Zucchini Daze

It’s finally happened! After a solid six years of trying, I grew a single, perfect, fuzzy zucchini!

Stop laughing.

Yes, they grow like weeds and turn into fat old gourds if you don’t pick them the very minute they arrive, and after paying actual dollars for dirt (dirt, people) and building a shrine to hold it in, and covering it with a critter-proof cage, and faithfully watering, and singing songs of hopeful longing to little sproutlings, I have managed to grow…this.

This being the sum total of four months of labor. This year.

I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong. It used to be so easy.

But the zucchini was beautiful. I discovered it an hour before we left on a family vacation and packed it gently with a towel into my car. There was no way I was not going to eat it. This little veggie cost me a lot of money and a few tears and I deliberated how to do it proper justice.

Enter Ziggy. Ziggy was not technically camping in our particular hut but he came over all the day long to cook his own food in the little kitchen we had, the cafeteria not able to furnish his dietary requirements. Ziggy is also not technically his name, because I protect the identity of happy campers who cook with wine and wield large knives. Furthermore, Ziggy was always barefoot. I told him we were going to lose our “A” in the window.

As the fam and I trudged off to the cafeteria for meals, heavenly aromas drifted on the breeze as Ziggy made himself smoked salmon omelets and lamb shank stews. He hummed the occasional melody. Carrot peels festooned our trashcan. I realized then that he was a Hobbit. I dubbed him Siegfried Wanderfoot.

My little triumph sat on the counter, blending in with the coffee grounds, pondering its fate. Days went by.

Finally, Ziggy asked, “Are you going to eat that?”

“Um, yes. I just can’t decide how.”

“Too small for bread,” he agreed, “too large for a pickle. What are your thoughts on garlic?”

And this is how the most triumphant zucchini dish ever prepared materialized out of actual thin air.

And also how I ended up with a personal chef who is also a Hobbit who can survive at an altitude of 5,400′ above sea level. If you ever used to have a plethora of zucchini and disguised them in a multitude of recipes, you have forgotten what a squash tastes like. Heaven. It tastes like fresh, green, heaven with little clouds of garlic butter. Enjoy.

Ingredient List: hand-reared organic zucchini, pure butter, fresh garlic, Oakwood smoked black pepper, pink Himalayan rock salt, Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and a machete.

No shoes, no hairnet, no facenet, no “A” in the window…Ziggy living the life.

Ziggy’s Zippy Zucchini
Hand tended organic zucchini sauteed at altitude in pure butter with finely chopped fresh garlic and seasonal herbs.
  1. Plant organic zucchini seeds and tend and water daily.
  2. After many weeks, and in the height of summer, pick one fresh zucchini and carefully transport to a mountain over 5,000′ in elevation.
  3. Let zucchini rest for a minimum of three days, soaking up the wild scent of pine.
  4. Slice zucchini lengthwise into 5mm thin slices with a sharp knife. Put aside to rest.
  5. Grind both pepper and salt over both sides of zucchini slices with love.
  6. Finely chop fresh garlic cloves and place in saute pan with a sizable portion of pure butter.
  7. Put gas stove on high heat and melt garlic butter, adding herbs in small doses as it melts.
  8. Lay zucchini slices in hot pan and saute, turning every two minutes to ensure an even cook.
  9. When zucchini starts to caramelize and crisp up along the edges, remove from pan to rest for one minute.
  10. Arrange on plate in floral pattern. Enjoy with a glass of Layer Cake cabernet sauvignon.

The Plated Wonder

A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband

To every other little bride
Who has a “Bob” to please,
And says she’s tried and tried and tried
To cook with skill and ease,
And can’t! – we offer here as guide
Bettina’s recipes!

To her whose “Bob” is prone to wear
A sad and hungry look,
Because the bride he thought so fair
Is – well – she just can’t cook!
To her we say: do not despair;
Just try Bettina’s Book!

It’s been 100 years, ladies. And I want to know. Can you cook yet?

This little gem, circa 1917, is on my bookshelf, a wedding present from Hubby’s younger brother who stole it, I am sure, from a distant great-aunt’s box of cookbooks, gifted partly in jest and partly in fear that I would try to cook a chicken without looking inside of it first…again.

