My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of.  There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If  you want to.

As a rule, I don’t want to.

This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?

Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.

So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.

So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.

There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.

OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.

But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.

In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic.  It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.

The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)

Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.

I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.

My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.

Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.

“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.

As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)

The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.

The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.

Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?

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My Daughter is Unimpressed with the Barefoot Contessa.

I have a dear friend who used to work with me in a bookstore; our shared passion for eating and for reading cookbooks brought us together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly via Facebook of course, and a few times recently she’s posted things about Ina Garten.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I heard about Ina Garten, though no one used her name in that conversation. I was working in a shop that sold mostly rare and out of print books, and so I had become pretty well-versed in that kind of thing. One of our specialties was cookbooks. As such, I was thrown, and upset that I was thrown, when someone came in asking for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “The what?” I asked. “There’s a cookbook to do with The Barefoot Contessa?” How had I, a bit of a film buff and a cookbook person, never known that there was such a thing? It took a while before I realized that the person was looking for a cookbook that had nothing whatsoever to do with either Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner. Which was a pity: I would buy that book, I said to the would-be customer. The would-be customer had no idea what I was talking about. (Clearly, we were not going to be soulmates.) Furthermore, it turned out this was a new book the person was looking for: by definition, something I wouldn’t be obligated to have in the shop. I dismissed the whole thing pretty much out of hand: anyone who came into our shop looking for a brand new book was basically written off as an idiot. I was especially disgusted once I realized what the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook really was.

The way I felt about it: Not My Scene. Cookbooks with Pretty Pictures: Not My Scene. Cookbooks Written by the Rich Wives of Rich Yale Professors: Not My Scene.

So I stopped thinking about it.

Of course, in the decades since the 1990s, Ina Garten has sort of taken over the food world, or, at least, she’s one of the people who dominates it. People I like are obsessed with her. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (one of my favorite TV characters in recent memory) is obsessed with her. In the back of my mind, for a while now, I’ve been thinking, “I guess I should read one of these books.”

So today, the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I are at the public library and there’s a copy of Cooking for Jeffrey (the aforementioned Yale professor, Jeffrey Garten). “Oh, what the hell,” I said to myself, adding it to my pile.

I checked out the book. The lady at the circulation desk, Krista, I think is her name, said, “I think you’ll find this not too interesting. Stuff you either already do or stuff you already COULD do, if you wanted to, which you don’t, if you’re not doing it already. But the pictures are pretty.” “I don’t like cookbooks for their pictures,” I said. “I know,” she said. “But,” I added, “I’ve never read Ina Garten and here it is, so, I’m taking it home.” “Good luck,” Krista said. And we were on our way.

While my daughter and I ate lunch, I flipped through the book. There is not much to it. It’s $35, not cheap, and has alarmingly few recipes, but the photos are indeed gorgeous. They must be the reason this book costs $35, because there is really, seriously, not a lot of actual content here. My daughter ate her sandwich (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with pickle relish and mayonnaise) and I ate mine (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with mayo and sliced fresh figs), and we contemplated the book.

I said nothing as I turned the pages, at first, and then I sighed. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “But, I mean, who lives like this? Look at these pictures!”

“Maybe that’s how people feel about the Hausfrau,” my daughter said to me. I gave her a look and thought, “ouch.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said, eating more of my sandwich. It was then that I landed at Ina’s lentil and kielbasa salad, which is, I swear to god, nothing but a highflalutin’ variant of the lentil and chicken salads I’ve been serving my family for the last few days (with great success). Last night I made one, in fact, and I served it on a bed of pea shoots, with semolina bread and brie on the side. Now I want to kill myself for having done something so foofy. (Though it was a really good dinner, especially for a hot summer night.)

A few pages later I landed on a recipe that’s, again, basically something I make all winter long: roast chicken with radishes. “Jesus Christ,” I said, staring at the page. And the next recipe was a brisket. “That looks just like when you make brisket,” my daughter pointed out.

I was, by this point, polishing off my sandwich, and sagging slightly in my chair.

I kept flipping pages.

“I didn’t know that’s how you spell “couscous”, ” my daughter told me. “I thought it was “kooskoos” — with a K.”

“No, that’s how you spell it,” I told her. “Look, kasha varnishes. I used to make those, but I never do anymore. Why do I never make them, they’re good.”

Kept turning pages.

“How come you don’t have a cookbook like this?” my daughter asked me. “Your food looks like this. You’re probably even a better cook than that lady.” I laughed. “I don’t think I’m a better cook than Ina Garten,” I said, “but it’s nice of you to say.”

“Well, your food looks just like all of this food, I don’t see why you can’t have a big fancy cookbook.”

“It helps to be a big fancy well-connected person,” I said to her. I said, “Ina Garten’s not like me at all.” A quick skim of the Wikipedia bio confirms this. My god, the woman’s never even seen The Barefoot Contessa.

We discussed the possibility that we might try to make the chocolate creme brulee. “Of course, I don’t have little creme brulee dishes,” I pointed out.

“No one has little creme brulee dishes,” my daughter said.

“Ina Garten does,” I said.

Then I went into the kitchen and made brownies from a recipe by Ann Hodgman. Much more my speed.

A Late Dinner Alone: or, It Was Nine O’Clock and I Had to Do Something

My husband and child went to New Hampshire for a night this weekend. As such, I had most of a day, all of a night, and most of the next day to myself. This meant, naturally, that my usual framework for Life As I Know It went entirely down the toilet for about 40 hours. Which is fine — some of it was enjoyable, even. But one thing that definitely could have been handled better was the mealtime organization. Which is to say, there was none.
And it’s fine: if the only person who’s expecting anything is yourself, then you can raise or lower your standards as you see fit, right?
Much of my dietary intake on Saturday involved eating things that had been left behind in the fridge by the people who would normally eat them. For example: pizza. I ate the leftover pizza for lunch. Unfortunately, I ate lunch around 3 p.m., with the totally predictable result that at our normal dinnertime, I was utterly not hungry. So at six o’clock, when I’d normally be cooking, I was folding laundry and watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It got to be seven o’clock: I’d put away the laundry and was lying on the bed watching more Orange is the New Black, thinking, “Should I cook dinner? Well, I’m really not hungry, and why should I eat if I’m not hungry?”

