Saturday, August 3, 2013

Your Long Journey Home

I began planning this cake -- in honor of the husband's 30th birthday --in a happy mood, but I finished it with a heavy heart.

My Uncle Dale has died. He was 79 years old and his health had been declining for several years, but his death was still unexpected. The news hit me like a cold wave and took my breath away.

When I was a kid, my Uncle Dale seemed like the toughest man alive. He seemed invincible and unafraid of anything and everything he might encounter. He was missing three fingers -- he lost them working in the coal mines -- and when he told me that they were gone because he bit them off, I believed him.

When I picture my Uncle Dale, I see him see him sitting on his lawn mower wearing blue jeans, a button down work shirt, and a baseball cap. Always a baseball cap. Or I see him eating a bowl of butter pecan ice cream after lunch. Or sitting in his recliner watching the Kentucky Wildcats or the Atlanta Braves. Or with dogs. Always with dogs. He loved them. In fact all of my dad's family does. I may be the first cat-person in generations. When I was little, it seemed that my Uncle Dale always had beagles. At least I think they were beagles. By the time I was in late elementary school, he had transitioned to boxers and his beloved boxer Doogie Hosier was the first dog my brother truly loved. After Doogie was hit by a car, my Uncle Dale moved on to a pair of toy poodles. Chica and Chico, I believe were their names. They were so tiny that my Uncle Dale use to carry them around in the front of his shirt. A juxtaposition if ever there was one. The secretaries at my dad's law office used to love when Uncle Dale would come to visit, this loud and teasing coal miner of man  full jokes and sass with a tiny dog in the front pocket of his shirt.

My Uncle Dale was not a large a man. He was probably barely over 5'6", but something about his presence seemed to take up the whole room. He was also a deeply religious man who served as a deacon in his Southern Baptist church for many years.

When I think about his passing, I am particularly sad for my Aunt Nettie. It seems to me that there are very few times in my life that I have not said the names Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie together in the same breath. They were just so inexplicably intertwined that the thought of one without the other seems unfathomable to me. My Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale were married in 1953 at the tender ages of 17 and 14. They married against the wishes of my grandparents and after they married my Uncle Dale dropped out of high school, where he had been a basketball star who went by the nickname of Soapy (a play on our last name). They were parents to a son with one year of getting married and three more sons followed shortly after. My Uncle Dale worked many hard jobs over the years to support his family. He was a coal miner for most of his life, but he also owned a lumber yard for some time. My dad worked there during the summers when he was in high school and college and Uncle Dale always made sure that my dad got only the hardest of jobs. At least that's the way my dad tells it.

My Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie kept me at various times of my life while my parents were working. Since my Uncle Dale worked nights, he was often around. One of my earlier memories is of being 3 years old and playing horsie, bouncing on my Uncle Dale's knee. The wind blew the door open and he told me it was ghost.

During late elementary school, my brother and I spent summers at my Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie's house out in the country. I remember my Uncle Dale smoking meat in the barbecue pit he had built in his backyard and I remember Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale's mutual fascination with the O.J. Simpson murders. His trial playing nonstop on CNN was the soundtrack of my summer 1995.

When I was a freshman in high school, I stayed with Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale for a few weeks so that I could finish the school year after my parents moved to a different town. My Uncle Dale went out and bought a tv just for my room so that I wouldn't always have to watch tv with them. It was a small gesture, but in retrospect, exceptionally sweet.

When I think about it, I feel like I was an exceptionally lucky kid because I had two exceptionally wonderful uncles in my Uncle Dale and my Uncle Will. My Uncle Dale was so large and loud and funny, but ultimately kind. My Uncle Will was small and quiet and thoughtful. They were so different and the perfect counterbalance to one another. They were the real-life Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion of my childhood.

My Uncle Will passed away when I was in 9th grade and now that Uncle Dale is gone too, I like to think that, if there is an afterlife, they are both hanging out in it together. And that Aunt Peggy is there too to bake them cakes.

They say that no person is truly gone so long as there is someone left on Earth who remembers them and I know that I shall remember my Uncle Dale until the day that I too am gone. I'll think of him every time I eat butter pecan ice cream or barbecue or corn and tomatoes fresh from the garden. He loved his garden. I will think of him when I eat ketchup, as strange as it sounds. He loved ketchup so much that he poured it over his scrambled eggs. My Mamaw once told me that when he was kid, my Uncle Dale loved tomato soup so much that it was the only thing he wanted to eat for lunch for years. At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine my Uncle Dale as a kid and my grandmother as a young mother. I'll think about him each time I think about the coal mines, where so many men work so hard for such long a time, or when I see a toy poodle. I'll think about him when I tell my some-day kids that I once had the best uncle there ever was.

