Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ideas wanted: Cheap, easy and life-changing preferred

For every post I write, there are at least three that never get out of draft form.

They're contrived. Boring. Trying too hard. Not trying hard enough.
And some of them just don't say anything. No story to tell. I thought there was something there when I started, but I'll never be able to huff enough air into the limp corpse to make it come alive.

For every post that remains unpublished, there are another dozen that never get written. Why? Because I can't string two sentences together. Can't find a thread to follow. A line to write. I poke around, kick a thought or two and nothing. So I have profound respect for anyone with never-ending patter. Writers who churn out pages. Storytellers who gush out words.

Now, I find I can be one too. On The Gist podcast, Slate's Mike Pesca interviewed Matthew Dicks about where he gets his idea. Dicks, a storyteller, author and 20-time winner of The Moth StorySlams, has a system and it's simple in concept.

Simple is good. I can do simple.

Every night, Dicks opens up a spreadsheet and asks himself "If I had to tell a 5 minute story of my day, what would it be?" Then he writes it on a spreadsheet. 5 to 20 words. That's it.

"It will, I promise you, change your life." Dicks says in the podcast.

What it does is find the different in the day, "little moments that mean the most." It's moments that make us more relatable. More entertaining. And once those moments are written down, they spark connections, spin into something bigger than five words.

So I've started a spreadsheet and looked back at the day, searching for a moment that is ready to be the star in it's own story. By writing it down, I've rescued it. Honored it. Given it the potential to save me and itself. To escape the draft folder and find life online.

Listen to Where to Find the Best Stories on The Gist podcast.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Above all, avoid the wankers


The author, escaped from backstage.
I was a roadie — a tour-ette — back in the old days. Before the husband. Pre-kids. Back when I didn’t mind sleeping in a different bed every night. (Alone. OK?)
It was the ‘80. I learned some important things. How to work 36-hours straight. How to earn respect instead of demanding it. How to drink like one of the guys. How to maintain relationships from 1000 miles away.
It wasn’t until I went back on the road, an over-50 wardrobe girl, that I rediscovered the value of some of these lessons, particularly as I navigated the second act of my life.
On the road, every day is an encore. A do-over. A new perspective on the same old problems. The unwritten rules of veteran roadies offered some useful insights in an ever-changing world.
Here are a few things I learned from standing in the wings. 
Shut up about your talent
Talent opens the door, but 90 percent of the rest is hard work. Bands that last have one thing in common. They work. If you want to stick aroour day. The rest of it happens in the bowels of stadiums or the corners of cavund, you never stop working. Those two hours on stage are a small chunk of a 12-hur day. The rest of it happens in the bowels of stadiums or the corners of cavernous theaters. In hotel rooms and dressing rooms. There, you’ll find your fangirl crush crashing through a new tune, working the kinks out of tired chords and running scales like a schoolboy. That time on stage is the tip of the musical iceberg.
Karma, Part 1: Reputation Does Matter
You can meet a dozen Prince Charmings, but it’s always the dicks you remember. No one remembers them now, though. They’re playing casino lounges or opening (and closing) restaurants with augmented hairlines and a back-up band that's counting the days until their contract is up. 
Bring Something To The Table Besides Your Boobs
Groupies. Ugh. They swarm around the shipping docks like gnats, but rarely — so very rarely — get past the gate. If the only thing you feel you have to bring to the table is your looks, fine. Just get out of my way so I can do my job. I’ll deal with the sexism you’ve re-ignited in my workplace later. 
It’s Always Something
So here’s a story. I’m doing wardrobe for a musician who has been performing for more than 50 years. A legend, and I don’t use that word lightly. Originally with three other guys. You probably know him. Anyway, he’ll regularly riff backstage with musicians who interest him. Not big names. Mariachi bands, that kind of thing. Because even after 50 years, there’s more to learn and no one knows where that lesson will come from.
Karma, Part 2: Everyone Makes Mistakes
You stick with this job long enough and you’ll see some train wrecks. Bad relationships. Bad drugs. Bad choices all around. Here’s the thing with a train wreck. You don’t see it coming. The people around you, the one’s standing at the side of the track, watching from a different angle, sense a tragedy in the making. And they’ll try to tell you. In some way, they’ll telegraph the inevitable. They can save you or they can let you sink. That’s up to you. Pay attention to the by-standers.
Rock On
Tour professionals dress like teen-agers, work like monsters and party like a grandmothers (except for catering... that's a whole other thing when it comes to the partying). They’ve seen the world, mostly from their hotel room window. Famous people? They trip over them on the way to a bathroom break. It’s a glamorous job, and someone’s got to do it, but in the end it’s still a job. An exhausting 36-hour-a-day job that just happens to include a nightly serenade from that guy on the cover of the Rolling Stone. But like every job, this one ends and the only thing you can take with you are a few guitar picks and the ability to work with anyone, anywhere at any time. Unless they’re wankers. Avoid the wankers at any cost.

