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Category: cooking

where summer begins

it’s inevitable. ever since we ripped out the rug that wanted to be a putting green, tore down the faux attic, and hauled in the wicker chairs someone abandoned in the alley, the room where summer begins, middles, and ends is here where the concrete floor is cracked, the wicker threatens to unravel, and the old paneled-door-cum-dining-table wobbles. and makes a balancing act of every breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate. 

apparently, i like things off-kilter, a bit rough around the edges. at least when it comes to my definition of summer, where the living is unstructured, unbound, and on its own sweet time. 

we’re back home from faraway land, hipsterville USA where the summer is launched with the naked midnight bike ride, held under the full moon of may — and every month, and every season thereafter. we don’t launch the summer thusly here; far as we get is kicking off our shoes, but it’s official summer nonetheless here in WickerLand, where we don’t wait for the solstice to get things underway. 

we call this “the summer house,” and only because that’s what the long-ago realtor called it, and we’re not ones to shake things up. of late, i’m trying to take to calling it the summer porch, because that’s a wee bit less confusing. but, either way, what it is is a screened room attached to the garage, and surrounded by my storybook garden. it’s storybook because i imagine it to be a whole lot prettier than it really is, but what’s the point of imagination if you can’t put it to good use and your own personal advantage every once in a while. i’ve got vines climbing up both corners and a white pine that’s trying to reach the sky. birdhouses dangle and perch from just about every angle. and a brick path meanders from the back door to here. and meandering is everything, don’t you think? 

it’s more or less an inside-out bird cage, only i’m the one inside the screened-in cage and the birds flit wildly on the outside, not minding me at all. they flit and flirt, squawk and warble and feed each other worms right before my eyes. 

ever since we unfolded ourselves from all the hours on the airplane and in the speeding taxi cab the other evening, i’ve been sinking deep into the velvet folds of summer here in the corner of the world i call home. there’s something about this summer — the ease of it, the at-last of it — that feels hard-won and worthy of the wait. 

it promises to be summer unedited. the college kid has a job hauling sail boats at the beach, which by any measure is quintessential summer. the resident architecture critic is gearing up for his first triathlon, and i am up to my elbows in the verb that for me is synonymous with summer: garden, as in “to garden.” really, that means i am yanking weeds from their misplaced scatterings, but regardless of the specifics, it has me out with spade and rake and once again employing imagination. and occasional consternations: while we were away some furry someone feasted on every luscious leaf of my fledgling black raspberry, but my faith-testing with its fellow blackberry paid off and what for weeks was nothing but a bare-naked stick in the ground is now sprouting its own itty-bitty leaves. 

once again, my farm — aka raised bed of herbs, tomatoes, cukes, and now two berry bushes in waiting — is where the summer gospels are likeliest to be preached. lessons in resilience, in patience. in careful and doting attentions. all enfold all the holy wisdoms i might need to carry me through june, july, and august. 

it promises to be a redolent summer. a summer unlike any we have known in our sweet lifetimes. it’s one for relishing all the simple joys, the ones we refrained from all last year: picnics with friends. shared potato salad even. easy comings and goings. dashing to the store for one more pint of raspberries, and a sack of peaches too. 

summer without a mask (only around the duly vaccinated, that is). summer slow and easy. summer with a pinch of relish.

it all seems sweeter now. sweeter than i ever remember. 

sweet as the slump soon dripping down my chin. 

speaking of slump, here’s the recipe: (with thanks to marsha of low country carolina for reminding me how delicious it is…..) (i think i leave this recipe here every summer; oh, well!)

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice 

Cinnamon, a dash 

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour. 