Written in chapters with roman numerals, the book follows the first year of Bettina and Bob’s wedded bliss as they keep house in a bungalow during the roaring ’20s, somewhere in America. Through dialogue with friends and family, we discover that “new fashioned breakfast foods are for feeding the stock, not human beings!” We learn what Bettina keeps on her “emergency shelf”: cans of pimentos and tuna, jars of dried beef, marshmallows and macaroni, a one-pound box of salted codfish. With a thousand ways to please a husband and three of them are “Jellied Beef”, “Radishes”, and “Peanut Butter Sandwiches”, I’m confused.

But what can you expect? When an engagement is announced, it’s toasted with…grape juice. Like. Until 1933. And, fresh out of World War I, “dainty, delicious, and simple” are the words of the day. This can be interpreted as: tiny little portions. Her flower arrangements are bigger. Good thing dessert is included almost every night. Bettina meets Bob on the porch as he returns from work each day, she in her apron, he in his spats. Recipes for “Tuna Loaf”, “Prune Souffle”, and “Ham Timbales” support their complete happiness.

Bettina is quite accomplished in economy (“I always try to use the oven for more than one dish if I am using it at all”), so you won’t find her spending all her allowance on the gas bill (“open fires are so nice”), and full of advice on how to use up those leftovers in the icebox (croquettes, salads, molded, or en casserole). She can remove ink stains with sour milk, heal burned fingers with olive oil, and cleans her steel bread knife by dipping it into the dirt in a flowerpot. I laughed at her newfangled “fireless cooker”, then pondered her jars of jellies and pickles, but when I read her conversation about how to get rid of ants…I got in line. Talk to me, Betty.

“Mrs Dixon was dressed in a trim street costume, but under her veil Bettina could see that her eyes were red, and her lips quivered as she answered, “Forgive me for coming so early, but I just had to. I know you’ll think me silly to talk to you confidentially when I met you only yesterday, but I do want your advice about something.”

“Why my dear, of course. I like economizing; it gives me an opportunity to use all the ingenuity I have.”

“Frank and I’ve lived in a hotel but – lately he’s been so different. Why – he hasn’t been at home with me two evenings a week – ”

“You must be dreadfully unhappy,” interrupted Bettina, “Why, Bob doesn’t like to be away from home any evenings at all.”

“But you’ve just been married!” said Mrs Dixon tactlessly. “Wait and see how he’ll be after a few years! Why, I can’t cook a thing – I can’t even make coffee! Frank says if he could only have one breakfast that was fit to eat – ” and she buried her face in her handkerchief.

“Why Mrs Dixon!” cried Bettina, cheerfully, although her heart was beating furiously. “Your trouble is the easiest one in the world to remedy! Your husband is just hungry – that’s all! You do just as I tell you for one month and I’ll guarantee that Frank will be home every single minute that he can!”

Coffee

7 T-coffee
3 T-cold water
1/2 T-egg white
4 1/2 C-boiling water

  1. Scald the coffee pot
  2. Add the coffee, cold water and egg-white
  3. Mix thoroughly, add the boiling water
  4. Boil two minutes
  5. Allow to stand in the pot one minute
  6. Serve
  7. Brace yourself

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Limoncello

Sorrento” and “Limoncello” are interchangeable concepts. Outside of Sorrento, only groves in neighboring Capri are accepted to create this specialty liqueur. You should not buy it outside of Campania. Even Pompeii boasts a mural celebrating the Sorrento Lemon. Locals are fiercely proud of their limoncello, and you can purchase it on every street corner.

The terraced lemon groves in Sorrento have been organically cultivated for generations, surrounded by fencing and protected with overhead canopies and 60% of the harvest is reserved for making limoncello. Lemons are hand harvested when they turn from green to yellow: they never touch the ground. Once harvested, they are carefully cleaned, then kept away from human touch thereafter because limoncello is made from peel. The thick, intensely perfumed peel is distilled in vodka or Everclear, with a little sugar syrup added towards the end, completing up to a three month long process.

A shop owner gave us a brief education, showing us how to read the labels for quality limoncello. The bottle must have the Sorrento seal, and the ratio of lemon to alcohol should be high. 30% alcohol is acceptable, less is for the tourists, and 33% is ideal.

It is served chilled in a shot glass at the end of a meal as a digestive or as an aperitivo.

If you linger at all in a shop, you will be plied with samples. The limoncello speaks for itself.

The rest of the lemon is put to good use: you can buy lemon cookies, lemon candy, lemon balsamic glaze, lemon chocolate, marmalade…and don’t forget the complimentary kitchen baubles. After a few samples, it feels perfectly reasonable to pack it all up and bring the happiness home with you.

