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Waking and Walking

I’m grateful for every day that Stellar and I both wake up alive, and are both able to walk to Ice Canyon. He’ll be 13 two weeks from yesterday, and boy will I have a lot to say about that then. We both stumble and wobble a bit in the deep snow and icy path through the woods, and he naps hard when we return to the cozy house. Some days he could probably make it down there, but I don’t have the energy; other days he stumbles just a bit too much to go that far. So each day that we make it is extra good.

I’m grateful I had time to squeeze in the simple pleasure of cooking soup and baking cupcakes today, and the patience to squeeze out buttercream frosting from a new piping kit this evening.

These won’t win any prizes for technique, but they’re delicious. I’m grateful for each simple, transient pleasure in any given day, and for the awareness that true happiness does not, actually, come from cupcakes.

Each day is precious and unique, and its opportunities come but once. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be of service to my community, as I was this day, and grateful to be part of an excellent and conscientious team working to make the world a better place. I’m grateful again today for technology that makes it possible for me to contribute to community without leaving my hermitage, and to connect with and see the beloved faces of faraway friends.

Paradise Road

Sunday sunroom attention delayed until today…

This morning, I’m grateful for a message from Neighbor Mary, sharing lyrics that touched her from Dolly Parton’s “Paradise Road.” I’m grateful for Spotify, where I could type in the title and hear Dolly’s sweet voice instantly. Think about that. Grateful (despite problematic negative consequences for society and planetary health) for all the technology, the inventors and coders and the people who put tiny chips of precious metals in a little silver box that delivers the world to my lap, and grateful for the people who mine and those who recycle those precious metals. But back to Dolly.

Paradise is a state of mind / Down the road of life and time And the friends we meet / Make the travelin’ sweet / On Paradise Road.
Sometimes now when the world is mad / I find that place I’ve always had Inside my soul / It’s paved in gold / Paradise Road.

~ Dolly Parton, Paradise Road

I’m grateful for the authentic joie de vivre and gratitude for life she exemplifies, as well as her resilience. I actually know someone in person kind of like Dolly in those ways, and she also sings a sweet “Happy Birthday”… why, it’s Neighbor Mary! I’m grateful for these inspiring examples of genuine happiness, in the wide world and in the neighborhood.

I was just getting ready to tend to the sunroom, when Dolly’s lyrics arrived, and was wondering what music to play among the flowers as I watered orchids and groomed geraniums. And now, I’m grateful for hours of Dolly Parton’s music, and for “Backwoods Barbie,” which I’d never heard before, which seguéd to Patsy Cline and Emmylou to carry me through lunch.

Grateful for homemade focaccia, melty provolone, smoked salmon, and avocado mayo. Simple deliciousness with just a few special groceries on hand.
Yay Mayonnaise! I’m grateful for mayonnaise, and for an early birthday present.
A nice long-sleeved tee with The Mayo Queen on the back, which I was just folding when “Evangeline” came on the playlist. I’m grateful for how little things make me smile.

Zoom Cooking with Amy

One silver lining to the Covid cloud is zoom cooking with Amy. Here we’re making fettuccine with Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese. I’m grateful to Neighbor Mary for giving me her pasta attachment!

I’m grateful for everything in this title, separately and together. Zoom. Cooking. Amy. And zoom cooking with Amy. It’s a silver lining of the Covid cloud. Back in May, I sent her a recipe for homemade gnocchi and asked if she wanted to make it with me and share zoom dinner. Thus began a joy we have shared ever since.

Pan roasted gnocchi with leeks, peas, and asparagus (grateful for Neighbor Mary’s generosity in sharing her wild asparagus harvest!)
Sharing our first zoom dinner after fun in the kitchen.

Amy and I have been friends for almost fifty years. And her parents have been parents to me, as well, whenever I have needed them to be, and friends the rest of the time. My gratitude for Amy knows no bounds. Cooking, drinking, and eating is our favorite thing to do when we get together. She lives in northern Virginia, not far from where we grew up. We met on the first day of seventh grade, and that friendly little red-haired girl saved my life that year. Through the decades, I’ve always visited when I traveled back there. And then she saved my life again during the months I spent there when my mother was dying sixteen years ago.

The second zoom meal we made was Samin Nosrat’s Big Lasagna. This first time we made pasta we both rolled it by hand.

