Friday
Jan122007

Sock and Scone



Perfection. I'm always reaching for it, nearly always falling short. Perfect writer? Hardly. Perfect knitter? I wish. Perfect wife and mother? Lamentably, not even close. But when I do attain perfection in some tiny corner of my life, it makes the reaching in all arenas easier to continue.

I tasted perfection twice the other day--a rare occurrence indeed. I made a batch of scones on Wednesday morning; this is a recipe I've been tinkering with for over a decade. The original recipe--called "Dried Fruit Cream Scones"--came from The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. I've changed it enough by now though to call it my own, even by the strict interpretation of my copyright lawyer husband. I've made it frequently enough to have gotten it into the category of "Very, Very Good" for a long time, but a new twist (sour cream instead of my usual buttermilk) the other day brought it into a flawless state.

Chocolate (or Peanut Butter) Chip Scones

2 cups flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips (or peanut butter chips, if you like)
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the first four ingredients together well; add the chips. Add the sour cream and the melted butter; mix only until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheets and bake for 15 minutes.

Full credit goes to Shauna for suggesting years ago that the scones were great with dried fruit (when I want to go that route, I use chopped dried cherries and apricots), but that they'd be outstanding with chocolate chips. Pure genius, Shauna--thank you for once again dramatically improving the quality of my life.

I can't stress how easy these are--such delightful payoff for very little work. Of course, perfection in the realm of food carries a degree of subjectivity about it, but give these a try and see what you think.

The other instance of defectless excellence was my first-ever full-sized finished sock. I grafted the toe Wednesday evening, wove in the two ends, and presto! Completion. I'm sure a discerning judge at a County Fair might find fault with it, but what a thrill it is to put on something that I made to fit my own foot exactly. Impeccable comfort. Can't wait until the other one is done.

Failure frequently looms large in my life; I try to be patient with its bitter presence, as I know that there is much to be learned with each new mistake. How pleasant is the contrast then, once in a great while, to savor perfection's rich flavors.


Thursday
Jan112007

Inspiration


Someone emailed me and asked whether I had made an inspiration collage for the other novel I'm working on. Yes, I have, and here it is. This book will be finished first, mainly to make Patrick happy. Of course, I'll be happy, too; it's just that for a long while, the other manuscript was flowing better for me.

This one is going well at the moment; I like my story, and I think about it all the time. Knitting is especially conducive to my musings on plot points and character details. I'll let you know just as soon as I'm done, I assure you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your kind phone calls and emails regarding this blog. It's nice to know that others are enjoying it; I certainly am. Feel free to leave me comments right here on the blog page, though. It would be ideal to have an organized record of your responses. Thanks again.

Wednesday
Jan102007

Look to the Cookie!


Someone requested that I post this email of mine (first sent out last spring) to my blog, so here: your wish is granted!


As Jerry Seinfeld famously decreed, the Black & White Cookie is a perfect dessert, symbolic of the unity that should exist in society. But long before Seinfeld featured this NYC delicacy on his show, I was on the search for the perfect B&W, because when they are good, there's nothing better. On the other hand, a bad B&W is more than disappointing: it's an abomination.

Today was a rainy, crappy day on a lot of fronts. At about 4:30 this afternoon, I found myself seeking comfort through food, as is my wont. I stopped at the fabulous Garrison Market (more on them later), thinking I'd have a little scoop of heaven (Blue Pig ice cream, made by local genius Julia Horowitz down in Croton-on-Hudson).

At the counter I noticed something that had never been there before: a platter of Black & Whites. "Hmm," I thought. "Do I go for the sure thing (the Blue Pig), or do I take a risk and try Garrison's version of the B&W?" I'd been happily surprised before; their lemon pound cake rivals my own, for example. I decided to gamble.