Criss Roberts is the mostly stay-at-home sister in a family of tour professionals who have been on the road since the 1980s. She was out there for a while, but likes her own bed too much. She writes at crissroberts.blogspot.com.



Monday, July 06, 2015

The writing life: Part 1

Some days it's like this.
This book-writing thing. It's a bitch. It screws with your head and sucks out your soul.
I'm an outliner, a plotter (and plodder. ) Some people can just wander off down an uncharted path, happily leaving story in their trail. 
Not me.
I need signposts and rest stops. A clearly marked route. Not that I always take it, but I like to know where I'm going and roughly when I'll get there. Once I'm on that route, I trip merrily along until I reach the end, all the while living in this alternative universe I've created.
Real live friends and family are ignored in favor of imaginary ones. If you speak to me and I look confused, I apologize. I'm trying to place you. You may live next door, but at the moment, you're out of context to me. My head's in this book.
Which is fine. Even great sometimes. Except when it comes to keeping a blog going. I'd write more about that, but I feel a plot twist calling. Another thousand words to write before I can dream about anything else.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Storm clouds gather as the battle begins


Call me crazy, but I think the ability to provide food for yourself and your family is a necessary skill. Not simply pushing a cart through the aisles of the grocery store. We're talking something that involves a little labor and a lot of love.
These are not survivalist-level commitments. I'm looking at something more remedial. A potted tomato or a window box of greens to start. A few canning jars. A box of freezer bags.
As a beginning backyard farmer, I've got a deck full of pots. Eggplant. Tomato. Kale. Basil. Other stuff that's green and leafy and needs water.
Well, not eggplant. Not anymore. Because now I've got a raccoon. Two I think. They're sneaky bastards. Even the dogs don't hear them, and they hear everything.
Every night for a week, they've ripped plants out by the roots. Devoured the bird seed. Drank the hummingbird nectar. And as a thank you, left poop all over the deck.
So now what? I've rigged a series of baby gates, blocking access. That worked last night. If I cut off the food source, I'm the one ultimately injured (if being without a steady stream of kale is, indeed, an injury.)
My commitment is being tested. My morality. If I spin it out far enough it becomes kill or be killed. How lethal will this fight become?
You are warned, raccoons. You are warned.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Rethinking food, rediscovering life

The deck farm
Nobody wants to hear about my  health problems. So I'm not going to bore you. But let's just say I'm not unique for a woman of my certain age. Particularly one who had wine as a major food group. 

I’ve been writing about food for years and I would estimate that at least 90 percent of those stories featured copious amounts of fried food and even larger amounts of sugar. These foods went particularly well with the daily hangover I’d come to accept as normal. And judging from reader feedback, I was not alone. I felt like death a lot of the time, so I did what we’ve learned to do. I Googled “Feel Like Death.”

What I learned is I was doing everything wrong. Eating wrong, drinking too much. Exercise? Ha. So I’ve started to change. I’d quit drinking a hundred times. This time, after being derailed by a loved one’s death, I quit again. But this time, I looked for support. Not from other people. Not from 12-Step groups, which work for some addicts, but not most of them. I went the internal, soul-strengthening route of treating myself like a person who deserved to live a good life because — insert long, boring backstory here — I had convinced myself otherwise.

The first step in this process is Getting Over It. Getting over my aversion to vegetables. Getting over my belief that I am special, deserving of indulgences. Getting over a compulsion to fill my empty spaces with food now that the wine is gone.


