Friday, February 26, 2010


Yesterday was my mama's birthday. I would post a photo of her, but I wouldn't dare post a photo she had not pre-approved for posting. My mother is quite glamorous. Obviously, I must have been switched at birth--I didn't inherit the glamour gene. We're having a birthday lunch for her tomorrow. I'm bringing salad (boring . . . ) so I needed to pump up the volume and cook something much more interesting. So I made this bittersweet chocolate and ricotta cheese tart, adapted from a recipe I found in The Washington Post. It's barely sweetened, like an addictive drug to a chocolate lover. When I first made the recipe about a year ago, I was intrigued by the ganache. The ganache is fabulous, but the combination with the crust and the ricotta filling is perfect. And search for Scharffen Berger chocolate because no ordinary chocolate will do. Warning--this recipe is rather time-consuming and complicated. But it's worth it. Trust me--it will be a much bigger hit tomorrow than the salad will be.

Bittersweet Chocolate and Ricotta Cheese Tart

1¼ cups flour, plus more for the work surface
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg

1 pound whole milk ricotta
4 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons heavy cream

4 ounces best-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup heavy cream

For the crust: Combine the flour, sugar, lemon or lime zest, baking powder, salt and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mix is crumbly. Add the eggs and process just until the dough begins to come together. Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough to the floured surface; knead the dough just until it is fairly smooth.

Have ready a 10-inch round tart pan (or rectangular equivalent) with a removable bottom. Roll out the dough on the floured surface into a 12-inch round (about 1/8 inch thick). Carefully transfer it to the tart pan; gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides; fold the overhanging dough into the rim to reinforce the dough on the sides. Use a rolling pin or your hands to even off the perimeter (top) of the dough in the pan. Refrigerate dough at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator; use a fork to prick the bottom of the shell all over. Bake the tart shell for 10 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to turn pale golden. Remove the tart shell from the oven and let it cool while you make the filling. Leave the oven on.

For the filling: Place the ricotta in a large bowl. Add the confectioners' sugar, vanilla extract and cream; use a fork to gently incorporate those ingredients, breaking up the ricotta as you work. Spoon the filling into the partially baked tart shell; bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the filling is set but not at all browned. Transfer the tart (still in the pan) to a wire rack; let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, make the topping: Combine the chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in a medium heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat just until it bubbles at the edges; do not let it come to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly pour it over the chocolate mixture; stir as you work so the cream is incorporated and the mixture becomes a glossy, dark and smooth ganache. Carefully spread the topping on the cooled filling, starting in the middle and creating a thick layer that stops short of the crust (there should be the tiniest bit of white ricotta filling showing around the perimeter of the tart). Refrigerate for 2 hours, until well chilled. To serve, remove the rim of the tart pan and transfer the tart to a serving platter. Let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

Makes one 10-inch tart (12 servings)

Monday, February 22, 2010


I've got this little obsession with Chuck Taylor All Stars that I can't quite explain rationally. There used to be a Converse store nearby--my idea of paradise--that regularly featured some random color of Chucks on sale for under $20. Alas, the store is gone. Yesterday I went into a discount store looking for white towels. I just strolled through the shoe department because I thought I heard one of my children calling me. (My children are in their 30s and they live far, far away.) I'm lying. I walked through the shoe department because I'm weak. I found a pair of low-top baby blue Chucks cheap and in my size. But I sat there, looking at the shoes, telling myself I was stronger than the shoes. I put them back on the shelf and left the store. No shoes, no towels. All day today I've been thinking about those darned shoes, wondering if some other woman is wearing them now.

This shoe thing is not new for me. I wrote a piece about shoes in my book. Here's the piece I wrote.

A prayer for moderation . . .


I just found the shoes of my dreams online. They were horrifically expensive. My wedding dress didn’t cost as much as these shoes. I’ve never owned a single garment that cost as much as these shoes. I could have put tires on my car for the cost of these shoes. I just pushed the button to complete the sale. I don’t know whether to be thrilled or ashamed, but I can’t wait for them to arrive.

I always thought my daughter had a shoe obsession, but she didn’t get it from me. “Not me,” I protested. “Sure, I like shoes, but there’s no major fixation there. They’re just utilitarian items to me.”

But then my friend Kath was here visiting and made me face reality. She looked in my closet. My closet is not that big, but it’s almost obsessively neat. I’ve got three shelves of t-shirts, folded neatly. One shelf for long-sleeved shirts—dark colors on the left, light colors on the right. One shelf for short-sleeved shirts—dark colors on the left, light colors on the right. One shelf for sleeveless shirts—dark colors on the left, light colors on the right. I’m not obsessed—I just like to know where things are!

The jeans are on hangers—fat jeans, skinny jeans, cropped jeans, gardening jeans, dressy jeans, jeans I forgot I had.

I have almost no dressy clothes—they’re way in the back. I don’t get out much.

Then there are the shoes. Nine pairs of Chucks Taylor All Stars, mostly high-tops, in a variety of colors, on the top shelf. They are collector items, aren’t they? I even have a pair of high-top John Lennon peace Chucks. I don’t wear them often. On the floor—shoes on racks on the left (mostly black) and shoes on racks on the right (colors other than black).

