Monday, August 27, 2012

Fresh tomato sauce

Today I had to do two things--(1) use some of the tomatoes I had before they spoiled, and (2) eat pasta. I had a few tomatoes from a friend's garden, a few lovely green-striped heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market, and a few campari tomatoes from the grocery store. So this is what I did. Note that I didn't peel the tomatoes or take out the seeds. I thought I would freeze some of it to save for a cold day in the middle of January, but I'm not sure I can stop eating it to even get it into the freezer. If you ever doubt the existence of God, just make this and thank Him for inventing tomatoes.

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Pasta

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium Vidalia onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
A considerable portion of fresh tomatoes, coarsely chopped (probably about 4 cups)
Kosher salt (about 1-2 teaspoons)
Freshly grated black pepper
1/3 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried Turkish oregano (from Penzey's)
Fresh grated parmesan
Cooked pasta (prefer capellini)

Heat the olive oil in a wide saute pan. Cook onion on medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, and wine, and simmer uncovered until tomatoes release their juice and sauce begins to thicken, about 10 minutes. Add oregano and simmer about 3 more minutes.

Pour portion of sauce on cooked pasta, top with grated parmesan, and try to sit down and eat it in a controlled manner like a civilized person.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


If I were a Buddhist, I'd be praying and fasting and trying to be as good as I could be so that I could come back in my next life as a higher form being. My goal would be to be a textile designer. I love fabric, love color. I even love the earthy smell of fabric dye. Sometimes I wrap myself in one of my vintage Indian quilts just to find some peace and comfort. There's nothing more that words can say. Let me just post a photo.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


The Ina kick continues. (Did you know she has a new cookbook coming out in a couple of months?) This is a recipe I tried today that I found on The Food Network. I served it with her roasted lemon chicken breasts. Nice combination that vaguely kept to the Greek theme. The only adaptation I made to the salad recipe is that I used a mixture of tomatoes, including a few beautiful little heirloom striped green tomatoes. And I made the croutons with some stale 3-cheese semolina bread.

Greek Panzanella (Source: Ina Garten)

Good olive oil
1 small French bread or boule, cut into 1-inch cubes (6 cups)
Kosher salt
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, large diced
1 yellow bell pepper, large diced
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 red onion, sliced in half rounds
1/2 pound feta cheese, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup calamata olives, pitted
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup good red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup good olive oil
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the bread cubes and sprinkle with salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for 5 to 10 minutes, until nicely browned. Add more olive oil as needed.

Place the cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, tomatoes and red onion in a large bowl.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together the garlic, oregano, mustard, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper in a small bowl. While still whisking, add the olive oil and make an emulsion. Pour the vinaigrette over the vegetables. Add the feta, olives and bread cubes and mix together lightly. Set aside for 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Satan, Ina, and lemon chicken

This, dear people, is the face of Satan. You thought it was a sweet-voiced plumpish middle-aged woman who adores her own husband? A woman who is always cooking something with olive oil and lemon and fresh herbs and butter and raspberries and every perfect morsel of food you could ever imagine? Yes, she's sweet and she's immensely creative and she has changed the face of American cooking. Though I've never actually seen her barefoot and I don't believe she's an Italian countess.

Her very existence has proved to be more than I can handle. This morning I was reading scripture, trying to get grounded, to feel the Holy Spirit infusing my life. One of my Barefoot Contessa cookbooks was sitting on my kitchen table beside my bible. I got distracted thinking about what I'm going to cook tomorrow night when my friend Lea comes to dinner. So instead of thinking about being infused with the Spirit, my mind was wandering. Satan whispered in my ear, "Just pick up the cookbook. How bad can it be? You'll find a recipe and then get back to God's word. Trust me!" There was a scent of fresh-baked cheese bread, melting butter, fine chocolate. You didn't think Satan would really smell like sulphur, did you?

Time passed as I went from one recipe to another in the cookbook. So many wonderful choices. Nothing Ina Garten cooks is even mediocre--I couldn't fail. And I thought about how Satan meets you where you are. He's not going to tempt me to go partying in Vegas. So I smacked myself upside the head, laughed at my weakness, and went back to scripture for a while.

And this is what I think I'm cooking tomorrow night. (With a Greek panzanella salad and peach shortcakes for dessert.)

Lemon Chicken Breasts

(Source: Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That?)

1/4 cup good olive oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic (9 cloves)
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on (6 to 8 ounces each)
1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Warm the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the garlic, and cook for just 1 minute but don't allow the garlic to turn brown. Off the heat, add the white wine, lemon zest, lemon juice, oregano, thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt and pour into a 9 by 12-inch baking dish.

