Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cobb salad update

Successful b-day party for my mom. She had a great time on her cruise and came home ready for more festivities for her 85th birthday. I swear, she looks younger than I do--85 years old just doesn't seem that old to me now.

My version of the classic Cobb salad turned out well. I adapted Barefoot's viniagrette recipe by adding a little honey. I used chicken breasts, a mix of regular bacon and pancetta, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese, and avocado on a bed of chopped greens (romaine and bibb lettuce). I made scones (of course!) and my niece brought two beautiful loaves of home-baked rosemary/garlic bread. My sister brought a cake with raspberry between the layers. Quite lovely!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy birthday, mamacita!

Today is my mama's 85th birthday! My dear mother is a piece of work and all of her kids love her! She's turning 85 today and she has been on a Caribbean cruise for the past two weeks so I didn't even get to talk to her on her big day. But her ship gets back into port tomorrow and we're having a little birthday party for her on Sunday at my house.

I've been thinking about what to make for her birthday party. She loves Cobb salad and I've got a Barefoot Contessa recipe for Cobb salad, but it's lobster Cobb salad. Nix on the lobster. I think she really likes the traditional version with chicken and I don't feel like dealing with the lobster variation anyway.

So I'm adapting Barefoot's version, substituting chicken for lobster and using romaine lettuce in place of arugula. I'm also going to try using pancetta instead of the usual bacon and I think I'll cook the chicken with Italian herbs so it will be Italian chicken Cobb salad. Should I substitute Parmesan cheese for the blue cheese? So I guess I'm barely sticking to Barefoot's recipe, except I'll make her viniagrette. So while I'm on a run of posting recipes with olive oil and lemon juice, why not one more?

Sometime I'll try the full-fledged Barefoot Contessa version from her Family Style cookbook but not this time. Here's the original version:

Lobster Cobb Salad

For the viniagrette:
1½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
5 tablespoons good olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:
2 ripe Hass avocados
Juice of 1 lemon
1½ pounds cooked lobster meat, cut in ¾-inch dice
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half or quarters
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound lean bacon, fried and crumbled
¾ cup crumbled English Stilton, or other crumbly blue cheese
1 bunch arugula, washed and spun dry

For the vinaigrette, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl.

For the salad, cut the avocados in half, remove the seed, and peel. Cut into ¾-inch dice and toss with the lemon juice. If the arugula leaves are large, cut them in half crosswise.

Put the lobster and tomatoes in a bowl. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and toss with enough vinaigrette to moisten. Add the diced avocados, crumbled bacon, blue cheese, and arugula and toss again. Serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ted Kaczynski and me

That's Ted Kaczynski's typewriter. The Unabomber's cabin and some of its contents (I'm sure the FBI kept the crucial stuff) were taken from Montana to the Newseum in Washington, DC. I've seen it. He wasn't into high-tech gadgets and tidiness was not one of his virtues. I suppose he had few virtues.

But still, I'm feeling a bit of kinship with Ted Kaczynski. He, sitting at his typewriter, holed up in his cabin in the snow, writing incoherent political ramblings; I sitting at my . . . um . . . typewriter, in my humble townhouse in the snow, writing inane non-political ramblings. And some of the things I write get posted on this blog. My stat counter tells me I'm getting close to 4,000 views. Most of the viewers are from the United States, but just last week I had a lot of hits from the United Arab Emirates. Go figure.

But for all of those views on this blog I've had only a handful of comments. Is this blog idea just pure silliness? Should I just shut it down and leave cyberspace to someone more worthy?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meyer lemon olive oil cake

There must be something wrong with me. I think I have a metabolic imbalance that's making me bake these THINGS. This one smells so good . . . I was afraid to eat it because surely I gained five pounds just smelling it. I tasted it anyway. It tastes even better than it smells. I was inspired by two things: (1) I read a recipe for an olive oil poundcake that intrigued me, and (2) I had heard of Meyer lemons, never tried them, and there was a beautiful bag of them at Whole Foods. So, voila, Meyer lemon cake, inspired by a blood orange cake.

Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Cake

Adapted from cookbook In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, by Melissa Clark, p. 356. (Hers is Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake.)

3 Meyer lemons
1 cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk
3 eggs
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.

Grate zest from 2 lemons and place in a bowl with sugar. Using your fingers, rub ingredients together until lemon zest is evenly distributed in sugar.

Cut rind completely off two lemons. (Only pulpy interior of lemon will remain.) Cut lemon segments out of their connective membranes, remove seeds, put them in a bowl, break up into ¼ inch pieces, and set aside.

Halve remaining lemon and squeeze juice into a bowl and add buttermilk. Pour mixture into bowl with sugar and whisk well. Whisk in eggs and olive oil.

In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Gently stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Fold in pieces of lemon segments. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake cake for 45 minutes, or until it is golden and a tester inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and cool to room temperature right side up. When cake is cool, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Italian tomato bread soup

Mahala and Sarah from my church community group came over yesterday and we cooked. This is our adaptation of a recipe by Ina Garten in her Back to Basics cookbook. It's so good I'm feeling like I need to beg forgiveness for loving it so much. Don't skip the topping! The topping in itself is a work of art.

Italian Tomato Bread Soup

For the soup:
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped sweet onion
1 cup medium-diced carrots
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and medium-diced (1½ cups)
4 teaspoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
3 cups diced ciabatta bread, cubed to 1-inch pieces
2 (28-ounce) cans good Italian plum tomatoes (I used Cento brand)
4 cups chicken stock
½ cup dry red wine
1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

For the topping:
3 cups diced ciabatta bread, cubed to 1-inch pieces
4 slices (½ inch thick) pancetta (about 5 ounces), chopped coarsely
24 to 30 whole fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste


For soup:
Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, fennel, and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until tender. Add the bread cubes and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the tomatoes chicken stock, red wine, basil, and pepper to the pot. With immersion blender, pulse the mixture several times just to break up the tomatoes. Bring the soup to a simmer and cook partially covered for 45 minutes. Stir in Parmesan cheese.

For the topping:
Preheat oven 375 degrees F. While soup is simmering, place bread cubes, pancetta, and basil on a sheet pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, until all the ingredients are crisp.

Put soup into serving bowls and sprinkle with topping.

Makes six generous servings.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I almost drove into my old neighborhood yesterday, to the street where I used to live. But I chickened out. Sometimes when I take one of my longer walking routes I walk through the edges of the neighborhood, but never, ever walk down my old street. I just can't handle the emotion. If I tell you why, maybe you will understand. This is a story I wrote and submitted to The New York Times for their Modern Love feature. The story got rejected. But, ha!--I've got my own blog and I can post the story and even that big powerful newspaper in New York can't stop me.

George and the Queen of the Neighborhood

I had lived in the neighborhood only a few weeks when I first began to notice him. My house was on a short street of just five houses and George lived at the far end. For exercise he would walk slowly to the end of the street, then back again, leaning heavily on a cane. One day while I was walking the dog I stopped to talk to him. He was short and stocky with tawny skin, wisps of thinning hair slicked down on his head. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand because he had a thick eastern European accent and, I soon learned, also had been affected by a stroke.

Over weeks, in the course of many conversations, he filled in the details of his life. When I met him, George was in his 70s, widowed, and a retired physics professor from Johns Hopkins University. He was born and raised in Hungary where his father had been a renowned psychoanalyst, a contemporary and a rival of Sigmund Freud. George still lived in the house where he and his wife had lived for many years, the house where they raised their daughters. The daughters had moved to distant cities and he still missed his wife. “My life is so lonely without her,” he once told me, his eyes filling with tears. She had cancer and died just a few years before, prior to his stroke.

