Thursday, April 28, 2011

What's It All About?

Photo Credit: Susan King 2011

What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?

What if you put your left arm in?  Your left arm.  The one that's not quite as strong as your right arm.  The one that is slightly less toned than you'd like.  The one that held your babies when they were new or let the bat fly after you hit your first home run.  What if you put your arm in and did the best you could with it?  And didn't compare it to all the other arms that were in there?

What if you put your head in?  Your head.  And all the stuff that's in it.  And actually used it.  And began to understand that you don't have to be a chef to cook great food.  And that you don't have to be religious to talk to God.  And that you don't have to be perfect to be pretty damn good.

What if you really put your whole self in?  And shook it all about?  And then you did the Hokey Pokey.  And you turned your self around.

And you turned your life around.

That would be so cool.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Give Us This Day...Holey Bread

Tiny bunny ornaments on a white feathered tree.  Lots of pink eggs and a trio of yellow chicks on my windowsill.  Jelly beans, peeps and Peter Cottontail.  I am very aware that there is another whole story to Easter.  But ours was still really good.

Our treat on Saturday afternoon was soft pretzels.  Hot and twinged with that classic baking soda metallic taste right out of my own oven.  A tiny bowl of mustard on the side.  Stirring up memories of standing on a street corner in New York City as a little girl eating them hot out of a folded piece of paper.  You may not be aware of the fact that there is another whole story to pretzels.  The Italian monk, the Catholic tradition of abstaining from eggs and butter during Lent making this simple flour and water recipe the perfect treat, the crossed loop of the dough resembling prayerful hands.  Really fun stuff to know about a simple treat.  Even if you leave that part out, they're still really good.

Soft Pretzels
This is a fast and easy treat.  You can go from a pile of ingredients, to 6 hot pretzels, to a full belly in under 1 hour.

5 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1/2 cup baking soda
water for boiling
coarse salt

1.  In a large bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and warm water.  Let it sit until it gets foamy.  Then add the salt and flour, stirring well to make a soft dough.  Add additional flour a tablespoon at a time until the dough stops sticking to the sides of the bowl, then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 minutes until the dough gets smooth and elastic.  Add more flour, a handful at a time, to keep it from sticking to you and your surface.

2.  In the largest skillet you own, dissolve the baking soda in 4 cups of water.  (You need the water in your skillet to be about an inch deep.  If you use a huge skillet, or a smaller one, you may need to adjust the amount of water you use.  The ratio of baking soda to water is 1/4 cup for every 2 cups of water.)  Heat the mixture slowly until simmering.  Don't let it boil wildly out of won't mess up the pretzels but you'll be stressed out by the hot water and might end up splashing yourself unnecessarily.

3.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Divide your dough ball into 6 equal sections and roll each piece into a rope about 16 inches long or about 1 inch thick.  Twist into a pretzel shape and let each formed pretzel sit out on your counter for about 5 minutes.  Using a large spatula or slotted spoon, submerge each pretzel in the simmering water for 30 seconds.  Remove and place on a WELL greased baking sheet that has been sprinkled with coarse salt.  While the pretzel is still wet, sprinkle additional salt on top.

4.  Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.  Eat immediately.  The salt on top of these gets wet and makes the bread soggy if you try to store them in an airtight container.  If you have any leftover it is best to leave them open to the air even though this causes them to get a bit hard.  We always just make enough to eat right away...that's how they are best!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On Second Thought...

I was having this wildly stimulating pathetically judgement filled conversation with a group of moms the other day.  We were talking about toddlers and nutrition...sigh.  It was meant to be a time for us to share tips and tricks; discuss what has worked for us in the past; what we are still failing at as mothers of little people.  As we hesitated and lurched through admissions of daughters who won't touch vegetables and whether or not a whole flax seed gets digested by the body if you don't chew it all up I began to feel a bit high.  Not the high that we all did in college...the high that goes with mighty.  Yeah, my kids eat vegetables.  My kids eat exotic grains.  My kids ask beg for "sprinkles" on their oatmeal.  In our house "sprinkles" is code the big mother lie for flax seed!  High and mighty I was feeling.  Indeed!  Woe befalls these poor children subsisting on pizza flavored chips and hand held strawberry type cultured dairy products.  I held my tongue...mostly.  