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….*

*from the pages of good ol’ Slowing Time

where do you begin summer?

and speaking of summer, two very very very beloved friends of the chair are back-to-back birthdaying in the days ahead: sweet amy of illinois (the very description long ago that introduced me to her), who dwells along the banks of the mighty mississippi, and nan of my heart….happy blessed days to the pair of you. xoxox

long time coming: company

except for the plumber and the furnace repair man, not a soul — other than the few of us who sometimes or always sleep here — had breathed inside this house in all these months. certainly, no one besides the usuals had sat down for dinner at the old maple table.

but as the veil lifts on this pandemic siege, as we all now host armies of viral-slashing immunological soldiers coursing through our insides, standing ready to slash and burn any red-ringed invaders (a primitive description that would make my long-ago physiology professors cringe and grimace), we are apt to find ourselves pressed against the kitchen counter, knives raised above the cutting board, elbow engaged in the hammer motion that drives the chopping and mincing often found in the preamble to company.

yes, company. that now cobwebbed notion of people who do not live inside your house being invited and accepting your invitation to sit down in chairs ringed around a table. once there, those people — the so-named “company” — are apt to lift forks and knives, slide morsels into mouths, in between words spoken in conversation. it is an ancient rite, a rite as old as any known to human kind, and for the last 15 months or so, we’ve been stripped of it. had no practice at the art of considering a menu, of gathering stems in a vase, of imagining how the evening might unfold.

but this week i leapt back into gear. i had the best first company a girl might wish for: my beloved brother was driving all across ohio, indiana, and sweet chicago to pull to the curb outside my house, and our beloved mama was safely tucked inside my house, standing at the door in that way she always does when someone she loves is coming. she even hummed the little song she’s always hummed, the coming-home song we all know by heart, because she used to walk us to the corner of the busy street near our house and sing to us while we awaited the arrival of my papa’s car curving round the bend, home — safe and sound — from the 6:35 commuter train that pulled to the station a town away.

all day long on the day of my sweet brother’s arrival, i swirled inside the rites and rituals of the long-shelved joys of backstage dinner-party theater. the trip to the grocery store, plucking favorite this and that off the shelves. the merkt’s cheese my mama loves, the fat bunches of herbs a spring feast demands, the six-pack of beers whose name i know from the expert guzzlers in my life. the composing a litany of all my mama’s favorite foods, the ones she always sneaks in nibbles before they’re even on the table. for she was the guest of honor, after all; my brother’s whole intent in driving here was to be with her, to be her driver for the list of chores and appointments on her to-do list, to be by the side of the mama whose recent dramas have been narrated and reported across long-distance telephone lines. certainly not the proximity of choice when it comes to someone you dearly love.

it was a lovely thing, the whole of it: the vacuuming with purpose, the tucking white tulips in a pitcher on the kitchen table. the fussing for the joy of it. heck, i even cleaned the bathroom.

in all these months, we’ve had no chance to lavish love in that dinner-party way. and i was reminded how very much i love the gathering of deliciousness and the little touches of the beautiful, of grace. i remembered how i love attending to every detail in hope that the whole tableau shouts, “i wanted you to be here. i wanted to indulge in your presence, your conversation, your company.”

it’s the intimacy and the face-to-face conviviality of the dinner conversation that i love the best. i’m not one for crowded rooms, nor for walking into a backyard packed with noise and faces. but give me two or four or six (or one or three or five) infinitely engaging, tale-telling souls, and i will chop and cook for days for the joy and wonder of it all.

bit by little bit we will weave back in those little joys that animate our spirits, that punctuate our lives with the wonder and the magic of close company. we will pull out those tucked-away plates and trays and platters. the cake stand that elevates the store-bought cookies. and, sweeter than ever for its long absence from our lives, we will sit down to a table ringed by faces we have so missed.

welcome in, we’ve missed you more than we ever realized. it feels so glorious to hum and cook and fuss again….

what do you love best about company coming? have you missed it?

the things we do on terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. or try, anyway.

we all have them.

poor dear alexander had one. alexander, of one of the all-time best-titled tomes in the land of children’s literature. or children’s books, anyway.

poor alexander went to bed with gum in his mouth, and woke up to find it in his hair. he tripped over his skateboard while getting out of bed. and dropped his sweater into the sink — while the water was running. and then when his two best pals found a.) a Corvette Sting Ray car kit, and b.) a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in their breakfast cereal boxes, all alexander found was, well, breakfast cereal.

it was neither gum in my hair, nor skateboards, nor sweaters in sinks — not even the lack of a decoder ring that got in my way. but, it turned into one of those days anyway. like i said, we all have them. there’s not a one of us who skates through a month, or a year, or a lifetime without tumbling into the occasional pothole, or skinning our knees on the rough edges of daily existence.

