Monday, December 14, 2015

We'll Be Fine






My mom noticed a habit of mine recently, a thing I say about a dozen times a day to my five-year-old daughter each time she spills some milk, scrapes a knee, breaks a toy, sulks over a rule deemed unfair, or generally suffers any minor disappointment/injury/setback. I acknowledge her complaint/boo-boo, give her a quick peck on the forehead and tell her, "You'll be fine."

I don't say it in a particularly dismissive way. But I do intend for it to serve as a quick acknowledgement without much fuss. I say it as an important lesson to stave off Only Child/Center of the Universe Entitlement and Attention-Seeking Syndrome. 

I say it also as a means of empowerment. Knowing you can survive small things will teach you that you can also survive big things.  Learn from it. Shake it off. You'll be fine. 

And it occurred to me today, just how powerful those words are. Because even if today, or this week, or month (or year) is particularly tough, we'll be fine. 

These holidays might stir up lots of family stuff, both good and bad. 

This year might not have shaped up quite how you'd have liked it. 

Maybe you spilled your coffee on your shirt on your way to work. Maybe you got a parking ticket, or a divorce. 

Maybe instead of working your way to the bottom of your Holiday To Do List, you'll decide that the only thing you'll get to the bottom of is a nice bottle of wine with a good friend or a good book at the end of the day. 

But you know what? You'll be fine. 

Maybe I'm saying, "You'll be fine," because what I really mean is, "I'll be fine." Either way, it's true. Even if it doesn't particularly feel that way this moment.

As I made this cake, I was racing the clock, weekend guests imminent, gifts not yet wrapped, house not yet cleaned. As I was measuring out the ingredients, my phone rang with news from fraud protection informing me that someone had gone on a shopping spree on my dime, and my bank cards were being cancelled. Distracted on the phone, I mis-measured, burned the sugar, burned my finger, and I cursed as I started all over again, my counters piled high with two sets of mess as I realized I wasn't going to have time to shower before everyone arrived.

And I know these are very minor problems to have. This is the grown-up equivalent to spilled milk or scraped knees.  But as I pulled the cake out of the oven and inverted it onto a plate and the sugar-coated cranberries glistened fragrantly in front of me, everything that felt so aggravating a moment earlier had passed. See? Fine. 

I hear there are some people out there who are not particularly fond of cranberries, including the two people who live with me. But I promise you, this is worthy of a space on your holiday baking list. It is the rare kind of recipe that I actually wrote down on a recipe card and put in my recipe box, giving it a position in the Holiday Hall of Fame. It saves well, is great with coffee in the morning, or after dinner with cocktails. I had an impromptu dinner party at my house with my incredible neighbors on Friday night, and they gobbled it up, every last cranberry-hating one of them.

The cake itself is sweet and has a tender but hearty crumb. And the cranberries on top are tart, but soaked in a kind of butter caramel situation that takes the edge off just enough. I feel like this cake should be called The Cranberry Converter Cake, because it will convert even the most cranberry-adverse into cranberry fans.

I dusted this with powdered sugar, just for the sake of presentation (it looks perfectly snow-dusted for the winter holidays), but it is not necessary.

I hope things are fine with you. And if they are not, I hope they will be soon. And I hope this cake helps things to be fine sooner than later.







Upside-Down Cranberry Cake
From Los Angeles Times/Abby Mandel


Active Work Time: 20 minutes
Total Preparation Time: 1 hour
TOPPING
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, plus more for greasing
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups cranberries, rinsed, picked over and at room temperature
Generously grease 9-inch springform pan; wrap outside with foil (to avoid leakage). Set aside on baking sheet.
Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add sugar, water and cinnamon. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Stir in cranberries. Pour into pan and spread evenly. Set aside.
CAKE
1 1/2 cups cake flour (or make your own using all purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
3/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
Beat butter and granulated and brown sugars on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition. On low speed, add half of flour mixture. Mix until combined. Add sour cream and vanilla. Mix until combined. Add remaining flour mixture. Mix until smooth. Transfer batter to springform pan, spreading evenly over cranberries.
Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, edges just begin to pull away from sides and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Set on rack 10 minutes. Run knife around edge to loosen cake. Invert onto plate. Remove foil, ring and pan bottom. Replace any cranberries that fall. (Can be made up to two days ahead and kept at room temperature, covered airtight.) Cut into wedges and serve.





Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Sure Thing





Remember when we were young, and winter nestled in around us with all the promise of the holidays, and home seemed extra homey, and family seemed extra family-ly, and more than any other time of the year, the world seemed full of magic? And for those of us who did the Christmas tree thing, the tree was chosen with much fanfare and affection, and decorated with inspiration accompanied by carols and egg nog, and every night I'd fall asleep with the lights twinkling, and an extra warm glow in my belly, and it was like the holidays tucked me in with a blanket of happiness. It all truly felt so effortless, and magical, and just kind of... miraculous.

It turns out, it wasn't that effortless, or magical, and the miracle was actually my mom, who was, unbeknownst to me, sewing and baking and planning and sweating and cursing and toiling through the night with the relentless pressure to make sure every friggin' moment was HAPPY and FESTIVE, and PERFECT. And I know this now, because I am now on the other side of the holiday,  stressing and toiling and cursing so that it can all feel effortless and magical and miraculous to my own sweet 5-year-old daughter, who deserves to feel the magic of my own childhood that I am trying so desperately to replicate.

And all that effort is fine. The hard work is rewarding. With every smile and reaction and excitement over each decoration and activity and cookie, it's WORTH it. The effort and toil is not the problem.

The problem is that I can't let go of my childhood expectation of it. I want to have it both ways: to be the one making the magic, but for it to somehow still feel magical to me.

I have grand home movies in my head projecting how it should be: tonight was to be our Perfect Tree Decorating Night. The official beginning of the Christmas spectacular that will be our home for the next month. And in the movie in my head, I would pick up Bay from school, and head home to the perfect Christmas tree that was delivered to our front door from its sustainable Oregon farm, as scheduled, planned efficiently and mindfully by me more than a month ago. I had lugged out all the giant boxes of decorations late last night in preparation for this. My enthusiastic boyfriend was to meet us at the door with mistletoe, and the evening would begin with us setting up our perfectly straight tree in its place by the window, would crescendo with the three of us placing the star gloriously on the top, and would end with the three of us snuggled by the fire with hot cocoa, bellies full of love and the twinkle lights dancing in our merry eyes.

The problem is, that's the magic version. Instead, of course, it went like this:

Come home, no tree waiting for us. Call tree delivery. Am given excuses and promises to be there in an hour. Which means I'll have only one hour after the tree arrives before Bailey needs to be in bed.  I re-strategize. We'll be efficient and she'll go to bed half an hour late. Fine, I can handle that.

Make nutritious, delicious dinner for Bay, which she rejects, crying and complaining that she doesn't like it. Make much less nutritious dinner for Bay of fish sticks and ketchup, which she gobbles up. Sigh. Fine.

Receive text from boyfriend saying he's stuck at work, won't make it home in time, we'll have to decorate without him.  Stomach drops. Fine...

7.5-foot tree arrives at front door. YAY!!! It's on me to get it inside. BOO!!! I try to hoist the tree awkwardly to my hip, my hair getting stuck in the sap, fumble until I am somehow using my groin to support the tree, which I'm sure is not proper form, and knock over basically everything in my living room while creating a carpet of pine needles (how can it have so many needles??? How???), and somehow get it to the stand by the window and realize I now have to stand it up - straight - in the stand by myself. I do it. It takes 15 tries. It's crooked. I'm sweating. But it's fine. So... fine.

