Sunday, November 29, 2015

Martha & Me - November

In November, I tried a new recipe from Martha Stewart Living magazine, Tian Provencal with Polenta (find it in the November issue, or click the link to see the recipe on Martha's website). A tian is like a casserole, basically (the word can refer to a special pan used to make one, or to the food made in it). This tian involves a layer of cooked polenta (a thick pudding made with cornmeal, milk and water) layered underneath cheese and sliced vegetables. I was attracted to this recipe because of the above photo. My photo of it is not great (oh so dark in the kitchen this time of year), but I was drawn in by those roasted vegetables, brown with crispy cheese. And that gorgeous Liberty-esque fabric under the baking dish! It's so true that you eat with your eyes first. I gobbled this up.

The vegetables include sliced leeks, zucchini, eggplant and tomato. I don't often cook with leeks (only once before, I think) so I was excited to use them. They aren't easy to find around here; I eventually located some at Trader Joe's, where they are sold in packages of two whole stalks. I had always heard that leeks would have a lot of dirt inside their layers but these were very clean. I sliced them as directed in the recipe, then let them float around in cold water for a while, to let any dirt settle out. Then I laid them on a dish towel to dry off. I liked the way they smelled, sort of sweetly oniony. The other veggies I just sliced; I knew they'd need to stretch pretty far with all the layering, so I made sure to do them thinly.

The recipe called for quick-cooking polenta, made in a saucepan with water and milk and seasoned with salt and pepper. I like polenta but rarely cook it this way (I usually buy logs of precooked polenta that can be sliced and browned on a griddle). It was quick and easy to cook. When it was done, I spread it in an oiled baking dish (just a regular 9x13 Pyrex; I don't have any baking dishes like Martha's lovely oval pottery one). The oil in the dish already seemed excessive by this step, as it flooded over the surface of the polenta; I used substantially less oil throughout the rest of the steps than the recipe called for. It just didn't seem necessary to use so much.

Next, I layered veggies and grated cheese over the polenta. I used basic Swiss cheese, though the recipe called for Gruyere, specifically. I decided to use basic Swiss for two reasons: one, it was more economical, and two, it has a slightly milder flavor, which I thought would appeal to the children. More on that later...

The pan filled right up. I was feeling nervous about there being enough room, honestly. But I followed the directions, ending with a top layer of veggies without cheese, and put it into the oven for its first baking session.

After the first 30 minutes, you take it out of the oven and flatten the whole thing with a spatula, then sprinkle the last of the cheese on top and put it back in the oven for 35 minutes, to finish cooking and to melt and brown the cheese.

It was gorgeous when it came out of the oven! I loved how the roasted, cheesy vegetables looked, and it smelled delicious. You could smell the polenta too - it was like roasted corn - and you could see that it had started to brown a bit on the bottom of the pan. We tried spooning it onto plates, as directed in the recipe, but it was very soft and mushy. We decided to let it cool a few minutes and slice it instead...

So much easier to serve! It was more like a savory pie this way. We ate it with grilled chicken breasts. The Bear and I thought the tian was delicious. We had seconds and thirds! The children were much less enthusiastic, but they tried it and that's all I care about. (It was unfamiliar, full of vegetables and built on weird corn pudding, I can't really blame them). I will definitely try making this again because it was deceptively easy and it tasted great, plus it sort of took the place of separate starch and veggie dishes in a meal. It reheated very nicely for lunch the next day too. For next time, I think I'll cut down on the leeks a bit, and I'll use more tomato (I liked the acidity and I think it could benefit from more). I might also add some Parmesan cheese in the layers, or even in the polenta, for a little sharpness. But I did like it and it was nice to try something new and different. That's what this challenge is all about, after all. Just one more month to go and I will complete my very Martha year!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Color Collaborative: November: Wood

I like to think I have a modern, well-appointed kitchen here at Casa del Osos. There's the standing mixer, a birthday present from my thoughtful in-laws. There's the electric kettle, obviously indispensable. My appliances are decent. I have cookie cutters galore, good pots and pans, a vast assortment of plastic storage containers, thermometers, sharp knives and a whiz-bang digital scale. We've come a long way from the days when almost everything we had in the kitchen was a hand-me-down or a yard sale find. We added new items over time, as the budget allowed. My first real kitchen purchases, in order: a set of three Pyrex mixing bowls, a small, stainless-steel ladle, and a wooden spoon. For all the lovely things in my kitchen today, that same wooden spoon is still my most-used tool.

My spoon is nothing special. I think it's probably made of beech wood. I was looking for something cheap, an addition to my clutch of second-hand plastic mixing spoons. I thought a wooden spoon seemed like a good idea; I'd already melted a plastic one on the edge of a hot skillet. This wooden spoon cost a couple of dollars. It came tethered to a cardboard label. I liked the pointy corner at the tip. I'll freely admit that I didn't have the first clue about what made a good wooden spoon when I bought it. I liked the price, mostly.