It smells and tastes like lemon candy with a tart kick beneath it. It makes you think of sunshine, bright blue ocean water, and good friendships. This is something you drink together, adding a sparkle to great conversation.

After we came home with our bottle, I went out to check our Meyers Lemon Tree. Sure enough, it’s cycling into bloom, with little green lemons being born on the branches. Winter in SoCal is citrus season. Now, my research informs me that the only other place – in the world –  you can cultivate a real honest-to-goodness Sorrento Lemon Tree is right here in San Diego. The lemons are here, if you look hard enough. I am not at all surprised. We may not be volcanic, but as I told you earlier, a lot of Italy sure feels like home.

I’ve never made limoncello but there are plenty of recipes online. I’ve gathered some of them together for us, below. If you have experience in the process, I’m interested in hearing about it.

For now, we will focus on our Italian treat and have you all over for sharing.

Salute!

 

From Sorrento Food Tours, Recipe #1

From Nonna’s kitchen, Recipe #2

From allrecipes (worth reading all the comments), Recipe #3

From Genius Kitchen, Recipe #4

And another from The Chew, Recipe #5

Rip van Forty Winks

Y’all need to sit down and buckle up, because the last two weeks feel just like Rip van Winkle waking up in Lilliput. Or was that Buck Rogers?

This isn’t happening.

Maybe I’ve been living under a rock – aka working a full time day job – but crawling out from under it hurts my eyes. And my heart, just a little.

It’s the toilet paper that sent me over the edge.

I’m cleaning the guest bathroom because company is staying for the second weekend in a row but this time I can’t trust it to the kids because they left actual used Qtips in a drawer last week, so now I’m scrubbing the toilet and notice that the toilet paper is unrolling and wisping into the trashcan below it.

My sister-in-law will admit to being a paper snob. She insists on paper plates that hold food without bending and paper cups that won’t melt at the first touch of your lips and never in a million years would she allow single-ply toilet paper near her house.

Apparently, my guests last week were fine with it, as it was never mentioned, but I feel like if they had any common sense, they would have reached for a Qtip which is more absorbent than an entire roll of single-ply.

I’m wondering if my boys just air dry but I’ll be darned if I ask them at this point.

I pulled a dozen rolls out of the pantry before finding the last of the proper-ply old stock. I guess I grabbed the wrong case during my last shopping spree.

Before you go judging, let’s all sit back and rethink the whole “day job” situation. A shopping spree in that lifestyle consists of running through Target after work in your heels, desperately grabbing TP, shampoo, and tortillas because you promised the family a meal and a can of refried beans is going to save the day.

Again.

And let me tell you that once I got home, I did not notice that we never replaced the broken microwave plate, that the dishwasher no longer cleaned dishes, or that the oven door had never been repaired.

Rounding out the kitchen appliance alliance, although our fridge had not had a working water dispenser for years, it now was no longer making ice.

None of this was noticed until last week, when I lost my job on Tuesday and kid #5 broke his ankle on Wednesday. On Thursday, I was really really wishing we made ice.

“Self,” I said, “This is not a good week.”

And ever since, I have been looking around me and noticing that I have not been home for over two years.

The freezer has a top layer of microwaveable fake food and just below it are layers of real ingredients. I pulled out a chicken with an expiration date of over two years ago. Worried that I may have forgotten how to cook (gasp!), I fluffed it up and put it in a pot. Chicken soup does not discriminate against old age. When I dusted off a can of tomato juice to add to the pot, I noticed the date: May 19, 2016.

Good enough. Don’t tell my mother.

And because I know you were wondering, marshmallows over two years past the date on the bag will not melt into the butter in the pan when you want to make the rice crispy squares you thought of making circa 2015.

They sauté nicely into little buttered, rubbery cubes.

Even old reliable – my faithful mop bucket – gave up on me. Full of cracks, it was thrown into the trashcan, along with five pairs of broken shoes, two dead houseplants, and every single rusted ring that had graced my traveling tea mugs to the office and back.

I will never drink out of a mason jar again.

But that is a story for another day.

Reaching into the freezer like….

Wonder Pot

Things are getting very quickly out of control.

I just went to the store and bought dried seaweed, the neck bone of a lamb, coconut water, and stood for five minutes seriously considering a package of chicken feet, toenails included.

If that’s not a sign of shopping under the influence, I don’t know what is.

Somebody stop me. I bought an InstantMagicWonderPot last week, and I think the rest is history.

I blame my girlfriend, which is where most of our peer pressures come from, right?

