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Category: power of cooking

when roots are called for, the big red pot comes through

big red pot

i’m in-between and somewhat out-of-sorts. i’m not certain we could riffle through a diagnostic manual and find it written just that way, the malady. and maybe it’s not a malady, just simply stating fact. maybe it’s merely the lull in human undulation, the dip between the rises.

and, truth is, it’s not so bad — the in-between part, anyway. the in-between part is liberation, defined. a long line of assignments is behind me, and i’m in the fertile ground where new ideas begin to rumble in the distance. for months now, i’ve been applying fingers to keyboard day after day after day. so this week, without so much as a whistle being blown, i seem to have declared it deep-breathing time. i found myself roaming anywhere except the keyboard. i found myself clipping shriveled vines in the garden, plucking last-gasp bouquets and tucking them — one last time — in the old milk pitchers that duly serve to hold their pirouettes. i found myself reaching for the big red pot. and all the roots — the parsnip, carrot, turnip — that are ours with one swift tug on their leafy tops.

i seemed to be swirling in whole body immersions. in tactile acts that drew me close to earth, and thus infused with heaven’s fumes.

i needed rootedness this week. and my big red pot came through. it’s there, thick-walled and heavy enough to shatter toes. to yank it from the cupboard is no small feat, one that usually calls for rearrangement of the entire teetering tower of lids and bottoms. but once planted atop my old crotchety cookstove — the one whose burners must take turns deciding who will burn today, and who will sit it out — the rearrangement is all worth it. that pot all but begs to put me back together. it sits wide-mouthed and waiting. all it asks is that i get to work: peel away the earth-stained skins of all those roots, chop them into chunks, toss with abandon. all whirled in olive-oil glisten. all softened, surrendered, through minutes on the flame.

i made a root stew this week because i needed roots. i simmered it all day, with a pinch of this, a cup of that. it was alchemy, all right. the sort that heals me every time. i set out to root the ones i love, the ones whose week wearies them. but all day long it was me who inhaled the essence of autumn, of doors closed, and furnace rumbling once again. chamomile

as long as i was ambling down the road to roots, i clipped a fat fistful of chamomile, the very essence of becalmed. i set the table, put out fork and knife and napkin. i awaited the return of those i love, the ones who’d shuffle down the walk long after dusk, and into night. there is something sacred about keeping watch for comings home.

there is something sacred about immersing yourself in the offerings of earth: in roots and fat fistfuls of bloom.

sometimes the shortest route to blessing is setting out to bless the ones we love. along the way, we find the sacred tapping us in our translucent parts, the ones where our heartbeat all but shows.

the susurrations of the sacred catch me every time.

and may they catch you, too. how do you carve your path to groundedness, what’s your certain route to simple daily blessing?

p.s. my out-of-sorts-ness is simply being ground down day after day by the national vitriol. it’s a toxic drip, and it’s rubbed me raw. it reminds me of being a kid keeping watch on the schoolyard bully, tempted to plant my hands firmly on my hipbones and let rip a mighty spew! (stay tuned….)

when a scone is so much more than delicious

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the other dawn, at the start of a day that had long been circled on the calendar, at the start of a day when a young lad i love was about to strap on his soccer cleats and pour his considerable heart into tryouts for the high school team where he wants — more than anything — to be the goal keeper, i began my mama ministrations, the ones that begin when you drop to your knees at the side of your bed, and whisper a plaintive petition.

you then descend to the kitchen, often the high altar of mama-dom. you pull out the red plate saved for days marked “high alert.” you survey the shelves of the fridge, pull out the juices and the various species of protein. you grab for a balsa-wood basket of super-food berries. and then, if you were me the other morning, you remembered that tucked at the back of the freezer was a zip-top bag of ready-to-bake, made-from-scratch, farmers-market-blueberry scones.

they happen to be scones that come with a story. scones delivered with love and out-of-the-blue kindness, the sort for which the world is so hungry these days.

i happen to be blessed with a friend named amy. she’s an art teacher in the chicago public schools. and she’s hilarious. and she can bake like nobody’s business. she’d once come for a morning’s respite in that sacred space that is our summer porch. as i poured the coffee, she pulled from her satchel the MOST amazing, buttery, crumbly, golden-domed scones i might ever have known. that was a year or two ago. i must have been emphatic in my proclamations of their excellence. because my friend amy remembered.

just a few weeks ago, dear amy was at the farmer’s market and, as one is wont to do, she went overboard at the blueberry stand. not one to waste a fine berry, she hauled out her mixing bowls and her flour and butter and cream so dense you might dollop it out with a spoon. as she mixed and patted and started to cut the butter-lumped dough, she says she suddenly thought of me (was it the buttery lumps, i wonder?).

she remembered how vociferous we were in our proclamations of her scone excellence. so, out of the blue on a summery morning, she pinged me a message, asking if i might be willing to come to the door for a load of just-made-but-not-yet-baked blueberry scone triangles, ones i could pop straight into the freezer so that when the spirit moved me, i could make like i’d been the one stirring and sifting and patting my cakes, and infuse my kitchen with buttery-blueberry olfactory whirls.

