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.
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?
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.
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 I’ve 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)
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?
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
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
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
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?
back when i was peeking into the kitchen, the room where my mother ruled, what happened to pot roast happened once every couple weeks. and, seeing as my papa was an ad man in the mad men days of american advertising, a three-piece-suited man who came home on the train with a brief case sometimes spilling with mystery boxes, boxes marked X, boxes we were meant to try, i came to count myself on the front line of the post-industrial-space-age kitchen revolution. which means i was among the first to suspiciously nibble hamburger helper, bundt cake in a box, and — our favorite — space food sticks, those tootsie-roll-like batons sheathed in crinkly silvery paper; “breakfast in a bite.”
is it any wonder my culinary quirks got cross-wired?
back to the pot roast. as best i recall, pot roast meant my mama was ripping open packets of dehydrated onion soup (thank you, NASA), spinning off the lids of cans, exercising her dumping skills. (i’d like to imagine that when no one was looking, she poured in a glop of old red wine, but that was likely the kitchen down the street, where my best friend’s mama was likely to pour a little red wine into, well, her first mug of coffee.) the whole pot-roast caboodle was entombed in aluminum foil, and set in the oven till the 6:30 train pulled into the station, my pa motored home, and we all sat down together to hear the highlights of the day downtown where the ad men re-wrote the national narrative, in 60-second pitches with the catchiest tunes.
another thing about the pot roast: i’m pretty sure we never called it pot roast. i think it had a name that ended in “steak.” when you were feeding five kids, and trying to stick to your weekly grocery budget (those were the days when my ma prided herself on a week’s worth of groceries for seven, paid for with $100 bill — and change to tuck back in her pocket, change that became her “funny money,” money to spend as she darn well pleased), you named whatever you could a name that ended in “steak.”
which is how i came to not really know what in the world a pot roast was. all i knew was that it sounded like something donna reed or dick van dyke’s laura petrie would make.
which is all an even longer-winded way to say i was mighty intrigued when i spied a food52 instructional guide for something called “pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic.” if you ever want to grab my attention, toss in any sort of big number. i’ve always liked playing with numbers, and 40 cloves of garlic had me, truth be told, at 10.
as i count down the dinner hours with my sweet senior in high school, i seem to have slid into an ulterior plan of feeding him in ways he’ll never forget. ways that might seep in as he stands in yet another cafeteria line with a dishwasher-splattered cracked plastic tray, awaiting a ladle of whatever swims in the hot metal bins. (it’s sneaky, i know, but we mothers must out-think our offspring, especially when they grow to be big enough that they don’t like to be smothered with our hugs and our kisses and the little red hearts we used to scribble onto their lunch bags.)
which is where we arrive, at last, and once again, at the pot roast. something about “pot roast” seemed to ping that place in my brain that’s on the prowl for unforgettables. a boy who sits down to dinner on a thursday night, or — back up the clock — a boy who walks into a house where 40 cloves of garlic have been infusing the kitchen, front hall, heck, making their way down the whole dang walk, all backed up with notes of grass-fed beef, and chunks of carrot, onion, and vegetable broth (with a splash of red wine, because i learned watching my best friend’s mama….), well that is a boy who might remember his mama — or at least her pot-roasty roast once in a while.
so i set out on my mission. secured me three pounds of grass-fed beast, peeled garlic till my fingers called for time-out, chopped and seared, and cranked up the oven.
because i never want to keep these little miracles to myself, i am herewith sharing my secrets. this comes from my friends at food52, those geniuses of community recipe gathering, where so many cooks have their fingers in the pot, you’re assured that whatever makes it onto the site is vetted up, down, and sideways. and usually delicious.
pounds boneless beef chuck, patted as dry as possible
tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
peeled garlic cloves
cups vegetable broth
Heat the oven to 325°F.
Set a large Dutch oven on the stove over high heat. While it’s getting good and hot, season the beef all over with salt. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Sear the beef all over—figure 4 minutes per side—until the outside is deeply browned and crusty. Transfer the beef to a plate.
Add the onions and carrots to the pan. Toss in the rendered beef fat and season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, another pinch of salt, and toss. Cook for another 5 minutes.
Nestle the seared beef on top of the vegetables, then pour the broth around the perimeter. It should rise about halfway up the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pot and get in the oven.
Roast for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, flipping the meat halfway through. You can start checking the meat at 3 hours—exactly how tender or toothsome you like it is totally personal.
Before serving, remove any butcher’s twine (if it was there, holding the meat together) and use 2 forks to tear and pull the meat into big hunks and shreds. Season with more salt to taste.