Time went on. Another episode of Orange is the New Black. It got to be about ten to nine and I realized, with a bang, that if I didn’t eat something then what would happen would be, I’d go to sleep and wake up at three a.m. ravenously hungry, and that would totally suck.

Furthermore, if I kept watching Orange is the New Black, I was not going to sleep well, because inevitably each episode has some image or plot development that I find sufficiently upsetting that it’s just not healthy bedtime viewing for me.

So it was that at five to 9, I was in the kitchen filling a pot with water and thinking, “I’m gonna come up with a pasta sauce that might involve some chopping but will not involve actually cooking anything except the pasta.” There are lots of ways to handle this challenge, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the matter over the years. The kind of raw pasta sauce that can be thrown together quickly is a specialty of mine. I am expert in the field of Cannellini Beans and Tuna and Parsley and All Variants; I have spent years doing research into Uncooked Tomato Sauces. The Hausfrau has long advocated for the Raw Egg and Cheese sauce, which goes very unappreciated by most Americans, as far as I can tell; and there is a world of joy to be found in pesto sauces, which are great, but you have to have the ingredients on hand to make them. This evening, I did not. (Furthermore, making a pesto sauce would have compromised my rule, that moment, of “don’t dirty anything more than a knife and cutting board.” Making pesto is a snap, but you do have to have the basil ready, the nuts, etc. etc. — I had none of these things on hand — and even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with washing the food processor. However, in the summer it is totally sensible to make big batches of pesto and keep it on hand precisely so you can throw together a good dinner out of pretty much nothing.)

I opened the fridge and the first thing that jumped out at me was the bowl of fresh figs. “I am the only one who likes figs,” I reminded myself. “What goes with figs? Goat cheese. Do I have any goat cheese?” The answer was, “Yes, I have half a log of goat cheese that actually needs to be used up because if I don’t it’ll get that weird yeasty smell and be inedible and gross and I’ll be really pissed off that I wasted two ounces of goat cheese.”

The figs were sliced on the cutting board. I boiled half a pound of pasta and dumped it in a big bowl. I drizzled on some olive oil, put the figs and cheese on top, and then tossed it. The goat cheese melted, the figs warmed up, and, because I was feeling madcap, I grated some Pecorino cheese on the whole thing. Then I sat down and watched an episode of 30 Rock, which I highly recommend as an antidote to distressingly grim episodes of pretty much anything.

My family came home on Sunday around 5.30 in the evening, just in time to walk in the door and have the first topic of conversation be, “What’s for dinner?” I was glad to see them, but I have to admit, I was not too excited to cook for them. I admit, though: it was good to be back on schedule. “I didn’t eat dinner until about 9.15 last night,” I told them. “And then I was up until midnight.”

“You can’t sleep well if you eat dinner at nine o’clock,” my husband chided me.

“But I wasn’t hungry at all at dinnertime,” I said.

‘That’s probably ’cause you ate lunch at four o’clock, didn’t you?”

“It was three o’clock,” I said smugly.

Last night we ate dinner at 7.15, my daughter was asleep by 9.15, and my husband and I were out cold by ten. Today is my daughter’s last day of third grade: the beginning of summer vacation. I’ve got a long summer ahead of me during which I will have to devise breakfasts and lunches and dinners and Special Picnics and 4th of July Treats and things to bring to potlucks.

Oh my god.

I don’t want to cook dinner.

I didn’t want to cook dinner last night, either.

On the other hand, I have to cook dinner. We need to eat.

Last night, when I didn’t want to cook dinner, I thought very carefully about the contents of the fridge, and arrived at the conclusion that I had two options.

One was, Take the leftover steak and do something ludicrously clever and thoughtful with it. (We’re talking about six ounces of meat here, enough that, had I been feeling clever and thoughtful, I could have come up with something clever and thoughtful and delicious to boot.)

The second, more likely, move would be to take the steak and the various other things I had lying about and put them on nachos. This struck me as a much better idea. It would allow me to use up the last of the nacho cheese goop I made last week. This was a sauce made with cheese, evaporated milk, and a little cornstarch. It melted nicely on nachos and was, I thought, a nice change of pace from the usual grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack, though I admit my husband and child were somewhat underwhelmed by it.

Still: I had all these things that would go well on nachos, and I had that cheese sauce sitting around in a little congealed block in the fridge, and I thought, “Yes. Nachos.” I even put a tiny bit of effort into it: I sauteed the minced red pepper and the minced onion before I put them on the nachos. At my husband’s request, I did not put the sliced steak directly on the nachos, but left them to be served on the side. I laid out the chips, and put on the toppings, and I put the pan in the oven with a certain amount of satisfaction, thinking, “This didn’t take much effort and it should be reasonably good, even if we’re running low on sour cream.”

Well, things were not as I expected. The sauce — which, I now realize, I should have re-melted before putting it on the nachos (I had simply sliced up the brick of congealed sauce, optimistically telling myself it would melt back into happy goo in the oven) — had sat in its little Lego-brick-size congealed state on the chips. Sometimes the top of the Cheese Legos had browned a little, sometimes not. But nothing was gooey at all.

I pulled the tray out of the oven and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Which my family has come to learn is the sign of a really good time coming their way, if you know what I mean. “I’m sure it’s fine,” my husband said doggedly.

