• On writing

    I’m at Panera, making myself write because I don’t want to write. Writing is such miserably hard work, especially when I don’t have anything pressing to say, but, nevertheless (insert martyr-like sigh), I’m forcing myself to Put Forth Words because this blog has become one of my disciplines; it’s one of the ways that I keep myself mentally healthy. It’s also one of the ways that I drive myself crazy. Go figure.

    Yesterday when we got home from church I felt blah, grumpy, out-of-sorts, dissatisfied, and apathetic. So I took a nap (was rudely awakened when Sweetsie chucked a book at Miss Beccaboo and Miss Beccaboo screamed like a stuck pig), went for a walk in the warm sunshine (a much-needed jolt of vitamin D), and drank coffee. After the Make-Things-Right Trilogy, I was finally able to start functioning. I made a double batch of chocolate frosting, turned six pounds of ground hamburger into sloppy joe meat, washed dishes, made phone calls, baked a batch of Julia Child’s Swiss Cheese crackers (butter, of which there was a half a pound, poured off the cookie sheets and puddled on the oven floor, clouding up the kitchen with stinky smoke), and processed half of the broccoli that Mr. Handsome brought in from the garden. But I didn’t write.

    Last weekend I saw Julie and Julia with some friends, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, the parts that bothered me most were when Julie would sit down at her computer and type out a blog post. Just. Like. That. She had a full-time job, spent her (late) nights cooking and still managed to write witty, entertaining posts almost daily.

    Yes, I know I’m not supposed to compare myself, but those little pictures of someone effortlessly writing are enough to almost make me slap my laptop shut in despair. Writing for me can be torture. It can be fun, too, so I guess that makes my hobby fun torture, or torturous fun, whichever way you want to look at it. I’m a sucker for a good time, no?

    I break my writing process into three parts. Part One is the urge to write. If I’m lucky, it’s also the thinking part where I have an idea worth pondering. This part, if I have a good idea, is great fun because while I’m in this stage I easily create fabulous literary works of art…without ever cracking my laptop. More often than not though, I have the need to write something without any clear direction about what to write. I get a niggling IgottawriteIgottawriteIgottawrite feeling, but I have nothing to say, and, as you can imagine, this is a rather uncomfortable feeling.

    Part Two is a nasty slap in the face. I struggle (sometimes in vain) to get the words down on paper, a process which is almost never as smooth as I had hoped, nor the end result as witty. It’s the dirty stage, filled with editing, stops and starts, and the occasional Give Up, but it’s also a relief because I’m making myself do something.

    And then, if and when all the words line up right (or semi-right), there is Part Three, the moment of “publication” and the sweet buzz that follows. That buzz lasts for just about twenty-seven minutes, and then it fades away into a pleasant nothingness where I loll about guilt-free, reveling in having completed my job and not needing to do any more work.

    That blissful, blank, stuporish space lasts no more than a day, and then I’m back at Part One, with the bothersome need to write. If I don’t heed those urges, I feel guilty, and if I still don’t heed them, then I become depressed (no one cares, so why bother), and if I still don’t heed them, then I become belligerent (you can’t make me write, so there). And then I have to force myself to sit in a chair (thanks, Panera, for such a comfy stool) and write, even if I have nothing to say. Which, if you haven’t already noticed, I don’t.

    But at least I’m writing.

    So phooey to Julie and Crew for giving the False Impression of Easy Writing. Even if writing sometimes comes effortlessly and quickly (glory be!), it doesn’t always come that way. It’s like anything in life—you get the good stuff via the smokey kitchen, dirty hands, failed attempts, and aching muscles. Usually it’s worth it, though sometimes it’s not.

    So now I’m going to tell you about apple chutney. (Hee hee hee. You probably thought I was going to tell you about Julia’s cheese crackers, but, as you can see, I’m not. They weren’t good enough to validate a buttered oven floor, or for me to encourage you to smoke up your kitchen. [However, I don’t count the whole endeavor as a complete fail because I did learn some things, but I’m not going to go into them now—my point is simply that failures are not worthless, though most of the time I feel that they are.])

    This apple chutney is worth a retelling here, not least of all because there was no smoke involved. The chutney is tangy-sweet, made with, among other things, garlic, cayenne pepper, honey, and cinnamon. It’s a delicious addition to pork, if you are a pork-eating sort of person, or with something as simple as fried potatoes and bacon (oops, the piggy wiggled in there, too). I made this to go with mashed potato pancakes, and the crispy, cheesy, bacon-y pillows of potato were enhanced tremendously by the vinegary fruit. I still have most of a pint of chutney in the fridge and a latke recipe that is screaming to be tested, so I know (and hope) we’ll have at least one yummy supper this week.

    And now that I’ve completed a post, I can take a guilt-free break from this torturous addiction of mine. Whew, hallelujah, glory be, and … until next time.

    Note: I’ve been in Panera for two and a half hours, have drunk one and a half cups of coffee (only a third of which was caffeinated—I had my morning coffee before I ever left the house), have eaten two buttered hunks of baguette, and have taken two potty breaks (soon to be a third). I will not publish this post till I get home, so I’ll expend at least another half hour of mental energy on this project. Just so you know.

    Apple Chutney
    Adapted from Beni’s Family Cookbook by Jane Breskin Zalben, a collection of Jewish recipes. Does this mean that I’m committing a sacrilege by recommending that this chutney be eaten with pork? If so, my apologies.

    Zalben says you can use other fruits besides apples, mangos and peaches being two possibilities. If you like the citrus-y flavor, add some orange zest as well as the juice.

    7 cooking apples, cored, peeled, and coarsely chopped
    1 tablespoon peeled, minced ginger root
    1 clove garlic, minced
    1 teaspoon ground cloves
    1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1 cup honey
    juice of one or two oranges (or ½ cup orange juice)
    1 cup cider vinegar

    Combine all ingredients in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer. Cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for about an hour, or until the mixture has thickened and is no longer juicy. Serve warm.

    Yield: About three cups.

    About One Year Ago: Two Thanksgiving Things.

