Have you ever really looked into the throat of an iris? Such perfect symmetry. Flowers are miracles of art.
There and Back Again
Whenever I take a long car drive some place and return home again I think of the subtitle of one of my favourite stories, “The Hobbit.” Tolkien called the story, “There and Back Again,” and it’s always how I feel. A long journey, lots of experiences, and then, deep sigh, home sweet home once again. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve enjoyed my time away, how beautiful a place might be, how sad I am to leave my family when I’ve been to visit them, when I round the bend and the fields next door come into view I can only smile and feel at once----HOME.
This week I want to write about what makes certain places our soul’s home. The special landscapes and cultures that, when we are among or think of them, we instantly feel ourselves and at rest. It’s so different for everyone, isn’t it? And it might not be where we live, either. This is a topic I think more and more about as I grow older, what makes a place dear to us. I love journeying up north to where my family lives in Michigan, right on the shore of Little Traverse Bay, the very tip of the mitten when you look on the map. It’s a small town, like where I live, only it gets heavily trampled on by tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. But the locals are friendly and salt of the earth, the landscape is beautiful and that big ocean of a lake is like a cool glass of water. It’s heavenly. And yet, all the while, I long for home.
I promised a feature on the staples for stocking a pantry last week, and I had fun writing it for you. Having a larder full with the essentials makes my kind of cooking so much easier. I know my ingredients well and don’t have to think about how I might prepare the fresh veggies, eggs and meat I bring home from the market. It frees me up to choose what looks the best and is at the best price, and then cooking becomes a fun adventure, and evolves naturally from the basics I have on hand and what I’m really feeling like eating at the time. It’s so much more affordable, too, without having to fill up my shopping list with a bunch of special ingredients I might never use again. Not everyone likes to cook this way, but even if you are more of an adventurous cook you’ll find something of value in my must haves.
A rose past its prime is still divine.
My son Kris came home this weekend, a short visit before he heads off to visit his girlfriend in the Ukraine, and then sails off for the Mediterranean and Asia for the next six months. I have both of my kids home for two days! This might not happen again for a very very long time. My daughter leaves in a couple days for trip to the Netherlands with her dad’s family, and she will be meeting aunts and uncles and cousins she’s never met before. I’m thrilled for her. Her first trip to Europe. So tonight, after Nest is sent, I am making one of my kids favourites: homemade spaghetti with meatballs and a nice green salad. And that brings me to my recipe for this issue, but first...a book.
One of my favourite things about a long car ride alone (twelve hours!) is that I get to listen to a book on CD. This time I chose “The Help,” a novel I have been wanting to read for quite a while. I never saw the movie, and probably never will, but I had heard the performance on the audiobook was just so great. Well, it was. I laughed and cried and even sobbed a couple times. What a story. I loved these people, Aibilene, Miss Skeeter, Minnie Jackson. Celia Foote. I am going to miss them like crazy. So much so that I started reading the novel as soon as I got home. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it gets me to thinking what a miracle and mystery it is when a writer can capture us so, and create such a believable world with people you start looking for on the street. I would hate to be Kathryn Stockett, the author, because I don’t know how in heck she could ever top this one. Maybe she should just be like Harper Lee and call it quits, like Lee did after she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Of course I don’t really believe that, I mean, just think what other magic Lee might have created if she kept writing. But man oh man, what a great story. If you haven’t read it, please do! There has been some criticism on the writing of the dialect, and of the subject matter, too, but none of that matters in the end when you’ve given life to Aibilene, Minnie and Miss Skeeter. I will never forget them.
So, all the while I was listening to them in their molasses-rich Southern voices, I got to thinking about the grace of a Southern home and all that wonderful food, too. And so, this week’s recipe brings a little smidge of the South to you, something that was mentioned several times in the book: butterbeans. I hope you’ll try them, and I know you’ll like them.
The playlist is a little melange of some tunes I heard when I was not listening to “The Help,” and the photo that accompanies it was taken on my drive when a cd fell to the floor and made a rainbow on my pants. It was so cool! And the photos, well, just a mix of things I took notice to since I wrote to you last.
And as a bonus, here’s how to make REAL sweet tea. I notice that folks up where I live never seem to get it just right. I think it’s because they try to do the sun tea thing, or the cold brew thing, or use black tea that’s too fancy. Or maybe it’s that they don’t know the secret ingredient to good sweet tea is a tiny pinch of baking soda to take the bitterness away.
5 bags of black tea. It’s Luzianne in the South, but if you can’t find it, Lipton is A-OK.
