Sunday, January 22, 2012

Simple, under robin's egg blue

The weekend draws to a close, and in northeastern Florida it's been a wonder. Clear, comfortable days under stunning skies as blue as diamonds wish they were, full of birdsong and hope, beckoning like sirens toward Spring. Too early!, our minds say, but to our hearts and our gardeners' hands, the lure is almost irresistible. And so at our house, we've spent much of the day simply sitting under the perfect turquoise sky, watching breezes ruffle the Spanish moss, being grateful for our blessings.

Among these, as my dear friends and readers will know, are counted simple foods. These are the foods we would all put before our families had we the time; these are the foods for which we yearn, not because they present the challenges of our favorite chefs de cuisine, but because they require little more than the investment of time, a commodity that often seems just beyond reach. As we sat tonight, watching the dusk come, listening to the last evensong of the birds, we prepared for a simple meal of roast chicken and potatoes with salad.

Roast chicken breasts are easily prepared on a two-tiered gas grill, using whole chicken breasts with skin on. Salt and pepper, and place on the topmost rack of your grill. Cover and allow to roast until the skin is golden brown the the thickest part of the meat tests done. Using those new, delightful tiny potatoes as a compliment to the roast chicken, I toss them lightly with olive oil in a small cast iron skillet and scatter with a touch of kosher salt. The skillet can be placed under the roasting chicken after half an hour or so of roasting; chicken breasts with bone and skin will need an hour or so - perhaps a bit more - to cook while the small potatoes take 30 or 45 minutes. When they're done the small potatoes need nothing more than a touch of pepper. This evening I split them and topped with a tiny spoonful of feta cheese, but no one knows your people better than you. Feta, fine cheddar, or nothing more than pepper: simple, simple. Finally, a bag of salad (yes, I did use a bag o' salad; as I've often said here, shortcuts have their places!), added fresh watermelon and croutons and supper was ready. The bright sky, which had verged on a bright robin's egg blue all day long, darkened until the silhouettes of trees and moss were backlit by shadow.

We moved indoors to simple food and company, and wish you all the joys of your own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


We inherited the Green Bay Packers from my father-in-law. He was born in 1920 in the curiously-named Poy Sippi, Wisconsin to Danish parents who still spoke Danish at home. His early years were spent farming in rural Wisconsin. In young adulthood he lived in Beloit and found his way to Chicago and eventually far to the south through the changing fortunes of the War. In old age he was afflicted by Alzheimers and was variously cranky, difficult and downright mean. In some ways it might be fair to say that parts of our family were destroyed on the rocks of his personal shipwreck, but that's a story for another time, my dears. This evening, we're thinking of one tiny connection that has successfully persisted as we watch the NFL playoffs and rally, as always, around the Pack.

This morning we happened upon an old movie on TCM. It was a typical Margaret O'Brien movie of the mid-40s, sentimental and simple, yet resonant thanks to a cast that included Edward G. Robinson and a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, it was called. Set in Wisconsin among Norwegian farmers, it had faint echoes of Pop's childhood, seen through the eyes of Hollywood, of course, but no less unmistakable.

A year or so before we were married - and many years before the perceptible effects of Alzheimers - we traveled to WIsconsin to visit Pop's family and see the places he'd known as a young man. It's a beautiful place with its great spaces caught in boreal forests that must have reminded all those Scandinavian emigrants of the snow-bounded and blue-skied lands of coastal and inland waters they'd left behind. And though the geography and some of the cultural fine points seemed foreign or even exotic, there was - and is - a common sense of warmth and openness between those of the south and those of the midwest as though they are cousins of cultural etiquette. Certainly they're cousins of the table; there was never a more abundant, homely, delicious board than the one we shared with Pop's sisters and their families. They were kind, generous and unfailingly polite, their pronounced northern midwestern accents shaped by nearly-forgetten Danish and Norwegian cadences. One of these aunts and her husband would, some years hence, travel to Florida for Pop's funeral at considerable inconvenience simply because it was the right thing to do, and for the love his sister always kept for him.

Long years later, we cheer faithfully for the Packers in memory of Pop, letting the sharp, jagged memories of recent years recede into the distance. It's still good to recall the words of Aunt Thelma, a Norwegian girl married into the family and often-uttered where Pop was concerned. "Well, you can always tell a Dane," she would say. "But you can't tell him much."