What a payoff, my friends. I've eaten many a B&W, from Zaro's in Grand Central, to a funky version from a Dominican bakery on Amsterdam Ave., to shrink-wrapped numbers from your bodega of choice, to the (previously) definitive version made by William Greenberg. I even made them myself once from a recipe published in the NY Times and served them at our Seinfeld "Final Episode" party.

Garrison's blew them all away. The cakey cookie, potentially dry and crumbly, was light, fluffy, and perfectly moist. The two frostings--vanilla and chocolate--were ideal. Not too sweet, and a bit al dente, but not glue-ish. Fresh and fragrant--mmm. Though milk would have been a pleasant accompaniment, it was not necessary. I finished the entire cookie in the car on my way home.

It's a good thing that Tess's preschool is ending next week, because right now I drive by the Garrison Market four times a day doing drop-off and pick-up. I'm not sure I could resist the siren call of a daily B&W, and that could be disastrous.

Garrison Market―what a gem. It opened up a year or so ago in the former Gulf service station on 9D, just north of St. Philip’s-in-the-Highlands. They make homemade doughnuts daily that are to DIE for. Sandwiches, paninis, dang good cheeseburgers. Lovely drinks, from Italian lemon sodas to Izzes to Ronnybrook's celestial drinkable yogurt. And the Blue Pig ice cream. And now the Black & Whites. And the chance that when you're there, you'll bump into Kevin Kline tanking up on some Catskill Mountain coffee. Life only gets better here in Putnam County, I tell you.

I hope that all you locals come up and join me for a B&W soon. Those of you who are far away: I hope you are drooling by now, and that when you finish reading this, you will go online and buy a ticket to come visit. These cookies are worth the trip.

Saturday
Jan062007

Cowboy Stew


Our first CIA Night was an unqualified success. Cowboy Stew involves much chopping and slicing, and since Christian has earned his Scouting award for knife safety, proper kitchen knife technique was a snap for him. He did a great job.

Cowboy Stew is one of my favorite comfort foods. Here's what you need for a batch:
1 lb. bacon (or more, if you like)
5 lbs. potatoes (we like Yukon Golds or Russets)
3 yellow onions
water
salt
pepper
butter

Fry up the bacon a few pieces at a time in a hot iron skillet (high heat), setting cooked pieces on a plate lined with paper towels. It is the cook's privilege to eat no more and no less than one piece of bacon while cooking.
While the bacon is frying, chop the onion and set it aside, then peel and slice the potatoes. Your potato slices should be no more than 1/4 inch thick.
Reserve half the bacon fat for another delicious use (like clam chowder or scrambled eggs); saute the chopped onion in the fat that remains in the skillet (low heat). Once the onions are soft and starting to turn brown, add the potatoes in layers. Sprinkle some salt and pepper between the layers (it's better to undersalt than to oversalt, and remember that the bacon will be salty).
Add 3 or 4 cups of water and cover the skillet. Set the timer for 10 minutes. Chop the bacon, set the table, and make the salad.
When the timer goes off, stir the potatoes from top to bottom as well as you can. Set the timer for another 10 minutes and finish your other dinner prep. When the timer goes off again, test the potatoes for doneness. Not only should they be cooked through, they should also begin to fall apart and thicken the gravy. Do a little mashing and a lot of stirring (to avoid scorching) for a couple of minutes over high heat if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the potatoes on plates with bacon on top. If you are in need of extra comfort, add a dollop of butter.
This batch will amply feed a family of seven with enough leftover for two or three for lunch. Cowboy Stew works very well on campouts!

Friday
Jan052007

The Year of the Garden


Above is a photo taken last June of my perennial border, featuring irises divided from my mother-in-law's yard and a rose named Gertrude Jekyll.

Six years ago, I was merely an armchair gardener. Living in our Upper West Side apartment with young children afforded little opportunity for working the earth; lack of childcare resources frustrated my desires to join the doughty corps of the Central Park Conservancy Volunteers. As it was, we loved and nearly daily appreciated Manhattan's parks. I was never happier there than when pushing the stroller along the Hudson River or through the North Woods near Harlem Meer. Much as I loved city life, I did find sweet escape from life's travails reading Barbara Damrosch's Garden Primer or Sallyann Murphy's Bean Blossom Dreams.

