• Beef, Beyond Simple

    I have posted almost nothing about food lately. Well, at least not about anything other than bread. But I’m going to change that. Right now.

    Cooking with beef, besides the ground stuff, intimidates me. There are all the different types of cuts to choose from, and then there’s the browning part which is really messy, and then the baking/roasting part and the accompanying struggle to determine when it’s done, not to mention that you need to figure out what “done” means to you. It’s all very confusing and tiring.

    But I have found a recipe that is beyond simple. There are only five ingredients and there is no messy browning and you bake it to death so there’s no question as to when it’s done. And it’s delicious and sophisticated to boot.

    I made it last night for supper and then reheated it for lunch to day and there is still a bunch leftover. That’s a good thing.

    Peposo (beef with black pepper and red wine)
    Adapted from Heat by Bill Buford

    The original recipe calls for four heaping tablespoons of black pepper, but I use considerably less, about two teaspoons, which is a nice amount of spicy though still too hot for the young and unsophisticated taste buds of the little people in my house.

    2 beef shanks, or soup bones with lots of meat still hanging on, or another cut of tough meat
    1 bottle of red wine (Buford calls for Chianti, but any kind will do—I’m not that sophisticated), and then maybe some more
    1 head of garlic, cloves peeled
    1-3 teaspoons sea salt
    2-6 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper

    Put the meat in a big baking dish. Sprinkle it with the salt and pepper. Toss in the cloves of garlic and pour the bottle of wine over all. Cover the dish well, either with a lid or some tinfoil. Bake at 350 degrees for one to two hours, and then turn the oven back down to 250 degrees and continue baking for another two to five hours. Check the meat every hour or so to make sure that the liquid isn’t evaporating away too much, adding more wine as needed.

    Serve with crusty bread to sop up the juices and a glass of red wine. That’s all you need.

    Anything else is superfluous.

  • Ballerina Daredevils

    This post is for those of you who wanted to see The Baby Nickel simultaneously expressing his feminine side and daredevil prowess. (I don’t tend to think of jumping off tables as a daredevil stunt, but other people believe differently. Or so I’ve been told.)

    A couple times a day, Sweetsie and Nickel will be struck with an inexplicable urge to don the ballerina get-up and squirrel themselves away in the downstairs bedroom (that is really not a bedroom) where they blast Wee-Sing Bible songs on a broken tape deck while they jump off the furniture.

    These pictures were taken over the course of two days. While looking at these photos, if you want to get the full effect, sing Rejoice In The Lord Always at the top of your lungs, while periodically stomping the floor with your foot. Then you’ll know what it sounds like around here.

    First, from the table to the futon.

    Second, jumping in the other direction, from the table to the floor. The soft landing wasn’t challenging enough, I guess. (Hanging upside down under the table is another stunt.)

    Now The Baby Nickel is breaking out the pink.

    Look at him go!

    What a guy, my little heart throb.

  • Birthday Minutia: Warm Feet and Golden Crosses

    In honor of my birthday, Mr. Handsome took off from work to take care of the house and kids and meals and do little projects that were high on my priority list, like installing the white board in the back hallway, hoisting boxes of clothes up to the attic, and filing the teeter-tottery stacks of papers piled on top of the filing cabinet that had been giving me the same skin-crawly feel you get when someone screeches their fingernails down a blackboard. Because he was home and because it was my birthday, the pace of life slowed down. There was another adult around who was focusing on helping out to make the house run smoothly, and I didn’t try to get anything done—I wasn’t allowed to. I declared a holiday from studies, and I didn’t have to cook or do jobs.

    After a non-nourishing but very rousing meal of Captain Crunch cereal, Yo-Yo Boy ordered me to get my coffee and sit down on the couch, and he then proceeded to rub my feet. Becca Boo soon joined him.

    I took all the kids into town and dropped them off at my Girlfriend Shannon’s house and then on to the library where I browsed through the stacks for an hour with no interruptions, making off with an ENORMOUS stack of books, videos, and magazines.

    And when we returned home, Mr. Handsome had lunch ready: bologna and cheese sandwiches, assembled and stacked on a plate in the middle of the table and covered with a cloth.

    After rest time Mr. Handsome took the two olders into town to do some shopping. Sweetsie listened to tapes and The Baby Nickel, after waking from his nap, puttsed around and cuddled with me. I read magazines, planned menus, worked on a spreadsheet for the garden, and baked a couple loaves of sourdough. At one point I pulled up a chair by the hot oven (it was a chilly, rainy day) to warm my feet while reading. Pure bliss.