She’s a young, hip, trendy gal who raises her app-wielding toddlers on quinoa and paints her walls gray, so already I was suspicious.

“It will change your life!” she insisted, and texted a photo of a salted caramel pretzel crust cheesecake.

I hit the Amazon button.

Because my life could definitely use a change in the cheesecake department.

When the box arrived, I danced happily into the house singing, “Guys! My Magic Pot is here!”

From around a corner I heard, “Mom, you shouldn’t do drugs…”

“Hey! That’s legal now.”

“In that case, how magical is it?”

Such kidders in my family.

Half of the instruction book is in honest-to-goodness Chinese, the other is in Canadian, so I called that girlfriend up and she came over to play Interpretive Cooking Channel.

I had the ingredients to one recipe: lemon chicken. It’s citrus season in San Diego.

I got to work, GF coaching me while her toddler and baby roamed free-range around the house.

What I learned was that this pot is basically a pressure cooker: it forces the food to cook at gunpoint (as opposed to the microwave which is insidious with X-rays) and if you disturb it while it’s got a death-grip on your chicken and lemon juice, it gets very nasty and hisses at you.

It holds the pressure of a thousand mommies trying to make dinner.

It may very well blow up your house if you look at it funny.

Which is why I spent the whole time spying on it from around the corner, confirming that I am my mother’s daughter after all. Explosions are her favorite specter.

The pot spent twelve minutes coming up to pressure, one minute steaming into the kitchen, and another twelve minutes cooking. I watched GF flick the button to quick-release the pressure and the top blew. I jumped five feet, and the toddler looked at me with disgust.

“It’s just steam, Jolie,” she said, “You don’t have to be scared.”

From the mouth of babes.

The chicken was perfect. I decided I still had time to get fancy, so I spread them under the broiler in my oven for another six minutes to brown up, and made gravy in the pot with what was left seething in there.

Rice was fifteen minutes on the stove top while the chicken cooked, but the Pot – so it says in Canadian – can do it in five.

We had chicken and rice and sort-of gravy and salad and girl scout cookies and tea and if I sound a little giddy, it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve cooked real food.

It just gets me…right here.

GF laughed, and drove away bragging about spaghetti squash and pot roasts.

After cleaning up the kitchen, I decided to give it the real test. It’s one thing to cook in broad daylight, with plenty of time and no starving children under foot, it’s another entirely to come home from a long day at work and stare into a messy kitchen at the witching hour and try to not eat Cheetos.

I had a house full of teenage boys, aka: guinea pigs.

I set the pot back up.

I dumped a pound of frozen, cooked ground beef into it. I dumped a jar of spaghetti sauce into it, and another jar and a half of water. I broke a pound of dry spaghetti noodles in two and piled them on top.

The lid went on, the display lit up, and I backed away slowly.

Twelve minutes to warm up, five minutes to cook, five minutes to cool down.

The boys began sniffing, and walked in to investigate.

I flipped the vent and jumped away, crying, “Stay back boys, she’s gonna blow!”

That was the cue for them to surge forward and do facials:

“Stop!” shrieked my own mother’s voice from my mouth, “That steam will burn you! It’s not a toy!”

Which is teenage for: Step right up and steam-iron your shirt; instill a lovely Italian scent to your wardrobe.

It looked like this when we took off the cover:

“Fine,” I said, “after those shenanigans, you deserve uncooked spaghetti for dinner!”

The problem is, once I stirred it up, it turned into this:

And it was lovely.

I’m sold. The pot fits in with how we roll around here: less dishes to wash, less time spent babysitting a stove or oven.

I’ve been following an entire community of pot lovers, gleaning recipes.

That’s seaweed in the mac n cheese, stop looking at it funny.

Mason Jar Goggles

Latch-key kids have two parents that work in jobs for actual paychecks. These kids come home after a long day at school and let themselves into an empty house.

There are no warm cookies and mommy hugs waiting for them.

Who helps them with their homework?
Who do they call if they hear a spooky noise upstairs?
Who do they tell about the mean girl at recess?

As a child I felt sorry for my latch-key friends, so when I went to work full time I had an automatic pity for my own high school boys…the ones with sad little faces who got the fuzzy end of the lollypop because certainly their elder siblings had a mother who loved them…

I let myself into an empty house after a long day at work. There were no warm cookies or kid hugs waiting for me. A faint light from the kitchen was the only thing keeping dusk at bay through windows that hadn’t been cleaned in forever.

What was that noise?

