’s totally beyond your grasp.
I recently pointed out to my younger daughter that deep-fried calamari, or squid, isn’t the only, or necessarily best, way to enjoy that particular delicacy of the deep. Now, where was that recipe that I’d made and enjoyed in the past? Nowhere to be found in my new Texas dwelling, over a thousand miles from where I had cooked it last. What to do? After fruitlessly leafing through my remaining cookbooks and anemic folder of saved recipes, I made a list of the ingredients that I believed the stew contained. Certain about the potatoes, clam juice, and squid, they found their way into my shopping cart the next time I visited the market. I then turned to the trusty internet with the help of my new computer. Surely I could find something that sounded similar. Not really.
None of the stew or soup offerings seemed even close. I did find directions for something called “squid with potatoes” that helped me along. This jogged my memory, reminding me that white wine played a part in the initial version. Along with additional water, I decided to add vegetable bouillon cubes that I already had, for the stock. Garlic and onions from that list of ingredients also made sense. I wasn’t sure about the basil, though. As I sniffed at the container plucked from my spice shelf, it seemed a little too sweet for what I had in mind. The clam juice bottle actually gave me an idea for the seasoning, since it suggested thyme for use in clam chowder. One whiff of that herb told me it was a “go”. Many of the online recipes involving squid also called for tomatoes. Unsure whether I’d used them in the earlier form, and knowing that I’ve pretty much given those up due to the acid, I decided to incorporate a few carrots for extra fiber and color, instead.
The end result was a comforting combination of old and new, and I believe that I like it better than the original! My daughter also enjoyed it, and one of my granddaughters even tried several bites, which is certainly a testament to its appeal. No more worries from me, about absent directions for meals from the past. Sometimes the new way of doing things is even better than the old.

Finding Love in Unimaginable Places

Remember that heart-wrenching sensation when a beloved grandparent died, or that excruciating pain, like a vise around the head, after a parent succumbed to a long illness? We’ve all lost someone important. Time moves on. The sharp sting of that separation surprisingly begins to ease. Unfortunately, some of the good memories may disappear along with the pain. Mementos, such as pictures, or favored objects, like books, furniture, and even recipes, may help to hold a dear one’s essence close. I’ve recently discovered another unexpected avenue.

I’m currently working on a revision of my picture book, “Rhus Juice”. The tale is based on a true story my dad shared with me from his own childhood. It tells of a hot Michigan summer and a little boy’s fears that the lemon-flavored drink his father plans to make with sumac might be poisonous! When I began composing this some years back, I looked through pictures from that time, referred to a list of names and dates in an old family Bible, and even listened to a recording of Dad recounting the events.

“Life” got in the way, work and other writing took precedence, and “Rhus Juice” was set aside. I love the story, though, and it recently pulled me back. Now looking at the book with fresh eyes, the lives portrayed seem much clearer than before. Through it, I revisit my hometown of Tawas City, Michigan, and ride my blue Schwinn on bumpy sidewalks once again. Peeking into my dad’s childhood home, Grandpa’s voice booms and Grandma’s sweet smile lights up the room.

How wonderful, to see Dad’s ten-year-old grin and to anticipate his thoughts. The act of writing has done this for me. The love flows from all of them, bringing me closer than I’ve been in years!

*****

Memorial Day through the Lens of a Small Town Girl

 

From childhood, I remember when adults still called it “Decoration Day” and how I loved the festive parade in my hometown, longing to be brave and join in with my own blue bicycle. I recollect feeling delighted with the day off from the classroom, wondering which members of the high school marching band would faint in the heat and sensing a chill when the lone trumpet played taps.

As a teen, I recall that holiday spent at the lake and how I suffered the sharp sting of summer’s first sunburn, worrying with the knowledge that a pal was leaving soon, to be stationed in Vietnam. I remember the shock, hearing a friend of my family later died in that place and believing we were lucky that many showed enough bravery to serve.

 

All the Right Ingredients: Living, Writing and Cooking in Texas

soup bowl blueFiestaware dishes

After spending the winter in the Lone Star State, spending time with my two daughters and their families, this “Michigander/Michiganian” is ready to take the Texas-sized leap and move back here for good. We lived in this area years ago, while my girls were growing up, which is basically how they found themselves settling in this portion of the U.S.

Now that I’ve picked my spot and found a great apartment, it’s time to resume my writing and my cooking in earnest. Being in Texas got me thinking about making chili, recently, but tomatoes and I haven’t been getting along that well. Although white chili may not be original to this state, its popularity seems to be gaining force. I’ve enjoyed a few versions in the past and have recently done some research about “white vegetables”.

