Spring Break

I had kinda gotten used to my solitary ways – finally implementing austerity measures that I've needed for a while. I would go whole days without spending money or using my car, whiling away a Sunday in bed watching old movies on my laptop or reading for hours by the fire. Or actually getting some work done. It was a quiet life, but I liked it.

Suddenly, it's spring break and S is home for 19 days. We've only hit day three, and life is already unrecognizable (or, rather, I remember a life like this but had blocked it out). A Hansel and Gretel trail of socks, gum wrappers, pencils, Vanity Fair, and US Weekly leads the way from the living room floor, where her suitcases have inexplicably taken up residence, down to her room on the opposite end of the house. Dishes are in the sink. Demands hang in the air like cartoon speech bubbles: Can you pick me and A up and drive us to Weston? Can you drop me off downtown? While you're out, can you buy ice cream? And, I could use some iced tea and lemonade....

We're always going somewhere – the movies, the mall (to buy things I forgot existed like a Yankee Candle air freshener), an afternoon road trip to Rhode Island just for fun, using up gas and miles and bickers and laughs like there's an endless supply. This week when I should be unpacking my new office, writing Latin tests, planning events, raising money, I'll be running to the orthodontist to finally get those braces off, or out on a college tour (clue to other junior parents, tours and information sessions on the weekends in March are practically non-existent), or coming home in the middle of the afternoon for some face-time with my kid between my morning and evening work obligations. It's discombobulating and exhausting.

As I write this, I can hear everyone's voices – tell her to take the T, or to get things for herself, or to pick up her crap. Good plan, I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, instead of mothering from afar like I've grown used to, I'll do it right under my nose and in my room and in the kitchen and in the car. Who knows, maybe it'll be kind of fun.


Taxes and Cocktails

This weekend I did my own taxes for the very first time. I'm 47 years old and not proud.

When I was a kid, I assumed I'd grow up and rule the world and never need anyone to help me reign. Maybe the thought exhausted me before I even got started because ten days after graduation I moved in with my college boyfriend and three years later, I married him. I worked, of course. I had a kick-ass job in television, but I was spoiled and knew that I could choose whatever career I wanted without thinking about the money. I had a decent inheritance and Bill had enormous earning potential and would always be there to pay for everything. Or so I thought. It's one of the reasons I married him. I was 25 (which I don't recommend).

"I do" might as well have been, "I do agree to let you take care of everything." Well, everything except for the things I felt compelled to control. I was completely in charge of choosing the food we ate, the house we lived in, the vacations we took, the friends we had, and the movies we saw. I allowed Bill to manage everything else –  lawn mowing, pool cleaning, and the stress of paying the least bit of attention to how much money we spent. It wasn't until I left him nearly 11 years ago that I was forced to learn any of those things and I'm still playing catch up. Luckily (?) that pesky pool-cleaning problem is out of the way. But now I change lightbulbs; put together furniture from Ikea; pay bills; make a fire; grill a steak.

The one thing I've never tackled is filing taxes. My sister-in-law has done them for me since 2002. I just assumed I was incapable. But this year I was tired of asking for help, and I'd successfully filled out financial aid forms – could a 1040 for someone with no discernible assets be much more complicated? Turns out it wasn't. The forms were easy – it's the amount I owe that's hard. So, I've taken a vow to update my W-4 with fewer exemptions on Monday and in the meantime, I'll make some cocktails. It is Oscar night after all, so I'll immerse myself in Hollywood fantasy, watch the red carpet, and drink these:

Silver Linings Playbook –  Boston Style
Created by Steve Walton, head bartender at High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah, and adapted by me from pbs.org.

I took the time to squeeze fresh juice. It's more expensive (i.e. money I should have sent to the IRS, but worth it). The original recipe called for High West Silver Oat Whiskey, which I actually found at Brookline Liquor Mart, but it cost $43, so I went with Bully Boy Distillers White Wheat Whiskey, which is handmade in Boston. I have no idea what the difference in taste between oat and wheat is, but I'm happy with my local and wallet-friendly ($27) choice.

Makes 6 drinks.

18 oz white (un-oaked) whiskey
12 oz fresh grapefruit juice
6 oz fresh lime juice
6 oz simple syrup (dissolve 6 oz sugar in 6 oz water and cool)
24 slices of fresh ginger

Muddle fresh ginger, grapefruit and lime juices and simple syrup; add whiskey; shake and pour over ice in bucket glass. Garnish with a grapefruit slice.


A Bite of Pizza; A Bite of Dumpling

Generally I'm pretty high maintenance. No, no, really I am. I spend a lot of energy making myself (relatively) happy and making sure I get what I want. At least some of the time. I've started to calm down over the years – I find age brings lower expectations. But not for dinner. For me, anyway. Whenever I hear someone say, "Oh, I just had a bowl of cereal...," I look at them with disbelief and pity. Cereal? For dinner? It's like we're two different species  – like I'm a blood crazed vampire and they're a paper doll subsisting on crumbs dropped by passersby. I take dinner very seriously. Last weekend we had a snowstorm and I spent the weekend cooking: "Monday" meatballs from the A16 cookbook; braised short ribs, again from A16, etc... My sister was like, "who are you having over for dinner?" Um... nobody? Me?