We all start somewhere.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Cooking vegetables for the vegetable-adverse, remedial

What kind of eater are you?

My favorite meal is:
   1) at a restaurant
   2) one grandma used to make
   3) healthy 
   4) anything with chocolate on it

I eat:
   1) 3 squares a day, with snacks
   2) All-day, grazing
   3) when my body says I’m hungry
   4) when there’s chocolate

The number of calories I consume is:
   1) way more than necessary
   2) anywhere from 800 to 3000
   3) exactly as many as my body needs
   4) I do not believe in calories.

If the majority of your answers were 1 or 2, you’re a normal eater. All you 3s? You’re not a real person. I refuse to believe people like you exist. And you 4s? You are a character in a Cathy comic strip. You’re not, you say? Look in the mirror. Is there a third-dimension? Didn’t think so.
I have food issues. I either think about food constantly or don’t think about it at all. I veer between well-planned, nutritionally balanced menus to days when I eat nothing that can’t be spread on a Triscuit. It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t wise, but that’s one of the wonderful things about food. It changes by necessity. Recipes can be tweaked and twisted, as anyone who owns the cookbook “50 Ways To Cook Artichokes” knows. 
Every January I pledge to eat better, and if the media is to be believed I am far from alone. But eating better is a learned behavior. And it often begins by cooking healthier food, something that can be self-taught. We can all chop up some broccoli. It’s the process of getting it into our mouth and keeping it there that is the challenge.
Begin where you’re comfortable. Tiny pieces of celery in soup is the best you can do? Start there. Tomato sauce on pasta. It’s a step up from the universal vegetable delivery system of ketchup, I guess. It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s one meal. One day. Tomorrow you can add a few tiny pieces of carrot in there with the celery. 
Vegetable aversion is a real thing and it takes time to conquer. It also takes some skill. Haters have not learned to prepare the hated properly. So learn. Google it. Watch YouTube videos. Lock yourself in a room with a computer if you feel shamed, but know this. No one is born knowing how to cook vegetables. People who love vegetables were just like you once. 
We all start somewhere. Try starting here, with pureed cauliflower. It kind of looks like mashed potatoes. But you absolutely need a food processor to create something that doesn’t look like a vegetable. There are no quantities in the recipe, no 1/2 teaspoon of this or cup of that, because now is the time to be dangerous in the kitchen. If we must eat right, we might as well have an adventure while we’re doing it.

Pureed Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower, cut into little pieces
Butter
Milk/buttermilk
Salt

I should probably say that you’re cutting off the flower part. You’ve already gotten rid of the green leaves and now you’re cutting it away from the core. If you knew that was necessary, you should probably not be reading a remedial article. Boil those pieces until you can stick a fork in them. They’ll be the consistency of ice cream, your fork goes in easily but there is some resistance. (If you do not want to get a pot dirty, invest in those Ziploc Steamer Bags. They are a kitchen miracle.)
Place cooked cauliflower in the food processor with a couple tablespoons butter and a splash of milk. Add a little bit of salt. Turn it on and wait until it looks like mashed potatoes. Add more butter and milk if you’d like after you taste it. Yes, taste it. If it tastes fine, eat it.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On the list

I'm delighted to be on this list of 2014's best for the website Better After 50. (Writing as C.Anne Roberts)

The last of Christmas

Not ham again/Ted McGrath/Flickr
I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t eaten anything besides sugar for days. And yes, that makes me as delightful to be around as you’d suspect. I was going to fix that by eating better today. There are some vegetables in the greens bin, a best intention, but they’re destined for a soup at this point. I think I bought them a couple weeks ago and have systematically ignored them since. The important part of this story is that I have again become aware of vegetables. My vision has strayed from cookies. It’s time to move on.
Sugar overload is my Post-Christmas Tradition No. 1. The second tradition is The Clearing of the Refrigerator. When the cheese balls and specialty olives are gone, I start  reheating and re-serving. It does not go unnoticed.
“I’ve had ham four times in the last two days,” said the husband. 
So I get creative. Ham in the quiche. Ham in the soup. Ham in a puff pastry, kind of an upscale version pigs in a blanket with some cheese and dijon. So much ham. Today it was Ham and Quinoa Croquettes because here’s what I had: A couple slices of said ham. Half a cooked chicken breast. Quinoa. A couple eggs. Some Purple Haze soft goat cheese. 
I wish I’d had an onion, but I didn’t. If I make this again, it will definitely include an onion. The amounts used are because that’s all I had. Play with it.