Pat the chicken breasts dry and place them skin side up over the sauce. Brush the chicken breasts with olive oil and sprinkle them liberally with salt and pepper. Cut the lemon in 8 wedges and tuck it among the pieces of chicken.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken breasts, until the chicken is done and the skin is lightly browned. If the chicken isn't browned enough, put it under the broiler for 2 minutes. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and serve hot with the pan juices.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bitter dance

A different kind of writing exercise, inspired by a line in a Bob Dylan song (sung by Emmylou Harris) entitled “Every Grain of Sand”

I have gone from rags to riches
in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream,
in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness
fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence
on each forgotten face.

She put the phonograph on the turntable—an old recording of Strauss waltzes that had belonged to her father. And in her nightgown and white gloves, her feet bare, she began to dance across the wood floor, a bitter dance of loneliness. She wanted to dance, to move in rhythm to the music, her arms held in perfect waltz position as if she were dancing with a partner. She smiled like she had been taught to smile at him. As far as she knew, her partner was a phantom who didn’t exist and never would. Her smile belied the ache within her, beyond her heart, beyond her empty arms, deep into the core of her flesh and spirit. “Where are you?” she whispered. “I don’t know if I can wait any longer.” She played the record over and over and danced with the vacant stranger until she could no longer hold up her arms, until her legs ached, until her smile faded. “He mustn’t see me like this,” she said. “I don’t want him to think I’m an old sourpuss.” Sometimes she clung to the hopeless romantic dream she had dragged through her youth. And sometimes she prayed to the Lord to empty her, to purge that ominous yearning. The yearning had lost all reasonable hope. She wrapped herself in a quilt and lay on her bed, thinking she had to remember to water the tomato plants in the morning before she left for work.

Chicken + tarragon = salad

My friend says she grows tarragon in her garden. I'm jealous because even foolproof herbs like basil and mint are not thriving in my garden this year. So I promised this tarragon-growing friend I'd repost my favorite chicken salad recipe. If I had fresh tarragon, I'd certainly use that instead of the dried version. (Double the amount of tarragon if you're using fresh herbs.) I love any kind of chicken salad and particularly love variations on curried chicken salad. But this is my basic go-to chicken salad recipe, based on something I found years in one of the Silver Palate cookbooks. If you're worried about the fat content, use light sour cream or Greek yogurt in place of the regular sour cream. Just promise me you won't even think of using Miracle Whip. I can't tolerate Miracle Whip--I think you have to be a Republican to eat Miracle Whip. Just sayin'.

Chicken Salad With Artichokes and Tarragon
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
32 ounce carton chicken broth
½ cup sour cream
½ cup mayonnaise
1 cup celery, cut into julienne strips
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
6 ½ ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped

Place chicken breasts in single layer in a large pot. Add just enough chicken broth (add water or white wine, if necessary) to cover chicken. Heat to simmer, cover, and cook very gently for about 10 minutes, until no longer pink. Remove from heat and allow chicken to cool in liquid for 20 minutes. When chicken has cooled, break into bite-sized pieces.

Mix sour cream, mayonnaise, celery, tarragon, and salt and pepper. Pour over chicken, add artichokes, and blend gently. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours before serving.

Serves 6

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Miraculous custard pie

The only reason I made it was because a link popped up on my Facebook page. The advertiser claimed it was magic because it makes its own crust. "Well, I'll be the judge of that," I muttered, ever the skeptic.

Doggone it, it's beyond magic--it's a miracle! But I found out that the directions were flawed, or incomplete at best. It said to put it all the ingredients in the food processor and blend. Tried that. It's a very liquidy batter and it was leaking out of the center of my food processor. If you've got a large capacity food processor it may work. And be warned that you should not even consider putting it in one of those tart pans that has a bottom that pops out. You'd be scrubbing that sticky egg mixture off the bottom of your stove for the rest of your life. But this is my adaptation of the recipe. You'll notice I had to test it. It's really easy and it's fabulous, a bit of a miracle.

Magic Custard Pie

¼ cup melted butter
4 eggs
¾ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 cups half & half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup flour
Fresh grated nutmeg

Put everything in a bowl and beat with mixer at high speed for about 1 minute. Pour into buttered 9 inch pie pan. Sprinkle with fresh-grated nutmeg.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Afro-Colombian punk funk jazz

Jane and I went to the Kennedy Center tonight to see friends play on the Millennium Stage. We were thrilled to find a parking spot on the street and, because it’s Sunday, we didn’t have to feed the meter. (Parking in the garage at the Kennedy Center is $22—a huge incentive to drive around the block a few times looking for a space.) We were thrilled when we got there to find two unoccupied seats in the front row center. But wait! We found out we had the date wrong—our friends are playing next Sunday. Duh!

