Friday, December 4, 2020

Day 265

One afternoon recently I got a Slack message from one of my co-workers who lives in a different state in my time zone.

“I bought a pre-seasoned steak at the supermarket,” it said. “How should I cook it?”

I wrote back the following instructions.

  1. Place a frying pan on the stove over medium-high heat. Drop in a couple of tablespoons of fat (butter, olive oil, etc).

  2. When the fat starts to sizzle, put in the steak. For a medium steak, cook 5-6 minutes on one side, then flip and do the same on the other. 

  3. Remove steak from pan and rest for about 5 minutes. Eat.

I received the following response: “That’s it?”

Yes, I confirmed, that’s it. I could have added a few extra steps: I skipped the “salt generously before cooking” step, because they said it was pre-seasoned, so that was taken care of. I didn’t send instructions on how to make a quick pan sauce, which is how I usually use the 5-minute rest. And I didn’t tell them to open all the windows, no matter how cold it is, because even with the fan on, I usually set off the smoke alarm when I cook steak. 

But although you can add on as many extras as you want, it really is that simple to make a good steak. I was reminded of this myself a few nights later, when I made a flank steak for the first time ever. I was nervous about messing it up and ending up with a piece of shoe leather, so I spent some time trawling my online collection for flank steak recipes. After looking at about a dozen, I came back to the basic method I’d outlined for my workmate. The only things I changed were to do my own pre-seasoning, liberally salting, peppering, and garlic powdering the steak several hours before cooking. And to remember to cut across the grain when serving - apparently cutting it any other way does make it tough.

It came out great, garnering praise from steak-fiend DP and steak-skeptic Miss B, who both declared it their cut of choice from now on. I'm calling that a win-win and putting it into the regular rotation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Day 256

Photo credit to a sister who was there - I was only a virtual participant!

It’s the day before Thanksgiving here in the US. I’m not going anywhere, I’m not hosting anyone, I’m not doing any of the things that would normally preoccupy me on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But I’m so ready to take a break from the daily grind.

This past Sunday was Pie Day - a family tradition that has endured for decades and which I can’t believe I’ve never written about here before. At its peak of production, my parents, sisters, and I gathered on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to crank out more than two dozen apple pies for our large extended family and to serve on the day - homemade crust made in a washtub by my mother, apples by the bushel peeled and sliced mostly by my father. The tradition itself starts with my mother and her own mother, somewhere around 65 years ago, before any of my generation came along, tackling an American custom and making it their own. 

Last year I spent Pie Day in Boston with my siblings and niblings for the first time in probably 20 years. This year, of course, everything looks different, but we adapted. Most of my Boston sisters gathered in sister S’s backyard to assemble pies in the frosty air, while those of us who were remote zoomed in from possible-exposure self-quarantine (no symptoms so far), Chicago, and metro DC (yours truly). We produced a total of 10 pies across our various locations - all apple, as usual (we’re not pumpkin pie people). 

My pie specs, for anyone who’s interested: a double batch of this amazing pie crust and a dozen Granny Smith apples tossed with sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg and sprinkled with lemon juice.

And so, come what may (and please let 2020 not have anything left in its arsenal), the holiday season begins. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

35 weeks

Today marks 8 months of quarantine. School was initially canceled for Miss B on Friday, March 13th, and for me that marked the beginning of this interlude. Here we are at our second Friday the 13th of 2020, and pandemic-wise at least, things are worse today than the conditions that sent us all into lockdown back in the spring. And with no end in sight. Even with a coming change in presidential administration, I do not see a way that things are going to get measurably better in containing the spread for a long time to come.

Things haven’t changed much for us: we are all managing school or work from home. DP and I have been going to the gym during off-hours, although I suspect that may change again soon, and I go to the grocery store and the farmers’ market. Other than going out for walks or drives, and the occasional small outdoor social gathering, we have been hunkered down at home. Luckily Miss B and I are homebodies, and DP has adjusted reasonably well, so we're coping.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Day 235

Today's the day, friends. Time's up. Whatever else you do today, if you haven't already, please, please vote. Email me (roving lemon at if you need information on where to go and I'll try to help you out. 

