Monthly Archives: February 2015

Fruit Filling

It’s easy enough to stick a piece of fruit in a lunch bag or briefcase.  But it’s also easy enough to ignore it, or to decide it’s too hard to eat at work. After all, if you take a bite out of an apple or pear or peach, you’re committed to eating the whole thing at once or making a juicy mess of your desk. Berries aren’t really meant for eating-out-of-hand. Slicing a banana before it’s been peeled is fun, but hard to eat without a fork or spoon. Clementines are easy to peel, but oranges are even messier than August peaches.

I quartered and cored an apple one day and put it in a plastic bag, thinking it might make things easier: not exactly one-bite snacks, but close. Even sprinkled with lemon juice, it browned. I needed a way to keep the segments together.

Peanut butter.

It’s one of her favorite foods. It has a little extra protein, and the ingredient list on the brand we usually buy is blissfully short: peanuts and salt.

The peanut butter wasn’t quite adhesive enough to hold the quarters in place, but a rubber band around it was. Tuck the whole thing in a plastic bag, squeeze out as much air as possible, and you’re off. It was, from dinnertime reports, among the best afternoon snacks in the history of food.

We’re reasonably healthy eaters, holding strictly to a policy of “All things in moderation, including moderation.” But it is a bit of a challenge to get fruit and vegetables into our diet–even including “stealth vegetables” like the zucchini in a quick bread. Besides, if you include chocolate chips in the zucchini bread it’s pretty hard to make the claim of healthfulness. But an apple a day–even one that takes a multi-step process to prepare–is a good thing.

Bring home the plastic bag and rubber band to wash and reuse another day, of course.

Sure, it's a little fussy.  But even before coffee, I can usually get one of these assembled in a minute-thirty.

Sure, it’s a little fussy.
But even before coffee, I can usually get one of these assembled in a minute-thirty.

Bonus

Most mornings, she has to be out the door first. Well, that’s not quite true, since I drive her to the train station.  But at least she has to be ready for work before I do.  I pull on some running clothes and head for the kitchen, and–usually–exercise after my driving duty is done.

Along with my coffee, I brew two cups of tea. One is her trusty ceramic travel mug. The other is a smaller one for her to drink before we leave. It’s a warming-up thing, especially good on very cold mornings.  We call it her Bonus Cup. Sometimes she finishes it and brings it to the sink; sometimes it’s barely touched. I may find it on her dresser, or the bathroom vanity, where she’s taken the last sip just after applying her make-up.

Most days, it carries an impression of her freshly-applied lip color.

It’s gilding the lily, I have told her repeatedly, but if she wants to wear make-up it’s fine with me.  Especially when I find a mug with a kiss-print.  It’s a bit of a bonus for me.

IMG_0022

It’s Mostly Greek to Me

Usually when I work late, so does she, or she has dinner with a friend. Sometimes we leave a car for her at the train station, or she takes a cab home; in good weather, she walks. Good weather still seems distant.

I wasn’t expecting to learn that she was on a late train, but I offered to collect her at the train.  And to pick up pizza on the way.

Or Chinese, she replied. Or a cow.

It was that sort of day, apparently.

There was a pizza place on my route. We don’t order take-out pizza very often, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to this place, but it seemed worth a try. (We don’t have a reliable Chinese-food vendor, and I had no idea where to source livestock, much less butcher it.) The small pie looked too small; the large looked too big, but better to err on the side of leftovers. Pepperoni, mushroom, and–since I doubted either one of us would feel like a salad–spinach.

In the time it took the pizza to bake and be boxed, I did most of my post-rehearsal homework. I vented the box a little so the crust wouldn’t get soggy, and made it to the station before she did, narrowly resisting the temptation to eat a slice before the train got in.

We, and our intact pie, made it back to the Country House and tucked in.  We got out plates, but didn’t use them.  We didn’t go to the table. This was an evening of pizza from the box. It felt like college.

She’s a fan of thick-crust pizza.  I like it well enough, though I prefer thin.  This place serves a sort of pan-pizza variant that has a medium-thick, crunchy crust. There was plenty of cheese, and a nice thick sauce. The pepperoni was especially spicy. The mushrooms were canned rather than fresh-sliced, but one can’t have everything.  The spinach, though, that was the real surprise. It was chopped finely and pre-cooked. I guess that makes sense, lest the spinach release too much moisture during baking. It was also spiced, and slightly sweet. Was that nutmeg?