at first, i demurred — not wanting my friend who lives 20 minutes away to take such a detour. but she insisted, and i caved — more than delighted to partake once again of her scone excellence. it wasn’t till i cranked the oven, not long after she rang the doorbell and ran, that i was klonked over the head by the fact that this truly was a russian doll of gifts: inside the gift of out-of-the-blue scones, there was the gift of getting to make like i’d made them myself (if plopping the scones on parchment and sliding a baking sheet into and out of the oven amounts to “making them”).

and so this week, at the start of a very steep climb, i pulled the remaining half dozen dough triangles from out of the freezer bag, cranked the oven, and by the time the would-be goalie sauntered into the kitchen, a pedestal of deliciousness awaited. a pedestal of i’d-do-anything-to-help-you-make-this-team. if only i could make you grow six or 12 inches.

instead, i’m confined to buttery lumps of blueberry deliciousness. and the hope that each morsel fuels the pit so deep in his belly.

amy’s scones were merely one thread of the love blanket we’ve been weaving here all week. the young lad’s big brother, who had no reason to awake before dawn, set his alarm for six on the first of three days of twice-a-day tryouts. he climbed groggily into the would-be goalie’s four-poster bed. and there they lay, side by side, the big one whispering brotherly courage into the younger one’s ear. we’ve made it our job to be his bumper pads for this roller-coaster of a week. steaks have been grilled; silence, honored. ben-gay has been rubbed up and down legs, and water bottles have been filled and filled some more. word comes tonight. 

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i’m telling you, friends, these scones are blessed. and that magic of having them at-the-ready, with the bonus of hot-from-the-oven-ness, prompted me to beg my friend amy for the recipe, so i could bring them to you, here at the table. she calls them “life’s a butter dream,” because that’s what her son sam said when he took his first bite. 

Life’s A Butter Dream Scones

provenance: amy manata, baker, art teacher, glorious good and generous soul.

4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries ( or whatever you like, I’ve used apricots, choc. chips, anything)

Directions

-Use the Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt.
– Add in the cold butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in small pieces.
-Mix the eggs and heavy cream and add them to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended.
-Add the blueberries, and mix quickly. ( I freeze the blueberries so they don’t smoosh) The dough may be a bit sticky.
-Put the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined.
-Flour your hands and flatten the dough 3/4-inch thick, and rectangle shape. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.
-Cut into squares and then cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.
-Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
This is when I freeze them on a baking sheet so they don’t stick together.

To Bake:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with cream or milk. Sprinkle with “Sugar in the Raw,” and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

because these scones came to me in an act of sublime out-of-the-blue kindness, i’m convinced they beg to be passed along in that very same spirit. so consider them next time you’re in the mood for committing an act of random kindness.

i know that for lots of reasons this was a tough week for chair folk. here, too. sending love and prayers to everyone who faced — and faces still — uphill climbs.  

what’s the latest act of random kindness that’s come your way? and how, precisely, was it pulled off?IMG_8066

sacramental supper

sacrament supper

it came over me as if i’d been out on a splintering raft in the middle of the swallowing seas, as if for days and days i’d not seen dry shore. nor steady mooring to cling to. but there, not too far out of my reach, was the sea-battered timber planted in the sandy bottom. the end post of a barnacle-crusted dock i couldn’t quite make out, and it came out of nowhere.

looked like hope to me.

so i reached for it. reached into the meat bin at the bottom of the fridge. hauled out the pack of cubes of cow (so sorry, cow). then i hauled out the cook pot, the one so hefty it could break a toe. a pack of toes. i glopped in a spill of oil, olive oil slick across the now-sizzling surface. and in plopped the cubes of beef. i browned and hummed. that’s what cooking on a thursday morning does.

i was burrowing into the holiness, the sacrament of middle-of-the-week, because-they-need-it, because-we-all-need-it supper. it would be ladled at long day’s end, when, for a moment, hands would be clasped, prayers raised, then forks. and a certain emptiness, filled.

that’s the mystery and alchemy of all-day puttering at the cookstove. it’s the only thing some days, some weeks, that beelines to the crannies in our heart where words can’t go. that seeps into hollows hungry for so very much.

since this was sacramental, after all, i set the altar while beef cubes sizzled: old chipped blue willow plates, ratty napkins that could use a spin through the sewing machine. cobalt glasses, ones that all day long catch the light, spill streams of blue across the old maple planks of the handed-down kitchen table, the one that still wears the imprint of third-grade homework from back in 1965 (or so i calculate, judging by the particular child’s scrawl and the certain words pressed into the wood).

sacramentum, the latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from splattered sheaf of follow-along instructions, clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?

i think not.

to serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and irish butter, “i love you dearly, and i’m so sorry i’ve been distracted. so sorry i’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” to say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (i splurged on the one that shouted, “extra creamy!”), “forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the holy half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. and each other.”

because, really, i think we can taste the difference. oh, umami is umami. and sweet is sweet. but don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through — not whipping it off in the last 10 minutes before the hunger sirens screech — doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through short cut piled atop short cut?

yesterday, the day was afghan autumnal, all gray and woolly, the sort of day when you hunker inside, when the cookstove yodels to you. when the burners itch to be cranked. and the bins of rutabaga and turnip and parsnip — all those underground offerings that soak up what the earth’s deep dark soil has to share — they beg for vegetable peeler, and chopping block, and long hours surrendering to flame.