    My Balding Bro and his family joined us, coffee-chocolate ice cream cake in hand, for the after-dinner, take-out pizza, activities. The kids were falling over themselves to give me their packages, crowding so close that I could hardly see what I was doing. Miss Becca Boo gave me a necklace with a gold cross, studded with “diamonds”, to show that I love Jesus, she explained. (She had wanted to get me a statue of Mary, like my mother-in-law has, but she couldn’t find one.) Yo-Yo Boy gave me a silver necklace with an assortment of heart-shaped baubles. From The Baby Nickel I received a bag of peanut butter cups, and from Sweetsie a bar of Dove chocolate. Other lovely gifts: an immersion blender, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, a coupon for an outing to Books-A-Million from my sister-in-law, and a two-year subscription to Home Education Magazine.

    All in all, it’s a very good start to my thirty-forth year of life.

  • Over-Proofing

    I over-proofed this batch of Country White. I wanted to bring it up to the requisite 62 degrees a little faster than the three hours that it normally takes, so I turned on the oven for several minutes, which was a couple minutes too long because I then had to wait while the oven cooled down again so I could finally put the bowls of bread in to proof. After only a couple hours the boules checked in at 67 degrees. I could tell the bread was overproofed just by touching it—the dough was shaky and trembly, not firmly taut like it should have been. I quickly turned on the oven to pre-heat, tsk-tsking at my carelessness.

    There is only one way to remedy this kind of problem, the overproofing problem, and that is to dock the bread with a more shallow cut than normal. I did that, and the bread turned out fine, but you can see in these pictures that the bread looks sallow, washed out, and sick. It doesn’t have the strong, robust, vibrant look of a properly proofed loaf.

    But the loaves will still taste pretty good, so it’s not the end of the world.

  • My Beginnings: September 25, 1975

    An excerpt from our book, in my mother‘s words.

    My mother, with Baby Sweetsie and me


    Washes of pain, my husband making annoying solicitous noises and the big round clock glaring at me from the wall. My gurney ride down the night hall. Finally, at 2:28 a.m., one last burst of maniacal bearing down, my face screwed into a prune, and whoosh. They laid the baby on my belly and in a delirium of relief and amazement I gazed at this new wet, naked creature. After my husband held her a delivery room nurse put her to my breast and right away she latched on, making the staffers crow. Then they trundled her off to the hospital nursery.

    My husband gone, in my room down the hall I waited. They’d said I could keep her with me after the first few hours. I was way too exhilarated and wired to sleep. A laboring woman’s groans drifted my way. One nurse after another bustled in to check my blood pressure.

    Daylight came, and my breakfast tray, and still I waited.

    “How soon am I allowed to have my baby?” I asked, midmorning. The nurse’s answer came too promptly, it seemed to me. “Twenty-four hours,” she replied. I looked at her in alarm. Another more cheerful nurse contradicted, “Oh, no, eight to twelve hours. It all depends.” They both whisked away.

    Was there trouble? I recalled how quiet the baby had been at first. Right off, she’d made just a tired little squeak. But then she’d wailed loudly—she’d cried hard. She’d looked perfect. Had something gone wrong?

    A snippy nurse brought me pills, tiny red ones. Didn’t they give women pills to dry up their milk? Where was my baby? “What are these pills for?” I blurted.

    “To put your tummy back in shape.” The nurse acted in too much of a hurry.

    People were whispering out in the hall, and the doctor strode in. He asked how I was feeling. He’ll think I’m some kind of a nut, I thought. But I questioned him anyway.

    “Something wrong? No, no, no. Your baby’s in the nursery.” But he was too hearty, reassuring. Wasn’t this how people acted when they lied?

    Knowing I might as well face the truth, I persisted. “Can’t I at least see her?” He glanced at that snippy nurse who’d come in with him, and they agreed to find someone to accompany me to the nursery.

    Ages passed. I had them trapped. They were plotting, devising some way to further deceive me. Finally, in bounced the cheery nurse: “Come on, dearie, let’s go.”

    I padded weakly down the hall behind her and stood at the nursery window. I could see three babies. The one way back in the corner, the nurse said, was mine.

    But back in bed again, I counted in my head. One woman had delivered soon after me; I’d heard all her caterwauling. A second woman had birthed a bit later; she occupied the other bed in my room, now. Surely several babies had been born before ours, or a few since. Why hadn’t they brought my baby’s crib up close to the window? They hadn’t wanted me to read the identification tags! They’d shown me somebody else’s baby!