All natural!  High and Mighty!  Natural!  From nature.  Not altered.  Basic.  Better in every way!  In every area of our lives.  Let's get back to nature people!  Yes!

On second thought...

All natural sucks.

All natural means I can't have Honeycrisp apples.  Those glorious spheres of engineered produce that have caused me to commit sins against my children and my grocery budget.  They are nothing close to natural.  All natural means the two fruit genes that the produce geniuses married to create this orb of perfection would never have even met and we'd all be forced to settle for what grows on natural apple trees...all natural sucks.

All natural is primitive.  It doesn't allow for the existence of my HDTV.  That massive television that makes the sweeping panoramic shots of the Alaskan wilderness look more beautiful than the actual wilderness that I would never get to see on your average Wednesday evening.  All natural doesn't account for why my life has been improved by the invention of the DVR.  Watch television in real time?  Hah!  Nobody does that anymore.  And if you are about to tell me my life would be even better without the TV...just don't.  I love my TV in all of its unnatural glory and YOU should be careful not to fall down off your pedestal when you lean over to lecture me!

All natural faithfully and truthfully represents nature or life.  Like my mousy brown hair?  Ashy and flat in all of its natural dullness.  Nope.  That kind of all natural sucks too.  I'll take my stylist managed, seasonally changing, tipped by sass color job any day.  Thankyouverymuch.  And while we're on the topic of truthfully representing ourselves...two words: waterproof mascara.  Duh!    

All natural conforms to the ordinary and unaltered state of things.  That calls to mind an image of me in a cocktail dress without Spanx...or that fancy deodorant that doesn't leave marks on black clothing...or my 4 inch peep toe stilettos.  Unaltered my ass!  Literally!  Who even wants to go there?  If all natural means lumpy, stinky and short, I'll skip it thankyouverymuch. 

On second thought...all natural sucks.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Give Us This Day...My Way

Sometimes you get to do it your way.  Put your spin on it.  Make it your version.  Your own.   

Words are like that.  They give the writer the opportunity to make something extra with the ordinary.  Sometimes even the errors turn into a tiny bit of genius.  My daughter is an emerging writer and incredibly clever.  She has very definite ideas about things and is surprisingly observant.  She drew some pictures on cocktail napkins a few weeks ago and she did them her way.
A musical score is like that.  The notes are printed on the page, but the music is now...the moment it is performed.  Each time is a unique experience.  This weekend, the Father was the maestro.  Of the Brahms Requiem.  With over 100 voices and a full orchestra.  It was spectacular.  Glorious!  And he did it his way.
Life can be like that, if you let it.  Extra in the ordinary.  Little bits of wisdom in the daily motions.  Making something your own.  This weekend, I was the hostess.  And the mom.  And the chef.  And the bartender.  And the audience member.  And the party guest.  I enjoyed every moment of it (and consequently did not get my bread post up in a timely with it!)  I was quite spectacular...or at least my scones were!  And I did it my way.

Corn Bread Scones
These scones originally appeared in Cooking Light magazine, but over the years I have learned a few tricks, changed a few things and made this recipe my own.  Because I make a lot of scones, and they typically call for buttermilk in the ingredients, I have started using the powdered version which can be found in the baking aisle of your grocery store.  It keeps for months in the refrigerator...much easier than running out for buttermilk if you get the hankering for a batch of scones.  The directions here include the use of actual buttermilk, but if you go the powdered route someday, just add the powder to your dry ingredients and add water when the directions indicate to add the liquids.
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour, plus additional
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher
4 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter
1/2 cup corn salsa OR corn kernels
2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeño pepper (nacho style from a jar works great here but fresh is good too)
1 cup nonfat buttermilk

Optional topping
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Lime powder