We all ate, but I can’t say it was one of my finest moments. Everyone had the good sense to not complain. Everyone knows that when Mama is pissed about dinner, it’s best to keep quiet.

I cleaned up the dinner dishes, ate a granola bar, and sighed.

Come the next day, I vowed I would not let this happen again. “I’m thinking I’ll make some barbecue chicken or something,” I said to my family in the morning. Everyone thought that sounded fine.

So today, in spite of my total lack of interest in doing it, I put a little thought and effort into making dinner. I didn’t want to. I just knew I had to. I cannot bear, personally, to eat two depressingly crappy meals two evenings in a row. I’m a hausfrau, for god’s sake: this is part of my job. If I don’t do it well, what the hell am I doing, exactly? It’s one thing if it happens once in a while, if once in a while dinner really sucks — I know it’s inevitable. There are, in every household, nights where things go hideously wrong and you really have no choice but to say “Uncle” and order a pizza, fast. And I know that not every evening is a showstopper — it’s not that; I’m a reasonable person — but it just bums me out so much when dinner sucks. I’m sure no one else enjoys it either, but  hate it, too. want to eat a decent meal at the end of the day. For breakfast I usually eat cold cereal. Some days, I don’t get lunch at all, and if I do eat lunch it’s almost always some random leftovers scavenged from the fridge. So dinner, if dinner is not good then Mama is not happy.

So today — as I was saying — I put a little thought and effort into it. I bought two chicken breasts and I took them home and set them up to braise in a fake BBQ sauce. Longtime readers have probably heard me talk about this before. I swear it’s nothing fancy. Saute the chicken in a little olive oil to get it started, and then assemble the sauce straight in the pan, and let it cook, slow, for a couple hours.  The good thing about this method of cooking is it gives you a shitload of leeway: it’s an accommodating technique. Today, I threw into the pot a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of onion powder. Because, ok, I was  too fucking lazy to mince actual garlic and actual onion: sue me. But it put me on the right path. The stuff in the pot smelled good and I found it encouraging, motivational: I could do this.
I veered back toward the traditional moves and poured into the pot some apple cider vinegar, about two tablespoons of brown sugar, maybe three tablespoons of ketchup ketchup, two tablespoons of French’s mustard, and a tablespoons of chili powder. I stirred this all around to make sure none of the powdered stuff just settled in lumps at the bottom of the pot — that would suck — and when things looked pleasantly sludgy and smelled good, I poured in maybe half a cup of water from the kettle. Normally I would turn on the oven and let this cook in there for a few hours. But it’s a hot day, and I knew I didn’t want this to be an all-day production. I wanted the chicken to remain intact. (Cook it for a very, very long time, it tends to start to break up, and become pulled chicken, which is great, but not what I wanted specifically tonight.) I kept it on the stove on a low flame for about two hours: it smelled great.

By this point I’d totally gotten with the program and assembled a rice and lentil salad, with a yogurt dressing. This involved boiling rice as for pasta, adding some leftover lentils I had in the fridge to the pot (because, I’ll admit it, they were slightly undercooked the first time around). I drained all the rice and lentils into a colander, let them cool spread out on a baking tray, and then made a dressing out of yogurt and the last two tablespoons of sour cream I had in the house. (Remind me to buy more sour cream tomorrow.) The dressing was doctored up with fresh garlic (see, I’m not ALL lazy — I was conserving my energy for the rice and lentil salad) and and some Penzey’s spice mix I can no longer recall. I think it might have been the Turkish spice mix. Whatever it was, it worked. When the rice and lentils were cooled I combined them with the dressing and settled the bowl in the fridge. So all I had to do, to have a respectable meal, would be to put together a little green salad really fast. Dinner might not be impressive, it might not be the best thing we ever ate, but at least I could be confident it would not be as solidly, resolutely depressing as the meal we ate last night.

*************

8.30 p.m. We have eaten dinner. The countertops have been wiped down, the coffee for the morning is set up, the dishwasher is running (which is a damned good thing because otherwise we will not be able to eat anything good tomorrow morning, what with every piece of silverware we own being in there).
The verdict on dinner tonight?
“This is really good. The sauce from the chicken is really good on the rice salad and the lettuce too.”
“I really like the chicken and the rice and lentil salad. Can you pack me some of this in a thermos to take to school for lunch tomorrow?”

Victory was mine tonight, but now the problem remains: what to make for dinner tomorrow? I’ve got about three cups of cooked lentils in the fridge. Perhaps a salad with the leftover chicken, chopped up and served over lettuce with some decadent salad dressing, some chopped scallions? I can do this. 

This Book is a Classic, Even If It Sucks: Love and Knishes, by Sara Kasdan

Some years back I bought a box of postcards that Penguin published — it was a fabulous collection of the covers of Penguin-published cookbooks from decades back. I have sent cards from this deck to many people, over time, and about half the recipients have asked me, “Where’d you get these postcards?” Well: This is the collection. Ignore the dim-witted Amazon reviews that talk about how the cards aren’t colorful enough. These images are from books published mostly during wartime or just post-WWII in England: to say that having fancy bright colors on book covers wasn’t a priority is a vast understatement. Having newly printed books at all would have been something of a miracle, and anyone who comments on how the colors aren’t bright enough is a pinhead and a schmuck and an insensitive lout.

But: moving on. Of the hundred books represented in this collection of postcards, about twenty, thirty of them are books I can remember having held in my hands. Maybe five of them are books I own or have owned; and the rest are titles that I’ve never seen in real life. One of them, a Jewish cookbook called Love and Knishes, looked like it’d be right up my alley, but strangely I never put any effort into finding a copy. I sent the postcard to a friend, she put it on her fridge, and I pretty much never thought about it again.