and, so, i decided to cook.

cooking, following steps from 1 to 2 to 4, seemed like it might be just the thing to soothe me (and maybe the fact that i seem to have skipped right over 3, there in my count, led to the outcome i’m veering toward). hauling out cutting boards and chopping devices, yanking bottles of spice from the shelf, eyeing the crucifers i remembered to buy at the store, it all seemed like the ingredients i needed for a healthy dose of self-soothe.

it was all seeming swell as i gurgled the olive-y oil into the bowl, dumped in coriander seeds, apple cider vinegar, a fine grainy mustard (french, even!). i chopped cabbage into one-inch wedges, as instructed. i sliced a purple onion into rings. but i went clearly awry when i reached in the fridge for the chicken i needed to cook before its due date had passed. i must not have been paying attention (always a downfall), but the chicken i reached for was that swanky somewhat-newish thing in the poultry department, a thin-sliced breast. which translates to slightly-better-than-cardboard. no fat, no skin, no taste. barely any meat to the bonelessness. all the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, could not make for taste. or anything close.

i swooped on anyway, following closely every step of the rest of the way. i pulled out my silicone pastry brush, slathered my mustardy brew all over the flanks of that cabbage. drizzled olive oil atop the onion circles. bathed my boneless hen in blankets of spice, as called for. i piled it all on a baking sheet (my cooking vessel of choice these days), and awaited the clouds of enticement rising from the cracks in the oven. it smelled mighty fine. and my terrible day was melting away.

but then the old metal timer clanged, and i pulled my tray from the oven. right away, those skinny breasts hollered “failure!” (i’ll even show you the picture; you can judge for yourself–>)

unwilling to surrender, i made a last-minute dash to the “farm,” where the last of the herbs haven’t yet been sheared to the ground. i grabbed a few fine handfuls of flat-leaf parsley, and did what any self-respecting soul in search of salvation would do: i let it rain bitlets of leaves all over my tasteless, rubbery, very thin breasts, the original meat with no point.

all of which is to say there will come days that leave us limp like raggedy dolls. days that, like my chicken, strip us to (or of) the bone.

and it is a good and wise thing to have a coterie of tricks up your sleeve for shoving yourself over the hump. no matter the stumbles and falters.

once upon a time i had no clue, really, how to make the hurt go away. or maybe, truly, it’s that once upon a time i never knew how to sit with the hurt, to let it be, to understand just how strong i could be, to find my way to the clear on the days when the fog was so thick and so dense, and the hurt was so much. it’s taken a lifetime — all the days up till now — to learn the few things that i know.

what i do know is that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is behind me now. and it’s the next morning. and there’s leftover cumin-bathed slabs chilling in the dark of the fridge. should anyone care to swing by, i’m putting them up for the taking. not even the possums who prowl my back stoop are likely to take me up on my offer.

what’s your cure for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?

p.s. i’m not saying that chopping cabbage gets to the root of whatever it is that afflicts us, all i’m saying is sometimes we need something soothing to get to the other side, where we can begin to see through what hurts or what haunts us….

here’s another something i did this week, to leave you a wisp of the beautiful…..i was trying to hold onto a wee bit of summer’s bounty, by making my own potpourri. (martha stewart said to pluck the petals, strew on baking sheet, oven-dry at 250 for an hour.) it, too, was a flop (bad week for baking sheets at my house), as the glorious marigold and nasturtium and monkshood all turned a strange shade of bllkkh (variations in brown). so i started over, and decided to dry my petals the old-fashioned way: under the sun, strewn on my window sill. a work still in progress….

xoxo

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

a peek inside: a new book and the story behind it

in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…

The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line. 

The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year. 

Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again? 

The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly! 

So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders? 

I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves. 

As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month. 

The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.

Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection. 

And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods. 

The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed. 

I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.  

But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.

I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting. 

bookplate

Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….

so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…

and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…

*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths. 

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts Ive bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along? 

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.

*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):

The January Kitchen:

As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge. 

Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon. 

(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)

Worth-the-Wait Porridge

Elixir (Bread) Pudding

Cure-All Mac and Cheese

Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice

Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange

*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar

Fourteen Blessings for February

Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.

Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights. 

Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.

Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.

***

hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.

questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?

a short bit in praise of laze

i might have had you there at short, the adjective for brevity, synonym for “this’ll be quick; over in a jiffy.” perhaps you heard a sigh of exultation as your cognitive wheels sputtered and spilled out a soft hallelujah. not much to read today. oh, joy. (too lazy here even for exclamation marks, when a simple dot of ink — the period — will do.)

today, amid the incoming heat waft, the plumes of furnace-fueling Fahrenheits rolling in across the prairie, building steam as they leap the Big Muddy (the mighty mississippi, among the few rivers whose spelling wove its way into my girlhood jump-rope ditties), we turn our collective attentions to the myriad ways the month of hot july invokes slo-mo, stalls us to the lower-grade velocities: we amble to the garden, plonk our toes atop the wicker settee or into the water’s edge, set a spell in the summer porch, toss back fistfuls of inky-bursting berries, dawdle under the stars, lose track of day and time…(and make the most of ellipses while we’re at it, the original non-committal punctuation, the one that trails off into whisper, allowing any sentence to unspool at its own sweet idle…)

in celebration of indolence (lazy‘s grown-up fancy twin), a short list of praises:

sleeping till your eyelids — or the window shades — flutter open. determinedly silencing the bells, whistles, radar tones, and radio blares that dare to launch you into yet another full-on, get-it-done day.

making no plan for the weekend beyond the turning of pages.

cicada song, the rising reverberations of the hollow belly of the male bug the old latins called “the tree cricket,” from the superfamily Cicadoidea; perhaps a noxious noise to you, but to me it’s a lullaby i sink into every summer. a sound not unlike the endless sawing of blocks and blocks of wood, it’s a song that indeed puts me in a mind to saw my own endless strings of zzzzzzz’s.

sauntering the farmers’ market, guided only by whatever bounty stirs your fancy, leaving home any iteration of a grocery list (yet another domestic harness by which we are too often, too tightly bound).

pinching off fistfuls of pungent basil leaves, stuffing them into the maw of the countertop wiz-master, along with cloves of garlic, chunks of parmesan, and rivers of the fine green olive oil, and, presto, calling it a pesto (aka the unction of choice for any summer feast).

speaking of which, here’s a little video that inspired my presto pesto trials most of yesterday afternoon, interludes of herbaceous joy amid yet another afternoon sprawled in my window perch, up amid the serviceberry boughs where my turning of the pages is accompanied by duets of robins getting tipsy on the fattest, purplest berries just beyond the windowpanes.

and here, if you’re too lazy to click on any hyperlinks, the read-along version of summer’s long-awaited green and chunky goo, the one best slathered on anything that dares to cross your platter….

food52’s best basil pesto

Makes about 3/4 cup

Prep time: 5 min 
Cook time: 3 min

  • 1/4 cup raw pine nuts
  • 10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/2 ounce)
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5 loosely packed cups basil leaves (from a 2-ounce bunch)
  1. Set a small strainer over a small bowl. Combine the pine nuts and 4 tablespoons of oil in a small pan set over medium-low heat. Swirling occasionally, toast the pine nuts until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the pan’s contents into the strainer. Let nuts cool completely.
  2. Once the nuts are cool, combine them and their oil, the cheese, garlic, salt, and remaining olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped, scraping down as needed. Add the basil leaves and pulse just until the pesto becomes smooth, again scraping down if needed. Use immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks (though, the sooner you use it, the better-tasting it will be), or the freezer for up to 3 months.

and, poof! there you have it. a short meander through the delights and surrenders of a day — or even a weekend — spent in unbridled serendipities. a necessary antidote to madness. most emphatically amid pandemic.

how do you define lazy?

p.s. all this laziness comes at the end of yet another wrenching and tumultuous week: putting boy 1 on airplane, bound for a big cross-country move and, alas, a bar exam that — unlike dozens of other states — illinois is insisting on holding in person come the start of september; and boy 2 found out that only freshmen and sophomores are now slotted to return to campus in the fall, a decision that means — among many other things — he has to give up the dorm room he considered one of the best in the leafy little town of gambier, ohio, a room in an old stone manse, a room complete with leaded glass bay windows, peering down a wooded hill, in the great company of his best coterie of college comrades. all in all, given the horrors that abound, these are not by any measure trials, but they wrench the heart nonetheless, and after months of this, our heart walls are somewhat thinned….