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2.  In a medium bowl, combine the 2 1/4 cups of flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.  Whisk until combined.  Cut the butter into small pieces and drop them into the bowl of dry ingredients.  If you have a pastry blender, use it to "cut in" the butter.  What you're doing here, is mixing in the butter with the dry ingredients, but not actually using a spoon to stir.  You can achieve nearly the same results by using two butter knives and slicing into the piles of butter pieces and the flour in a crisscross pattern (think kitchen ninja!) until you can barely see any pieces of butter left.  Stir in the corn salsa (you can also use frozen corn kernels or canned corn that has been drained) and the jalapeño pepper and mix with a spatula until the corn and peppers are coated with the dry ingredients.

3.  Add the buttermilk and mix well, adding pinches of additional flour until you can form a ball of dough that will not stick to the bowl.  Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly forming a ball.  Add more flour here if it is annoyingly sticky.  Scones are a very crumbly, floury baked good anyway, so you don't have to worry about adding too much flour.  Pat the dough into a 9 inch circle and place on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray (or a silicone mat, or a piece of parchment paper).  Cut the circle into 12 wedges by pushing your knife into, but not all the way through the dough.  The process here is really more like "scoring" the dough rather than cutting it.

4.  At this point you have the option
of adding the sprinkle of flavor to the top.
These scones are fabulous with AND
without this extra step.  I have found a
powdered lime flavoring in drink aisle
of my grocery store that I mix with a
pinch of kosher salt.  Brush the top of
each scone with a bit of the milk and
sprinkle on the lime powder and salt
if desired.  You could also just use the
salt if you can't find the lime stuff.

5.  Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until lightly browned.  If you have used frozen corn, plan on your cook time being closer to 30 minutes or more.  Leave the circle of baked scones intact and move to a wire rack for cooling.  Gently cut them apart just before serving.

6.  Be prepared for your eaters to go wild over this clever alternative to classic cornbread and don't turn into the "Monstro" when they start picking at them before dinner is ready to be served.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Apple Seeds

My Middle Bit, nearly 5 year old Mona, has a collection of apple seeds in a tiny plastic jar.  She guards this little container fiercely and keeps it up high on a shelf in her bedroom to protect it from danger; the new puppy, the 3 year old sister, the vacuum cleaner.

What is so amazing about this collection is that it started with the container, not the seeds.  She was perched at the counter helping me make Nervous Bread many weeks ago and asked for the vessel that was emptied as the saffron threads went into the recipe.  "Can I have that tiny jar Mom?  Please Mom, don't throw it away."  Of course I gave it to her, with a stern warning about the lid and how she shouldn't leave it on the floor or the dog would chew it up.  When I asked her what she planned to do with it, what was she going to keep in it?  She explained that she wasn't sure yet, but that whatever it was, it was going to have to be very small.

A space for a collection.  She didn't even have the pieces treasure yet, but she was making a space to hold something.  Making a space.  So wise.  Very small.  She didn't even know what she was looking for...but she was looking.  For something.  She was open.  And seeking.  So wise.

Like a photograph in my mind, I can recall the instant, about a week later when she recognized that she had found what she was seeking.  It was an ordinary moment.  Plates lined up, ready for lunch.  Peanut butter being spread, pretzels in a pile, apple slices.  "Mom!  Look inside that apple!  Look at those little seeds!  Can I have those seeds for my collection?"  Breathless, she jumped down from her bar stool and ran to get her jar.  The width of her smile when she rounded the corner, palm out, holding the empty jar, nearly took my breath away.  She was beaming.  "Mom, could I grow an apple from these seeds?"  "Well, Mona, not quite.  You could grow an apple tree."

I remember when I started the theMiddleBit.  It was nothing but an empty container.  Like Mona's jar.  I didn't have any idea what I was going to fill it with, but I knew it was important for me to make a space for something.  As it turns out, I was filling my jar with seeds too.  Some of those seeds stayed tiny, but others have grown into big ideas.  Some of them have actually produced enough fruit to feed others...for me, that's the real treasure.  That there are people out there who read what I write.  You tell me you are fed by what you find here.  I am so grateful for you.

