We had a slow morning. The children both woke up happy. We had a dance party before school started. We ate peaches, cereal and eggs for breakfast. I managed to put on mascara. They cleared their dishes without being told. I hugged them both deeply. I breathed them in, and sent them off to school. I said a prayer of gratitude for this ordinary life.
I feel a deep and connecting love to my children and my spouse, and I can’t help but wonder if today feels so good because yesterday felt so awful. We had breakdowns over video games, and free time, and school work. We argued over who gets to tell who what to do, and who always gets to do something and who never gets to do something. I hustled them out the door and felt defeated most of the morning. A rough start to the day was only exacerbated by the haze of wild fires in the pacific northwest, hurricanes in the southeast and the enduring grief of 9/11. It’s easy to get bogged down with the weight of things, but I’m also grateful for it. Darkness can create light in strange places.
I have always been acutely aware of how temporary life is. I know we don’t get to keep it. I know my children do not belong to me, and each year they push themselves farther and farther from me. Birthing them was in fact the first separation, the first loss in what is a slow and continuous loss that will go on until one day they no longer give me sweet kisses and instead offer them to children of their own. They are old enough now to have experiences unique to them, and I can only hope they let me peer in through the window of their lives. On days like these, I try to find gratitude in the mundane. Peace in the routine. Grace in the redundancy of it all. I know I am blessed beyond measure.
It’s easy to forget gratitude amid such heavy sadness or to feel like you shouldn’t express happiness in times of grief, but I think that’s exactly when we take stock of our gifts, inventory our power and strength and shore up our courage. It’s done in such little ways every day. In moments whispered between lovers, in the way a child plucks a blossom from a garden, believing with absolute certainty that more will magically appear in its place.
Some families consider asparagus or morel mushrooms the first sign of spring, but for us it will always be the tart, crunchy stalks of rhubarb.
I make this sauce every year and put it on everything. Spoon it over ice cream, spread it on top of vanilla cheese cake, stir it into oatmeal or overnight oats or spread it on some toast with ricotta and top with sliced strawberries. If you are looking for a simple, but elegant Mother’s Day dessert use this sauce to create Rhubarb Fool. Fold the sauce into whipped cream, spoon it into a champagne flute, garnish with a sprig of mint, and you’re done! You can find the recipe for the Mother’s Day Dessert at the Omaha Farmer’s Market site, or if you just want the sauce recipe you can find it below.
Rhubarb sauce keeps in the fridge for months, which is just another reason to love it.
Toss the rhubarb, sugar, orange juice and vanilla bean paste into a medium sauce pan and set over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the rhubarb begins to fall apart. This should take about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender to purée the rhubarb. The purée is finished when it’s thick enough coat the back of a spoon and maintain a line drawn through it. If it doesn’t hold the line let it simmer for a bit longer. Continue to stir occasionally. If you want a smooth sauce, set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and push the purée through strainer or sieve. If you are happy as it is, simply transfer the sauce to a container, cover it and keep it in the fridge for up to a month to use as you see fit. You should have a about 4 cups of sauce.
Cold weather has a way of slowing us down. A much needed forceful hand guiding us to take note of what matters. The time we take for granted so easily slips away from us in the wind, the schedules, the iMacs and the double shifts of life.
We watch today’s versions of ourselves and our children disintegrate during the night. We wake to find we are all new people in the morning. In new light, it seems I have given up coffee and the children no longer need help tying their shoes. This is what we want as parents – children who will grow up to forge lives of their own. Sometimes, I fear we desperately document moments we only know through iPhone photos because we weren’t mentally present to bookmark the memory in our hearts. I know I’m guilty of it, which is why I try to appreciate the snow days, and sick days when they arrive unannounced and always when I’m deadline for a big project. If I wasn’t forced to slow down from time to time, I probably wouldn’t, and I would miss so much.
Last year, I developed recipes for the Omaha Farmers Market. This post is a modified summary of the one I wrote for them. It’s snowing outside, and if you have squash lingering on your counter top and kids you need to feed you might want to make this soup for dinner.
1- 3lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
15oz diced tomatoes
32oz chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup green lentils
1 1/2 Teaspoons Kosher salt
Lots freshly ground black pepper
6-7 kale leaves, stripped from the stem and roughly chopped
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, spices and bay leaves. When the onions soften, after about 5 minutes, add the garlic. Sauté for about 5 minutes more, then add the carrots, and a 1/2 cup water. Cover and let them cook for 10 minutes. Add the butternut squash, tomatoes, and chicken stock. Give it a quick stir, cover and cook on the stove top for about 30 minutes.
