Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Living nicely

While Botany Pond maintains the consistency of a frozen margarita, something resembling spring has settled over Hyde Park.  A new café run by our beloved Pleasant House Bakery has opened on campus.  I’m having a hard time not walking in and clapping for everyone’s attention, “FYI, fellow patrons! I will be raising my children here. This will be the spot of their future first memories…thanks.” (I get no response after this make-believe announcement; people just return to their conversations as my cheeks redden from speaking out loud to more than one stranger at once and I make my way to the counter to order.)  A declaration I do want to make is that the parfait, oatmeal, and biscuits are wonderful (and I’ll report back when I’ve been cleared to eat the ham sandwich).
These excellent local developments combined with my recent binge of Laurie Colwin novels—specifically, Happy All The Time, or My New Favorite Book Forever—has inspired something deep within me.  Holly, one of two main lady characters in HATT (one who I can’t help noticing shares many of Laurie’s personal designs on food), is strong, decisive, and complex.  Her “one ambition” is to “live nicely from day to day.” Which is just about the best thing I’ve ever heard—especially the implication of quiet, modest living. Living not grandly, or better than anyone else, just nicely. It’s the kind of phrase that sends me to the market for fresh flowers each week; to a new café in the neighborhood for a cup of tea and a biscuit with butter and jam; or to the bookstore to buy Laurie Colwin novels for the special people in my life.
Perhaps it’s that I’ve never been particularly career driven, more drawn to the conduct of the “domestic sensualist,” but when Laurie gives Holly the right to prioritize a nice life, I feel like she’s giving it to me, too. “Even Holly worked: she worked to make life sweet… she fought to keep the ugly chaotic world at bay and to keep a sweet, pretty corner to live in.” Yes. Yes!

If you read this and feel the world shifting into balance, we are truly kindred spirits. Letting your life be your work is a worthwhile, noble endeavor. Even in the last pages, after Holly reveals a hidden insecurity saying, “I don’t work. I’m lazy. I don’t do anything very important. I don’t even know how intelligent I am. I just live day to day enjoying myself,” she immediately returns to form, amending: “None of this self-criticism.” She too knows that what she does is good enough.
And I take this as permission to focus on enjoying myself and keeping things sweet; as a reminder that those are ambitions, too. We may be eating the same simple meals each week (sausage meatballs with peas over shells and chicken wings are in heavy rotation alongside ceaseless quesadillas), but neither the simplicity nor the repetition of meals is a failure.  What matters is that we take time to set the flowers in a vase, light a candle, and have a nice dinner.  This is our pretty corner to live in, and we are living nicely.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On wintertime kitchen slumping


“Ohh—ah, hello! Do you, uh, do you come here often? I come here a bit. I come here from time to time.” This little moment (brought to you by Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting) does not sufficiently explain my blog hiatus, but I don’t really have an explanation except: 1) I haven’t been cooking so good (discussed below). And 2) My laptop kind of smells like weird overpowering cumin? And I don’t like it.
Every winter I seem to forget how to cook. Or, maybe it’s that I forget how to shop. For groceries. I’m out of practice navigating the aisles of the grocery store. Since I spend spring, summer, and fall popping in and out of farmers’ markets, everything fresh, everything good, I’m not in the habit of having to ignore the calls from chips and cookies, conveniently placed at eye level. It starts right as the markets disappear, when the complicated season known as “the holidays” arrive. And for a month we’re out to eat, inundated with leftovers, celebrating, and thus completely derailed from any semblance of grocery store routine. When I finally begin stumbling into stores, my defenses are weak, my tastes impaired, and dark times are upon us. (Except for the really excellent eating we do at the really excellent restaurants in Chicago.)
This winter has been particularly tough, in part because I’ve been reading a lot. There’s a rumor started, no doubt by those jealous of my skills, that I can tend towards competitive. If this is true (Note: I’ve just finished a Tonya Harding documentary and thus am not convinced my own level warrants notice), it is true for group activities as well as solo ventures. The problem isn’t the reading, instead, that I am tracking my reading on Goodreads. I bandwagon decided to read one book a week for 2014. Every time I finish one and input the book, my percent complete rises and Goodreads calculates how far ahead of schedule I am.
If there’s one thing I learned from that [redacted period of time] my mom obsessively played Snood for an hour every night (before she deleted the game out of self preservation), it’s that your real competition in life is your own highest scores. (I’m sure my father would have taught me this as well if I’d ever taken to running—still the term “personal best” is one that sticks with me.) Mix this with my idealization of efficiency, and you’ve got a perfect storm of needing to prove to Goodreads how much further ahead I can get.
Add in my other quirk: a compulsion to finish books the same day I start them, and you can understand why, come 5:45 pm when I realize the fish is still in the freezer, I’ve got 70 pages of the fantastic Blue Castle left, and we’re woefully low on tortillas and cheese, I ask Alex to pick something up on his way home.

Also: It’s dark and cold and I’m lying down. And dishes.