Make a space.  Be open to what might fill it.  Be seeking.  So wise.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Give Us This Day...It's About Time

When it started running a few weeks ago, he didn't chase it.  He patiently waited for it to come to him.  And he wanted to share it with me.  I wanted to go out there to the woods where he tapped his maple trees and carried his buckets up and down the hills.  Frankly I was fascinated by the entire process.  The sap was running and he was going to make syrup.

He kept inviting me to come out and help.  To watch him build the fires and help carry the sap.  And I wanted to go, but things kept getting in the way.  Or I kept letting them...that's actually more like it.  With a gentle sense of urgency he kept calling to invite me out to the woods.  He called again and again.  He has teenagers, and a busy wife, and a lot of years of wisdom.  And a lot of patience.  "We only have a few weeks left," he reminded me.  "We could make it fun for the little girls too if you need to bring them out with you," he says because he knows I have small children and it might be hard to get some time away from them.

Well yesterday my time was up.  He made one more patient phone call to declare that tomorrow was going to be the last day of boiling because the trees were changing and the time for collecting the sap was time was up. 

So we went out.  To the woods.  The little girls and I.  I was so excited to pull up the gravel drive.  When he saw us, he could have said, "It's about time," but he didn't.  He's not like that.  "I'm so glad you came," was the perfect thing to say.  Then he showed us his project and we took a walk in the woods.

"See here girls.  This is the sap.  It's very watery.  It's going to be sweet and a wonderful golden color.  It just needs time."  It's one thing now, but if you give it time.  And attention.  And a little heat.  It can turn into another thing entirely.  I feel like that sometimes. 

"Peek in here girls.  Be careful.  It's boiling down.  It's way too hot to touch right now, but if you give it time, you'll be able to hold it in your hands."  It just needs time to cool off.  I feel like that sometimes.

"Look here girls.  It's so little.  It's coming up.  It's going to be purple.  I'm not sure what it is.  It just needs time."  The little tiny sprout that was poking up in the shadows.  Protected from careless steps and hiding from hungry beasts.  Quite by accident it finds itself here.  But it's holding its ground.  Eventually we'll be able to see what it is.  I feel like that sometimes. 

This day was about maple sap.  And how it runs.  And how chasing it doesn't get you anywhere.  But it was also about time.  And how it runs.  And how chasing it doesn't get you anywhere.  How you have to wait for it to come to you.  And enjoy it while it lasts.  And find someone to share it with before the time is up.

It's about time.

Maple Oat Bread 

To do the bread exactly the way I did it on this day requires a walk through the woods and an understanding friend.  It requires you to leap across the kitchen screaming NO!NO!NO! when the 3 year old says, "Mom can I stir the flour with the turkey butt feather that I found in the woods?"  It requires the patiently prepared syrup from a tree in The Middle.  But you don't have to do it exactly the way I did it to have a tremendous amount of success.  There are a few places in this recipe where you can go your own way...and I hope you will.  Give yourself 3 hours of time to prepare this subtly sweet loaf.  It is great with a savory soup or sliced thin and slathered with butter.  The recipe doubles very easily if you feel compelled to make an extra loaf for a friend.

1 cup quick oats
1 cup boiling water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1/2 cup maple syrup (I used the real stuff here, but I promise I won't judge you if all you've got on hand is the cheapy stuff from the grocery store.)
2 teaspoon canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons quick oats

1.  In a small bowl, combine the 1 cup of oats and the boiling water.  Let stand for a few minutes until the water is completely absorbed.  In a large bowl, combine the yeast with the 1/3 cup warm water and let stand until foamy.  When your yeast is nice and frothy, add the syrup, oil, salt, oat mixture and 2 cups of the flour.  Stir well with a wooden smooth until smooth.  Add enough of the remaining flour as you continue to stir until the dough stops sticking to the bowl.

