Category Archives: cooking

Inside and Out

Eventually the weekends won’t be my catch-up and/or get-it-done time. Eventually. But for right now?

Saturday morning I think to get my workout done early and clear the rest of the day. But I’ve forgotten the window washers are here to finish up this annual deal. We’ve got a lot of windows in this place.

It’s just a little weird to be dancing around the gym, doing down dogs and sweating through biceps curls when a bunch of guys are washing the windows thereof.

Change of plans.IMG_1692

I have a big bunch ‘o beautiful tomatoes courtesy of my pal Jo, so we’ll start off the day making red sauce. A large pot of it this time around, and I can freeze it in dinner size portions–and won’t that be handy down the road? This ties me to the kitchen long enough for the window washers to get close to finishing.IMG_1695

Why not let them do that while I weed my sadly neglected garden? Three large tubs of weeds illustrate that neglect–and remind me that’s something that kept getting backlogged in the catching-up area of my weekends. I like weeding–it’s therapeutic. The dogs like me weeding since it means I’m hanging out with them. God knows the gardens like me weeding, and it gives me time–though many of my beauties are fading as summer winds down–to plan where I’ll divide things up, transfer, try to fill in some areas next spring.

IMG_1698 IMG_1700 IMG_1702Windows clean, garden tended, red sauce simmering low. NOW we can hit the gym. I’m rewarded there–not only by the benefits of regular exercise, but by the hummingbird that flies up to the–very clean–window while I’m sweating it out.

Pretty!

Then you know what? I’ve earned a bellini, and make myself one to enjoy while signing the four tubs of books waiting for me.IMG_1696

A second bellini seems the appropriate celebration for completing Saturday’s chores.

But Sunday has an agenda. My One More Room is a disgrace. Some of that’s due to bags of purged clothes on hold in there. Next Sunday I’m having some pals over for a late summer clothes swap, so that’ll not only be fun, but help clear out the OMR. And I need to store the Christmas presents from Italy rather than just dumping them on the counter.

But the big one I’ve put off for gardening, then vacation, for too long. Our down-the-lane neighbor decided to downsize and relocate, and we bought the house. BW’s using the house as his photography studio–a great space and convenient location for him. But I claimed an outbuilding for my own. I think of it as The Big Closet. Storage!! Storage, for me, is nearly as marvelous and exciting as new shoes. My plan has been to empty my over-taxed OMR of seasonal decorations and such. All the Christmas decorations, the bits and pieces I put out at Halloween, at Easter. Tubbed and boxed and out of here.

Today’s the day. It’s challenging and time-consuming, and immensely satisfying. BW comes up during the process–I believe his eyes wheeled at the chaos. But the process demands chaos before order. I tub, I bubble wrap, I box. And I have enough room to semi-organize the shelves in the storage closets. Even purge a little as I find things BW might be able to use in his new space.

I find things of my mother’s I’ve saved in there. It’s time now to let go of the paperwork of handling her estate. But I find other things. The last purse she used, a pair of glasses, the little wallet holding her driver’s license and a picture of my Pop. These, like the letters I saved (so, so sweet) that my father wrote to her I keep. It reminds me of the letter I found he sent her when they were dating–he wrote on the streetcar on the way home from seeing her, and ended it with: Sending you all the love I can with a two-penny stamp.

It’s that single line that sticks with me most when I think of them, young and in love, and through 63 years of marriage, five kids, and a devotion that never wavered.

It’s a wonderful benefit to clearing out and cleaning up, finding and remembering these small and vital treasures. So I tuck my treasures away.

BW shows his devotion by hauling everything I’ve tubbed and boxed away. And there it is! The floor of the OMR! And room on the shelves. A tidy-ish box of gifts waiting to be wrapped in just a couple months. And okay, maybe my obsession with saving tissue paper (my recycling gene) means I stuff a bag of it in the designated Christmas wrap closet, but it’s off the floor.

Now I can do a little organizing of my own closet. It may be half-assed, but I’m about done with weekend chores. And I want my workout.

And once everything’s done, the dogs and I enjoy a walk around the freshly-weeded gardens where, yes, some blooms have faded, but plenty continue to thrive and bring color to a breezy late afternoon that hints of fall.IMG_1703 IMG_1705

Another weekend gone, another work week beginning. But that’s good for me. Through all the boxing and tubbing and weeding and milling tomatoes, I’ve played with what happens next in the book.

I’m ready to see if I can make it so.  

Nora

Back Home Weekend

It takes a few days for the bliss–and the jet lag–following a truly fabulous vacation to ease back into the normal. And when the week following that fabulous vacation involves actual work and duties, it’s like a one-step-at-a-time through an alternate reality.

But the weekend comes around again.

On this one I decided on at-home tribute to our Italian experience. My pal Jo’s gardens are producing pounds of tomatoes. Our couple of patio pots are chugging along, too, but my pal and her guy have a serious tomato garden, and she brought me bunches.

Tomatoes from Nora and Jo's gardens.
Tomatoes from Nora and Jo’s gardens.

Years ago, in another life before writing, I made my own red sauce, canned it every August for use all winter. Those days are done, but I still know how to make sauce, so why not? Saturday, I spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, cooking pretty, fresh garden tomatoes down, getting out my food mill, adding my own fresh garden herbs to the sauce.

Fresh herbs.
Fresh herbs.

Since I’m doing that, why not try my hand at baking Italian bread? Never tried it, so again, why not. I found it easier, and more fun–I do love baking bread–than I’d imagined. No question this is now going into bread baking rotation.

And the results? Mmmm, tasty. Really nothing like sauce from fresh tomatoes and bread fresh baked. And since we’ve still got plenty of tomatoes why not slice some up, get more basil from the garden, add some olive oil.

Red sauce simmering.
Red sauce simmering.
Italian bread, fresh from the oven.
Italian bread, fresh from the oven.

It’s good–for me anyway–to have a homey kitchen day after a blurry transition week.

