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Meanwhile, grate the rind from the lemon into a bowl. Squeeze the naked lemon and add the juice to the rind”.  Ruth Reichl.

“My Kitchen Year”, page 97

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In between a long morning event and an early evening obligation that meant Tom and I each being on our own for dinner, I had a sudden craving for Avgolemono (Greek Lemon Soup). I had just dropped some mail off at the post office when the craving hit; that urge that is felt for something sweet or something cold or, well, for something comforting and reminiscent of one’s own history. The fact that I had taken a few moments that afternoon to indulge in a few pages of Ruth Reichl’s memoir/cookbook, “My Kitchen Year” may have been the ticket to this urge. It was the passage in which she describes snow falling her feelings after the sudden end of Gourmet Magazine, then notices a lemon on the counter – and begins making Greek Lemon Soup!

With about 30 minutes “to kill” and the realization that a small, local. La Grange restaurant, The Grapevine, was just a few blocks away, I parked the car and walked over to the restaurant, stepped up to the counter and ordered one bowl of Avgolemono soup!

The Grapevine’s Avgolemono is as close to my grandmother’s soup as I have ever eaten. It tastes like lemon, and chicken, and rice and it brings me back into her nourishing embrace. While I make, rather well, many of my Yia Yia’s meals, this soup is one I do not make, so, I appreciate having a good source  nearby.

I found a small table, poured a glass of water, settled myself and soon detected the unique aroma of toasted sesame seed. A basket of warmed Greek bread was set before me, followed by a steaming bowl of my favorite soup. I stirred it slowly, in part to cool it off, in part to see the pieces of chicken and rice floating in the lemony broth, and in part to appreciate the enticing dance of steam spiraling upward. I added a few dashes of pepper and stirred it in, recalling the time my sister went to add pepper to her lemon soup, unaware that the lid was not secure, dumping most of the pepper into her soup. Yia Yia was upset, for she had filled the shaker and had not secured it well rendering the bowl of soup was no longer edible. Things like that mattered in our house. Food was not to be wasted.

Odd, sometimes, is it not, what memories come to us over a bowl of steaming soup?

Equally interesting how words on a page can stir our emotions and lead us to do something unplanned, like ordering a bowl of soup.img_0548

“I stood for the longest time simply staring down at the bright yellow ball, reveling in the color, allowing the oil to perfume my fingers. Then, almost unconsciously, I began grating the zest, concentrating on the scent, stopping every few seconds to inhale the aroma.” page 96

I took my time eating my soup, enjoying the bread, savoring the flavors and textures, before heading out to my next engagement, and I thought of the words that wended their way into my thoughts and looked forward to reading more of Ruth Reichl’s book, filled with the “136 recipes that saved”  her life in the year after Gourmet Magazine ceased.

Have words on a page ever led you to making or eating a favorite dish? or a new one?

Have you read “My Kitchen Year” or any of Ruth Reichl’s other books?

Were you a fan of Gourmet Magazine?

 

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I came across “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” while looking for Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country”. I was hoping to find the audio of the latter book, which we will be discussing at our September book discussion, and hoped that it would keep me company on my recent trek Up North. Instead of the prescribed book, I took home the audio of “The Glass Kitchen”  by Linda Francis Lee and the Bryson audio, which I finished before my trip.  “. . . The Thunderbolt Kid” had me so engaged that I found myself inventing reasons to get in the car to listen to it. (I only listen to audio books in the car.)

So, let me begin . . .

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I was laughing so hard that at one point I needed to pull the car over, flashers on, as I played a passage again. It was a chapter in which Mr. Bryson explained learning to read from the Dick, Jane, and Sally books. Chances are, if you grew up in the 1950’s, lived in the midwest, and attended public schools, you learned to read with Dick, Jane, and Sally. Once you learned to read, you practiced how to avoid an atomic bomb by hiding under your desk. You went to Saturday matinée, with double features, at the local movie theater, and, if you were Bill Bryson, you learned how get the candy out of the vending machine, with hilarious consequences.  If you grew up in the ’50s, you experienced an explosion of changes in the United States (and in other countries as well), including television, packaged dinners, white bread, the advent of super highways and freedom to roam the neighborhood from dawn until dusk.

Bryson’s parents were both journalists of some renown in Des Moines, Iowa. Bill often went with his father, who covered sports, especially baseball.  His parents were both a bit of a character, though loving and kind and fair. Although I grew up a “public” while Tom grew up a “private”, we both enjoyed these stories as I shared the finished discs with him. I will warn you that we both had trouble talking about the various chapters for all the laughing that gushed forth.

