When I began writing this blog, I expected it to be about the need to create some structure in retired life. Over time, however, blogging about the stage of my life and career —I am “demi” retired—became less interesting than writing about the pleasures and occasional frustrations of everyday life in general. Another way of putting this is that while time marches on, life around you, if you allow it to, also becomes more interesting, more stimulating, and even a tad freer… and age, in fact, matters less and less.
All right, that reversion to a childhood nursery rhyme was silly, but it came to me in the middle of the night, as Miss Puppy was inching me closer to the edge of the bed. I’d been lulled into a stupor too early by whatever silliness was on the tube at the time. Now I was awake and thinking of brisket.
We first had brisket at my dear friend Marionlee’s. Her late husband, Gerry, was a veritable brisket master. On the odd chance you’ve never had it, brisket can be a disaster if it isn’t done correctly. Gerry’s best advice on the matter was this: “Cook it till you think it’s done, then cook it three hours longer.” Gerry never shared a recipe—I’m pretty sure he didn’t have one—but his brisket was always perfect, surrounded with tender potatoes and carrots, totally without artifice, utterly comforting and delicious.
Eventually, I decided to try brisket on my own.
My first effort was definitely in a category I’ll call “Everything but the kitchen sink,” from a hugely entertaining cookbook, Lora Brody’s* Cooking with Memories. Brody’s brisket recipe is the only reason I keep bottled chili sauce on the pantry shelf. Note that it also contains beer. This brisket has a sweet-and-sour tang and always turns out tender and tasty. Here it is:
5-6 pound brisket
1/4 C water
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
4 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch slices
18-ounce bottle chili sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 C brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 C Dijon mustard
1/4 C red wine vinegar
3 T molasses
1/4 C soy sauce
1 can beer
1/2 tsp. paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the lower third, but not bottom, position. Sear the meat, fat side down first, in the bottom of a heavy-duty ovenproof casserole. Turn the meat over and sear the other side. Add to the casserole the water, onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, bay leaves, brown sugar, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, and molasses. Cover and cook for 3 hours.
Add the beer, cover and cook 1 more hour, checking occasionally to make sure there is liquid in the pot. Add more water if necessary. Remove the meat from the pot and pour the sauce into a metal bowl. Discard the bay leaves. Cool broth. Slice the meat when cold. Skim the fat off the sauce, then return the sauce to the casserole or heat-proof serving dish, add the paprika and meat, and reheat on top of the stove, covered. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Parboil the potatoes, then add to the brisket dish to finish cooking. [Note: But you can skip this and make mashed or, better yet, latkes instead.]
Somewhere along the brisket continuum, I decided to branch out. Barbara Kafka’s Roasting: A Simple Art is an important cookbook. From its pages came the delicious dictum, “When in doubt, roast a chicken. ” Some of the recipes in Roasting are off-the-chart fabulous. “Wholesome Brisket with Roasted Vegetables” is one of them. It will knock your socks off if, and only if, you are patient enough to wade through her copious directions, which I have always found murky and frustrating—15 minutes more here, 15 minutes more there, turn halfway this, turn halfway that. But if you do have the time and the patience, this brisket recipe is definitely worth the trouble. My recommendation: Follow it to a “T” and, like any brisket, make it the day before. You won’t be rushed, and it will taste better. For the sake of brevity—there are almost two full pages of single-spaced type—I’m not reproducing the recipe, but you can find it here, on the Food Network site.
A good friend once said that she’s always used the same brisket recipe, that it contains Lipton onion soup mix, and that it never fails. I don’t doubt that, but I no longer use processed foods**. The recipe that has now stolen my heart is definitely minimalist compared to the first two. Slow-Cooked Brisket and Onions comes from the Kitchn website. If you’re lucky enough to have an All-Clad Slow Cooker like mine, you can save yourself some trouble and sear the meat right in it. I’m providing the recipe below, with the author’s notes, but you will also find helpful visuals on the website.
1 T olive oil
1-1/2 pounds yellow or red onions (about 2 large onions), sliced into half moons
3-1/2 pounds beef brisket
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 C beef broth [Note: I use Pacific low-sodium organic]
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T soy sauce (or tamari, if gluten-free)
Heat a deep sauté pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat with the olive oil. Add the onions and cook on medium-low to medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the onions have caramelized lightly.
While the onions are cooking, take the brisket out of its packaging and pat it dry. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and turn on your vent or fan, if you have one. Sear the brisket until a golden brown crust appears on both sides of the meat. Remove and place in a slow-cooker insert, fatty side up.
Sprinkle the minced garlic over the meat. When the onions are lightly browned, pile them on top and around the meat. Mix the broth, Worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce, and pour into the slow-cooker insert.
Cover and cook in the slow cooker on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or until the brisket is very tender. Let rest for at least 20 minutes before serving in the slow cooker set on WARM. (If your slow cooker doesn’t have a WARM setting, transfer to a baking dish and cover tightly with foil while resting.)
The brisket can be sliced or shredded immediately and served with the onions and juices. Or let the meat cool then refrigerate overnight. Before reheating, scrape away and discard the layer of fat that has formed around the meat.
To reheat: Heat the oven to 300°F. Transfer the brisket and all its juices to a baking dish and cover tightly with a lid or two layers of foil. Warm in the oven for 1 hour or until warmed through (time will depend greatly on the size and shape of the brisket; cut into smaller pieces for faster reheating).