Sunday we had a foundation meeting here, which included our next generation volunteer, Kayla. She came up early enough to hang–and eat bread and pasta and declare both excellent. I mention to her she seems a little taller. Earlier in the week when I’d given Logan the first hug since I’d seen him nearly a month ago, I told him he’d grown. He said: Nah. Nana says: Uh-huh. I know where my boy’s head hits me in a hug.

We went down to our measuring station–the door jamb of the laundry room where Dan and Jason were measured as well–and I prove Nana knows best. He’d shot up a full inch.

This pleased him.

So I do the same with Kayla. She’s now a hair under 5’5″. I expect that bare eighth of an inch will be history before the leaves change this fall.

Jason and Kat arrive for the meeting, and it’s a good, productive one. It’s rewarding when our teenage volunteer proves she’s taking her position seriously. She has a proposal, and as we’d encouraged her to explore foundation opportunities through her school and interests, she’s found one in her first two weeks of high school. My girl’s in high school!

She pitches it well, and it’s just the sort of thing we look for. The vote’s unanimous yes–with a request for a few more details so we can make it so.

It’s a good, good feeling to watch a grandchild embrace giving, to begin to understand how certain advantages can be used to help others, even to change lives. I like seeing she’s even made her own binder, keeps foundation paperwork in it.

She may know she can tap an indulgent nana for new Nikes, but she also understands she’s part of a mechanism dedicated to supporting organizations that make sure kids without her advantages have shoes, and warm coats or the chance to go to a summer camp. It swells my heart to see so clearly she’s genuinely involved in continuing that legacy.

But then, meeting over, and there’s dinner. We have some of BW’s amazing flank steak left over from our fun, noisy, chaotic kids for dinner on Friday night, and grill some chicken to stretch it. Then there some remaining penne and red sauce, another loaf of Italian bread, some green peppers Kayla and I picked off the vine that afternoon. And how about some fresh local corn on the cob?

We eat like farm kings on the deck on a warm summer evening.

A lot of catching up this week, a lot of meetings, some toes dipped into a new book, lots of hugs from kids missed in August, fresh harvest cooking, a chance to see our most excellent traveling companions for an evening. Add in happy dogs, a couple walks around the garden, pretty flowers cut for a little vase.

Flowers from the garden.
Flowers from the garden.

Not a bad post-vacation week.

Now that the blur’s lifted, I think it’s time to get down to some serious writing.

Nora

Day Thirteen: Sorrento

It’s repetitious, but the day’s beautiful. The view is blues–deep sea, bold sky, the softer hues of the mountains across the water, etched clear. I love the long white wakes cutting through the blue behind the white boats. From this height, those wakes look impossibly straight, as if drawn with a ruler.

 BW and Kat make their Sunday breakfast, Kat chopping, BW stirring. I hear Jason talking to them in the kitchen as I walk around outside because it’s so damn pretty.
Day view. Photo by Kat,
Day view. Photo by Kat,
The calico comes to visit while Kat and I set up our workout. We stick with Shaun T, a fun 30-odd minute routine to get the blood pumping. Then, hey, we Cize It Up again, doing that last 2-plus minutes over.  I think we qualified as backup dancers by the end.
 
Out come the mats and the dreaded but necessary 8-minute abs. Oh Shaun, you seem like such a nice guy. How could you devise such hell in such a short time-frame? Then it’s over, and since Shaun’s our guy today, Kat pulls out another of his disks from–I’m not sure–T-25 or something. It’s called Stretch. We want a stretch.
 
We get one, but it’s a sweaty business as well. Squatting and lunging? Oh, but . . . okay, I felt that!
 
I’m going to add Kat does all this wearing wrist weights. I would die a little. Probably a lot.
 
But it’s done, and though the cat has stretched out watching us with a cool stare that might read: You’re both crazy, right? We’re once again righteous. And I hit the showers, gratefully.
 
We Facetime home to talk to Kayla. She and Colt are up, Logan is not–so I have her take her phone into his bedroom, and we all laugh as he pulls the covers over his head.
 
A little work on the patio, a little wine to follow. It’s a very happy routine for me.
 
BW has made jokes about Fig Newtons as we have several fig trees and permission to eat them. As I walk post-work, I head out to the big tree. We had a fig tree in the back yard when I was growing up. My pop loved that tree. It had to be sacrificed when we put in the pool, but I still have memories of that tree. I don’t like figs, but remember picking them, and my mother stewing them up for my father. So picking those fat purple figs reminds me of my parents. Nice memories
 
I come back for a bowl as there are so many. I call on BW to help pick some that are far too high for me to reach. It’s a lovely little chore on a bold summer day. And productive as Kat–being Kat–has Googled recipes for Fig Newtons. We’ll need a trip to the market at some point for a few ingredients, but it should be fun to try making them.
 

Figs.  Photo by Nora.
Figs. Photo by Nora.
I try my new raspberry sherbet linen. It fits, but needs a belt. I use one of my scarves, and it all feels very easy and summery.
 
We’ve got some time before the chefs arrive, so I try Olympics. There’s some air rifle competition. Kat and I ponder it. Not to diss the dedication and skill of air rifle competitors, but it just makes little sense to those of us who know nothing about it. Why are they wearing futuristic space soldier outfits? Why do they all look so bored? Still, the guy who wins the gold looks really happy after, so sincere congratulations.

 

The chefs. Photo by Kat.
The chefs. Photo by Kat.
Our chefs arrive, and get right to work in the kitchen. Our first course is a beautiful presentation of figs and melons wrapped in ham on a little bed of field greens. This draws the bees that haven’t troubled us before. All that sweet juice! Haul out the citronella candles! Jason–being Jason–finds a wasp deterrent on his phone. A wasp deterrent app??? Yet the bees seem to like it.

 

Photo by Kat.
Photo by Kat.
Luckily, after the figs and melons are eaten, those plates cleared, the bees lose interest in us.
 
We have ravioli stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella, served with a light red sauce. It’s beyond fresh. I can’t eat even half of my serving–I know there’s more to come–but have never had better. It’s confirmed that our chef made the pasta himself that morning. I’ve never tried making pasta fresh. Maybe one day, especially if the results are anything close to this.