When I do get it together to cook, there is nothing blog worthy about my endeavors. We eat a shocking amount of quesadillas. It seems I have double-booked “quesadilla night” for days starting with “T.” (That’s “T” for “tired,” and so many days start that way.) Alternating with frozen Pleasant House pies, of course.
But when an urge hits to get into the kitchen and make my mark—not in the rudimentary form of Queequeg-esque quesadillas—I make ricotta. Homemade ricotta is nothing short of magical. The sweet smell of hot milk. The straining of whey. The making of cheese! before your eyes. I’m super into it.
I use Ashley Rodriguez’s recipe (I think I’ve discussed this before?), which is based on Ina Garten. Ashley uses a 3 to 1 ratio of milk to cream. Ina goes 50/50. I think this is probably amazing as Ina Garten lives life well, but I stick to the 3:1. (I’ve tried using all milk, as Ashley says is a (not as appealing) option, but found the ricotta gets kind of… squeaky? As I’m sure is the professional cheesemaker term.) No special equipment required, just cheesecloth, which we all have on hand this time of year thanks to stocking stuffers. (That’s normal, right?)
You can’t tell, but I’m eating some incredible fresh ricotta, made nary a half an hour ago, on a crusty piece of baguette right now. Only slightly off-put by the smell emanating from my keyboard. It’s warm, and so creamy, and just plain perfect.  (Except for the smell. What is that? Can you make a genius bar appointment for weird smells? I’ve digressed.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The positivity diet

Today I realized the fatal flaw in my positivity campaign: it’s essentially a cold-turkey, don’t-touch-that diet, and, hence, unsustainable and destined for failure. I’ve turned negativity into a craving, a guilt-ridden indulgence. I’ve been slipping, and apologizing, but then slipping a little more—the negativity version of “just one cookie” turning into a full-blown junk binge, stopping to buy a bag of chips and eating it on the way home. The bag of chips is not part of the metaphor so much as what I actually did this afternoon. (Unrelated, I’m sure.)

I realized that I need to turn the positivity campaign into a lifestyle change that incorporates balance—negativity in moderation as a supplement to lots of positive thoughts and actions. I realized I’m going to have to try again, before I become a behavioral yo-yo dieter, obsessed with restrictions, unhealthy and unmotivated.

It’s just that trying is hard. And trying again is harder. And to keep trying is the hardest. Especially when not trying is so easy. That’s how I feel today about everything. See also: everything feels like the worst. 

So, to try to jumpstart the positivity campaign, I’m going to do what my mom always suggests when we are feeling low and write down five things that aren’t the worst, and are, in fact, pretty great:

1. We went to dinner at Nightwood to celebrate Alex having 59 more years left on our marriage contract. Unlike today, everything was the best. 
2. It’s Brussels sprouts season.
3. I made a dinner for friends and family that started with an Oktoberfest-themed cheese plate and ended with smores pudding pie.
4. It’s also pot pie season.
5. Travis rocked Chicago and I loved it. I loved every second of it.

This has been therapeutic. How much do I owe you?

Monday, September 16, 2013

two days


This weekend, I cut up watermelon while cinnamon wafted from the oven where apple muffins baked—this juxtaposition the epitome of seasonal transition. Saturday was sunny, warm. I ate a heavily relished banger dog and ice cream al fresco.  (Jeni’s just opened in Chicago and the brown butter almond brittle is nothing short of life changing.)
On Sunday, it rained and I wore pajamas. And I took that as a sign to do the kind of cooking that makes a house feel warm and glowy against a grey day. Leftover muffins to start, a traditional Welsh breakfast for lunch, and coq au vin for dinner.  Is there a better smell than wine cooking? Can you eat too many mushrooms in a day? Is there anything cozier than a tuckered pooch all curled up in a big chair? My answer to all three: I don’t think so.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