riding the COVID-coaster*

U.S. Hits Another Record for New Coronavirus Cases: New York Times graphic

we are all — all of us, red states, blue states, striped states, star-dappled states — strapped into this unplotted, unprecedented, unpredictable pandemic roller-coaster ride (*aka “COVIDcoaster,” a term introduced to me by my brilliant friend amy). the season of COVID, long past its toleration date, is gearing up for a wallop. or so it seems as summer cranks up the heat, and what’s ahead grows hazier.

we seem to be lurching upward and off-the-charts at breakneck speed, as if some giant-sized foot is pressing the proverbial pedal to the floorboard.

at this old house, the summer feels a bit like a COVID chess game. us v. the invisible virus that takes our smell and taste away. i need to put on speed dial a beloved ER doc friend of mine, the one who answers every inane puzzle and quandary i conjure. (and, believe me, i conjure.)

just this week, boy No. 2 found out his best friend’s sister — and another dear friend’s cousin — had tested positive — fever + sore throat, the sweet girl’s symptoms. of course, boy 2 had been out hitting golf balls the two previous nights in a row with her brother. and, to double the trouble, one of those nights he’d taken a long sidewalk-straddling walk (without masks), with the COVID girl’s cousin, who’d just gotten back from a week of sharing a summer cottage — and a bedroom — with the newly diagnosed one.

from the minute boy 2 got the news — at the end of a hot sauna of a day mowing grass and chopping trees for the park district — he had his KN95 mask strapped on so tight it musta made it hard to breathe. he insisted on eating his dinner on the far side of the kitchen, a good 12 feet from the rest of us. and he holed up in his room as if protecting me from nuclear fallout. just now, as he loped out the door for another day of tree-chopping, he triumphantly announced his test (taken yesterday afternoon at one of those one-day testing sites) just came back negative, as did his best friend’s and the cousin’s. halle-holy-lujah! i’m thinking it was a close-enough call to maybe add an extra 20 seconds of hand washing to the regime from here on in, though the perceived invincibility of teens prompts me to hedge that bet.

then there’s boy 1: the one who is here, asleep under this very roof, spending his days studying for the bar exam and waiting to move to portland, oregon, where a federal clerkship awaits. you might think — with five scheduled cross-country flights and two separate moving crews, a new job, new apartment, and that bar exam — that we set out to plot the most complicated itinerary imaginable in the age of COVID (though we assure you we did not). as it stands now he is due to fly back to new haven on monday, where the first of the two moving crews will crate every last fork, spoon, and tome in his law school apartment, and ship it all oregon way. the plan had been to come back here for the duration, till it was time to meet the movers in portland, but with the COVID charts skyrocketing in the exact wrong direction, we ditched plan B. and have moved on to plan C in which the poor kid will wait it out for 10 days in a stark empty apartment (save for the old lumpy mattress he is not moving), fly new york to portland, meet the movers, and then — drum roll here for the most mind-bending part of the plot — fly four-and-a-half hours back to chicago to take the bar exam, which in itself is a legal petri dish of COVID waiting to engulf the entire law school class of 2020. the geniuses who plot bar exams are currently planning to stuff 2,000 illinois test takers into a ballroom for two long days at the start of september. some of those test takers, like our very own, will be fresh off airplanes, having flown into chicago for the exam. others, waiting to take the exam before they can start drawing a paycheck, might well be inclined to go ahead and take the test even if, say, they can’t smell a thing, feel a wee bit hotter than usual, and might have started sniffling or coughing. how this is allowed to happen is beyond me, but then it’s the COVIDcoaster, and we are all whipping around the course, bracing ourselves through all its undulations.