By Wednesday I found myself filled to the gills with braised beef and with only an avocado left from all of my storm grocery bounty. Throughout the day I had a steady stream of ideas for what to make with the avocado in the back of my mind (if I spent as much time thinking about the state of the world as I do about what to have for dinner, Barack Obama wouldn't be my dream boyfriend, he'd be my employee). Shrimp tacos? Chicken and rice? Carne asada? The list went on and on. But then I got home and found myself faced with certain realities:

1. I hadn't been in my car for 5 days and didn't feel like getting it out of the garage.
2. My kid's in boarding school and I really should be saving money to actually pay for boarding school.

I was still with myself for just a half a second and thought some previously un-thought thoughts:

1. Somewhere in my refrigerator I have a small leftover piece of eggplant and sausage pizza.
2. I also have frozen dumplings from H-Mart in the freezer and the fixin's for dumpling sauce.

So... I ate what was in the house. Well, I walked to the local grocery and bought a bag of chips so I could snack on guacamole while I reheated the pizza and pan fried the dumplings.

This may not seem like a big deal. But it was to me. I didn't have a big dinner or even an appealing one, and I was okay. I don't even think I watched television – I read my book and then after "dinner," I did muster the energy to get the car out and drive to the MFA to gaze at the visiting Cezanne.

For one evening I was fed by something other than food.

But, I wouldn't want to make a habit of it. So while the snow is still on the ground, and winter food fits the bill, here's a recipe for meatballs that satisfy nearly every need.

Monday Meatballs
adapted from A16 Food and Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren

10 oz boneless pork shoulder , cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor (or ground pork, etc... at the grocery store if you must, but it's worth grinding yourself)
10 oz beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
6 oz day-old country bread, torn into chunks and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
2 oz pork fat, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or frozen for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor
2 oz pork fat, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or frozen for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor
(if you have a food grinder all of the above can be ground all at once)
1 c loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 T plus 2 t kosher salt
2 t dried oregano
1 1/2 t fennel seeds
1 t dried chile flakes
2/3 c fresh ricotta, drained if necessary
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 c whole milk
1 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes with juices
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Block of grana, parmesan, or romano for grating
Extra virgin olive oil for finishing

In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 1 T of the salt, oregano, fennel seeds, and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs, and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small nugget of the mixture, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small saute pan. Taste it and adjust the seasoning of the mixture with salt if needed. Form the mixture into 1 1/2" balls each weighing about 2 oz, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are browned. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

In a medium bowl, sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 t salt and break up into small pieces with your hands.

Pack the meatballs into a large roasting pan or 2 smaller pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

Pull the  pans out of the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.

For each serving, ladle meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate cheese over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish and serve immediately.

Truth? I had mine over spaghetti. All covered with cheese....


Cooking Ever Since

Ostensibly this blog started out  as a place to share recipes and a love for food. Clearly, it's transformed into a forum for me to share too many details about my life and then stick a recipe at the end. This post will be a combination of both, with, I hope, an emphasis on the food side.

I don’t remember much about my mother’s cooking when I was young, but I grew up on the coast of Maine and lobster figured prominently. The two of us lived alone on Two Lights Road, home of the Hopper lighthouses and a restaurant called The Lobster Shack.

In the early 1970’s the lobster dinner at the Shack was a whopping $5.99, so we would normally drive to Old Orchard Beach for the iconic basket filled with lobster, cole slaw and fries, available on the boardwalk for a more reasonable $3.99. When we went to the beach, we’d pack a picnic, which would include either my (still) favorite, Italian Sandwiches, the kind only found in the greater Portland area, or baked bean sandwiches, which, inexplicably, I think I ate without complaint.

The only home-cooked memory I can dredge up from those early years is haddock stuffed with … something, and a pan fried chicken dinner I “made” my mother burn once when I was late coming home from Janey Mahoney's house.

The first time I remember cooking was when I was in 6th grade and my mother was dying of colon cancer (for those of you who know my current, healthy, alive mother, I'm writing about my adoptive one). We had moved south of Buffalo to be closer to relatives (i.e. the people I would live with when she died), and because of the effects of the cancer, she was usually too tired to rustle up dinner. I have one very specific memory of making myself lamb chops, but usually I’d bake a Swanson’s TV dinner. The one with the fried chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and the apple “pie” for dessert. Or was it called, “cobbler.” Anyway, after a solid six months of what I used to think was a treat, I beat the trend and called it quits for TV dinners.