Recently I was in a vintage housewares store downtown. The owner of the store greeted me warmly, as she always does, and said, “I just got in a lot of books, you should poke around, there’s some cookbooks.” So I scanned the shelves. There were maybe a hundred books, mostly of dubious value in terms of content, some notable for the publisher’s cloth decorated bindings. I am, personally, a sucker for a really good cloth decorated binding, but I don’t permit myself these luxuries anymore: shelf space is too limited here at the house. However, way over to one side of the shelving there was, indeed, a small cluster of cookbooks. Mostly, it was stuff that would be a bit of a hard sell: grim massive general cookbooks that everyone’s grandmother had around, not pretty enough, not weird enough to tempt me — ok, I admit it, they’re fascinating and fun, but I don’t buy these often anymore, because I’ve been around, and I know, for me, they’re not pretty enough and not weird enough — but there were also a few oddball specialty items. One was Betty Wason’s book on German cooking, which is kind of a classic, and not always easy to find. A nice clean hardcover in a handsome dust jacket? Mine. And then I noticed Love and Knishes. “Well I’ll be damned,” I said out loud.

I pulled the book from the shelf. Nice; clean; not a first edition, but a solid hardcover copy in a really nice dust jacket. I opened the book. Tucked inside was a clipping from the cooking section of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, 1967.  I asked Carol, the shop owner, how much she wanted for the books; she told me; I said, “Sold.”

I started to read Love and Knishes while I waited for my bus back home. From the moment I started reading, I knew I’d made a good decision. The book is one of those in-the-vernacular pieces of work. The recipes are given in straightforward English with straightforward measurements and so on, but the text that makes up the real body of the work is your old bubbe talking to you about how cooking is supposed to be, how it was, and how it will be if you would just shut up and listen.

So, ok, this is not a cookbook for everybody. I will grant that. If you are looking for recipes for grits with shrimp, for example, this is not your book. And if you are not entertained by the old American-Jewish mode of speech — even as it was brought into American pop culture, I mean — this is not for you. By which I mean, it helps probably to be a fan of the Marx Brothers, the old Dick Van Dyke Show, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and early Woody Allen movies. (I can understand if you can’t stomach the Woody Allen. Let’s move on.) It’s a book that will be enjoyed by people who laugh at (and with) Hyman Kaplan.

If you are a fan of those things, in addition to being a fan of cookbooks, on the other hand, you are likely to be immediately charmed by Love and Knishes. Here is the introductory paragraph to Chapter 1, entitled “You Should Live So Long!”

One day it comes to me the idea to write a Jewish cookbook. Why? Who can say? Thousands of cooks there are with good Jewish backgrounds. They don’t need to cook from a book; they can cook from their heads. So why should I write a book? On the other hand, why not? There are plenty of cooks whose background is still ahead of them. They remember the wonderful food that mama and grandmama made and they want to make it, too. And if they don’t remember, so their husbands do, and this i even worse. Good food is to eat, not just to remember. 

Also a reason: I am the type person who likes to study human nature. 

I’m telling you: it’s like if The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N were a cookbook. Some of my readers will run out to Google Hyman Kaplan, that’s fine, or you can click on the link (apparently it’s in print, which is some kind of miracle), but my mother will just nod her head and go, “okay, I get you now.”

There is a ton of stuff in here that I would like to try my hand at (there’s a recipe for bagels that looks plausible; also, yeast-risen hamantaschen, like I need to start mucking around with new hamantaschen recipes, for god’s sake; and my husband has already protested this, saying, “But you’ve got hamantaschen DOWN! Why mess with it anymore?”). But mostly I’ve been enjoying this book for the author’s voice; sure, it’s just schtick, but it’s well-done. I love this:
So this is the story how I lived to get an electric stove. Such a stove! Three ovens. For a while I couldn’t figure out why three ovens, then it comes to me clear. The Automatic-Automatic Co. is not anti-Semitic. They’ve got an oven for milchiks (dairy dishes), an oven for flaishiks (meats), and the third? Naturally, that is for trefe (non-kosher). After all, they have gentile customers, too.” 

This is just comedy gold, but it’s also, like, totally valid anthropological observation from Mrs. Kasdan’s perspective (not sure what Levi-Strauss would say but I don’t care much, either, so, pheh*):

The story of how our narrator/teacher comes to have her first electric stove — and it’s a long story — is brilliant, I could read it three times in a row (and have). The detail in it is phenomenal, and she even writes the kind of thing that — as my husband said — was probably true not just in her house but in countless houses when the ladies of the houses got their first electric stoves: “Because it’s an old habit, I’m keeping on the stove a box of matches.” I read this to my husband, who observed, “That sounds like something my grandmother would do.” It does, too. I remember my husband’s grandmother and it’s true she was the furthest thing I can think of from a Jewish grandmother, but she would totally have kept a box of matches on the back of her electric stove, because, you know, you’re supposed to keep a box of matches on the back of the stove.

I’ve read this book cover to cover, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve yet to cook out of it, but I certainly plan to. If even one recipe in it is worth making, then I declare it an A+ Jewish cookbook classic; if nothing I make is worth doing a second time, it’ll still be a pleasure to read and re-read, and it will be a classic in the vein of Peg Bracken — maybe not a book to cook out of, but still a book to love. Love and Knishes is a book I wish I’d read years ago. Think of all the times I could have re-read it by now, if I’d known. So, now I know.

pheh is how Mrs. Kasdan spells the word known to me my whole life as “feh.” They both work. I’m adopting Mrs. K’s spelling for the purposes of this essay, out of respect.

 

The Tenant Brought Us Eggs.

We have a new tenant in one of our apartments, a young woman from Vermont. Her folks still live up there, and after a recent visit to see them she came back to town and brought with her a gift for us, her new landlords: a half dozen eggs from her parents’ flock of chickens.

This is so unbearably adorable.