  • Pot o’ porridge

    I didn’t get any cooking done this morning. School work took up the whole five hours (included in that time was a ninety minute National Geographic movie on space exploration), but we had an unexpectedly fine time. For some inexplicable reason, even though it was a gray, rainy mess outside, we didn’t indulge in our usual Monday Morning Grumpfest. This unusual turn of events was a special treat, one that left me with a tummy full of warm fuzzies.

    At least that’s how I would still be feeling if the kids had gone straight to their rooms when I sent them upstairs after lunch (an experiment of peanut sauce over glass noodles [oops, I guess I did do a little cooking after all]—the kids didn’t like it, but I think it was the odd-textured noodles that they reacted to and not the sauce which I happened to find delish) instead of playing a rousing game of Alligators and Chase and Shriek. I now have a sore throat, and I wasn’t even playing their game. Not intentionally, anyway.

    But I’m hopeful that The Baby Nickel will soon quit bouncing around beside me here on the bed, reciting (over and over and over again) “There Was A Little Turtle,” and that my café con leche will soothe my raw throat, and that those warm fuzzies will make a return visit before the rest hour is up. In the meantime, I’m going to tell you about my new oatmeal, something that warms my tummy regardless of what day of the week it is or how well my children are behaving (or not).

    I love oats in any form (if you don’t believe me, look here and here and here and here and here), but I really like oatmeal, so light and nourishing. With a thin dusting of sugar and a few glugs of cold milk, it becomes The Perfect Comfort Food. (My husband and I have agreed to vehemently disagree on this topic.)

    A few weeks ago I bought a bag of steel-cut oats and tried out a new kind of oatmeal. Sadly, the kids revolted. They didn’t like the chewy little beads and begged me not to ever make it again. I only halfway respected their pleas: I don’t make it for them anymore; I make it for me.

    Because as it turns out, I happen to love those chewy little nubbins. I cook me-self up a pot o’ porridge (sorry about lapse into Irish brogue; we watched Billy Elliot last night) and then stash it in the fridge. Then midmornings when I get hungry (I don’t like to eat oatmeal first thing in the morning, preferring instead to have a piece of toast with my morning coffee), I pull out my container of precooked (and, I’ll be honest here, gross-looking) oatmeal and spoon a bit into a ramekin. I pop the oatmeal into the microwave for a warming jolt, then sprinkle on some dark brown sugar or maple syrup, add some dried strawberries (or toasted walnuts and dried apples or coconut, dried bananas, and pecans), top up the cup with milk and slurp away.

    The best part of the whole deal is that the kids don’t ever pester me for a taste, a bit of knowledge that sweetly gilds my warmly-fuzzied oatmeal lily.

    Steel-Cut Oatmeal

    I find this oatmeal to be a bit more viscous than oatmeal made with rolled oats, but once it is reheated and mixed with milk, that component almost totally disappears leaving you with just the toothsome little bits of goodness. Yum-yum.

    4 cups water
    1 cup steel-cut oats
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    1 tablespoon butter

    Put the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Add the oats and salt and stir well. Put the lid on the saucepan and remove it from the burner. Turn the burner to low and, if you have a gas stove, return the saucepan to the burner. (If you are like me and have an electric burner, keep the pan off the burner for a minute or two while it cools down; otherwise, the oatmeal will bubble over and make a mess of your stove.) Let the oatmeal simmer for another 20-40 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so (and more often towards the end of the cooking time).

    When all the water has been absorbed, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and butter. Put the lid back on the kettle and let it cool to room temperature, at which point you can transfer the oatmeal to jars or plastic containers before storing them in the refrigerater.

    To serve, dish the desired amount into serving bowls, reheat in the microwave (or, if you are microwave-less, in a pan on the stove top), sprinkle with sugar or syrup, fruits, and/or nuts, and milk or cream.

    Yield: 4-5 good-sized serving, or 8-12 midmorning snacks

    About One Year Ago: Potato-Leek Soup

  • Getting my just dessert

    This has been a week of abysmal mistakes and abject failures, kitchen-wise.

    There was the following, not in any particular order:

    *The butternut squash salad with tahini dressing. It was probably my fault that it turned out smooshy and bitter and gross; I think I over-roasted the squash and I didn’t have cilantro and my tahini is ancient.

    *The baked carrots were totally the fault of the author of the recipe book, though it might be my fault for choosing to make something out of a cookbook that is decades old and was published to promote the Troy-Bilt rototiller.

    *The chocolate-filled puff tarts were ho-hum as was the upside-down apple tart. (Maybe I’m getting picky?)

    *The purple cabbage with apples needed a number of changes but wasn’t good enough to entice me to make it again.

    *The honey cakes—oh, the honey cakes!—the eight little loaves hadn’t been in the oven but for five minutes when I spied the little glass of premeasured spices sitting on the counter. For that mistake I almost cried, and then I threatened to drink five bottles of hard lemonade (but I didn’t). Miss Beccaboo came in and sat down on the edge of the sofa where I had hurled my beleaguered body and said, “Everyone has bad times,” and then she draped her little self over mine in a giant hug.

    *The red lentil coconut curry. I bought red lentils with the express purpose of making this curry, but then, after I had already spent ample time chopping and sauteeing, I discovered that the can of coconut milk sitting on the shelf in the back hall was actually a can of coconut cream. I called Mr. Handsome and wailed my sob story into his eardrum. He, under my frantic direction, petitioned Coworker Sam for coconut milk (they were working at Sam’s house) and Sam found some and Mr. Handsome ran it home to me. But I didn’t have any cabbage for the curry and I forgot to chop the kale that I was using as a substitute and then I didn’t add the kale early enough so it didn’t get sufficiently tender, and all in all, it was rather disappointing (albeit nourishing).

    *The Spanish rice (that I made last week, but while I’m on a roll I might as well tell everything) that never got all the way soft and I made my family eat it anyway.

    (It wasn’t just in the kitchen that I was having problems. Last night I hopped into the shower and started to wet my wash cloth, but I noticed it felt funny, light and smooth and thin. I wiped the water out of my eyes and looked down. I was holding my pair of clean panties, still folded but wet. I had grabbed them off the floor where I had tossed my pile of post-shower clothes. I am losing it, I tell you, losing it.)