Amy’s been coming to visit for the past few years, including during apricot season two summers ago (when she saved my life again, by helping harvest and put up pounds of fruit), but not this summer, and so we started zoom cooking instead. She’s also been watching cooking shows for years so has lots of tricks up her sleeve. We used vanilla bean seeds for something that apricot summer, and she poured some sugar in a jar and tossed in the scraped pods. “In a couple of weeks this’ll be great in your coffee or something else,” she said, and it was.

I’m grateful for locally-caught trout filets, and the friend who shares them when he has extra.
Cheesos, or cheese-shelled tacos

In August we made Fish Cheesos, with the trout, and garden produce, in cheddar cheese taco shells. This recipe came from a Keto cookbook: you pile a quarter cup of grated cheddar for each shell, about 4″ apart, onto parchment paper and cook at 400°F for 6-8 minutes, until they’re melted flat and the edges start to brown. Let them cool about 3 minutes, then drape them over wooden handle spoons or something until they harden, about ten minutes. Then…

…then fill with any kind of taco filling!
Next, we made Turkey and the Wolf’s famous collard greens melt, a veggie club on rye, which took all day to prep the homemade components for: cooked collards, cole slaw, and russian dressing.

I couldn’t be zoom cooking with Amy like this without the help of the Bad Dogs, who kindly shop for me these days because of some underlying conditions that make me super cautious about Covid. I’m especially grateful to Philip, who shops most often, and earnestly tries to fill my list of often obscure ingredients. I try to compensate them for their trouble with fresh baked bread, rolls, or cake to hand over upon grocery delivery.

Fettuccine drying (thanks for the rack, too, dear Mary) the Night of Bolognese.

After the collard sandwiches, we made Marcella’s pasta bolognese. I laughed the whole time I was making noodles because it was just so much fun. We more or less take turns suggesting the menu. After bolognese, we made squash and peanut stew. Since our neighborhood dinners have been more or less on hold all year, it’s been great to be cooking with Amy and have the chance to use so much garden produce.

Fresh garden harvest going into the squash and peanut stew.
Though we didn’t bake these together, Amy shared her recipe for decadent triple chocolate cookies.

The next menu item was Bombay Rolls, which included a chutney with lots of fresh coriander. Amy made them according to the recipe so her stuffing was green, but with no access to fresh coriander here in December, I used a jar of Kasundi I had canned earlier in the summer. It wasn’t nearly as spicy as it seemed when I cooked it, but the Bombay rolls were fun to make and delicious anyway. We cheated and used store-bought puff pastry for this meal. Our ambitions had started to slacken.

But, egged on by the Great British Baking Show, I threw down the éclair challenge, and that brings us up to last Friday night. The recipe calls for a total of 11 eggs, and I was late getting started since I had to wait for groceries. I’m so grateful for local, freerange ranch eggs for much of the year that it’s hard to shell out the dough for storebought, but in deep winter nobody’s hens are laying around here. As soon as Philip brought the eggs, I started catchup with Amy, who had already made her creme patisserie and was starting on her choux pastry. I was grateful for a snowbank right outside the door, since there was no room in the fridge to cool the filling.

Custard quick-cooling in the snow at dusk
I overcooked, then over-mixed, the choux pastry, and had the wrong size piping bag, so made little double-barrel eclairs, which did not hold much filling. The chocolate ganache was too thick so I only had enough to cover half the little pastries. It got a little messy…
BUT WHO CARES?

While we baked, we talked about the Capitol, where Amy used to lead kids in summer camp. We compared Manhattan recipes. We talked about work and friends and everything else. We carried on two separate conversations at the same time: I said something about our technical challenge, “I kept stirring and it formed a ball which kept breaking up as I stirred…,” and Amy said, “She has several professional photographers she hires to take portraits of the family….” 

I’m grateful this weekend for zoom cooking with my old friend Amy, and grateful for all the years of ease and lessons and love that life has given us to share. One day, we’ll cook together again in person, but until that time, and onward after our next visit, I hope we’ll be zoom cooking for the rest of our years. We’re already batting about ideas for our next challenge.

Carrots

A midsummer carrot harvest, several varieties, with some early beets

Today I’m grateful for carrots. Shortly before the ground froze, I pulled a surprising number of big purple carrots from a bed where I’d scattered a bunch of random seeds in the spring. I took out a few from the fridge today (grateful for the Sunfrost refrigerator) to make a carrot-ricotta tart. Here it is January, and I’m still eating carrots I harvested months ago, surprise carrots at that!

Late purple carrots and a spiced ricotta mixture…
…some fried onions, and a sheet of puff pastry…
…half an hour in the oven, and a sprinkling of chives and parsley from indoor pots, a dash of salt: grateful for carrot-ricotta tarts to snack on for the next few days!