Of course it was. This place serves pizza, but also Greek food.  The spinach came, no doubt, from the same supply they use to make spanakopita.

We probably could have done with a small pizza, but we made quite a dent in this large one, with leftovers for dinner tonight–which, since we’re both working late again, won’t be early. I’m hoping we don’t both have rough days again, but I wouldn’t bet against it.  Since we work in such different fields, it’s hard to compare.  And even if it were easy, we don’t keep score about such things; we just take care of each other. Which, so far, is not an incomprehensible language.  Most days, it’s easy as pie.

Sure, the photo is a little blurry. So were we.

Sure, the photo is a little blurry. So were we.

In the Not-Completely-Bleak Midwinter

This has been a long, cold, snowy winter, and the end seems frustratingly out of reach, still.  We’re tired from the extra hours of fuss and worry and the poor quality of light, and sore from shoveling snow and digging out cars and throwing salt.

But I’m so grateful that the only effects of it have been inconvenience and some discomfort for us and the people we love. We’re warm and dry, well fed and well attired. And we seem to be making a real effort to stay connected to one another rather than to hibernate. To find beauty in this winter land (that can so easily become un-wondrous). To laugh and smile and lift one’s spirits. 

“We should go to New Orleans,” she said. I had a rough time picturing her amid the revelry of Mardi Gras. “Of course not!  But a couple of days eating beignets and drinking Hurricanes…”

I’m unconvinced that there would be Hurricanes (plural), however much they seem like “Red Kool-aid, perfect,” but I could be wrong.

I didn’t feel up to the challenge of making beignets, but there were a couple of donuts in the kitchen, the last of a dozen we bought earlier in the week. They were a little old, even for dunking in our cuppas, but they weren’t too far gone for a little transformation.

Donuts Dreaming of New Orleans

Melt 2 tbsp butter in a non-stick skillet.

Slice the slightly-stale old-fashioned donuts through the center. Toast in the pan, cut side first, about three minutes per side.

Warm and soften about 1/2 cup fruit–whatever’s at hand. Berries, maybe, or sliced apples in a little butter and brown sugar.  I had some chunky, well-spiced homemade applesauce, and that was perfect.

Plate the donuts, cut side up; spoon on the fruit; add a dollop of whipped cream; sprinkle on a little cinnamon and grated nutmeg.

Serves two, one of whom may say something extravagantly complimentary.

The omelets we were planning for breakfast became a very late brunch.

She asked how I felt about stuffed peppers.  I like the idea more than the execution; the pepper flesh always seems slimy when baked.  She had an idea. I chopped some vegetables for her, and she did the wonderful rest.

Stuffed Pepper Casserole
(All the Flavor, None of the Slime) 

In a saucepan, add 2-1/2 cups boiling water, 1 tbsp olive oil, and 1 cup white rice.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.  (The rice may seem underdone, and will be a little sticky, but that’s okay.)

In a Dutch oven, brown 3/4 lb. ground beef; season to taste with salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce, and all-purpose seasoning.

Dice 1 onion, 2 ribs of celery, and 1 big bell pepper (2 peppers might be even better.) Trim 1/2 lb. green beans and slice into small pieces.

Push the beef to one side of the Dutch oven, and add vegetables to the other. Sauté until just softened.

Add most of the rice to the Dutch oven, reserving a third of it to make fried rice later in the week. Also add 1-1/2 cups marinara sauce (or a 14-oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes). Mix all together. Cover and bake at 350F for 30 minutes.  While baking, fold some laundry or try on some clearance-special clothes or watch an old game show.

Serves 4—or, at least, two hungry people, with plenty that will be looked forward to for lunches.

Thank you, winter, for being hard, and bringing out some of the best in us.

Fancy

We stayed at her sister and brother-in-law’s after the memorial, and woke to hugs from her nephews–a pair of 5-year-old twins and their year-older brother–adorable little dudes all. We helped organize pancakes for everybody’s breakfast, as well as some very important wardrobe choices. All the Kindergarteners were dressing up: it was Fancy Day. (Pajama Day had long since passed, and while every day is Crazy Hair Day in my world, I’m glad I didn’t have to demonstrate it more than usual when I was in school.) Ties were knotted, Church shoes were put in backpacks–it’s too snowy on upstate New York sidewalks for anything other than boots until you get to school–and photos were taken to send to grandparents.

