we’ll start somewhere

fresh parsley

The smell of parsley makes me think of Passover, and the Seders we had at our house, all through my growing up years, with different friends each time, when my mom would make a big meal that everyone would rave about. On those nights, we’d dip sprigs of parsley in salt water—the parsley symbolizing spring and the newness of life, the salt water reminding us of the tears of Israel while they were in Egypt, before God parted the Red Sea and brought them out of captivity.

Until last night, that was the only place I’ve ever eaten parsley on its own. I’ve had it in things—like Thanksgiving stuffing, where it reduces from leafy stalks to bending, fragrant herbs on the stove, drenched in butter and sauted with onions. I know bits of it—dried or fresh—go into all kinds of marinades and rubs, and I know it’s very inexpensive to buy at the store (I want to say it was $0.99 for a bundle in November Wisconsin, which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing).

But when I saw the fat package of it in my CSA box, I figured I may as well give this formerly-only-of-the-holidays herb a chance to stand on its own, a chance for us to get to know each other in a new context.

Enter this Lemon-Rice Parsley Salad adapted from Food + Wine.

sweet pepper

Besides the fact that this recipe calls for a full cup of packed, chopped parsley (exactly how much I had! do you believe in fate?), it also requires half a sweet pepper, which was a bonus in my learning-to-use-vegetables plan.

half a sweet pepper

Now, as far as getting out of my comfort zone, I cheated a little with this one, since I already knew I’d like it when I saw the olive oil and lemon juice, which, between us, can usually make me like just about anything. (I read an article once about a famous chef I can’t recall the name of now, who said everything is improved with a little lemon on top. Amen.)

lemons

rice and olive oil

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the first one

turnips

I am going through a photo slump lately, the kind where I hate the places I usually use and hate the new places I try, so all of my photos are turning out just O.K., and I’m afraid to even submit them to Foodgawker or Tastespotting because a little more rejection is just not what I need right now; nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with my eating, as you can probably guess, so let’s focus on that.

I’ve joined a CSA. This is a fairly big deal. You probably already know what one is, but I didn’t—not until June, when one of my favorite bloggers mentioned a shipment from hers, and I said something about being jealous, and she said, Doesn’t Chicago have Community Supported Agriculture? And I said, Well, I guess we do.

Here’s how it works: you pay a flat upfront fee (mine was a reduced $180 because of a rough growing season in Chicago), like you’re buying a share in the farm, and, in exchange, the farmers give you regular shipments of fresh produce.

Actually I think it was fate that I learned this in June, because Broad Branch Farm (located in central Illinois, four miles east of a town named Wyoming) was only the second farm I contacted, and, would you believe it, they still had openings for the vegetable half shares, delivered every other weekend for a total of eight shipments, beginning in July.

I got my first shipment Saturday, and, people, I am so excited. In the box (again, pay no attention to the overexposed photography) were peppers, garlic, Swiss chard, lettuce, turnips, parsley and, oh my gosh, was all I kept thinking to myself while I pulled packages like presents out of the cardboard: how am I going to eat all this?

So I started with soup.

cream of turnip soup

Having had such success with vegetable-based soups (celeriac, carrot, spinach) in the past, this was a natural choice for the turnips, but, I am sorry to say, a disappointing one. While the soup was edible, it lacked flavor, of any kind, enough so that I was shaking additions on top (more salt! some parsley!) in an attempt to help things. It was creamy, it was hot, but it was nothing much else. I’m half-tempted to add the leftovers to some mashed potatoes (do any of you have thoughts on that?).

swiss chard and eggs

On to the greens. There was a little brochure with my share that gave news about the farm and included a recipe for a quick breakfast—Swiss chard and eggs. What you do is this: saute the Swiss chard (stem and leaf, which I chopped up roughly), crack some eggs on top and cover until cooked through. I added a step in scrambling and pouring in a little milk, as well as seasoning the whole thing with salt and pepper, but, let me tell you, I loved it. I ate it for dinner Saturday and then again for breakfast Sunday. Swiss chard is similar to spinach and from the same family as the garden beet, so you could use those if they’re handy. It will be ready in 15 minutes, and you’ll feel totally satisfied when you’re done.

potato fritters

Then, the peppers. I found five or six of them in there, in different sizes, some fat and short, some skinny and long like jalapenos, but they were all sweet, and so I searched a little online and found something perfect: Potato fritters with sweet pepper relish.