But hey, we like eggs as much as the next person, so today I hard-cooked them all and this evening I peeled two to add to the noodle salad we’ll be having for dinner. (Incidentally: we cannot make any pasta salad without saying to each other, at least once, “Good times; noodle salad,” despite the fact that none of us have seen “As Good As It Gets” in over a decade.)

I have read about how peeling fresh eggs is difficult, and how you want your eggs for hard-cooking to be on the older side of things.

I should have paid attention to the people who wrote about this, because I completely mangled these lovely eggs trying to peel them. My only consolation is that they were all going to get chopped up and thrown into a noodle salad, so it didn’t really matter how they looked. “It’s a damned good thing I’m not making devilled eggs,” I muttered to my daughter, who said, “I like devilled eggs.” “Everyone likes devilled eggs,” I said snappishly, “but that’s not the point here.”

I completed assembling the salad and stuck it in the fridge. My husband came home and I told him my story about peeling the eggs. “Eggs last a long, long time,” he said, “but they definitely lose something. A really fresh egg is a thing of beauty. The yolks are perky and bright… but old eggs…. they just….. the yolks…” He stood in the kitchen and sort of waved his hand in the air, searching for the mot juste.

“The yolks get moribund,” I said.

“YES,” he said. “Moribund. Just the word. Did you make that up?”

“The word ‘moribund’?” I asked, surprised. “No, it’s already out there.”

“Right but — in terms of yolks?”

“No, I can’t say as I can remember anyone else applying the word “moribund” to egg yolks,” I said.

A Google search for — with quotations — “moribund yolks” turns up nothing. No hits. Without quotation marks, you get a lot of hits for articles and things about chicken health issues. (No surprise there.)

Anyhow, the next time you’re seeking a description for some particularly old eggs you’re eating, there it is. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

An Unorthodox Egg Cream

A woman I’ve never met, to whom I’m connected on Facebook, posted a thing about egg creams a couple weeks ago. Her reading audience read the post and went, “Huh?” It was around ten o’clock in the evening my time, and I was getting ready for bed, but when I read her post (it was only about 7 p.m., her time, out in California), I thought, “ok, I gotta go make an egg cream.”

Fortunately for everyone concerned, we had Fox’s U-Bet, milk, and plain seltzer on hand. I ran down to the kitchen, made an egg cream, guzzled it down, burped heroically, and went back upstairs to fall into bed.

A few days ago, after school one very hot day, I said to my daughter “how would you like an egg cream?” and she said, “YESSSSSS” so we hustled home and I used up the last of the Fox’s U-Bet to make two little egg creams, which we shared. (I managed to eke the most I could out of the syrup bottle by pouring milk into the syrup bottle, and shaking it like crazy; the pre-mixed chocolate milk went into the glasses, and the egg creams were, I have to say, particularly good.)

Today, it hit 95° outside, and the walk home from school was — well, not brutal, because we’re only talking about five blocks or so, but: it was hot. My child’s face was bright pink. I said, “I would offer you an egg cream but we’re out of syrup, I haven’t bought more yet. BUT.” I turned and looked at her. “WHAT IF,” I said. “What?” she asked tentatively.
“I know this will sound weird, but: WHAT IF we used Ovaltine to make egg creams with?”
My daughter’s eyes got very big and she said, “WE MUST DO THIS.”
“It could be gross,” I said.
“It could be delicious,” she said.

So we got home. I took out the recycling, waiting by the door, while my daughter ran inside, washed her hands, and got out the jar of Ovaltine (Rich Chocolate Flavor). I came inside, washed my hands (hard, fast rule: you always wash your hands after taking out trash or recycling), and assembled the drinks. We stood silently next to each other while we watched the foam develop and crest and calm down at the rims of the two glasses. “It could be gross,” I reminded her.
“It won’t be gross,” she said. She shoved a straw into her glass, and started to drink. I took a sip of mine (no straw).

“You know,” I said, “this is surprisingly not so gross.” My daughter stopped drinking to gasp, “I think it’s better than the syrup kind.”
“Now, listen,” I said, “I won’t have that kind of talk in my house, that’s blasphemy.” I finished my drink. I stood there by the sink for a moment or two — neither of us had even bothered to sit down to sample these heretical egg creams — and waited for the burp. It came, right on time. My daughter finished her drink more slowly and burped a little burp. “I had a nose burp,” she told me.

We put our glasses in the sink. A lesson has been learned. An Ovaltine egg cream is probably not to everyone’s liking, but, on the other hand, in this day and age, almost no one thinks an egg cream is a good idea to begin with. So, fine. If you’ve not got any Fox’s U-Bet around, but you do have Ovaltine, mix up your egg cream with a clear conscience. Not only will you be downing a refreshing beverage but you will be getting a few good synthetic vitamins and minerals in the bargain. What’s not to love?

It’s a Good Thing We Live Near Romeo’s: The Museum of Tsuris Has Opened a New Wing

My daughter’s piano teacher, who we adore, holds a party at the end of every school year. She invites all her students to her adorable house, which is in a perfectly civilized town yet has a backyard that’s half brick patio (civilized) and half wild, wild woods (totally uncivilized). All the kids play a little mini-recital in her living room and then they eat party food and run around like maniacs. Sometimes the kids play Music Bingo. Ok, most of the kids play Music Bingo, and my kid is the one who runs around the woods like a maniac, because she thinks it’s awesome that Miss L. has woods in her backyard. We have a lot of things, where we live, but one thing we don’t have is a backyard, and certainly not a backyard that’s half-woods. So.

The deal with the party food is that Miss L. provides much of it herself — which I view as heroic (she’s got as many as twenty little student/fiends coming to these parties, bear in mind) — but the families are invited to bring things to eat as well. Some families bring snacky stuff, like chips and dips, but others bring treats like cookies or cupcakes. In my case, I always feel I should bring some wonderful cooky. It seems to me that last year I brought whoopie pies, and I had to stand guard over the tray to assure that each child only took one each, because there were only a couple dozen of them, and I wanted to have it so that each kid who wanted one could have one. One little girl took four, as I recall, and I was disgusted. But whatever. She’s her parents’ problem, really, not mine (thank God).