” . . . The Thunderbolt Kid” is not all about humor, however. It is about the middle of the 20th century, with all its promise and all its fears, atomic bomb testing and food additives, DDT and doctors that made house calls. It is about the heyday of comic books, super heroes, refrigerators, medicine and advancements, both good and bad

It is also about the demise of small towns and a simpler way of life.

It is, in a large part, our own stories of the 1950’s.

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As I had already finished ” . . . The Thunderbolt Kid”, I took the audio of “The Glass Kitchen” along for the ride instead. I’ll admit, I was drawn to the cover and the word “kitchen”.

This book made for pleasant company as I navigated my route. It was an “easy read” about Portia,  raised by her grandmother who runs a restaurant in Texas called The Glass Kitchen. Portia and her sisters are as different as sisters often are. It is Portia who has the gift of “the knowing” . Recipes and meals come to her, as they did to her grandmother, that portend both good and bad occurrences.

When her grandmother dies, Portia, the youngest of the three sisters, moves to New York City where her siblings now live and where they were willed a three-story apartment by their beloved great-aunt. Portia, broke and uncertain of what to do next after her husband, a Texas politician, divorces her for a woman who carries his child, moves into the bottom flat. Her sisters have sold their own apartments.

This is a love story and a bit of mystery. Gabrielle, the owner of the other two apartments, which Portia’s sisters sold, is raising his teenaged daughters in the two flats he has remodeled. Their mother, his wife, has died in a car accident. Portia becomes their cook – and more – as the story grows. Some of it is predictable, some a bit of a surprise. There is a nasty grandmother and wicked uncle, secrets and turmoil – and it is also a story of food, the book’s chapters framed around meal courses.

I enjoyed listening to this book as I drove the otherwise lonely miles.

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J. Ryan Stradal’s book, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest”, was a Christmas gift from Tom. It was languishing since the holidays on my never-ending pile of books  – until it suddenly jumped into my hands, where it stayed for just a few day while as I devoured its pages.

This is the story of Eva Thorvald, told in chapters by various people in her life; her father, Lars, an excellent cook who loves her, her mother, Cynthia, a sommalier, who abandons her and Lars. Her aunt and uncle, who raise her as their own. We meet a high school boy who yearns for her and a cousin who has no time for her and a cast of many more. Eva, and food, are the main characters in the quirky book that made me laugh aloud and made me sigh.

I must admit, there were a few times I almost put “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” down, but, instead, I kept turning the pages, for just another piece of this morsel of the great Midwest, for it is the people and the palate of Midwesterners that hold this story together. From lutefisk to church competitions for the best bar cookies, and the modern farm-to-table movement, this book is a moveable feast of family and friends and survival.

Food, more food, and the 1950’s.

What has been on your reading plate lately?

 

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal from here .

Image of “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” from here.

Image of “The Glass Kitchen” from here.

 

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Guess where I’ve been?

Tundra

Need another hint?

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It was heartwarming to spend time with these two youngsters, our grandest of grandchildren, while I was Up North this past week. I was lending a small hand as our son-in-law, Tom, began his recovery from surgery after an already challenging summer from an injury. I wish I could be there, still, but responsibilities on the home front necessitated my homecoming. Hopefully, enough leftovers will make up for my leaving, and some cheerful memories will linger for Kezzie and Ezra.

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The darling dog is Tundra, a Goldendoodle. She is the newest resident of the Up North limb of our family tree. Tundra is very sweet, becoming very big, and learning the rules of the manor – when she isn’t being silly out back, that is.

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The first night I was there, after dinner at Pieology (where I chose and enjoyed a pesto sauced pizza) we stopped at the library to return and check out more books. We left with two bags filled with books (can you imagine how much this warms my heart?) and Keziah showed me around their newly opened library. I was more than impressed by the children’s section, with books at child level, a welcoming atmosphere, and interactive manipulatives that stimulate budding imaginations.

I appreciate and admire communities that value libraries and libraries that have the foresight to evolve with changing times – daring to keeping libraries relevant and friendly places for young people while maintaining the community service of lending out books.

Speaking of books, I would like to recommend one to those of you who enjoying cooking with children. The Forest Feast for Kids is by Erin Gleeson*. Actually, I would like to recommend it to all of you. It is a fun, well illustrated, photographed, and detailed book full of vegetarian recipes for children to prepare. We gave it to Keziah for her birthday and were pleased to learn that 61qJKe+MLDL._SX366_BO1,204,203,200_she has been enjoying it. She pulled it out on the last day I was there. We snuggled and explored the book together, talking about the different recipes, like melon cake (watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew), cut and stacked to make a three-layered “cake” with yogurt in the middle. We discussed what we could make for lunch. While we were missing one or two ingredients for most of the recipes, the cookbook inspired and led us to ideas of our own of what else we could make with the ingredients at hand. Kezzie decided to make “cracker sandwiches” – and here she is with her creation.