it was the sort of day-after-hubbub when quiet invited me in for a long slow visit. nothing rushed about the day. a day to breathe deep, breathe slow. to fill my lungs with quiet prayers, the prayers of lavishing love on the ones so dear to me, the ones who deserve nothing less than the very best dinner i could chop and stir and taste-test along the way. and while i’m at it, why not take it up a zany notch? just because there’s never enough oomph in an ordinary day. and what day, really, deserves to be plain old ordinary?

by supper time, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass went inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big red smash-your-toes cook pot, the hot breaths that trespassed out of the oven, they crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.

before i’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. the house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?

to say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: “you are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking, just for you. i’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. to fill you with warm spoonfuls — as much as you want, there’s plenty here. and i’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. and you so richly deserve each and every morsel i can muster.”

the day was chilly brisk. i did what i could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. and to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.

far as i can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. with a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.

beef stew

like all the best recipes, i start with something on paper, and then i riff. i zig when instructions say zag. add a dollop instead of a dab. the beef stew recipe i’ve decided is the one worthy of a long day’s cooking is one from that gloriously down-to-earth pioneer woman, ree drummond, and it’s one she calls “sunday night stew.” even on a thursday.

your thoughts on the sacrament called slow-cooked supper? or how do you best dollop extra helpings of plain pure love? 

beef stew matters

beef stew

a confession: all week i’ve been considering the fine points of stew. i’ve pondered the layering of flavorful notes. ruminated over anchovies. weighed root vegetables. detailed the pluses of rutabaga, countered with low points of turnip. i’ve dwelled on umami, that quixotic elixir we’re all after.

i’ve settled at last on a roadmap. any hour now, i’ll be cranking the flame, putting grass-fed beef chunks to the iron-hot scald of my three-thousand-pound cook pot. it’s what you do when you want a fine stew.

now this stew won’t be spooned to anyone’s mouth — not unless you count the teaspoons i’ll taste as i stir and i fiddle — till saturday’s eve. and that’s the whole point. i want the whole universe contained in my pot to cross-pollinate, to send ambassadorial missions from, say, the rings of the leek to the eye of anchovy (do those little squirmers have eyes? i’ll soon know the answer, once i peel back the lid and give them a look-see). i want a marriage — not a divorce — of fine flavor. i want the chunk of the beef to waltz with the dice of the carrot.

why, you might wonder, am i plopping my self into such a pressure-packed cooker? why in the world does this simple potage so very much matter?

take your pick:

a.) a wintry stew, served to a hungry tableau, is the raison d’être of this season of ice and blustery winds and bone-chilling temps that makes us ponder the wisdom of bears who pack it all up and go under cover from, say, the thanksgiving feast till the rising of easter.

b.) i quake in fear of that hushed moment when forks put to mouths lead to the audible verdict. i’ve sat there before when only after a pause does some polite — and half-hearted voice — pipe up with a “oh, this is good.” or, worse: not a word.

truth be told — and we’re truth-tellers here — it’s b more than anything that has me engaged. cooking for me is not just a dalliance, not a way to whittle away a few friday afternoon hours. no, cooking for me is self-taught survival.

i am still, after all these decades, battling away demons you’d maybe not notice. did you know, for instance, how much pride i felt when i typed out the sentence about tasting spoonfuls? i’ve promised myself — as i’ve made so many promises before — that i will taste as i stir. that doesn’t sound one bit scary to you, i imagine. but it does to me. and it’s why that moment of fork-to-mouth, that very first taste at a table of people i love or especially a table of folks i don’t know too well, has at times left me feeling as if the chair’s been pulled out from under me. all these years i’ve cooked by feel, cooked without tasting — a veritable braille at the cookstove — and i don’t know till everyone else does if i’ve over-walloped the salt, or short-changed the wine.

but that was then, and this is now. i am nudging myself into a new chapter. i am filling my table with people i love, and a few who i only scantily know. i am a living-breathing believer in the power of putting ideas to the world, and the best place that i know for birthing fine thought, for bridging frames of reference, is the dinner table.

it’s curious, perhaps, that i invest so much faith in the gathering of great good souls to my table. but the way i see it, the dinner table is merely the classroom, the seminar chamber, set with knives, forks and a battalion of glassware.

so, if you want to bring together great stews of ideas, of stories, of wisdom, of light, you need to stoke the flame with the richest, most sublime assemblage of feast and drink and, yes, a darn lovely haul from the old plate collection.

it’s why i’ve been turning to my panel of master teachers, all lined up on the shelves of my kitchen — and a few who walk and talk and dispense real-life secrets. it’s why i am hurling martha stewart across the room, but sidling up to david tanis, a generous-hearted cook (formerly of chez panisse and a regular in the new york times, for heaven’s sake) endowed with a down-to-earth soul who finds perfection in a simple soft-boiled egg and who writes that the peeling of carrots and onions for a simple stew “can be meditative.”

it’s not about wow-ing. it’s about allowing the feast to speak for the part of my heart and my soul that breathes beyond words.

the equation i’m after, the blueprint i seek, is one that’s infused with humility, yet banks on the notion that dolloping grace and deliciousness — both in measures sublime — onto my table is bound to spiral the talk a notch or two, and kindle the room with a shared sense of the sacred: this table matters, what unfolds here is sacramental; and as the one who’s done the gathering, i’ve infused it with the very best i could muster.

i’m finding my way. even at this late date in the game. and, any moment now, i’ll be feeling my way — and tasting my way — to a beef stew that matters. perhaps, more than it should. but not really, not when you know all that’s infused in its making.

here’s the roadmap i’m more or less following, a revamping from two solid sources: food52, that amazing online kitchen of amanda hesser and friends, and the pioneer woman, who has proven herself to stand on two solid legs when it comes to the cookstove.