Because he walked so slowly, if I saw him from my kitchen window, I knew how to time his walk so I could catch him on his way back. Often I would take out the dog or go to the mailbox, just to have a chance to talk to him. This pattern continued for a couple of years. We talked about the weather, the neighbors, our families, or his health. When the weather was bad or when he traveled, I sometimes went weeks without seeing him.

Two years after moving to the house, my husband left me. When I told George, he was shocked and said, “I can’t believe it. But why?”

“Another woman,” I replied.

“But how could he? How could he leave you? You’re the queen of the neighborhood.”

Salve for a broken heart. To know that this charming man thought I was worth having somehow helped to lessen the grief, the intense pain of the loss and betrayal.

When the divorce was final, my house had to be sold. George kept telling me how the neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same without me. The day before the movers were to arrive, George left a message on my answering machine, saying he needed to talk to me before I left. From the sound of his voice, I thought something was wrong, so I quickly called him back. He said, “I want to see you. Can you come to my house this evening at 7 o’clock?”

We sat in his living room among the photos of his family. We chatted about my new place and how hard it was for me to leave the house I loved. All the while I was worried, wondering if there was something wrong with his health. Why did he need to talk to me? What was the urgency? I braced myself for bad news, but he said nothing. When it was time for me to go, he walked me to the door and hugged me. “I love you,” he said in that distinctive George voice that sounded like Henry Kissinger on sedatives.

"You’re so sweet, George,” I said, “I love you too.”

“No,” he said, “I mean it. I really love you.” I was already at the brink of intense emotion because of the move, but now this sweet old man was telling me he loved me. That was the urgent message he had for me, the thing he had to tell me before I moved away.

I searched for something to say to him, but couldn’t find the words. Now, several years later, I realize how much courage it took for him to say it and I wonder what he was thinking. If only the right words had come to me at the time. If only I had found the perfect thing to say to him. I would have told him that he was such a dear man, sadly the wrong one at the wrong time, that he warmed my broken heart, that he made me feel worthy of being loved, and that I would treasure this moment.

But I just said, “Thank you, George. I’ll miss you.”

The next day I, the queen of the neighborhood, moved away. I never saw him again. I heard that he died and now his simple little house has been torn down and replaced with a huge heartless mansion. Rest in peace, George. I love you too.


Tonight I was talking to a friend who said he had worked alone all day in his office because his co-workers were away at a conference. I advised him to double check to make sure he hadn't left anything embarrassing in the reception area. Anything like perhaps underpants. His response? Silence. Where do these crazy thoughts come from? I'm sure he thinks the inside of my head is a dangerous neighborhood. It is dangerous, but I have justification this time.

You see, I’ve had issues with underpants before and I would be reassured to know that someone else could be as stupid as I was. Like that time in my office. I worked as a grant writer for a small non-profit organization. Everyone in the office was out of town for a conference and only I stayed behind at the office to hold down the fort. Because I was the only one there and I was in charge, I declared that there was no dress code for the days I was alone in the office. It's good to be queen.

But apparently I didn't handle power all that well. The night before I had been out late playing music. So I got up in the morning, threw on the same jeans that I had worn the night before, brushed my teeth, and headed out to the office. I unlocked the office door, turned on the lights in the reception area, went back to the kitchen to make coffee, then settled into my office in the back of the suite. After working for a couple of hours, I went up front to check on the mail and I saw something strange on the floor just inside the front door. On closer examination, I realized it was a pair of underpants. They looked familiar. They were mine.

Apparently they had been stuck inside my jeans and worked their way out my pants leg without my noticing. I shudder to think how humiliating it would have been if someone else had found my old lady underpants in full view on the office floor. I was humiliated enough just knowing about the incident myself. I called a staff meeting with myself and decided I needed to be put on probation.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pasta carbonara

A little over a year ago I took a class with famed chef Roberto Donna. The class focused on Italian pasta sauces and we made our own pasta as well. Someone recently asked me, of all the sauces we made, which one was the most memorable. To me, it was the carbonara. I've made carbonara sauce before but I fell in love with it in the class. It's simple, comforting, satisfying--everything pasta should be. Here's my basic version of carbonara. You can add a little garlic or onion if you like. You can make it into a primavera by adding some veggies. But it really needs nothing else.