Pour yourself a glass of wine. Read a magazine. When 30 minutes is up, add the lentils. Cook for 30 minutes more, then add salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaves. Toss the kale leaves into the soup pot. They are ready when softened a bit and the color brightens. This should only take a minute or two.
Ladle into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and top with freshly ground black pepper.
You can easily make this dish vegetarian, by using vegetable broth. I also like to squeeze lemon juice into my soup, because I love sour and spicy together. It’s up to you.
I wrote the following post 18 months ago, and never published it. Now that I’m nearing the end of an extensive PR campaign for New Prairie Kitchen, I feel the need to publish it. I hope you don’t mind the delay.
Today is my first official book signing. This is the part of the book I never thought about. It’s the part where I feel terribly exposed and incredibly grateful, and in awe of everyone who helped New Prairie Kitchen come to life. I know it’s one book. Some people will like it, some will not. Some will champion it and others will push it to the side. I know this. I also know a cookbook is not curing cancer or part of some scientific breakthrough, but it’s my contribution to this place.
If we believe that personal interests are really gifts — road maps to who we are intended to be, as I do, then its our duty to foster those gifts not only in ourselves but also in others. I feel the love and support of so many people right now that my joy is palpable. Not because a project that lived in my head for years finally exists and I can touch it, and share it, but because of the character I had to develop through the process.
New Prairie Kitchen gave me a good lesson in persistence, trust, love, leadership and humility. Through it, I have divorced so many of my former selves, not the least of which was a doubting, pessimistic insecure dolt that showed up about the age of 30. I’m amazed anyone tolerated that version of me at all, and I’m thankful to be rid of her.
Unfortunately, for my children, specifically my son, that version of me was his first mother. I distinctly remember thinking, I don’t how to guide him because I don’t know what guides me. At the age of 30 I took a risk and quit my job to attend NYU’s Publishing Institute, then in the weeks before my planned departure I hurt my back. Many doctors visits and drugs led to a final decision of surgery and bed rest. Rather than attending class on a Monday in June, I walked into a surgical clinic.
When I hurt my back and all of my carefully constructed plans landed in one defeated pile at my feet. Rather than continuing my path as a writer in New York City, I found myself unemployed, with a body at odds with itself and me entering the transformative upheaval known as motherhood. I fell hard and fast for years. I didn’t see the path, but worse, I stopped believing there was one.
Then I wrote a story or two about some chefs, then a farmer and an artisan. Some, like the cheese makers, were trying to revive a dairy industry who many thought was all but dead. Others were launching restaurants with young wives and new babies giving it every hour they had with the hope that the time to play would come later. I rose and brushed myself off a bit every time they trusted me with their stories and shared their vulnerabilities. They reminded me that jumping is always worth the risk even if you don’t land on your feet at first.
If necessity is the mother of invention then children are the reason for resourcefulness.
Last week I watched my dutiful child drag a bag full of peaches up the front steps. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. By the time I saw what was happening she was nearly to the final step. I thanked her for helping me with the groceries, lamented my badly bruised peaches, and then felt a wave of gratitude for knowing how to cook.
I hate wasting food, and when we do have to toss something that was forgotten in the back of the fridge. I don’t say to myself, “Bummer, I have to toss out that parsley.” I say, “Bummer, I just threw away $2.” It’s a way of keeping me on track, and helping me honor how hard we work for what we have, whether it’s $2 worth of parsley or $10 worth of peaches. Luckily, a few of the peaches made it through their ordeal unscathed and the rest I turned into small batch Peach Basil Jam. The bright essence of basil pairs beautifully with sweet peaches.
I’ve piled this jam top of a piece of sour dough, folded into overnight oats, and recently spread it on a PB&J, though, admittedly, peanut butter and basil were not a hit and my children let me know about it.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Cut a shallow X in the bottom of each peach. Carefully drop them into the boiling water. After about 5 minutes you should see the peels pulling away from the skin. Use a slotted spoon to lift the peaches from the water. Empty the pot, and return it to the stove over low heat. Pull the skin off the peaches, remove the pit, and discard. Chop or slice your naked peaches, and add them back to the pot, along with sugar, vanilla, lemon juice and salt. Give it a quick stir.
Turn the heat to medium. Let the peaches slowly start to break down over the next 45 minutes, stirring the mixture from time to time and reducing the heat as needed to make sure the jam doesn't burn on the bottom of the pot. You want a gentle simmer.
After the jam has thickened and the peaches have broken down, I like to smash them with a potato masher a few times. I also take my immersion blender and run in through the mixture a few times. I prefer my jam to have peanut-sized bits in it, but you decide the consistency that's right for you. Toss in the basil, and give it a stir, and cook for a few minutes more.