We don’t make a big deal about Valentine’s Day. Still, between an unexpected funeral and visit from her mom, the scramble to make up missed work, and a day’s productivity lost to a computer that needed to spend the night in the repair shop, our plans needed revisiting. We didn’t make it to the library or the boxes of books in the storage unit to find volumes of romantic poetry, but we were not giving up on the evening.  “Take-out,” she suggested. “On good china. And we dress up.”

“It’ll be our Fancy Day!”

I collected my repaired machine on the way to work, and stopped to collect dinner on my way home. While I was out, she swept up the remaining dust from the installation of our new backsplash and set a gorgeous table.

On which we had burgers and fries.

But they were the really good burgers, and accompanied by the really good slaw. We sipped Vitamin Water from champagne flutes. We exchanged heartfelt cards and very small gifts. We looked terrific. (We even took a photo to send to her parents.) But mostly, we were together. And that’s fancy enough for me.

Fancy Day Table

Blended

It’s February, the thermometer hasn’t seen a temperature above 30 for a week, and the heat pump isn’t functioning properly.

So we had milkshakes.

We’d gone to exchange some shirts I’d bought in the wrong size and stopped to browse in the kitchen section on the way out of the store. Amid all the kitchen implements we had in our blended kitchen, neither of us had brought a blender. There had been talk of blenders at Christmastime, but we hadn’t found one we really liked at a price we also really liked. Although the idea of a high-powered, do-everything machine has some appeal, we’re not convinced we want another large appliance. Besides, we don’t crush ice all that often, and I’m not sure that homemade peanut butter is any better than store-bought.  An immersion blender seems the better option for pureeing soup and mixing the occasional milkshake. It seemed possible that the Cuisinart model we saw was exactly what we needed. The price was certainly appealing. We brought it home, stopping at the dairy store for ice cream, along with milk and eggs–snow was predicted, after all.

That morning, we’d put sauerkraut, kielbasa, chopped apple, and a little caraway seed in the slow-cooker. It was almost ready; there was just enough time to turn some leftover mashed potatoes into pancakes to go along with the kraut-und-wurst, and to sauté a few green beans and tomatoes, just because. It was not a heavy meal at all, but hearty and warming.  Maybe a little more caraway next time; maybe a little celery seed, too.  But overall, no complaints.

Halfway through an episode of Sherlock, we paused for dessert. She is unconvinced that the blender is comfortable to hold, so she scooped the ice cream and poured the milk; I did the blending.  The new machine works perfectly, though I see her point about its handle being a little thick.  We’ll give it one more try; if we’re still not happy, it goes back to the store. As is her custom, she drizzled chocolate sauce down the side of the glasses before pouring in the milkshake. As for Bailey’s or Kahlua or Starbucks liqueur, we passed: these were straight-up delicious ice cream treats with no “adult” components needed.

One might argue that the depth of winter is not the right time for a cold dessert. She might say that’s a matter of thermal regulation: putting cold inside when it’s cold out makes sense to her. If milkshakes make us want to snuggle tighter under a blanket while finishing our movie, that’s a good enough reason for me.

Chocolate shakes in a vanilla kitchen: the new backsplash is installed!

Chocolate shakes in a vanilla kitchen: the new backsplash is installed!

The Real Thing

We hadn’t expected to see her mother again so soon after her parents began their cross-country motor home odyssey, but the death of an uncle occasioned a quick flight back north.  She met her mom at the airport after work, and they traveled together by bus and train to where I could collect them for dinner, a quiet evening, and a hearty breakfast before the next leg of the journey.

It was a beautiful day for travel, the snow staying, as I prefer it, on tree branches, fields, and roadsides, and leaving the pavement clear. The memorial gathering was as joyous as such a occasion can be, and remarkably stress-free for the new guy who never had the chance to meet the deceased. I like her family a lot, though, and they seem to accept me without question though I’m not officially a relative.  All told–even including the odd quasi-eulogy given by the family friend who talked a lot about her dinner theatre career–it could have been much worse.