I did not put a whole lot of planning into this year’s effort, knowing that I happened to have in the fridge cooky dough, rolled and ready to slice and bake. We had plans for the morning, but I wasn’t worried about it. “I’ll slice and bake early in the afternoon, frost the cookies with something, and we’ll be all set to bring them to the party at three,” I told myself super-optimistically. I had good reason to think I had this beat: By one o’clock I had sliced and baked the cookies (which were nothing fancy, just chocolate and vanilla shortbread cookies) and I let them cool while I contemplated my frosting/decorating options.

I could have done something easy like make a confectioner’s sugar glaze and dumped sprinkles on top of the wet glaze and called it a day. I could have made colored icings, put them into squeeze bottles, and drawn on the cookies. But that would involve mixing things, I said to myself, and icings take time to dry. “Fuck that,” I said, “I’ve only got about 90 minutes here.” I then remembered that I had, in the pantry, bags of mini-marshmallows and a jar of Marshmallow Fluff. “Genius,” I said to myself.

So you may have figured out where this goes, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll take it step by step.

Thinking, “What could be easier than broiling some marshmallows on top of the cookies? It’ll be great! Everyone loves marshmallows.” I took the cooled cookies off the racks and laid them out on a baking tray. Then I put either marshmallows or a blob of Fluff on top of each cooky. I sprinkled colored nonpareils atop each chocolate cooky. These are expensive little things, I want to tell you, and I use them only on very special occasions. I’m not talking about those cheap waxy sprinkles you get at Stop & Shop — which are fine,   don’t get me wrong, they’re what you want on ice cream. No, these nonpareils have to be purchased at baking speciality stores or ordered in from places like King Arthur Flour. I explain all this to demonstrate that I was trying, in my lazy way, to put on the dog. I had the noblest of intentions. Furthermore, I sifted a little sprinkle of cocoa powder onto the marshmallows on the vanilla cookies. So the chocolate cookies had their pretty contrasting topping, and the vanilla cookies had their own special contrasting topping. You could tell that when these cookies had been run under the broiler a bit, they would be a) beautiful and b) little marshmallow cooky heaven blobs. So then, when the trays were ready, I turned on the broiler.

You know where this is going now, right?

I slid the tray under the broiler and set about putting away the supplies I’d just used. Meaning: I put the lid back on the jar of Fluff; I closed the bottle of nonpareils; I closed the cocoa powder tub; and I put the little tea strainer I’d used for the cocoa sifting into the sink. All this took maybe 90 seconds, if that.  I swear to God.

Then I smelled something burning.

I opened the oven and discovered that all of my cookies were on fire.

I wish I could report that I kept a cool head under the circumstances. I will be frank and say, I did not. Instead, I yelled “HELP!” and my husband, who’d been sitting on the couch watching clips on YouTube of Dave Letterman interviewing Salma Hayek, ran over. He grabbed pot holders, pulled the fiery tray of cookies from the oven, and blew out the flames. I came to my senses and turned on the vent fan over the stove. We closed the oven, and I turned off the broiler. It was all over in about three seconds (thank fucking God).

My husband was still standing there holding the cooky tray, looking befuddled and sad — I was busy spewing expletives — when our daughter, who had been playing out front, came running in. “What happened?” she asked.

“My cookies caught fire,” I said. My husband showed her the tray and carried it out the front door to let the last of their sugary smoke waft off into the apartment building courtyard. She followed him. “Can we still eat them?” she asked. I gawped at her idiocy.

“Well,” my husband said, bringing the tray back inside and setting it down on the stove for us all to contemplate. “The Hausfrau has some new material, anyhow.”

“Boy,” I said. I had moved through the stages of grief with remarkable speed. It was true I didn’t have much time for denial, but we had definitely seen anger. There was about a nanosecond of bargaining (who was I kidding, there was no way to salvage these things), and I was, right at that moment, deep in the depression stage.

It was 2.30; we had to be at the party at three. I had to face reality (final stage: acceptance). I would not have homemade cookies to bring to the party; was there anything else, ANYthing else, I could throw together in fifteen minutes? The answer was, miserably, no. Had I had a jar of roasted red peppers, I could have made pimiento cheese and brought it with a bag of pretzels; but I had none (only a raw red pepper, which would take time to roast, let alone cool, peel, and process). “I don’t know what to do,” I said miserably.

“What you do is, you go to Romeo’s and buy cookies and bring them,” said my extremely practical husband, who has always thought I was insane for baking for events like this. I wasn’t actually crying,  and I had not cried, but I felt the way you do after you’ve been crying; I snuffled and blew my nose and said, “Fine.” We piled into the car and before we went to Miss L’s house, we stopped at Romeo’s, where I bought a pound of those little ball-shaped sandwich cookies. Baci de Dama, they’re called. They’re really good. I brought them into the piano teacher’s house with a feeling of defeat, put them on the kitchen table, and sat down to listen to the children play.

At the party, the cooky box emptied out before any other tray of cupcakes or brownies did. One father, who has been to enough of these rodeos that he knows to look to see what I’ve brought, sidled up to me. “What’d you make this time?” he asked me, glancing toward the table. “I had a little disaster,” I said, “so I brought cookies from an Italian bakery.” “Disaster?” he asked. “The cookies all caught fire,” I admitted. His eyes got round, like Baci de Dama cookies. “You got a fire extinguisher?” he asked.

The answer is, We do, and it’s three feet from the stove. I think that the smart thing, though, is for me to remember to never, ever do anything like this unless my husband is at home, because clearly I am not cut out for broiling marshmallows.