    The obstetrician’s office called to say congratulations, but of course they were in on the plot. I scolded myself for worrying, and I kept hoping that what I dreaded hadn’t happened, but the fear clawed and clenched at my heart.

    Not until after lunch, around 1:00, did they bring me my firstborn. What an astonishing wee, fuzz-top mite! My soft mewling, nuzzling bundle!

    My parents came chugging into the maternity ward a short time later. When I told Mother about my crazy spell, she smiled. “Oh, that’s normal. I went through the same thing.” Really? This, yet! If women typically suffered these private spasms of terror, postpartum, why hadn’t somebody clued me in? Were such fears some big shameful secret?

    Cuddling my baby, drinking in her milky, warm sweetness, I was wholly smitten. I’d had no idea, no idea at all, of the intensity of affection I would feel for my infant. My maternal instinct—the tiger ferocity—just shocked me.

  • Docking

    I don’t know about you, but my mother taught me to never bump a loaf of bread when it had risen. She showed me how to ever so gently slide the loaf into the oven and ever so gently close the oven door. Any slamming around and the loaf would collapse in upon itself.

    But not so with sourdough. (Ha—that rhymes!) Once the dough is all big and poofy, then you get to do some major playing around, flipping it over, pushing it from the board to the oven tile, and even cutting, or docking, the boule. This turns bread-baking from a domesticated, genteel activity into a therapy session for the rebellious and defiant child. Not that I harbor any resentment toward my mother and all the many many instructions she gave me. No, no, certainly not. Though slashing that soft, risen dough does sooth my soul….

    Of course you must still be gentle—no poking or pinching, though that is a tempting proposition since the dough feels just like a baby’s butt, or a baby’s marshmallow cheeks (facial ones).

    First, dump the loaf out upside down on a bread board (or in my case, a cutting board).

    Second, dock it. There are all different cuts, depending on which type of bread you are making. You can create your own cuts, of course—the only goal is to be consistent so that a certain cut always indicates a certain type of bread. I use a razor to dock my bread because the cutting device needs to be, um, razor sharp. Make the cut quickly—a ½ inch deep cut at a 45 degree angle.

    Docking the bread is not simply for decoration—it allows the bread to expand properly. If you didn’t dock it, the boule would explode out in one way or another. By cutting the boule, you are telling it where to expand so it does it in an attractive fashion.

    I feel powerful and bossy when I slash the dough and then shove it into the oven. The dough collapses quite a bit (maybe I’m too bossy?), but within the first five minutes of being in the hot oven, it rises back to it’s beautiful shape, and then even grows some more.

  • One Hot Chica

    Sweetsie had a little run-in with hot peppers last night.

    I was picking red raspberries in the garden when Sweetsie came out to join me. She picked some berries and then started poking around the garden, chattering all the while. I noticed she was looking at the long, red banana peppers, but I didn’t think much of it. Next time I glanced up I noticed she was handling them, examining them with her fingers, but I still didn’t think much of it. When she started screaming and rubbing her eyes, I still didn’t put two and two together. I thought that she probably got stung or maybe a grasshopper had jumped up and hit her in the face. She had to repeat herself several times before I could make out what she was saying—Oh! She got peppers in her eyes!

    I took her in to the house and flushed out her eyes with cool water and washed her hands good. I gave her a cold washcloth to press against her eyes and went out to finish picking my berries. She was still fussy, so Mr. Handsome washed her hands again, this time using some of his special, heavy-duty soap.

    It wasn’t until supper time that she started complaining about her mouth hurting and we noticed that her lips were extra red and the area around her mouth was red and puffy. We told her not to rub it, and we gently washed it, and then put her to bed.

    By the morning she looked like this.

    I made her step out on the deck so I could get some pictures in the natural light.

    She still looked about the same this evening. I made her stand still for a little photo shoot.

    She wasn’t too pleased about it.

    She was tired.

    Really tired.

    She was getting fed up.

    And then she got mad.

    And madder.

    So I quit.

    She says it doesn’t hurt too much anymore, but I don’t think she’ll be playing around the peppers plants anytime too soon.

  • The Second Baking

    Rosemary-Olive Oil Bread
    Adapted and very briefly summarized from Breads from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton.

    The marking for this kind of bread is a tic-tac-toe pattern.

    The ingredients are the same for the Country White, except that after you have added the salt and kneaded it well, you then add one tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and a quarter cup of olive oil and knead it again, for about another five minutes.

  • Whaddaya Think?

    He makes a very cute little girl, no?

    Does it worry you?

    Well, don’t let it.