 

Photo by Kat.
Photo by Kat.
When I tell the sous chef it’s a small stomach, not the food, he shows me the pork medallions to be sauted, asks how many for me. One. Kat decides on two, the men three. These are served with chunks of potatoes roasted a perfect gold. These are delicious. I think: Marinated in olive oil, some rosemary and pepper, sauteed with same. And when I ask–that’s just right.

 

Photo by Kat.
Photo by Kat.
Now there’s some sort of lemon cake dessert AND tiramisu. I groan. I’m told I MUST eat the lemon cake. The tiramisu isn’t important. LOL. It comes in a little bowl, topped with cream and a little berry. Tears form in the eyes at the first bite. Tart, sweet, creamy, heavenly. I love me some tiramisu, but yeah, not so important now. There’s always tomorrow.

Dining al fresco.  Photo by Kat.
Dining al fresco. Photo by Kat. 
A little walk around in the night air, a little more wine. Bedtime.
Night view. Photo by BW.
Night view. Photo by BW.

I woke to pink and blue skies. We plan to sneak in an early workout, then gear up for our day trip to Pompeii. BW and I had an abbreviated visit there–called by rain–years ago, and Jason and Kat a longer one on their honeymoon. It’ll be nice to all go back together, see what we see.  

Bougainvillea up close. Photo by Nora.
Bougainvillea up close. Photo by Nora.
Hydrangea arranged in the entry. Photo by Nora.
Hydrangea arranged in the entry. Photo by Nora.
Nora

Day Nine: Sorrento

A day spent at home with sun and sea and sky. Not a bad deal.

BW decides on a hot breakfast, so with some kibitzing from me–and some help from Kat–puts together what I think of as a poor man’s omelette–some prosciutto, some tomatoes, some cheese (and some herbs I added) with scrambled eggs. It’s pretty! And apparently tasty as BW and Kat cleaned their plates.

Photo by NR.
Omelet by group. Photo by NR.
BW and coffee.  Photo by Kat.
BW and coffee. Photo by Kat.

It’s workout time. Some Shaun T today–cardio and his challenging 8-minute abs. How can it be so vicious when it’s only 8 minutes! We add 50 minutes more, with bands, hitting more abs (ow!), upper and lower body, the works.

Job well done. And it’s not so tough, really, to workout with sun and sea and sky. Especially when it’s finished!

A visit from the manager to deal with the internet–yay. It seems to be back on track. May it continue.

I work on the patio. Lovely, just lovely, and the gang catches up on news and what’s what at home. After a good session, I reward myself with a fresh peach bellini. Another pretty good deal.

Infinity pool to the sea.  Photo by j a-b.
Infinity pool to the sea. Photo by j a-b.

Kat and I have discussed making lemonade. We have a beautiful supply of lemons, so why not do it the old-fashioned way? My girl makes the simple syrup, squeezes lemons. I start a red sauce with fresh herbs, and make a side of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella–the mozzarella comes in pretty little balls in a bag filled with water. Find a dish, layer them, add fresh basil and pepper, some olive oil, a dash or so of balsamic, and into the fridge for dinner.

Limoni.  Photo by Nora.
Limoni. Photo by Nora.
Lemonade by Kat.  Photo by Nora.
Lemonade by Kat. Photo by Nora.
Summer on a platter.  Photo by NR.
Summer on a platter. Photo by NR.

It’s sweet and cozy working together in our Italian kitchen.

Domestic day continues with laundry. When I go downstairs I see BW and Kat have set up a little drying rack on the terrace, and pinned laundered clothes up. It’s so cute!

Laundry with a view. photo by BW
Laundry with a view. photo by BW

The calico cat comes to visit, and responds immediately to Jason–the Cat Whisperer. She preens for him, tries to sneak in by him, lets him pet and scratch, and I swear looks at him with adoring eyes. She lets Kat give her a little attention, too, and eventually settles down right on the kitchen threshold. Kat’s dubbed her Benito, due to her odd little black moustache. Though it should, technically, be Benita, we have a Benita in our lives, and she doesn’t have a moustache!

Jason, The Cat Whisperer.  Photo by NR.
Jason, The Cat Whisperer. Photo by NR.

Stirring the pot, and Kat asks if I like candied lemon peel. I don’t know, but I bet I would. She starts lemon peels simmering before she and Jason walk down to the village for a few fresh supplies. And I can pour another drink, watch the pots and read my book–for those who asked, it’s Stephen King’s End Of Watch.

All at the ready on the prep station. Photo by NR.
All at the ready on the prep station. Photo by NR.

We’re all back–fresh salad makings from the village market, and Jason chunking up more tomatoes. Kat makes a garlic paste, and we–with some head-scratching–figure out how to work the broiler on the oven for garlic bread. Pasta on the boil, sauce simmering, Kat coating lemon peels with sugar–and yes, I definitely like candied lemon peel. We joke about dressing for dinner. Nah.

We enjoy our home-made feast on the patio, add some candles, but the breeze keeps blowing them out. Finish it up with some gelato. Mmmm. A good meal while the sun lowers.

Dining al fresco.  Photo by Kat.
Dining al fresco. Photo by Kat.
Set for family meal.  Photo by Kat.
Set for family meal. Photo by Kat.
The family.  Photo by Kat.
The family. Photo by Kat.
Photo by Kat.
Plated for dinner. Photo by Kat.

When it lowers, it increases the gorgeous blur of the horizon, the deeper blue of the water, the paler sky with a soft blush of pink between. The blush shimmers on higher clouds, outlining them in that pretty pink, a quiet underlight. The view here changes with the light, and is never less than magnifico.

The sunset view.  Photo by NR.
The sunset view. Photo by NR.

A little more laundry, a little more reading, then it’s bedtime for me.

Very breezy this morning, and some chance of storms later. I think it would be fantastic to watch a thunderstorm over the water here. We think we’ll wait for tomorrow for the trip to Positano, and until Monday–early morning trip–to Pompeii–and just continue to vacate here today. It’s pretty easy to relax when you’re saturated in beauty.  