I held my purse at the ready and came around a corner to find a kitchen in the throes of pizza agony.

My neglected CPS children had come home, raided the fridge, made a frozen pizza, an eight-pack of hotdogs, a couple of protein shakes. A banana peel and dirty socks on the table stared me down.

“Kids?” I called out.

“We’re in the den doing homework!”

That’s code for “We’re playing video games because we’re pretty sure you won’t come all the way in here to investigate.”

And they’d be right.

“Didn’t you miss me at all?”

Nothing but chuckles drifted down the hall.

Whatever.

I added my pile of debris to the kitchen counter: four or five dirty mason jars.

Surprisingly, this was a comfort.

When I began working full time, questions about 401Ks and how was I supposed to make dinners paled in comparison to the tea question.

Even the Queen Mum stops ruling the world at Tea Time.

My new job, not so much.

The challenge: make a portable tea party, ready at the snap of a finger but of a quality that will conjure up warm cookies and kid cuddles for a latch-key mom.

Three generous mugs of tea during a ten-hour day, two minutes to make a cup on the fly, and containers that are leak-proof, microwavable, and do not taste of metal, silicone or paper.

There has to be enough that, should I choose (and I do) to not wash a single dish during the week, there are still clean ones handy.

As a matter of fact, whatever it is had better darn well be disposable if necessary.

Enter the mason jar.

I brew three pint jars at home, add just the right bit of sugar, and pack them into my bag. I fill another jar with 2% and add it to the pile. I pull jars from the office fridge during the day and keep right on moving.

And all day long, I get teased.

Everyone else walks by with adorable mugs or manly stainless steel. I creep out of the lunchroom with my jar of moonshine and within two steps someone wants to know what I’m having because it looks sure enough suspicious.

Now mason jars, in all their crafty glory, are supposed to make even weddings look attractive. People put Christmas gifts into them for crying out loud.

Why does my jar of tea look so much like a lab sample?

Once again, practicality wins over style and even my own dignity, because they get the job done. My hands are toasty and every sip makes me smile.

They work so well that I’ve started throwing other things into them.

This is homemade chicken/rice soup and the other is my morning oatmeal, made up fresh with brown sugar and cinnamon and ready to snack on at my 6:30 in the am desk.

Things aren’t always what you expect them to be, but mason jars are pretty transparent.

Things are different now, but they are also a curiosity.

Looking at life through the bottoms of these jars, my job becomes a swirling kaleidoscope, my home appears comfortable despite its residual mess, and the bottom of my cup isn’t empty, it runs over with new possibilities every day.

The Pig in the Pot

I just crammed an eight pound pork roast into a three pound Crockpot.

I’m guessing here because the darn pig piece wouldn’t quite fit. I was putting a square pig into an oval hole.

Why do the butchers do this?  Does anyone make a square Crockpot? Would it still be a “pot” if it had corners?

My mom used to bake bread in large coffee cans. The loaves were round. It’s still “bread”.

Don’t they know we’ll be getting the kids out the door to school in the morning and then remember we were going to toss something into old faithful because it’s going to be “one of those days”? So we yank open the freezer door, rip open the rock hard meat chunk and go to plop it in, and….it comes screeching to a halt because the thing won’t fit.

Just a corner is still sticking out.

The clock is ticking.

“Get in the car!” you shout to the kids, “I’ll be right there!”

Now it’s down to you, the pig, the pot, and a kitchen variety of options.

I did the only logical thing that didn’t involve a hammer or a blowtorch. (You have those too, right? Mallets are for beating a chicken breast into chicken fried submission, and the torch is for lighting the birthday candles or caramelizing Barbie’s feet when she needs to be tortured when Mom’s not looking.)

Turning the pot to “High”, I gently balanced the lid on top of the roast in the pot and put the heaviest thing handy on top of the lid.

Then I ran out the door.

There’s a good 2-3” of water in the pot. The hot steamy water should melt the pig just enough to bend that corner into the pot. Or at least enough so that when I return I can whack that non-conforming pig bit off and commence the cooking.

It feels good to have a plan.

Later, upon kitchen re-entry, I discovered that the pig had melted just enough to leak juice over the edge of the pot as it plopped into submission. Naturally.

After cleaning it all up and claiming victory for dinners everywhere, it occurs to me: I legally had this raw meat sitting “out” for three hours. Sort of frozen, sort of steamed. This is where my mom’s voice runs across my inner forehead like a ticker-tape, all in capital letters.

