pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: recipe

when a scone is so much more than delicious

IMG_8069

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. 

IMG_7937

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

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? 

pause. bow head. strike sullenly pose.

“did you see the obituaries?” my mother asked, first thing in the day. she was insistent. she was bothered. “peg died.”
peg bracken, she meant. peg, who might as well have been our next-door neighbor growing up. the one who passed virginia slims over the picket fence. poured a cocktail soon as the kiddies polished off the afterschool snack. i’m thinking her only use for her apron was to wipe her muddy shoes.
despite–or because of–the anarchy, my mother consulted her. followed her. stood off in the corner of the kitchen with her, often, snickering in a most unusual way.
she was apparently, my mother’s alter ego. she was, maybe, the trouble maker my mother wasn’t. she was, in 1960, when her book came out, her cookbook, her anti-cookbook, really, “the i hate to cook book,” a breath of something new in the simmering winds over by the range (for what had been the stove became the range somewhere there in the latter half of the last century).
her most famous recipe, perhaps, the one that’s been unfurled for all the obits, is the one for “skid road stroganoff.”
it goes like this:
“start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the water. brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”
you must love a woman who whisks “sullenly” into a recipe for stroganoff. even if the thought of stroganoff has you grabbing for the counter while you tamper down the urge to gag.
growing up in my house, that blue book with the funny drawings–the ones done, by the way, by the fellow who drew the daylights out of eloise at the plaza–stood mostly for one dish: a dish once named chicken rice roger. but in our house, now, it is mostly known as chicken rice grammy, for it is the perfect embodiment of all things cozy in a covered dish.
it a.) comes bubbling out of the oven, it’s b.) made with stuff dumped from a can, and c.) it is the surest cure for a bad day that i can think of.
of course, i’ve gussied it up over the years. but still i follow its cardinal rule. i mostly mess around with things that can be found in tin cans. i add artichoke hearts, which might be fresh or might be frozen, but from a can are just as good. i dump in broth, which again is happy from a can, is practically unheard of in my house in any made-from-scratch rendition.
it seems only fitting that we all bow our heads today. for i am guessing peg made her way, in one form or another, into the kitchens of our youth.
perhaps your mama made stayabed stew, sole survivor, or spinach surprise. certainly while james beard was informing half the country to saute, a fancy french verb that stood up the more american “to fry,” ms. bracken, a working mother who used her maiden name, mon Dieu, was subverting the other half.
fact is, she and betty friedan arose together. it’s just that bracken was a little quieter in her subversion. she was infiltrating suburban kitchens while friedan ransacked the bedrooms and beyond.
as the child of the i-hate-to-cook-book era i, of course, revolted. i grew up in a house where hamburger helper was tested for the folks at general mills. if it came, ready-mix, in a box, we were guinea pigs.
is it any wonder, then, that i stopped eating when i was 18? i decided frances moore lappe, she of small planet diet fame, she who wanted all the world to be fed fairly and without animal sacrifice, was more my speed. i worshipped at her altar, complemented protein all through college.
i am old enough, and far away enough, that now i see the humor in that food chain. my mother snickering in her corner, taking shortcuts willy nilly; me in mine, measuring grains, steaming broccoli.
i am old enough, now wise enough, i hope, that i can see the beauty too of a voice that whispered to my mother. told her to dump the long hours at the stove. get out, perhaps, play tennis.
for my mother who grew up with french nuns and a mother who made her wear white gloves, peg bracken was the safest radical she could invite into her kitchen.
if i drank something more than the wimpy white wine i sip each night, i might pour and lift a dry martini.
to peg, who made my mother giggle. to peg, who had her dumping cans all around the kitchen.
in case you’d like a taste o’ peg, here’s what we call chicken rice grammy
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 cup mushrooms
grated onion
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
chicken pieces

brown chicken. dump on top of rice, mushroom, onion, broth. bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

(note the lack of specificity up above, no one advising organic broth, basmati rice. just get the job done, seems to be the underlying message. and get it done, it surely did. a more delicious comfort dish, i’m hard-pressed to find.)

did you grow up with peg? was your mama snickering in the corner, staring sullenly into the sink? i thought it might be fitting to strike up a write-like-peg contest. feel free to pen your own bracken-esque recipe below. (use words like sullen with abandon, please)….and i would like to cordially invite my very own mama to say, in her words, why she so loved peg bracken….
p.s. i might be late tomorrow, as i must be in court at 9. and i think, even with chicken rice grammy under my belt, my tummy might be churning. so perhaps i’ll play court reporter and fill you in after all the courtroom drama. egad.

