Security Blanket

Sometimes something terrible happens and, even when everything resolves itself miraculously well, you can see cracks forming in an edifice you had previously held to be unshakable, unchangeable, permanent. Whether you have any warning or not, this kind of occurrence has the power to shake even the most staunchly positive Pollyanna of us all to the core.

When these things happen, as they have of late, what do I do? First, I keep a stiff upper lip. Second, I have a private and generally very dramatic meltdown. Third, I pull it together and cleave to something comfortable, reliable, something that is always the same as it always was and something that will, for all eternity, remain comforting, reliable, warm.

Obviously, I'm a stress eater. After all, what besides food (provided you have a reliable ingredients and a good relationship with the particular stove and oven at your disposal) is so reliable and comforting? When under normal stress, things like cake, Cheez-its, chocolate, and cream cheese do me just fine. On the other hand, when things get really out of hand, I need something a little more serious to prop me up. Most recently I turned to Mac and Cheese.

If you're running off to the cupboard to zap some Easy Mac, HALT. Go no further! A far superior Mac and Cheese awaits you. And if, like me, you find yourself soothed by procedure, routine, and production, then this, friends, is the Mac and Cheese for you. There is no microwave involved. No vaguely-cheesy orange powder. No tablespoon of butter and half cup of milk. This is a much more involved Mac and Cheese but let me assure you: as with so many things, what you get out of this Mac and Cheese is directly proportional to what you put into it. If you're lucky, it may even give you back more than you bargained for.

Luckily, my recipe-source (and inadvertent source of this month's stress) had recovered fully enough to dictate this recipe and help cook it by the time I was up to needing some emotional sustenance. I can't take credit for this recipe. As ever, all credit to my mom.

Reliable Comfort Food
  • 1 box macaroni noodles (I used Barilla Elbows)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 t dry mustard
  • nutmeg to taste (ca. 1/2 t)
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1/2 lb White American Cheese
  • 1/2 lb Monterey Jack Cheese
  • 1/2 lb Cheddar Cheese (medium sharp)
  1. Pre-heat oven to about 400.
  2. Cook pasta in generously salted water for approximately 3/4 of the suggested time. Drain and set aside.
  3. Shred American, Monterey Jack, and Cheddar Cheeses on the largest holes on a box grater. Set aside
  4. Make a roux: Melt the stick of butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Add milk and cook over medium-low heat until sauce bubbles, thickens, and just begins to brown. Add dry mustard and nutmeg.
  5. Add cheese and stir until melted and smooth.
  6. Add pasta to cheese sauce and stir until well coated.
  7. Pour pasta and sauce into a (large) oven-safe dish- in my case this was a 9"x13" stoneware baking dish AND a 9"x9" brownie dish.
  8. Bake at 400 until it begins to brown on top. If you're lucky, your oven will brown it more or less evenly. If you're me, your oven will beautifully brown one side and leave the other more or less raw. It tastes fine either way.
We all ate this as a "side dish" to accompany a sesame-ginger marinated pork tenderloin, alongside some delicious lima beans, (see image above) but we all knew that the Mac was the main attraction. It's okay to exercise a little denial when it comes to this dish. We all know that you just want to eat carbs saturated with cheesy fat. And sometimes there's just nothing at all wrong with that.In other news, look what my orchid has been doing! He's (I'm firmly of the opinion that anything named after testicles should be called he, though perhaps orchids could be the drag queens of the plant world - hence my deep and abiding love of them) certainly been up to the task of brightening up the house the last couple weeks! I like how that last little bloom is cocking its head at the camera and being so coy to open up. What a tight little ball of joy.


Jellies and jams and pickles, oh my!

**A lot has happened since I began writing this post. I'm sitting in my mom's hospital room now, as I finish it. She's on the mend, but it's been quite a scary few days. So, this post is for my mom, with whom I look forward to many, many years of canning, cooking, and all those good things.