Nora

High Summer

I love it. Bring on the heat! And we’ve had plenty of it the last week or two as July smolders its way to August.
 
These hot summer days and evenings have been busy around here. Less than a week after I unpacked from RWA, we had our annual summer party. That means a full day of food prep, assisted by my Kat and Laura with BW and Jason out in the swelter setting up canopies, tables, hauling out the big coolers.
 

Sunday morning means more setting up and setting out, finishing up. By early afternoon, we’re packed with people inside and out–so no, making ten pounds of potato salad wasn’t overkill.

20160723_152441
Scarily clean potatoes for the salad.
 

It’s a fine tradition my parents started decades ago, so I think of them a lot while I cook and stir, while I chat with Kat and Laura as they chop and peel, when I glance out the window and see my boy up on the garden wall with a blue tarp and bungie cords.

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The first tray of deviled eggs.
IMG_1575
Kat’s annual fruit basket creation.
 
Sunday night and Monday are clean it up and break it down, and another summer highlight has come and gone. Time moves.
 
Then it’s back to work–current book all day, proofing galleys in the evening. I have a goal to reach on the wip before we leave for vacation (yay!) in less than a week. Friday, I hit the mark–just in time as I’ve ignored pretty much everything else.(Except my workouts.) And I hit it in time to hang a little while with Kayla who’s pretty excited as she’ll turn 14 the next day.
 
I picked my first tomato, which brought me ridiculous pleasure. I don’t even eat tomatoes, but do a little happy dance as I hold it in my hand, smell it. More are ripening on the vine, and there are lots of pretty little peppers growing beside them. I hope our housesitters make good use of them while we’re gone.
 IMG_1582
IMG_1576On Saturday, Kayla’s having her party here–a swim party with girlfriends–so she’s pumped. Pumped enough she walks up the hill a couple hours before the party just as I–just showered from a workout–head out to weed. (Something that’s been neglected.) Happy birthday, my baby girl. She points out my little vase of flowers have faded, and I need to pick more.
 
So I do.
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She looks so pretty, and I swear she gets taller if I glance away for two minutes. I hear her helping her Grandda with something while I start down the garden, filling my big tub with weeds. I get one tub filled when the skies open up.
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She’s annoyed with the storm–and the forecast of more–but it doesn’t dampen her anticipation–cake, presents, girlfriends! When her mom gets here it’s decorations, all following Kayla’s choice of beach theme, and very cool cakes. One for Kayla, and one for her little brother Colt and Grandda who both have birthdays that hit while we’re away. Colt will be six in about a week. Grandda will be older than that!
 IMG_1577
We all pitch in, and when the sun comes back out, I go back to weeding. Girls come, and one of Logan’s pals invited to keep him company in the midst of all that female. As I weed, filling a second tub–I can hear that distinctly girl sound–chatter and laughter, all so high and bright–echoing in the pool house. It’s such happy sound, young, uninhibited. After the gardens been put back to rights, I reward myself with a glass of wine and go out to sit by the water feature. It’s steamy out, after the rain, but there’s a little breeze there, and the water’s making its pretty music, the woods are so, so green. My Rose of Sharon are blooming beautifully. And the sound of happy girls makes more music.
 IMG_1581
Parker comes out to lie at my feet, and just sitting there after this intensely busy week, I’m almost stupidly content.
 
Even as I feel another storm coming, it’s all good. I won’t have to water my pots today, and the girls have had a good couple of hours of swim time. They need to eat, have cake.
 cake
And finally, especially for an almost six-year-old boy, presents. Colt’s happy, Logan and his pal are happy watching the big screen, and Kayla and her girls make their circle. I love how they hug after every gift is opened, and I hope, so much hope, they’ll all remember this unity, this affection, that it carries through as they grow up into women. How lovely it is to watch this ritual, to see its potential as the rain falls and thunder grumbles outside.
 
I’ve just spent a week with girlfriends, so I know that potential realized. I want that for my baby girl and her sweet friends. In contrast, Logan and his pal Spencer hang out, glued to some game on the TV, pretty much ignoring–stoically–the female action. I know that bond as well–I grew up with four brothers, had two sons, after all. That’s special, too, that can last and form circles.
 
We all need our circle.
 
Now, today, the house holds quiet. I’ve got a workout to do, tubs of books to sign. Then it’s packing. No high heels or fancy duds needed. It’s vacation time!
 
I’ll be blogging journals, as always, starting next week. [Note from Laura: you’ll have to stop by on Tuesday to see where Nora’s gone. ]
 
Enjoy these hot and steamy days (or the chilly ones for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere). Time moves fast, so appreciate the moments, and those who share them with you.
Nora

Weekend Happy

A good work week can set the stage for a happy weekend, and I’m on a roll as sunny June takes over from rainy May.
 
Kayla’s brothers went to the Ninja Turtle movie on Saturday–and she had absolutely no interest so we had our Saturday cooking day.
 
Since she hadn’t given me a direction earlier in the week–so specific ingredients could be at hand–we punted.
 
She liked the idea of pasta, and I have an easy and pretty quick one, one she’ll be able to make on her own at home. But first, she wanted to bake a cake.
 IMG_1446
Cake is, by far, Kayla’s favorite food, and always has been. So what kind of cake? I found some fun and fancy ones, but didn’t have everything we needed. So we fell back on an old standard–a golden butter cake. She’s learned so much over the past few months, all I do, mostly, is read off the recipe as she goes. We decide to make it a sheet cake–that’s plenty easy–and before long, that’s in the oven.
 
We take a short break, a nice walk. I see I’ll be weeding and deadheading on Sunday.
 
She’s decided she’s hungry, so we should start the pasta.
 
On goes the big pot of water, as we’ll make a full pound so she can take plenty home. Out comes the cake, and it smells just yum.
 
I peel the garlic–have to teach her to do that–and she chops it up with my little tool. This sautes in olive oil she measures and pours into my biggest skillet. Add a dash of crushed red pepper.
 