meatballs en masse

first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.

it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:

ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.

the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.

we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.

we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.

there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.

but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.

and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.

they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.

so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.

as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.

for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.

and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.

feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.

some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…

the egg lady

doorbell rang the other afternoon. dozen eggs dozing there, asleep in two rows. one, the palest shade of green, laid by a south american mama chicken. all the rest, variations on caramel. or these days, you might say variations on mocha skim latte.

it’s not everyday eggs come rolling to your door. not in the dead of winter. but not everyone knows the egg lady.

seems, apparently, that i do. name’s carol. and she delivers the fruits of the hen. she was out making her rounds. she had a dozen for sophie, the nail lady at some chic little shop. another dozen for marge, who scrubs faces. and a dozen for pablo, who cuts hair. and then there was me.

unannounced, without warning, i was the proud owner of twelve organic, whole-grain-fed eggs.

i am quite sure my heart wouldn’t have pounded harder if ol’ ed mcmahon himself had come to my door, thrust cardboard check in my hand. i mean, i am a girl who dreams of an egg-laying mama with feathers. i even have her a name: lady chanticleer. it’s only the town laws keeping her and her hay from me and my make-believe farm.

i could not get over their beauty, the eggs. ‘specially the green one. so pale it merely whispered of green. didn’t come out and hit you over the head with it. certainly wasn’t the easter-egg green my boys thought that i meant, when at dinner i opened the lid, showed off the twelve apostles, awaited the chorus of oohs and of ahhs.

i’d been told by the egg lady that the yolk was really the thing worth applause. so first thing next morning, i cracked one, two, then three. i applauded, all right. the yolks were like sunrises, all golden, towards orange. round and taut and knowing right where they stood. not the so-so yolks from the grocery store shelf, the ones that wobble and ooze with the softest prick of a fork.

i sizzled the trio in a bath of french butter, nothin’ but the best for these babies. frothed them a bit, gave them time to regroup, then i rolled their new ruffly selves onto a plate. my boys nearly licked it.

well, you don’t go worshipping eggs without knowing a bit about who did the laying, so i put in a call to the egg farmer himself.

denny wettstein’s his name, lives down in carlock, illinois, down in the mackinaw river valley, smack dab in the heart of the heartland. denny and emily, that’s the farmer’s wife, have nine children and about 350 laying hens right here in the middle of winter. they’ve got 500 acres they farm, organically. they’ve got cattle and sheep and goats and pigs, even turkeys until mid-november. until it’s time for the turkeys to lay down their heads for our overstuffed tables. in the spring and the summer, their egg-laying flock grows to 2,000, but that includes plenty of meat birds, as denny puts it, meaning the ones you slather with sauce and toss on your grill.

the egg-layers, they are the lucky ones. they live as long as they lay.

and these hens–rhode island reds, black astrolopes, barred rocks, and the green-laying one, the araucana (a magnificent chilean hybrid with white feathery tufts that shoot from her ears, and look a heck of a lot like the sides of a handlebar mustache)–these hens nibble all day on what must be gourmet chicken feed. whereas the hens that lay the eggs that you can grab off the shelf at the grocery store probably exist on a bland diet of just corn and soybeans, farmer denny is mixing his feed with his very own hands, and he makes for his hens a fine meal of five organic grains–corn, soybean, oats, wheat and this time of year when the pastures are ice, he grinds up hay for his girls. (in the summertime, the hens gulp down plenty of fresh grass, and fresh bugs, too, and denny says a summer egg is even more lip-lickin’ than these in the bug-less days of winter.)

now these hens are not cooped up in some cold crowded apartment. nope. they live in a heated house, thank you, where they can imbibe of warm water and feed 24 hours a day. like an all-night diner.

and denny tells me, the chickens, what with their feathers, don’t mind the cold. but they are rather finicky about snows on their feets.

i asked denny how he likes his eggs best, and he gave me the recipe for egg-and-cheese casserole. when i inquired as to how many eggs i might want to crack for this casserole, he chuckled. told me at his house they use two dozen for breakfast. but then, he reminded, he’s putting eggs in nine little mouths.

you might not need two dozen for your crew.

here’s how denny does breakfast: crack eggs; add cheese, grated; toss in chopped onion, peppers, sausage, potatoes, whatever stirs you; stir. pour into buttered casserole. let sit in fridge overnight. pop in 350-degree oven come sunrise. bake for 40 to 45 minutes, you’ll have to keep an eye on your eggs.