Michael Pollan wrote, "Much of gardening is a return, an effort at recovering remembered landscapes." This is certainly true for me. My love of gardening stems from my memory of the Edenic harmony achieved by my grandmother in California's Central Valley. Grandma's front porch was lined with a hedge of gardenias--blissful on a steamy August evening.

In her back yard, my sisters and I were free to pick and consume as many strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries; apricots, plums, Concord grapes; and walnuts and pecans as we liked. I recall with deep gratitude lying in Grandma's hammock and turning the pages of Felix Salten's Perri or Howard Pyle's Robin Hood with fruit-stained fingers. It was not until I was much older that I realized that gardenias, apricots, and blackberries are counted as luxuries in today's world. They surrounded me as a child, and as such I both treasured them and took them for granted.

Five and a half years ago, we moved to the country, and my aim became (and remains) to recreate Grandma's haven for our family. Our first spring I started with just one four-by-four-foot square plot, a la Square Foot Gardening, plus a little extra room for James's kindergarten-sprouted pumpkin plant. I quickly learned that all the book learning in the world is no substitute for hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails experience. My most vivid lesson was realizing that there may be little hammock time for the person who is creating and maintaining the garden--and I'm actually okay with that. Flushed with a little success (a few salads and a mammoth jack-o-lantern), we expanded the following year.

I continue to read gardening books voraciously. Patricia Lanza was very influential early on, as was Mrs. Greenthumbs, a.k.a. the late and very much mourned Cassandra Danz. Michael Weishan's aesthetics awe and inspire me; if I were a millionaire, I'd hire him to come in and do my landscape design. I just finished reading Second Nature, by Michael Pollan. What a gift.

Then there are the catalogs. Someone more witty than I once wrote that White Flower Farm's catalog amounts to gardening porn; I have to agree. I haven't yet been able to afford any of their gorgeous offerings, but I drool and swoon over their full-color coated stock pages like a hormone-crazed teenager. Far more within the realm of my budget (and with peerless customer service) is Bluestone Perennials. They actually guarantee their seedlings for a year. Don't ask how I know, but they're good for it.

For seeds, there is no substitute for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I try to order as many of my vegetable seeds as possible from them--they are good folks and support a number of worthy causes. Forget Burpee; these people collect exotic melons, tomatoes, and other specimens from all over the world. Why plant hybrid cantaloupes when you can have Tigger Melons (from Armenia) or the Hero of Lockinge? Look at their website; you'll see what I mean. I also order from Seeds of Change--most of my herbs come from them. They have seed donation programs similar to Baker Creek's and are big permaculture fans.

Speaking of permaculture, that's our focus this year. I own several weighty textbooks on the subject, but the clearest and most succinct book on the subject is In Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway. What is permaculture? I'm not going to bore any of you still reading at this point with a lecture; look it up on Wikipedia. It's very, very cool, though. I met with a permaculture designer last fall. He's working up a plan for us to incorporate a considerable portion of Edible Landscaping's catalog into our yard this spring--very exciting.

You already know about my addiction to English Roses. Antique and English roses tend to bring out the excess in anyone who experiences them first hand. Rosarians are often British and therefore somewhat stoic about life in general. Ask them about their subject, however, and steel yourself. They will wax rhapsodic in an embarrassing manner usually reserved for teenagers gushing over their favorite rock star. Trust me: these roses are nothing like the ones in your prom corsage. Lush, fragrant, sensual--I can't get enough of them.

Will I ever achieve the garden of my dreams? Maybe when my own grandchildren are running around our place. Fortunately, I find the journey as rewarding as my contemplation of the vision--the only reason to keep doing anything, in my opinion.