STOP! FOOD POISONING ALERT! WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT! ALWAYS KEEP COLD FOODS COLD! KEEP HOT FOODS HOT FOR ONLY TWO HOURS! C.A.Y.G.! REFRIGERATE PROMPTLY! WARNING! SALMONELLA! IMMINENT DOOOOOOOOM!

If you think for one minute I’ll be starting over here, you’ve got another think coming.

I could season it with a couple dashes of Lysol and essence of bleach, but instead we’ll go with the original plan and cook the phooey out of it all day.

I’ll call it a luau. If I were to be authentic, we’d be pulling this bad boy out of a pit dug in the ground where it was surrounded with rocks and dirt and the bare feet of natives.

You’re lucky we’re not pulling bits of gravel out of our sliders tonight, so there.

Kinfolk, Kissin Cousins, and Cowpies

The Aunt Ruth Reunion, as we call it, is written on the calendar for the last Saturday of every August, and woe to family members who neglect to observe it.

“You know, we’re getting too old to organize this event. It’s time to pass it on to the young-uns.”

Your absence may be noted over Thanksgiving dinner but if enough pie sits on the sideboard, it will be forgiven. Skipping out in August however, implies you have not made the effort to sit in the shade with Aunt Ruth and Uncle George with a glass of iced tea and chat about everyone else who didn’t make it.

goblet

“These goblets came from Alabama. I stopped to see a house I used to visit as a child, and they had turned it into an antique shop, and there they were, just like the ones my grandmother used.”

Aunt Ruth, bless her heart, understands that life can get busy and will include you in her prayers later tonight, but the rest of us – those who brought potato salad and cold chicken and frisbees and teenagers – will wonder just what has become of our family tree. The paperwork says we branch out in many-splendored directions, but it felt just a little like a bonsai yesterday.

We were such a small bunch that we elected to visit our elderly kinfolk right in their home, instead of Mission Bay where we usually meet. It saved on the hauling of tables, chairs, potluck food, coolers, water toys, towels, and other flotsam.

“When I was a child, our reunions were held in the pasture. Cousins were stationed all along tables covered in cloths, and as the food came out, they kept the flies moving with flyswatters. You wanted to watch your step out there.”

We laid out the food in her tiny kitchen and sat on the back patio, surrounded by her thriving gardens and plants, trees and flowers. She has a green thumb.

“Well, I can’t wear green. It’s not my color I guess. But if I set my pots to soak overnight in Miracle Grow, they just wake up in the morning so sassy! Be sure and take some figs home with you, the tree is full.”

Their living room is filled with a baby grand player piano, carved wooden trains, doll collections, and blue and rose colored quilt squares.

“The fabric was just going to waste. Someone may as well get some use of it.”

Over the years, I have pieced bits of her life together. I know how she met George one fateful day when he walked into her office.

“I decided I was going to get that man to ask me out, so the next day, I wore a swishy skirt and just walked right on past him. He got the message.”

We all celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the Bali Hai, where her words of wisdom inspired me to stop playing in jello. This December, they will have their 65th.

“What will I do?” she says with a giggle, “Why, sit on his lap and thank God for living this long!”

Aunt Ruth has four children (“and we lost one early on, you know”), eight grandchildren, a dozen great-grandchildren, and nieces and nephews and little children off the street in all directions and can tell you how they were doing last she spoke with them, and she just loves them dearly and blames her two knee replacements on a lifetime of praying her loved ones home.

She sends hand-written Christmas cards.

“Every time I see your daddy, he’s just this sweet little three-year-old boy in curls and I thought to myself, this family makes the cutest kids, I just have to marry into it!”

My two teenage boys got a history lesson that ranged from the depression to the murky future. They listened to their grandfather tell stories of his own father who was a plasterer.

“You can’t use that word,” interjects Aunt Ruth, “You’ll have to say he worked his donkey off.”

From there, the conversation heads backwards, covering family members in ever-widening generational rings, the good, the bad, the ugly and the interesting. Uncle George fills in.

“Now, there was a sweet lady. She always tucked a penny into a handkerchief and sent it home in my pocket, but my dad never let me go buy candy with it.”

First homes, first cars, high school sports and donut runs. Some things are very familiar to my boys and some things are a riddle. Everyone contributes a memory.

“After the depression, he never trusted another bank. He would fold up bills and tuck them into the armrests of his car or under the hood. We found a wire sticking up from the dash once and pulled up more money.”