Go, Pack, go.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The robins are coming, the robins are coming

Out with the old and in with the new, or perhaps: Let us put by that which we've outgrown or outworn or simply need no more, and let us take up and celebrate that which brings us learning, growth or most emphatically, peace. And let us remember to cherish what lies between. It can be so dangerously easy to envision only The Old and The New, without consideration for all that copious territory describing the rest of our lives. And most of that doesn't need to be thrown away, or embraced for the sake of its novelty. Most of that wide expanse simply needs to be tended.

Important things for tending: Robins. Beautifully plump red-breasted American robins arrive here every year, but the time of their coming can vary widely. We caught our first glimpse this winter just before Christmas, about December 23. It was a small flock, and they disappeared too quickly to be caught in photographs. Just a few days later, on December 30, the trees were suddenly filled with their voices (which really DO sound oddly like something a Victorian writer might have described as "chirrup-ing"), and their curious explorations on the ground, characterized by a good deal more hopping than flying. So much hopping and interrogation of the ground do they do that they provide excellent subjects for photos. In the photo at the top, here, there's at least one robin, but I defy you to find it. This is partly because I am a woefully inadequate photographer, and partly because I seldom listen to the wisdom of my dear old person on this, even when he stands at my elbow with a much better camera than my phone could ever offer. But it's there. And in spite of the general gloom of the landscape and the date on the calendar, that virtually invisible little bird spans the continuum of The Old and The New with a simple reminder. Spring will come.

As the chilly days wind along and we wait for more immediate proof of the spring for which mid-winter is the harbinger, we observe with familiar markers. Often the markers, the reminders, take the form of food. Here in the south, we mark the arrival and passing of the New Year with a plate like this one. Some people call it Hoppin' John; when I was growing up it was just "peas and rice", and everybody knew the peas in question were black-eyed peas cooked with ham and served over rice. Everybody also knew, or seemed to know, that the foods symbolized something, each with its unique significance. These symbols are lost to me personally; I only know that it's good luck to have this meal on New Year's Day, and that the whole thing turned out especially well this year. I thought I might talk about old and new by sharing the "how" of the cooking here. Standard apologies to my vegetarian friends.

This whole undertaking is made easier if you cooked a ham for Christmas. If you did, you have a ham bone and/or some pieces of ham you can cut up and use to season most of the meal. If you didn't, and you want to approach the meal from a traditional standpoint you'll have to face down the mysteries of ham hocks on your own. Good luck. For our purposes let's assume you DID cook that ham, or that you're adjusting for vegetarianism as you go along. So: there are, in our family, four main components to prepare.

Black-eyed peas must be bought dried and prepared according to package instructions. At my house this means simmered until done with the ham bone, some kosher salt and some Texas Pete.
Cornbread is prepared according to your own lights. At my house, this one has one of the shortcuts I advocate as a cook and a relatively sane person (readers will know that I believe cooks should identify and embrace those shortcuts with which they can live, and should heartily reject those with which they cannot). I use a Martha White cornbread mix shortcut, with the caveat that one cannot add sugar to cornbread. There it is, and I stand by it. Gather ye cornbreads how ye may.
Rice is critically important. In my kitchen we use a half-and-half combination of organic brown and basmati rices, both of which you can get at the grocery store. Simmered together, they fill the kitchen with a delicate aroma that takes its part in the whole of the meal's experience.
Greens are different every time I cook them, but this year they're splendid. I prefer collards for the mild flavor and one of the shortcuts I can abide is the purchase of them pre-cleaned and more or less ready to cook. This year I coated a cast iron skillet with olive oil and added very finely chopped onion, just enough to make a layer in the skillet. As the onion cooked to translucence I added about a teaspoon of kosher salt, a couple of teaspoons of sugar and several dashes of white wine vinegar. I thought something delicate like pear-infused vinegar would have been lovely, but no such luxury lay to hand. I also thought some red pepper would be a good addition. I was out, but in the top of my pantry was a small packet from a local pizza joint, enought for a slice of pizza. Perfect. A quarter cup or so of water de-glazed the skillet and the greens were added slowly to allow them to cook down. A pound of collard greens, when cooked down in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, results in about enough to serve 4 or 5 people, but it takes awhile. This cooked most of the afternoon, and when finished looked more or less like this photo.

Happy New Year and thank you for continuing to return to read, despite the erratic occurence of posts. As 2012 begins, one of my goals is to meet you here more often, for I am grateful to find myself learning and growing with each interaction. For now, peas and rice are on the table. Let's eat.