I turn on Christmas carols. Bay "helps" me with the lights, which is slowing down my perfect plan for efficiency in our race against the bedtime clock, so I re-direct her to start choosing her favorite decorations. She squeals as she recognizes favorite ornaments from last year. She holds up her favorite, a beautiful, delicate, all-glass "B" and immediately drops it, shattering it all over the floor. She sobs. I console. We find a new ornament to be excited about. She is fine. I am fine. Everything is fine.

I try desperately not to let her absorb any of my angst as I slap ornaments on the tree at a frenzied pace, haphazardly throwing them at the branches and letting them hang where they land, pine needles now sticking sharply to the sap in my hair. No matter how many ornaments I hang, the tree still looks naked. The tree is eating my ornaments. Decorating a giant Christmas Tree mostly by yourself is not any fun! Why does anyone do this? I contemplate fake trees. I contemplate no trees ever again. I contemplate ways to get the sap out of my hair. I'm NOT fine.

But, then, magic.

Bailey has (understandably) lost all interest in this tedious process and has changed into a fancy dress and is performing a pas de deux with a life-size nutcracker. Willie Nelson's voice twangs out an old-fashioned carol from the speakers, as if he is in our living room with his guitar, singing only to us, reminding us how simple it is to find joy. Bailey spins and twirls and curtseys and declares with earnest delight that this is the Best Christmas Party Ever. We stand back and look at our crooked, maniacally-decorated tree, and it is beautiful. And it is magic. And it feels like a miracle. And I forget the sap and effort as I tuck her into bed, only half-an-hour past her bedtime, and I read her three favorite Christmas stories and watch her fall asleep in the glow of the twinkle lights we put up in her room.

And for a moment, all that exists is the magic. None of the stress mattered, because Bay was tucked in with a blanket of happiness tonight, and will wake up in the morning to a twinkling tree. And I am really and truly fine.

Until I walk back out into the living room and face the pine needles on every square inch of surface, the dishes from making two dinners, the boxes that need to get stored back in the garage, the sap still stuck in my hair. I have miles to go before I sleep.

And I know I could have done better. Maybe if I didn't expect so much. Maybe if I had more time, or more help. Maybe if I didn't pressure myself for it to be magical.

More and more these days, I feel let down. It's as though at my age I have the audacity to presume to have things figured out by now, and am daily reminded that I, in fact, do not. On any given day, I guess I'm lucky if a few things go according to plan.

So when I find a sure thing, I cling to it like it's magic.

And when that magic comes in the form of a pumpkin stuffed with bread, cheese, bacon, apples and cream, and is fairly effortless, it's a miracle.

This recipe is not a well-kept secret. It's got a nearly cult following at this point. I have been making it for the last four years, multiple times throughout the holidays. It comes from Dorie Greenspan, who is as reliable a recipe-writer as there is. Even the title of it is perfect:

Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good.

Isn't that magic?

This is not so much a recipe as a method. Really, the idea is simple - hollow out a pumpkin (or, as I prefer, a kabocha), use the squash as an edible vessel for cooking anything you think is delicious, pop it all in the oven for a couple hours, and then eat the miracle you created.

I've done too many versions to count - rice and chorizo with greens, cornbread and sausage, anything you can dream up would probably be delicious. But I find that the original concept is the best, with a few important tweaks.

I overwhelmingly prefer kabocha squash to pumpkin. It is so much more flavorful, and has such a creamy, silky consistency, that Pumpkin seems like it's stringy, watery cousin. (Kabochas are sometimes labeled as "Japanese Pumpkins" and where I live can be found in every market, including Trader Joe's and major chains.)

I have also added apples to the recipe, have upped the bacon a bit, and prefer sourdough bread and smoked melty cheeses - I think the sweetness of the squash goes so well with any smokiness you can add. I pair this with a green salad with persimmons and pomegranate seeds and a light vinaigrette, since the stuffing itself is a bit decadent.

This is a very simple recipe. It requires little effort, offers tons of reward, and tastes magical. It's a sure thing, and during this time of year, I'll take as many sure things as I can get.

May we all get through this season together, and remember that making things magical is actually pretty simple when you let go of expectations.





Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan


  • 1 3-4 lb. Kabocha Squash 
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 lb. stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I like sourdough or La Brea Roasted Garlic. Slice it and leave it out overnight, or chunk it up and put it in 200 degree oven for about 30 minutes to make it stale.)
  • 1/4 lb. cheese, such as Gruy√®re, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I love doing smoked cheddar if you can find it, and gruyere)
  • 2 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2-inch chunks 
  • 5 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
  • About 1/3 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
  • 1 Tbs. minced fresh thyme
  • About 1/3 - 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet or casserole dish with a silicone baking mat or parchment, or find a Dutch oven with a diameter that's just a tiny bit larger than your pumpkin. 
Using a very sturdy knife - and caution - cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween Jack-o-Lantern). It's easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin GENEROUSLY with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot (this is your chance to season the actual squash itself, so be diligent).
Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, apples and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper - you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure - and pack the mix into the pumpkin. I pack it in pretty good and tight. The pumpkin should be well filled - you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little - you don't want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (It's hard to go wrong here - if it feels like it’s pooling at the top, it will eventually make its way down. You don't want your stuffing to be dry, so don't be shy.)
Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 - 2.5 hours, depending on size of squsah - check after 90 minutes - or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little.
When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully - it's heavy, hot, and wobbly - bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.
To serve, you have a choice - you can either slice the pumpkin and serve pieces like a pie, you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful, or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I'm a fan of the slice option, so that each person at your table can eat it as they please. 




Sunday, November 15, 2015

One Meal at a Time




Hello. It's been a while...

Five years, actually.

And sitting down to write this makes me realize how many things have changed in the time since I was last here. Shortly after my last post, the foundation of my life crumbled. For a good long while, it was like an earthquake that wouldn't stop long enough for me to get to a safe place and take cover. And when the shaking finally stopped, I wasn't in a hurry to climb out from under the rubble. The weight of the debris was less scary than what might await me when I finally climbed out.

It's impossible to sum up five years, but suffice it to say that about 17 people gave me copies of Eat, Pray, Love. I accepted each copy graciously, and with the warmth of each of the givers' good intentions, but I died a bit inside when I realized I already had an embarrassing number of copies on my bookshelf from the last time my life fell apart, about 4 years prior. This was not the first time my personal life had completely gone to shit. I'd already eaten, prayed and loved my way through one crisis, and here I was worse off than ever.

Life has a funny way of surprising you, right when you think things are going along as you'd like them to. It has sharp turns and sudden stops and starts - like a rusty old wooden roller coaster that jerks and whips you around in a way that isn't actually all that much fun, and leaves you dizzy and a little beat up as you try to pretend you're having a good time and do your best not to throw up all over everyone.

Things were bad there for a while.

I cried a lot.
I hid under the covers more days than I could ever admit.
I yo-yo'd between attacking the bad feelings with Very Healthy Decisions, and languishing in the bad feelings until I felt the relief of never having to get better.
I did yoga! I cleansed! I got deep into essential oils and homemade teas!
I sometimes drank too much wine. I got pneumonia twice. I had a hard time being still.

I learned what anxiety attacks are, and how stress impacts every aspect of your mind and body.

But also, this...

I have felt more gratitude and have been more present with my daughter and my loved ones than I ever would have been without all those hard parts.
I have learned who I am. (Who I am today, anyway.)
I have learned how I want to parent.
I have learned what not to worry about.
I have learned what makes me truly happy.
I have learned what doesn't make me happy, which is almost more important.
I have learned how to love, the right way, and with the right person.

And I've never, ever stopped cooking. And that is why I dusted off this old, abandoned blog and started it up again.

The title of this blog was never more real than in the five years I wasn't writing it: Cooking has been my therapy. It has saved me, continues to save me on a near daily basis.