“After a while, I started asking questions. Turns out he was a shady character. The more I got curious, the more I found out what he was hiding, and I quit. He disappeared into Mexico and I never saw him again.”

“When I found out I had a brother, I was so excited to meet him…but he didn’t really want to meet me. He wouldn’t answer questions I had or help me learn about the rest of our family.”

Aunt Ruth straightens in her chair.

“Let’s just let those poor people go. That’s why we started this reunion in the first place, because people just don’t know who their family is anymore. There’s something there that shouldn’t ought to be. I wasn’t brought up that way. If kinfolks are coming to see you, it’s a reason to celebrate! I’m going to do the right thing, no matter what anybody else is gonna do. Now, we have a lot of family missing today that I would dearly love to see, but they won’t be seen. They’re out doing what blows their hair back, I guess. But I’m just going to sit here and love ‘em all the same.”

My little life agenda blows away on the San Diego breeze, as strong deep Alabama roots intertwine with those from Minnesota and tunnel all the way to the Pacific. The saplings sit beneath mature established old-growth, harvesting the wisdom of experience. Whispered truths from the overhead canopy drift down, telling the past and seeing far into the future, undisturbed by the rustling on the forest floor.

“Everyone eat up,” interrupts Aunt Ruth, “the pudding’s going begging.”

Aunt Ruth

Alabama Banana Pudding in the Pasture

bring 3 eggs to room temperature, then separate
melt 1/2 C cornstarch in 1/2 C milk
in a saucepan, beat 3 yolks w/ fork
beat in 1/4 tsp salt
beat in cornstarch mixture
beat in 1/2 c sugar
add at least 4 cups milk until “just right”

over low stovetop heat, stir mixture constantly w/wooden spoon until it thickens
keep the mix below a boil; it’s thick enough if bubbles start up
stir in 1 tsp vanilla
remove from heat, put a lid on to prevent a skin, let custard cool

in a glass baking dish, layer custard, vanilla wafers, and banana slices until used up

in a clean, dry bowl whip 3 egg whites with a shake of salt
slowly add at least 1/3 c sugar while whipping, until melted in
once it’s setting, add 1/2 tsp vanilla

spread meringue over top of pudding

place in a pre-heated 325* oven until top turns slightly golden

(don’t let stay too long or you’ll cook/heat your bananas)
let cool enough to set on a table in a pasture

It’s best served room temperature. Yummy!

Hey Hey We’re the Monkeys

Because we love yeasty warm smells in the kitchen and because I miss long days with nothing better to do and because my fam is being awesome about my new job, we did this:

 

If you’re about to drool into your cellphone, I agree.

Let’s start at the beginning and I’ll walk you through a virtual Monkey Bread baking blog.

If I could only add a scratch-n-sniff meme, this would be complete.

You can go one of two ways:

  1. mix this in a big bowl with a wooden spoon and then knead by hand for ten minutes, getting a super arm and shoulder workout, or
  2. layer it in your bread machine that you still have from the early 90’s and hopefully makes round loaves because you’re cool like that. And also, you’re lazy like that.

Monkey Bread

1 1/3 C. warm milk
2 tbsp. diced butter
2 eggs
2 tbsp. sugar
2/3 tsp salt
4 C. flour
2 1/2 tsp. yeast

I’m not telling you which way I made this perfect little lump o’ dough, but many watts died in the process.

 

(What? What is she talking about? What watt?)

Let the lump rise for an hour or so in a warm place. I turned my oven on for a minute and then turned it off again, and set the dough inside to rise. If you’re not careful, it will be too hot and kill the yeast and then you will have a hard little lump of dough to go bowling with. We’re going for just mildly warmish here.

Next, turn your big puffy lump out onto a lightly floured countertop and show it who’s boss. This is the fun part. The punching, pushing, slapping, poking, kneading, and stretching reminds the kids that they are just a sass away from a trip to the family bakery.

Now we take the reduced lump and start pulling it apart.

 

Over and over and over…twist and pull. The smaller you make them, the more fun it will be to eat later.

 

Roll the dough into little balls and toss them into any shape pan you want. It makes into a nice sized loaf, so grab a pan big enough and butter the inside first. You could bake them in a glass or metal mixing bowl, or a casserole. I used my angel food cake pan. This is going to the monkeys, so it won’t stay in this shape longer than five minutes once it’s done, anyway.

Layer in half of the dough balls, sprinkle with your sugar/cinnamon mix, and repeat.

 

Pour two melted tablespoons of butter over it all. Your pan is already buttered though, right?

