Red the Color of Wintergreen Berries

Here’s a post, by request, from back in 2003. More than 15 years ago. Lot has changed since, and so much is still the same. No recipes back then, but I’ll make up for it next time around.

Listened to the show on Saturday and it was not bad. I was really quite taken with Inga Swearingen’s name alone, and kept saying it to myself as I listened from the green armchair in the living room. The kids were playing outside and I had nearly forgotten about them when they came stomping in all covered with snow, peeled off their snowsuits and threw them on the kitchen floor, and ran upstairs to read ghost stories to each other in the big corner bedroom with the door that opens onto a balcony. I’ve told them that balcony is off limits. They may fall through, or at least weaken the ceiling of the sun room below. They’re in a ghost story phase which gives them another excuse to scream.

So they stayed up there a while, reading and eating the popcorn I left for them and I turned down the lights and lit a candle and thought hard about Thanksgiving and how we all got so drowsy after the turkey at the in-laws. Inga sang “My Favorite Things” — a song I know from The Sound of Music and I went and made a mental list of my own: homemade bread pudding served up with green apples, and twilight, and the crackle of burning pine needles. I love my wood rolling pin and how the kids leave their footprints in the bath towels after a shower and how it feels to sleep under heavy quilts. I love to hear Mr. Sundberg laughing somewhere in the house, and I love silence, and those flour sack towels my mother embroiders along the edges with words like “Believe” and “Life isn’t fair and the sooner you realize it, the happier you’ll be.” She buys them in packages of five down at the hardware store. After she stitches the words in, she spray starches and folds a towel and sends it Priority Mail. The last one she sent arrived Saturday morning. It had just two words on it — in a red the color of wintergreen berries — followed by three tiny knots: “Remember when . . .”

It wasn’t until after the show when the kids were in bed and the candle was still lit and Mr. Sundberg had called from Wyoming to say goodnight that I got some of that precious silence. And the answer, Mother, is yes. I do.

Given Time

February 3, 2018

Made some apple crisp Saturday and it was pretty good. It’s a bit early in the year for apple crisp, I know, but I sometimes cannot wait to try a new recipe and you can always find apples and it seems to me cinnamon – unlike lemon or anise – works all year long. Kinda like garlic and avocado and saffron. Though I confess I have never once USED saffron. I will, though, given time.

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with enough presence of mind to write something coherent. For all kinds of reasons. This winter has been particularly intense. The cold, of course, is always there, but this year a few layers of ice under the periodic snows have sent cars into the ditch (not mine, yet, mind you) and the dark of the winter has seemed darker. Many people dear to me have been experiencing all manners of pain. A dear friend’s mother passed away last week. Another is struggling with her husband’s raging moods. Another is questioning his purpose in life. Another is with his father in a New Jersey hospital even as I write, the father wrestling in that place between life and death. And then there is the general sense of unease with our country’s shift into the unfamiliar. None of these things are insurmountable. None of them not prone to healing, given time.

But still. Some days are such that rising up out of warm quilts to be productive and do something meaningful seems not impossible, but on the list of questionable. On those polar days, who wants to venture out to sweep the inches of light snow off the walk when there’s a fire going inside, and candles lit, and the option of baking something with cardamom and cream? Thank the Lord for the wind, reminding us that we may take a break now and then, but Nature will not. It’s been a lovely force out there, swirling the snow away, the super blood blue moon rising to its whistling. A song for a moon dance, that wind. Along with the sun, it will clear the snow, that wind, in time.

I’ve been reading, books large and small, some for pleasure, some for answers, some because they were recommended by friends. I re-read “King Lear” just for the heck of it. Someone was talking about Shakespeare over at the post office, and I thought, Hmm, and why not. I read an interesting article on the purification of silver, and am reading now a book titled “A Long Walk To Water” by Linda Sue Park, a short read I would highly recommend if you are lacking any perspective at all on how fortunate we are to turn a knob and have hot or warm or cold water spill out onto our bodies, or into a cooking pot, or into a small glass for the drinking. It’s a take on a way of life so remote from ours, yet most similar in that we humans want, very much, the same things. Something to hope for, good work to do, someone to love. And to love us. And may we each have one of those or all, over time.