2.  Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 minutes adding additional flour by small handfuls until the dough stops sticking to you and your surface.  Place dough in a bowl coated with cooking spray, turning once to coat all sides.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 1 hour.  Dough will double in size.

3.  Punch dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Shape the dough into a round.  The dough will be very flat at this point.  Place the dough into a 9 inch, round cake pan that has been well coated with cooking spray.  (You could skip this part and just place the round of dough on a greased baking sheet but your loaf will bake up flatter and a bit more dense.  If you don't have a 9 inch pan, use a smaller size, or a pie dish, or a corning-ware casserole dish with the lid off.  Any round pan will work fine.  The point of using some kind of container here is to keep the loaf from spreading out too much during the second rise.)  Coat the top of the loaf lightly with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.

4.  After the dough has risen, brush the top with the egg white and sprinkle the top with the remaining oats.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the loaf from the pan and allow it to cool on a wire rack.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Coming Apart at the Seems

Seems like this should be getting easier.

Seems like this place is so familiar.

Seems like being strong should mean you have less weakness.

Seems like that shouldn't matter.

Seems like a lot of the wrong stuff seems to matter.

Seems like there are ups and downs, but then more downs.

Seems like it should be easier to tell the truth. 

Seems like we should be getting better at this by now.

Seems like it never stops.

Seems like it never ends.

Seems like it's one thing but it is actually quite another thing.

Seems like I keep finding myself in the seams.  In the spaces.  Where the stitches are what hold things together.

Seems like the stitches are holding the seams.  Holding the seems.  Holding them together.  For now.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Give Us This Day...Googies!

Martha Stewart...I prefer the Naked Chef...because the people on my staff cook in the nude, sample all the ingredients, and have the cutest googies ever!  Ever!

Martha Stewart...stop making me feel inadequate...or, Nancy, stop letting her make you feel inadequate.  Oh yeah, I get to choose how I feel!  

Martha Stewart...your magazine is full of all sorts of things worth knowing...but mostly I learned from the doing, not the reading of your gloriously photographed, exceptionally well written articles.

This recipe originally appeared in Martha's magazine ages ago and I have dumbed it down for you...and by dumbed it down, of course I mean; I actually prepared it myself without the help of a staff; I removed the need for expensive tools and specific ingredients ordered from specialty shops; and talked you through all of the potential areas of failure because I understand that sometimes somebody needs their butt wiped while you're melting butter, or other times the doorbell rings and the smiling friend that greets you is more important than stirring constantly for 6 minutes.

I have made some adjustments to this recipe over the years.  I didn't always have all the right tools, or all of these children, or an understanding of the fact that ingredients are just directions and eating the pastry is the destination, but that life is not really about directions and destinations...its about the journey.  It's the trip.  Life really is a trip.

I have learned that sometimes you can substitute margarine in a recipe, but not in this one.  I have learned that if you don't cook these long enough they promptly deflate as you are moving them from the baking sheet to the cooling rack, but that even this error results in something edible.  I have learned that if you measure out all of your ingredients before you begin, so everything from the flour to the chopped chives is lined up in little bowls on your counter before you even turn the stove top on, this recipe is a lot less stressful.  I have learned that you don't have to use a pastry bag and a specialty tip to pipe the egg mixture onto the parchment lined baking sheets.  You can use a plastic zipper bag with the corner cut off and get the same results.  I have learned that it is much easier to chop the fresh herbs if you put them in a cup and cut them up with scissors.  I have learned that it is not important to pronounce the French name of this bread correctly and it's actually much more fun to watch people blush across the dinner table when you say things like, "Would you like to eat another one of my googies?" or, "Did you really just put that whole googie in your mouth?"

More than 15 years ago, when I got my first subscription to Martha Stewart Living, I did so because I wanted to learn the "right" way to do things.  She had so many "Good Things" to say and they all looked so beautiful.  But along the way I have figured out that the really good things in my life came about as a result of doing a lot of the wrong things.  And learning from the journey.  And celebrating eating the failures anyway.  And that life is not directions and destinations.  It's the trip.