Spaghetti into the salted, boiling water–I show her how to break the long noodles in half, use the pasta fork to stir them up. When they’re close to done, I take a couple of cups of the pasta water, add it to the olive oil and garlic. She likes the smell. I show her how to pinch a noodle to see if it’s done. Not quite.
 
I go out, harvest some herbs–parsley, basil (and my little potted ones are coming back nicely) rosemary, oregano, thyme. Show her how I chop them up.IMG_1452
 
Drain the pasta, pour it into the skillet, toss in the herbs, some black pepper, a little onion salt. She stirs it, turns it, stirs it until the pasta’s absorbed all the liquid.
 
She must have some immediately! Judges it delicious. And it must be, because before she left for home she ate three helpings. Good thing I went for the whole pound.
 IMG_1454
Now it’s time to frost the cake, with an old, reliable buttercream frosting. She wants to color it–and why not? Goes with green, and mixes and stirs–and I take over as she says her arm’s really tired! Mix and stir until we have a pretty minty green and creamy frosting she spreads over the cake. Then decides to add some red sugar. Again, why not?
 
Then must have a piece–and this is also proclaimed delicious. She eats two before the end of her day–and Grandda has some himself.
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Through the cooking, the baking, the couple of nice walks, she’s full of talk about our upcoming girl trip to New York. I’m pretty juiced about it myself.
 
I send her home after the most pleasant of days with most of the cake and a tub of pasta.
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Today, as yesterday, I got the workout in early. I gathered my tub, my pruners, my gloves and headed out to do that weeding and deadheading. My roses are so happy! And the deer repellent’s working as my first lilies are cheerfully blooming. Now I’m happy as the roses.
 IMG_1463
I also see the first little tomato blossom on the vine–and where some insects have nibbled on the leaves. Go in, make up some soapy water–with a dash of tobasco–in a spray bottle. If it doesn’t work, I’ll buy something at the garden center.
 
Must do my weekend shoveling out of the house, which won’t take long. Then find myself a pretty spot and read. I believe it’s a fine day to make myself a couple of bellinis. They’d go well with Cake by Kayla.  
Nora

Back In The Kitchen With Kayla

But before that I spent all day Friday doing a photo shoot. Sounds glam, right?
 
It so isn’t.
 
Now it’s certainly cool to get your hair and makeup done by professionals, especially pros you know and trust. You provide naked face and undone hair, and they transform you so you look glam. And they have such nifty toys.
 
It’s really nice to have a photographer you know and trust–in this case my husband. And it’s comfortable to do the shoot in his studio, so there’s all that.
 
And Laura’s there to help, and to weigh in on the couple of choices I brought for accessories. Three different set ups, three different outfits, three different hairstyles and three different makeup looks.
 
And you spend your day smiling/not smiling/smiling less or more. Turning this way or that way, hands/arms here or there. The first time I did a shoot I gained considerable respect for those who do so for a living. Having all these pros I know and trust–and really like on a personal level–makes a big difference for a woman who makes her living at the keyboard, mostly in pjs, with no makeup and bed hair.
 

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The team: BW, Tereza, Laura and Harold
Plus, it was a gorgeous day. Sunny, warm, wonderful.
 
Saturday, not so much.
 
But I’d already planned to spend much of it in the kitchen. Kayla’s schedule and mine haven’t meshed in the last few weeks, but we earmarked Saturday for cooking together. When I asked her about menu choices earlier in the week, Logan vigorously suggested deviled eggs. She wanted to do my mother’s pound cake again–and since nobody had an idea for a main, I suggested lasagna. Menu set.
 
She arrives early afternoon on raw, rainy Saturday, and we get down to it. Red sauce first–and she’s done this once, so only needs a little prompting. And only a bit on the cake batter. It’s fun to get back to this weekend duet with her, to watch her handle the measuring and stirring. I’d say she learned a lot of the basics over the winter.
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Cake’s in the oven, red sauce is simmering. A little break, then it’s time to boil a dozen eggs. Tip found by BW for easy peeling:
 
For eight eggs (so math is involved for more) six cups of water, one tablespoon salt, a quarter cup of white vinegar. Bring to a boil, then carefully add eggs one at a time. Lower the heat a bit so it doesn’t boil too fast, boil for fourteen minutes. Immediately put eggs in an ice bath until cool. It really works.
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Kayla comments, as she and her Grandda get to peeling, that it’s not so bad–as she’s used to the three or four dozen required to peel for our parties. I show her how you slice them lengthwise, take out the yolk. She puts the yolks through the mill, adds the mayo, the mustard, the herbs–she has a good hand with this.
 
Taste test. A little more mustard, a little more oregano–I trust her and BW on this as I don’t like deviled eggs. Fill the whites, sprinkle with paprika. She and BW test one each, and thumbs up.
 
Now we need to make the cheese mixtures for the lasagna. I use cottage cheese rather than ricotta. I prefer its texture. And I add a lot of shredded mozzarella, some basil, some pepper.
 
Kayla adamantly dislikes the look and smell of cottage cheese. While I remind her I make a lot of things I don’t even eat, she backs away from mixing the cheeses. You do it, Nana. So Nana does. Into the fridge with it until we’re ready to put the lasagna together.
 
Cake comes out, and oh boy, it looks and smells terrific.
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About that time Logan arrives with two friends, his little brother and his mom. They’re spending this rainy evening in the pool. Kayla’s earned a swim herself, and I believe I’ve earned a little sit down. I tell her 45 minutes, then we need to finish up.
 
I’m impressed she’s back in 40.
 
Noodles go on the boil. Cake comes out of the pan and onto the pretty cake plate a pal gave me recently. And she has the first slice. It’s deemed delish.
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Preakness pre-race coverage is on the kitchen TV. I’ve stuck with my Derby pick here, and had a friend who’s going to the track place an across the board bet for me. My girl’s now invested in the race, so we talk horses and racing while I show her how to drain and cool the noodles. Have her put a little scoop of sauce on the bottom of the casserole dish so they won’t stick. And she layers the noodles, layers on sauce. I layer the cheese due to teenage ick. She layers, layers, I layer.
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The horses are in the gate. We stop everything to watch. Nyquist has the early lead, and as in the Derby, Exaggerator is back in the field. Then I watch his rider weave him through, cut him to the rail. He’s moving up, moving up. And oh boy, when they hit the stretch, he’s gone. Just flying over that wet, muddy track. He takes it running away.
 