Her beloved Nana insisted on taking a bunch of us to dinner afterward.  She’d intended that we go for pizza, but the nearby place she had in mind closed early on a winter weeknight. Her second choice was a well-respected Chinese restaurant that everyone was delighted about; it is apparently the only place to go for Chinese food in the area–which is not to say that there are not other such restaurants, only that this is head and shoulders above the rest.  It was farther away, though.  “Just keep going,” her mom said after one turn, “until you get to Vermont.” It wasn’t quite that far, but my geography is not good.

The Plum Blossom is beautiful, with intricate woodwork at every turn. It might become a Buddhist temple if the kitchen ever closes, though from what I hear there’s no chance of that happening. I’m not sure who designed or fashioned the 10-foot-tall wooden flowers–lotus blossoms, I believe–but I’m not sure the artisan would have been pleased to discover that their bases were used as sites to store bottles of sriracha sauce and the sound system’s remote control.

I have never visited China, nor grew up eating Chinese food. My dad hated it, so I don’t recall tasting it until college. I like it now, though I don’t feel like I know much about it. I have a favorite dish, but I understand that it’s completely inauthentic. Although General Tso was a real person, there’s a TED talk and a feature-length documentary discussing how the dish named for him is completely unknown in his home country. I’ve had versions that I like better than others, but General Tso’s chicken is my default choice.  And it was, of course, on the Plum Blossom’s menu.  Still, I looked further.  In a restaurant this beautiful, it seemed like a better idea to choose something “authentic.” (I want to call the restaurant itself “authentic,” but since I know nothing about what an “authentic” Chinese restaurant might look like; the Plum Blossom might well be the Disney World version.) I’ve never encountered a waiter rolling his eyes at my choice, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I looked past columns of …lo meins and …fried rices and with broccolis and so on, hoping to find something that seemed just right.  There’d been a plate of cabbage-and-carrot salad presented as an amuse-bouche: sweet and spicy and altogether delightful, I considered asking of a bowl of that salad with some extra salad on the side, but thought it might not be the most digestively prudent move. Still, if the kitchen turned out something that appealing, I was sure that I didn’t have to settle for a potential eye-roll.

“Lovers in a Bird’s Nest” was high on a list of Chef’s Specialties. Shrimp, chicken, and many vegetables, in a light sauce, served in a “birds nest” made of shredded potato. This sounded pretty, and like it might be everything I was looking for. I chose it happily, with no buyer’s remorse, even as she chose “Dragon and Phoenix,” a two-entrees-in-one meal that included General Tso’s Chicken.  (Or, perhaps I had no regret because I suspected she’d offer me a taste.)

The wonton soup could not have been better: a rich broth surrounding paper-thin dumplings bursting with matchsticks of beef. I had high hopes. I also had another bite of the cabbage salad.

Lovers in a Bird’s Nest arrived–or, more accurately, Lovers in Birds’ Nests: her Nana chose the same entree, which I considered a good omen since she is a regular at the Plum Blossom. It was lovely.  Maybe not quite as color-corrected as a food stylist might have presented it, but it was certainly appealing.

The snow peas, broccoli, and carrots were crisp-tender.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly–which is to say, not a second more than necessary. But the slices of chicken breast were bland. The light sauce was flavorless–cornstarch and water, maybe? The potato nest was pretty, but any idea I’d had that it was meant to be consumed like a hash-brown was swiftly dispatched after I tried to break off a piece. It might have served as packing material for a piece of expensive electronic equipment.

Meanwhile, to my left, her Dragon and Phoenix arrived.  I’m not sure whether the General Tso’s portion was the Dragon or the Phoenix, but it looked fabulous, nothing like the bright orange versions one might find at the food court. She offered a bite. The shrimp side–whichever of Dragon or Phoenix wasn’t the chicken–looked just like the shrimp in my nest, but, oh, the chicken. It was coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of batter, and meltingly tender. The sauce was sweet, spicy, delicate, and not a bit gloppy.

A completely underwhelming chef’s specialty, side by side with a remarkable execution of a dish that wouldn’t be on the menu at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned from this experience, but I am confident what I’ll order the next time we visit. I hope that visit will be for a happier occasion, but even this trip was not maudlin.  There was much laughter. Good food is good whether or not it is ethnically authentic, and a big family dinner is a celebration whatever the reason for gathering.