Grateful that carrots seem to grow well in my garden most years, that they are quick and resilient, come in various shapes, sizes, and subtle flavors, that they last for months in the fridge and brighten a cloudy winter day with stored summer sunlight. Grateful that I had time and energy to tend the garden all summer, grateful for water, for the fence that keeps the deer out and the friends who helped build it, for raised beds, good dirt, and homemade compost to nourish the soil.

Carrots sprouting among lettuce, beets, and cabbage transplants in a raised bed. Milk jug cloches protect a melon start and young peppers from night chill.
Grateful for the color orange, and for comical twisted roots.
And I’m grateful for a miniature computer-camera-phone I can hold in one hand to capture a prize carrot in the other, so I can remember summer fun in technicolor months later.

the Great British Baking Show

Paul Hollywood, anchor and chief judge of GBBO, with current co-judge Prue Leith, and two of the ephemeral hosts, Noel and Sandi. Plus, colors!

Seriously? Yes! I’m grateful for good TV shows, and GBBO is one of the best, at least for someone who loves creativity, food, and especially cake. I used to watch some of the popular dramas and crime dramas, and eschew reality competition shows. But as I began to question why I watched certain shows, in which tension, suspense, violence, and betrayal were the main plot drivers, I couldn’t find any good answer except ‘habit,’ and I let them go. It was healthy to get rid of DISH, and only stream a couple of services. On Netflix and Prime I can pick and preview, and make more informed and healthier choices for entertainment.

Why did I abbreviate it GBBO and not GBBS? I don’t know! Why is it called Great British Bake Off in Britain and GBB Show in the US? I can’t stop wondering! Whatever you call it, though, it’s a delightful and educational program. What’s not to love about a dozen amateurs in a big tent with silly hosts, discerning judges, and three baking challenges each episode, showing up in my living room at the push of a button? Not a show passes that I don’t want to learn to bake at least one of the delectables featured, and usually way more than one. Breadsticks, for example. Flatbreads. Puddings. Crispy biscuits. Showstopper gingerbread structures. Tartes tatins. Bakewell tarts. The Battenberg Cake.

A cake dressed up like a present with a surprise inside, on one of the Holiday episodes.

Like some other reality shows that I’m grateful for (Dancing with the Stars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race), the emphasis is on talent and personal growth, not on cutthroat competition and sneaky alliances. The judges are generally kind and encouraging, supporting contestants in their endeavors, and there’s lots of wry humor. It’s been on since 2010, though I’ve yet to figure out how to view the first two seasons, and there are extras like the Holiday Collection, which I’m making my way through now. I save these shows for when I’m doing physical therapy (for which I’m also grateful! Thanks, Kristian and Brian!) and they provide incentive to get down on the floor and exercise for half an hour or more a day.

Surprise! It’s a penguin, with two non-existent Antarctic Christmas trees, in case that wasn’t obvious.
Not the most skillful wrapping, Paul said, “like you painted the stars with your fingers,” but another surprise inside. The bow, by the way, got extra commendation for the “sugar work.”
Christmas baubles inside.
This present cake got high marks for appearance…
…but its inside was judged ‘stodgy, almost like a pudding,’ which is this weird thing the Brits love where a bunch of goo is cooked in a mold and deemed delicious.

I’ve learned a lot about baking from watching GBBO, including how to listen to the hiss of a cake to determine if it’s done, and what ‘stodgy’ means in the context of baking rather than personality 🙂 It inspires me to expand my baking efforts, and frees me to toss failures into ‘the bin,’ though I actually haven’t failed at any bake yet so catastrophically that I’ve had to throw it away. My last effort at an apricot cake, which was spectacular in the summer when I had fresh apricots, was a bit bland this week without them on the top, so I whipped up a chocolate glaze in about five minutes and doused the cake, which improved it significantly.

Last summer’s apricot cake…
…and this week’s effort. Thanks to GBBO, I know why the recipe called for 3 teaspoons of baking powder, which was perfect when there were fresh apricot pieces on top of the raw batter, but more than necessary without that added weight. Nevertheless, the cake was a better bake, though some might contend that the overall appearance is less enticing than the original after I doused it in chocolate glaze.

So I’m grateful for the Great British Baking Show, for its lessons, colors, humor, inspiration, diversity, and overall generous tone, in an entertainment world that otherwise overwhelmingly fuels anxiety, violence, prejudice, and distress. Yeah, I’ve gained some Covid pounds from watching it, but … oh well! Next challenge for me, piping icing!