    Because it doesn’t bother me one wit. I think it’s sweet that he’s so in touch with his feminine side.

  • Retreat

    This past weekend our church had its annual retreat at a camp that’s located about twenty minutes from town. Lots of the church members set up their tents and campers for the weekend, but we opted to drive home every evening for the luxury of sleeping in our own beds. And because I hate camping. And because I know that the kids wouldn’t sleep well and then they would get grumpy and then I would be miserable.

    Church retreat has the potential to be an awful lot of fun… or not. This year it was definitely an Or Not experience for us.

    This was mostly due to the stage of life that we are in right now. You know, the Four Young Children Stage which is compounded when the two small ones have an intense aversion to being babysat or going to sessions with their peers without a parental figure hinged to their side.

    On the other hand, the theme of meditation was not a good one for families with young children. Meditation is a good and worthy theme, certainly, but it doesn’t sit too well with little kids because little kids don’t sit. Yes, there was childcare (some of the time), but as I said before, my kids have issues with that.

    The dear people on the retreat committee planned Taize services (which I normally love) and long times of quiet and a Labyrinth and evening prayers and Yoga and so on. All good things, and very needed for some people (especially us?), I’m sure. But for Mr. Handsome and I, they were only good for raising our blood pressure and making us want to swear.

    For example, there was a lot of outdoor worship—we were at a camp, after all. That meant that there was a large group of adults sitting down in the woods in the midst of all the trails that linked the cabins to the dining hall to the chapel, and every single noise that anyone made while walking on those paths could be heard by the quiet, meditative adults. Most of the kids were with their different activity groups, except for my two little ones. So one of us had to chase them about while the other person got to attend a session. The chasing person was totally stressed and lonely and miserable, so the person who was having a break was not able to fully relax and enjoy the experience. I think this is what you call a lose-lose situation.

    Saturday morning it was my turn to attend a session and Mr. Handsome had The Baby Nickel and Sweetsie. All us adults were sitting there, down in the woods, thinking our ethereal thoughts (and freezing our tails off) when I heard Nickel’s voice, clear as a bell, telling Mr. Handsome he wanted to go that way. And Mr. Handsome answering, “No!” and then Nickel insisting and then Mr. Handsome insisting more firmly and then Sweetsie and The Baby Nickel screaming.

    The guest speaker said some nice and true things about how children are life and we should not be bothered by the noises they make and I’m sure most everyone agreed and didn’t mind too much. Except for me. I mean, he’s certainly right, but when you are in charge of controlling the noise volume of the little full-of-life squirts so that others may pray, it does not feel very life-giving.

    Then on Sunday morning it was my turn to take care of the little ones. The congregation met down in a huge field by the pond and everyone sat on blankets and chairs and there was beautiful instrumental music and Scripture readings but I only got to listen for about two minutes and sixteen seconds because The Baby Nickel and Sweetsie were fussy and ritchie, and they wanted to leave. And then they got louder and louder and LOUDER, so I picked them both up and hauled them away.

    Except there was no “away”. We were stuck in this big field, no building to run into and close the door and no car to slip inside (at least not ours),and even when we were on the dirt road heading up to the playground, everyone could still hear my children shrieking as though they were being murdered. Occasionally I clapped a hand over Sweetsie’s wide-open screeching mouth, but I couldn’t do that for very long because then I would have to let go of The Baby Nickel and he would turn and try to make a dash back to the service. There was nothing I could do but keep going, so I marched along with a steely look on my face and an iron grip on their little wrists, half of the time lifting their arms high so they had to dance along on their tippy-toes and the other half of the time, when my arms needed a break, dragging them along beside me, mentally hurling curses at church retreat. I wanted to get out of there so badly that I could feel my skin crawl. I wanted to jump out of my body and just leave.

    Mr. Handsome eventually rode up behind us on a bicycle (they really could still hear the kids). I told him to go get the van, and he met us back at the park which we had finally reached and where I promptly collapsed on the swing. Mr. Handsome went back to the service (where the other kids were supposedly waiting calmly and quietly) and Nickel and Sweetsie eventually stopped fussing and started playing and I read my book.

    That was nice.

    After Sunday’s noon meal we stuffed the kids and bikes and helmets and sweatshirts in the car and tore out of there. The kids had had a great time and were fussy, already missing the camp. Yo-Yo and Becca Boo asked when the next retreat would be, and we both answered, “In a year.” And then under our breath, “Thank goodness!”

    Mr. Handsome muttered to me that we were “retreating from retreat”, and we both laughed, so enormously relieved to be done with the weekend and heading home.