but then, if they’re denny’s, you’ll want to.

the wettstein’s amazing organic eggs are coming to oak park this saturday. they’ll be at the buzz cafe, by the dozen, from 1 to 3 in the afternoon. they’re $4 a dozen when they make the trip up to chicago. but if you want to drive down to carlock, turn in at the farm gate just off u.s. highway 150, and grab a dozen out of the ice box on the wettstein’s front porch, they’re a steal at $2.50 a dozen. the ice box is open six days a week. buzz cafe is at the corner of harrison and lombard, a whole lot closer than carlock. tell denny hullo for me.

p.s. did i mention that the wettstein eggs are, at most, three days from the nest when they slide into the carton, and land on your stoop? the ones you find at the grocery might be as many as 30 days old. oh, what a difference those days make…

baking for God

if you wandered by my house, you would never stop to think, hmm, something unusual happens inside that house. not any more than you would think that at anyone else’s house.

but inside my house, once a month or so now that my kitchen is back in business, i bake for God. yes, yes.

not in the way dear benny, grandson of a bagel baker in the charming, makes-you-brush-away-a-tear, children’s book “bagels from benny,” ferries the hot bag of bagels into the synagogue every friday morning, tucks them into the holy ark, the blessed cabinet where the torah scroll is kept. only to find, come every saturday morning, that the bagels are gone. and he is convinced he is feeding bagels to God.

no, i don’t bake for God that way. though i cherish the story, cherish the thought.

in the uncanniest twist for a girl who grew up knowing that only cloistered nuns in faraway places were holy enough to mix the wheat with the water that would be cut into wafers that would rest on our tongues and get stuck to the roofs of our mouths, all in the name of jesus, well, i bake communion.

yes, yes.

the same ovens that once a week transform twisty dough into risen sweet challah, once a month turn hot water (4 cups), white flour (2 1/2 cups), wheat flour (4 hard-to-add cups) into squat, flat unleaven loaves.

there is a recipe i follow, and i follow it religiously. turns out i was not doing it according to rules for my first few at-bats, and in a flash that took me back to sister leonardo mary rapping me for my mispronunciation of the word “women” (i couldn’t get that the pronunciation change was on the first syllable instead of the second), i was rapped in an email for my failure to cut the unleaven bread into little brown bits.

i was told they were tossing my loaves. (never mind that that step had been left off the photocopy they’d given to me.)

and i was informed, later on at a workshop (a remedial baking class, disguised as one-day retreat, perhaps?) that the recipe i now follow, one titled “boulder bread recipe” (you only need drop a loaf on your foot to understand the derivation thereof), was the product of many many hours of ecclesiastical to and fro. i was informed that to diverge from the steps was a sure path to, well…at the least your loaves would be, shame of shames, tossed. they would become so much squirrel food.

all kidding aside, there is something so sacred about turning two essentials of life–water and wheat–into loaves whose cut-apart squares will be blessed, will be made into communion.

communion, whatever you believe about it, is the sacrament of taking in life in the form of bread so that in your belly, your soul, you might live life more fully.

i have always found it to be far more than a metaphysical vitamin. i have the sense when i swallow a host that God, more than ever, dwells deep inside me.

so to stand in my kitchen, alone in the silence, to stir the ever-thickening dough, is indeed to be in communion with something far greater than little old me. i think as i stir of all those who will partake. i haven’t a clue who they are, or how this might change them. even if only so far as the trip back to their pew.

but perhaps, just perhaps, the person who swallows the bread that i bake needs sustenance of a form that only can come if you believe that far more than water and wheat is mixed in that bread.

believe me, i pray as i knead. i push hard into that smoothing-out mound. God only knows what else is working its way into the soon-to-rise dough.

for a short spell, then, my kitchen is holy. and the oven at 375 is filling the room, filling my soul, with a heat and a light that lasts long after the loaves they are packed, sealed and delivered.

you wouldn’t know that if you paused by my house. but you do now.

baking for God is a prayer that i pray with my hands and my raggedy red oven mitt. baking for God is my unspoken blessing. baking for God is, well, really quite heavenly.

behold the pomegranate

we interrupt our regular programming to bring you this flash from the fruit stand: the pomegranate is fleeting. it’s on its way out. it’s days they are waning. counting down, less than two weeks to go.

by the rise of the next full moon, the red leathery orb will be gone for the season, will be gone ‘til the next harvest moon.