so i do what i do best: i worry the night away. i pony up for the higher-cost health insurance, haunted by visions of the kid sick as a dog and turned away from the best hospitals in town if he doesn’t flash the right insurance card. we canceled the plane ticket on the airline that no longer keeps the promise to not fill every seat on the plane, and grabbed a new one for an even-longer ride on a plane that promises a few inches more breathing room. and we are leaving the kid to sleep in an empty apartment for 10 days — all because we’re haunted by the very real fears that COVID is a fire-breathing, smell-stealing dragon that’ll come up and nab you from behind.

meanwhile, we watch germany and south korea mostly trot back to work, no longer so encumbered by this awful terrible invisible virus.

by the hour, awful terrible numbers are flashing before our eyes — cases climbing, death rates certain to follow.

and those of us who swear allegiance to masks and 75-percent isopropyl alcohol hand sanitizer, we begin to wonder when, oh when, will it end? and who of the ones we love will be caught in its vice — snuffed out, or left with lingering scarring for who knows how long?

it’s enough to wear you down, and wring you like a soggy rag. we’re weary of all the lysol-wiping of every last milk carton. and navigating the variations of rule-following among those we love is no summer picnic. (i’m among the self-avowed scaredy cats who takes tony fauci at his every last word; if he tells me to mask up and not share even a fruit bowl among friends, i’m wearing two masks and lysol bleaching like nobody’s business.)

it all makes for strange times. surreal times, really. but, thank God, we are — so far — living to tell about it.

and in the meantime, i’m baking.

almond joy cookies, hot out of the oven

here’s the latest summer joy from the cookie jar, and they couldn’t be easier. four ingredients, stir, scoop, press flat, await the slightest gilding of the coconut edges. then watch ’em fly.

almond joy cookies

these wicked little coconut cushions, studded with semi-sweet chocolate and bits of sliced almond, are what happens when your favorite grocery store peddles a similar confection at $5.99 for five of ’em. because those pricey little mounds are practically inhaled in this old house, i was determined to make ’em myself. a bit of prowling around the internet, my cookbook without end, led me to these, courtesy of some lovely someone named trish on momontimeout.com

she writes: “These easy Almond Joy Cookies take just four ingredients and don’t even require a mixer! No beating, no chilling, just mix ’em up and throw ’em in the oven EASY! You’re going to love these ooey gooey fabulous cookies!”

Prep Time: 5 mins

Cook Time: 12 mins

Ingredients

  • 1 14-oz bag sweetened coconut flakes
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup chopped lightly salted almonds (trish used Blue Diamond Low Sodium Lightly Salted – light blue bag, but i couldn’t find, so i used sliced almonds and added 1 teaspoon salt)
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk regular or fat-free works

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 325F.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  • In a large bowl combine coconut, chocolate chips, almonds, and sweetened condensed milk.
  • Stir until combined.
  • Scoop out dough with a cookie scoop onto prepared baking sheet.
  • Moisten the tips of your fingers with water and shape into discs. Pat the tops flat.
  • Bake cookies for 12 to 14 minutes or until tips of coconut are just starting to turn golden brown.
  • Let cool on baking sheet.
  • Store cookies in an airtight container.

Notes

Parchment paper is critical for these cookies to turn out right. Silicone mats, waxed paper, etc. will yield a slightly different result.

chime in and spill your COVID-coaster stories. do tell. misery loves company. and by now we are all worn thin from the red-ringed worries.

(p.s. i am not making light of one drop of this, merely recounting with a journalist’s eye the absurdities of what the summer’s bringing….)

summer vacation

even the sound of it, those two easy-does-it words hammocked together: summer + vacation = kick back, fling your shoes across the yard, sink your toes in the sand (or the dew-dazzled grass), take your to-do list and tear it into confetti.

it’s the necessary pause. the shot of pure oxygen to the suffocating soul. the certain truth that, even for a day, we can–and must–call time out. all but scribble the long-forgotten permission slip, giving our weary little selves a break from the unrelenting everyday.

never more than now.

this year, maybe for a day we can shelve the motherlode of worries, revel in the tiniest of wonders: the firefly, the cucumber vine’s improbable curlicue, the invention of the blueberry.

maybe for a day, or a whole string of days, we can make-believe we’ve piled in the station wagon, rolled along the back roads, taken a turn at the windmill or the “raccoon crossing” road sign, listened for the gravel spitting up from our wheels, unpacked at the ramshackle cottage deep in the woods (minus mosquitoes), packed the fridge from the nearest farmer’s market, and unfurled the beach towel or aforementioned hammock (see first sentence above), settling in to the preferred posture of the day.