4 cups of boiling water
1 pinch of baking soda
1/2 to 1 cup of sugar
A pitcher full to the top with ice
Hang the tea bags over a 4-cup Pyrex measuring glass and then pour the boiling water over them. Bob the bags up and down a bit to get the tea brewing, then let it sit for 5 minutes.
Fill the pitcher with ice, dump in the sugar and the pinch of baking soda, and when the tea is done brewing, pour it over and stir it well. That’s it. And serve it ice cold in quart-sized mason jars. A little sprig of mint from the garden is always welcome.
Have a great week everyone.
Just Thinking Out Loud:
The Comfort of Place
Recipe of the Week:
Butter Beans (and cornbread)
A tangle of green in my woods.
I love seashells.
Every time I read a new cookbook the first thing I look for is the pantry list. It might be because I like lists in general, but mostly it’s because I’m often a last-minute cook, pulling together what’s fresh and in-season with what I’ve already got on hand, and having a thoughtfully stocked pantry sure makes things easier. These are the ingredients that store well for ages, or at least a couple weeks, things that add the flavour and brighten up anything in just the right proportion and blend of tongue satisfaction. The pantry list also tells me if these recipes are going to be simple and straightforward, things I’ll actually cook, or would require me to shop at stores I can’t afford for ingredients as precious as rubies.
Some of those fancier cookbooks suggests things that I’d have to go on expedition for and wouldn’t suit my simple way of making food. It’s not really practical to open a cookbook and find myself needing to go to the store for exotic things like orange flower water, garam masala, wonton wrappers and fancy French cornichons. These are truly some of the things I’ve seen on pantry lists. Well, not in my pantry.
There is nothing that any cook MUST have except salt and some kind of fat. You can have nothing in your pantry but a can of beans and turn it into something edible and pretty delicious with enough salt and olive oil and a long, slow simmering. In reality, that’s a little boring and too simple, even for me. So here’s my version of a pantry list. It’s based on three food writers’ cookbooks that I always enjoy reading and have learned quite a bit from: Nigel Slater’s “Appetite,” Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa Family Style,” and Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal.” You don’t need to have them all, but having at least some of them gives you the tools to make a delicious meal from whatever you have in your larders.
My mom has a bowl of shells with lights tucked inside of them.
Seems so simple, right? But really, plain-old Morton iodized table salt doesn’t belong in any food. Now, I have to tell you that I am allergic to iodine, so I steered away from it years ago, but over time I’ve learned that Kosher salt is just as affordable and tastes much cleaner, and actually IS cleaner, lacking the icky chemicals used to create that fine dust that pours out of the Morton’s Iodized Table Salt box. Kosher salt is inexpensive and comes in big boxes. It’s what I use for all of my cooking and baking, both. I pour right from the box when salting cooking water, and keep a glass shaker bottle of it on the counter for lesser quantities. It’s also perfect for at-table seasoning, but I’ve grown to appreciate the even finer flavour of sea salt for that. I like the old standby by Maldon, or the beautiful and delicate crystals of Fleur de Sel, both readily available and affordable these days. I can buy them both at my grocery store and they last a long time.
Buy whatever kind suits your beliefs. I like pale gold, raw, cane sugar over the processed white stuff, but it all has its place in the kitchen when you use moderation. Any savoury dish is enhanced by a tiny bit of sweet, just like anything sweet needs a pinch of salt. It’s basic culinary alchemy. If you don’t believe me, the next time you make something sweet, sprinkle the tiniest bit of sea slat on top and test it for yourself. Ever had a brownie sprinkled with sea salt? Trust me on this one, it’s better than kissing the speckled belly of a puppy. Maple syrup is another thing I’m never without, a healthy alternative even to raw cane sugar and the flavour makes lots of things more complex and satisfying, especially when root vegetables are in season.
A good piece of salty, smoked meat.
There is very little that can’t be made better with a small amount of bacon. I seek out local bacon these days, and I find the dollar or two more that it costs well worth it. You can buy it by the pound and divide it into smaller packages to freeze. A piece of bacon sautéed into the beginnings of a bean soup makes all the difference. Bitter greens are made heavenly with the tiniest bit of bacon fat. Try a very thin drizzle of it mixed into a homemade Dijon vinaigrette for your salads. The great thing is that a little goes a long way. And if you’ve got nothing but a box of pasta and some parmesan cheese? Well, is there anything better than plain old pasta with some crisp bacon pieces, butter, cheese and parsley? Okay, maybe there is, but you have to admit it’s always better with a little bacon. If you’ve seen pacetta in your grocery store, by all means give it a try, too. It’s a little too pricey for me, but it sure is good. It’s just bacon, Italian-style, though. And if you can’t get local bacon, Oscar Meyer now sells an uncured variety, chemical-free.
