Tag Archives: Family

Not Giving Up

IMG_0091My grandmother did not teach me how to cook brisket. But if she had, I wouldn’t be making it today.

This is the first Friday in Lent, the season leading to Easter that many Christians traditionally observe by fasting and abstaining from certain foods. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common refrain. The church in which I grew up focuses a lot on such food-based observance: meat is not eaten on Fridays in Lent.

Which means that, according to the letter of the law, one may not eat a three-day-old pastrami sandwich—but going out for lobster would be perfectly appropriate. That doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to me, unless one had a shellfish allergy.

I’m not here to argue theology or the rationale for food-based religious traditions. I just wanted to have lunch. I was running a little behind this morning, so I opened the fridge to grab something left over to take with me. But I couldn’t see anything meatless.

I honestly don’t think the creator of the universe cares if I have chicken salad on Friday. And for the first time, I’m working in a church that doesn’t have the same sort of restrictive traditions regarding Lent that I grew up with. Nobody would care if I brought a bacon-triple-cheeseburger for lunch. But it would feel strange to me.

I guess I could run out at lunchtime and buy a tuna sub.

And yet going out for lunch—even a modest one—seemed against the Lenten spirit. I looked in the fridge again.

There were couple of hard-boiled eggs. And the leftover vegetables from last night’s dinner. And some brown rice. Heat the rice and veg, slice the eggs overtop, maybe a splash of soy sauce…

Give up chocolate but have the apple pie? No coffee but twice as much soda? No video games but unlimited TV? Not much gain on those plays. But modest discipline seems appropriate. It’s how I was raised. It’s what I was taught. I won’t feel a need to confess if I have a bite of turkey some Friday, but I’m not quite ready to give up all “giving up” yet.

As I ate my not-quite-bibimbap—which was so much better than than any tuna sub—I thought of my mom and my grandma. I hope they’d be pleased that I kept tradition.

Like a grandmother’s brisket.

The Best Reason to Be out of Plates

We’ve done a very good job of reducing our kitchen–well, the whole house–to its essentials.

It might, of course, be argued that an ice cream maker is not “essential,” but it would only be so argued by someone who didn’t taste the incredibly intense vanilla goodness that came out of that churn on Friday night.

And for the two of us, or even the occasional dinner guest, our essentials are perfectly adequate. But good heavens, a long weekend with company means the dishwashing turnaround is something ferocious. Dinnerware for 6 when you’ve got 5 adults in the house means we’re washing all the dishes a couple of times a day, and we’ve run out of kitchen towels more than a time or two.

I’m not complaining. Her parents and beloved Nana are welcome any time. We have a loud, loving houseful, and I look forward to their next visit with great eagerness. (Especially since the next visit is likely to be the one for the wedding.)

But I am considering that maybe another couple of place settings would not be an imprudent investment–maybe a set we keep in on the small-appliance shelves and bring out when we need extras. We’d put them behind the ice cream maker; even as summer winds down, I think it’s going to be in heavy rotation.

The Easiest Ice Cream I’ve Ever Made
adapted from The New York Times

2 cups half-and-half
2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape the seeds from the pod with the blade of a knife. Add the vanilla to the half-and-half and cream in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Remove from the heat; add the sugar and salt; stir until dissolved. Strain and refrigerate until very cold (at least four hours; overnight, if you are prepared enough to have done this the day before you want to serve it).

Churn in the ice cream maker according to its directions. (Mine takes about 20 minutes.) Serve immediately as soft ice cream or freeze in an airtight container until hard.

Know-How

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I don’t know when it became clear to my father that I was going to be a musician, but when it did, he gave up any thought of my taking over his garage door business. Some of their parts, and the tools used to install and service garage doors and openers, are dangerous if an accident happens. Dad didn’t want to risk my losing the ability to play while I was learning a trade, so he simply never invited me to go with him on a service call again.

I barely noticed. I wasn’t drawn to his business. I enjoyed being with my dad, but I didn’t especially like being in other people’s dirty garages or handling the heavy tools, door parts, and hardware. It wasn’t until long after his passing that my mother told me about that decision. Dad knew how to do things, and how not to press an issue.

My hands were safe from the big stuff, but there was a lot Dad didn’t have the chance to teach me. He instilled in me a respect for electricity, and I knew abstractly how to use a hammer and screwdriver, but the rest I’ve had to pick up on my own. I don’t want to install my own garage door, but I’d like to rewire a light switch or a door bell, or maybe repair a leaky faucet.  Do-it-yourself manuals and YouTube videos have been my friend.