My husband explained the cooky disaster. “It was supposed to be like meringues,” he said. “Cookies with a meringue topping.”
“Except that you make meringues in a low oven, slowly,” I said. “There’s no danger involved in making meringues. It’s not like broiling marshmallows at all.”
“Really?” said my husband. “Really,” I told him huffily. The other father’s eyes moved from me to my husband, watching us nervously.
“Maybe you should stick to meringue,” my husband said generously. “I think I will,” I said. “I’m not cut out for broiling marshmallows.”

The Museum of Tsuris has a new wing. I’m painting the walls with this color, which I think will be a nice contrast to this, which I’ll use on the trim .

Ever notice how paint companies never name a color “Charred Marshmallow”?

 

My Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer Needs a Therapist: The Build-Up to Mother’s Day, 2017

One morning at 9 a.m., like I was going to work, I put on the one pair of Birkenstocks I own — hideous things, but, even I will admit, good to wear when you’re going to be on your feet a lot — and entered the kitchen with what we could politely call resignation.

I was anticipating a Saturday during which I was to provide baked goods for three separate events. There were two school fairs — the nursery school from which my daughter graduated four years ago and her current elementary school — and then in the evening there was a piano recital to which I would need to bring a treat. I had planned my week out thinking I only had to bake for two events; it was late Monday night when I remembered the piano recital that we’d be participating in Saturday afternoon, a few hours after all the Spring Fairs.  I had an uncharitable moment of “fuck this shit,” but decided that surely it wouldn’t kill me to bake two extra dozen cookies. And there was also Mother’s Day coming up and I knew I wanted to bring a treat to my mom when we went to visit her.

That morning I knocked out three dozen triple coconut cookies, some of which I reserved for home consumption.

That afternoon I started a big batch of chocolate bread dough, something I hadn’t made in a good long while. It rose overnight and the next day I baked three small loaves. One, at my daughter’s insistence, we kept; one went to my mother; one was for sale at the nursery school fair.

The next day I faced the Kitchen-Aid and said, “We are going to DO THIS” and made I think 124 little cookies — two flavors, chocolate and vanilla — to be turned into sandwich cookies. One cooky broke, so I had 123 cookies to work with, which meant I really had 122 cookies to work with, which meant I’d have 61 sandwich cookies to divide up between events.

I still had to figure out the fillings for the sandwich cookies, but I figured, “Child’s play!” Frostings and fillings are, so long as you’re not too picky, the kind of thing you can just make up as you go along. (My husband finds this attitude appalling, but I don’t give a shit what he thinks.) I also needed to blend up the special vanilla butter that goes with the chocolate bread. But again, child’s play.

The thing I felt bad about, in all of this, was the Kitchen-Aid mixer, which was feeling put-upon this morning. I’d never regarded the Kitchen-Aid as a thing with feelings, but this week of cooking and baking was definitely taking a toll on the machine, which we got in the fall of 2002. It’s unhappiness with me was audible, and I’m not speaking metaphorically here. These cooky doughs I was making are sturdy doughs; it takes a lot of power to make these things. I cannot imagine trying to make them if I was mixing the dough by hand — in fact, there’s simply no way I would do it. The poor Kitchen-Aid was groaning and wheezing by the time I had finished the second dough. I thought, “This Kitchen-Aid needs some therapy.” It might in fact need new screws or something — hell if I know — but I was suddenly imagining a stand mixer lying down on a shrink’s couch, like in a New Yorker cartoon. “All this cooky dough,” it sighs. “Can’t this lady ever give me a break? I mean, it’s freaking EVERY DAY she’s baking.”
“You’re not exaggerating? Every day?” the therapist asks gently. “That does seem like a lot.”
“She was at it like crazy a couple weeks ago — then things calmed down a little, it was okay,” the Kitchen-Aid says. “Maybe a couple times a week I’d have to do something for a couple of minutes. But this was ALL MORNING.”

By 3 p.m. on Wednesday the counter was cleaned up, and all the baked goods are put away. I assembled the sandwich cookies on Friday and on Saturday morning I trotted around the neighborhood delivering tinfoil-lined boxes of cookies to schools. I have no idea if everything sold; all I know is, I had fulfilled my obligations, and without disaster.

My husband, when I express exhaustion during and after marathons like this, always says to me, “No one’s forcing you to bake all this stuff. No one’s making you do this. You volunteer to do it.” And he’s right. But the fact of the matter is, if I don’t do it, who’s going to? There are not a lot of parents that are willing and able to engage in this kind of lunacy, and this is the kind of lunacy that makes our community what it is — or what it’s supposed to be, anyhow. It’s supposed to be a place where schools have spring fairs and the entire neighborhood shows up to have fun. Kids who graduated eight years ago come back to play — at both the nursery school and the elementary school fairs. The parents come. Grandparents come. These aren’t little birthday parties: these are major neighborhood events. People truck in from all over town, and even the suburbs, to go to the nursery school fair, because part of the event is a massive tag sale that’s known for being one of the best ways to get second-hand baby and kid gear. People line up to get in, no early-birds. Current nursery school parents volunteer to get coffee donated by the best local cafe (Willoughby’s, which does all its own roasting and is just generally awesome), and people cruise the housewares and clothes and strollers and shop while they eat elaborate homemade baked goods and drink coffee. One year, I remember, some lucky housebitch bought a white Kitchen-Aid mixer that someone had donated — why would someone ditch a Kitchen-Aid like that? — for $25.

This year the mama in charge of coffee made a vast quantity of cold-brewed iced coffee in addition to the regular hot stuff and the few dozen homemade cupcakes she’d made for the event. It takes time and advance thought to produce cold-brewed iced coffee to serve 200, but she did it. And she did it in the middle of getting her house ready to sell and packing up her own things so she can relocate her family, and while working a job involving weird schedule hours and demanding clients. (I stand in awe of her all the time; my suspicion is that she’s not big on sleep. Must be all the cold-brewed coffee keeping her going.)