So Kath is looking at the contents of my closet, she says, “Wow, you have a lot of shoes. My friend Ellie has almost 100 pairs of shoes. Can you imagine? Why would anyone need that many shoes?”

“I can’t imagine,” I sheepishly responded. “Never counted mine.”

So she started to count for me. She counted to 86. I almost had as many shoes as Ellie. She had a hard time believing anyone besides Imelda Marcos could have as many shoes as Ellie.

Then, in a moment of insanity, I confessed, “Actually, there are a few more. My winter shoes are in plastic bins under the bed in the guest room.”

“Winter shoes?” she exclaimed. “You have a separate category for winter shoes?”

I have summer shoes and spring shoes and winter shoes? Leather and fabric and black and colors other than black, flats and flip-flops and lace-up boots and three pairs of cowboy boots. (I’m particularly fond of the cowboy boots.)

She dragged out the bins of winter shoes from under the bed and continued the tally. She got to 100 and I covered my ears. I think she finally stopped at 108. As soon as the package arrives it will be 109. I do not have a shoe obsession. I swear.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Red beans and rice

Okay, okay, here it is. I promised I would post it. I didn't get to make this for Mardi Gras but at least I made it during the week of Mardi Gras. A couple of days ago I tinkered with a couple of recipes I had and came up with my own version of red beans and rice. And it has come in handy the past two nights. Last night my friend Rick and I went to a matinee at the Shakespeare Theater and luckily when we got back I had this in the refrigerator. Voila--dinner in five minutes! I also had made a big batch of my infamous guacamole. A little dollop of guac is nice on top of red beans and rice. [But I have to report that we saw less than one act of Richard II. There was a technical malfunction early in the play and they had to cancel the rest of the performance.] And tonight my friend Trish stopped in for a visit and I fed her. Maybe one more round tomorrow night? It was a good experiment, a keeper!

Red Beans and Rice

12 ounces pound andouille sausage, cut into ½-inch slices (Aidell’s is good)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 celery ribs, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded, stemmed, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cups chicken broth
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons bouquet garni
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ ground cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
2 15 ounce cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups hot cooked rice (I used brown rice)

In non-stick skillet, sauté sausage until brown, drain grease and set aside.

In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery, and bell pepper to pot. Sauté until the vegetable are softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in the broth, tomatoes, and spices. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.

Stir in the drained beans. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Stir in the cooked andouille sausage and cook for 15 minutes more.

Using a large wooden spoon, crush enough of the beans in the pot to thicken the dish to your desired consistency. Serve in bowls, spooned over hot cooked rice.

Serves 8.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras

Yesterday I went to Penzey's (the fabulous spice store). There's always something there to inspire me. They are featuring their new Cajun spice blend so I bought some and then got all the ingredients to try a new recipe for red beans and rice for Mardi Gras. I'll report back on the red beans and rice recipe. I should be wearing multiple strands of colored beads. I should be dancing. You can dance, you can cook, you can eat spicy food. It will make you strong. There are so many variations in jambalaya recipes. This is a good start. Put on the Cajun music and dance while you’re cooking.


1 tablespoon quality olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 pound chicken breasts, cut in 2” cubes
¾ pound andouille sausage, in ½” slices
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 ½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning*
1 pound peeled raw shrimp

* I use Penzey’s Very Hot Cajun seasoning. Substitute whatever Cajun seasoning you like. Also the intensity of the andouille varies, so adjust according to your preferences.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven. Add onion, garlic, peppers, and celery (the “Holy Trinity” of Cajun cooking) and sauté just until onion is translucent.

In non-stick skillet, brown sausage, drain grease, and add to the pot with vegetables. Add chicken breast pieces to skillet and brown lightly. Add chicken to Dutch oven.

Add canned tomatoes and spices to Dutch oven and simmer, covered, over low heat for approximately 1 ½ hours.

Add shrimp and simmer for additional 15 minutes.

Serve over cooked long-grain white rice.

Serves 8.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I'm ever so thankful that it's February 15th. Didn't I warn you yesterday? So just go into your local CVS or Rite-Aid store today and see how tacky and tired all the VD junk looks. No wonder it's all in the super savings discount aisle. Broken hearts, stale chocolates, cheap vases with glittery silk roses. Euwww.

But wait! There's a whole aisle of Easter candy now, multi-colored collections of Peeps, jelly bean, celluloid grass. But Easter is six weeks away. Oooh, that means tomorrow is Mardi Gras. Laissez les bontemps rouler!

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Yep, it's that day again--February 14th. I'm not going to use the V-word. It's a humbug, a rotten Hallmark conspiracy. I've got a notion to start a VD eradication campaign, lobby the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assign epidemiologists to the effort, maybe develop a social marketing campaign.

And what about the saint whom this day allegedly honors? I don't believe in him. I think the whole thing is a hoax. If he did exist, he probably was killed by an angry mob for selling cheesy greeting cards in the market place.