Serve with something starchy. This keeps perfectly in the fridge for leftovers all week. I also love freezing portions for pat-on-the-back weeknight dinners down the road.
so there you go. have at it. i can gleefully report that for a minute there last night dinner was silent. silent in that way that the taste of what’s at the end of the fork is so unusually good, the taste buds take over and the vocal cords go mum.
and that’s the story of pot roast. and how i added one notch to the score board, the one marked, “reasons to come home from college. or at least miss my roast-searing mama.”
what’s your secret sure-fire hit to lure those you love back home to your kitchen?
there oughta be a soundtrack here. because there is in my kitchen these days. i might have found a cure for my MSNBC addiction. i spell it R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
the other morning, not long after a raucous ride to the schoolhouse door, i decided there was no better cure for the late-summer blues than cookin’ up a feast for the boys i love, especially the one whose days at my kitchen table are now in official countdown mode (i’m in the slow lane on these matters, so i make sure i get a long head start, and yes, the countdown is roughly in the 350-and-subtracting stage — and, yes, i realize this puts me squarely in the odd zone). but anyway, back to the kitchen. i decided that one more night of grilled chicken might send the kid bawking from the table, so i upped my ante. i decided lasagna — from scratch and in two modes, meatless and otherwise — was the hurdle i’d leap.
and that’s when i turned to two mavens: the barefoot contessa, who nimbly guided me through my cooking instructions, and the goddess of soul, who every time i plug her in takes my heart and turns it up a notch. or three notches.
two minutes after i heard aretha had died, i turned toward motown and bent not my knees but my finger, the one that clicked on the iTunes. the one that bought me two hours of instant therapy. (since i seem to play it on infinite shuffle, 30 greatest hits over and over and over, i figure it cost me — in the first day alone — less than a dollar an hour.)
i rocked and rolled through “baby, i love you,” and “chain of fools,” and, oh yes, “i say a little prayer” (please, aretha, say one for me…). and all the while i read through ina’s instruction. and then, in keeping with the queen of soul, i began to scat. through my roadmap for roasted vegetable lasagna, with a side (a whole other pan) bursting with plenty of beef.
because i tend not to keep eggplant and whole-milk ricotta on hand, my efforts entailed a trip to the grocery. my simple feast wound up costing me a whopping 45 bucks, by the time i plucked top-of-the-line tomatoes and beef off the shelves. (no one said blues-breakers come without cost.)
and then, for the better part of an afternoon, i amazed myself as i roasted and stirred, chopped and dumped, plucked and sautéed. by four bells, i tell you, i was more than humming….i was wailing right along with the queens…
call me “old-fashioned” (you won’t be the first), but by the end of that long afternoon, when the sweet boy bounded through the door, took a big whiff, and exclaimed, “what in the world are you making?” i smiled a little smile deep down inside.
i’d taken a day — an otherwise unremarkable do-little day — and i’d dialed it up a fine notch. i’d used a bevy of produce — eggplant and zucchini, red pepper and mushrooms and spinach and onions and garlic and basil and parsley galore — and great glops of olive oil. i’d sizzled up beef, and stirred marinara. i’d hot-water-soaked whole-grain lasagna ribbons (a trick of ina’s i might not repeat). and then, come dinnertime, i plopped onto the kitchen table, two 8-by-8 squares of oozy, cheesy deliciousness.
there are plenty of days when words alone can’t say what i want to say: i love you like crazy. i miss you already and it’s not even september. and i fully intend to make the most of this one last hurrah of a year.
this week aretha chimed in, she belted it out for the both of us. we served up a feast, me and the queens. and we finished it off with “baby, i love you.”
should you be inclined to play along, here’s where we started. feel free to scat or to vamp or to add your own notes….(and here’s your soundtrack, to boot!)
Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
(from Barefoot Contessa) SERVES 6-8
1-1⁄2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick
3⁄4 pound zucchini, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick 2⁄3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
10 ounces lasagna noodles, such as De Cecco
16 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta
8 ounces creamy garlic and herb goat cheese, at room temperature
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
4-1⁄2 cups good bottled marinara sauce, such as Rao’s (40 ounces)
1 pound lightly salted fresh mozzarella, very thinly sliced
*bam note: besides the eggplant and zucchini, i decided to sauté onions, red pepper, mushrooms (two kinds) and spinach. i made that yet another layer on top of the eggplant and zucch.
** in my meaty version, i ditched the veggies and sautéed one pound of ground chuck, with onions, garlic, oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. then i added a can of whole tomatoes, a few squeezes of tomato paste, and let it all come to a fine pitch. in the instructions below, i layered my beefy concoction in place of each veggie layer.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the eggplant and zucchini in single layers on 3 sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Brush them generously with the olive oil on both sides, using all of the oil. Sprinkle with the oregano (I crush it in my hands), 1 tablespoon salt, and 11⁄2 teaspoons pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, sprinkle the garlic evenly on the vegetables, and roast for another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees.
Meanwhile, fill a very large bowl with the hottest tap water and add enough boiling water to bring the temperature to 140 degrees. One at a time, place the noodles in the water and soak them for 15 -minutes, swirling occasionally so they don’t stick together. Drain and slide the noodles around again.