Pasta Carbonara

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces pancetta, cubed
3 to 4 eggs (depending on size of eggs)
¼ cup half-and-half
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 pound dry pasta (I like angel hair pasta but fettuccine and others also work well)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook just until it is at the al dente stage. (For angel hair pasta this takes less than 5 minutes, but fettuccine takes closer to 10 minutes.)

While water is heating, start to prepare the sauce. Heat olive oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook just until crisp (about 5 minutes).

Drain pasta and add to the pan with pancetta and toss gently for about 1 minute to mix. Beat the eggs, cream, and Parmesan in a mixing bowl. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the egg, cream, Parmesan mixture into the pasta, blending quickly and gently. Do not let egg mixture harden (it shouldn’t be the consistency of scrambled eggs). Return pan to burner and gently cook for about a half minute, just until the sauce is no longer runny. If necessary, thin the mixture with additional cream. Season the carbonara with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve topped with parsley and additional grated Parmesan.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Almond cake and pagan babies

Someone asked me for a recommendation for a good Valentine's Day (VD--do you think the acronym is a coincidence?) dessert that's not chocolate. How about the almond cake recipe that my sister and I love to serve at Christmas? I've never made it for VD but it seems perfect, especially since it looks like a valentine--sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and garnished with red raspberries.

Last year Texas Monthly published a story of mine that included the almond cake recipe. The full article is a piece about my Catholic elementary school and how we used to buy pagan babies. At the time it seemed so innocent but now it sounds illegal. You can find the story at

Almond Cake With Raspberry Sauce

¾ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces almond paste
3 eggs
1 tablespoon kirsch or Triple Sec
¼ teaspoon almond extract
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
Powdered sugar

Raspberry Sauce:
1 pt. (2 cups) fresh raspberries (with 2 tablespoons sugar) or 1 12 ounce package frozen raspberries, thawed

For cake: Preheat oven to 350º. Generously butter and flour 8-inch round cake pan (springform works best). Combine sugar, butter, almond paste in mixing bowl and blend well. Beat in eggs, liqueur, almond extract. Add flour and baking powder, beating just until mixed through—do not overbeat. Bake until tester comes out clean, about 40 – 50 minutes. Let cool. Invert onto serving platter and dust lightly with powdered sugar.

For sauce: Combine raspberries with sugar in processor and puree. Gently press through fine sieve to remove seeds. Serve sauce as accompaniment to cake.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Beaucu & Jez

Today a freewriting exercise. It's just what happens. Based on a prompt, write without knowing what you're going to write, don't go back and edit. Just let 'er rip.

Paul Harding, Tinkers, p. 172. “He loved the job, the smell of the fresh coarse brown paper, the bundles of bags, sharp blocks of pulp, peeling bags off the piles, snapping them open.”