With autumn closing in

Sitting on the edge of Amy’s tub, washing a thick, dusty layer of would-be mud off my feet was not how I wanted to start fall. One more night in her tiki-lit outdoor living room, eating hot, warm, and then cold grilled asparagus with my fingers and coaxing lovable cat pal Bobo out of the rose bushes was a welcome event, but it’s time now not to have to get quite so red-faced and sweaty dancing to Robyn. It’s time to be able to attend a favorite outdoor beer, cooking, and music festival and meet another Top Chef-testant with a scarf wrapped jauntily around one’s neck. It’s time not to have to worry about chipped toenail polish. It is time to wear moccs with socks.
At least while the heat stretches out, the produces follows suit. I’ve become particularly fond of the sweet little cherry peppers that Nichols has been making available. The tiny bells seem to have the same volume of seeds as the standard variety, despite being a fraction of the size. This poses a challenge to both my rudimentary knife skills and my big dumb thumbs, which I try jamming into the little peppers only to cause widespread scattering as the seeds escape to the apparent safety of the maple floorboards. “Safety” as I don’t vacuum or sweep nearly as often as would be threatening to seeds or appropriate for other human beings. Once I’ve successfully popped the seed clump out of the pepper, or at least relocated the seeds across the counter, I like to fill their little bellies with a wedge of sharp cheddar and a cashew for crunch. This makes a satisfying, bite-sized snack that works well on a cheese plate, picnic, or as something that you carry to the couch and eat directly off the coffee table.
While I’ve got a stock pile of puff pastry in my freezer, ready and waiting for pot pies on a nippy night, I don’t want to go back to a world without tomatoes. Those of you scoffing at my locavore antics should know that I’m most dramatic about grocery store tomatoes—AND HOW THEY MIGHT AS WELL BE MURDERERS. WOULD YOU LET A MURDERER INTO YOUR HOME ON A COLD WINTER NIGHT? I DIDN’T THINK SO.
Is this digression? I’m still planning to talk about tomatoes, so perhaps not. Ina Garten has a great recipe for tomatoes. That’s my point. Cherry tomato gratin, otherwise known as “what to do with tomatoes when you are tired of eating them raw or as sauce (which I know is never, but please can we just pretend?).” Talking points include: it’s delicious. Maybe I use that word too often because of my American penchant for making things seem great to convince myself of my own good fortune and worthwhile life—EVERYTHING IS AWESOME—but delicious is the right word for conveying that something tastes really good. The tomatoes go to that juicy saucy place, but maintain their shape and acidity, not getting too sweet. Also, note the toasty garlicky breadcrumb topping. Lastly, this dish is vegan in that surprising way that makes you remember that veganism isn’t all swapping in soy-rizo and forgetting to put cheese on pizza.
So, I’m conflicted, enjoying these last few weeks of warmth while hoping that it will soon please be boot weather, please. Ice cream cookie sandwiches, icebox banana cream pies, rainbow cones, and sunny rooftops competing with an overpowering urge to be inside of bookstores—a lifetime of fall-time conditioning. This year I’m working on a positivity campaign as a way to productively focus the back-to-school energy that arrives as a Pavlovian response to each September and no longer has an outlet in organizing new notebooks and pens. So far, I’ve retitled my to-do list with the heading: “Good things.” And though it wasn’t on the list, washing my filthy feet in Amy’s tub Saturday night was a decidedly good thing. Moccs with socks can wait.

Notes: 

  1. Sometimes writing these posts feels a lot like the conception of “Singin’ in the Rain,” except instead of a list of songs to work into a narrative, I’ve got an instagram feed.
  2. I wasn’t sure this post could recover from starting with a Bob Seger lyric, but it went okay, I think!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

big, BIG August

When people talk about the good ol’ “salad days,” I think they must mean August. And not just because here in the Midwest August sees the height of our produce season, leading to lots of salads—kale in a creamy yogurt dressing, crunchy panzanella, and fresh caprese to name our favorites.  August is the easiest month of the year to eat food that is seasonal, whole, and recognizable by one’s ancestors.
So these are literally the salad days—but also the ones that we’ll remember as “the good times,” whether it’s drinks on the town with friends, banger dogs at Pleasant House, six-dollar movies, a lazy day at home, a book in the tub, caponata on toast with Alex on his lunch break, faking my way through a bubbly tasting, or evening swimming off the rocks at the Point (taking into account the romantic elements and that I don’t have to smear myself with sunscreen). A month full of really great moments that make you feel like “Yes! This is why I always wanted to grow up!” (You know, stuff that really takes the edge off jury duty and health insurance deductibles.)
The most magical day was a few weeks ago.  On August 10th, after nine months of waiting, Alex, Shannon, and I saw Taylor Swift drop everything now at Soldier Field with at least a million other screaming, latino men in their late 20s. (I may have modified the demographics here to help Alex feel like he fit in.) I’ve never been more delighted, or seen so much badly applied red lipstick in my life. It was breathtaking. I was literally out of breath.  I was also out of voice having loosed one too many “TAYLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!”s, excitement getting the best of me.
The regular, Taylor-free days are still bright. The days are shorter, fuller, as August plays that annual trick of speeding up the last weeks of summer.  And there’s been time for other big, big moments—moments that may lead the reader to recall my status as a married, respectable homeowner. Well. I'm married and a homeowner, in any case.  Our home has finally come together with the delivery of the couch and bookshelves—resulting in the final boxes being unpacked (yes, we moved in March).  Yesterday, I even engaged in some rudimentary glassblowing—followed by half-priced sushi #winwin.
I made my first summer pie this August. A peach melba beaut that encased the rosy softballs and jammy raspberries in a buttery, latticed crust.
Lest I accidentally convey the idea that anything remotely close to “chef”-ing occurs when I’m in the kitchen, I should make plain that this is as fancy as it gets around here.  I may not always recall the exact way pancake batter dripped lazily onto the stove this morning, but I will remember the ease of these days.  Especially if my kids are being super loud and I’m hungover from book club.