Today's the day. Let's go.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Day 224

This week marks 32 weeks of quarantine life. We’re not quite as strict as we were at the start, but generally speaking our interactions and excursions are still pretty limited. We ate dinner at a local restaurant last week, sitting at an outside table, and that was the first time I’d done that since March. But most weeks are the same set routine of online school and work, and most contact with other people is through a screen. One of my local friends and I have recently resumed our regular coffee meetups - outside - and that gives me the opportunity to bake something to bring along and share.

In my baking experiments the last few months I have also discovered a new gateway ingredient for DP - this is what I call any ingredient that will convince him to try a new dish that he would otherwise ignore. Until now, the list consisted of two items - bacon and cream sauce - which could only be applied to savory foods. However, I have now added crumb topping to this select group, after I came upon him scarfing down a raspberry crumb cake that I had left on the counter. Since he normally shuns any cake that doesn’t have frosting or does have fruit, this was a staggering discovery - and one that opens up a whole new world of baking experimentation.

Apple-Cinnamon Coffee Cakes

Adapted from One Bowl Baking

You can keep your pumpkin spice whatever - apple and cinnamon is the essence of fall flavor for me. I concocted this combination after the first new season apples started showing up at the farmers’ market and the temperatures finally, finally began to feel autumnal.

Despite what looks like a long list of ingredients and steps, this comes together pretty quickly. My main adaptation was to add the applesauce to the original recipe; these are still delicious even if you skip that step.



4 medium-sized apples (I’ve been buying Jonathans, Empires, Braeburns - sweet-tart red-green apples are my favorites for both eating and cooking)

A healthy splash of apple cider or water

1-2 Tbsp maple syrup

Cinnamon and nutmeg

Crumb topping

390 g/13.75 oz/2.75 cups all-purpose flour

200 g/7 oz/1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 Tbsp cinnamon

.5 tsp salt

10 ml/2 tsp vanilla extract

255 g/9 oz/18 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Cake batter

215 g/7.5 oz/1.5 cups all-purpose flour*

100 g/3.5 oz/.5 cup sugar

10g/2 tsp baking powder*

3 g/.5 tsp salt

28 g/1 oz/2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (plus more for greasing the pan if necessary)

15 ml/1 Tbsp vegetable oil

20 ml/4 tsp vanilla extract

1 large egg

180 ml/6 oz/.75 cup whole milk, room temperature

*I swapped in the same amount of self-raising flour for all-purpose and eliminated the baking powder.


Heat the oven to 350F/180C and prepare your pan(s). The original recipe calls for a 13x9x2 baking pan, buttered; I used my jumbo muffin tins, lined with paper baking cups, and got 9 big muffins/small cakes.

Make the applesauce: I didn’t really measure this, just peeled, cored and chopped 4 apples and put them in a pan over low-medium heat with the cider to cook while I did everything else. When the apples were soft (10-15 minutes), I mashed them up with a fork, added the syrup, plus generous sprinklings or cinnamon and nutmeg. Leave to cool a bit until ready to add to the final assembly.

Make the crumb topping: In a medium bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Stir vanilla into melted butter and add to dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly. 

Make the cake batter: In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir to mix thoroughly, then add melted butter, oil, vanilla, egg, and milk and stir again to fully combine. (I used my trusted dough whisk to make both the topping and the batter.)

Assemble the cakes: divide the batter among the lined baking cups. Repeat with scoops of applesauce, starting with 1 heaping Tbsp per cup and then sharing out the remainder. Sprinkle clumps of topping over each cake evenly.

Bake: bake trays in the middle of the oven until the cakes are set and the topping is just beginning to brown, 15-20 minutes. Rotate the pans and switch their positions at the 10-minute mark.