Beaucu Stein didn’t intend to kill the woman. He was sitting in his underwear on the recliner in his 3rd floor walk-up apartment, chain smoking, drinking cold black coffee, and watching the evening news. He was getting aggravated with the hippies protesting the war. He started shouting at the TV, pounding his fists on the coffee table, and kicking the wall. In his anger and frustration, he picked up the television, pulling out the electric cord and the antenna connection in one giant power snatch, and tossed it out the window. He didn’t know old Mrs. Kellaher and didn’t see her on the sidewalk below. Mrs. Kellaher didn’t see the television flying out the window above her. She was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. Beaucu was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail and he lost his job. For 20 years he’d had a perfect work record with Bergmann’s Laundry. He drove a truck, picking up and delivering oriental rugs to be cleaned. Bergmann’s loved him because he could handle the big, heavy rugs by himself without a partner, thus saving Bergmann’s the expense of having two men on the truck. But even though his employer loved him, they couldn’t keep him with the manslaughter conviction. It was a good thing Beaucu was strong and it was a good thing he preferred to work alone; no one wanted to work with him and hear his social and political rants. Beaucu fancied himself to be in a political party of which he was the only member—some variation of ultra-conservative neo-Fascism. An unsuspecting person unfortunate enough to get into a political conversation with him might hear Beaucu mutter words of praise for the Nazi party. This in itself was a mystery, for everyone in town knew that Beaucu’s parents were Jews who emigrated from the old country. Beaucu Stein was a mountain of a man, a bear who towered over all the lowlife people he despised. He hid behind mounds of bushy black hair and a black beard down to his chest. His forearms were the size of tree trunks. No one knew where the name Beaucu came from and no one dared ask. After he got out of jail, Beaucu’s parole officer got him a job bagging groceries at a local organic food market. Beaucu hated the job and rarely spoke to anyone; he just went to work, walked home to his apartment, and listened to the radio. Until the day Jezebel McClosky-Jones began working as a cashier at the market. Jez was the antithesis of Beaucu--she was a tiny as Beaucu was huge; she had a pierced eyebrow and tattoos and a spiked short white hair; she was ultra liberal. She was a vegan pacifist who believed in radical environmentalism. But Jez appreciated Beaucu’s work ethic and she began to request that only he bag groceries in her check-out line. She smiled at him when he was grumpy, she teased him, and brought him cookies during his work breaks. She recited poetry to him and sang silly songs while she worked. All of the customers loved Jez’s cheery spirit. Beaucu didn’t understand why he liked going to work now. Suddenly things had changed. He loved the job, the smell of the fresh coarse brown paper, the bundles of bags, sharp blocks of pulp, peeling bags off the piles, snapping them open.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Promise kept

I promised, I promised. Last week I mentioned that I was trying a simple one-bowl chocolate cake recipe that Smitten Kitchen posted several months ago. Another winner! Smitten did it again--a nice, moist, uncomplicated cake that's just perfect in its chocolate simplicity. It was devoured before I got a chance to photograph it so I'm using Smitten's photo and giving her every bit of credit. Go to her site!

Here's the version I made, with slight adaptations.

Simple Chocolate Cake

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa powder (I used Scharffen-Berger cocoa)
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Butter and lightly flour a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, or spray it with a butter-flour spray. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then the buttermilk and vanilla. Don’t worry if the batter looks a little uneven. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together right into your wet ingredients. Stir together with a spoon until well-blended but do not overmix. Scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 to 15 minutes, at which point you can cool it the rest of the way out of the pan. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The famous Blain girls

That's my great-aunt Hazel in the photo. Yesterday I was talking with my mother about her mother and her mother's sisters who grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in the early 1900s. My great-grandmother, Marielice Langlois Blain, must have had her hands full with those girls: Eva, Irene, Rose (my grandmother), Lena, Hazel, Flo, Estelle, and Jeanette. My mother said they were lively dark-haired beauties who loved to go to local dances. Aunt Lena was missing a front tooth and when she went to dances she would stick a dried lima bean in the gap in her mouth to fill the empty space. Sounds quite glamorous, doesn’t it?

Aunt Hazel lived into her nineties. A number of years ago, not long before she died, she was talking with me on the phone from her nursing home in Florida. I told her that I worked with a man who was born and raised in Holyoke. Aunt Hazel said, “You’ve got to ask him about the Blain girls. If he’s from Holyoke, he’ll remember us. The Blain girls were famous in Holyoke.”

I hate to think about what kind of fame the Blain girls had that their reputation survived for nearly 100 years. Quite a legacy we have to uphold, we who descended from the famous Blain girls.

(Thanks to cousin Anita for the photo of Aunt Hazel and all the other old family photos!)