Last-of-Christmas Croquettes

1 cup chopped leftover ham
1/2 cup chopped leftover chicken
4 oz soft goat cheese
2 cups cooked quinoa
2 eggs
(Cooked onions would be perfect)
A handful of flour
Mix these all together in a bowl and form into patties. Coat each side with bread crumbs. Pan fry in butter (because I’m out of everything else, I really need to get to the store.)

Serve with left-over white sauce. And vegetables.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Save the sprout

Flickr image/krgjumber

I’ll give this to Brussel sprouts. They are adorable. They grow on miniature trees., these tiny little cabbages, like the dollhouse version of a vegetable. Too cute to eat. I’ll give them credit for that. After I get past appearance, that’s when I have a problem.
Brussel sprouts have a bad reputation, one I have contributed to as a cook and as an eater. My encounters the the cruciferous sprout is familiar to so many vegaphobs. It was hate at first site. On introduction, they were badly prepared. Boiled, usually. Sitting in a puddle of margarine if we were lucky. And whole. Big round blobs of mushy green on the outside and semi-frozen green on the inside. I’m retching just thinking of them.
They were inedible, but a generation of parents forced us to eat them. No wonder they were as hated as broccoli.
There has been a Brussel sprout renaissance in recent years and it is all thanks to one thing: Bacon. Bacon is the cure-all for vegetables. Combine bacon with my favorite preparation method of preparation, which is dicing them up so they are no longer identifiable, and you have something I eat. This is not a healthy recipe. Dieticians will protest and I beg them to look away. But it is an excellent way to reintroduce sprouts to a palate that hides in the other room when their name is mentioned.

Carmelized Brussel Sprouts. With Bacon

Bacon, with saved grease
Brussel sprouts, shredded into thin slices
Pecan pieces
A little brown sugar and balsamic vinegar 

Fry up as much bacon as you think you’re going to need. Recipes that say 1 or 2 slices are just wrong. You need enough back to make a previously loathed vegetable edible. Take the bacon out once it’s cooked. Save enough grease to fry up those shredded sprouts. Cook over a medium flame in a big cast iron pan until they start to brown. Be aware that they may pop out at you like pieces of popcorn. Nothing about Brussel sprouts is easy. 
Once they’re browning nicely, toss in some pecan pieces and brown those up a bit. 
Personally, I toss a little brown sugar on them, because inevitably I don’t have the patience to wait for the full-on carmelization which gives the sprouts their sweetness. A splash of balsamic vinegar gives a nice depth of flavor and hides reminders of Brussel sprouts past.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rallying with roasted vegetables

My computer crashed last week. Computers are not supposed to crash anymore. I am told as though it were a modern fact of life by every person I tell the story. But mine did and since I am lax about backing things up, the amount of work gone forever paralyzed me for two days until panic set in, followed by acceptance. Not quite Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, but anyone who has gone through this sort of high-tech loss understands the proper reaction is mourning, followed by chocolate pudding.
It took Thanksgiving to snap me out of it. Not because it’s a cherished holiday, but because people were counting on me to provide a side dish. A vegetable. The most unwelcome of all dishes on the carnivore Thanksgiving table.
The classic green beans with French’s fried onions and mushroom soup is always welcome at family gatherings, but I had different priorities. I wanted something I liked (which is almost never something smothered in canned soup) and something I could reheat or repurpose. I settled on two options: Scalloped corn and roasted root vegetables. Whatever is left over gets folded into pancake batter and made into fritters. Drop on some sour cream mixed with chopped dill and call it dinner.
Roasted root vegetables is exactly what it sounds like. Root vegetables chopped up and roasted. The roasting caramelizes the sugar in them and you’re eating things you thought you’d never eat. 