    The chickens, at least, ate extra well this week.

    This morning I woke up determined to have a kitchen success. I intended to make several new recipes (I don’t know when to call it quits, do I?), but just in case the apple chutney, pumpkin cream, and mashed potato cakes flopped, I would also make some pots de crème. I had made these pots of spoonable chocolate before, but this time around I was going to use Baileys in place of the rum, so with that minor adaptation, it classified as an experiment.

    As I anticipated, it was a flaming success all right.

    My small jug of Baileys was nearly empty (bedtime toddies of spiked hot chocolate have a way of depleting the liquor cabinet), so when I went in to town last night to drop off Yo-Yo at a friend’s house and pick up a friend for Miss Beccaboo, I stopped at the ABC store. The girls followed me in (the friend’s mother had said it was okay for me to run by there—I wasn’t being irresponsible, I’ll have you know) and stood very still, taking care to keep their arms close to their sides and not touch anything because I had warned them against being spazzy.

    Then this morning, while the kids were still finishing up their granola and corn chex and milk and dried strawberries and raisins and apple coffee cake and hot chocolate (it was just a hodge-podge breakfast, but written out like that it sounds rather impressive), I whipped up a blender full of the silky chocolate, along with several tablespoons of cream from the new jug of Baileys. I let the girls sniff the bottle’s contents and they were pleasantly surprised at how good it smelled.

    And after lunch when I gave them each a little spoonful out of the test cup, they positively purred with pleasure. So, even though this is supposed to be an adult dessert, it’s not really, at least not according to the children’s tastebuds. Keep this in mind: if you are going to be serving this to an intergenerational group, make a couple sans spirits for the young’uns; otherwise, you may instigate a revolt of the tiny people.

    Oh, and speaking of Baileys, I once knew this girl—still do, in fact—that went camping with her dread in-laws and before she would get out of her sleeping bag in the morning, her husband had to bring her a giant mug of coffee, a full half of which was Baileys. (That same husband also served my husband a mug of Baileys, but my husband fell asleep before he got to the bottom of the mug.)

    I don’t think these pots de crème will make you fall asleep. They’re more likely to make you swoon in ecstasy and then tear your clothes off and run out of the house buck naked. (I just watched Like Water For Chocolate.)

    And, for the record, I have never torn my clothes off and run outside naked.

    At least not where pots de crème were involved.

    Chocolate Pots de Crème
    Adapted from Christmas from the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch, a book that the Langdons, family friends of ours, gifted to me eighteen whole years ago

    As I already said, the original recipe calls for rum, but I found that to be too strong. I love the Baileys (as if that weren’t already clear) and I think you could up the amount—maybe to a total of five or six tablespoons—and still not overdo it, though I’m not sure how that would change the consistency. Also, you could substitute other liquors, such as Crème de Menthe, Amarula, or Kahlúa, or, if you don’t like alcohol, feel free to leave it out altogether.

    If you prefer, use three-fourths cup of whole milk in place of the cream and milk.

    Use your favorite chocolate; if you skimp on quality, the end result will suffer. I used 60 percent Ghirardelli chips, so I didn’t have to bother to chop them first.

    ½ cup milk
    1/4 cup heavy cream
    6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
    1 large egg
    2 tablespoons sugar
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    pinch of salt
    3 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream
    whipped cream, for garnish

    In the jar of a blender, combine the egg, salt, sugar, vanilla, and chocolate. (I put the egg in first because I don’t want it to come into direct contact with the scalding milk.)

    Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan just till it gets to the boiling point. With the blender running, carefully add the milk. Blend for about thirty seconds. Add the Baileys and blend briefly. Pour the chocolate into four or five of your smallest, funkiest dishes. Cover with plastic wrap and chill thoroughly.

    When ready to serve, remove from the refrigerator and top with whipped cream.

    About One Year Ago: Feminism, part one

  • So I don’t forget

    I experiment with all sorts of new recipes.

    But then, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you already knew that.

    Take last night for instance. I made four new dishes for supper: baked carrots (gross), pickled red cabbage and apples (potential), bacon-cream cheese mashed potatoes (alright), and upside-down apple tart with whipped cream (fine). None of them were rave-worthy, so none of them will appear on this blog.

    However, I do this really silly thing. I stash all the recipes I’m interested in and all the recipes I’ve made, even the bad ones, into a white, three-ring binder. I do this for the same reason that I don’t erase old addresses in my address book (I just cross them out and jot in the new ones)—I like to see my friends’ address trails. Likewise, I like to see my food history, what flavor combinations have been a hit and which ones have flopped.

    It’s kind of a protective device too, because I have such a terrible memory. Say we’re talking about pumpkin bread and I’ve experimented with four different recipes and found my favorite, but the next year I find another pumpkin bread recipe and I think—hey, that looks good; I oughta try it—but, because I have saved all my failed recipes, I can glance back in my folder and see that I already tried that one and I hated it. So in a round about way (and in a perfect world because, truth be told, I don’t always scan through my white folder first), I’ve prevented myself from creating another flop.

    This habit of mine can get a little cumbersome though, because despite taking notes and occasionally weeding through the piles, I still don’t know which recipe, of all the recipes I’ve tried, is my favorite. Huh?, you ask. I know, I know. This is getting very confusing. But let’s take the pumpkin bread example again. I may write “blech” on one recipe, but on the other three I may note “okay” or “the kids loved it” or “try adding less oil and an extra egg and omitting the nuts,” but, and here’s the clincher, I won’t remember how they compared against each other. And then, come pumpkin season, I’m back at square one, with a handful of recipes that need to be tested, again.

    That’s where this blog has come in handy. It’s a record of My Very Favorites. When I find something I love, it must end up here if I am to remember it. And now that the blog index has bulked up a bit, I refer to my computer almost as much as I do my recipe box. (You do remember, don’t you, those quaint little boxes filled with handwritten recipes, ordered by category or alphabetically? Every kitchen, even one with high-speed internet, ought to have one.)