Ladle into jars, and share with people who make you smile. This jam will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
The rhubarb in my garden has yet to go to seed. It is bold and unruly. It gets into places I don’t want it to be, but that’s mostly my fault. My lack of proper perimeter keeping. My lack of understanding spatial distances. I’m terrible at such things. Truly terrible. And because I am flawed and human my 10 rhubarb plants will have to be dug again in the fall, and moved around to a more suitable home. A home that is not plopped in one place or another, but orderly, I think, perhaps all in a row. It’s OK, they are resilient plants after all. It’s what I like best about them.
I have spent my life eating the green stalks with a blush of red. Mine are narrow, thin and unassuming. They are not the harsh lipstick red of a woman’s mouth. They are not the fat and lush rhubarb of the supermarket. They are of my grandmother’s garden, which were from her son’s garden in a house he’s now lived in for the past 30 years. The plant was there when he moved in. We assume it was planted by the elderly woman who sold them the flat-front house with the long and narrow driveway. And so her legacy lives on in the tart, stringy first spring fruit.
After traveling most of the last year, the tours have come to an end and I now find myself tucked into the cubbyhole of my office. Tracing the lines of notes written on a steno pad and being grateful for the scent of rain on the countryside. How in the early spring the grass in Nebraska and Iowa brightens against a soft blue sky full of painted clouds; how the golden dry stalks of last year’s bluestem continue to reach toward it and how brilliant it all seems. The colors of a Great Plains spring are breathtaking to me.
We live in the country; I’m surrounded by farmland and horses. We do not farm. We have two small acres where we live and where my gardens grow. I’m peaceful for the first time in years. Not under the screen of social media. The pull of recognition. I am quiet. I am drawing on my craft to tell this story of scones and how my son’s hands looked as he cut the flour with butter. How I noticed the fat of his fingers is fading, but still precious and simple and lovely. It is the spring of his life, so full of promise. It is my daughter and her wry sense of humor and her competitive spirit. It’s her kindness and her candor.
It is the season of rhubarb custard-filled ramekins and the way my husband smiles because it’s his favorite, and he knows I made it for him, not simply of my own doing, but because winter submitted to spring and the season bore food for me, so I could offer myself to him through it.
I’ve always found a comforting stillness with the arrival of winter. I try to keep dinner simple, both to honor the quiet contemplation of the time, but also, and more likely, because I’m not feeling overly creative in the kitchen these days. My children have embraced their own ideals with far more grit and resolve than I seem to muster.
One moment someone declares their allegiance to a vegetarian diet, refusing to eat fish but devouring chicken the next day, while the other simply wants the world on her terms and that’s all there is to it. I’ve grown accustom to the waves of energy and determination that come with raising children. While some mothers might try to figure out what foods their children may or may not like on any given day, I assume its all a crapshoot so I might as well make something I enjoy. On this night, it was soup.
I cover the bone of a poorly trimmed ham with eight cups of water and let it simmer while snow collapses upon itself outside my kitchen window. My daughter watches cartoons on Netfilx, while my son learns the ways of a semi-rural existence at my husband’s side. Both are covered from start to finish in Carhartt and snow pants to ready this house and our family for the impending snowstorm.
It’s not uncommon to lose power, and end up trapped for a day or two until a maintainer comes by with a wedge to free the few houses on our gravel road. The first time this happened, I expected the neighbors to start snowshoeing to one house or another with bottles of whiskey and a deck of cards. I had visions of snowy cabins in Colorado, and young people with booze. As it turns out everyone hunkered down in their own homes, and I felt like Jack Nicholson from The Shining. I have since calmed down a bit. Now that I’m a decade into living here, I know we won’t be isolated for long, and to stock up on water, batteries and flashlights.
I chop a few onions and potatoes while my better half, now with our son, attaches the blade to our John Deere. Next, I slice the fennel, celery and carrots from our Christmas dinner relish tray and toss them in the blue cast iron Lodge pot. I add a bit of white wine when I feel like it, some thyme and a bay leaf or two. I ladle the pork stock over the vegetables. Add a couple of cans of beans, a handful of chopped ham, some kale and a glug or two of olive oil to finish it off. This is dinner, and hopefully tomorrow’s lunch.
By the time the boys come in from the cold and my daughter expresses her boredom, bowls of soup made from what remained of Christmas dinner were ready. I wish I could tell you everyone raved about it, and sang my praises for making a perfectly lovely meal out of the bits and pieces from the previous meal, but that’s not really how families work. Not even families with a cookbook author among them. The boys loved it. I thought it needed something, a bit of cheese and crack of pepper to be exact, and my daughter decided it wasn’t really for her. She chose, instead, to eat crackers and drink water for dinner. Never was there a tougher critic than a four-year-old-girl trying to express her independence.