I remember many Augusts of my childhood, especially in those early, pre-preschool days, spent as my grandmother's and mother's side while they (we, I thought) canned the mountains of vegetables that my grandpa coaxed out of the earth in his garden (which was, gothically, located on the State Hospital grounds). Hour after hour, just as the Summer heat peaked for the year, leaving most of us breathless, they'd stand over the stove, milling tomatoes into juice (which would become vegetable soup or chili when Summer's sweat became a distant, almost longed-for memory), stringing, trimming, and finally packing green beans into quart jars, ready for the pressure cooker.

I remember (fondly) helping by peeling the wax pencil and writing dates on the lids as they came out of their hot bath. I remember dozens of jars of tomato juice and beans, and in a few banner years, hundreds, lining the shelves under the basement stairs in my grandparents' house, where it was cool and dark and there were commonly spiders. I took a special pleasure in sneaking into that small space and scaring myself out of my wits at the thought of spiders and other unknown things creeping out of the dark.
At some point, I grew bored of watching the women in my family putting up Summer produce for the Winter. At some point my grandpa stopped gardening on such a large scale. And at some point my grandma stopped canning and this all became relegated to memory, a somewhat peculiar habit held over in my family by those Roosevelt Democrat elders who were worried about potentially lean Winters, even though we always had more than enough to eat in our homes.

I suffer no illusions that my canning now will make up for the years I missed canning with my grandma while I could have, but trying my hand at it makes me feel a little closer in a tiny way. In my case, there was only a very little salt and no tomatoes in sight and I shied away from the pressure cooker (I have visions of Arroz con Pollo stuck to my ceiling - and if you don't know what I'm talking about, look it up) and decided to give jelly and jam a go. (And pickles, but I can't take credit for that idea - more about that later.)

Remembering what seemed to a very small child to be a very large production, I decided to tackle this task with help rather than on my own. Luckily, my newly-minted-Somervillian friend Christine was excited at the prospect of giving all this ridiculousness a go and we spent today up to our elbows in brine, pectin, and produce.
Experiment #1. Dill pickles. Christine expressed a great deal of interest in trying to can pickles. So, we stopped off at the Harvard Farmers Market and bought 20 or so pickling cukes and a big handful of dill. With a few mishaps on the way (dill pickles without the dill, briefly, but caught in time), we managed to make eight beautiful jars of tiny dill pickles, steeping (mellowing?) away in a fragrant, herby brine.Experiment #2. Grape Jelly. One of the finest things about the apartment where the Brit and I are living now (since May) is the beautiful back yard that we share with the other five apartments in our little corner of Cambridge. There is a rather stunning grape arbor that, this Summer, became overburdened with a bumper crop of big, fat, purple Concord Grapes. Christine and I went out, armed with one puppy and two big grocery bags and picked, conservatively, 15 pounds of grapes. Our recipe called for three pounds of grapes, with the goal of producing 4 cups of grape juice (but you can add a little water if you don't have enough). Our three pound batch rendered more like eight cups of juice, so we ended up making two batches of grape jelly. And there's about 12 pounds of grapes in the freezer, waiting for a (cooler) rainy day. Result: many, many jars (of both 4 oz. and 8 oz. varieties) of grape jelly.Experiment #3. Spiced Plum Jam. The Harvard Farmers Market also boasted a lovely array of late Summer produce, of which we selected Plums as our final ingredient of the day. As the chopped, pitted plums cooked down into a happy, syrupy slurry (Thank you, Seven Spoons, for the phrase "a warm slurry of bacon and sweet shallots" which reminded me that slurry can be a good word, too.), I decided to add some spice. "I feel like some spice would make sense with plums," I said to Christine, already a little delirious from the jars upon jars of grape and pickles we had done, and I threw in some ground cloves and ground cinnamon. Suddenly it smelled like Christmas and I knew it was a good idea.**Note: While we had plums on hand, I made this plum cake. It was delicious. This picture is before baking.After eleven hours of this business, with aching feet and back, and more than one burned fingertip (and a couple burned spots on face and feet from flying, boiling jelly), I can say with confidence that canning is a LOT more work than you think it is, no matter how much work you think it is.

Also, I can't wait to do it again.

Well, hello.