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Earlier on the same day, Ezra was intently “forking” peanut butter cookie dough. He proved to be a very good sous chef.

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I always find it fun to be in the kitchen with children – and these two sweetie pies make food preparation extra special.

I am home, now, and I miss them already, but, it is what it is, and so goes life here on the Cutoff.

*Erin Gleeson is also the author of The Forest Floor, her earlier cookbook.

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Roadside stands, farmers markets, seasonal enterprises – they are the heart and soul of summer in the Midwest – and probably in your neck of the  woods as well.

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I didn’t buy the Speciality Basil Bouquet (top photo), but, I couldn’t resist taking a picture. The arrangements look, and smell, of summer. I grow my own basil along with thyme, oregano, and sage in a whiskey barrel on our deck. I love to step outside and snip fresh herbs for our dinner, and I love slipping herbs into bouquets – or just in a jar of water for color and ease on my countertop.

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The bouquet of zinnias, above was from The Farm, a roadside market not far from our house. They grow their produce on two farms nearby and have a large plot in back of the barn/store where they grow flowers that they sell from the stand. The bouquets are picked and arranged each day and last for most of a week. This bouquet has strawflowers and Billy Buttons, which should also dry well for Fall arrangements.

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Last week, onions, new potatoes, zucchini and string beans were available. One glance and I knew what i would be making for dinner that night and leftovers thereafter – Greek string beans and potatoes! I used some freshly picked mint leaves from another pot on the deck and it was, I must confess, unabashedly, THE BEST Briami  I have ever made!

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Sweet corn is abundant now. I prefer to get corn from Farmers Markets and stands, where I know they are as locally grown and as fresh as possible, but, there are also berries, and fruit, much of which is coming in from Michigan. These yellow plums are quite sweet and juicy.

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What are seasonal delights are you enjoying now?

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We had been married for a year or two. Like many newlyweds, we were on a tight budget, we both liked to eat, and we came from families of good cooks – and no written recipes. Oh, I had, several cookbooks – still have, an early 1970’s edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It is the one with the checked red and white cover, little tabs on the side for meat, vegetables, soups, etc. Most of the tabs have worn off and a few of the pages are torn or splattered with ingredients. I have a newer version, but, I tend to reach for the well-worn edition, mostly because the back inside cover has quick conversions and my favorites are so used that they just seem to tumble out right when I need them.

This, however, is not a post about cookbooks. It is about my journey in making potato soup, which was one of those comfort foods that my groom loved and for which there was no recipe. Tom’s mother made it, as did her mother before her, and his great-aunt, Ethel. It comes from their family’s kitchen on the old homestead in Ohio. The potatoes were harvested from the kitchen garden behind the barn. The milk would have come from the cow in the barn and the eggs came from the chicken coop just a few steps from the barn. The bacon was from a butchered hog, smoked and cured and oh-so-good.

Potato soup is comfort food. It is inexpensive and something many cultures share, with variations in seasonings and ingredients, but with the common use of potatoes.

In those early years, having had the soup only once, maybe twice, and with no idea whatsoever how to make it, I thought I would give it a try. Tom thought he could guide me through it – and he did.  It is amazing what we can remember from those moments of our youth when we had the opportunities to observe. Color. Texture. Aroma. All part and parcel of our what and how we ate.

Back then, I bought probably more potatoes than needed and a pound of Oscar Meyer bacon. We peeled the potatoes and cubed them into bite sized chunks, then set them to boil with water. I fried up the bacon, cooled enough to handle, and crumbled it into bite-sized pieces that were tossed into the bubbling pot.

When the spuds were tender, Tom said to add milk. This was in the days where we used whole milk. Skim was for when you were sick. I knew enough to not let the milk boil.

All pretty easy so far, don’t you agree?

The “iffy” part was making what Tom called egg curdles, which didn’t sound very appetizing to me then, nor does it today. I call them dumplings.

Cracked an egg into a bowl and scramble. That part really went well. It was when I needed to add the flour that things, shall we say, grew tense. Tom had no idea and I had no frame of reference. We worked together with me adding flour a tablespoon at a time until it looked like Tom thought it should look. I made dough balls and dropped them into the hot milk.

TADA!

It turned out pretty good, though the curdles/dumplings were a bit too big. Practice makes perfect, and so, slowly but surely,  this comforting concoction has gotten better and better over the years.

It was particularly good on Saturday night.