We’ve hired a contractor to do most of the work of getting the Country House ready for the market, but I’ve tried to do small things on my own. The light switches are pristine white to match the pretty walls. New smoke detectors are mounted and hard-wired into the house’s system.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I'd seen in ages; and, although the cat who'd been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children's laughter.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I’d seen in ages; and, although the cat who’d been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children’s laughter.

I’d like to think Dad would be pleased, even if he would also have been amused at my floundering. If he would have been frustrated by what he didn’t get to teach me, I’ve been at least as frustrated at what I didn’t learn.

There’s a faucet I want to replace, but I simply can’t get the old one out. Maybe it’s a question of strength or leverage, or maybe there’s something I just don’t know. Same with some electrical outlets that are supposed to be controlled by a wall switch. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but the switch is, literally, out of the loop. One of the lessons Dad didn’t get to teach me was lessons was probably When to Call a Professional.

I re-tightened the old faucet’s supply lines. I put covers on the outlets to protect them and turned turned the power back on. I baked a loaf of bread, and a batch of brownies for her birthday celebration. I’ll spend the rest of the day teaching children to sing, writing a choral piece, and conducting a performance of a musical. There are things I know how to do that my dad didn’t. I try not to beat myself up about the things I don’t.

That might be the most important lesson of all.

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The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn't brown as much as I'd hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn’t brown as much as I’d hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

Sweet Traditions

Two more layers of creamy goodness will top this lemon-covered shortbread. Talk about gilding the Easter lily!

My grandmother had a pre-wrapped gift box. I’m sure it had once been a beautiful thing, but by the time I came to know it, it had seen better days. Its glittered and flocked exterior showed plenty of wear. The ribbon wrapped around its lid was more than a little frayed. The bow formed by that ribbon would never be as pretty and puffy as when it was new.  But every Christmas, it came out of her closet, and was filled with a token gift for her youngest son, my uncle. And on the day after Christmas, she’d take the box back and put it back into her closet to wait for the following year.

After she passed away, my mom found the box and continued to use it for her baby brother’s Christmas present–which was usually a small batch of his favorite cookie, wrapped carefully in plastic so it didn’t damage the box. (The rest of the cookies were presented in a more practical container, usually a zip-top bag.) As time went on, those orange flavored cookies with a faint orange glaze might not even have been my uncle’s favorite, but they were tradition.

My grandmother’s recipe collection is in storage while renovations on the Country House are underway. This might not be her exact recipe, but it’s close.  While she was living, nobody but my grandmother baked the orange cookies; then, only my mother did. One of my cousins does it now for her dad.

We don’t have many solid food traditions here. Turkey on Thanksgiving, sure. But we’ll have fried rice on New Year’s Eve, or popcorn for Christmas, or pancakes any night of the week if that’s what we feel like doing. That might change; we’re still figuring things out.

Her aunt–who is as much like a big sister to her as anything else–is known in the family for her lemon squares. They’re requested for every big family occasion, and nobody else makes them. Her aunt gave us the recipe–not because she’s handing over the reins, but because we’re far enough away that we aren’t encroaching on her turf. I’m honored. And delighted. I made a batch last Easter, surprised that I so enjoyed a recipe that had ingredients I’d never otherwise use: Cool Whip? Pudding Mix? I’m a from-scratch guy! 

When we were invited to a friend’s home for Easter dinner, her aunt’s lemon squares the first thing it occurred to us to bring. We tag-teamed: I baked the shortbread crust before I left for rehearsal; she took it from there. Creamy, tart, and addictively delicious, they were of course a hit.

I’ve seen variations of the recipe on lots of sites, so I don’t know that her aunt invented this treat; it seems to be a family tradition that only she made them.

And now we do, for Easter. Pudding and Cool Whip. Life is full of surprises. And unexpected traditions. I think I’ll bake some orange cookies at Christmastime. I’m looking forward already to next Easter.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box--but it's every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box–but it’s every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

Breakfast During Hockey Season

She asked if I would make biscuits sometime.

Of course, I said; it isn’t difficult.

It is for her, she explained; they come out hard as hockey pucks.

I suspected that the problem might have been one of measurement.  If she took flour from the canister by the scoop-and-level method, it would be easy to get too much, and end up with a weightier biscuit than she wanted.  Or maybe I have very low standards where biscuits are concerned, and mine come out hockey pucks, too.

After ascertaining that the gold standard against which all biscuits would be measured were not her beloved Nana’s, I agreed, and planned to bake them for Saturday breakfast.