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the thing about Downers Grove

pastry from Busy Bee

It’s true the suburbs are no Chicago. There are no skyscrapers (no John Hancock Building, no Sears—I mean, Willis—Tower). Most things are spread out, so you can’t just hop on the train, and you have to get in the car to go to work, the store, even the park where you ride your bike. There’s also less of certain things, like boutiques or restaurant options, cheap apartments or people to run into at the corner coffee shop. We have some farms. We have bigger houses. We brag about lower crime rates.

But you who have lived in suburbs, tell me this: have you ever tried to find a bakery? At least in the Chicago area, it’s not easy. The few there are aren’t much of anything special, or overpriced, or hard to get to. One exception would be Vesecky’s in Berwyn, a long-time favorite of my family’s, which makes addictive hoska, that eastern European sweet bread with raisins and soft yeasty insides—if you haven’t been, go. And another exception would be this adorable little shop in Downers Grove, a long-standing establishment that is like one point for suburbs everywhere, and I say that proudly: Ingram’s Busy Bee.

pastry on jeans

The truth is, I’ve grown up loving the suburban things about Downers Grove, including its cute downtown—they have a little barber shop! and regular festivals! and gorgeous historic houses!—and its Tivoli theatre (where I recently saw and cried through the beautiful movie UP—have you seen it?), but I didn’t get to try Busy Bee until this year, mainly because it’s only available mornings (and never Mondays), and I’m usually not.

Last month, though, on a rainy Saturday in my flip-flops, walking over from the library where I’d met my brother who took the Metra into town, one bite was all it took for me to know one thing for certain: Ingram’s Busy Bee Bakery makes amazing, you-will-love-them, and-all-of-this-just-for-one-dollar? pastries.

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They’re Coming Together

cutting cookies

My senior year of college, back when I was still going to become a teacher, I had to present a lesson to a class of fellow education majors, as if I were teaching high school students, and I must have practiced five or six times. It had to be a certain length in size—maybe 15 minutes?—and it needed to include visual aids and an outline you handed the instructor ahead of time, with handouts maybe. I don’t remember what I was teaching on, but I remember there was a puzzle involved.

cookies closer

So there I was, holding up cardboard pieces of some greater picture, lecturing about how each puzzle piece seems ugly and pointless on its own but beautiful when it fits in with the others—who knows how this linked to the subject matter—and my professor was in the back, looking at his watch, not calling “time,” which would mean I could stop.

Palms sweating, completely out of material, I kept yammering, on and on about those puzzle pieces, how our lives were full of small circumstances that were just segments of something larger, how the underside doesn’t reveal the master design, how you have to keep a bigger perspective about things. The professor still hadn’t said anything. So I did the one thing he told us never to do: I finished, picked up my things and sat down, tears in my eyes signaling the nervous breakdown I would have in the hallway later.

Cookies on Cookie Sheet

(The irony was, a week or so later when I got my grade, I found out I hadn’t been under time, but the professor had just forgotten to signal.)

cookies on table

Anyway, I still think about that day sometimes, both about how ridiculously important that one assignment in that one class seemed and about how, while I talked about not forgetting the bigger picture, I was doing exactly that.

cookies closer

Life feels busier in the summer. Do you feel that way? There’s so much more you can do, so many more opportunities to do all of it, and even with so much more daylight, you find you drop things and start to feel behind, like you’re not catching up.

iced cookies

For me, there’s this blog party we’ve been talking about.

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never need to go back

orange sherbet

When you tell people you spent your freshman year—and only your freshman year—in Florida, at a small school in Clearwater just a quick drive from white, sandy beaches and surrounded by year-long sunshine, the most typical response is confusion, especially when they find out you later transferred to the northern woods of Wisconsin, just a half hour from the U.P.

What can I say? The truth is, Florida and I never quite hit it off: first, there was the intense heat when I arrived in August, with humidity that made my hair frizz any time I stepped out the door. Then there were the bed bugs, the failed French test, the homesickness and the time I passed out, trying to give blood. Mostly, there was Christmastime, and while I loved the beach on spring break in high school, it was an entirely different thing in December, when white twinkling lights and waving Santas dotted yards of palm trees and colorful flowers, and we still didn’t need coats.