I suppose I shouldn't approach this cake with a heavy heart. I should be happy because happiness is the one thing Uncle Dale would have ever wanted for me.

If anything, his death should be a reminder of how important birthday cake is. A reminder of how important it is to celebrate each new day we are given and to have fun and to cherish each moment because truthfully we never know when it might end.

Caramel Cake 
Adapted from The Taste of Country Cooking by Miss Edna Lewis

For the cake: 
5 T butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/4 t salt
2 eggs
2 cups flour, sifted
2/3 cup milk
2 pure vanilla extract
1 t fresh lemon juice
4 t baking powder

(1) Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees and butter and flour two 9-inch pans.

(2) Beat the butter in the bowl of a mixing stand until it starts to look shiny. Add the sugar and salt and beat until fluffy.

(3) Add the eggs one at a time, stirring between additions (Ms. Lewis says to stir the mixture only counter-clockwise, using a wooden spoon).

(4) Add 1/2 cup flour and stir, then add 1/4 cup milk and stir. Continue alternating adding flour and milk until you get down to the last 1/2 cup flour.

(5) Before adding the last 1/2 cup flour, stir the vanilla and lemon juice into the cake batter. Then combine the baking powder with the last 1/2 cup flour and add to batter.

(6) Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake for approximately 25 minutes. Ms. Lewis writes "Test to see if done by noticing if the cake has shrunk from the sides of the pan. Also listen for any quiet noises from the cake. If there are none, that's a sign it is done." (The Taste of Country Cooking, pg 129)

(7) When the cake is done, quickly remove the layers from their pans and put on a wire rack to cook. Ms. Lewis advises letting the cakes cool for about 5 minutes, then covering with a clean dish cloth until ready to ice.

For the Icing:

1 cup heavy cream
2 1/4 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 T butter 
2 t pure vanilla extract

(1) Place the cream in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Do not allow it to come to a boil.

(2) When the cream is hot, but not boiling, stir in the brown sugar and mix well. Continue heating and stirring frequently until the mixture starts to thicken. This may take some time, but be patient. You want the mix to get to what Ms. Lewis calls the "soft stage." You will know it is ready when a drop of the mix will solidify when dropped into a cup of cold water.

(3) Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. 

(4) Ice the cake right away. If you notice the icing starts to harden, stir a few drops of cream in it until is softens. Ms. Lewis advises against refrigerating this cake. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

I hope some day you'll join us

I did not grow up in a zucchini eating household. 

I feel like I could substitute a lot words for zucchini in that sentence. Zucchini. Eggplant. Edamame. Grits. 

It's not that I'm really that excited about grits, but since I've moved to the way far north, people keep asking me if I eat grits and just once I would like to say yes. It would avoid the whole problem of disappointing them and be easier than explaining the subtleties of the grits line  and how Kentucky is not traditionally grits-eating state. 

 It's strange that as an adult I'm now encountering so many seemingly common foods that I didn't consume as a child. My parents were otherwise always really good about exposing us to new cultures and their foods. Every family vacation involved at least one trip to an exotic restaurant and even today my dad loves the challenge of finding new cuisines in the cities he visits. I still remember sampling Ethiopian food for the first time at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. when I was 10 years old.

 I guess the fact that neither of my parents really like to cook is partly to blame for limited ingredient exposure. Their mutual dislike led them to amass a handful of easy, basic recipes (pasta, pot roast, beef stew) they could make over and over again and they were rarely interested in branching out. My mom's aversion to mushy foods (i.e. zucchini, eggplant, grits) is another culprit. My brother was also extremely picky as a kid and, although I never felt like I was being picky, I became a vegetarian at age 15 and it certainly can't be easy to plan meals for one person who is a vegetarian and three who are not.

Anyway, back to zucchini.

The first time I ever encountered zucchini was in college when my then future mother-in-law prepared some steamed zucchini and yellow squash. It was so simple, yet so, so good. It was also a signal that if I was serious about this guy I better plan accordingly because I would be marrying a zucchini-eating man.

Shortly after James and I got married, I began trying to incorporate zucchini into our meals. I think I experimented with adding it to pasta and to stirfrys. I made some ratatouille and I tried baking it and stirring it into soups as well. It wasn't until I came across this particular that I created a real winner, however.