Combine the ricotta, goat cheese, eggs, basil, 1⁄2 cup of the Parmesan, 11⁄2 teaspoons salt, and 3⁄4 teaspoon pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed.
Spread 1 cup of the marinara in a 9 × 13 × 2-inch baking dish. Arrange a third of the vegetables on top, then a layer of the noodles (cut to fit), a third of the mozzarella, and a third of the ricotta mixture in large dollops between the mozzarella. Repeat twice, starting with the marinara. Spread the last 11⁄2 cups of marinara on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of Parmesan. Place the dish on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes and serve hot.
what’s your sure cure for the late-summer blues? and, more emphatically, what’s your soundtrack?
p.s. so sorry i was a tad late this morning: i had two boys who needed a few hours of my time, and thus the chair had to wait in line.
in which we momentarily retreat to the comfort kitchen as the world wears us ragged, and sometimes our sphere of true influence has shrunken to a concentrated radius of one (maybe two on a good day…)…
the leftover challah called to me, as it so often does. every friday the braided loaf of eggy dough finds its way to our shabbat table, and every morning thereafter the mostly untouched loaf (for we tear off only a few shabbat chunks on most friday nights) whispers louder and louder from the basket where it idles in quasi-retirement.
it begs to be rescued from its shoved-aside status, to be transformed in miraculous ways. bread pudding, most often, is the solution.
this week, once i plunked the getting-staler challah onto the cutting board (my tangible reminder to do something with it) my getting-taller-by-the-hour almost-senior in high school chimed in. “oh, mom, could you make it with peaches and blueberries this time? remember you said you would?”
this was not such a radical advance, this seasonal iteration of the bread-egg-and-milk puddingy pablum. but it was a certain departure from the same-old, same-old in which i chop up apples, throw in handfuls of shriveled-up raisins or cranberries, await cloud-like perfection. this called for summery attention to be paid, called for a trip to the produce bin where i found white-fleshed peaches in all their colorless glory, and blueberries by the bushel-load.
wasn’t long till i was sinking into the familiar rhythm of this recipe i know by heart (though for good measure i nearly always pull mark bittman off the shelf — or, specifically, his “how to cook anything” bright-yellow-covered cookery volume).
once i sliced into the peaches, though, my grandma entered the room. there she was, in pure imagined vapors, standing just behind my shoulder, urging me to reach for the brown-sugar canister, where i would partake of one of my grandma’s signature summery moves: douse the sliced, moist peaches in spoonfuls of deep-brown granular sweetness, allow the peachy juices to swirl with the sugar; tuck aside while golden-hued syrup emerges, the taste of summer defined.
and that was precisely the moment i realized that this comfort food for my sweet boy was just as much comfort for me in the making. there i was alone in my kitchen — me and my bread and my cream and my summery peaches — when all of a sudden i was visited by my long-gone grandma, i was swooped back in time and in space to her cincinnati kitchen in the ivy-covered brick house as sturdy and ample as was my grandma.
i was, for one sweet interval, far far from the news of the day, far from the grown-up worries that some days so weigh me down. it was just me and days-old bread, and the alchemy of sugar and peach. who knew such potency lay just beneath the fuzzy-fleshed skin of the fruit?
it’s the one room where this summer i’ve found a joy that might make me hum. that and the porch where i read.
should you want to play along, here’s my roadmap to summery joy — the blueberry-peach bread-pudding rendition thereof….
teddy’s bread pudding, the peachy summer edition*
3cups milk (or cream)
4tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, more for greasing pan
1-1/2teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
½loaf sweet egg bread like challah or brioche, torn into 2-inch cubes (about 5 to 6 cups)
3 peaches, sliced
3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup blueberries
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Over low heat in a small saucepan, warm milk, butter, 1/2-cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and salt. Continue cooking just until butter melts. Meanwhile, butter a 4-to-6-cup baking dish and tear the bread into bite-sized bits. Place the bread in baking dish.
Slice peaches into separate medium-sized mixing bowl; stir in brown sugar. Set aside (wherein magic ensues, and syrup emerges). Rinse blueberries, and allow to drain.
Once peaches are bathing in their brown-sugary juices (anywhere from five to 10 to even 15 minutes should do it), dump fruits atop bread chunks. Stir gently.
Pour hot milk over bread, peaches, and blueberries. Let it sit for a few minutes, poking down the occasional chunk of bread that rises to the top. Beat the eggs briefly, and stir them into bread and fruit mixture. Mix together remaining cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle over the top. Set the baking dish in a larger baking pan, and pour hot water into the pan, to within about an inch of the top of the baking dish, effectively making a bath for your bake.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.
inhale the endless comfort vapors….
*thank you, mark bittman, for your endless guidance and your recipe on much-splattered page 662.
what foods bring you as much comfort in the making as in the consuming?