Made sweet potato salad on Saturday and it was not bad. Had black beans in it, too, and garlic and some red onion and cilantro and lime. All good. But it was the roasted sweet potatoes that made it just right, the kind of food I want to hide from everyone ‘til they’re all in bed and that’s when I get the bowl from the fridge and curl up in my blanket in the corner chair by the window and savor every bite of whatever it was I so selfishly hid away. But it was not to be. Mr. S could smell the cilantro all the way down in his workshop, and once I roasted the potatoes in a bit of olive oil and garlic, well, that was that. It was our dinner, that salad, along with a ring of smoked kielbasa and the last of the red wine, and a bit of vanilla ice cream with peaches cooked in brown sugar.
We talked about food, intending to plan out our Thanksgiving meal, but things got out of hand. We digressed. Our favorite meals (his is homemade pizza, so much so that we’re planning to spend a summer month down the road building a stone pizza oven out back, and I for my life – beef stroganoff, garlic pork roast, salmon, chicken and dumplings, homemade macaroni and cheese — can’t pick just one). We both agreed bacon is a staple, and butter, too. I voted for nutmeg and we at last disagreed. It’s cinnamon for him, all the way. And to almond extract, we both said “YES,” and to frosted sugar cookies, and apple pie, and homemade whipped cream and homemade root beer, which my grandma used to make and I did once and maybe we ought to give that a whirl one summer month as well.
I’m thinking it’s not so much the food itself, though, as with whom one shares it. Or cooks it, for that matter. Or bakes. Though I love to bake alone, I much prefer the kids in the kitchen with me, mixing and pouring and cutting out and frosting. I prefer the banter and the songs, the stories and the laughter to the quiet of rolling out pie crust in the fading light of the day. It’s the gathering about the table that makes the sauerbraten such a memory; it’s how we all take our peach pie and ice cream to the porch in the heat of July. How Mr. S and I share dessert, even though we often end up ordering two. Or three.
The best foods are those attached to memories of people and times we love, our parents and grandparents, our childhoods and all those Thanksgivings and Christmases and summers at the lake. Food becomes tradition that way, and each year when we put the cranberries on the table, we remember one grandma; and potato salad, the other. S’mores and buttermilk pancakes, fish fry and lemon bars, blueberry muffins and stuffing and fattijmand and pie.
And coffee. See, the first time we ever met, well, Mr. S asked me if I’d like a cup of coffee, and I said yes, and he brought me perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve had. The coffee itself wasn’t the thing as much as how he smiled as he handed it to me. My gosh. Coffee hasn’t been the same since, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
He went to bed early Saturday night, and I washed the dishes and listened to music and thought about what new dish I might make when the kids come home next week. Something different. Something to remember. Maybe we’ll at last get Chinese takeout this time, like we always say we ought to. Why not? Traditions don’t last forever, and new ones have to start somewhere. Ain’t that the truth.
Here’s the salad Mr. S and I shared. I recommend one bowl, two forks, and a bottle of good red wine. No glasses required.
Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Salad
1 lb sweet potatoes
1 small red onion
3 T olive oil, divided
1/4 tsp salt
Juice and zest from 1 lime
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 cup cooked black beans, drained and rinsed if using canned
1/2 cup cilantro
1/4 cup pepitas (optional)
Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Peel sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes and place on a sheet tray. Chop onion into 1/4 inch pieces and add to the tray. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on top and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Toss until sweet potatoes are well coated. Spread into a single layer and roast until sweet potatoes are tender and starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, combine remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with the lime juice, 1 teaspoon lime zest, minced garlic, and chili powder. Shake well.
Once sweet potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl. Add in the black beans, pepitas, and cilantro. Drizzle with the dressing and toss until salad is combined. This is best done while the sweet potatoes are still warm.
Made some soup on Saturday, and it was not bad. What I like about soup is you don’t really need utensils. You can simply cup a bowl in your hands and drink it, or take it to go in a Styrofoam cup. Or do like my cousin Earl did when we were kids. He’d pour it into a Ziploc bag and poke a hole in it and drink the soup that way. It was funny for a while, but then it became what Earl did and it wasn’t so entertaining. Thing about Earl is that he was most interesting when he was least aware. When he wasn’t at all tryin’ to be cute or make us laugh.
I remember comin’ around the corner of a barn at a family picnic and there was Earl, barefoot and squatting, carefully gathering lilies of the valley into a small bouquet. I watched him tiptoe over to my Aunt Margaret’s lawn chair, and place the flowers there for his mother to find when she got back from using the portable toilet shed Uncle Tom had rented. “Be darned if I’m poopin’ in the woods,” Tom said when he heard where we’re going to have the picnic. See, Tom was the one who, in 3rd grade, did just that and wiped his butt with leaves and the leaves turned out to be poison ivy and he was in pain for days. A hospital visit even. And of course everyone tried not to laugh but how could you not, and the story stuck and Tom was for the longest time “the kid who wiped with poison ivy.”