When my mother died I moved in with my Aunt Marge and Uncle Bill. Men had too much power in those days, and Uncle Bill and my cousin Bob were clearly in charge of the dinner selection. Here's the list of what they would eat: steak; lasagna; spaghetti; pork chops; steak; lasagna; spaghetti; pork chops; and something called “turkey roll.” Let’s see, am I missing something? I don’t think so. There was no chicken and no fish. No lamb either. For special occasions we’d have roast beef. And there was definitely a pot roast or two. We’d have salad with every meal (and if you didn’t want a salad, you were required to eat a raw vegetable as a pre-dinner treat. Celery for Bob; half a green pepper for me. I ate salad as well but wanted to be just like my new sibling). We also had frozen vegetables in individual Pyrex bowls, defrosted in the microwave and topped with a melted slice of Velveeta. My Aunt Marge was a great cook and all of these things were delicious, but I arrived ready to shake things up by the sheer fact of wanting a larger variety of food to eat. I was skinny in those days. I mean really skinny. And I would eat a TON. At one point my new family had me checked for tape-worm. But it was just a super fast metabolism – a metabolism that ran away and joined the circus never to be seen again the second I hit 25.5 years old on the dot. I miss it and hope it's doing well.

So, one day I suggested to Aunt Marge that maybe she could make two dinners some nights – one for the two of us, and one for Bob and Uncle Bill. For some reason she agreed. I threw myself into helping with the new recipes. She had a slender hardcover encyclopedia-like series of Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, and I went searching. Since chicken had been scarce, we started there first – dishes with exotic sounding names like Chinese Walnut Chicken and Chicken Cacciatore came to 1977 Western New York.

I quickly latched on to Chinese food. The only take-out in the two towns I'd lived in was pizza. Soon I was inviting my friend Beth over to make Chinese “banquets” – which consisted of making egg rolls from scratch, which I found pretty impressive.

In any case, I’ve been cooking ever since. This is one of the things I made w my friend Liz last weekend. And, I’m not going to lie, impressive once again.

Mussels Stuffed with Mortadella (really, has anything ever sounded so yummy??)
Adapted from A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield

For the stuffed mussels

10 oz pork or veal shoulder, cut into 1" pieces
One 5-oz chunk mortadella, cut into 1" pieces
1/2 c fine bread crumbs
1 1/2 t Maldon or another flaky sea salt
About 3 dozen large PEI mussels, cleaned and prepped (see below)

For the sauce

Three 28 oz cans peeled whole San Marzano tomatoes, drained, trimmed, and squished with your hands
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil, plus a few glugs for finishing
7 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 c dry white wine, such as Sauvingnon Blanc
1 or 2 Dutch or other spicy long red chili, thinly sliced (including seeds)
Maldon or another flaky sea salt
A small handful of basil leaves, roughly chopped

Special equipment: meat grinder or a meat grinder attachment for your food processor. (I finally invested in the latter. It was about $35 and totally worth it.)

Make the stuffing: Put the pork or veal, mortadella, bread crumbs, and salt into a medium bowl and mix together thoroughly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the freezer for about an hour.

Using a meat grinder, grind the meat through a large die into a bowl. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and put into the freezer again for about 30 minutes. Grind the mixture again through the small die.

Stuff the mussels: For each mussel, grab a generous tablespoon of the ground meat mixture, depending on the size of the mussels, and add it to one of the shell halves. Gently squeeze the shell until it's almost shut, then push any filling that oozes out back into the ground meat mixture. As you fill the mussels, place them in a big bowl. Set the bowl of stuffed mussels aside while you start the sauce. (April says that you can leave them overnight, but if you know me, that option was out of the question. Clearly it would lead to certain death).

Make the sauce: Reserve 3 cups of the squished tomatoes, and puree the rest in a food processor. Pour the oil into an 8 - 9 quart Dutch oven or other pot large enough to hold the mussels in no more than two layers and turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until it turns a deep golden-brown color and smells nutty and sweet, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, then add the squished tomatoes, tomato puree, chili, the reserved mussel liquor, 1 c water and 1 teaspoon salt. Let the liquid come to a simmer and tweak the heat to maintain a gentle simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cook the mussels: Gently (so the stuffing doesn't fall out) add the mussels to the pot in one or two tightly packed layers. Give them a gentle press down with your hands or a spoon. Cover the pot, tweaking the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 25 minutes, then uncover the pot and give it a light shake. Spoon some of the liquid over the top of the mussels and replace the lid. Cook for 15 minutes more, shaking occasionally, turn off the heat, and let the mussels sit, lid still on, for 5 - 10 minutes. Remove a mussel and open it. You should be able to easily pluck out the mussel meat and filling in one piece. Taste the sauce and add a little salt, if you'd like. Gently stir in the basil and a generous drizzle of olive oil. YUM!!

How to clean and prep the mussels: If any of the mussels are open, shut them. If they won't shut, throw them away. Scrub the mussels under running water with a rough sponge or brush to remove any sand and grit, and pull off any beards.

Prep the mussels over a large tray or baking sheet that will catch the mussel liquor but won't restrict your movements. Steady a mussel on its edge so that the flatter edge faces up. With the other hand, starting at the midpoint of the flatter edge, carefully force a small sharp knife into the space between the shell halves and use a light sawing motion to cut all the way around the shell's round tip. Twist your knife firmly but gently (be careful not to break the shell) to jimmy open the mussel. Use your fingers to pull the shell open as much as you can without separating the shell halves. Some of the mussel meat should be clinging to each side of the open shell. Remove any beard you see inside. Repeat this process with the remaining mussels. Strain any mussel liquor through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and set it aside. (Oops, I think we forgot that last straining part, but we lived.)