can you hear your old bones sighing? or whistling along to their happy tune?

sometimes all it takes is the mere whiff of vacation ahead to slow the heart’s staccato, ramp up the oxygen content of the lungs. sometimes the magic is in the imagining. maybe that’s why God gave us doodle pads for brains.

there are a million and one ways to dawdle through a day. to seize emphatically the indolent season. to master the art of doing next to nothing (it’s harder than you’d think). to make the turning of the page, the slicing of the tomato, counting firefly flickers be the most arduous task of your day.

irony of ironies, you might scribble just such a litany onto your to-do list of the day: 1.) plop your bum on the nearest ledge under the sun. 2.) stay put for a good half hour. 3.) tick off three whimsies in which you rarely indulge. 4.) do them. 5.) call it a day.

it is always a fine thing to upholster your indolent day with proper feasting. i find the blueberry–that swollen burst of summer–to be synonymous with a july-fourth fete. think backdrop to stars on betsy ross’s american flag. i’ve used them as inkblots in pancakes, embroidered the top of a summery flag cake, plopped them by handfuls straight into my mouth. but the way i find them most apt for the moment is that wonder of indolence i call blueberry slump*.

and wonder of wonders, here–from the pages of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing–is your very own road map to blueberry confection.

From the Summertime Recipe Box…

No-cook summer, the aim. Pluck tomato from the vine. Shake with salt. Consume. Repeat with the sweet pea, the runner bean, the cuke. And who ever met a berry that demanded more than a rinse — if that? Thus, the blueberry slump. A no-frills invention, concocted — lazily, one summer’s afternoon — in the produce aisle. Even its verbs invoke indolence: dump, splash, dash…spoon and lick. With lick, though, comes a sudden surge of gusto.

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Cinnamon, a dash

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour.

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….

fat and sassy blueberries

*my beloved friend paula, who is in fact idling by a lake house this weekend, asked me for this recipe yesterday, so she could carry it along in her beach bag. it reminded me, and both of my boys, that we could not make it through the weekend without a few scoops. so thank you to paula for the tap on the recipe tin.

how will you idle away your indolence?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

rice pudding trials

rice pudding trials

it must trace back to the breast. yes, the original suckling breast. (forgive me for shocking so early in the morning, but, yes, this is where we begin.) imagine the soft fullness of the mother’s breast, engorged with milk, tubes and ducts surging with all a little one needs. imagine the heartbeat just beyond the milk. imagine the baby’s cheek pressed against flesh; pillowed, you might say. imagine the countenances, eyes locked in a channel of concentration, mother to babe and back again. imagine the wee little curls of finger, grabbing hold and not letting go; flesh entwined with flesh.

that must be the original comfort food: sustenance. warmth. insistent and unceasing rhythm of heart, the original lullaby, non?

and so, we humans are hard-wired to seek it.

it should not surprise, then, that in a moment of global paralysis, when you can’t get out of the house where you grew up (and your mother and father have nothing more to do than indulge you in their too-lavish attentions), when your college campus is far beyond reach, when the springtime you imagined has gone up in red-ringed vapors, there might come urgency in the department of cooking.

comfort cooking might be the call of the day. comfort cooking might teeter on the sharp edge of survival. comfort cooking might be the handiest cure for the stuck-at-home blues.

which brings us, oddly, circuitously but certainly, to the subject of rice pudding.

what began as almost an afterthought at the grocery store, a last-minute swipe for some plastic-tubbed goo on the shelf, a goo labeled “rice pudding,” took on a bit of a life of its own. it started with an off-handed, “i wonder if you can make that” (for one of us grew up in a house in the space-age food revolution days when true kitchen liberation was found in the form of boxed mixes for everything, and scratch-cooking was so yesteryear; in the house where i grew up, brownies came from betty crocker’s red-spooned box, and not once did i witness rice stirred into pudding).