One thing I will say for Florida though, and this is something important: it makes a good orange. More times than I should admit, my friend Liz and I hopped in her bright yellow Volkswagen bug, the one with daisies propped up in the console, headed to the retail shop for a local orange grove. I guess some people would make the trip for the oranges, or the juice maybe. Us? We went for the ice cream.

orange slices

Orange Blossom Groves in Clearwater, at least in the 2000-2001 school year, made the most amazing orange soft serve ice cream, totally worth our driving over in the middle of the day, even more than once a week. That soft serve was perfection: silky, creamy, icy cold, incredibly fresh. Of course the entire place smelled like citrus—the way your hands do when you peel one and the fragrance sticks to your fingers, your palms, the knife you cut it with—but the ice cream’s taste was the smell times ten. You know that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where they’re in Italy and Robert gets the peach gelato and says it’s like he’s never tasted a peach before? That was what this soft serve was like, only orange.

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take it with you

pretty and pink

At the end of some weeks, what you really need is a pretty pink drink, you know?

It’s not that this past one hasn’t been good—filled with kind people, strangers who felt like friends, unexpected work and unexpected rest—it has. In fact, like I could tell you about most of my life, it’s been filled with grace—that which I don’t deserve but which finds me, when I need it, when my strength is not enough, sent in the form of family who comes when you need them, people who pray, phone calls with old friends and, candied sweet potatoes from Boston Market late at night.

But it’s also been a little harder than I’d expected say, Monday afternoon, when I’d jotted down my to-do list of tasks for the night, none of which would end up being accomplished. So, just between us, I’m glad it’s Friday again, I’m glad I’ve cleared my schedule for tomorrow and, you know, I’m glad I have something pretty and pink to hold in my hand.

This simple spritzer is a blend of pomegranate and lemon juices, mixed with sugar and made fizzy with club soda. The carbonation is important—it reminds me of the to-die-for sparkle tea I had last summer, when Sonja and I sweated through Lincoln Park on a hot July afternoon, and Argo Tea lured us inside with a free sample—it really ups the refreshment factor. In this drink, you blend everything, pour it all on top of ice and garnish with mint leaves, and voila: instant luxury.

And on the topic of things pretty and pink, I should tell you this recipe originates from Mia King, as published in her soon-to-be-released book, Table Manners, which not only sports a pink cover but is the literary version of a romantic comedy and an incredibly easy companion.

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Away from Here

tender chicken

Saturday afternoon, I went to Jamaica, from the comfort of my own back patio. I didn’t need a plane ticket or a passport, and there were no hotel costs involved. Instead, after preparing a chicken marinade the previous night—a puree of spices, oil, chopped garlic, minced onion and diced jalapenos that made my hands burn (wear gloves, friends, anytime you touch the inside of jalapenos!), I stood over a white-hot grill and cooked an authentic Jamaican jerk barbecue, a little faster than was recommended but with excellent, tender, flavorful results.

Destination Dinners

The meal was the result of a recipe kit sent to me by Destination Dinners, a California company that specializes in making international cooking attainable and educational. Packaged in a pretty red box reminiscent of a Chinese takeout container, my kit came with a recipe, a shopping list, background information on my destination and, importantly, all the dry ingredients and extra supplies I would need, from spices to plastic gloves (yes, that I didn’t notice until after I’d created burning jalapeno hands) and a Ziploc baggie for the marinade.

inside of kit

Met with rave reviews, the entire delicious meal was gone by Monday, which, by the way, was the day I’d end up spending time visiting the hospital, where I’d walk through halls of dim rooms, patients illuminated by glowing television screens, regulation blankets piled high on their thin gowns, the string-tied ones that open in the back. And when I’d catch someone’s gaze, accidentally, I’d first imagine that person walking strong and healthy, far from beeping monitors and blinking screens, how different and right; then imagine instead myself in the bed, unable to leave, alone. I’d be thinking how hospitals are maybe my least favorite places and how, if I were a patient in one, I’d want to be anywhere but there.

You know, I wonder if maybe another reason people travel—beyond wanting to broaden perspectives or even change themselves—is because, sometimes, they want to escape, like I did in the hospital, from their cubicle or their neighborhood or their routine. Maybe that’s also why they cook—at least, I know it’s part of why I do. Assembling ingredients, particularly new ones, is part adventure and part escape—a way to explore without leaving your kitchen, to be exciting without blowing your bank account.

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