At church this morning there were a lot of people wearing red. Some of them were even holding hands with their sweethearts. Stop it, people! Have you no consideration for the lonely single people sitting behind you? Apparently not.

It's not that I'm anti-love. I'm just against the sappy faked sentimentality of the day. And I'm especially against the sappy faked sentimentality when there's no one who's going to bring me flowers, or a teddy bear wearing an "I (heart) you" t-shirt, or a Whitman's sampler. I could be into it if I got chocolate. Thank God the day is almost over. I can't wait for February 15th.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Toddler's faith

This is how I see myself. I am three years old. I am jumping up and down, saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom, look at this,” as my scrawny arms hold in offering a picture I have drawn for her. My mother is preoccupied—she’s cooking, or washing dishes, or she’s talking on the phone to her friend Bernice. “Mom, Mom, Mom,” I say as I pull on her skirt, pleading for a few precious seconds of her attention. The drawing on the paper in my hand is recognizable only as scribbles of color—green and orange and red and purple. There is no art, no recognizable form. If I could get my mother’s attention I would tell her it’s a picture of her and my father and my little brother Steve and our grandparents and our dog Gypsy standing in front of our house—all the things I love.

And this is how I see myself now, jumping up and down, trying to get God’s attention, a spiritual toddler. I want to show him the picture of what is in my heart—the picture of joy and sorrow, of fear and gratitude and loneliness and sometimes just the simple wonder of His presence. It's a toddler's faith.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Freewriting exercise today. I've been so distracted, shoveled so much snow. But I knew I needed to get back to it. The most direct route for me often is a freewriting exercise, stream-of-conscious, unedited, fiction.

Prompt from John Cheever, “An Educated American Woman” from The Stories of John Cheever, p. 528

“She wandered downstairs and stood in the kitchen doorway, watching him at his work.”

She awoke in the pre-dawn, in the midst of a howling blizzard. She awoke weeping. A dream had shaken her. James was there again in the dream, like he was so often in her dreams—sometimes a real presence with whom she interacted; at other times merely in the background, an implied presence. In the dream she and James were traveling on a highway. James was driving and she was sitting beside him like she did when they were young. She noticed a speeding car behind them, driven by a man whom she could barely see. The man was driving a clunky beige, beat-up sedan, like the Ford Galaxy she and James had when they were first married. The driver lost control and car careened off the highway to the right onto an area where there were mounds of clay-colored dirt and construction equipment. The car rolled over, then it flipped end-over-end. She could see the windows smash and a door flew off. Then the car teetered over a cliff and fell out of sight into a deep ravine, a raging river at the bottom. James drove as she described with horror what she saw. And when the speeding car fell out of sight, off the cliff, James pulled over to the side of the road and cried. That was when she woke from the dream, crying with him, crying for the mess their lives had become. It broke her heart to consider what the dream meant. And she didn’t want that image of James to be what she remembered of him. She wanted another image to replace the one of James crying by the side of the road. She willed herself into another dream, more awake than asleep, a kind of guided image. It was the middle of the night in the winter of 1976. James was downstairs at the kitchen table, working on an essay for a literary journal. She was heavy with child and anxious about the snowstorm that was raging outside, but she knew that he would protect her in the storm. She felt safe knowing that he loved her and that their child would soon be born. She wandered downstairs and stood in the kitchen doorway, watching him work.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I haven’t been writing because I’ve been so stressed and preoccupied with real matters of life and death. My doctor told me to take a walk outside in the sunshine, to stay hydrated, and to write. I took a walk, I drank water, and now I’m writing, following doctor’s orders.

My father has been in and out of the hospital in the past few weeks with a failing heart. Yesterday I took him home from the hospital—taking him home was Plan B. Plan A was to keep him there for open-heart surgery. The cardiac surgeon would have done the surgery today. My dad is almost 89 years old and he doesn’t want to have open-heart surgery. So I disguised him as a nun and snuck him out the back door of the hospital. Not exactly, but we did turn down their kind offer to cut open his chest then I drove him home and made him a scrambled egg sandwich. He had nothing to eat or drink for two days and he felt better being home and off of the IV lines and EKG sensors. He just wanted something to eat and he wanted to brush his teeth and shave, to sleep in his own bed. Perhaps the surgery would buy him so more time, but what would it cost him in terms of pain and fear? Ultimately, it’s his life and his decision and we have to respect his choices.

And to make things even more challenging, people who know things about weather are predicting huge amounts of snow here over the next few days. I’ve heard snow estimates ranging from four inches to four feet. Four feet of snow? We’re already got snow fatigue here without another four feet of snow. I’m not a snow person. Maybe for about two minutes I think it’s pretty. But all that whiteness makes me crazy with claustrophobia, cabin fever, and snow blindness.

I’m not good with this level of stress. My doctor used the word raw to describe the emotion, the helplessness we feel when we are facing the loss or illness of a parent. She says that we simply can never really be prepared for it. So, yes, I’m feeling tense, fragile, tied up in dread, raw.