I listened to his laughter escape and travel over the sound of the riding lawnmower and the wind pushing its way past the spring buds and infant leaves on the trees in our yard. Rain was coming and we had work to do. The children needed to play, I needed to garden, my husband had to mow the lawn, and my father simply needed some company. This is new for me. His presence.
Chocolate Cake with Mascarpone Icing
We’ve lived in different states for nearly 20 years, and now he visits us weekly or bi-weekly or stays for days because his granddaughter was very curious about the kind of “jammies” grandpas wear to bed.
While I was covered in dirt and straw laying cardboard down for weed suppression in the pathways of our garden, I heard my old-soul of a son laugh like the child he is — uncontrollably and with abandon.
I looked up and realized the kids weren’t bickering about who would swing next. My daughter stood patiently by the poll of the swing set, while my dad pushed my son, higher and higher. My initial instinct was to quell the experience, “It’s too high,” I thought, “you’re swinging him too high!” But then I noticed the engagement on their faces. All three of them waiting in anticipation until the moment our son’s rear end was even with the roof of the tool shed, and then suddenly in unison I hear their voices free of concern and full of joy and exultation yell “BUTT EVEN!!!!” and then laughter, fits upon fits of uncontrollable laughter. I’m sure it was because they took risks — swinging higher than before, they used a bathroom word (butt) with the permission of a grown up adult and didn’t get in trouble and they invented their own game that for the rest of the night was heralded by all as the best game in the world! Afterall swinging high enough for your butt to get even with the roof of a shed is feat worthy of the adoration of any six and four-year old child.
This went on for at least an hour. As the evening wound down, my son and I were the only two who could tolerate dinner in the outdoors with the wet, lingering chill of spring. Together he and I shared the best meal of my life, we ate bratwurst wrapped in a slice of wheat bread, and talked about butts and swing sets and grandpas. We all went to bed late, and thoroughly depleted of energy.
It’s so rare that I get the chance to observe my children. I’m always in the fold with them, lugging toys, meeting requests, preparing meals, cleaning them up … shuttling from one moment to the next, but that’s the gift of letting others participate in the fold of our families, specifically of grandparents who aren’t babysitting, but simply having fun with their favorite tiny people.
The rain did come, though later than expected and we all slept like babes with the sound of it whispering in through the sliver-sized cracks we left in the windows. Time in the garden, listening to my children laugh, knowing they were safe, and my mind had the freedom to wander and wonder a bit about life and that which connects us. My love of food is really just a pathway to show people how much I love them, it’s not about the food at all. It’s my go between — like the Saints to God, I use food to connect, often when I feel like words fail me, and they often do.
It has been a long, but joyful week in the kitchen, feeding thirty people for a birthday party, cooking meals for family, reporters and friends. The week began with my daughter’s birthday cake and was punctuated by chocolate cupcakes with cinnamon mascarpone icing for my son’s classroom. On Saturday, after the coffee was brewed and the kids were herded toward the door and off to swim lessons I checked my email. A woman who tried one of the cupcakes I sent to school asked for the recipe. Her grandfather will be 85 soon and she want’s to make him a cake. I imagined her briefly as a child and wondered how he must have inspired her. So much so, that now, as a grown woman, she wants to show her love for him with a cake.
My husband loves Tiramisu. Mascarpone and coffee are dominate flavors in that light and creamy dessert. I love it too, but tiramisu takes more time than I have to give. To compromise, I came up with this tiramisu inspired chocolate cake. I didn't develop the cake technique, but I believe it's similar to how you pull together a Mississippi mud cake.
For the Cake
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 3/4 Cups Granulated Sugar
3/4 cups Dark Cocoa Powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cups organic canola oil,
2 Tablespoons Frangellico or hazelnut liqueur
1 Scant cup piping hot coffee
For the Frosting
8 Ounces mascarpone
8 Ounces cream cheese (softened)
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Powdered Sugar
2 Cups Heavy Whipping Cream
1/4 Teaspoon kosher salt
1 Teaspoon cinnamon extract
1 Teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Cake
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cut parchment rounds to fit three 9-inch cake rounds. Butter and flour the pans. Set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and hazelnut liqueur. Poor the wet ingredients into the to dry, and stir together with a stiff spatula. Pour in the piping hot coffee. Stir until combined. The batter will be thin. No worries.
Divide batter among the pans (about 18 ounces in each). Place in oven for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.