Earl became “the kid who picks flowers for his mom,” despite all his naughty ways. With his friends, he played jokes on the neighbor (a flaming bag of cow poop left on the porch which Mr. Jungerberg promptly stomped on and earned Earl a conversation with a police officer), he instigated small rebellions at school (“Everyone drop your pencil at exactly 10:30,” he would whisper, and the class would do it, and so much for focus the rest of the hour), and he generally made us all laugh and laugh with booger jokes and pulling kids’ pants down on the playground. But when he was alone? Earl liked to swing and sing and throw a ball against the stairs and catch it. Over and over again, gentle soul that he was.
Humans are complicated. We hide things about ourselves, and rob others of knowing us at what might be our best. But, if we’re lucky, we get comfortable one day and just be who we are and what a world of good comes of it. Earl is still out there entertaining people. He’s a musician, and writes beautiful songs about prairies and waltzing and the midnight sky. His mother is gone now, but he still picks lilies of the valley, and he gives them to his wife. He built a swingset out back for his kids years ago, and now that they’re gone I imagine he goes out there now and then, and has a go, pushing his feet up into the sky and humming songs from way back, when he was just a wee lad and things were a bit simpler. As they should be, now and forever.
Time o’ year for soup, and here’s one for greeting November. Serve it with fresh baked bread and a scoop of cobbler. But start up the fire first. Nothing like a good fire when the wind blows raw.
Good Tomato Soup
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed with knife and peeled
2- 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes in juice
1 cup water
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp celery seed
1/4 tsp oregano
1 T sugar
In a large pot melt butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and saute 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, water, cream, and all remaining ingredients. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat & puree in a blender. Return to pot and warm to serve.
The View from Mrs. Sundberg’s Window
Made some apple crisp Saturday and it was not bad. I had spent the day out and about, giving a baking talk at a local orchard and – being an introvert – I was a bit wrung out. It’s just that way. I talk with people all day and I feel as if my nerves are exposed. Nothing I feel badly about; it’s simply how I am wired. Being an introvert isn’t about being shy or quiet. No, Siree. It’s all about where you get your energy. I get mine from the quiet hours. Not that I have to be alone. In fact, I get energy at parties and gatherings just like extroverts do. Thing is, I like to be on the edge. The fringe. The periphery. Where I can sit and sip a drink and look out the window and talk in the candlelight and lean back against the wall.
Spent a good part of my life talking, in fact. Mr. S is always teasing me because sometimes it takes half an hour to mail a letter since my good friend Colleen started working at the post office. And I’ve been known, when the kids were around, to spend a good three hours shopping for groceries on a Saturday morning. I have cut down on my phone time for sure, but even a stranger knocks on the door and I welcome a good conversation. Everyone has a story, and I’ve met a very few people who didn’t have something interesting or important to say.
At the orchard Saturday I talked about pie and cobbler and crisp and Brown Betty, bars and pork chops and fritters and pancakes. All the things you can make with apples. And I listened, too, to all kinds of stories about so-and-so’s mother’s apple pie, and the best road trips for color this fall and how one couple were on their honeymoon and that one sweet little girl said her first word that day. (It was “pie,” and once she said it, she didn’t stop. For over an hour.) I listened to a couple argue about which apple is best for pie, and to a silver haired man playing guitar under a tree. Come to think of it, I didn’t talk much at all on Saturday; I mostly listened.
Maybe that’s part of the whole introvert thing. Maybe we are the listeners in a room full of talkers. Makes sense, you know. The Balance of All Things. For every thunderstorm, a sunny day. For every passing, a birth. Lovemaking, sleep. Fear, comfort. Dinner, dessert. Storyteller, Listener. It’s the way of it, I think. Always something to keep us level and sane. Think of it.
I’m a big fan of the crisp. Apple, blueberry, cherry, peach. But apple, my friends, is first in line. Try this recipe over a weekend. Makes a nice snack while raking leaves, after the hike, just before a nap in the hammock.
Caramel apple crisp
½ cup caramel topping
½ tsp ground cinnamon
6 large baking apples (about 2 3/4 lb), peeled, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 6 cups)
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
2/3 cup quick-cooking oats
In large bowl, stir together caramel topping and the cinnamon until blended. Add apples; toss until evenly coated. Spread in ungreased 8-inch square (2-quart) glass baking dish.
In same bowl, mix 2/3 cup flour and the brown sugar. Cut in butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through mixture in opposite directions), until mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Stir in oats. Crumble mixture over apples in baking dish.
Bake 45 to 50 minutes at 375 or until apples are tender and topping is golden brown. Serve with home-whipped cream and some more caramel topping.
Made a cream pie Saturday with the last of the fresh berries, and it was not bad. Neither was the fried chicken, and the biscuits were flaky as can be. Had to open the windows as I cooked and baked. It got so hot in the kitchen, and though it’s been cooler lately, we keep the bedroom windows open all night. Nothing like cool, crisp air as you sleep all tucked in with clean sheets and a fuzzy blanket and a quilt of some heft. Makes for good sleep, the kind from which one wakes and stretches and is up and running before the sun itself.