Set this little beauty back into a warm place to rise up for another hour. Clean your mess. Yes, I see it.

While it rises, get out your frosting stuff. Because, cream cheese.

 

Cream Cheese Frosting
6 oz softened cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp milk
16 oz powdered sugar

Mix together to desired consistency:
thinner, add milk 1 tsp at a time
thicker, add powdered sugar 1 tbsp at a time

This is the standard recipe, but life isn’t always so tidy, at least in the kitchen. I myself would have just layered a slab of cream cheese on a hot slice of Monkey Bread and called it a day, but when you add sugar and thin it out a bit with milk, it impresses the company.

Your Monkey Bread.

Your rules.

When it’s puffed up to your liking, bake it in a preheated oven at 350* for 20-30 minutes, depending on your pan. You will know it’s done when it smells terrific in the house and when you peek in the oven, it looks toasty on top.  Reach in and tap the bread; if it sounds hollow, you win. Let’s eat.

 

Let it cool for a few minutes, then dump it upside down over a plate, out of it’s pan.

I sliced it to make a pretty picture and to make life fair.

 

The kids were disappointed.

The right way to eat this, so I’m told, is for everyone to lay a hand on the bread, count to three and pull.

You then proceed to eat your hunk of bread by hand, dipping lumps into the frosting tub.

Animals.

 

Pass the Hasenpfeffer

The Easter Bunny stopped hopping by my house when I was about six.

He may have noticed the pens of rabbits in the backyard and realized that we took our bunnies pretty seriously. If he noticed the butcher block hung on the big tree back there, he probably made tracks into the next county immediately, spilling little black jelly beans along the way.

To make up for his sudden lack of love to our neighborhood, we invited all the local children over once in a while for butchering day.

We could’ve sold tickets, but we just wanted to share the stuff of nightmares around.

We just wanted to make things right.

You can’t be greedy with your cold sweat train wrecks, and the education these little friends received probably rises up, unbidden, into their frontal lobe even today, in the middle of corporate meetings or after their third martini.

They’ll thank us some day, if they need to go all Scarlett O’Hara and live off the land.

Eating rabbits are different from pet rabbits (little lop-eared litter-box-trained puffballs) or from game rabbits (Bugs Bunny and the Rabbit of Cairbannog).

You should try to learn the difference between pets, food, and entertainment.

The lines blur, I know, but as Duck Dynasty gets paid to point out, your dinner did not come from the grocery.

It came from the backyard.

And once in a while, we proved it.

When the rabbits were cleaned, skinned, quartered and wrapped, the show came to an end.

The dogs were running around with lucky rabbits’ feet in their mouths, the kids were running home to tell parents about their brush with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and we were running into the kitchen to see if Mom was gonna make dinner now.

And she was.

I sure miss rabbit for dinner, but the cottontails running around my current backyard are faster than I am.

I called to get the recipe just in case, exactly “The Way Mom Used to Make It”.

Mom: “I can’t believe we used to do that.”

Me: “Just try to remember, mom. This is for posterity. I will make sure everyone knows you are completely against hurting any animal of any kind.”

Mom: “I won’t even fish anymore. I used to love fishing. I just won’t hurt a fish.”

Me: “Okay. Pretend it’s a tofu bunny. How do I cook it?”

Mom: “Cooking rabbits are very tender and mild, not at all gamey. You can do it up like chicken, but there won’t be any skin so you lose a bit of fat in a recipe. You could bake it like chicken parts, but it will be slightly more stringy or chewy. It’s best stewed, I think.”

Me: “Cool. Tell me how.”

Mom: “I flour the pieces and brown them in hot oil in the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven. Then I put all the pieces back in, added maybe an inch of water, put the lid on and simmered it for about two hours. Check it now and then in case the water evaporates. Add a bit more, you don’t want it to run dry. Then add your veggies, potatoes or carrots or whatnot to the pot and simmer another hour or so until everything’s cooked through.”


Me: “Sounds like a roast beef.”

Mom: “Yes, and if we had crockpots then, that would have worked just as well. If you wanted to, you pulled out the food and added cornstarch or flour to the liquid and made up gravy for it.”

Me: “Gravy is my Alamo.”

Mom: “Well, cheat and add a packet of gravy mix from the store. It has all the spices and flavorings and thickenings done for you. Just stir it up.”

Me: “Thanks, mom. I may never eat another rabbit, but I will always have the memories.”

Mom: *deep sigh* “Wish I didn’t.”