Good olive oil.
Now I don’t mean some fancy twenty-five dollars for an eight-ounce bottle “good.” I’ve tried some of those and I just don’t think they’re worth the money or the trouble finding them. I buy whatever extra-virgin olive oil is on sale at my grocer. I prefer the organic, store brand, and it goes on sale regularly. It tastes clean and a little peppery, which is what I like. Some olive oils have a fruity taste, some more buttery. Try a few of the better store brands, find one you like the taste of, and watch for sales. I buy the biggest bottle I can and drizzle it on everything: potatoes, all veggies, pasta, good bread rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, grated dark chocolate on a hunk of baguette... you get the picture. And that can of beans? Rinse them, put them in a saucepan with a good “glunk - glunk” of olive oil, enough water to cover, and let them simmer for a couple of hours, then add plenty of salt and whatever spices and herbs sound good, and simmer some more. Tender, flavourful beans with a good brothy sauce. About the cheapest nutritious meal on the planet.
Aged parmesan cheese.
If you can have only one cheese, let this be it. I keep the kind in the green can, too, because I like it, but here I’m talking about the kind that comes on the rind that you sliver and grate and bite chunks off of when you can’t resist. It improves those canned beans even more, and just about anything else from meats to veggies and pasta. Olive oil, pasta, fresh black pepper and good parmesan makes your mouth go mmmm. It stays good for a very very long time, and the rind? Throw it into a pot of any soup for extra flavour. That’s what the Italians do, and they know soup.
A basic rule of any good cooking is to balance salty with puckery and sweet. Lemon works, too, but I don’t always have a fresh lemon, and not all foods like the flavour of citrus. I keep rice vinegar for a milder taste, and a good aged balsamic for when I want that rich, sweet flavour. Red wine vinegar is also a good one to have, too. Buy the best one you can afford, and make sure your balsamic comes from Modena and not Minneapolis.
It lasts forever and you can stock up when it’s on sale. De Cecco brand is available at almost any grocery store and it cooks up perfectly chewy and not mushy like some of the cheaper store brands. Buy it when the price is cut and it’s very affordable. Gather a variety of shapes from spaghetti to penne to little ditalini for soups. You always have a meal when you have a box of pasta. It’s gotten me through some slim pantry times and can be made nutritious with the addition of whatever veggies I might have.
The real kind, not those fake low-fat tasteless impostors. Real mayo enhances many foods like a meaningful gesture. Got eggs, you got egg salad. Got spices? You can mix up a sauce for dipping potatoes into or a really special sandwich spread. And if you’ve got olive oil and eggs and salt? You can make your own mayo, and it’s a nutritious food when used sparingly.
In a grinder. Always fresh and ready to give a kick to anything that needs it. And a few tossed into your soup stocks is a necessity. I like black Tellicherry peppercorns and I can buy them at my grocery store. They’re a little more expensive, and worth it.
Powder and fresh. There isn’t much that’s savoury that can’t be made better with garlic. Best salad dressing? Crushed garlic cloves shaken in olive oil, a pinch of salt and a little vinegar. Always more oil than vinegar. Garlic is a cook’s best friend. Unless your allergic to it. If you just don’t like it, well, I’m truly sorry.
Half & half.
I don’t drink milk so I don’t keep it in my fridge, even for cooking. If you need milk, you can water down half & half. A cup of coffee just isn’t right for me without it. And I can make a good chowder with only potatoes, garlic, some frozen corn, salt, some herbs and half & half. It’s perishible, so truly a pantry item, but my world might end without it, so it’s on my list.
Dried herbs and spices.
Pick the ones you enjoy the most. Some folks like curries and some like plain old Italian herbs. I’m never without a jar of crushed red peppers, smoked Spanish paprika, and some Mediterranean oregano. You know what you and your family like. Always keep spices and herbs, and the best you can afford.
Good ones. Kalamata. And a tiny jar of capers and pickle relish. These salty jewels enhance so many things. Especially martinis and egg salad. And hot dogs.
Good coffee, tea and beer.
Or wine, if you must. Because you never know when someone might stop by, or when you just need to sit down with some caffeine or alcohol when no one stops by at all.