(The fancy, pretentious, French, correct name)

(The wildly inappropriate, highly misused, embarrassment inducing name we use)

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup all purpose flour
5 large eggs, divided
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon fresh chives

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2.  In a medium saucepan combine 1 cup of water, butter, salt and cayenne pepper.  Bring just to a boil, and when the butter is completely melted stir in the flour.  Reduce the heat to low and stir well until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.  I use my favorite rubber spatula for this part and find that I end up moving the pan on and off the heat while I mix until it starts to look smooth and shiny.  If its lumpy, keep stirring and press the mixture into the sides of the pan until the lumps disappear.  If the mixture begins to sizzle and you are starting to freak out, take a breath and move it off the heat.  When it is smooth and well blended, dump it into a bowl and let it cool for a few minutes.

3.  Add 4 of the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition.  This is the part when you start to freak out again because after you add that first egg, this mixture gets slippery and weird and you think, "That egg is never going to mix in all the way!"  Keep stirring.  Yes it is.  Keep stirring.  After the 4 eggs are in, add the Parmesan and the chives, blending well until incorporated.

4.  Transfer some of your mixture to a bag (In the interest of full disclosure, I do use a pastry bag here, but in the beginning I was doing just fine with my converted zipper bag.) and form each googie by squeezing out about a tablespoon of mixture onto a parchment lined baking sheet. (Your silicone baking mat or a cookie sheet lightly coated with cooking spray will work just fine, but honestly, parchment is so cheap and it makes the whole thing feel cheffy and cool.)  Leave about 2 inches of space between each googie.  Dip your finger in a small bowl of water and poke down the little peak that forms when you squeeze them out.  You don't have to rush through this part.  The dough is moist and it won't dry up if you are a novice googie squeezer.  (Seriously, the number of ways you can make this bread sound inappropriate is endless!  Love that part!  Maybe too much!)

5.  In a small bowl, combine the remaining egg and 1 tablespoon of water.  Brush the top of each googie liberally, or use a paper towel dipped in the egg mixture to glop it all over the top of each one.  Bake 25-29 minutes, until golden brown on top.  Be ready to slap away greedy fingers with your spatula when these come out of the oven.  I am never able to get as many to the table as I originally intend.  This recipe makes about 50, or more if you like small googies. (Again with the impropriety.  I tend to like bigger googies.  It never stops!)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Leaving. Going.

Photo credit: Susan King, 2011

It's so real.  The physical pain you feel the first time you leave them.  I wasn't prepared for that.

I searched long and hard for someone to care for them.  Did diligent research on the subject.  How could I entrust them to just anyone?  I couldn't.

But I had decided that they could not come along with me on this journey.  I made all the preparations to leave them behind.  Made the lists.  Told some all the right people what I was planning.  Said goodbye as I walked away.

Funny how I didn't miss them.  For awhile.  I felt an odd freedom.  Lifted.  Like myself, but not myself.  A new self.  A fragile self.  How would it be without them?  What would I be like now?

It turns out that I never did get an answer to my question...

They followed me here.  My weaknesses.  They followed me because I simply tried to leave them behind and did not understand that they'd be with me wherever I went.  I thought it was my fault that they followed me here because I kept looking back to see if they were still there.  It was.  I did.  They were.  I was moving too slowly in my new direction and they were chasing me.

It was so real.  The physical pain I felt when they finally caught up to me.  I was terrified.  I shouldn't have been.  They didn't want to hurt me.  They just had some things they needed to tell me.

I needed to know that they would cripple me, wear me down, unless I figured out how to deal with them.  I would have to be stronger in the right places to compensate.  I needed to understand that if I tried to move out ahead of them again, and leave them in the dust, that they would keep stepping on my heels.  I would have to let them be next to me in order to walk as easily as I planned.  I needed to accept that they were weaknesses.  Not failures.  Or catastrophes.  Or defeats.

It does get easier.  The leaving.  The going.