Happy dance, hoots. And back to layering. Kayla tops the casserole with slices of mozzarella, and we pop it in the oven.
 
Damp boys come up for drops in their water-clogged ears–and are reminded to hang up their wet towels. We have experience here.
 
Young Colt–whose picture I took on the pretty Friday evening with a promise I’d post it here–commandeers my iPad for games, and asks if he can have a piece of chocolate for later. His mom and I share a laugh when later turns out to be ten seconds.
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Lasagna comes out to rest. Divvy up deviled eggs and cake to go home with the cook and the boys–they’re getting pizza delivered.
 
Hug my kitchen pal–who is now a solid smidge taller than I am.
 
If the sun comes out at all today, she’ll come be my gardening pal–and have some of her own lasagna. Her grandda and I sampled it last night. Yum!
 
I hope our schedules mesh again soon. I like to cook–especially on the weekends. But cooking with Kayla is pure pleasure. 
Nora

Easter Blessings

Birds sing this morning, and the pink blossoms still fill the view out my bedroom window. When I let the dogs out–and yelled at the herd of deer all but standing on my back patio–I stepped out into cool air. But spring cool, not that bitter bite of winter.
 
I think we made it!
 
April snows happen, and I wouldn’t bet against another frost or two, but on this Easter Sunday, spring rules.
 
On Friday after work, post work-out, I poured myself a well-deserved glass of wine and took a walkabout with the dogs. That’s a definite sign of spring as I do not do walkabouts in winter. The dogs were ecstatic, and so was I when I found some candytuft blooming, then a lovely clump of lungwort in bud. Peonies sprouting up, forsythia a cheery yellow sweep on a hillside. A Bradford pear I planted from essentially a twig years ago blooming out.
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To celebrate these little treasures, I spent a good half an hour throwing sticks for deliriously happy dogs. Parker is about two and a half, all muscle, long-legged and fast as lightning. Pancho is about nine, tubbier than he was, and hampered by the doughnut around his neck.
 
Backstory. Years ago, Pancho had a little scrape on his hind leg, around the ankle area. Not a big deal, and we treated it. But he gnawed at it, made it worse. We took him to the vet–and he wore The Cone of Shame. Which he escaped with distressing regularity. BW designed The Super Cone of Shame–this involved extending it with a round from another CofS, duct tape, staples. It failed. We tried wraps, boots, none of which defeated him. Sprays, meds, lotions, vet visits. Nothing. In fact, he only made it worse.
 
Every time we managed to get it healed–which was no mean feat–BW would insist now, obviously, the dog would leave it be. I would object, but be overruled by BW’s pity for the dog. And the dog would quickly prove BW’s pity misplaced. And the whole process would start again.
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Now the doughnut–this has been successful, and is more comfortable for him, and prevents him from bruising the back of my legs with the sharp edges of the CofS. He looks ridiculous, but it works. He has an impressive scar, but the wound’s healed. My edict was–over soft-hearted BW–the doughnut stayed on for the rest of Pancho’s life. If BW took it off for a short period, fine, as long as he was right there to catch it if Pancho started licking and gnawing.
 
A few weeks ago, I walked out to the living room to see the doughnut-less Pancho enthusiastically gnawing, the wound opened again, and blood on my rug. Where was BW? Down in his office. Just for a minute!
 
Well, they both learned their lesson.
 
In any case, Pancho is older, fatter and wearing a stupid tire around his neck. But his fierce love of fetching trumps all. Not once did the younger, faster, unhampered Parker get to the stick first. Doughnut Dog is canny, so I had to start throwing two at once, in opposite directions.
 
I could probably have done that for hours if my arm held up as they never tire of running after a stick or a ball. ButFriday was egg dying and hunting evening.
 
With my kitchen counter covered by an old plastic cloth, eggs already hard boiled, dye kits ready–pizza delivered and wine for the grownups, the kids dived in.FullSizeRender (1) - Copy FullSizeRender (2) - Copy FullSizeRender (3) - Copy FullSizeRender (4) - Copy FullSizeRender (5) - Copy
 
It’s sweet to watch a girl quickly approaching fourteen, a boy on the edge of twelve decorate eggs as enthusiastically as their five-year-old brother. All those cups of color to play with, and glitter and gloss to add. I had plenty of dippers, but they all preferred their fingers. So we had colorful digits by the end as well. And really pretty Easter eggs.
 
I have plastic eggs as well–I think I’ve had this bag of plastic eggs since Kayla was a toddler. I used to fill them with a little candy, a little change. But the older kids (and the younger who takes his cues from his sibs) like the folding stuff. I had to hunt the house for dollar bills earlier in the day before I stashed eggs around the living room. Dogs and cooler weather keep the hunt indoors.
 
And there are Easter bags–or in Kayla’s case a box. The box we dub Kayla’s Kitchen as she asked for kitchen tools. Logan gets his Under Armour (really all he wears) and the Nike basketball shoes he designed. I swore they’d be too big when I opened the box, but no. The boy has big feet. Colt’s got his Under Armour, too, and Wii games his sibs selected for him.
 
The pizza may be cold by this time, but it’s delicious.
 
We box and bag up the haul, we hug and end what’s been a pretty perfect day for me. Good work, awakening gardens, happy dogs, and kids who really are the brightest blossoms in my life.FullSizeRender (6)
 
And today the birds sing, and the deer are–for the moment–dispatched. After my workout, I’m going to settle down in the quiet with a book, enjoy the quiet and the blissful lack of chores.
 
When I count my blessings on this day of hope and color and rebirth, they are legion. So I wish the same for all of you.
Nora

Marching In

It’s dull here on this first weekend in March. The trees are bare, and the sky’s unfinished drywall. With the snow melted away–not that I’m complaining–the world outside my windows is brown and gray.
 