Note: You can use hot water and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract instead of coffee and hazelnut liqueur.
For the Frosting
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk together both cheeses, both sugars and salt until fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a time or two. Slowly pour in the heavy cream in a thin stream. Stop halfway through and scrap down the sides of the bowl. Add extracts. Whisk a bit more. The frosting should be thick enough to spread, but still light and creamy.
Note: Variations on the frosting. Using the same cake base replace the cinnamon extract with orange extract, and top with candied orange peel as I did in the photo.
To Assemble the Cake
Spread the top of the first cake layer with enough frosting so some will squish out the sides. Add the second cake round. Repeat with frosting. Add the third cake round. Top with frosting. Start at the center of the cake and work your way out to the edges. Finish with the sides. Dust with cinnamon along the edges.
Note: If I'm feeling fancy and I have some laying around, I will spread each cake round with a layer of chocolate ganache before spreading on the mascarpone frosting.
Note: The coffee and liqueur flavors are more pronounced the same day you make it. They will fade the longer the cake goes uneaten, but I've never actually seen the cake go uneaten.
I am not one who believes food is medicine, or art for that matter. I do not think it will cure me. I do not think it’s value should be elevated above those who sit with me at the table. I do think think food will nourish me and nurture me and support me through that which may I may suffer. It will serve as my excuse to meet with those whose company I enjoy. I feel like that is enough to ask of an eggplant or a lettuce leaf or parsnip plucked from the ground.
It’s a tricky little world to write about that which feeds us. I’ve often wondered why it matters and tried to mull through the conversations about food I’ve been having lately. Some feel we should push the envelope. Others that we should do everything we can to make food simple, and offer it free of intimidation. I agree with that too.
I was recently asked about how I became a foodie. Admittedly, I bristle at the notion. Personally, I am firmly placed in the unfoodie camp. Most of what I make at home is quite simple. I call it home food. Sometimes if I’m feeling poetic, and maybe even a bit sexist, I call it the food of women. I know men cook. I know men cook at home, but I am a woman and I’ve been thinking lately about the food we’ve made at home for centuries. For me, I try to make things that require as little effort on my part as humanly possible, and can be handled by my young children. While I admire modern gastronomy and its variations on foam and smoke, and food towers teetering in the middle of my plate, it’s not what we eat at home; and I’m deeply interested in what we feed our families. I fear home food is being entirely replaced by restaurant meals, microwave dinners and fast food. It’s not that those things aren’t relevant, but everything has a place. Home food represents a connection that doesn’t come in a takeout container. It’s is a craft worth preserving if not for the sake of our families then for the sake of ourselves.
1/2 Cup sweet corn (cut from the cob, but frozen will do)
4 Ounces goat cheese, chevre (crumbled)
1 or 2 Pinches white pepper
1/4 Tsp salt
chives (enough to add some color)
Set oven to 375.
Press pie crust into the pan and make the edges fancy or don't. Quiche tastes good with or without fancy edges. If you are using a homemade crust, crumple up a piece of parchment then smooth it out again. Lay it on top of the crust and pour some dried beans onto the parchment. Bake the crust for about 15 minutes.
Once the crust is finished, let it cool a bit and remove the beans and parchment.
In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, milk, half and half, pepper and salt. Sprinkle onions, crumble the cheese and snip the chives onto the pie crust. Pour in the liquid. Bake for 40 minutes. The center will be set, but a still have a bit of a wiggle. The top should be golden. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
I first met Danelle Myer of One Farm in 2012. That’s her, with her hand on her hip. At the time, I was figuring out how to write New Prairie Kitchen, and she was figuring out how to become a successful farmer. She was in a state of transition, and so breathtakingly honest about her vulnerability and the uncertainty of the path she was about to take that I had to know more about her, so I interviewed her and wrote a story for Edible Omaha. A million years later Edible Feast, an offshoot of the Edible franchise, partnered with Perennial Plate and PBS to create a new program about chefs, farmers, home cooks and artisans. They selected the Omaha foodshed for a segment and I’m fortunate enough to call a few people in this episode friends.
As a journalist it’s difficult to write about people who hold their cards too close. I think a lot about vulnerability and trust these days and about how brave you must be to live truthfully in those realms. Danelle admitted to me, a stranger who was writing down her every word, that she threw herself a pity party at the age of 37. She admitted weakness, fear and self-loathing. She admitted ignorance and took big risks, not the least of which was telling her story to me. She is also one of the few organic farmers that I have interviewed who are open about their relationship with conventional farming. I think I might have valued that the most. She’s a rare gem. Please forgive me for bragging about her, but I think you will see it’s justified.