The hardest part, it turned out, was finding the kitchen scale. It wasn’t on the small-appliance shelves. It wasn’t with the measuring cups, or alongside the baking tins, or even in the back of the knife drawer.  I knew we’d put it somewhere logical, but the logic eluded me.  About to give up and do the best I could with scoop-and-level, I pulled the flour canister from its cupboard and —voila!—there it was.

Our scale is a simple device–one button to turn it on and tare (a function that re-zeroes the scale to allow for the weight of the container set on its platform), one to switch the display between ounces and grams, and, of course, the weighing platform. Ours may not be quite as accurate as I hoped; I could get 15.99 ounces of flour or 16.03, but nothing in between.  Perhaps I could use tweezers to add the flour one grain at a time, or perhaps I should not worry about such incredibly fine distinctions.

The key to biscuit preparation, says Uncle Alton, is to handle the dough as little as possible so as not to warm the butter and shortening. His grandmother’s hands were colder than his own (probably due to poor circulation), so her biscuits were always lighter than his. Although my hands are frequently cold, I took no chances; I stowed the fats in the fridge while roasting some bacon to have with the biscuits and fruit.

Breakfast was served. “I should do the biscuit baking from now on?” She nodded enthusiastically, far too polite to speak with her mouth full. I don’t know if it was the precise measurement or the chilled fats, but the result was most decidedly not a pan of hockey pucks.

And she’d know.  While she probably has never tried to eat one, she’s certainly seen plenty of them; her father used to take her to games every weekend as a child.

We stopped for burgers on Saturday evening, and I noticed her glancing at the Notre Dame-Indiana game on big-screen TV above the condiment counter.

“We’re not far from Yale,” she said. “We should see a hockey game before the season ends.”

I asked if she was sure she wanted me to see her at a hockey game.

“What, afraid you won’t love me any more?”

It wasn’t that at all; I was just recalling that she’d told me once, “I’m convinced I’d be a pacifist if I weren’t a hockey fan.” Apparently I looked at her gape-mouthed, and she explained: at one of those games she saw when she was four, she yelled, “Daddy, make those skater mans fight again!”

Fortunately, we don’t fight.  But I’ll make sure to remember where the scale is stored in case things get ugly; that way our biscuits will be too light to cause any damage if they’re thrown.

The bacon was pronounced good, too.  And her apple butter, on that biscuit half, is pretty superb.  (Sadly, the steam rising from the biscuit when it was split did not photograph well.)

The bacon was pronounced good, too. And her apple butter, on that biscuit half, is pretty superb. (Sadly, the steam rising from the biscuit when it was split did not photograph well.)

The Problem with Thanksgiving

Her mom was roasting a brined turkey, Nana had baked pumpkin and apple pies, and we had traveled with a carful of side dishes: a New York cheesecake, potatoes, asparagus, and construction kits for Waldorf salad and the cornbread dressing I’d make that she assured everyone they’d love.  Drinks were served upon arrival, and while everybody chatted happily we set to work unpacking the cooler and assembling our bits and pieces.

“Does this look right to you?” she asked. I had to admit, the salad dressing looked watery and grey; it tasted like dill and vinegar and not much else. She wanted to try this version for my benefit, since I’m no fan of gloppy salads. She headed for the sink. “I’m going to start over.” I suggested instead that she whisk in a little mayonnaise.  She did; the dressing wasn’t quite where she wanted it, but it was closer.  A little more mayo, and a sprinkling of sugar, and the dressing held together nicely and tasted great.

Dinner was served and enjoyed. Family stories were told and political conversations defused. Many hands made the clean-up light, and the afternoon was a success. There were plenty of leftovers–particularly the cornbread dressing, which had sadly not lived up to its reputation.  “The stuffing wasn’t as good as last year’s,” she said softly to me. Leaving aside that it was dressing, not stuffing, since it had been cooked alongside the turkey rather than in it, I had to agree, but neither of us was sure why. Her mom had baked the cornbread, so we weren’t sure what was in it; I’d used pork sausage, which always seems like a good idea; the spices, such that I recalled, were the same, but the result was different.  Not terrible, but not as we’d remembered.

The problem with improvising is that, unless you have an extremely accurate memory or are meticulous about documentation, it’s nearly impossible to recreate what you’ve done.  Whether creating a piece of music or a Thanksgiving side dish, the pleasure of success is ephemeral.