Right now feels like a holding pattern before the hopes (so often dashed) of April.
 
But I don’t wish time away, unless I’m in the dentist’s chair. I need March as it provides a few more weeks of hibernation for me. In fact, the last time I was out of the house, I WAS in the dentist’s chair, and barring unforeseen events or needs, I have no plans to leave my perch until March is in the rear view.
 
Winter’s a trade-off for me. I find it cold, wet and inconvenient–when I have to venture out into it. But since I rarely venture out into it, it provides me with a long stretch of solid at-home and at-work time.
 
It’s a pretty good deal.
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However, seeing this pretty little sign of coming spring pleases me enormously. Bulbs are starting to poke their way up out of the ground. Undoubtedly snow will fall on them before it’s done with us, but I love that sweet little reminder of things to come, and weekends of planting, weeding, throwing balls for the dogs and just being out in the warm air.
 
But I’ll take March and my winter routines.
 
Yesterday, at BW’s request, I made tortilla soup. Not only yummy, but leftovers mean no cooking for me today.IMG_1354 My house is in reasonable order–also addressed yesterday–so no need for me to spend time on that. Nice. I plan to spend the bulk of the day lolling around reading, and that is very, very nice indeed.
 
But before the lolling, comes another part of my daily routine. My gym. I workout every day–rarely miss. I love my little gym, and have taught myself to love (mostly) the workout. Yesterday I tried out a new ab DVD, and am torn between annoyance and satisfaction that my abs ache some this morning. I do not, and never will, have a six pack. I have maybe a three pack, but am fully aware I’d have a zero pack if I didn’t keep at it.IMG_1358
 
Even with my winter purging, I still own about 100 workout DVDs. This is no more excessive for me than my shoe collection. I need the variety to stay engaged, to talk myself–every day–into going out there and doing it. If I didn’t mix it up, I’d bore myself within a week.
 
Not so different from writing for me, as I have a process or routine, but ray out for variety from the suspense, the long-running series and the more fantasy or paranormal-based trilogies. Probably not so different from my approach to cooking where it’s let’s try some of this, or how about adding some of that. Just to mix it up.
 
Maybe that’s why I can embrace and seriously value routine without feeling I’m bogged down in a rut.
 
And that routine I embrace keeps me sitting on my butt for hours daily. Without the routine of hitting the gym, that butt would be the size of Utah. Plus, I like carbs! I am not giving them up! I’d rather sweat for an hour than deny myself french fries. And I want to fit into my clothes, I heard that a flex belt is one of the best home exercise tool for people like me. I really like my clothes even though when happily in routine I’m mostly wearing pjs, sweats or workout gear. But the clothes are there when I need them, and they need me to keep my butt in line.
 
So I’ll be hitting the gym shortly, aching abs and all. Pick out a couple of DVDs so I can sweat my way toward my 10,000 steps, maintain my three pack, maybe soothe the spirit with some yoga, then reward myself with an afternoon of reading.
 
While I’m working out, Parker will likely be following his routine. See how handsome he is? Doesn’t he look dignified and calm?160305-parker-1000
 
Do not be fooled. He mostly has two speeds. Manic delight and excitement, and sleep. This is his routine most days when I’m in the gym. She’s in there, he thinks, I can see her! She won’t let me in there, and she’s jumping around or lying on the floor. She won’t let me jump around with her, or lie on the floor with her? I’ll show her!
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He’ll come to the glass door, stare, go to the corner of the gym, dig in the dirt and mulch like a mad thing, come back, stare. Go dig some more. Too bad, he’s still not coming in.
 
So Parker and I (and Pancho who glances hopefully in the door, then wanders off to wait) will embrace our Sunday routine. After the workout, the dogs (yet another routine) will come in with me and get a much-desired Milk Bone. I’ll get a book, and maybe some carbs.
 
Sounds good.  
Nora

The Road to Discovery

The keyboard and the stove are both major tools in my world. I literally burn through multiple keyboards a year. Fortunately the stove holds up a lot longer.
 
However, I approach both pretty much the same way.
 
There’s a reason I don’t teach writing. Well, first, I don’t wanna. But over and above? I can’t tell you. I can’t analyze the process, break it down into parts and steps because I run on instinct.
 
I don’t write from an outline, or have a board filled with sticky notes, character points, photographs. I don’t have a notebook where I sketch out the ebb and flow of a story in chapter blocks. I don’t use colored index cards to track plot, setting, dialogue. And seriously, I can’t tell you about POV shifts, scene transitions, pace and rhythm. They just happen. I do scribble notes along the way, then often go back and scratch my head over them.
 
What the hell does that MEAN?
 
I start with a basic concept, a setting, character types. I ask myself who are these people anyway? If she’s a photographer like the female protagonist in the upcoming The Obsession, I know I’m going to be researching that area, and in researching (which is why I do my own) I’m going to discover something that ends up weaving into the story, often in a major way. But I also need to know–or find out–why she chose that profession. Why isn’t she a lawyer instead, or a musician? WHY photography?
 
I have to give her a name, have a mental sketch of what she looks like, how she speaks. I need to know why she lives where she lives–and what it looks like there. Smells like there, feels like. And in researching the where, I’m going to stumble on something else that ends up being important to the story.
 
I only know the bare bones when I begin, so I sit down with those bones and start writing. I discover as I go. That’s why the first draft of a story is called the discovery draft. It’s a process that works well for me–my temperament, my skill sets, my instincts.
 
Other’s mileage not only may but does vary. No right way, no wrong way to approach the art and science and mystery of storytelling. What works for any individual writer is absolutely correct for that individual writer. Anyone says otherwise? Bullshit. And arrogant bullshit at that.
 
I cook pretty much as I write, which is why I not only don’t but can’t answer the calls for recipes after I post a blog on cooking. Please, please, don’t ask me!
 
When I cook, I generally have a baseline. Yesterday my Kayla and I spent a long day in the kitchen. She wanted to make pretzel bread, ham and potato soup, and my mother’s famed pound cake. Okay, kid, let’s see what we’ve got.
 