My Secret Ingredient Pioneer Woman Saturday Night Beef Stew

Provenance: Food52 + Pioneer Woman. annotations by bam (and remember, this is a work in progress).

Ingredients

STEW:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

3 pounds Beef Stew Meat (chuck Roast Cut Into Chunks)

Salt And Pepper

1 whole Medium Onion, Diced

2 Leeks, sliced

7 cloves Garlic, Minced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 package (8 oz.) Baby Bella Mushrooms

6 ounces, weight Tomato Paste

2 Anchovies

Dried Porcini Mushrooms (1/2 ounce; Melissa’s packet)

4 cups Low Sodium Beef Stock Or Broth, More If Needed For Thinning

1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar

1 cup canned whole Tomatoes with Juice (or 1 can)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 Bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 whole Carrots, Peeled And Diced

1 whole Turnips, Peeled And Diced

1/2 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

Pearl Onions, frozen; about a cup.

1/3 cup to 2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley

MASHED POTATOES:

5 pounds Russet Potatoes (peeled)

1 package (8 Ounce) Cream Cheese, Softened

1 stick Butter, Softened

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

Salt And Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions:

Pat dry, then salt and pepper stew meat. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown 1/3 the stew meat until the outside gets nice and brown, about 2 minutes. (Turn it as it browns.) Remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a plate. Add the rest of the meat, in thirds, to the pot and brown it, too. Remove it to the same plate. Set the meat aside.

Add the leeks, onion and garlic to the pot, stirring it to coat it in all the brown bits in the bottom of the pot. Cook for two minutes, then add the carrots and mushrooms and again, cook for a few minutes. Add tomato paste AND ANCHOVIES to the pot. Stir it into the alliums and vegetables and let it cook for two more minutes.

Meanwhile soak dried Porcini mushrooms in 1 cup warm water.

Add wine vinegar, tomatoes with juice.

Pour in the beef stock, stirring constantly. Add salt, bay leaf and thyme, bring to boil. Stir in porcini mushrooms; then add beef back to the pot, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, add the diced turnips and carrots AND RUTABAGA AND PARSNIP to the pot. Stir to combine, put the lid back on the pot, and let it simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. The sauce should be very thick, but if it seems overly so, splash in some beef broth until it thins it up enough. Feel free to add beef broth as needed!

When the ROOT VEGETABLES are tender, stir in minced parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

When cool, skim off much of the fat from the top. Reheat over low heat, letting the stew simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Serve piping hot in a bowl with mashed potatoes, letting the juice run all over everything. Mix in half of the parsley and garnish with the rest. Sprinkle with extra minced parsley at the end.

MASHED POTATOES:

Cut the potatoes into quarters and cover with water in a large pot. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then put them back into the same pot. With the heat on low, mash the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes to release as much steam as possible.

Turn off heat, then add cream cheese, butter, cream, seasoned salt, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve potatoes immediately or spread them into a buttered baking dish to be reheated later. To reheat, put them in a 375 degree oven, covered in foil, until hot.

happy tasting, sweet friends.

it’s a scary thing to write as open-heartedly and honestly as i just did. but sometimes when i’m sitting here at the old maple table, i consider the connection we’ve all forged over the years, and i reach for the bottle of truth serum and swallow a spoonful. i feel like i owe it to the chairs, to not just write some mamby-pamby distraction about how i’ve whiled away a week, but rather, if you’re going to take the time to put eyes to these words, you deserve a dose of courage. it’s especially scary to tiptoe into this realm when i know my mothers — my own mama and my mother-in-law whom i adore (along with my father-in-law) — are among the readers. but when you write from the heart, you’ve made a commitment to not pussyfoot around. you straight shoot even when it makes you tremble. if you believe in authenticity — and i do — there’s only one path up the mountain. and it sometimes gives me the shakes. but in the long run, i just might find my way. and look out from that long-awaited vista. 

a multiple choice of questions (take your pick): a.) what makes you quake? or b.) what’s your go-to winter recipe? 

awash in grace

potpieon a cold winter’s night, after a long day in the hollows and dim-lit caverns of a hospital, where the smells are of ether, and the blinking and beeping and red-letter alarms leave you jangled and cored. on a cold winter’s night when your breath freezes in clouds as it puffs from your mouth and your nose, on a night as inky black and icy as that, there is nothing quite so heavenly fine as flicking on the lights to your dark old house, your empty house, and just as you’re beginning to stir about the kitchen, eager to feed your hungry, tired, shoved-aside child, suddenly the doorbell rings.

and there, wearing potholders as mittens, is your rock-of-gibraltar across-the-street neighbor and most blessed friend, a woman who since the night you moved in nearly 11 years ago has defined the art of being there. she is bearing hot-from-the-oven from-scratch chicken pot pie, comfort food enshrined in pyrex, comfort food the way the gods must have first dreamed it.