Cool on a rack. Share with a friend or a neighbor (or both!). Enjoy the taste of fall.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Day 177

In my house, these are leftovers

Back to the regular routine means back to the usual round of chores, errands, and meal planning; unfortunately one of the effects of grief that I discovered four years ago is its dull but demanding presence in daily life. I finally defined it to myself and others like trying to do everything while wearing a 60-pound backpack: I could still do everything I needed to do, but with a lot less energy and enthusiasm than usual. 

I hadn’t thought about that analogy in a while, but I’ve thought about it a lot over the past two weeks. It’s one of the things that hits you when the ceremonial part is over.

One of the things it dampens my enthusiasm for is food: I don’t have as much appetite, or incentive to cook. So it helps to find ways to inspire some creativity. One of my meal planning habits is to include a MacGyver meal in the weekly schedule - this is usually Thursday night, to use up whatever’s in the fridge before the Saturday farmers’ market run. During quarantine I’ve also revived Wild Card Wednesday, which sometimes is already booked with a new dish I want to try, and other times...not so much.

Last week - not so much. When DP and Miss B asked what was for dinner Wednesday night (which normally happens no later than lunchtime), I said, “I don’t know” - not a response they hear often, and which they both find slightly unnerving - as do I, to be honest. We are nothing if not a routine-oriented household.

There was plenty of food in the fridge, including the leftovers of a roast chicken, potato, and veg dinner I’d made earlier in the week - usually a good springboard to concoct something new. So when I sat down to eat lunch, I took Love Your Leftovers with me to page through for ideas.

Jackpot! Not only did that prompt me to remember that I could turn the leftover potatoes into gnocchi for that night’s dinner; a later section also included ideas for using up leftover beer - which I interpreted to include the three bottles of beer that have been taking up space in my fridge since a beer-loving friend stayed here last summer. The next night, I cracked one of them open, and used it in two different recipes selected for the purpose. The first was a chicken fricassee featuring leftover roast chicken and sauteed green beans, and the second was a soda bread to soak up all the fricassee sauce. It made a tasty and frugal dinner, but the best part for me was that it gave me something to feel enthusiastic about beforehand, and satisfaction afterwards - for being a creative and thrifty cook as much as for the food itself. My mother would have approved, although I doubt she ever had leftover beer in her fridge.

Chicken fricassee
I did not follow the written recipe at all - just took the idea and adapted it to what I had on hand. Here’s what I did:

  • Heated some fat on a medium flame in a large cast-iron skillet - about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, butter, bacon fat, or some combination thereof

  • Chopped half a red onion and threw in to saute

  • Chopped about a cup of baby bella mushrooms and ditto, along with some salt, pepper, and garlic

  • Let this saute on a moderate heat for about 7-10 minutes, until the mushrooms were looking cooked, while I cleaned about 1lb/450g of cooked chicken off the carcass and chopped about 2 cups of cooked green beans into bite-sized pieces, then set aside

  • Deglazed the pan with half a bottle of beer (IPA I think) and let it bubble for 2-3 minutes

  • Added some combination of sour cream, stock, and lemon juice and stirred together; adjusted amounts and seasonings until I had a thick, bubbling tasty sauce

  • Threw in the chopped chicken and green beans and stirred them into the mix to heat through for about 5 minutes

  • Served in bowls with hunks of warm soda bread alongside

This served 3, with a lunch portion left over.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Vale Mater


My mother and me, circa 1978

This past weekend I made an unplanned but long-expected visit to Boston, to say goodbye to my mother, who died earlier in August after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the constraints imposed by the ongoing pandemic, it was a very different event from our farewell to my father four years ago, but my immediate family was able to be together and I am very grateful for that. 

My sisters and I have shared the responsibility of eulogizing our parents as well as other family members who had no children to commemorate them, and this time it was my and my sister L’s turn to deliver the results of our group efforts. Having written so much about my mother here over the years gave me a ready source of stories and ideas, and over the last week we all compiled a long list of notes which my sister C and I then worked together to shape into a coherent narrative that presented who our mother was to us, as a person and a parent. This is my very shortened adaptation of that.