    This chard-sweet potato gratin recipe is cropping up all over the web (well, so far on two blogs that I know of), so even though it feels kind of pointless for me to write about it here, I know I must post it if I am to remember it and then be able to refer back to it. And this is one of those recipes that I most certainly do not want to forget.

    Swiss Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin
    Adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen. (Also made by Julie at Dinner With Julie, if you want even more opinions and pictures.)

    There appear to be lots of steps in this recipe, and it’s true, there are, but the flip-side is that you are making a satisfying one-course meal; there is no need to dirty any other kettles for a side vegetable, and you can quickly wash up the soiled pots and pans while the gratin bakes and fills your kitchen with an out-of-this-world, oh-so-glorious, downright delicious smell. (I am not exaggerating about the smell.)

    3 pounds Swiss chard
    1 onion, chopped
    pinch of nutmeg
    lots of salt and pepper
    2 cups milk or cream
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    4 tablespoons butter, divided
    2 tablespoons flour
    2 pounds sweet potatoes (about two large), peeled and thinly sliced
    a bit of dried thyme
    1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
    1 1/4 cup grated cheese such as Gruyere, white cheddar, Parmesan, or a mixture

    For the chard:
    Wash the chard and cut the leaves off the stems. Chop the stems finely, put them in a little bowl and set aside. Roughly chop the leaves, put them in a separate bowl, and set them aside as well.

    Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot. Add the onion and saute till tender. Add the chard stems, the pinch of nutmeg, salt, and pepper and cook for another eight minutes, or until tender. Add the chard leaves and stir till wilted and soft. Transfer the vegetables to a colander and drain, pressing on them with the back of a spoon. Set aside.

    For the white sauce:
    In a smaller kettle over medium heat, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or two. Whisk in the flour and then slowly add the milk, stirring steadily. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring continually, till thickened. Remove from heat and set aside.

    To assemble the gratin:
    Put half of the potato slices in the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 pan. Salt and pepper them, sprinkle with a tablespoon of parsley, a tiny pinch of thyme, and 1/4 cup of cheese. Add half of the greens, more salt and pepper, another teensy pinch of thyme, another tablespoons of parsley, and 1/4 cup cheese. Pour half of the white sauce over top.

    Repeat the whole process. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup cheese over top.

    Bake the gratin at 400 degrees for about an hour. If the top seems to be browning too quickly, loosely cover the gratin with a piece of foil (do not cover it tightly because the liquid needs to evaporate). To test for doneness, poke a fork down through to see if the potatoes are tender. Cool for about ten minutes (to allow the juices to absorb and so you won’t scorch your taste buds) before serving.

    About One Year Ago: Brownies

  • In which I ask a lot of questions

    Is there such a thing as a bad mother?

    If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably say, “Sure, there are tons of bad mothers. What are you? Crazy?”

    Then let me ask you this: Do you personally know any bad mothers?

    Again, if you’re like me, this question will take a little longer to answer. You’ll pause for a moment as you run over the list of maternal figures in your life: relations, acquaintances, and close friends. Think of all the moms you know who parent totally differently from you—overboard strict, overboard lenient, overboard with a busy life, overboard with a backwoods, countrified existence. Any bad mothers in the lot? Hmmm?

    After I thought about this questions for a handful of seconds, I came up with one bad mother, just one, the mom of one of our foster daughters. There were a few other mothers that I lingered over, but then I realized that even those mothers, the mothers of some high-risk kids, did not fall into the category of bad mothers.

    What’s my point? It’s this: So much is written about The Best Way To Parent, and while it’s helpful much of the time and each theory has merit, none of it is The Answer.

    You know how I know this? Because of you and you and you. You are, very likely (on most days, anyway), a thoughtful, kind, well-mannered, hard-working, creative, generous individual. And I will bet my favorite pair of jeans, my stash of chocolate, and my laptop computer that our mothers were not all functioning from the same parenting model. (It would be a little eerie if they were—like the families in The Giver.)

    Attachment parenting, love and logic parenting, unconditional parenting, and authoritative parenting are all just different methods, tools to help us cope. So when I read a parenting book that espouses the perfect way to do things, I get a little uncomfortable, rather like I have an emotional wedgie. Let’s pick that wedgie, shall we?

    Take, for example, unconditional parenting. The proponent of this method say that you shouldn’t parent with rewards and punishments, and they give good reasons, really good reasons that make a lot of sense and that I would be totally foolish and insensitive to disagree with, but—hold the load, people! I was raised with punishments and rewards, as were most of my peers, and we seem to be functioning just fine. (I think.)

    Not that I am a proponent of punishments and rewards. And not that I don’t punish and reward my kids. And, for that matter, not that I don’t fall into the trap of fixating on the best way to do things, because I do. Not that I know anything, okay?

    All of us parent in different ways. We all strive to better ourselves, and some of us strive harder than others. And some of us have been given more (brains, money, support networks, mental health) than others to work with.

    The bottom line is this: We are all human, parents and children alike, and life happens, regardless of how we parent or have been parented. We are not the be-all and end-all, and while that is a scary thought for those of us that have had smooth sailing so far (cross your fingers and knock on wood), it is a reassuring thought (but still scary, too) for those of us who have plunged into the Deep Dark Valley of Parental Woe.

    About that Deep Dark Valley? I’ve been there and it is somewhat akin to the Dreaded Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride. It is a rank spooky woods filled with cobwebs, fire pits, and Rodents of Unusual Sizes, and the method for arriving in the valley, a head-over-heels free fall, describes the out-of-control feeling precisely. Except those of us who tumble into the Deep Dark Valley are worse off than Buttercup and Westley because, first of all, we aren’t as glamorous as they are (at least I’m not), and second, when we get dirty and bunged up and scared, we are just dirty and bunged up and scared—and there is no make-up crew to clean us up afterwards.

    I’m not saying that all parents fall into Fire Swamps, heaven forbid. I’m just saying that we all have that chance, regardless of the decisions we’ve made and the methods and beliefs we adhere to.