Roasted Root Vegetables

Parsnips
Turnips
Rutabaga
Carrots
Sweet Potatos
Onion and Garlic
Olive oil and maple syrup
Thyme
Rosemary
Salt

Preheat oven to 400. Peel everything and chop it into one-inch pieces. Dice the onion and garlic. Toss it all in a big bowl. It will cook down to slightly half the size so chop more or less accordingly. Combine olive oil and maple syrup in a 2 to 1 ration. Twice as much oil as syrup. Toss in an appropriate amount of herbs. That’s kind of up to you. I like to smell them while they cook so I use at least a tablespoon. Probably more. Divide it up in roasting pans and put in for 30 minutes uncovered. Stir. Put it back in for another 45 minutes.
Serve with sour cream (particularly if you’re of Eastern European heritage) or don’t. It’s fine without it. 



Monday, October 27, 2014

Diverging Food/Memory

The stories on here often appear first in an Iowa newspaper. It's supposed to be a food column. And sometimes it is.
This column isn’t about cooking. Or eating. If it’s anything it’s stories that include food. There are recipes (sometimes) because the editor demands it. But mostly this is a few hundred words with food as one of the characters. 
I can’t say food has always been an important part of my life. For the longest time it was an afterthought. There were no nights around the dinner table as a child. Maybe a few special recipes before the grandmothers died. A holiday here or there. Depression. Disinterest. There were a lot of reasons I found a good meal was peanut butter on saltines and an adequate meal was peanut butter on a spoon.
As soon as I were old enough I got a restaurant job. 
Food became french fries and burgers. A steak if the chef happened to like you. But I didn’t learn to cook a meal until I was much older, married and raising children, and even then my techniques consisted primarily of boiling water or opening a box.
That all sounds woeful, but my point is this: If you grow up without enough food on the table you look at eating differently. Meals become important enough to plan and wasting one is a pity because there have been so many wasted chances already. The same goes for taste. There is a difference between those tinned tomatoes and ones you picked up at the farmers market. Why waste the energy on something that tastes like nothing?
If a co-worker brings in extra zucchinis — a regular occurrence as we wait for the first frost — I’m more than happy to take them because sometime soon real food, food that tastes like food, will be difficult to find. It’ll take some time and effort to bake a gluten-free zucchini bread or shred it up for fritters. 
Zucchini Fritters.
Peel and shred the zucchinis according to your tolerance for vegetables. Put the shredded zucchini in a colander, squeeze to take out as much moisture as you can. Place in a bowl and add 1/4 cup flour and a couple of eggs, salt and pepper. (Sometimes I’ll chop up an onion and drop that in too.)Try to form a patty. If it holds together nice, kind of on the damp side, you’re good. If not, add a little milk or a little more flour. 
All this time there’s been a cast iron skillet with olive oil or something on the stove on a medium-high heat. The oven is also on. Drop a couple patties in the oil. If you didn’t get enough moisture out, it’ll splatter, but no worries. Just step back. Brown one side, then the other. Put it on a cookie sheet in the oven and keep it warm while you finish the batch.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Cooking the Halloween decor

Bought as decoration, used as dinner. 

One of the first rules of entertaining is don’t serve a meal you’ve never made before. All sorts of things can go wrong in a new recipe because, like so much in life, what you see on the page isn’t always what you get. Recipes aren’t always carefully proofread and that 1 tablespoon of salt is meant to be a single teaspoon. Or the recipe creator mistakenly leaves out a very important ingredient. We’ll assume it’s a mistake although there was that one aunt who happily shared recipes, but not the whole recipe. She’d leave out an important ingredient or two to be sure that her version of the dish always tasted better than the copy. It took me years to figure that out. Years of feeling like a kitchen failure. Instead I’d lost to a cheater. A hyper-competative kitchen cheater.Don't be that person.
I’ve served more than a few meals that didn’t work, but many more that have. And yes, they’ve been served to guests. That first rule, the one about never serving an experiment is one I refuse to follow. Because of that, some friends recently had the opportunity to share a newly conceived Pumpkin Lasagna that came into existence only because there was a pie pumpkin taking up too much space on the counter. I thought it looked festive when I bought it. Then it just looked like dinner. If I'd bought a butternut squash I would have used that. 