As is often the case, this recipe was born out of desperation on one of the days when we felt like we were completely out of food. We did, however, have some fresh garlic and a small bundle of zucchini from my mother-in-law's garden, so I decided to chop up with the zucchini and sautee it with the garlic and olive oil and the whole combination was pretty delish. With a little more experimentation, I found that I liked the zucchini a little better matchsticked than sliced because it soaks up less oil. I also found the recipe (if you can even call it that) is really good with other vegetables thrown into the mix -- carrots and yellow squash (as pictured in this post) work especially well, as do leftover herbs like rosemary and thyme. One day when I was feeling bold, I tried adding walnuts to the mix (I stirred them in with the garlic and let them toast a little before I added the vegetables) and I've also played around with pecans and cashews to somewhat lesser degrees of success. On the day that I took these photos, I added some chopped almonds. It's definitely enough to convert me to a zucchini-eater.

Are there any vegetables you didn't like as a child, but now eat as an adult? Do you have any recipes that you created on a whim, but now make often?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

If you don't believe I'm right...

 A recent discovery: When you are in a pinch, black eyed peas  make an excellent substitute legume in beans and rice.

Plus, using black eyed peas totally feeds into my recent Southern food obsession.

 I realized early in the day that I made these that I was going to be scrambling to put something together for dinner, so I unearthed a half-bag of dried black eyed peas from the back of my pantry and put them on the stove to cook. I didn't bother to soak them. Instead I just put them in a big pot full of unsalted water, brought them to a boil, then reduced the heat and let them simmer until they were soft. Then I drained them and set them aside until I needed them.

When I was ready to eat, I diced up an onion, a couple of carrots, some celery, a few garlic cloves and two tomatoes. I sauteed the onion for a moment with some olive oil, then added the carrots and celery and let them cook until they were soft. Then added the garlic and cooked it for about 30 seconds. Next came the tomatoes. I stirred them into the mixture, reduced the heat, covered the pan, and let everything cook on low until the tomatoes got nice and saucy (about 15 minutes). Then I dumped my pre-cooked black eyed peas in to the mix along with some salt and pepper and let everything simmer for a few minutes until it was heated through.  Meanwhile, I chopped up some parsley (I'm not a huge parsley lover -- I think cilantro would have been better -- but it's what I had) and tossed that into the pan right before I killed the heat.

I served my creation over some brown rice and alongside some steamed broccoli. I would make a few adjustments and some minor tweaks if I were going to serve this again, but all in all it was not a bad dinner.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Doubting Thomas

Whenever I start to question whether becoming a librarian is the right path for me, I go to the Saint Paul Public Library’s downtown branch. 

For all of Saint Paul’s faults (and there are many), its downtown library is the bee’s knees. Marble floors, dark wood paneling, the smell of so many books lingering in the air. It’s exactly what a library is supposed to be. 

The fiction room is gigantic and I could get lost in there for days.

I secretly like the way my shoes always squeak as I cross the enormous, echoey research room, even if those squeaks almost always earn me dirty looks from the law students and med students who inhabit that space. It makes me feel like a rebel. 

My favorite place — and I don’t know if should be telling anyone this place exists — is the mezzanine level between the second and third floors. It houses all the cookbooks and I seem to be the only person who ever goes there. More often than not, it feels like my own private library and I spend way too much time there devouring the Southern Cookbook collection volume by volume. It’s a surprisingly large collection for some place so far north and each time I visit, I come home with an armload of books which I then read like novels before bed. The cookbooks seem to lose some of their magic once I leave the library, however — it’s only when I get home that I remember that I would feel guilty about using that much butter and that I don’t eat pork and that leaves me out of luck since even green beans have pork in them once you get south of Ohio. Still, my trips fortify me in other ways. As I said, whenever I go there, I always catch myself pausing to take a deep breath and say “Okay, this is right.”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Song of the South

I've been dreaming about the South lately. Obsessing over and longing for it really.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that because Lord knows that the entire time I lived there I wanted nothing more than to get out.

I know that Kentucky is not exactly the Deep South, but I swear I've never felt more Southern than when I moved to Minnesota. Minnesota is strange. In fact, the whole Midwest in general is strange to me and I honestly feel like a a bit foreign here. People eat weird food here and I don't know that I will ever get used to the accents. We have been here five months now (!!!) and I'm yet to really connect with anyone. People are polite here and they are nice too I suppose, but they aren't particularly warm or friendly. At least not in the way people are in the South. I feel like the state slogan here should be Minnesota: Where the winters are cold and the people are colder.