    But back to parenting styles. (Not that I ever really left them, but still, I did get a little lost there, mucking around in that Deep Dark Valley for a couple paragraphs.) Saying that I don’t think any one theory holds all the answers does not mean that I think everything goes. Because everything doesn’t go. We have all experienced less-than-stellar parenting (on this bet I’ll wager my Kitchen Aid mixer, my best potted fern, and my favorite necklace), and the repercussions haven’t been the prettiest. All we can hope for, really, is that the good will outweigh the bad.

    So what’s a mom to do? I’m not really sure, but I have some ideas.

    1. Take care of yourself. Do the things you want to do.

    2. Re-order your wants so that your children’s well-being is at the top of the list.

    3. But you must still be at the top of the list, too, because this is your list.

    4. Now, put your children above your wants.

    5. But because the well-being of your children is dependent upon your well-being, you are still at the top of the list. See?

    6. Forget this list because it doesn’t make any sense.

    As you can see from the above exercise in futility, I don’t think parenting comes in a neat, tidy, methodical package, authoritarian, unconditional, or otherwise. Sorry. Don’t look to me for answers. You won’t find any here.

    If you do dare to question me further, I’ll probably tell you that there aren’t any answers. I guess that is an answer in and of itself. Though on second thought, and I hate to do this to you, it is probably the wrong one.

    Anyway. Now that I’ve totally disgraced myself, I’ll call it quits. Good night.

    About One Year Ago: Cinnamon Flop

  • In the circumstances

    We have now endured three days of cloudy, rainy weather. Three looooong days. Tomorrow is supposed to be partly sunny, so despite the pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof, I’m doing laundry. I know I can’t make it through another day of no sun. I’ll get SAD. (I’m already going mad.)

    The saving grace in all this is that my mother came yesterday morning and stayed through this afternoon. She shot me a note at the beginning of the week saying that she needed to do some rugging, so could she please come see us? My answer was, of course, yes. (I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.)

    See, my mother created this little arrangement: she comes to our house to do her rugging. She could do the rugging at her house easily enough, but this way she gets to help me out and spend time with the grandkids and get socialized, something she doesn’t get that much of, squirreled up in her next in the West Virginia woods, perched on the edge of her seat at her desk in the study, writing day in and day out. She needs us, she really does. And we need her.

    The maiden voyage of this cohabitation and rugging experiment took place a couple weeks ago. Mom showed up in her little white car (leaving dad to get to work and back via bike), her arms filled with bags and baskets. She had her pillow, a potted plant, a string of red globe lights to warm the room, and a lace cloth to spread over the top of our hideous (and extremely useful) industrial-sized filing cabinet. She brought library books, a tin of sugar cookies and blueberry bars, glass mugs for tea, and a plastic storage container filled with her rugging materials. When she left, after a couple days, the lights, plant, and doily stayed behind.

    This week when she comes, there is a basket filled with new library books, really gross donut holes (by mom’s admission), a jug of cider, material scraps for the beginnings of a crazy quilt, a wooden box of homegrown popcorn needing to be shelled, her laptop, and even a framed photo of my dad. Maybe she is afraid she will forget what he looks like in the thirty-odd hours she’ll be at our place?

    Our system is simple: Mom stays in her room and works on her rug, and the kids take turns going in to be with her, have their cider and donuts, and work on their sewing. She is instructing the older kids in the art of hand sewing, and the younger two get to poke pins into cloth and help roll up her strips of rugging wool.

    It’s really good my mother is teaching my children to sew because I abhor sewing; I always say that it makes me want to curl up in a fetal position and suck my thumb. This is rather sad, considering that my kids desperately want to learn and that they are good with their hands and probably have all the ability necessary to master the skill. Mom is doing her best to see that my kids turn out somewhat well-rounded. (My way of making them well-rounded isn’t quite as noble—I just feed them lots of butter and cream.)

    So in this way, the mornings pass, and then the afternoons and evenings (though this time we only had one of those). The days are filled with books and sewing and de-cobbing corn and learning poetry (she taught The Baby Nickel this one: Fishy, fishy in a brook / Papa caught him with a hook / Mama fried him in the pan / Baby ate him like a man) and all is well. My sister-in-law and I get to go on walks (Mom eagerly and graciously welcomes her fifth grandchild into her private quarters and grants us permission to disappear), and I cook and do the homeschooling thing and see that chores get done. It’s a pretty sweet arrangement.

    But then my mom does this really mean thing. She leaves.

    And then it hits us: It’s Friday afternoon, it’s been raining for three days, we are sick of being cooped up, and we can’t stand the sight of each other.

    Almost before my mother’s car disappears down the road, my life falls apart, and by the time Mr. Handsome comes home, I’m screaming and the kids are screaming and there are messes in all corners of the house but the biggest mess, by far, is me. And there is no supper in sight.

    There is a salad though, a mixture of cabbage and apples and walnuts that I pieced together in my non-yelling moments. Because I can’t take any more noise or the prospect of making supper, I do the smartest thing one can do in the circumstances—I eat a bowl of the salad.

    Then I eat another bowl. And then I eat another bowl. Then, and only then, am I ready to think about feeding anyone else. For them, I pull out leftover green beans, baked squash, and cornmeal whole wheat waffles. I fix a few quesadillas to bulk out the meal, and then we feast on butternut squash pie and whipped cream. Hallelujah and amen.

    Mom, can you come back on Monday?

    Chinese Cabbage and Apple Salad
    Adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

    Deb’s recipe calls for savoy cabbage, but Mom brought down one of Dad’s Chinese cabbages, so I used that. It was perfect: crunchy, slightly peppery, and juicy-sweet.

    I was doubtful that the dressing would be any good (it seemed like too much olive oil), but it was absolutely fabulous.

    I used feta cheese, but I think some matchsticks of sharp white cheddar would be even better.

    1 head of Chinese cabbage
    2 apples
    2 tablespoons cider vinegar
    1 tablespoon lemon juice
    ½ cup olive oil
    2 tablespoons sour cream
    ½ – 1 teaspoon salt
    1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
    ½ cup English walnuts
    ½ cup feta cheese

    Separate the stalks of cabbage, wash them and pat dry, and slice them thinly (but roughly). Place cut cabbage in a mixing bowl.