Pumpkin Lasagna

Filling
1 pie pumpkin (or 2 14-ounce cans of pumpkin - NOT Pumpkin Pie Filling) Make sure it is a pie pumpkin. About 3 pounds. Those big carving pumpkins will not work. 
1 cup ricotta
1 cup mascarpone (or leave this out and double the ricotta. There was some in the fridge, so I used it.)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sage, 1 teaspoon or more

Peel a small pie pumpkin and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with olive oil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until it’s fork stabbable. Puree. Should make about 3 cups. Leave it in the food processor and add the ricotta, mascarpone and egg.

Sauce
1 medium onion, diced
2 or more cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups cream or half and half
Pork sausage or 4 to 6 pieces diced Canadian bacon (optional) 

Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté. Set aside. Brown the sausage or bacon. Set aside. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and cream. (Add some of the parmesan to the sauce if you’d like.) I use a large cast iron frying pan for all three of these steps. Combine the pork product and the onion/garlic mix in the sauce. Set aside.

Assemble
12 ounces of mozzarella
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 box of pre-cooked lasagna

Spread 9- by 12-inch baking dish with a layer of sauce. 
Layer 1: Noodles
Layer 2: Pumpkin filling.
Layer 3: Mozzarella and Parm
Layer 4 Sauce
Repeat, ending with a layer of sauce-covered noodles sprinkled with Parmesan.

Cover pan with sheet of oiled foil. Bake in 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 more. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.



Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Tyranny of Perfect Fruit


           
pear tart recipe
 Everyone knows one of these people. Ask them to bring something for a potluck and they'll arrive with a 7-tiered Venetian fantasy. It looks amazing. Like something on a Pinterest wedding board. And it tastes like decayed plaster.

Food doesn't have to be pretty to taste good. Presentation helps, but it's that judging a book by its cover thing all over again. The outside doesn't accurately reflect the inside. I was thinking about this little lesson in morals while I was looking at the bushel of pears I'd acquired.

My friend, Lillian, has an abundant pear tree. Every year, she gathers the fruit and gives it away in exchange for a donation to a charity. So every year, for as long as I've known Lillian, I end up with a lot of pears.

Pears are one of those fruits that I am loath to use. Their odd shape makes them difficult to peel. Not like an apple, round and nearly symmetrical. Pears take a little knife skill. They are needy. So they sat in the refrigerator, picked off one by one for snacking.

And after a week there were still a lot. Too many. Time to bake. So when a friend asked me to throw in a dessert for an impromptu dinner, I thought "Pear tart!" like it was an epiphany.

Anyone who has cooked a pear tart - or seen one in a cookbook - knows that the fruit is supposed to be sliced into identical wedges and lay in a pinwheel on the crust. It is a daunting task with more effort spent on creating the picture than the food. I don't do that. (And that should surprise no one.)

Ugly Pear Tart 

FILLING
6 smallish pears, peeled, cored and chopped into pieces (enough for about 3 cups)
Lemon juice
1 t cornstarch
(Some people like a spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg)

CRUST:
3/4-cup flour, plus extra
1/4-cup sugar
4 Tbs cold butter
Ice water

After chopping up the pears, toss them in a bowl with a little lemon juice so they don't get brown and some cornstarch so they don't get watery. Then make the crust just like any other piecrust. I use a food processor and then put the dough in the fridge for a half hour before pressing into a tart pan. Or a pie plate if I can't find the tart pan. Bake the crust, which looks like a large sugar cookie, at 425 for 15 minutes or until golden.
Drain the extra liquid from the pears. When the crust is done, reduce the oven to 350, dump the pears on top of the crust and bake for 40 minutes.
If I'm feeling fancy I'll drizzle some melted chocolate across the top. That happens seldom.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rainy days and risotto