I have a launch point for the bread and soup, but I spring off that. It’s more fun, more creative. And I like to think it teaches a young girl to be creative, that everything doesn’t have to be precise and exact and set in stone. I substitute. Don’t have any of that, use this. Or I don’t like that anyway, we’ll use this.
 
Like writing, some is trial and error, some is layer as you go, then go back and tweak. Some is experience.
 
For the bread, Kayla uses the baseline recipe with the tweaks or changes or the what-the-hells I’ve added in or taken out. And I watch her learn, enjoy. I loved showing her how to knead the dough, watching her discover how it changes texture under her hands. How she gets the feel, rather than the precise recipe direction of ‘knead for ten minutes.’IMG_1339
 
Then, while the dough rises, it’s onto the cake batter. How long do you mix the butter and sugar together? Until it looks right–and since she’s been learning under my process, she gets this. A little vanilla, a little lemon extract–and she’s pleased with the scent, notices, comments. This is no whimpy cake, so I’ll tell you recipe hounds it calls for a half pound of butter and three cups of sugar. I think the extracts were a teaspoon each. Maybe there’s two of the vanilla. Then it’s six eggs–one at a time–which she likes cracking (and no shells in the batter). It might be three cups of flour–unsifted. My mother called for cake flour, but I didn’t have any, so I used standard. Some salt, some baking soda, mixed together. And a cup of sour cream.IMG_1340
 
Kayla diligently alternates adding the dry mix with the sour cream, and mixing, mixing, mixing. How long? Until it looks right.
 
She’s charmed by the angel food cake pan. I don’t know if that tool is standard for pound cake, but it’s what my mother used. So we use it. Spraying it with Pam, lining the bottom (again, fascinating my girl) with waxed paper. It bakes at 325 for thirty minutes, then at 300 for another 60 or in our case about 65 until a toothpick comes out clean. That’s the closest I can tell you. I’m marginally more precise with baking than cooking.
 
While the cake’s in the oven, we start on the soup. Though there was a break in there for a pb&j for a hungry girl. And a beater and bowl to lick. I had a lick myself, and my mother was right there with us. That’s as sweet and real as cake batter on the tongue.
 
Again, I have a baseline for the soup, but there’s nothing remotely precise about it once we start. How many potatoes? I don’t know. I do know I’ll be sending about half the finished product home with Kayla, so a lot of potatoes need to be peeled, washed, chopped. Some carrots. Some garlic sauted in olive oil. Some water, some bullion, some wine. How much? Until it looks right. Herbs and spices. Stir it up, let it simmer.IMG_1343
 
Years ago, when our Kat married our Jason, she asked me for a book of my recipes. I did my best, typing them out, adding little notes, compiling them in a pretty book. One day shortly after, she sat in my kitchen and said she didn’t get it. She’d wanted to make my deviled eggs (a crowd favorite) but it didn’t say how much mustard, mayo, various herbs and spices. And neither, she’d discovered, did the vast majority of the other recipes (using the term loosely) have precise measurements. How much???? she asked.
 
I don’t know, I told her.
 
Her solution, as Kat is a very clever girl, was to watch me make deviled eggs, and to figure out it’s–for me–about how it looks, smells, tastes. And so she can (and does) use my recipes as her baseline, to make them her own. It’s how I taught both my boys to cook. It’s how I’m teaching Kayla.
 
Kayla’s interest and enthusiasm are strong right now, so I’m taking full advantage.
 
When it’s time to punch down the dough, I let her go for it. I show her how to pull some off, make it into a tight ball, then let her go for that. She’s a little bummed the dough has to rise yet again, but we have more to do elsewhere.
 
The ham has to be diced and added to the soup, and given some time to cook. The cake’s looking like a cake in the oven, and it smells fabulous. Butter needs melting, then flour added to thicken it, then milk to that. Whisked, whisked, whisked until it thickens enough to add to the soup. Precise measurements? Nope. And you know I think more wine wouldn’t hurt that soup at all.
 
A glass wouldn’t hurt me either.
 
The cake comes out to cool. The dough balls have risen. It’s time for more fun. Boiling water, baking soda. I give her my big slotted spoon, so we can drop the balls in–and Grandda, who’s joined us, sits at the counter and times them with his phone. About thirty seconds, flip the balls over, another thirty, take them out, put them on the parchment-lined baking sheet, drop in the next batch.IMG_1349
 
Stir the soup, drop the balls.
 
We first, use our knife sharpener to get our blade perfectly sharp, then we make crosses on the puffy balls with the knife, sprinkle on some sesame seeds, some sea salt, and pop them in the oven. It’s about 12-15 minutes mostly. I set a timer, but I keep an eye. They’re done when they look done, when they’re a nice golden brown.
 
And the smells in the kitchen are incredible. Fresh bread, creamy soup, lemony cake. The top of the cake’s crackly, and Kayla and Grandda decide they should sort of peel that off and eat it. After all, when we take it out of the pan, turning it over, shouldn’t it be more even on what will be the bottom?
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Why would I argue when they’re having such a good time? And making yummy noises? Plus, the kid baked the cake. She baked it by following her great-grandmother’s baseline, learning, discovering, and making it her own.
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She baked the bread–I was barely sous chef on that–the same way. And the soup was a partnership of whatever works.IMG_1350
 
I know the bread worked as she snagged a roll off the cooling rack so quickly I worried she’d burn her tongue. She didn’t. And had a second one.
 
I sent her home with a tub of soup, a bag of rolls, and half a pound cake. Her family will enjoy the bounty of her labor. More, she spent the day learning, creating, experimenting. As she goes, she may decide her process works better with the precise. But I have a feeling she’ll continue on the road, discovering as she goes.
 
Like the first draft of a book, it’s the joy and effort of that discovery that draws the–we’ll say organic–writer and what’s-in-the-pantry cook to create the unique to them with the hope it pleases others.
 
I’m here to tell you, when it was time for me to sample the day’s labor, it pleased me.
 
Tomorrow, I go back to the keyboard and my scribbled notes to see what’s cooking there.
Nora