    Peel and core the apples, and cut them into matchsticks. (Put apple halves on a cutting board, cut side down, and slice thinly. Then slice thinly in the other direction. Voila, you have matchsticks.) Add the apples to the cabbage.

    Toast the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for about ten minutes, stirring frequently, or until golden brown. Chop and set aside.

    To make the dressing: measure the vinegar, lemon, salt, and pepper into a blender and give it a whirl. Add the olive oil, a little at a time, blending after each addition. Add the sour cream and blend briefly. Taste and adjust seasonings.

    Pour the dressing over the cabbage and apples and toss to coat. Add more salt if needed.

    Sprinkle the salad with the feta and walnuts, and grind some more black pepper over top. Serve immediately.

    About One Year Ago: Why I Homeschool.

  • A first step

    Our neighbor Karen and her husband Gale have a lot of horses, like about ten. Okay, so it’s not as many as Pioneer Woman (I don’t even need to link to her—you all know who she is and that her cookbook is number one on the New York Bestsellers list, right?), but it’s still a lot, especially considering that they don’t have any cattle which would require horses for herding (that sentence does not make much sense, but I trust you’re smart enough to figure it out). And they used to have more like sixteen horses.

    Their rented pasture borders our (unused) pasture, and the kids like to chat with the horses over the barbed wire fence. They also pick grass for them and shyly pat their noses.

    As for me, I pretty much ignore them, except for when I happen to glance out the kitchen window and catch sight of three or four of the magnificent creatures thundering across the meadow. Then I am forced to pause in my little race from fridge to stove to sink and stare at them as they whirl and kick up their heels. They’re practically in my backyard, and once in a while they get in my backyard and then we close the gate so they don’t hightail it down the road and make the requisite phone calls and watch to make sure they don’t take a fancy to our peach trees.

    Last week Karen stopped by with a stack of farm magazines for us to read and/or cut up and with an invitation for the kids to come over and ride horses. I readily accepted, and when I went back into the house and reported our conversation to the kids, you could have heard them hollering the whole way over in China.

    That was on Friday; we were scheduled to ride on Sunday afternoon. This was to be the first time that the kids had ever ridden a horse (except for Sweetsie who got to ride a horse at a friend’s birthday party), and they became obsessed: with the weather forecast (Yo-Yo), with how many “sleeps” remained (Sweetsie), and with appropriate riding attire (Miss Beccaboo). The big day finally arrived, and each minute was impatiently endured, and then, suddenly, it was 2:55 and could begin the walk over to the riding ring.

    The horses were big, but they became huge when I helped to hoist my three year old up into the saddle.

    Apparently, Nickel thought they were huge too, because he immediately slumped over and laid as low as possible.

    I called to him, urging him to sit up, which he did…

    But only for a moment.

    Karen volunteers at a camp for mentally and physically handicapped children where she assists with the equine therapy, and she did some of the same camp activities with my kids—balancing exercises and jousting games (foam swords).

    She and Gale taught the older two how to stop and start and turn and back up and then let go of the lead rope and let the kids ride by themselves, though they always walked alongside.

    See that halo above Karen’s head? That’s what you get when you give up a couple hours of your gorgeous Sunday afternoon to take four little kids on horse rides.

    Mr. Handsome and I hung around the fence, only coming into the riding ring to help the kids mount and dismount or do whatever it was that Karen needed doing. Mostly I just stood there and grinned like a fool, so happy to see my kids riding a horse and loving every minute of it.

    I’m a little scared of horses because I got thrown from one when I was fifteen. My girlfriend Beth and I were riding horses through their fields when the horses spooked and veered, smoothly depositing us on the ground. I hit my head, the lights went out, and when I woke up, Beth was crying and her forearm was all wavy like in a cartoon. We got an ambulance ride (going up and down over West Virginia back roads, laying down backwards and with a concussion is not a particularly pleasant experience). I spent the night in the hospital for observation purposes, but in the end, all that ailed me was a stiff back. And a nervous fear of horses.

    I don’t want my kids to grow up like me, edgy and uptight around horses—it’s just not cool. I doubt they’ll ever be like PW’s kids (it’s not like we live on a ranch and they have the same opportunities), but still, I want them to be knowledgeable about the graceful giants and to feel at home around them. Sunday was a good first step.

    Here’s Mr. Handsome, probably dreaming about getting our upper pasture properly fenced off and a barn built so that we can one day have a horse of our own.

    Or maybe he’s dreaming about swinging up into the saddle and galloping off into the sunset in a cloud of dust.

    Oops, he’s spied me. And look at that expression; I do believe he feels sheepish! Which means he was dreaming the latter dream. Obviously.

    About One Year Ago: Homeschooling angst.

  • Above and beyond

    Last week Mr. Handsome finished up a remodeling job over in West Virginia. This is nothing new (though the distance was unusual); he does work like this all the time—roofing, repair work, renovations—but this job stood out above the others because of David and Jody, the homeowners.

    David and Jody treated my husband and his co-workers like royalty, visiting with them, feeding them homemade pastries, keeping a pot of coffee always at the ready, and even cooking them the occasional mid-day feast complete with multiple side dishes and a dessert.

    Not only did David and Jody think of their workers, they thought about their workers’ families. One day Mr. Handsome came home with a plate of brownies “for the children,” and just this last week there was a half-dozen freshly made lemon-poppy seed muffins. That bottle of homemade elderberry wine that I mentioned? From David and Jody. And on his last day of work there, Mr. Handsome handed me a white business envelope, a check for a generous amount stuck inside, “so you can take your wife out for dinner,” David had explained. It was the second time that Mr. Handsome has been tipped since I’ve known him.

    On the days when they got fed a hot lunch, Mr. Handsome came home chattering about what Jody had cooked for them. He actually waxed poetic over some of her dinners, his fingers grasping the air as he tried to conjure up the appropriate description, and he flat-out raved over a chicken chili she made them. I listened politely, not sure if he was thrilled over the chili itself, or if it was just that he was blown away because a customer was thoughtful enough to prepare them a meal (I didn’t care if they fed him scrambled eggs and toast—I was just happy that someone was taking care of my man). But the next day when Mr. Handsome came home and handed me the recipe for the chili, I decided I’d better listen up. Raving about something is one thing; following through and coming home with the recipe is another thing altogether.