It’s raining, one of those rains that clears out the gutters and turns the river a dark metallic grey, leaving a damp chill in the air between storms. It’s been raining on and off for days and because of this I have not shopped for food. On days like these I swear I will can more. Freeze more. Set aside a stockpile because if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s leave the house when there’s rain or snow. If it weren’t for four-wheel drive and good county road crews proving me a liar, I’d happily stay home all winter, insisting the roads were impassible if my presence were necessary.
But that particular scenario is still weeks away. And while the calendar is saying Fall, the weather is insisting “Not yet.” But today there is a chilly rain, which means it’s slow cooker weather. For years, I avoided slow cookers, embarrassed to even have one in the pantry. I’ve relented, especially on days when I want something filling. Something rich.
Today want a creamy risotto, but I don’t have the right kind of rice. A starchy rice that breaks down into a creamy goodness when cooked. I do have barley, however, which is better of its high fiber content and I can claim I chose it because it is healthier, not because it is what I have left in the pantry. Risotto isn’t just the name of the dish, it’s also the cooking method, which roughly translated means Hours Stirring Grains and Broth On An Open Flame. Which is nice kitchen performance art, but I want something easy. And good. Adding the cheddar gives it a mac-and-cheese feel without the white flour guilt.

Crock Pot Barley Risotto


  • 1 cup barley
  • 3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable if you want vegan)
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs leftover non-sweet wine (optional)
  • 4 cloves garlic or equivalent garlic powder
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced and sautéed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (faux or otherwise)


Mix the  broth, barley, butter, wine, garlic, onion, salt, and black pepper in a Crock Pot and cook on High for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Stir in cheese.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Tailgating for the non-fan

Peach Salsa, step 1
College football  has started, which around here means an empty house on Saturdays. Everyone is either at the game or watching the game somewhere else. It’s a day of catch-up for this non-fan. Reading, cleaning, cooking and just being thankful I’m not standing in a crowded stadium asking people around me to explain what just happened on the field.
I’ve stubbornly refused to become a fan. That might be different if I’d gone to a college where the football game was worth waking up for. And I know it’s possible to become a late-life convert. But there are only so many brain cells in a life. Why squander them on false enthusiasm?
There is one part of the football ritual I can get behind and that’s the tailgating. The guys man the grill, cooking manly meats. Bratwurst. Burgers. Steaks. Neighbors share, creating their own culinary currency. A breakfast bagel for 2 hotdogs. Pork burger for a veggie burger + a dessert to be named later.
The women have packed the accompaniments. Brownies, breads and baked goods. Chips and dips. Chips and salsa. A plate of cut-up vegetables that will go back home nearly uneaten because it’s football, not a bridal shower. Who tried to sneak this healthy stuff on the table? 
Tailgating is a communal meal of pre-thanksgiving, a ritual victory feast because no true fan would dare believe that there is anything but a win expected by day’s end. And like a celebratory meal, everyone brings an offering, more humble than fantastic because the setting — a truck bed as altar, lawn chairs as pews — necessitate a casual approach to both food and comfort. China is replaced by paper plates. Forks by fingers. Napkins? They’ve blown off the table in a gust of warm wind. 
On a quiet Saturday, when I’ve stayed home after waving the fanboys goodbye, I begin my own football ritual of preparing for next week’s tailgate. A mountain of peaches wait and I’ve got peach salsa on my mind. It’s 88 degrees, a horribly hot day for football and canning alike. But peaches don’t wait and neither can I.

Peach Salsa (Canned or not)

6 cups peeled, sliced and pitted peaches, about 4 pounds
2 or more jalepenos, diced
1 1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced yellow, orange or red pepper)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 tsp garlic powder or 3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cup vinegar
3/4 cup sugar

Combine everything in a large dutch oven and boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid becomes syrupy. This makes about 4 quarts. Divide it up and can it with 15 minutes in a hot water bath. Or cool it in the refrigerator and eat at the next couple tailgates.  (Adapted from “Food In Jars” by Marisa McClellan)


Friday, August 29, 2014

This is what we eat here

It's home.