My mother was the youngest child of a large Italian immigrant family, and her family was the dominant force that shaped her life. She lived with her own mother for the first half of her life, until my grandmother’s death in 1977. She was both a traditionalist and a rebel: she firmly believed that her primary and most important job was to be a wife, mother, and household manager, but she also raised her six daughters to be independent thinkers, self-sufficient, and well educated. By word and by example, every day of my childhood she demonstrated the importance of a concrete set of values: people rather than things; education over performance; quality rather than convenience; service over status.

These values were exemplified in her dedication to preserving her family’s food traditions. Fiercely proud of being an Italian, she refused to lower her standards and disgrace her heritage by cutting corners or settling for lower quality. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my sisters and I were surrounded by people embracing the culture of “convenience food”, a concept that was utterly alien to and firmly rejected by my mother. Healthy, nutritious food, cooked from scratch, was the essence of a well-run home to her, and my family of eight, regularly joined by my aunt and my grandmother who lived downstairs, as well as friends and boyfriends, sat down to eat a homemade dinner seven nights a week. Whether she was simmering beef soup on the stove for hours, spending summer afternoons in the basement canning tomatoes with my grandmother and us, or making 26 apple pies’ worth of crust from scratch in a washtub in preparation for Thanksgiving so that there’d be enough for everyone in her huge family to have some, my mother expressed her love of her family, her meticulous nature, and her unwavering standards through food. Her commitment to her family and mine, supported and shared by my father, who was her true partner and best friend, is the foundation and the framework of all that I am.

I have been missing my mother for years, as Alzheimer’s slowly and relentlessly took everything that made her the passionate, opinionated, intuitive, and caring individual that she was. Her death not only frees her from its long bondage, but all of us who loved her as well, to mourn her loss and remember all that she gave us. As I walked into the grocery store on Monday morning, re-starting my normal weekly routine after a week of discombobulation, I thought of her - and then of all the things I do every day that bring her to my mind and give me the gift of her memory and her love.

My mother was shy and reserved, but had strong opinions and emotions, and one of the things she loved was music - a love she shared with my father. This song will forever remind me of watching them dance at weddings and other celebrations - having fun together, exuding joy and love.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Day 140

DP and Miss B re-enact their first meeting

Sixteen years ago today I was in the intensive care unit of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, preparing to go into surgery for a caesarean. I was 26 and a half weeks pregnant, and definitely not prepared for any aspect of what was happening or what was coming.

That day, the focus of my life changed forever. Through 225 days in hospital, followed by four international moves, nine houses, three continents, and more air miles than I have the energy to count, she’s been at the center of every day. Being her mother is the most important job I’ll ever have.

We haven’t been able to have any big celebrations this year, but she doesn’t really mind that. She’s had the opportunity to do some of the things she likes best - hang out with a good friend; work on her writing (alternate universe/historical fiction/horror is the current genre I believe) and her drawing and her graphic design; snuggle her fat cat; and eat her fill of french fries for dinner, followed by birthday cake decorated with her theme of choice - this year reflecting the love of history that she shares with her father. 

Even in the midst of...everything...the adventure continues. Wishing the very happiest of birthdays to my smart, funny, kind, inclusive, creative, and inquisitive daughter - the mighty Miss B.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Day 138

Yesterday I went into DC for the first time since March 10, to join thousands of my fellow citizens lining up to pay respect to Representative John Lewis, one of the leaders of the US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and a longtime member of the US Congress. I went to express my gratitude, respect, admiration, and remorse. As an American, I’m profoundly grateful that Representative Lewis, before I was even born, was putting everything he had on the line to make this country a better place. And also as an American, I’m deeply ashamed that it was necessary then, and that the struggle for justice has not yet been won.

My personal history is one I refer to often here: I’m a descendant of immigrants, most of whom came to the United States about 100 years ago. Their backgrounds, experiences, and decisions have shaped my life, from where I grew up to the kinds of food I cook and talk about. They came from what would have been considered “shithole countries” at the turn of the twentieth century; they were often viewed with suspicion and disgust, if not actively discriminated against. 