she is there with hot feathery islands of biscuit, floating atop an ocean of white-meat chicken and succulent broth. she’s chopped carrots, tossed in handfuls of garden peas and knobby pearl onions. she’s laced it with herbs snipped from her winter garden. and, as she stands there, ferrying the feast from the arctic blast at the door to the kitchen counter that moments ago had looked so forlorn, so empty, so begging for food, you feel a healing ooze deep down inside, deep down to where you hadn’t even realized it had all been emptied out.

only, suddenly, with this rock-solid, infinitely un-wobbable woman standing there, you realize that for the very first time all day you are leaning on someone, literally sagging your whole weight against her. you are breathing, exhale and inhale. you’ve just let out all your cares and your worries, your deep-down, tucked-away fear from that one awful moment when the breathing machine let out its shrill alarm of a warning. you have let it — all of it — whoosh right out of you, and as you lean into her sturdy down-coated self, you realize you are utterly, deeply letting her keep you upright. and she is providing.

and that’s how it is in those rare moments of grace, when the angels among us reveal their holy selves. when we are fed. when we are soothed. when we are reminded we needn’t bear it all by our lonesome, whatever it is that needs bearing.

and there is something especially otherworldly about the communion that comes with feeding, being fed, putting fork to lips, tasting deliciousness, feeling that warm lump slide down to the depths of our belly. it is surely sacramental. i’m guessing it’s why manna fell from the heavens, and not washcloths or soles for desert-worn sandals.

there are scant few times in our lives when we are so deeply hollowed. when we’ve been holding our breath for hours and days. might as well have been months. and someone arrives bearing food — that sustenance that takes flight where words fall off the cliff.

i remember those meals, will forever remember those meals, meals that bring me to tears, so deep a place did each of them feed me:  the salad brought to my hospital bedside, complete with china bowl, and silver fork and knife, after my belly had been sliced side to side, and i’d felt so emptied. the hot chicken pot pie ushered in with the arctic draft at my door the night before last.

these are the kindnesses, the graces, that serve as angel wings, that literally lift us and carry us. that prop up our wobbly selves before we fall splat on our faces.

this week has been a week of being awash in grace. every bend in a hospital hallway seemed to bring an unexpected, unscripted angel. the dear old man who ushered my brother and i from the waiting room to the tiny cubicle where my poor mama lay, caught in that netherworld of anesthesia and age. where she somehow mustered the presence of mind to lift her ring finger from amid all the tubes, and ask, scratchily, “can i have my rings back?” for they’d made her take off her wedding rings — hers and my papa’s — hers, for the first time since she’d slipped on that thick gold band back in october of 1954, nearly 60 years on her finger, that ring.

there was the kind-hearted friend who barely heard word of my mama’s surgery and wasted no time dropping off a plush polka-dot blanket, one lined in cardinal red. one that kept me wrapped while i waited, and now keeps my mama wrapped on the long hospital nights.

another cardinal-loving soulmate sent along a teapot painted with the scarlet-feathered breath-taker my mama taught me to love, the one i always think of as hope on a wing. in a gesture of kitchen sisterhood that melts me, two dear friends are huddling together at a cookstove tomorrow, and together whipping up a saturday night feast for me and the next brother who’s flying in to town.

the brother who drove five hours to be here. the one flying in now from faraway maine. the two even farther away who’ve been calling and texting as if we’re all on a string connected to juice cans.

weeks like this one remind you that deep down we don’t ever go it alone. angels huddle and plot out the game plan. whose kindness will come just when it’s needed. whose understanding — without words — will ease you over the hump.

the acts of compassion are infinite. their depth is immeasurable. they’re as essential as oxygen, as unexpected as lightning bolts in a winter’s storm. they keep us from withering. they take up the load that might otherwise grind us into swept-away piles of dust.

bless them, each and every one, through and through and forever.

dear chairs, i type through bleary braincells. and can barely wrap words around thoughts. i’m keeping one eye on the clock, on the arrival of u.s. airways flight 1991, carrying my beloved brother. the chair turned seven yesterday, 12.12. the chair seems to have grown into one of those gathering grounds for angels, who ALWAYS keep me propped upright. love to all. i’m off to the airport. xoxox

tell your favorite prop-me-up tales? what unexpected angels have landed on your doorstep? who’s graced you with kindness you would have dreamed of wishing for????

cooking for company

i’ll be humming today. most of the day. for i have one main mission: i’m cooking for company.

oh, no one’s ringing the bell till tomorrow night. and when the bell rings it will be old, dear friends. friends we grew up with, all of us with jewish-catholic kids, all of us finding our way. among the crowd will be the woman who took my breath away long, long ago, when we sat down to a table at the very first meeting of our little interfaith school, and she looked up and down both sides of that table and announced: “we’re here, because one or both of you (among the pairs learning their way in the raising of jewish and catholic children) is passionate about your religion.” a finer reason to be at a table, i’d not encountered, not lately.

that particular woman, and her particular husband, rose to hero status in my mind, when one rosh hashanah we sat down at their table, a whole ring of good souls seated there, and the doorbell rang. and a disheveled but beautiful woman stepped into the room. her name was “lovie,” and she was homeless. but she knew, because she’d been ushered in so many times, that if she climbed the steps of the front stoop on berwyn avenue, she would always find a place at the table, and endless plates of food. but more than that, she would find the richest, most curious company.