    I made the soup and it was delicious indeed—rich, creamy, satisfying, and fancy enough to be a company soup. I’ll tell you about it in a minute, but I first want to say a couple other things about these special customers.

    Maybe it seems like a normal, common sense thing for homeowners to offer their contractors some hospitality—these men are stomping around your house with nail guns and circular saws after all—but it isn’t. Many places where Mr. Handsome and his co-workers are employed, the homeowners don’t even offer them the use of their bathroom, and in the really bad cases the customers lock the doors to their houses when they leave for work in the morning (in those situations, obviously, the guys are doing roofing work or building outside additions)—if the guys are lucky, there are some trees nearby where they can pee, but sometimes they have to drive to find a public restroom.

    Needless to say, David and Jody’s hospitality was refreshing, encouraging, and flattering. Mr. Handsome said that when the remodel was finished, Jody had tears in her eyes, so excited was she over her new sewing room.

    Now, for the soup.

    Chicken and White Bean Chili
    Adapted from Jody’s recipe; she, in turn, got it from Epicurious

    The original recipe calls for about five times as much heat as I have in here. Crazy hot, if you ask me. (Which I would probably enjoy, given the opportunity, but I have to think of other people besides myself sometimes.) Play with the spices and chilis and do what works for your family.

    This soup doesn’t have much color—it is a “white” soup, after all—but if you want to increase the eye appeal, add some minced green and red pepper when you sauté the onion. Some diced carrot would be nice, too, I think. The original recipe also calls for a green chili (or tomatillo) sauce to be drizzled on top; cilantro (or parsley) pesto might be another option.

    1 pound dried small white beans
    4 tablespoons butter
    2 large onions, diced
    1/3 cup flour
    4 cups chicken broth
    3 cups half and half
    4 cups cooked chicken, shredded
    1 tablespoon chili powder
    1 canned jalapeño, minced
    ½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
    1 tablespoon cumin
    2 teaspoons salt
    ½ teaspoon white pepper
    1 ½ cups grated white cheese such as Monterey Jack or medium cheddar
    1 cup sour cream
    fresh cilantro, chopped

    Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain them, put them back in the soup pot, cover with water and simmer till almost tender—about an hour. Drain.

    Melt the butter in a large kettle. Add the onions and sauté till tender. Add the flour and stir well. Whisk in the chicken broth and half and half and simmer for about ten minutes. Add the beans, chili peppers, chili powder, cumin, hot sauce, salt, and white pepper and simmer for another twenty minutes. Add the chicken, grated cheese and sour cream and heat through, but do not boil. Season to taste.

    Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with cilantro.

    Yield: Quite a bit.

    Updated November 27, 2010: Made it with less chicken and half-and-half, no peppers, half the sour cream, and a bit of heavy cream. Added chopped spinach, a cube of cilantro (or else a cube of plain, pureed cilantro—not sure which, thanks to unclear labeling), and smoked salt. Served with skillet cornbread. Delicious.

    One Year Ago: Peanut Butter Cream Pie.

  • To have a place for it

    If you haven’t already figured it out, Mom fed us well when we visited her and Dad this passed week. The menu was vegetarian (because that’s what Shannon is), except for the bacon, but Mom is a whiz with garden produce and they eat many of their meals without meat anyway. Along with the aforementioned kale and turnips and eggs and toast and broccoli soup, there was beans and rice, oven fries, green beans (with sauteed mushrooms for the sophisticated among us), butternut squash, and salad with olives and feta.

    And there were desserts, too, of course. Butternut squash pies with whipped cream, lemon meringue pie, pumpkin cheesecake bars that Shannon brought, and chocolate cake with brown sugar icing of which I was particularly fond, so fond, in fact, that when I got home I made a chocolate cake just so I would have a place to put some brown sugar icing.

    I served Mr. Handsome a piece of the cake without telling him what kind of icing it was. After a couple bites, he said, “It’s butterscotch icing, right?” I was slightly stunned. I didn’t even think of it as butterscotch, but he couldn’t be more right. Man, he’s good!

    And so is this icing.

    Brown Sugar Icing

    This a cross between a glaze and a frosting. Don’t try to spread it with a knife; instead, pour it on top of the cake and then gently push it to the edges so that it runs down the sides and puddles on the platter.

    This recipe makes enough icing to frost a sheet cake. I only needed enough to ice a one-layer chocolate cake, so I’m storing the rest in the fridge for now. I imagine it should reheat just fine in the microwave.

    1 stick butter
    1 packed cup brown sugar
    pinch of salt
    1/4 cup milk (or half-and-half)
    ½ teaspoon vanilla
    1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
    1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted, optional
    a couple pinches of chunky salt, optional

    In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the stick of butter. Add the cup of brown sugar and the pinch of salt. Stirring steadily, bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat a bit, and cook the slowly bubbling mixture, still stirring, for a full minute. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the milk.

    Set the pan in a larger bowl of ice cubes. Stir every several minutes until the mixture has cooled down a bit (it will still be warm, though) and thickened. Take the saucepan out of the bowl of ice cubes and stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.

    Frost the cake and sprinkle with the pecans and chunky salt.

    About One Year Ago: No Zip, or election withdrawal. (That big election was just a year ago. Remember the gut-wrenching anxiety?)

  • Homeschoolers have it tough

    On Monday morning I called my friend (and fellow homeschooler) Shannon. “How about we go to West Virginia this week?”

    A couple weeks earlier I had suggested to her that we take our combined seven children and flee to my parents’ house in WV for a couple days. The kids could still do their schoolwork, made all the more fun (or at least more endurable) by being with their friends and in a new setting, and then they could spend endless hours playing in the great outdoors. As for Shannon and me, we could go for walks, eat my mom’s good cooking, and sit around on our fannies eating chocolates and talking a blue streak. But, alas, Shannon said she couldn’t go—she had doctor’s appointments and such.

    But then she called me back. “I could maybe change the appointments,” she said.