My obsession with the South is particularly centered around food. I guess that is to be expected from someone as food centered as I am. In fact, I think the obsession started when I picked up a copy of Cornbread Nation 4 from Garrison Keillor's bookstore in Saint Paul. The Cornbread Nation series regularly publishes volumes compiling the best of Southern food writing. It's absolutely lovely and fantastic and each piece seems to have the strange effect of making me both hungry and lonesome at the same time. For the sake of full disclosure I should confess that I had been thinking Southern for a few weeks before Cornbread Nation  found its way into my life: I spent a few weeks working my way through copies of those awful Sookie Stackhouse novels that someone had left in our apartment common room and that certainly put me in a Louisiana state of mind, but Cornbread Nation really sent me over the edge. I devoured the books, then immediately checked Cornbread Nation 1 and 2 out from the library and read them as fast as I could (FYI, the library doesn't have Cornbread Nation 3, 5 or 6, so if anyone wanted to send me copies of those, I wouldn't object). I also started coveting hard-to-find-in-Minnesota Southern ingredients like black-eyed peas and decent cornmeal and began furiously working my way through the Southern cookbook section of the Saint Paul Public Library (it's surprisingly extensive and housed in the foreign cookbook section).

 I am thankful for my obsession, however, because without it I never would have been introduced to Lee Brothers' amazing best-I've-ever-tasted recipe for collard greens (recipe forthcoming) or to the force of nature that is Ms. Edna Lewis. For those of you not in the know, Miss Lewis is an incredible writer and chef and something about her simply demands that she be referred to as Ms. Lewis out of respect. Her writing is beautiful and makes me want to go live in a farm in Virginia. Her recipe for Country Captain from The Gift of Southern Cooking (recipe also forthcoming) is a new favorite around here, despite its 3 hour cooking time.

I'm hopeful that this strange longing for the South is just growing pains and that I will get acclimated to my new city soon (and that I will stop thinking Winter is coming over and over again). I will be turning thirty (thirty!) in approximately six months, so it's also possible that this is some strange reconnect-with-my-roots reaction to that. In the months before I turned 25, I began obsessively reading classic literature in an attempt to read all the books I felt like I should have read by the time I was a quarter century old. Alternatively, it could be possible that I am now located so far north that my internal senses of place and self require me be as Southern as possible in other ways to help balance me out. Either way, expect to see lots of Southern recipes in the coming weeks.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Then I don't want none at all

It seems to me that as soon as summer rolls around, people start extolling the virtues of peaches. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I think peaches are just lovely and all. But, for what it's worth, if you ask me, the summer stone fruit we should really be singing the praises of is nectarines. 

(That sentence was grammatically odd.) 

 Nectarines have the same soft and sweet creaminess of peaches, but they also have a nice sharpness that peaches often lack. Plus they lack the slightly creepy fuzzy skin you find on peaches (peach fuzz, if you will).

Yup, I'm completely in love with nectarines and come summertime, I struggle to resist the urge to buy and eat them by the cart-full. I love them sliced over my morning oatmeal and sprinkled with a little cinnamon and sugar. I love to eat them whole with my sandwich at lunch or later on as a mid-afternoon snack. I've found they are especially nice when accompanied by a good book and the warm summer sun on the back of my neck.

And even though they really don't need any doctoring to be delicious, I love to bake them into delicious desserts.

 Last year I discovered just how amazing nectarines could be with this fantastic nectarine gallete. It was wonderful and still remains one of the top five best desserts I've ever made, but since I have this constant need to try new things in the kitchen (and pretty much only in the kitchen), I decided to give this Nectarine Brown Butter Buckle a go.

Like the nectarine gallete before it, it's from the Smitten Kitchen and it's amazing. Since the only thing I changed from her recipe was to substitute cinnamon for allspice, I'm hesitant to reproduce the recipe here, but I can't encourage you enough to head over the Smitten Kitchen and give this one a try. And do it soon before nectarines are out of season. You won't regret it.

On a side note, while we ate this, the husband and I watched the PBS documentary Country Boys and were completely enthralled by it. I went to high school near Lexington, KY and it's somewhat startling to realize that this documentary represents the reality for people who were living  just a hundred or so miles away. Country Boys is a few years old (as in more than 10 years old) and really long, but you should totally watch it. If you are interested, you can get the discs from Netflix or watch it online at the PBS website linked above.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Honey, are you mad at your man?

I know the focus of this little piece of the internet is supposed to be all the delicious recipes I make, but this bit of information is just too good not to share.

Two weeks ago, James and I went back home to Kentucky for the wedding of a couple of good friends from college. The next day we were completely exhausted from our 12 hour drive to Kentucky and a late night celebrating the union of our dear friends, so we essentially spent the entire afternoon sprawled out my parents' couch watching a live broadcast of The Festival of the Bluegrass on KET (luckily they love bluegrass as much as we do). If truth be told , I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend a day if for no other reason than it allowed me to be introduced to this charming man: Bobby Osborne. I love, love, love him and I love his song Ruby most of all.

I don't know. Maybe you won't like it as much as I did. It might just be a Kentucky thing. I think we are genetically predisposed to love some good bluegrass. But I do hope you will give him a try.