no wonder i call this crowd my lights along the way.

our children are grown now, the ones who together reached for the crayons and drew pictures of God, the ones who traced the histories of judaism and catholicism. who read the stories of clashes and wars and injustice, sometimes, heartbreakingly sadly, under the banner of God.

each one of the couples who will come to my table tomorrow, we’ve all just deposited a child — or in one case, three children — far away at a college — or colleges, in the case of the triplets. where the growing goes on, far far away from all of us.

and because i love each and every one of these someones, i am cooking my heart out.

for a minute or two, i considered ordering in. calling up the middle eastern place with the fabulous kifta and shawarma and baba ganoush, reeling off my plea for oversized aluminum pans filled to the brim with deliciousness.

but i changed my mind.

these are great good souls i want to cook for. i want to chop and stir and saute. i want to hear the red wine glugging into the pot. want to hear the chicken sizzle when it hits the olive oil, the garlic.

i want the house to fill with the savory song of coq au vin cooking.

i want to put a bit of my heart in that pot. i want to have labored.

because, call me crazy, i think you can taste it.

i think when you cook for company, when you cook for people you love, it always comes out in the broth, in the essence. could that be the reason we sometimes lick plates?

it’s the same with setting a table. it’s as if you wedge open a space in your heart. you lay down forks and butter knives and old chipped china with a mix of charm and occasion. you lay down layers of story: those plates found in the cupboard when you moved into the house you bought from the two guys who took the time to find out you loved blue, and figured you were a wiser option than the resale store, where those old willow plates would have been headed had you not fallen in love, with the house, yes, but, too, with the guys who were selling it.

it’s why i’ll be out in the chilly cold garden today, clippers in hand, bringing in heads of hydrangea and rosehips to tuck in a vase, to make it all beautiful. layers of beauty, i’ve found, gild conversation. make words sparkle. stories tumble and spill, like jewels from a bag.

it’s all part of the alchemy, the gift and the joy of inviting in company. of taking the time to clear out a date, to anticipate, to imagine the words and the faces crowded there in the kitchen.

there is nothing i love quite so much as a crowd in my kitchen. i love the snippets of words, of one someone’s story mixed with another’s. sometimes, i step off to the side. i soak it all in. i memorize the moment.

and then, when everyone’s deeply absorbed, i might lift the lid on my old red dutch oven. the hint of the wine and the garlic will rise.

deep down, someone might notice, might realize, might get it: she cooked for the whole of us. she didn’t take short cuts.

in a world of instant and virtual, she did the real thing. she cooked from her heart. she pulled out a table of beautiful somethings.

she set the stage. and company came.

xoxo from my house to yours. what’s your go-to company recipe? and what fuss do you make in setting the stage? i am utterly taken by the fine art of hospitality, of those good-hearted, generous souls who understand the magic of gathering company and making it last long after the last of the sparkling cleaned dishes is tucked back on the shelf. spill your dinner party secrets and stories, if you please….

mama lu’s noodles

of all the rooms in a house, the one most inhabited with ghosts and stirrings from the past, surely, is the one with chopping block and place to wield a wooden spoon, and stove top and oven.

that’s not meant to be the start of any halloween tale (what with that a month away, it’s not yet in my scope).

but rather it is the alchemy of cooking, of heart, that happens when you come back to the kitchen, and find yourself standing side-by-side with souls no longer there, souls who spring to life with the mere flipping of a cookbook page, or simply an idea. a chunk of bread. a stick of butter. a bag of fat wide noodles.

and so it was, the other eve, when i, the irish cook, stood stirring for the jewish new year. oh, the big lamb stew, the one we’ve chopped and stirred and simmered for 20 years now (mind you, taking time to pause and eat it, not perpetually simmering for two long decades), that lamb stew was coming on the holiday itself.

this was the eve of rosh hashanah, and we were sliding from a work day into sacred time, and we hadn’t lots of hours to prepare some five-course feast.

so i was winging it. i’d started with chicken (jewish enough), added carrots (still sticking with the peasant basics), had grabbed a bag of noodles (not too far a stroll from the kugel i’d be stirring soon enough).

it’s when the noodles hit the boiling water. started up the noodle dance, as they bobbed and dove in roiling bubbling vat. that’s when mama lu, my long-gone german grandma, came strolling in the kitchen.

tapped me right on the shoulder, she did. shoved a stick of butter in my face. made me turn and grab the day-old challah, a loaf she never knew.

before i knew it, she had a knife in my hand, and i was cutting challah cubes. i grabbed the skillet, unwrapped the golden stick of butter, and let mama lu go wild. just like in the old days, in the days when i, no higher than her apron string, would stand to the side of her cincinnati stove, and watch her wield the cast iron and the wooden spoon as the butter oozed and bubbled. as she dumped in the hard-angled bread cubes. as it all spit and jumped and made a happy sizzle.

oh, mama lu’s noodles were a mound of joy to us. she let nothing get between those butter-sodden cubes and her noodles. no worries about fat grams or cholesterol (though her ice box door was ALWAYS plastered with cut-out cartoons of gals lamenting they weren’t skinny; my grandma, the original weight watcher).