I found that these options sometimes are referred to as the “forgotten vegetables”, partly due to the negativity brought on by the selections with the “starchy” connotation. Granted, a few are rather high in carbs, but in moderation and with careful planning, white vegetables can be important sources of fiber, calcium, potassium, and a wide array of vitamins and other nutrients. I don’t have a “favorite” recipe, yet, so I’m going to present the possibilities for you to consider when designing your own!

“CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN” WHITE CHILI RECIPE

Broths: chicken, vegetable, or water; slug of white wine

Beans: Cannellini, garbanzo/chick peas, Great Northern, and navy (canned or dried; follow the package directions for dried)

Meats: Chicken or turkey (cooked and cubed), or ground chicken/turkey (browned); vegetarian version is great without meat

Vegetables (canned or fresh, cut to bite-sized pieces): Potatoes and white corn (staying aware of the carbs); turnips (lower in carbs and a consistency and flavor very similar to potatoes); parsnips and jicama give a slightly sweet flavor (parsnips cook quickly and jicama stays a bit crunchy for a long time); cauliflower; white asparagus; daikon radish; white mushrooms; peeled zucchini or summer squash; onions, shallots, and garlic

“Zip” (add in moderation and to personal taste): Cumin, white pepper (ground or whole corns), prepared horseradish, ginger, white habanero pepper (extra hot), yellow jalapeño (pale in color and medium heat), Santa Fe Grande (pale yellow pepper with mild heat), and salt

Toppings: Shredded white cheese, sour cream, and the white portions of green onions (sliced)

Accompaniments: White corn chips, bread, or crackers

Throw your choices together in a pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Enjoy with your favorite beverage!

Why I Liked Trixie Belden More Than Nancy Drew (and why it still matters)

Trixie Belden

Let’s face it…books about both characters have withstood the test of time. As a kid, I wanted not only to immerse myself in stories ABOUT Trixie, but I also desired to BE her. Why Trixie and not Nancy? I enjoyed books about them both and still have a wonderful memory of sitting in my classroom at Zion Lutheran Elementary, in Tawas City, Michigan, reading a version of The Hidden Staircase that was “vintage” even at that point in time, in the early 60’s.

I don’t really remember a specific place where I read about Trixie…it just seemed, once I digested the first episode of her life, that “she” was always there with me…at home, in school, riding my bike, walking over to a friend’s house, or worrying about something in bed at night.

Why, indeed, did Trixie grab my imagination and thoughts more than Nancy? I’ve given this some thought, recently, and here are several ideas and memories:

  • A bike was her common mode of transportation, which I could relate to, given my age. She sometimes rode horses, also, which I was always too apprehensive to try. Trixie sometimes envied her friends who owned those animals.
  • Her hair was cut short, which was how I wore my own (by default…it’s a long story), after early childhood. I always imagined that Trixie would have liked longer hair like her friends, Honey Wheeler and Di Lynch.
  • She had a best friend, Honey, who she could count on, through thick and thin. They did have a few misunderstandings, as I remember, but always worked things out. My “bestie” changed a few times over the years, and although I tended to be a loner, that relationship was always very important to me.
  • Completion of certain household chores was always expected of Trixie, which she often disliked. I hate to admit that I was sporadic in my organizational skills, and ranged from “pig-like” qualities in my bedroom to obsessive repeated vacuuming of our living room.
  • She had some trouble in math, to which I could relate after I hit long division!
  • Jim seemed like the model partner to me. He was dependable, nice looking, and gave Trixie plenty of space to be her own person. In several of the later books, Trixie seemed to struggle a bit with just how to deal with her feelings for Jim.
  • She was very brave and actually solved mysteries, which I could only imagine someone doing in real life. I admired that Trixie and Honey already knew what they wanted to be when they “grew up”, with their goals of co-owning a detective agency.
  • She dealt with some fears and worries, to which I could always relate (and still do!).

What does my list tell me? Why do I care, and how can this make me a better writer? It appears that I celebrated our similarities AND our differences. In the end, I think that believable characters are the answer. Some people might want to read about individuals like themselves, while others may be attracted to the more fantasy appeal of characters who are very different or exotic. Either way, REAL is the key word, in my opinion.

I didn’t know just what it was at the time, but I realize after all these years that Nancy seemed more wooden and too perfect. I want to peek into the life of someone with positive qualities and faults, and I imagine that’s true for many readers. I’m planning to keep that in mind, from now on, when fashioning my own imperfect characters!