It seems only a week or so since I last wrote, and looking now through my notes it’s been more than a month, and I feel like apologizing, but instead, perhaps I will simply carry on and push “send” a bit more often, and share with you things I found, and ask you questions, and answer yours, and simply be here while you are there and we will continue finding each other as we have all along. The way true friends are, given time.

Here’s a recipe I was blessed to sample recently when a friend brought it along to a gathering celebrating January. (Yes, we do that, and why not?) The crisp can be served up in squares, warm, with ice cream (something with caramel or brickle or cinnamon or plain) or simply some cream whipped not stiff but close. Or it works cut into bars as well. Versatility here in the polar region is a mighty fine thing.

Apple Crisp

¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup oatmeal
2 cups flour
2 sticks butter, melted
Mix and press firmly into 9×13 pan.
Bake 10-12 min at 400.

6 cups apple slices (use your favorite pie apple)
1 cup sugar
1 T flour
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
Toss together and spread on crust.

Crumbly topping:
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups flour
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup melted butter
Mix together and spread on top.
Bake 45 min at 375.


Three Perfectly Imperfect Homemade Pies

Made some hot pepper jelly dip Saturday and it was pretty dang good. Things have been winding up, slowly, these past few weeks with the cold getting colder and everything in the papers leaving me without words, really; the kids coming home for break, the question of whether the turkey would thaw in time (it did), holiday events popping up left and right, and all those ads for Black Friday this and Cyber Monday that. It’s enough for a relatively sane person to throw his or her arms up and holler, “Whatever!” or “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter!” Three phrases I do my best never to utter. They’re so without feeling, so dismissive, and if I’m going to put words out there I’d at least prefer words like, “Really” and “Seriously” and “Well isn’t that a humdinger.” All questions made statements by assumption that with whomever I am speaking would readily agree.

What DOES matter is my concern. When you REALLY think about it. I thought about it, all Thanksgiving Day as I cooked up a serious amount of food. What matters. And then, as I caramelized the onions and cooked the celery for the stuffing, I felt the list coming on. And it ended up sounding like Maslow’s hierarchy. Food. Water. Sleep. Comfort. Acceptance. So on. And so on. And then, I thought, those are NEEDS we have. Of course they matter. But what is at the heart of it all?

By then, I was on to the pie making. I gently rolled the crusts and lay them down in their plates. Then mixed the fillings – apple, pumpkin, blueberry – and poured each in its turn. At last, the top layers: Dutch crumbs for the apple; leaves cut from pastry for the pumpkin; lattice for the blueberry for dear old Uncle Tom. A brush with milk, a sprinkle of sugar, and into the oven they went. An hour later, there they were. Three perfectly imperfect homemade pies. Made with good thoughts and tenderness and spices and hope.

They mattered, those pies. To me, they did. They were one way I might show love on Thanksgiving Day. And Gratitude, too. But mostly love. And when all was said and done, and everyone was asleep on the couch or on the floor or tucked away up in bed, pure love poured out of every open window (got a bit overheated early in the day). And when there’s love, nothing much else matters, and everything does, and that we find ways to show it and share it is our only real purpose in life. Well, mine anyway. What matters to you might be quite a bit different, but I’ll bet love pops up in there somewhere.

On to the next thing! With gratitude, and love. And leftover pie.

Spicy spice. Oh, yes. Here’s an appetizer, the likes of which Great Aunt Wanda called, “an appeteaser.” Mmm Hmm. Yes, honey. Knock yer socks off and then some. And you’re sure to have requests so make some copies, for Pete’s sake.

Hot Pepper Jelly Pecan Dip

2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cups sliced green onions
2 cups chopped pecans
1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise
1 jar hot pepper jelly

Mix cheese, onions and nuts in a large bowl. Stir in enough mayonnaise to hold together. Press cheese mixture into a shallow dish or pie plate and chill. Or if desired, press into a round cake pan lined with plastic wrap, chill and unmold onto plate before serving. Top with pepper jelly.

Serve with Wheat Thins or other crackers.


One Bowl, Two Forks, and a Bottle of Good Red Wine

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.


The Kid Who Wiped With Poison Ivy

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.