and so, all these decades later, as i cooked my way toward rosh hashanah eve, my german catholic grandma joined me in the kitchen. and for the first time, her buttered crouton noodles were the crowning glory of the new year’s table.

my boys, the two still home, oohed and ahhed and ate.

i hope my grandma hung around to hear the joy uncorked. it’s a crazy gorgeous thing, the way the kitchen has no walls, no separation of the decades. the one room where we all tumble back together, over time and beyond heartache. where one lick of the finger, or one stick of butter, can bring us all to life, and join us at the heart.

who’s come calling in your kitchen lately?

i have to say one of the sweetest moments of the week was when my fellow stew stirrer, the one with whom i’ve stirred the rosh hashanah lamb-and-rice-and-chickpeas-and-apples-and-raisin-and-cinnamon-and-allspice stew for the past two decades, was poking around the cookery book, the one that opens to the splattered page, and found tucked inside, the receipts from our old city butcher shop from the year before we moved here, and sweetest of all, the sheet of prayers from the hyde park hillel where we spent rosh hashanah in 1993. when i was holding in my arms a fairly newborn boy, and rocking him in the tightly-packed pews was the holiest prayer i had ever prayed. that boy, missing from this year’s table.

the magic of mexican fried steak

it’s not happened often, but every once in a while, a boy runs out of gas. tank drained. big empty. not one ounce left.

and so, you tuck the boy in bed. even when he’s longer than the old twin bed. even when his past-noon* feets dangle over the edge.

you tuck him in and let him sleep and sleep and sleep.

you worry about his weary self. you check on him, from time to time, just as when he was a dimpled little boy. you touch his brow. and when you’re sure he’s in a deep, deep sleep, you kiss him on the stubbled cheek.

while he dreams the morn away, you wend your way to the butcher shop. you browse the steaks, the marbled slabs of muscle. you pluck one that’s on a bone.

you decide that in the hierarchy of mother’s magic potions, you are well beyond the need for oatmeal, you’ve climbed the charts to up where red meat looms. only cure that’s surer is one involving hypodermic needles. and needles make you queazy, so you stick to steak and its soul-restoring powers.

this is wise, because when you dare to rouse the sleeping man-boy, you have arsenal in your defense. you have new york strip to dangle.

why, you’ve seen the circus trainers do the same: dangle steak in front of cats, big cats, cats with killer teeth, to turn them into docile kittens.

not that any boy i know would growl or snarl or bite my head off. but when awaking worn-out, on-empty man-boy, i find a steak is handy.

and so on the edge of bed i sat, whispered words of red meat. i saw the smile spread across his lovely face. i saw the eyelids flutter open.

“if it’s too much,” i said, “we can go with oatmeal.”

ah, no, he answered rather sprightly. “au contraire. quite the opposite.” a steak, he said, was in his dreams.

but not just any steak: a mexican fried steak, was what he had in mind. so, with the click of that magic phone that coughs up all the answers, he typed in spanish words, came up with the abuela’s path to steak perfection, or in this case milanesas empanizada. that is, mexican fried steak.

with one swift leap, he was out of bed and down the stairs. he was talking bread crumbs, garlic, egg bath. red meat. meat so red i swear it moo’d.

we put our little heads together, he and i: grabbed a loaf of challah. swiped off the shelf the dusty mini-processor, a chopping-blending whiz my adopted jewish grandma gave me once upon a time.

we splitzed in bread. we added cloves of garlic. we inhaled. we sighed aloud.

we cooked our way to cure. we shook in cumin, poured in salt, cracked pepper. for good measure we added a little packet of something called “milwaukee avenue steak seasoning,” a smoky rub named for a windy-city thoroughfare where you can’t help but stumble over steaks of every stripe and cut.

“it’ll be chicago mexican fried steak,” declared the sous chef, smiling down on me.

and so, through that alchemy that is the holy work of kitchens, with a little splitzing, the cracking of two eggs, and the bathing of that steak, first in yolky goop and then in silken challah-garlic-cumin-milwaukee crumbs (that sous chef dabbed on quite a blanket there of crumbs), we turned the noontime into one of pure true joy.

we were cooking side-by-side. we were laughing, leaping out of sizzling oil’s way. for that deeply adorned steak, what with its eggy under-garments, and its crumby top-dressing, it was dropped in pool of hot corn oil, and it was turning into resurrection breakfast, served at 12:15 on what would have been a schoolday, restoring life to the once-nearly lifeless.

i never cease to marvel at the powers that rise from stove or oven. how what goes on there truly fills our pores, our weary bones. and most of all the tickers deep inside.

by lunchtime’s end, as the man-boy rubbed the last red drop of beefy juice right off his plate, as he sipped the last of his orange juice, he was joyful once again. he was ready, one more time, to take a lap on the track called life.

i rinsed the plate. i put away the fixings.

and i whispered a thank-you prayer to the abuela who’d led us to the restoration grotto, where miracles come to those who wield the fry pan.