I probably assumed it would last a short time and then I'd buy a better one. Like almost everything else in those early years, it would have seemed temporary, a stopgap. Surely, I'd be moving up. And yet, here I am, still using the same old spoon. We've jettisoned a lot of old kitchen things over the years, including most of the plastic spoons, but my wooden spoon has always made the cut. It's too useful.

We've made some terrible dishes together: the grainy, greasy butterscotch pie filling, the half-assed Knorr sauces from packets (I tried them all; they're all bad), the caramel popcorn my pot wasn't big enough for, the slow-cooker oatmeal I forgot about. But also: the b├ęchamel I've perfected, the soups and stews I can now make without checking the recipes, the holiday meals I've cooked all by myself - soup to nuts - for my friends and family. I have other spoons, but I always reach for the wooden one first. I use it every day. It may even be shaped to my hand by now.

They say you're supposed to replace wooden spoons every few years, because they wear out and develop flavors and odors from the foods you cook. I'm sure this is true about mine; just look at the faded wood and the splinters on the handle. Where it used to be shiny, golden and glazed, my spoon is now sort of a whitish-gray, a mere ghost of its former self. You can practically see the garlic fumes. I've always kept it in a crock next to the stove, with my other main implements of cookery, where it gets shoved and bashed regularly. When I'm browsing housewares, I always stop at the hand-carved wooden spoons. Burnished and beautifully burled (the olive wood ones are my favorites), free of scents and stains, new wooden spoons do capture my attention. But I'm in no hurry. My spoon still has plenty of life in it, and I don't know how to cook everything yet.


Don't forget to visit the other Color Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts. Just click on the links below: 

Annie at Annie Cholewa
Sandra at Cherry Heart
Sarah at mitenska
What is The Color Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a color related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about color in new ways.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My birthday

A few scenes from my birthday, which was an ordinary and lovely day.

Mondays are our full homeschool day, so we did a lot of that, and also went to the children's dentist for their routine checkups (both were given a clean bill of health, yay!). We went to the grocery store next, to buy our turkey and other foods for Thanksgiving. I bought a frozen Butterball turkey, my favorite kind, and it's thawing in the fridge as we speak. We'll do what we always do with it - the Bear hacks it up into its parts, gives me the breast to roast in the oven, and takes the rest of the pieces out to the backyard smoker. It's nice to have some of each kind of meat, even if the smoked meat tends to be too smoky to use in a soup later on.

I'm also making candied yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing and asparagus. Very traditional, just the basic things that we all really love for Thanksgiving dinner. I was going to make dinner rolls from scratch like I did a few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, but I decided to cut myself some slack. Those rolls were delicious, but frozen brown-and-serve rolls are pretty good too, so we got ourselves some of those yesterday. There will be cheese and shrimp and pumpkin pie. If anyone goes hungry, they'll only have themselves to blame.

So, my birthday...we had a pretty typical day but there's always that little fizz of excitement when I remember, hey, it's my birthday!, while washing the dishes or folding laundry. Even now that I'm ever so old, ha. I had happy-birthday phone calls from all over. They took me out for dinner on Sunday night. We went to Black Angus for steak. I was craving steak for weeks! I love going there. The meal takes for-EVER and the food just comes and comes. We sat near the bar and watched football. It was perfect.

On Monday, my actual birthday, the Bear brought home my favorite cake, the one I have had for many years in a row, the Berry Chantilly cake from Whole Foods Market. It's amazing. I opened my gifts next, and what beautiful things I got. Hand-painted birthday cards from my children, a dainty and elegant antique sapphire ring (sapphires are my jam), a new Vera Bradley purse for my collection (my first Hipster style bag, so comfy to wear), candy, new blades for my rotary cutter and a DVD of Elf! My friends Leanne and Gillian sent me lovely, thoughtful gifts from across the miles and I was so touched by how well they know me, even though we've never met in person. A beautiful birthday, oh, it really was.

Thank you for your get-well and birthday wishes on my last post. I'm feeling better, for the most part. Still very congested, but that always takes some time to go away. I'm excited about the holiday, and our upcoming five-day weekend! I think we'll decorate for Christmas this weekend and put up the tree. We started listening to Christmas music in the past few days, in small doses for now. Santa lists have been made, some of the shopping is done (none of the wrapping is), I've laid in a new supply of hot cocoa mix. Music and ballet performances and school art night are on the horizon. It's cold out now, and I love it. I'm hoping we'll have a fire this weekend. Yep, it's all looking pretty festive around here. Let the ring-ting-tingling games begin!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

First snow

I'm just starting to emerge from the rabbit-hole of illness, where I spent most of the week. It's a bad cold, or a moderate flu, maybe. All I know is that it hit me fast and I was down for a few days. One of the last things I did, on Tuesday morning, was to wander the backyard with my camera to take some photos of the snow we'd gotten on Monday. There had been a slight chance of snow in the forecast, but they got it very wrong - it snowed quite heavily for the entire day and we ended up with about three inches in my neck of the woods. The children were very disappointed when they realized it was the heavy, wet kind of snow that is no good for playing in. It looked pretty, though, especially since so many autumn leaves were still on the trees (many have since dropped off). We watched the snow fall all day while we had homeschool, watched a movie and baked brownies. By evening, the snow had stopped and the storm moved on, leaving two days of frigid wind behind it.