Almonds in Winter

So much to be grateful for in a simple salad.

The last of 2019’s almond crop, store-bought organic romaine and cheddar, and homemade ranch dressing: so much to be grateful for within a simple salad in deep winter. Grateful for the almond tree, that feeds bees in spring and provided pounds of fruit last year; this second crop proved the tree is not a bitter almond after all but a sweet one. This year, drought and an exceptionally hard spring freeze yielded only a handful of nuts, which I left for birds and squirrels. I still had a bag frozen from the previous summer, and thawed them out last week intending to bake or cook with them. After thawing, I slow-roasted them with a spritz of olive oil and some kosher salt, until they were crunchy, and set them on the counter to cool.

I keep snicking a few here and there over the next few days til I can get time to bake, and next thing I know, there aren’t enough left in the bowl to grind for a torte. A couple more days and all that’s left is a handful for salad. Oh well, and yum! Each crunch is a reminder of all that each almond took to get here.

Red Admiral butterfly pollinating almonds in May.
Ripe almonds in September.

I tried the “tarp under the tree whack it with a broom” method of harvesting, but it felt all wrong, smacking the limbs of the living tree, so after a few whacks I gathered the sheet and went back to snapping individual nuts or handfuls off the twigs. Over the course of a few weeks, I harvested several bowls full and enjoyed sitting outside processing them. Most I used before I harvested the next batch, and I saved the last in the freezer.

Shelling commences.
Layers peeled away reveal milky raw kernels inside the shells inside the hulls.
They were a bit soft after a year in the freezer, but with some oil, salt, and heat they crisped right up, good as new.

So, today I’m grateful for almonds in winter, and grateful for this trip down memory lane. I’m grateful for Philip, who among other demonstrations of friendship delivers groceries, grateful he’s survived Covid to once again bring cheddar cheese and greens, grateful for the growers and pickers of organic romaine, the makers of cheese, all the people all along the trail of ways these foods get to the store, drivers, road maintainers, all the conditions that make it happen that Philip can buy lettuce in December….

Stellar by moonlight. Grateful, as always, for my good dog, who always gets last bite of everything.

Christmas Presents

A box from Amy full of little treats, like opening a stocking stuffed by my mother with thoughtful tidbits

I am grateful ~ I can’t help it ~ for Christmas presents. As much as I practice non-attachment to stimulus-driven pleasure, and as much as I don’t want more stuff, I still take “conditional joy” as a friend called it, in opening presents. The pleasure of having some presents to open on Christmas morning hearkens back to the simpler time of childhood: but, the presents I give and get these days are smaller and seem to mean more. A jar of homemade of jam, a special glass, a paper platter of baked treats. We are putting more of ourselves and less of our money into presents, with the genuine satisfaction of knowing it really is the thought that counts.

Amy’s box, for example, was full of thoughtful little gifts. A wooden hook her father made for me in the shape of an R; a jar of homemade peach~blueberry~pepper jam, cloth napkins, chocolate, a couple of magnets, and a gift card for Penzey’s, a social-justice company with great spices and the motto Love People, Cook them Tasty Food. When my mom, aka Santa, stuffed our Christmas stockings she filled them with thoughtful tidbits she’d collected during the year, and at the bottom was the toe present, always the best gift. Opening Amy’s box this morning reminded me a little of opening my stocking, only there were several ‘toe presents.’

Grateful for friends who tied a beautiful wreath to our driveway flagpole. It got a little wind-whipped but still reflects the season.
Chris’s box included a beautiful Ming Dynasty Covid mask, a nice bar Chagrin Valley moisturizing soap, and a cozy turquoise hat too big for her little pinhead.

Grateful for homemade-handmade gifts of fizzy bath salts, an artful marbled bookmark, a pint of vanilla ice cream, a beeswax candle, all thoughtful presents that will disappear quickly or take up little space; but mostly grateful for the thoughtfulness of dear friends who gave me all these bright little treasures, and for those near and far who sent actual Christmas cards, making me feel loved and cared for. I know this holiday is hard for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, and my heart aches for the copious suffering of others who haven’t got what I have: sufficient food, fresh water, warm shelter, and a life full of friendships, all making it easy for me to feel grateful and perfectly contented spending this holiday isolated, but not alone.

Stellar also enjoys presents, and thoroughly inspected every package. Grateful for UPS Tom, who cheerfully drives the long driveway to leave presents at my gate, even though he’s working twelve hour delivery days.
And always grateful for this elegant fat little cat who greets me each morning.