The respite of walking into my kitchen, opening my refrigerator and pantry and making something delicious, my thoughts belonging only to me as I chop, mix, stir and meditate over flavors and colors and textures, it has kept me, well... me. As everything changed (divorcee, single mom, joint custody of my Reason-For-Living), it was this beating part of me that I could still nurture, that I could tap into, draw from, and sustain. On my worst days, I could climb out of bed and into the kitchen to make something delicious. It was One Meal at a Time for a while there.

Culinerapy, indeed.

And eventually, it was easier to get out of bed. I found my way back, not to what I was before, but back to the parts of me that mattered enough to take with me. And a lot of that was my own hard work, but a good deal of it was because of the people who loved me all the way through it.

I could tell I was doing better when I started regularly cooking for the people I love. Inviting people over for dinners, for brunches, for holiday gatherings. Dropping off baked goods, canned goods, infused spirits as thanks for infusing my spirit. It was this desire to share food with the people I love that told me I was going to be okay.

For the people who have nourished me, I will nourish you back. One meal at a time.

So, we'll start off simple, with something that you can make to nourish yourself, or, to share with the people you love.  It's a simple yellow tomato jam with basil, which is a heavenly mix of savory and sweet. Don't be scared of it. It's really, really good.

This jam is definitely sweet, but the basil and lemon and the fact that it's made from tomatoes lends it to some really spectacular uses. I recommend:

To nourish a crowd: On toasted or grilled bread (or crackers) spread with whipped ricotta, or even better, goat cheese. Or served as an accompaniment on a charcuterie and cheese platter.

To nourish yourself: Swirled in plain greek yogurt with granola sprinkled on top (this was my brilliant friend Lauren's creation, after I gifted her with a jar). Or spread with butter on a warm muffin (which is how my little Bailey likes it).

I made mine from home grown tomatoes and basil, which I planted and cultivated in our back yard garden with the two people I love most, and not at all coincidentally, whom I cook for the most.

Make a great big batch of this. Share it with the people you love, or keep some in your pantry for future emergencies. Life is bumpy, and knowing you have something good to serve up for yourself and for your favorite people sure does make the getting through it easier.







Yellow Tomato Basil Jam
Marisa McClellan/Food In Jars 
*If canning is not your thing, you can cut the ingredients in half, and keep the jam in a sealed container in your fridge for up to two weeks. 
Yield: Makes 3.5 pints or 7 half pints
Ingredients
  • 4 pounds Sungold or other yellow tomatoes
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • zest of two lemons, divided
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped basil


  







Instructions

  1. Cut Sungold tomatoes in half, or, if using larger yellow tomatoes, chop them into smallish pieces.
  2. Combine chopped tomatoes with sugar in a large, non-reactive pot and stir. Let sit for at least one hour, or until the tomatoes release their juice.
  3. When ready to cook, prep canning pot and jars and place jam pot over high heat. Add lemon juice and bring to a boil.
  4. Cook at a boil for 30-35, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes have softened and the syrup has gotten thick. Check set with plate test. Once you’re satisfied with the set, remove the pot from the heat and stir in half the lemon zest and chopped basil. Taste and add remaining lemon zest only if you feel the jam requires it.
  5. Pour jam into prepared jars. Wipe rims, apply lids and rings. Process jars in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.
  6. When time is up, remove jars from pot and let them cool on a kitchen towel. When jars are cool enough to handle, remove rings and test seals. Place any unsealed jars in the refrigerator and use promptly. All sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Something Pretty

I thought I'd share something pretty.


Poppies. Lots and lots of poppies.





Fields as far as the eye can see, a swelling sea of orange.

And way off in the middle of it were some tables, just begging for a picnic.




If it weren't illegal, I would have run through these fields, barefoot.

Instead, Bailey and I parked ourselves on a path, and just enjoyed the view.



Well, I enjoyed the view, anyway. She had no idea she was there. Which is the same thing that happened when I took her to the beach.



Right now she's kind of like the traveling gnome in those pictures from all over the world. But next year she'll be able to enjoy it more... and maybe even join us at one of those tables for a picnic.