There are some people who take on these challenges no matter what — and their labor tends to go quite unacknowledged, because they’re not getting paid for it. But it’s work. What’s more, it’s hard work: it’s hard to pull off a real humdinger of a spring fair, and it’s the behind-the-scenes invisible work that is, whether or not people realize it, makes a neighborhood a neighborhood, a community a community. I’m one of the people who has time for this crap; so I help with these things however I can. I will gladly help set up tables, I will bake, I will let people use my tablecloths to cover the crappy institutional folding tables so that things look nice.

I don’t do this kind of thing every week. If I did it every week, it would be a sign of lunacy (and we’d be bankrupt; we cannot afford to have me bake on this scale, uncompensated, every week; eggs and butter are, in fact, pricey, especially when used at this scale). But for annual events like the nursery school and elementary school spring fairs, you have to have cookies and cupcakes and muffins and things; you have to have pretty cakes and tarts for the families to buy to give to the mamas on Mother’s Day, the day after the fair.

*****

After we visited my mother on Mother’s Day this year, we drove to a Penzey’s Spices shop in West Hartford, where I spent a crazed fifteen minutes — we arrived shortly before closing time — picking out jars and bags of spices. It was only after I sat down to write this that I realized I had used my Mother’s Day treat to acquire things I would use, at least in part, to make other peoples’ Mother’s Day treats next year. I hope the Kitchen-Aid makes it to next spring.

 

Creamed Spinach is Our Friend

I’ve gone on public record regarding my love of creamed spinach. Here I will discuss a) how to make it, should you be so inclined, and b) why you should make a lot more of it than you think you need, because it is useful in leftover form.

Making Creamed Spinach: it is very easy. Let us presume you’re going to start with boxes of frozen spinach, though, because washing and trimming fresh spinach is a true pain in the ass. (I really don’t wanna hear from the peanut gallery about this. I have a salad spinner. I know I could use fresh spinach. But look: fresh spinach is a pain in the ass and it’s expensive, and when you’re making creamed spinach, it’s just easier and cheaper to use frozen. So, enough, ok?) Here is what you do to make a considerable quantity of the stuff, enough to serve to three hungry people at dinnertime, and have leftovers to work with later on.

Take three boxes of spinach (10 oz. boxes, I think, are what I usually see when I’m shopping) from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter while you focus on the next steps.

1. Put a pot of water on to boil — it doesn’t have to be a big stockpot, but it should be big enough to hold a cup or two of water and the contents of the spinach boxes.

2. On another burner, melt 3-4 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy pot (I use enameled cast iron).  To this add maybe 3/4 of a cup of minced yellow onion. Saute the onion until soft and translucent, and then sprinkle in three or four tablespoons of white flour. Yes, you are making what the grownup fancy people call a roux. Whatever amount of butter you used, use an equal amount of flour. Stir stir stir: you want the flour to combined with the butter, and to cook: raw flour is not tasty stuff. Your pot will seem to be filled with an uninteresting lumpy mess, but it will be ok so long as you don’t burn it. Keep the flame on medium or even medium low. When the onion and butter and flour have formed a depressing-looking paste, and before it starts to burn (this takes maybe three minutes), slowly pour in maybe 1/4 cup of milk (or cream, or half and half, whatever you have on hand; skim milk will work but look rather sad and watery; I’d go for fattier dairy products if possible). Stir the liquid into the flour and onion combination; what you’re trying to do is dissolve the lumps and create a sauce that will be mostly smooth, but for the bits of onion. Add liquid a little bit at a time, ending up with between 1 1/2 and 2 cups of dairy in the pot.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve doubtless noticed that your pot of water is boiling. Seize the moment: Cook the spinach in the boiling water for a few minutes; you don’t need to let it cook to death, just let the bricks of spinach loosen up. Drain in a colander in the sink, press excess water out of the spinach and into the sink, and add the spinach to the pot with the roux. Stir well: the contents of the pot will suddenly look like creamed spinach, and you’ll think “Hey, we’re done!” but you’re not. You’ll want this to simmer for a little while, maybe ten minutes. Now is when you add your seasonings. I like nutmeg, salt, and pepper. You might want a little cayenne or some hot sauce or something else entirely, it’s up to you.

So here’s the thing: this is a lovely dish to serve alongside chicken or beef or fish or whatever you are into: all well and good. My family will eat easily a cup and a half, per person, in a sitting. I’ve heard of people who don’t like creamed spinach and who’ll only grudgingly choke down, like, a tablespoonful if they’re out at a restaurant and it’s foisted on them next to a steak; we are not like that. If we’re gonna eat creamed spinach, we’re gonna eat creamed spinach.
But as a leftover, it’s a useful tool for gussying up something that needs a little extra oomph. For example, the night after I first made this creamed spinach last week, I used some of the leftovers, along with some shredded brisket I had around, on nachos. I know that sounds weird, but let me tell you, my husband and child snarfed those suckers down. And another trick I’ve used a lot is, creamed spinach as kind of a ready-made pasta sauce. (You have to thin it out a bit, and it wants to have lots of Parmesan cheese added, or maybe some goat cheese — but it’s good and colorful and a comforting thing to eat on a rainy night.) Creamed spinach can be added to soups; it can be whipped up with cream cheese and/or sour cream to make a dip; I’ve put it on pizzas.

I know it’s not fashionable, and I know it’s not exactly a dietetic food item. Someone with dairy issues is not crying out for a long explanation of how to make and use creamed spinach. But people who like creamed spinach — we, the silent, the unpopular people, the kitchen wallflowers — need to know that we are not alone. Don’t worry, my friend: I am with you (with about a dozen boxes of spinach in the freezer ready).