The Millennium Stage has a free show every night. Sometimes it’s something great like Los Lobos; sometimes it’s not worthy of a drive into the city, like a Bulgarian harpsichord ensemble or a mime theater. But tonight our mistake ended up being a ton of fun, even though it was far different than any band we might have chosen to see.

It was a band from New York City—an Afro-Colombian punk funk jazz band called M.A.K.U. SoundSystem. The band has a huge pulsating sound, consisting of guitars, a variety of drums and percussion, keyboard, saxophone, clarinet, and trombone. (Surely I’m forgetting something.) While they are playing, there’s a screen behind them showing what looked like home-grown videos, presumably of Colombia, showing someone carving a drum and someone else butchering a large fish. The lead singer/bassist looks like Bob Marley and dances like a wild man. The lead female singer/percussion player is mesmerizing, with a crazy, totally original off-kilter haircut. The clarinet player looks like Keb Mo and he sometimes is featured playing klezmer music to go with the Afro-Colombia punk funk jazz. Somehow it works.

Nearly every seat was taken—old, young, black, white, tourist types. Behind us were two young women who appeared to be from some undefined fundamental religious group—heads covered and dressed from their heads to their ankles in black (except for the green turtleneck shirt one of them was wearing under the black clothing). They had to be really, really hot.

With the exception of Jane and me, the entire front row got up and danced. There were young guys dancing up front like the M.A.K.U. version of a mosh pit. There was a pregnant woman dancing and man with a Cuban t-shirt and mismatched shoes, a woman in a sparkly cocktail dress, a geeky young woman in a Hawaiian print dress who danced wildly to a beat unrelated to what the band was playing, and an androgynous guy wearing red pixie shoes. There was an entire troop of Australian Girl Guides in uniform, all dancing. People were shouting call-and-response lyrics in Spanish.

And to make things even more perfect, the performance was videotaped and is available on the Kennedy Center website. If you look carefully and wait until close to the end when they show the audience, you can see Jane and me in the front row. Sadly, we’re the only ones not dancing.  It’s at

So crazy, so we-are-the-world in a much more funky way. So much fun. I trust that when our friends play at the Millennium Stage next Sunday, it will be great. But lucky for us, we went on the wrong night.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What about the light he could not say

Needed to escape, to clear my head. This is what I do . . . a freewriting exercise where I blindly pick a sentence from a book and write (without editing) until I work into the sentence

Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, p. 25 “It’s the light, he explained. What about the light? He could not say.”

“Here’s the thing about love,” he said. “You believe in love and I don’t. You’re just a child, you still believe in fairy tales, you listen to love songs and believe the lyrics, you think you can love someone forever and walk into the sunset hand-in-hand.” I cried and said, “But, Macy, darlin’, I have loved you wild.” I knew I was quoting song lyrics when I said that, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say that sounded deep and meaningful. Macy really wasn’t all that lovable but I wanted to love somebody. I was so doggone sick of effing Mayberry RFD, so annoyed seeing the same people. I needed something else. Macy almost went to college but his parents convinced him to stay home and run the filling station. He had perpetual grease under his fingernails but he had a car and a job, and he said he was a cynic. I wasn’t sure what a cynic did, but surely Macy was a pretty good cynic. Nothing he could say would make me stop loving him. My love was that strong. But when he asked me why I loved him, I couldn’t come up with a good reason. I told him I loved the rebel in him. He laughed in a sad sort of way and threw his beer can out the window, said he needed to go see a man about a horse and walked into the woods. Even before he got back, I spoke to the empty space where he had been, said, “Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you know how strong my love is?” Maybe Macy was right; maybe I was a dreamer. Or maybe he just didn’t understand the power of love. Did he need me to prove my love? If I could make him understand, would he take me away so we could start a new life together? He got back into the car and I told him that love was a crazy thing but . . . “But what?” he pounded on the steering wheel and said. “But what? You think I don’t want to be able to love someone? You think this is the life I want to be living? You think I want to spend my life here, pumping gas, jumping every time that bell rings, eating meatloaf on Tuesdays and fried chicken on Saturdays, and hoping one day I’ll be head usher at 1st Baptist? You think I have what it takes to get out of here and take you with me? I think not, Charlene. I’m a loser, you’re a loser, and the only thing we can be together is a pair of losers. That’s the way the world works, Charlene. You’re born into a life and you’ll die in the life. There’s no light in our lives. There’s no light for people like us. You believe in love. You believe there’s a light at and I don’t.” I wasn’t quite sure what light he was looking for, what light I believed in but he didn’t. I turned off the radio and looked out the window. “It’s the light,” he explained. What about the light? He could not say.