And yet - even with all those challenges and obstacles in their paths, my forebears were already better placed, the moment they stepped off those boats from Europe onto a Boston pier, than some Americans whose ancestors had been here at that point for three centuries. It took me a long time to understand that - to recognize how the typical US immigrant story relates to the larger story of how this country was born and grew. And how those systems, which were put into place in the seventeenth century and were none of my doing or of anyone related to me, continue to benefit me and mine to this day - all too often at the expense of other Americans who are no less entitled to the blessings of liberty.

A long time ago I wrote about the struggle to know when to deviate from writing about food. It’s part of the reason I haven’t been on here much for a while: talking about food seems so inconsequential compared to a nationwide struggle about justice, and what that looks like, and what any one person’s role is in that struggle. But maybe they are more related than I realize: they are both fundamental to our survival, after all - wherever and whoever we are. 

This is my little platform, so I’m going to keep talking about what I think is important and is occupying my mind. I’m going to try to follow, a little more publicly, Representative Lewis’ encouragement to “make good trouble.” My first-generation American mother taught me long ago that the primary purpose of this life is to try to leave the world a better place than you found it, and I can think of no better example of someone who tried to do just that, and who devoted his entire adult life in service to his nation. His life and legacy are an inspiration and a challenge to anyone who cares about the society and the future we are building, by our beliefs and actions, every day.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Day 66

We’ve been in quarantine for nine weeks. I still haven’t made a sourdough starter.

I’ve been reading blog posts and seeing social media photos for years showing other people’s amazing sourdough loaves. The pace at which these appear has ratcheted up significantly over the past two months as quarantine sourdough has become trendy.

Every time I see one of these, I think, maybe I should finally do it. I should commit. I already know how to make bread. I love sourdough. I could have all the sourdough I want. I should do it. Everybody else is doing it.

So I read the recipe again. And then I think the same thing, every time: it seems like so much work. You have to know you want to make bread, like, two days ahead of time in order to feed the starter enough to be ready, and you have to start the actual bread dough not much later than that.

And the thing is, I already make bread all the time. I always have bread dough in my refrigerator. I can pull it out and make homemade rolls for dinner on a whim, and when my dough container starts to look empty, I can whip up a batch of slow-rise bread in about 5 minutes in the morning or afternoon and have freshly baked bread the same day. I use the same dough to make pizza, pita bread, and recently, bagels. I always keep the end of the previous batch to act as a starter for the next batch, so it’s an integral part of the cycle in my kitchen. 

On Sunday morning, I woke up unusually early - my anxiety has been manifesting in weird ways during quarantine, and periodically waking up extra early has been one of the weirdest - wanting to make a pan loaf of bread. What Miss B calls a “toast loaf”. I already knew I had a big batch of dough in the fridge that I’d made the night before (using my standard recipe), so I went downstairs, ripped off a chunk of it, shaped it into a loaf, and dropped it into a small loaf pan that I’d greased and floured. I let it rise for over an hour until it had doubled in size, and then put it in the oven to cook while I was making Sunday breakfast.

It doesn’t look all that impressive, and it’s certainly won’t be confused for an artisan loaf. But it tastes good, and it does the job. And it’s a reminder that having the time, the ingredients, and the resources to make any bread at all is a privilege, now more than ever. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Day 30

This weekend marks completing our fourth week of quarantine. It continues to feel almost normal to me, interspersed with moments that feel very strange or unreal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about meticulous mindfulness, which I wrote about a lot about four years ago. DP and I have both joked that we already knew how to do social isolation, because we were doing it before it was trendy. Like many jokes, this one holds a painful truth. A significant chunk of our time in Australia was marked by experiences of profound isolation for all of us. And well before that was the watershed experience of Miss B’s premature birth and long hospitalization, the crucible in which our family unit was formed. 