so while it’s here in our midst let us ponder the pomegranate, seeded wonder, fruit you must work to get into.

if ever there was a fruit that deserved to be pegged “the enchanted,” this would be it. the pomegranate. literally, “apple of many grains,” aka seeds.

oh, the seeds. 613, if you believe the torah. or, pretty close if you count. i know someone who counted. and lived to tell about it.

yes, it’s the fruit that i hold in my palms as if i am holding a treasure. and i am, really. have you ever peeled back the leathery, red purse-skin? popped out the shimmering gems? brushed back the blood bath of pomegranate splattering all over your counter, all over your chest, all over everywhere and beyond?

by the time you are done popping your pomegranate, you need a bath. and you look like you need a good defense attorney.

in the beginning, it was a fruit of persian persuasion. trekked to the himalayas. rested a spell in armenia. shriveled-up fruits, three-millennia-old, prove that last archeological morsel.

back to the bible, we are told the israelites, those wandering jews who dashed out of egypt with nothing but their unleavened bread, so missed the fruit, that ol’ moses himself had to assure them they would once again meet up with it in the promised land (deuteronomy 8:8).

and let us not overlook the legend of persephone, daughter of demeter, goddess of fruit and fertility. the pomegranate takes a star turn in this tale. seems hades snatched poor persephone into the underworld. demeter protesting her daughter’s potential demise, shut down all fruit bearing on the planet. persephone, pouting, vowed not to eat until she got out of hell. well, she let slip six pomegranate seeds between her lips, down her throat, into her belly. further punishing the punished, persephone paid dearly for swallowing those six seeds; she was forced to return to the underworld for six months out of every year. each time she went down, her mama shut off all fruits. thus, the seasons of summer and winter were born.

all thanks to the red leathery fruit with the seeds that prove too laborious to many.

ah, but to the dogged, the seeds are worth pursuing.

my own personal pomegranate intrigue started when i learned from a lubavitch woman, a supremely orthodox soul preparing her rosh hashanah feast for herself and her 13 children, that the pomegranate was prime, for it held in its belly one seed for every mitzvah, or each of the 613 commandments, in the torah.

since then i indulge every year, september through january. popping those blood-red seed pearls is a bit of a shock in the pre-dawn light. and yes, i have splatters on half my white shirts. but to sit down to a plate sprinkled with gems is to feel pulled back to ancient persia.

i heard a trick for seeding that saves the blood bath. dunk pomegranate in deep bowl of water. run thumb through thicket of seeds. they plunk out into the bath; so does the crimsony juice. yup, it’s clean all right, but i give it thumbs down: the seeds to me are lacking their deep ruby shine, their taste is too watered-down.

i’ll take my pomegranates, along with their original sin.

here are just two ways to use them, both simply sublime. both from my friend susan f., who cooks like a jazz singer. toss her a note, and she takes off, climbs the scales, scats all around. oh, and she too has trekked the himalayas, so she comes by the pomegranate naturally.

for a simple repast, she casts ruby red seeds atop a mound of thick creamy yogurt. preferably the whole-milk variety, the kind with the thick creamy crust you must dive through with your spoon to get to the vanilla-y middle.

i swear i had a beef stew with pomegranate at her fine dinner table. but she says she has not a recipe. she imagines one though. and it goes like this:

she imagines “one with your hunk of meat, trimmed of course, cut into perfect bite size cubes, brown meat in a skillet with a little olive oil, don’t cook all the way….then toss into dutch oven with chopped celery, those beautiful pearl onions, bay leave, thyme, dashes of cumin, red wine and pomegranate juice, cover and bake for awhile, after half done add the pomegranate seeds and chopped walnuts, serve with rice and sauteed green beans. ok?” she asks, wrapping it up.

oh, so very ok.

behold the pomegranate, people. behold the fruit that makes it hard to get into. but is totally worth the price of admission.

please, please share your pomegranate secrets and passions…in just days we’ll have nothing but their blood-red stains, refusing to go. then we can talk about outsmarting the splatters, unless of course you have the cure for that this very day…

baking with henry

it is friday, a friday. it will soon be shabbat. it is time for baking with henry. henry and i bake challah together. henry is my teacher.

henry lives downtown. in a tall black building.

i live in a leafy little town 12 miles north. in a stone-and-shingle, two-story house.

we bake over the phone.

henry is jewish. i am catholic.

henry is a grandfather; he talks about growing up in germany, before the nazis erupted. every friday night, he tells me, stewed chicken or brisket main-staged the meal; the challah, his mother’s opening act.