Some people love the bed and breakfast experience. I’m not one of them. It’s the breakfast part I hate, sitting at the dining room table, forcing interest in your fellow boarders. Just give me a cup of coffee and a piece of bacon. That’s all I’m asking.
But last fall, we found ourselves in just such a situation in Willamette Valley. Oregon’s wine growing region has beautiful views, interesting wines, amazing restaurants and a handful of housing options. So it’s no surprise to find a self-proclaimed foodie or wine snob sitting across the B&B table, as hung-over as a college student. 
They are generally gregarious, anxious to impart their wisdom about a super-secret restaurant that they’ve stumbled on, to add to their street cred, drive traffic to their blog. And after the soliloquy on last night’s food rapture, they ask the question: Where are you from.
“Iowa. On the Mississippi River.”
And a look of horror passes over their face. It takes a moment for them to form the words.
“What do you EAT there?” As though Iowa were a vast food desert. Nothing but flat acres of corn fed to cows somewhere else. 
It’s a question I struggle with sometimes and I have learned that most often the question means “Where do you eat there?” The food tourist isn’t as interested in the meal as they are in the stamp in their mental passport so of course they’ve never considered Iowa.
We have our restaurants and they serve us admirably. But there aren’t many where I can say “This is what we eat and you can get it nowhere else, nowhere better.” 
The question comes down to local foods, meals that remind a homesick Iowan of home. We’ve got our Maytag cheese. We’ve got our morels. We’ve got our Sterzings. We’ve got pork tenderloins and Windsor chops. We’ve got … that’s my list., my You Know You’re From Iowa When … list. We have our points of pride.
But I didn’t run down that list when confronted with the “What do you eat” question. 
“We cook at home. We have friends over. We raid our friends’ gardens.” 
Because a meal isn’t just about the food. It’s about the people you share it with. The connections you make and keep and cherish long after your favorite restaurant goes the way of arugula pizza. 

Sweet Potato Breakfast Hash For People Who Hate Breakfast Food

Diced up an onion and toss it into a skillet where you’ve already melted some butter. Peel a sweet potato and chop it into little 1/4” squares. Or grate it. I don’t like it grated as much, but you might. Toss that in with the onions and fry it on medium heat. Too hot and the outsides brown but the insides don’t cook. You’re looking for that nice brown caramelized outside. When it’s almost done, toss in some left-over chicken cut into little bits. (What, no leftover chicken? I thought everyone had leftover chicken.) Season with salt and pepper. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A history of Labor Day in 3, maybe 4, beers

Nick at the tavern.

The last Hooligans Picnic was probably 40 years ago. The guys that hung out at my grandparent's Southside tavern — that's the south side of Chicago, Roseland to be exact — would reserve some tables in a forest preserve, rent a few kiddie carnival rides to keep us occupied and throw some charcoal in a 55-gallon drum that had been sliced in half and sandblasted at the corner auto body repair shop. It was Labor Day and the neighborhood celebrated it vehemently. St. Patrick's Day was for rookies.
    A few kegs of PBR or Schlitz were rolled in, the neighborhood beer, back before they were ironic or cool. The ladies circled their aluminum chairs near the kegs because that was the best shade. They refused the beer and drank highballs out of plastic cups.
    I remember the drinks. Remember sneaking a sip when no one was looking. And I remember making 7 and 7s for the aunties (Seagrams 7 and 7-Up, but not too much 7-Up. They were very specific in their instructions.)
   But I don't remember the food. Hot dogs, I'd guess. It was Chicago, after all.
    The Hooligans broke up, moved away, drank themselves to death. It's what you'd expect from a group created on a bar stool. I moved too. To Carbondale — Southern Illinois University — where the Labor Day picnics were on rotting old porches and the beer wasn't much better. But the entire bottle was now mine. I didn't have to sneak sips.
    A grill was always going. There were hot dogs. And hamburgers. Standard grill fare, far better than standard cafeteria fare. Some ambitious girl would show up with a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated carrots, not realizing there was nothing to eat it with. We were moving up in the world.
    Years later, the calendar pages flying past as if blown by a tornado, I flip through a pile of cookbooks, looking for a great Labor Day meal. I already chosen the beer. A home brew quietly aging in the basement. But the meal? It has to have zucchini in it. And tomatoes. Because that's what I picked up at the farmers market. I've found several complicated recipes, a dozen ingredients that look beautiful in the after pictures. But so much work.
    Last week, a friend, Nathalie Girod, posted a picture of her lunch on Facebook. Just slices of the freshest vegetables, lightly grilled. I didn't ask her for the recipe, because she won't have one. She never does. Great cooks don't work that way. So I made one up.

Grilled Zucchini

Cut  zucchini lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices.. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and put it directly on a medium hot grill until the grill makes marks on it. That'll be about 6 minutes. Flip it over and repeat on the other side. I'll sprinkle some parmesan on top sometime. Maybe.