Intro to Jimmy Johnson

I think I’m getting over it. I hear myself telling people that. Then something will come over me, later, when I’m alone. I’ll see his photo or hear him playing guitar or think about one of our inside jokes and the reality comes crushing down. He’s gone. Today it was when I heard him playing the intro to Jimmy Johnson. It was particularly poignant because it was the two of us playing together—he was playing guitar and I was playing banjo. Something about the two of us together . . . I lost part of myself when he died, that part of me that fit into his life. I want to punch something, scream out to God for being so damned unfair, but I can’t do anything but cry and wait for the time to pass. Time will pass like it always does. I’ll just hang on to that, missing him, knowing it’s just a moment in time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Salsa fresca redux

Back by popular demand is the salsa fresca recipe from The Perfect Pantry that I first tried and posted last year. This time I changed it slightly from the original by adding a little bit of kiwi (because I had it on hand) and a little crushed mint leaves (from my garden). This is the original recipe and it's perfect just the way it is. And it's quite beautiful, a great side for grilled chicken.

Watermelon, mango, and tomato salsa fresca

1 cup watermelon, diced
1 mango, diced
1/2 cup ripe tomato, seeded and diced
1/2 cup seedless (English) cucumber, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced
Juice of 1/2 lime (or more to taste)
Kosher salt to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Chill until ready to use.

Fear this!

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, wishing I could go back to the days of my childhood when there were much fewer things to fear.

I used to fear mad dogs, creepy old men who might offer me candy, and sea nettles. I avoided mad dogs and creepy old men, but I had frequent encounters with sea nettles. I also feared Satan, especially since he could read my mind and I knew that he could tell what I was thinking just by the way my eyes blinked.

Then we had our boogiemen and we feared our own stupidity. But now there are so many more dangerous things out there:
  • Plastic. In the 1950s plastic was the hot new thing. Now plastic wrap in contact with food can give you cancer, plastic water bottles are deadly, plastic residue in our oceans and rivers is killing sea life. I used to covet Mary Jane Zielinski’s multicolored plastic pop bead necklace. Poor Mary Jane—she’s probably dead from wearing the pop beads.
  • Cellphones. Back then there weren’t cellphones. We had one clunky black dial phone and we were happy when we got rid of party lines. Now cellphones give you brain cancer and dementia and you can walk into the path of a bus because you’re preoccupied with talking on the phone. Or you can burst into flames if you use a cellphone while pumping gas.
  • Priests and nuns. Lord, have mercy. They might have been scary back then because they could whack your hand with a ruler with nary a warning, but at least I wasn’t afraid they would want to get into my undies. Such sadness to know that some of the kids didn’t escape that horror.
  • Paint. Babies snacking on the lead paint peeling off of walls, fumes from painting your interior walls, getting addicted to huffing spray paint, trauma from horrible outdated colors. Okay, I’m stretching it to say that outdated paint colors can be traumatic, but it’s entirely possible that I spent 10 years in psychotherapy and the root cause of my emotional malaise was the chartreuse color of the living room in my childhood home. The wall-to-wall carpet in the room was a rose colored and sculptured. It was a hideous combination and I’m sure it kept me from getting admitted to a better college.
  • Power lines. You can’t live within 20 miles of power lines because they emit silent rays that specifically attack genes related to learning calculus and they make sperm cells that create babies that look like Teenage Mutant Turtles. That means that we should all be living in the middle of Montana, off the grid. I don’t think we can all fit there. Back in the day, the power lines were considered a playground. My brother Mark was up there all the time. I’m still not sure how much damage he did. He did once come home from the power lines with his eyebrows singed off but I think it was because he dropped a cherry bomb in a natural gas well
  • Radon. It’s colorless and odorless and it seeps out of the earth if you’re living in the wrong place and exposure will turn your lungs into solidified globs of clay. That doesn’t seem useful.
  • Toilet seats. Now I’ve had a long-standing respect/fear of toilet seats, justifiably so. About two weeks ago I had to use the restroom in a grubby store. There was no worry about the seat being clean—there simply was no seat at all. Just a bare toilet. I would have taken the risk of inhaling the fumes from a couple of cans of aerosol high-intensity bathroom cleaner just to sanitize the place. I’m imagining the exotic variety of bacteria available. I’m expecting a worm the size of a snake to soon crawl out of my right ear, just because I was in that bathroom.
  • Red dye #2. We dyed Easter eggs with it. It also made a lovely semi-permanent lipstick, although it wasn’t always applied too gracefully. And all red M&Ms had to be pulled from stores. I just imagined someone going through each bag, pulling out the red ones and eating them.
  • Animals. We can now get swine flu, and bird flu, and mad cow disease. Pregnant women are warned not to change a cat’s litter box. Don’t let your animals go outside because they can transmit pin worms and hookworms, and ticks and fleas, and eventually Lyme Disease.
Sad, isn’t it? The world gets more complicated, seemingly more sophisticated, but more dangerous on a whole new level.