    And so Tuesday afternoon found me driving West Virginia’s back roads with Shannon’s maroon van trundling along behind, doing its best to keep up as I whipped over the hills and around the curves.

    The following day the kids did their school work as planned, but, truth be told, it was pittance compared to the other learning that went on.

    Lesson Number One: Machetes are sharp.

    My father showed the boys how to chop the greens off the turnips. He said each boy could de-top three turnips before giving the next boy a turn. Yo-Yo wanted to be first.

    He chop-chop-chopped and then dropped the machete and fled to the house with nary a whimper, clutching his hacked finger with his other hand. It was just a nick, but the lesson was duly noted.

    Lesson Number Two: Conflict resolution can be simple.
    The boys argued. Tears threatened. They split up, not wanting to even look at each other. After a decent amount of cool-down time, Yo-Yo still refused to come out to the kitchen. I said, “Just tell him you’re sorry you were mean to him and then you can get on with doing the fun stuff.” A couple minutes later Yo-Yo yelled for Justus. Justus obligingly went. Yo-Yo said gruffly, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” And then, without pausing for breath and in the same tough voice, “You wannna listen to this song?” And just like that, they were buddies again.

    Lesson Number Three: Steers ought to be in the circus.
    My father trains his steer. He holds the can of feed above the beast’s head and says “turn,” and the steer turns, once, twice, thrice, four-ice, and then my father says, “Okay, that oughta be enough,” and dumps the grain in the feeding trough. Hillbilly entertainment, for sure.

    Lesson Number Four: Guns are fun.

    Even the Baby Nickel took his turn at trying to hit the tin cans my dad hung on a brush pile up by the edge of the woods.

    Lesson Number Five: Mountain folk periodically lose their hot water.
    My father stayed home from school to do stuff around the house and garden (and to supervise the machete-happy boys and other frolicking kids) and it was a good thing he did because mid-afternoon he went down to the crawl cellar/basement to fetch himself an apple and noticed that the hot water heater was leaking.

    So we had to heat up our dish and bath water on the stove. Now I totally understand how Ma Ingalls felt.

    Lesson Number Six: Brown bag breakfasts can burn.
    We had two breakfasts: the first one happened between six and seven in the morning and consisted of cereal and toast, and the second one happened between nine and ten and consisted of bacon and eggs and toast, all cooked over the fire.

    To make a brown bag breakfast:
    *Place two strips (or half strips) of bacon on the bottom of a brown paper lunch bag, fold over the top, and poke two holes through the top of the bag and weave a stick through the holes.

    *Hold the bag over the fire for an agonizingly long time, till the bacon is mostly done.

    *Add two eggs to the bag and return the bag to the fire.

    *The breakfast is done when the eggs are cooked, or when the bag catches fire.

    *In the case of the flaming bag scenario, drop the bag on the grass, don a heavy pair of work gloves, and clap out the flame.

    *Then proceed to cook your eggs and bacon in a skillet, which is probably what you should have done in the first place.

    Lesson Number Seven: Cooked turnips are good.
    Dad harvested his turnips and at lunch time we ate them raw with salt. For supper, one of the boys peeled a few turnips and then mom boiled them till tender (and burned, but that part wasn’t intentional or serious enough to be a deterrent) and drizzled browned butter over them. I ate mine with piles of the boiled and buttered kale. I’m still fantasizing about that dish.

    Lesson Number Eight: The stomach digests protein but not vegetables.
    Over a lunch of broccoli soup, pesto torte, and crackers, my father regaled us with the true tale of a man who got shot in the stomach. The wound healed but the hole never closed over, so the man’s doctor used him (respectfully, I presume) for scientific experiments. The doctor tied a piece of string to bits of meat or beans or fruit and then stuck them in the hole. He pulled them out later to see how they were digested. In this way he learned that the stomach digests proteins but not plants. (And I guess not string.)

    Lesson Number Nine: Gnomes live in the basement, or else Grandmommy is certifiably insane.
    Because of the water situation, we had the hot water taps turned on all the way to let the air out, so we would occasionally hear gurglings and hissings from the bowels of the house. Justus and my mother were working at the kitchen sink together when she suddenly leaned over so her mouth was at the spigot and yelled, “Gnomes! Gnomes! Will you please stop making all that noise! Just stop it, you hear? Stop it, I said!”

    She righted herself, glanced at Justus out of the corner of her eye, and then launched into a story about the gnomes in the basement and—What? You don’t believe in gnomes ‘cause you’ve never seen them? Well, of course! You can’t see them if you don’t believe they’re real—and on and on.

    Lesson Number Ten: It’s important to get a college education.
    Come bedtime, my mother sat on a footstool in the upstairs hallway and told bedtime stories.

    The first was about a boy who was so uncoordinated that he couldn’t even clap his hands together, so his teacher told him that she would take him out for ice cream if he learned how to clap. The poor boy practiced and practiced until finally he could do it—oh, joy!—but when he went to eat his triple-decker ice cream cone, he smashed it into his forehead, still not sufficiently coordinated.

    The second story was about the Crooked Mouth Family. Each person in the Crooked Mouth Family has—you already guessed it—a crooked mouth. The father’s lower lip juts out, the mother’s upper lip sticks out, and each of the two children speak out of different corners of their mouths. One night when the family is ready to go upstairs to bed, they run into a problem—none of them can blow out the candle. (Mom was holding a candle, acting out the story as she told it.) After each of them takes their turn puffing, the father calls upstairs to their son John who happens to be visiting at home for a few days, and when John comes downstairs, he quickly and easily blows out the candle. Father says gravely, lower lip protruding, “Son John’s been to college. See what he can do?”

    Bonus Lesson: Homeschooling moms enjoy tossing kids around.

    People who aren’t familiar with homeschooling firsthand (meaning, they don’t do it themselves) often feel sorry for us poor mamas, for all the long days spent sitting beside our children listening to them count by two’s and making sure they cross their ‘t’s and dot their ‘i’s. At least, that’s what they think we do.

    They really have no idea.

    About One Year Ago: Sausage Quiche with Potato Crust.