The night of my birthday was like that. Good sleep breathing in cool air, and a good long stretch when I woke. Only I didn’t jump up and at ‘em; I lay there awhile. Mr. S had left early for a meeting in the city, so I was in no rush to rise. I lay there feeling what it feels like to be a year older. It doesn’t feel much different, really. It happens so slowly, and when you turn and look back, it all went so fast. A series of snapshots. The moments. A blur.
There’s a line from the movie “Shawshank Redemption” that has been in my head lately. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.” Sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to a choice, but if you don’t think about things like what kind of person you want to be and how you want to live and such, you can kind of slide into ways you don’t much see until you’re way down low without much in you to climb back up. That’s when somethin’ in you starts dyin’. And you don’t want that. Let the livin’ commence.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy thinking so much. Perhaps it increases my chances, before I move on to whatever lies beyond, of finding myself having lived the life I wanted to live, and having been the kind of person I’d not be ashamed at all to be. Makes for good sleep, too, thinkin’ does. Along with that fuzzy blanket.
Raspberry/Blueberry Cream Pie
Make and bake a flaky crust or use a frozen one.
Cool before filling.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
2 T honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 container raspberries
1/2 cup blueberries
Whip cream in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form.
Whip in yogurt, vanilla and honey to taste. Spread in the cooled pie shell and scatter berries over the top. Chill before servin’.
Made some cookie bars Saturday and they were not bad. A new recipe from an old friend, and they were just what I was thinkin’ would be good during a rainy day to myself. And they were. Oh, boy. And so was the leftover bacon and cheddar burger we’d grilled on Thursday, and so was the popcorn I ate while watching Sweetland for the 17th time, and so was the small pile of buckwheat cakes I ate without a fork and with genuine maple syrup. And butter. Oh, my.
It’s my birthday next week, a big ol’ birthday, and I admit I’m feeling more like 27 years along and not nearly old enough to see my lit cake from space. Which could happen, if the sky is clear and Target has enough candles. This year in particular I figure it’s ok to celebrate that I was born. And that my mother survived those 26 hours of sheer agony trying to push into the world the fat baby that was me. And that my father survived what might have been his most anxious hours up until then, pacing the halls of the hospital, waiting for the word back in the day when fathers were off limits in the delivery room and mothers likely were not covered in hot, moist towels after my own challenges to breathe and push and breathe.
A lot of life is like that…you breathe and push and breathe and sometimes you navigate the wheelbarrow up the hill and sometimes it rolls on back down. Sometimes the soufflé falls, and sometimes the sandcastle is there in the morning. Now and then the grill won’t light, and I’ll be darned if I can hang a picture straight. My back kind of goes out (it did last week), but I can stand on my head at any given moment and there’s something to be said ‘bout that.
I’ve got a poem in my head most of the time, and this week it’s one I learned as a child, and it goes like this:
Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.
― R. Lee Sharpe
I don’t know what over the hill is, but I ain’t there yet. Really, it feels as if I am just beginning, the second story of my life, perhaps. The one where I don’t have to push so often or so hard. The one where breathing is a bit easier, and I give away my wristwatches, all three of them, to people who have a need to know what time it is. I certainly don’t. What I know is that I have it, and it’s a gift, and I can open it every day and throw the ribbons all about or wear them in my hair. I can waltz with it, and sing, and take a trip to Italy where, on a second floor, there’s a table by a window with a view of the sea. I can plant a holly bush and watch it grow, and hang at last the hammock I’ve been waiting to try. I don’t plan to retire; life must retire me. Until then, that day, when there is no gift of time, I’ll keep making cakes and lighting candles and making wishes that always seem to come true.
I don’t wish for much, you see. Just my favorite jeans, fresh bread, a cup of coffee in the morning. Windows open when the winds pick up, and a promise to never oil the creak in the swing on the porch. Good books piled about, the children calling now and then, a day to rake the fallen leaves, and hot baths and friends over for dinner with Mr. S at the grill. And in the night when breathing is all there is, and the sheets smell of the meadow as I fall into sleep, I feel grateful I am here, and that I know it’s just for a while. And that I’ve yet to live a day without laughter in the house.
These bars are simple to make, with all the flavor of cutout cookies and I must say they’re not filling at all. Even three of ‘em leaves room for more, and I had to contain my enthusiasm by taking a plate over to the neighbor’s and packing the rest in a Tupperware container I placed on the top pantry shelf. Even had to use the ladder, and that is somethin’.
Sugar Cookie Bars
2½ cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 T sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 T butter, softened
3 T milk
1 T vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar
3-5 drops food coloring
Preheat your oven to 375. In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for about 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg, sour cream and vanilla and combine.
Slowly add flour mixture while stirring until everything is combined. (The dough will be crumbly.) Press the batter into a greased 9×13 baking dish and spread it out evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges just barely start to turn golden.
Cool completely. Mix together all ingredients for frosting until creamy. Add in desired amount of food coloring and spread frosting evenly over bars.
Cut into squares and serve. Makes 18-24.