* “past-noon” referring to the size of a foot is a favorite family expression, coined by a state-street shoe salesman who once measured my husband’s size 13s and declared, “oh, you’re past noon,” meaning higher than 12s. we have loved that phrasing ever since. and now two of three boys around here are past noons. and one is approaching as swiftly as he can…

what foods in your arsenal hold the holy cure? for the days when those you love can barely make it from the bed? and why do you think the kitchen is one room that holds such mystic powers??

oh, because we’d never keep a cure from you, here’s abuela’s milanesas de res empanizadas, as translated from the original.

ingredients:
1 / 2 Kilo of beef for breading Steak (that’s just about a pound, people)


2 eggs 
Bread for breading (we used three-day-old challah)


Ground Pepper 
Salt 
Oil
(we added a dash of cumin, two cloves garlic, and a few shakes of milwaukee avenue steak seasoning, a heavenly smoky rub from the spice house in evanston, ill.)

preparation:
for perfection, you want to toss bread, garlic, and seasonings into mini food processor. splitz, or blend, in pulses till the aroma makes your knees wobble, and you consider stuffing fistfuls straight to your mouth, skipping the steak altogether.

Season the steak with salt and pepper. 

(you’ll want two bowls: one for eggs, one for bread crumbs; this is a two-bowl process, although abuela won’t tell you so.)

The eggs are stirred well with a fork, and the steaks are passed in the egg, then go through the bread crumbs and fry very well on both sides. 

Served and garnished with lettuce, tomato slices, onion slices.

you feel better already, now don’t you?

sometimes…

sometimes, when you’re a mama, you wish you could fix it all with an apple cut into crescent moons, and an oozy grilled cheese, and a wee ghost mug filled with chocolate-stirred milk.

sometimes, when you’re a mama, it’s nowhere so easy.

sometimes, say the night your firstborn promised the college essays would be done–signed, sealed, delivered–you find yourself checking the status, oh, every half hour. and it’s not too long till you realize this night could unravel right before your eyes.

and soon enough, you feel the weight of the world that bears down on the shoulders of the babe you once birthed to the world.

and as you sit there listening, sopping up heartache–his and, quickly, your own–you see in your mind’s eye the whole picture show of his life.

frame after frame spilling by.

and stunningly, awesomely, you grasp the enormity of the fact that you’ve been there for a front-row seat all the way along. and you cannot think of one other someone you have known so utterly wholly–every night fever and rash, every scuffle and pitfall. the girl who said no to the dance. and the one who this summer said yes.

and, by now slid down against the chair where he is curled, your shoulder against the sides of his thick rower’s legs, you think back to the hours and months before he was born.

you remember when your belly got to the brink of a room, any room, before the rest of you did. and how you loved that belly. how you tried on the clothes that would show it off well before you needed to wear them. because, after waiting a lifetime, you could wait not one minute longer.

you wanted this more than anything ever–before or since.

and you remember, back then, how you promised yourself, promised the unborn babe, promised the universe, and God too, that you would love that sweet not-yet-met someone so wholly and so completely, surround that sweet someone in such an un-pierce-able bubble of love, that babe would never be knocked back by the high waves of doubt and despair that, too often, threatened to topple you over–and did, more than just once.

and you really thought, back then, that committing to love was all it would take.

and so you set out to make it come true.

why, you’d practically wear that babe on your chest, barely put him down, sleep curled right beside him. you’d hardly go out, rarely bring in a sitter. you’d work from home, give up the downtown office–just to be minutes away, always.

you would do everything under the sun, for years and years and years, to keep that child from knowing the heartache that you could not bear to imagine.

the heartache that now seeped into the room, filling it like a hose with a spigot, as you sit there on a cold autumn night, watching him struggle to type in a chair with a screen that resists being filled with his thoughts, with his words, with his sketchpad for college.

you hear a depth of heartache that rips your own right out from your chest. and so, when the talking is done, you cannot walk back to your bed. you cannot leave his room, you realize.

you can’t type the words, can’t pull the thoughts from the utterly drained mind that is his–he’s been at it for days now.

but you can’t sleep down the hall. so you do what mamas do, sometimes. you stay where you feel the pull.

you curl up on the floor. lay your head on the emptied-out backpack, make like it’s the pillow.

and you close your eyes while the typing starts up again. the pads of his fingers tapping their way toward college.

and you feel the tears roll down your cheeks from under your closed eyelids. you taste the salt of the runaway one that rolls over your lips. you wipe it away before it’s noticed.

once upon a time you thought you could love your child free from all this. safe from all of this.

and at every turn along the way, you did what you thought would stoke him with strength, with joy, with lightness of heart.

but then on a dark night at the end of october, when all the colleges begged their assignments, you realized that, sometimes, in the end, all you can do is lie there and pray.

and wait for the dawn, finally, to come.

i write this for all of us, the mothers, the fathers, who keep vigil through these final days and nights, as high school seniors around the country, type out their thoughts and their big ideas for colleges who will or won’t let them in through the gates at the head of the line, the early decision line. and i write this for all those who love children at whatever stage, whenever and wherever and however they stumble and struggle. i know, because i have friends, that ours wasn’t the only house that felt dark last night as all the desklamps burned.

on a much lighter note, i promised a word on breakfast with ina, the barefoot contessa. she is, in a short string of words, everything you would hope she is. and so much more. she oozes goodness. engages in deep conversation. sparks up at a question. wraps it all up with a genuine hug. you get up from the table feeling as if you’ve just made a friend. one you’ve known for a long long time. which in so many ways, i did.

what dark nights have found you keeping vigil, curled up beside the someone you so thoroughly love?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.