I was beginning to feel a little achy by Tuesday night; on Wednesday morning, I could barely get out of bed. Life didn't exactly stop - I still had to do the school driving and the usual household things - but the Bear helped where he could, as he always does. I rested as much as possible and tried to stay warm (see, this is why you should make stacks and stacks of blankets - someday, you just might need them all at once). Today is the first day I've felt somewhat energetic. I went to the grocery store for the basics (including orange juice and cough syrup), and straightened up around the house a little. I hate being sick, I really do. I feel completely useless. I'm not a slow-down-and-rest kind of person, even when I really need to be. I know, I know. It's hard for me. I'm learning.

I'm starting to prepare for Thanksgiving; in fact, I need to go back to the store on Monday for my turkey and some of the other fresh foods I plan to make. I have a cooking plan for myself next week, to get some things prepared before the holiday (I keep wishing for that double oven but it hasn't materialized yet). I've got a special day coming on Monday, and we're still planning to celebrate with dinner out tomorrow night, so I'm going to rest as much as I can today and tomorrow. I'm determined! Watch me power-nap and hydrate myself! Feel the burn.

I'm far behind on blog-reading, and I owe some emails too; I'll try to get back on track soon. For now, I'm heading back to my couch and Netflix documentaries. I hope you're having a good weekend, my friends.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Yarn Along

I've done a few more rows on Hensfoot. I'm beginning to realize that this blanket needs a border, badly. I always add a border of some kind to my blankets, but this pattern has a particularly leggy and curly edge, which looks very ragged to me. I don't know what I'll do yet - it's way too soon to worry about it - but I might try to do something a little more interesting this time around, maybe something from my crochet borders book. Or maybe it should be really simple. Not going to worry yet, not going to worry yet, not going to worry yet....

I'm reading This Is Not a Love Story: A Memoir, by Judy Brown. It's wonderful. The author writes about her upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community. Two major things happen: one of her siblings is born "crazy" (actually autistic), and her parents fall in love with each other (scandalous in their pious world of arranged marriages). Young Judy questions, prays and makes deals with God to help her family. I really like her writing and the ways she describes her childish thinking as these situations unfold. I'm very interested in insular religious communities, and as you know, I adore memoir. This book really spoke to me; the positive review from Nina Stibbe on the back cover didn't hurt either. I'd read just about anything she told me to.

Joining in with Ginny's Yarn Along

Monday, November 16, 2015

November world

So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world.
-   John Clare, November

These darkening days at home are filled with activity and togetherness, the outdoor games moving indoors (provided they can be played with Nerf balls), cooking good, warming things, lighting candles, crocheting the afternoon away, going to bed early with a good book. We made a fall-themed mural this weekend, blazing trees and fallen logs by a clear stream. It rained all day on Sunday and we stayed inside, lights on, the radio playing as we each pursued our hobbies and worked together sometimes too. Today, we're having our first snow! There's a big holiday feast to make next week, and my birthday to celebrate just before it; lists and recipes and plans are crowding inside my head. I love this time of year, in spite of the grayness and chill. It's packed with things to do, places to go, people to see, dates to keep. But looking outside is important too, especially now. Recent events make me stop and think about gratitude, living intentionally, holding on to small things. I am living in the moment in this happy and peaceful place, holding my little family close, remembering those outside our small world, this place we occupy.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Golden hour

Right now, and for another week or so, there is a slice of late afternoon when the sun turns everything in my yard to gold. The trees over the arroyo light up for just a few minutes, looking much brighter than they do at any other time of day. It's my favorite time of day in the fall, and I have written about it in years past too. It's a good time of day to wander the yard, getting up high to look over the wall and straight up the arroyo to where it turns and disappears from sight, tawny trees diminishing into the distance.

On Tuesday, it was windy. There was a front coming in and the air turned icy. The breeze was the kind you feel in your bones and teeth, even after you're back in the house. I wanted to go outside and look around at my usual time, but the kids wanted to stay inside. Too cold, they said, too windy. Fine, then, I'll go by myself, I said, and I did. There was a lot to see. And to hear - everything rattled with dryness. Skeletal seed pods dropped around me as I passed through the courtyard - the trumpet vine shedding its slender brown beans. The little olive tree let down a shower of pale yellow leaves. The strawberry plants huddled low, russet-red and white-edged.

The glow lasted for just a few moments, the light rearranging itself, color shifting to the mountain - golden leaf giving way to rosy rock. By the time I went back into the house, the mountain was having its turn. I watched it fade to gray as I cooked dinner, one eye on the kitchen window. Ordinary miracles occurred: vegetables were sauteed, rice was spooned up, plates were dealt around the table. The day's adventures were discussed, the day's woes digested. Meanwhile, outside: darkening sky, emerging stars, whistling wind. The evening coasted toward baths and bedtime and finally, my own time (which included laundry that night, but laundry cycles are blessedly long). It was the best time of day. The best time.
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