The problem with following recipes, on the other hand, is that, unless you have a trusted source, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that what you’ll end up with is what you intend.  Whether cooking or knitting, when the result is different than you expect, the temptation may be to chuck it in the waste bin and start over.

The problem with Thanksgiving–or any big holiday dinner, for that matter–is that a lot of pressure can be put on every component.  Far more than needs to be.   If the salad had been a total bust, there still would have been plenty of food.  If no one had touched the cornbread dressing, there would still have been laughter and joy.  If I had put the cheesecake in the cooler along with the sealed bags of chopped vegetables and it turned out they weren’t as well-sealed as I thought and the cheesecake tasted a little of onion, no one would mention it.

Her parents have accepted an offer to sell their house before beginning a grand retirement adventure, so this will be the last Thanksgiving in the house she grew up in. She was a little melancholy, but it was as joyful a celebration as I could want. I don’t know where we’ll be next November, but wherever it is, if the dressing is perfect or if we burn the turkey and end up with grilled cheese sandwiches, there will be plenty to be thankful for.

I did, by the way, put the cheesecake in the cooler, and it did taste funky. Nobody teased me about it more than I did. But I’ve never enjoyed a Waldorf salad so much. There was a pleasantly chilly late evening walk, and the first holiday lights of the season. And, seriously, Nana’s pies are better than any store-bought cheesecake.

Over the river and through the woods...

Over the river and through the woods…

Confidence Gravy

“Do we have any gravy?”

That’s the sort of question you might dread, if the roast turned out to be more well-done than you’d intended.  But that wasn’t the case.  It was 10 PM on a Tuesday and she was in the shower.

“No,” I called back, “but I’m sure I can make some.”

“Right,” she said.  “Because you’re the kind of guy who makes gravy.”

Well, how else would one get gravy?  There are jarred versions sold in stores, I suppose. She had a jar in the City House kitchen for a long while, but I don’t remember what happened to it.

I’m sure I can make some.

I wasn’t sure at all, in fact.  After Sunday’s Chicken Debacle, I wasn’t at all confident about my ability to make toast, much less gravy.  It got me thinking. Gravy was routinely on the dinner table when I was growing up. But somewhere along the line tastes changed, or at least styles of eating did. We have sushi, ratatouille, and sandwiches-on-the-go, but gravy doesn’t happen all the time.  My grandmother and mother could have made gravy without thinking twice about it, but we get it from the supermarket.

Or not.

While Sunday’s chicken was in the oven, I’d cooked the neck and giblets into a saucepan with a cup or two of water, discarded the neck, chopped the giblets and put them aside. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but it had seemed like the right thing to do.  Once the chicken finally came out of the oven, I reserved and de-fatted the drippings from the roasting pan.  I didn’t dare try to use them at the time; I was happy enough to have food on the table without the possibility of botching a condiment. But it meant that, on Tuesday night, I had in the fridge a ramekin of rich chicken bits and a container of homemade stock. I was most of the way to gravy.

I just had to look up what to do with it.  Something thickens gravy–a roux?  A–what’s that word–a slurry?  Right, that’s it.  (The internet was faster than a cookbook.)

I sautéed some chopped mushrooms in a little olive oil (because: why not?), added the diced giblets to reheat, added most of the stock and brought it to boil. I barely warmed the last quarter-cup of stock and put it into a Mason jar with a tablespoon of all-purpose flour, lidded the jar, and shook it ’til there were no lumps. I added the slurry to the saucepan and whisked.  And magic occurred.  Well, not magic, but gravy. Silky-looking chicken gravy.

In pajamas after her shower, she came to the kitchen to scramble the eggs that would accompany the grits she wanted for her late supper.

“You made gravy!”

I might have grinned a little. “Where would you like it?”

“Oh,” she said. “I was thinking over some of the roasted vegetables for lunch tomorrow.”

Well, of course.  Who puts gravy on scrambled eggs?

Actually, that sounded kind of wonderful.

I put a little egg-and-grits in a tiny bowl, spooned a little gravy over it, and took a taste. It wasn’t the umami-bomb of store-bought, but gentler—not too salty, studded with bits of mushroom and giblets and flecked with a little black pepper. It tasted like home.

I’ll probably screw up dinner again at some point, probably badly enough that we end up ordering pizza.  But tonight, there was gravy.  I’d like to think Mom and Grandma would be proud.  Or maybe they’d just shake their heads and say, “He had to look that up?”


Epilogue: “I don’t need anything for lunch,” she said this morning. “I’ve got things in the office fridge from yesterday.”