In those situations, our only real recourse was to focus on each other, and on the next task at hand. When looking outward or forward brought only pain and anxiety, we found it best to focus inward, on routines and rituals that brought a sense of security and comfort. Friday movie night. Sunday breakfast. Summer vacation at the beach. They’ve adjusted to fit our circumstances as we’ve moved from place to place, but they’ve provided a sense of security and continuity when everything else felt uncertain and unpredictable. These are the essence of what meticulous mindfulness has become for me.

Our established schedules have provided some much-needed structure over the past month, as DP and Miss B have adjusted to home-based life, and I’ve adjusted to having other people here all the time. We’ve made some adjustments to our shared schedules as well: DP and I have started taking a walk together most afternoons. We all forage together in the fridge for lunch, and if there’s time afterwards, we might fit in a game of dominoes. And Miss B is getting more involved in dinner prep and baking. 

Food highlights this week were a combination of new and old. To help keep me from getting stale in the kitchen, I’ve re-introduced Wild Card Wednesdays, where I get free rein to make whatever I want for dinner and my two picky eaters have to at least try it before resorting to cheese and crackers or other backup sustenance. This week I tried my hand at falafel, using a Dinner with Julie recipe involving canned chickpeas and other pantry staples. Served with homemade pita bread and Greek salad, I’m happy to report that they were a hit.

And over the last two days, honoring a family tradition that’s older than all of us put together, Miss B and I made taralli and pizza chiena, in preparation for Easter. We won’t be able to host or join any celebrations this year, so we’re going to play Easter bunny and make some deliveries around our neighborhood and beyond. And I’ll feel grateful for the fact that, even in the current circumstances, I feel fortunate to be where I am, and far less isolated than I have been in other times and places.

I wish you all a peaceful, safe, and healthy weekend, however you’re spending it.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Day 21

Quarantineland is a strange new place - a combination of Groundhog Day and the Upside Down. In many ways, my days are the same as they have been for the last 18 months here in Fairfax, and much longer in other places: I drink my morning coffee at the dining-room table; run teleconferences and send emails from my desk; cook dinner most nights using a meal planning schedule that has been evolving my whole adult life from my mother’s unchanging weekly routine.

Other shifts and routines are emerging that are new and strange in our home ecosystem. Miss B, long self-described as a “slug” who would protest any suggestion of physical exertion, now voluntarily goes out for a walk every morning before sitting down to schoolwork. Sometimes she goes twice a day. DP, who has been up and gone long before sunup most days for the better part of two decades, is regularly “sleeping in” until after 7. And me? I generally revel in being a homebody; now I feel the walls closing in if it’s late afternoon and I haven’t made it out into the fresh air yet. I’m digging into tasks I would normally procrastinate about getting done. And I’m baking even more than I usually do, and wanting to even more than that.

I’ve been working on what I call “carbing with intent” for the last year, and part of that is curbing my desire to eat dessert every single night - I usually try to restrain myself to weekends. That has been harder than usual for the last few weeks, when the call of carbs as comfort food has been almost irresistible, and I’ve hit on popovers as a good compromise. You can make them sweet or savory, and they provide a good carb hit without throwing your whole calorie budget for the day out of whack. I’ve adapted Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio recipe to stretch the most basic ingredient ratio into four good-sized popovers - perfect for an impromptu after-dinner treat. (Miss B will attest that they’re also good toasted and topped with maple syrup for breakfast the next day.)

4oz/120ml milk
1 egg
2oz/60g all-purpose/plain flour
a large pinch of salt
1oz/30g/2 Tbsp butter, melted

Combine the milk and eggs in a jug with a pouring spout and whisk until combined. Add flour and salt, and stir until combined evenly. Ideally, for best results let the batter sit for 15-30 minutes (or longer) after combining.

When ready to cook, place a popover or muffin pan in the oven and heat the oven to 450F/220C. Divide the butter into 4 even pieces; remove the pan from the oven and place one piece into each of 4 of the cups. Pour 1/4 of the batter into each of the 4 cups, then return the pan to the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375F/190C and bake for another 20-30 minutes, or until puffy and golden.

Serve hot with jam or syrup.
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