Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rainy days and risotto


It’s raining, one of those rains that clears out the gutters and turns the river a dark metallic grey, leaving a damp chill in the air between storms. It’s been raining on and off for days and because of this I have not shopped for food. On days like these I swear I will can more. Freeze more. Set aside a stockpile because if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s leave the house when there’s rain or snow. If it weren’t for four-wheel drive and good county road crews proving me a liar, I’d happily stay home all winter, insisting the roads were impassible if my presence were necessary.
But that particular scenario is still weeks away. And while the calendar is saying Fall, the weather is insisting “Not yet.” But today there is a chilly rain, which means it’s slow cooker weather. For years, I avoided slow cookers, embarrassed to even have one in the pantry. I’ve relented, especially on days when I want something filling. Something rich.
Today want a creamy risotto, but I don’t have the right kind of rice. A starchy rice that breaks down into a creamy goodness when cooked. I do have barley, however, which is better of its high fiber content and I can claim I chose it because it is healthier, not because it is what I have left in the pantry. Risotto isn’t just the name of the dish, it’s also the cooking method, which roughly translated means Hours Stirring Grains and Broth On An Open Flame. Which is nice kitchen performance art, but I want something easy. And good. Adding the cheddar gives it a mac-and-cheese feel without the white flour guilt.

Crock Pot Barley Risotto


  • 1 cup barley
  • 3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable if you want vegan)
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs leftover non-sweet wine (optional)
  • 4 cloves garlic or equivalent garlic powder
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced and sautéed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (faux or otherwise)


Mix the  broth, barley, butter, wine, garlic, onion, salt, and black pepper in a Crock Pot and cook on High for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Stir in cheese.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Peaches on the tailgate altar

Peach Salsa, step 1
College football  has started, which around here means an empty house on Saturdays. Everyone is either at the game or watching the game somewhere else. It’s a day of catch-up for this non-fan. Reading, cleaning, cooking and just being thankful I’m not standing in a crowded stadium asking people around me to explain what just happened on the field.
I’ve stubbornly refused to become a fan. That might be different if I’d gone to a college where the football game was worth waking up for. And I know it’s possible to become a late-life convert. But there are only so many brain cells in a life. Why squander them on false enthusiasm?
There is one part of the football ritual I can get behind and that’s the tailgating. The guys man the grill, cooking manly meats. Bratwurst. Burgers. Steaks. Neighbors share, creating their own culinary currency. A breakfast bagel for 2 hotdogs. Pork burger for a veggie burger + a dessert to be named later.
The women have packed the accompaniments. Brownies, breads and baked goods. Chips and dips. Chips and salsa. A plate of cut-up vegetables that will go back home nearly uneaten because it’s football, not a bridal shower. Who tried to sneak this healthy stuff on the table? 
Tailgating is a communal meal of pre-thanksgiving, a ritual victory feast because no true fan would dare believe that there is anything but a win expected by day’s end. And like a celebratory meal, everyone brings an offering, more humble than fantastic because the setting — a truck bed as altar, lawn chairs as pews — necessitate a casual approach to both food and comfort. China is replaced by paper plates. Forks by fingers. Napkins? They’ve blown off the table in a gust of warm wind. 
On a quiet Saturday, when I’ve stayed home after waving the fanboys goodbye, I begin my own football ritual of preparing for next week’s tailgate. A mountain of peaches wait and I’ve got peach salsa on my mind. It’s 88 degrees, a horribly hot day for football and canning alike. But peaches don’t wait and neither can I.

Peach Salsa (Canned or not)

6 cups peeled, sliced and pitted peaches, about 4 pounds
2 or more jalepenos, diced
1 1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced yellow, orange or red pepper)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 tsp garlic powder or 3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cup vinegar
3/4 cup sugar

Combine everything in a large dutch oven and boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid becomes syrupy. This makes about 4 quarts. Divide it up and can it with 15 minutes in a hot water bath. Or cool it in the refrigerator and eat at the next couple tailgates.  (Adapted from “Food In Jars” by Marisa McClellan)


Friday, August 29, 2014

This is what we eat here

It's home.

Some people love the bed and breakfast experience. I’m not one of them. It’s the breakfast part I hate, sitting at the dining room table, forcing interest in your fellow boarders. Just give me a cup of coffee and a piece of bacon. That’s all I’m asking.
But last fall, we found ourselves in just such a situation in Willamette Valley. Oregon’s wine growing region has beautiful views, interesting wines, amazing restaurants and a handful of housing options. So it’s no surprise to find a self-proclaimed foodie or wine snob sitting across the B&B table, as hung-over as a college student. 
They are generally gregarious, anxious to impart their wisdom about a super-secret restaurant that they’ve stumbled on, to add to their street cred, drive traffic to their blog. And after the soliloquy on last night’s food rapture, they ask the question: Where are you from.
“Iowa. On the Mississippi River.”
And a look of horror passes over their face. It takes a moment for them to form the words.
“What do you EAT there?” As though Iowa were a vast food desert. Nothing but flat acres of corn fed to cows somewhere else. 
It’s a question I struggle with sometimes and I have learned that most often the question means “Where do you eat there?” The food tourist isn’t as interested in the meal as they are in the stamp in their mental passport so of course they’ve never considered Iowa.
We have our restaurants and they serve us admirably. But there aren’t many where I can say “This is what we eat and you can get it nowhere else, nowhere better.” 
The question comes down to local foods, meals that remind a homesick Iowan of home. We’ve got our Maytag cheese. We’ve got our morels. We’ve got our Sterzings. We’ve got pork tenderloins and Windsor chops. We’ve got … that’s my list., my You Know You’re From Iowa When … list. We have our points of pride.
But I didn’t run down that list when confronted with the “What do you eat” question. 
“We cook at home. We have friends over. We raid our friends’ gardens.” 
Because a meal isn’t just about the food. It’s about the people you share it with. The connections you make and keep and cherish long after your favorite restaurant goes the way of arugula pizza. 