These are my staples. It might seem an inadequate list, but really these things are the backbone of all of my cooking. If I had the room and money I might keep more, but then it just gets confusing. There are only a few things I feel uncomfortable without: coffee, half & half, oil, salt, garlic and good bread. I can at least make myself a piece of toast and a good cup of joe. I get really weird if there’s no coffee in the house. Maybe that should have been first on my list, but I know there are folks who don’t drink it. But the rest of the things in my pantry? They tend to make my life easier, giving me the basics of what I really need to make a meal, whether I’ve got a bounty of fresh foods from the farmers’ market, or just a box of pasta and a half of a zucchini. If you’ve got some other can’t live without staples, I’d love to know. It’s easy to get settled into my own ways, and maybe you’ve got something up your sleeve to spice up my kitchen witchery a little, too.
Willow Pond late last Sunday afternoon. I took a walk after sending the Nest to you. It was so beautiful outside. Luminous.
The Comfort of Place
The land is love. We find in it beauty and grace, comfort and solace, nourishment for our bodies, shelter for our families. We take care of it, or we don’t, and it’s still there, holding us up, at least for a while. Oh it can turn on us, grow ugly and polluted if we’ve neglected it too long. We can fear it, too, as it can be stormy and unwelcoming at times. Still, we learn from it every day, and without it we would not exist. The land is love. And for each and every one of us, there is some landscape, some place, that we love best. Our soul’s home. It might be concrete and skyscrapers, vast prairies with tall grasses oscillating in the breeze, rugged mountains that dwarf the sky, a pristine beach with swaying palms and water bluer than blue should be allowed to be, or even the passionate and torrid air of a Louisiana bayou---we all have a special place we feel most like ourselves. And often it’s not the place where we live, so we spend a whole lot of time dreaming about it and planning ways to get there.
These are the places that inspire us, awe us, put fire in our bellies like nowhere else on earth. They move us and dwell inside of us in ways that we deeply understand, but have a very hard time expressing. It’s like love. It is love. I know where my place is, and I’m sure you know your’s, too. Our places are burned into our beings, whether we realize it, or not.
When I was younger I had a terrible case of wanderlust. I would study maps, pencil the routes I would one day take around the world, circle places I would visit, cities I would one day live in, just for a short time, to experience all the parts of the world that called me to them. I read travel narratives. I longed to taste the foods, smell the air, immerse myself in cultures so different from my own, to know the people so unknown to me at that time in my life. I wanted adventure and mystery and romance and the life of a gypsy. Wherever I roamed would be my home.
I still have that ability in me, to blend in and feel comfortable wherever I go, with whomever I meet, but somehow the sirens of wanderlust have been muffled in me. I don’t have the unquenchable longing to wander far away anymore. And I think it’s because I finally fell in love. The kind of love where I feel the ache of leaving my beloved place as I soon I can see it in my rearview mirror at the beginning of a long drive and I know I will be gone a while. The girl who never looked back in her youth is now the one feeling what homesickness is really all about. Yes, I’m in love with my home, with the land right around me; it’s the landscape of my dreams.
How is it that a girl from Arizona and Texas who has traveled the world comes to find herself in love with the rolling hills, fields, creeks and woods of Western New York? I used to think my soul’s place was in Ireland, and I think, culturally, it still is. But now, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel some kind of intense surge of joy that we can feel when we are soaked through to the bone with true love for something. There isn’t a morning that I don’t look out my windows and think, “This is the most beautiful place in the world.” Of course, everyone has different ideas of beauty, and I’ve been known to say those words when taking in a spectacular sunset on Lake Michigan, or watching the clouds roll over Mount Sopras in the Rockies. It can be an “in the moment” kind of feeling, to be sure. I ache in my bones for the beauty of home, though. From the moment I leave it, I’m longing to return. And it makes me wonder, is it my heart’s way of protecting itself from the realization that I never will make it to all those places I once circled on my maps? Or is it that my heart finally woke up and realized what it has really wanted all along?
“I felt a pang -- a strange and inexplicable pang that I had never felt before.
It was homesickness. Now, even more than I had earlier when I'd first glimpsed it, I longed to be transported into that quiet little landscape, to walk up the path, to take a key from my pocket and open the cottage door, to sit down by the fireplace, to wrap my arms around myself, and to stay there forever and ever.”
― Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
Think for a moment of the one place you feel most alive. A place where you are most yourself. How often do you get to go there? One of my friends left her heart in Key West. She dreams about retiring there one day, keeps photographs of the landscape and the bungalows framed on her walls, and even in her cubicle at work. She and her husband take their vacation in Key West whenever they can, but when I ask her if she thinks they will ever move there, her answer is no. And maybe it’s enough to look forward to a week in your paradise every other year. Maybe it’s enough. She sure does glow with anticipation in the weeks before they leave for the Keys, and with contentment when she returns. I used to feel that way about Ireland, even more so after I finally visited there for two glorious weeks. I do still dream about going back, and I bet one day I will, but I no longer have that sense of “Life is too short. I only get one shot. How will I ever get to live there?” that I used to have. Oh, I have plenty of those kinds of anxieties about other things, but they don’t have to do with place. And I still wonder, is just a form of settling into reality that keeps me so in love with home, the place I love so much?