challah, the braided egg bread that is the sustenance of shabbat, the sacred canyon of time stretching from sundown friday to sundown on saturday, marking, each week, the seventh-day rest at the end of God’s original creation.

i am a mother, a wife, married to a fine jewish man. we have two boys, growing up jewish and catholic. together, we lift up shabbat, wrap up our harried work week with the pause and the majesty of blessing bread, blessing time, at our table.

i have, over the years, made shabbat mine. i sink into the rhythms of friday, sink into the rhythms of unfolding shabbat. i slow cook on fridays. i pick and choose from the book shelf, finding a passage worth reading, a thought worth shabbat. i put out the candles. i bring out the wine. i reach for the yarmulkes, or little skull caps.

and, after years of wishing i could, i now bake for shabbat.

henry is sifting through my lumps, leavening my learning. henry is teaching me challah.

he came to me in an email, with story attached.

last year, typing away on a 10-year anniversary book for our synagogue, i culled recipes for a few trademark foods. the rabbi’s brisket. his wife’s gefilte fish. henry’s challah.

with recipe in hand, i decided i had no excuse not to roll up my sleeves and insert fist into flour. i did what henry had written. thoroughly blended all dry ingredients; added oil, eggs, water. kneaded for 5, then for 10, finally upward of 15 minutes, in search of the elusive dough state, “moist and elastic.”

it was then that i made my first call to henry.

add water, just one little drib at a time, he advised.

i followed orders.

place dough in warm spot to rise. about 1 hour, he had written.

two hours later, accidentally out longer than planned, i came home to dough that had let out its air.

i put in a second call to henry.

that night, we broke bread but it was more like we were breaking a flat-shelled turtle. this was challah without the rise. this was challah gone flat.

henry called the next morning. he was with me now, and wanted the word on what in the end had come out of the oven.
and so it went, week after week.

i progressed. sort of a reptilian progression. one week a turtle, the next week an alligator. it would be weeks before the soft twisted mounds looked anything like the challah in the bakery windows.

and then my kitchen was demolished. so all baking stopped. but it is a new year, and a new kitchen.

so henry and i begin baking again.

the flour is measured and dumped. the yeast, quick-rising, mixed in. i know how to knead. i know that one hour’s rise, not two, and not three, is essential.

best of all, i know henry’s number, even in florida.

stay tuned for the reptilian report.

all right, all you bakers. anyone willing to go on record with a tried-and-true challah tale? pictures to come, if you promise not to laugh…

Henry’s Berches Challah Recipe
_
_
Makes 1loaf
_
_ 1 Pkg Instant Yeast*
_ 3 cups Unbleached Flour
_ 1 TBS Sugar
_ 2 tspn Salt
_ 5 oz. +/- Warm water
_ 1 TBS Vegetable Oil
1 Egg white (save yolk for egg wash)
* simplifies and speeds baking

_
_ Toppings
_ To taste: Poppy seed, Sesame seed, Kosher salt, etc.
_
_ Thoroughly blend all dry ingredients in a large mixing
bowl. Add oil, egg whites, and water. Mix thoroughly using
an electric mixer with paddle attachment (or hands) until
dough forms. Get dough as smooth as possible in mixer.

Remove from bowl and knead a bit more by hand until silky smooth. If
dough sticks to hands, add a bit more flour; if dough is too dry,
add a little more oil for elasticity. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes.
Dough should be moist and elastic.
_
_ Place dough in oiled, covered bowl, in a warm spot, to rise.
_ About 1 hour. Gently deflate dough and divide into 3 lots.
Roll each lot into a rope, about 10 inches log, and braid to form the finished loaf.

Place on lightly oiled baking sheet for a
second rise, (or use a parchment paper lined sheet, which makes for less clean up) until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
_
_ Brush loaf with beaten egg yolk (beat yolk with 1 tspn water),
paint top and sides of loaves, and sprinkle with
_ favorite topping: poppy seed, sesame seed, kosher salt etc.

_ Place in oven until browning begins. Lower temperature to
350 degrees and continue baking until golden brown and
loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. It is best, though, to use an instant read thermometer and bake to 190 degrees internal.

If loaf brown too quickly during baking, tent with aluminum foil.