Sweet Potato Breakfast Hash For People Who Hate Breakfast Food

Diced up an onion and toss it into a skillet where you’ve already melted some butter. Peel a sweet potato and chop it into little 1/4” squares. Or grate it. I don’t like it grated as much, but you might. Toss that in with the onions and fry it on medium heat. Too hot and the outsides brown but the insides don’t cook. You’re looking for that nice brown caramelized outside. When it’s almost done, toss in some left-over chicken cut into little bits. (What, no leftover chicken? I thought everyone had leftover chicken.) Season with salt and pepper. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A history of Labor Day in 3, maybe 4, beers

Nick at the tavern.

The last Hooligans Picnic was probably 40 years ago. The guys that hung out at my grandparent's Southside tavern — that's the south side of Chicago, Roseland to be exact — would reserve some tables in a forest preserve, rent a few kiddie carnival rides to keep us occupied and throw some charcoal in a 55-gallon drum that had been sliced in half and sandblasted at the corner auto body repair shop. It was Labor Day and the neighborhood celebrated it vehemently. St. Patrick's Day was for rookies.
    A few kegs of PBR or Schlitz were rolled in, the neighborhood beer, back before they were ironic or cool. The ladies circled their aluminum chairs near the kegs because that was the best shade. They refused the beer and drank highballs out of plastic cups.
    I remember the drinks. Remember sneaking a sip when no one was looking. And I remember making 7 and 7s for the aunties (Seagrams 7 and 7-Up, but not too much 7-Up. They were very specific in their instructions.)
   But I don't remember the food. Hot dogs, I'd guess. It was Chicago, after all.
    The Hooligans broke up, moved away, drank themselves to death. It's what you'd expect from a group created on a bar stool. I moved too. To Carbondale — Southern Illinois University — where the Labor Day picnics were on rotting old porches and the beer wasn't much better. But the entire bottle was now mine. I didn't have to sneak sips.
    A grill was always going. There were hot dogs. And hamburgers. Standard grill fare, far better than standard cafeteria fare. Some ambitious girl would show up with a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated carrots, not realizing there was nothing to eat it with. We were moving up in the world.
    Years later, the calendar pages flying past as if blown by a tornado, I flip through a pile of cookbooks, looking for a great Labor Day meal. I already chosen the beer. A home brew quietly aging in the basement. But the meal? It has to have zucchini in it. And tomatoes. Because that's what I picked up at the farmers market. I've found several complicated recipes, a dozen ingredients that look beautiful in the after pictures. But so much work.
    Last week, a friend, Nathalie Girod, posted a picture of her lunch on Facebook. Just slices of the freshest vegetables, lightly grilled. I didn't ask her for the recipe, because she won't have one. She never does. Great cooks don't work that way. So I made one up.

Grilled Zucchini

Cut  zucchini lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices.. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and put it directly on a medium hot grill until the grill makes marks on it. That'll be about 6 minutes. Flip it over and repeat on the other side. I'll sprinkle some parmesan on top sometime. Maybe.


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Other Blog

Let's just call this Concordia, shall we?

I've writing the second in a series of books set in Concordia, an old Mississippi River town on the upswing. By now, the place is become very real to me and there's all sorts of things going on that the characters are part of. Art fairs, church activities, weddings, weather incidents. Not all of it's going into the books, so I started a faux news site http://concordiainthenews.blogspot.com

You can take the old reporter out of the newsroom, but you can't always take the newsroom out of her blood.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Best dressed


Look what I found at the local resale store. A trip to the past. I was that girl in high school, the mid-'70s version of Goth, wearing vintage before vintage was much of a thing. It was stuff my mother had saved, hoping to lose enough weight to fit back into the clothes she'd worn in her 20s. (That, apparently, has always been a thing.) They were beautiful dresses in extraordinary fabric and I felt beautiful and extraordinary in them. 

I can try to relive that, even though it will take every shred of dressmaking skills I've ever learned to resize these. (The Vogue Pattern Size 14 is for a 32-inch bust. The Size 14 I now wear is for a bigger rack.) They were hidden, tucked on the bottom shelf at the charity store, three huge bins of patterns. I bought 76 from the '50s to the '70s (in case I ever want to dress like I was in high school.) I'll make a few, if I find perfect fabric. Will it be a lot of look? I'm sure there are going to be people that say that. But I'm going with Miuccia Prada on this, with my own twist: Wilder, yet with refinement. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Off kilter

My virtual ass is dragging. Dad died a couple weeks ago. 10 days since the funeral. I don't feel like doing much but sitting in the corner of the couch and drinking, so not-drinking is taking up all my energy. All of it.