Perhaps it’s because it’s what I know best. I’ve lived on this land, in this house for twenty years now, longer than I’ve been any other place in my entire life. Familiarity can be such a comfort, hey? Certainly there are other places with rolling hills, fields, woods and gentle streams that are just as beautiful, that also capture my heart. Every time I visit New Hampshire, I feel that kind of love when I am there. But still, I long for home. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is grounded right here. And maybe I should cease the questioning and just know how lucky I am to dwell where I’m so connected. I’m getting there. On my drive last Friday, I could feel the comfort waiting for me the whole 620 miles home. This land is my love.
Look at the patina of this shell. An artifact of the natural world.
Butterbeans (and cornbread)
If you read the book "The Help," no doubt you were craving buttermilk fried chicken, collard greens, butterbeans and strawberry cake by the time you were done. If you haven't read it, then I dare you to devour that book without fancying a craving for some good old-fashioned Southern cooking. I was inspired to bring you a traditional Southern dish that was mentioned more than once in the story: butterbeans. I figured I save you from the thought of Minnie's chocolate pie and focus on protein.
Well, if you've never had the pleasure of eating butterbeans, it's about time you tried them. They saddle up real nice next to things like chicken and biscuits, collards and cornbread with melt in your sweet mouth buttery brown sugar goodness. My recipe is from Southern Living magazine, back in the 90s. There are other ways to make them with ham hocks and creole spices, but I just like them this way best. You'll also find a recipe for cornbread with three variations, but I like mine with fire-roasted green chiles, and they ain't spicy at all. They just give it a good, smoky flavor that fits nice with the rich, brothy beans. These are so divine they'll likely throw your tastebuds into a conniption.
4 bacon slices, diced
1 small onion, minced
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 (16-oz.) package frozen butterbeans (if you can't find them, use frozen baby limas)
1/2 stick butter (well, they ain't called butterbeans for nothing)
1 teaspoons salt
1. Cook bacon and onion in a large Dutch oven over medium heat 5 to 7 minutes. Add brown sugar, and cook, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in butterbeans and butter until butter is melted and beans are thoroughly coated. Stir in 4 1/2 cups of water.
2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 2 hours or until beans are very tender and liquid is thickened and just below top of beans. Stir in salt.
1 box Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 4.25 oz can fire-roasted green chiles OR 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese OR 1/4 cup cooked corn kernels
Preheat oven to 400.
Grease a 9-inch pie plate with butter.
Stir all ingredients together in a bowl. The batter will be lumpy. Spread into pie plate and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Serve with a little butter and plenty of butterbean sauce.
Eight tracks I heard on my road trip to the 45th parallel, including music by Anna Ternheim, Dave Matthews Band, and Steve Miller Band. And yes, that CD I dropped made a rainbow on my pants.
Click on the photo to listen.
This week I was in my woods, then north past the 45th parallel, then back again. Here are some things I noticed.
My first look at my back yard when I pulled into my driveway after my trip. It's instant comfort. The photo is a little blurry, which is kind of how I felt :)
The hemlock tree near my sitting spot has the perfect cup holder.
I love this tree.
My ginkgo tree finally unfurled its leaves. It was raining all day Saturday. My eyes settled on this small spattering of water drops.
Oh the fields, the fields.
Took my breath away.
What a sky!
The horse stables of Ess Kay Farm in the distance.
Another evening sky I couldn't resist.
Sunset at my dad's house, on the shore of Little Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan.
The line up on my bed when I got home on Friday.
Sometimes writing the Nest really does feel like writing a love letter to my readers. This week it was both fun and also a love letter to home. I hope you've enjoyed it, and that maybe you'll send me some thoughts on your own place that you love. One thing I know for sure, it lights me up to hear other people speak of what keeps their hearts warm and brings them joy. One of my favorite stories ever is one where my friend Barb writes about leaving her soul in New Orleans and meeting up with "her" there every summer to get reacquainted. Now I am wishing I would have asked her to share that story with us here. Maybe she will one day. Hint hint.
And if you try the butterbeans, I want to know how you like them! I have them for breakfast this morning. Man oh man.
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And, thank you, so much, for being here.
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