This is what I woke up to this morning.Granted, I cheated by buying an orchid from IKEA that already had buds (but no blooms!), but I'm convinced that my influence has saved it from languishing in that grim warehouse. This was the thanks I received for rescuing it.

That was the pleasant start to my day. How are all of you?


Two things: one happy, one not

First, the Bad. A friend posted this link on Facebook. A school with no books. They've decided to buy 18 Kindles instead. Unless the school only has an enrollment of 18 students, this horrifies me. The students who can't get their hands on a Kindle are meant to read on the internet (or maybe the school expects everyone else's parents to BUY them one - hello class distinction!). Gross. My happiest school hours were spent in the library, surrounded buy books hundreds of other students had read over the years, discovering things I wouldn't otherwise have learned. Ugh.

Second, the Good.A Back-to-School (where, at MY school, we still have books) Breakfast of Champions
  • 1 package fat free vanilla yogurt
  • 6ish blackberries
  • 8ish strawberries
  • some flaxseeds
  • a glug or two of almond milk (thanks, Sweet Amandine, for suggesting these last two!)
  • two ice cubes (if your blender can take it)


Season Straddling

Well, it's happened. The sun has started to set earlier, there's a distinct chill in the morning air, the apples and pears are coming in, and I expect pumpkins to start appearing everywhere I look. Also, school has started.As such, I've decided to stop worrying about it getting cold and just embrace all that Fall has to offer. Tomorrow I teach my first class of the semester, so it seems like the right thing to do, getting used to the season.

BUT. I'm not done with Summer yet. So, I made yet another batch of pesto, threw it over some pasta and cooked up some corn on the cob. I also pan seared some salmon filets and topped them off with a little pesto cream. This was the summery portion of our program:
As part of this Fall-embrace, I'm reminding myself of all the things I like about that peculiar snap in the air. Students lugging backpacks across the Yard and the first tiny white traces of frost. Lucy huffing and puffing while playing outside and little clouds of steam rising from her snout. Hot tea. Pumpkin soup. Butternut Squash.

And so I decided tonight to oh-so-cautiously nose my way into warm-fruit-dessert-season with a very free form pear galette. This is really the one-toe-at-a time way of heading boldly into Fall. Like a coward entering a cold ocean. But the subtlety of the pear's flavor paired with the rich muddy brown sugar is a gentle entree into Pie Season.

The results of this experiment were delectable as dessert, but will be breathtaking for as pre-teaching breakfast. Wish me luck tomorrow and, next time you need to fortify yourself and start to ease into the new season, make one of these puppies.
Early Fall Pear Galette

  • leftover pie dough (2 1/2 c flour, 2 cups butter, pinch salt, 4 T ice water)
  • two pears, quartered, cored, and sliced thin
  • 3 T dark brown sugar
  • 6 vanilla wafers, crushed
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T granulated sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Roll out the pie dough until it's (VERY) roughly circular, about 10" in diameter.
  3. Sprinkle the crushed vanilla wafers around the middle of the dough. They absorb some of the liquid from the fruit and add a layer of crunch and some substance to the floor of the galette.
  4. Arrange the pear slices in a roughly spiral pattern. It doesn't really matter how you arrange the slices, but if you take a little effort (I took a TINY bit of effort), it will be prettier.
  5. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the fruit more or less evenly.
  6. Fold the edges of the dough over about two inches to create the crust.
  7. Pop the galette into the oven for about 30 minutes.
  8. Melt the butter.
  9. When the crust begins to brown, brush the top crust with butter and sprinkle granulated sugar on top. This gives a little more crunch and sweetness as well as encouraging the crust to brown.
  10. Bake about 15 more minutes (for a total of about 45 minutes, I think. Though to be honest I didn't time mine.)
Slice and serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. I chose Caramel Pecan from Emack & Bolio's. It was a good choice.

Also, if I were more committed to the Fall Thing, I would have added some spice to the sugar - maybe ginger and/or cinnamon? Is this the sort of thing you would be tempted to add cardamom to? I think I have a passionate love for cardamom, but have actually never cooked with it myself. A little citrusy tang might also not help. Maybe a squeeze of lemon or even just lemon zest? What do you all think?