Baking time about 30 minutes. Cool on rack.

after i struggled with this version, henry sent a tutorial, titled, “challah, one step at a time.” i’ll send–or post later–if you, too, need henry over your shoulder.

cleaning, housekeeping, the recipe

sometimes i feel i need to apologize for being such a cleaner. not now, not at the new year. which for me begins today. this is my jan. 2, by the way. i’m on a two-day delay thanks to the accident of my birth.

but here we are. all of us on the relative same page here. all leaping in anew. perhaps you too are cleaning. it seems to be a widespread affliction. right up there with new date books, new diet plans. i, believe it or not, forgo both of those. get my date book in july, just to be a trend-bucker, i suppose. don’t diet; hard to do when popcorn and broccoli are your main food groups.

ahem, back to the subject at hand here, back to the cleaning. the older i get the more i give in to my quirks and my personal square pegs. and the quirk of the day is i love to clean. down on my hands and knees in the corner. vacuuming can send me to the moon. (which by the way, that wolf moon has me howling.)

there is something about wiping away dirt, sweeping off crumbs, returning to order that simply sings to my heart. i cannot go to bed with dishes in the sink. oh, okay, maybe the single occasional popcorn bowl waits ’til the morn. but i am a girl who likes to pretend my life is in order by banning the crumbs to the dustbin.

i am not naturally neat. naturally, i am a piler. piles are not mess, i tell myself. piles are order, vertically. but i married a guy who likes neat. and i am a once-nurse who likes clean. so, once children were born, and my life turned upside down, inside out, suddenly found myself cleaning for joy.

and, oh the joy. i breathe easier when i walk out of or into a room that is sparkling, especially when the sparkle comes from my own sweat and muscle. there must be little tiny specks of my germanic genes washing around in the great irish stew, for the hard work of cleaning is balm to my soul.

the tree is not yet down. i should say trees, for we indulged little T and planted a sweet baby balsam up in the hall on the landing, so he could fall asleep to the lights, wake up to the rumble of the train tumbling off the tracks down below.

so the big cleaning, the clearing of trees, still lies ahead. but for days now, i have been clearing my desk, sifting through files, wiping the slate for the start of a new year of piles.

and speaking of cleaning, how ’bout time for some…

housekeeping: with the holidays tucked behind us, it seems there’s a new percolation of chairs being pulled to the table. i couldn’t be more delighted. it is a gift in ways you will never know. my heart only keeps whispering, carry on, carry on. a most important critical point is that at a table we all take turns talking. please please add your thoughts. and if you’re new here, or took some time off, feel free to meander around. there are some magnificent thoughts being added to meanderings, some way back in the days.

please see a delightful, wonderful passage, tacked onto “extending the table” (12.27.06), by a marvelous thinker and writer, who tags herself jcv, and who trembled at her first-ever blog moment. she is a treasure i know you too will come to treasure.

delight yourself further, and not so far back, by reading along with jan and her moon story, on “bring on the birds” (01.02.07).

marvel, as i do, at anything posted by the mysterious, marvelous wm ulysses, who goes back nearly to the beginning and makes my jaw drop every time.

and finally, drum roll……

the recipe, the one we’ve been waiting for….here’s where i will get teary. if you haven’t, please please read, “eggs, cheese, an ungodly hour” (12.22.06). it was a magical, heart-filling tale of a miracle of a woman named nina who for years made a christmas gift for a soup kitchen. she made a strata, which is an egg-cheese-and-bread layered-y thing. (forgive me, i love making up the occasional word.) well, sweet blessed nina died nearly two years ago but her strata lives on. in a pure christmas twist, her beautiful husband, her father, and her sweet little girls carry on. they make strata by the carload, and we (the ones who get up at an ungodly hour) dish it up in the dark of christmas eve morn. i had thought that we could truly lift nina up if we all got the recipe, and beginning now, made nina’s strata into a most blessed christmas tradition. what if, i wrote, we all made nina’s strata, and, in true nina spirit, we gave it away, gave it away to someone whose eyes needed glistening.

well, michael, god bless him, came through with a marvelous rendition of the recipe. and it seems those who loved nina most have added their heart to the mix. please please, i beg you, go take a look. it’s right there in the archives. and i will re-post the recipe on the lazy susan page, for easy plucking. fear not, next christmastime i will haul it out of the recipe box, remind everyone. and we shall all of us, perhaps, take to our kitchens, tearing up bread by the bits, to lift nina to heights she only could have imagined, as we all brighten the world nina-style, through our great oozy pans of eggs and cheese served at an ungodly hour.

bless you each and everyone. ’til tomorrow…

nina’s strata, coming out of the oven christmas eve morn….