So here, dear reader, is the basic recipe, which some of you asked for. My sister-in-law added minced onions. I think she sautéed them first. Leeks or shallot would also enhance the flavor. I don’t add salt, bacon takes care of that, but, I do add freshly ground pepper. This is based on the approximations that I used the other night. It made enough for several hearty servings the first night and leftovers, which mellow the flavors and taste even better

Tom and Penny’s Potato Soup

Cooked bacon broken into bite-sized pieces

4 large baking potatoes, washed, peeled, and cubed into bite sized pieces

Enough water to cover potatoes in pan

Boil until the potatoes are fork-tender

Dumplings

Add enough milk to be able to add dumplings and simmer until hot

2 eggs, beaten, in medium-sized bowl

Add about one cup of flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until dough forms a soft ball and pulls away from sides of the bowl

Drop by small spoonfuls into soup until done.  (only a few minutes)

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Jesús, second part

IMG_4866Remember my encounter with Jesús? It was while I was on my quest to find cajetas (dulce de leche)? He was so helpful to me, taking me down aisles, looking with me, checking his scanner –  and then finding a recipe for this caramel sauce and printing it out. Jesús will remain my Christmas story of 2015.

When he found me in the grocery store and gave me a recipe for making cajetas, which he said was just how his grandmother made it, I told him that if I made the cookies, I would bring him some.

The days rushed by before I did finally find the dulce de leche at one of the larger chain stores, and I did make the Alfajores, which turned out to be quite delectable.

After the little shortbread cookies cooled, I spread the dulce de leche on them, sandwiching its sweet goodness inside. I dusted them with powdered sugar, and put them in tins and on plates, for house gifts and for our little house on the Cutoff. I made sure to set aside some for Jesús, with plans to take them to him on Wednesday: a day when I planned several stops after an early morning appointment.

I made it to the Center for Health in record time, parked my car, and went in for a quick nurse visit. Once done, I walked the inside perimeter of the hospital, which is a pleasant way to get in my “steps. I  saw an acquaintance with whom I chatted a bit. All-in-all, this took about 40 minutes.

Just as I stepped out the main door, the heavens opened and a deluge of rain poured down. I hurried to my car, only to find I could not get into the driver’s side. As this was a medical center, he or she could be 20 minutes, or three hours. Fortunately, I was able to open the door on the passenger side. I was at least out of the wind and rain – and I did have a book to read.

Unfortunately, the other driver did not return to his car for an hour and a half.

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Off I went, 90+ minutes of my day gone, two days before Christmas. I was cold, damp (actually, wet), annoyed and frustrated. I did have those Frostian “miles to go”, some holiday related errands, and a stop at the grocery store. Once inside, pushing a shopping cart, choosing some vegetables and fruit, and looking about, I asked a stock boy if Jesús was working. He was, and the young man offered to find him.

A few minutes later, there he was, coming around the bend. As soon as he saw me, a smile broke out on his face. “Are you the Jesús who helped me last week?” He was. Hidden, under my purse, a bag of noodles and a loaf of bread was the small cookie tin of Alfajores.   Jesús smile grew as I pulled the tin out from undercover and handed it to him. My own angry, annoyed heart at being hemmed in melted as Jesús opened the tin, thanked me profusely, and we both went on our way.

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PS The other stock boy, having seen the tin of cookies, asked me several times if I needed any help.🙂

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Dawn is breaking here, tossing a heavy blanket of clouds overhead. The early fog is lifting and there are shadowy shapes of deer gliding across the neighboring lot of nothingness. They are quietly grazing for food, reminders of all that is yet to be had.

The house is still. Not a creature is stirring, not even a grandchild, affording me these few private moments to sip my cup of piping hot tea and to reflect on Christmastide here along the Cutoff.

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The house has been full of goodness, excitement and love, though our Ezra was very much under-the-weather on Christmas Eve. He perked up and was feeling better come Christmas Day, and even entertained us with some lively renditions on the piano.

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Our Kezzie has been my “cook fantastic”, eagerly helping us frost Ethel cookies and making Pinch Cake.

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Our family has gathered around the Christmas tree, exchanged gifts, and dined  around our sturdy table, an abundance of food and sweets upon it, many times. It has reminded me, once again, of how fortunate we are in what we have and of the joy of this season.

December has not been without some challenges, nor have I spent each hour rejoicing, but, for now, in the still of the early hours, I will bask for a bit in the hopes and cheers of Christmas.

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I have missed you, dear readers, and am sorry for not writing for a spell, and I hope your days have been good, and your evenings restful. I will write again soon, but, for now, I need to find the rest of my flock of sheep.

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