because one of us is in the business of gobbling down whatever is put before him, and another of us is especially in the business these days of reaching beyond the ho-hum, trying valiantly to infuse a touch of indulgence into the day, it became something of a quest in this old house to stir our way to rice pudding perfection. or, at least, a pudding sans gelatinous lumps, a pudding with just the right kiss of sweetness, a pudding so lick-your-lips-able that it might have you sneaking into the fridge in the wee, wee hours. a pudding with raisins, of course.

despite my protest and preferences, brown rice was immediately ruled out. forbidden, more like it. if this pudding was going to provide one ounce of comfort it was going to be washed out and white through and through. in a pinch, mark bittman (our go-to guy so very often, for he lures with his promise of “how to cook everything“) provided the road map: water; rice; salt; milk; sugar; cinnamon.

what resulted was soft, sweet, and passable. but that only taunted. we somehow locked onto the notion that what was needed was something spectacular. something so comforting it just might fill up every null and void, just might make us forget for one flash of a moment (as long as it takes to swallow a mouthful of pillowy softness) how hungry we were to get on with our once-ago lives….

and so the pudding trials commenced.

we sought out a coterie of experts: nigella lawson (she indulges with double cream, arborio rice, and muscat wine). the pioneer lady (she soaks her raisins in whiskey, for heaven’s sake, adds a splash of cream and — because she’s the pioneer lady — dollops a fat pat of butter). ina garten, aka the barefoot contessa (she takes it over the top with dark rum, basmati rice and — get this — 5 cups of half-and-half). we had ourselves a holy trinity of comfort makers, each with her own derivation.

and then, along came an heirloom from a friend, an unsuspecting formula for rice pudding confection. we knew it might be a winner as soon as we saw that the provenance was simply, “mother.” as in a nursery recipe passed from mother to daughter, one of the kitchen bequests that brings back whole moments in time, conjures up storybook scenes of kitchen comfort. that after-school moment when a pudding is spooned in a bowl, and along with fat grains of rice, afloat in a creamy perfection, there is a mother’s voice, soothing. perhaps even a hand rubbing the back, kneading the knots out of the shoulders clenched from a long day of worry or heartache.

that’s what an heirloom recipe does. that’s what comfort cooking is all about. it’s alchemy in its very best form: the power to heal, to chase away the blues, to restore your faith in the long days ahead.

here is my friend’s unadorned, utterly simple roadmap to rice pudding perfection:

Raisin Rice Custard
(Mother)

3 eggs
2 1/2-3 cups milk
2-3 T. sugar for each cup of milk (make as sweet as you like!)
1 t. vanilla
generous pinch of salt
nutmeg
1 cup or so cooked white rice (day old is best)
1 cup or so raisins

Scald the milk (heat slowly until little bubbles around edge of pan). Beat eggs lightly, add sugar and salt. Slowly add the scalded milk, stirring. Add vanilla and about 1/4 t. nutmeg.

Pour this mixture over the rice and raisins in a buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake custard in a pan of hot water at 350 for 50-60 min. or until knife comes out clean.

and here is nigella’s (note: it’s written for cooking in merry old england; translation necessary):

Nigella Lawson’s Muscat Rice Pudding
“I am not suggesting that the basic, plain version of rice pudding is in any way deficient,” says Nigella, “but this muskily ambrosial version is mellow heaven. Perfect dinner-party comfort food.”
Ingredients
500ml whole milk
500ml double cream
50g unsalted butter
150g pudding or arborio rice

250ml muscat wine
50g caster sugar

Pinch of salt
Fresh nutmeg to grate

Method
Preheat the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2.

Combine the milk and cream. In a 1.5-litre, hob-proof casserole dish, melt the butter over a medium-low heat, add the rice and stir well to coat, then add the muscat. Stir well and let the syrupy liquid bubble away for a couple of minutes. Then pour in the milk and cream and add the sugar and salt, stirring as you do so. Bring it back to a gentle bubble, stir well again and grate over some fresh nutmeg.

Put in the oven and cook for 2 hours, stirring after the first 30 minutes. Check the dish after 11⁄2 hours – the depth of the dish and the nature of your oven may make a significant difference. The rice should have absorbed the liquid, but still be voluptuously creamy. Remove and cool for at least half an hour before eating.

what’s your roadmap to comfort on those days when you’re ground to the bone?