- Cooking time: Personally I like brisket very tender and shredded, almost like pulled beef. But if you prefer to slice the meat for a more formal presentation, aim for the shorter end of the recommended cooking time. Final cooking time will depend on the size and shape of the meat.
- Oven instructions: No slow cooker? Cook in the oven instead, in a baking dish covered tightly with foil or in a Dutch oven, covered with a lid. Cook at 325°F for 3 to 4 hours or until very tender
*I love Lora Brody. You might recall her name from a post I did last winter on the blueberry muffins in her Cape Cod Table cookbook. I also recommend Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, which, like Cooking with Memories, is filled not only with recipes, but also with stories guaranteed to make you laugh.
**Yes, you can make your own “onion soup” mix, and it will be pretty decent. I will help you with that another time.
You’ve heard my prattle about Hallmark Christmas movies. Except for mentioning that The Christmas Train is head and shoulders above all the rest and my absolute favorite so far this season, I’ll leave you to chat about Hallmark movies amongst yourselves. This post, instead, is about their worthy ancestor of an entirely different ilk, our favorite black-and-white movies from the 1940s.
Most of us know and love It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s certainly on our list. But there are some lesser known gems that you might really enjoy if you give them a chance. I’ve heard many folks say they can’t watch anything past the opening and closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz in black and white. That’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned. I will say, however, that to enjoy these movies, you must 1) stop wishing for color*; 2) understand and appreciate that most of these films have a point of view that is clearly traditional and religious, 3) accept that they reflect the social conventions, among them misconceptions and narrowness, of their time, and 4) of course, suspend your disbelief.
Just as an aside, note that many of the holiday flicks we consider “classic” today are funny, and centered largely on Santa Claus and family shenanigans. Don’t misconstrue—we love the lot: A Christmas Story, Elf, Tim Allen’s reluctant Santa Claus, Fred Claus and his highly dysfunctional family , and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, of course, as much as anyone. Belly laughs are good medicine for holiday frenzy. But the ones on our list, even the funny ones, are far more subtle. We watch them every year, sometimes more than once. (And just to squash any ideas to the contrary, most of these were released before I was born.)
It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, Clarence, and the rest of the entourage do not need a plug from me. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece about a man lifted out of despair by an unlikely angel.
The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven as a depressed bishop, Loretta Young as the wife who struggles to cheer him, and Cary Grant as the angel who fixes it all. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947.
The Shop Around the Corner, Director Ernst Lubitsch’s utterly charming Christmas-in-Budapest tale, released in 1940, that was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart strikes gold again, this time with Margaret Sullivan. Fun hint: You’ll remember “Mr. Matuschek” from “behind the curtain” in another classic film.
The Man Who Came to Dinner. The token crazy farce on the list, featuring the pedantic, obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside and his band of nutcase friends, admirers, artifacts, and penguins. A fabulous cast including Monty Woolley, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante., directed by William Keighley and released in 1942.
It Happened on Fifth Avenue. English majors may remember James M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crighton, in which the servants reverse roles with their masters after a shipwreck. This movie always reminds me of that play, except that it’s the homeless, and particularly homeless veterans returning from the war, who are taking over the estate. Released in 1947 and directed by Roy del Ruth.
Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart type, except that… well, I won’t give it away. Enjoy. Directed by Peter Godfrey and released in 1945. (Just make sure you don’t get the 1990s remake by mistake, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, which surely falls into my “worst of all time” collection.)
Miracle on 34th Street. Is he or isn’t he? This is a marvelous movie, even though I always end up hating the mother for being so hide-bound. Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and then child star Natalie Wood. Directed by George Seaton and released in 1947.
Note that these films were all made between 1940 and 1947, and imagine them in that context. Imagine yourself being given respite from keeping a “stiff upper lip” through the constant fear and worry of war on two fronts, or the life-altering changes the war brought to so many. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.
*Don’t succumb to colorized versions if you download any of these movies or buy the DVDs. They are so much better in their original form.
Photo: Vieux Québec—the old city—during the carnaval d’hiver.
I read cookbooks the way most people read travel magazines, far more for the narrative than the recipes themselves. It’s a near addiction (thankfully, a harmless one) that I’ve had for years, since Aunt Florence gave me the 12-volume The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery in 1969. I’m fairly certain that the collection was one of those supermarket premiums we no longer see—a nominal price for each volume based on how much you spend on groceries. Rich with articles and essays by notables like James Beard, these volumes opened up a world of fascination for me; the stained, tattered pages—some complete with little doodles the children made—mark the “go-to” goodies I’ve made over and over again. While many of my cookbooks have come and gone—passed on to a family or friends or the library auction—these have remained a staple on my shelf.
Like any new cook, I started out following recipes in those volumes by the letter. Eventually, though, I took to experimenting, often substituting what I had on hand for a specified ingredient. Younger readers may not realize that the 24/7 supermarket is a relatively recent invention. If you ran out of or were lacking an ingredient 30 years ago, you were out of luck; you either had to substitute, leave it out entirely, or declare failure and move on*.
I love the German expression Übung macht den Meister… practice makes the master. Our equivalent is “practice makes perfect,” yet the difference is subtle but profound. As a nun for whom I had great affection told me years ago, “We can’t have perfection. Perfection is in heaven.” It’s not about perfection. It’s about the courage to try and to persist. Mastery in the kitchen, as in anything else, is the reward of practice and persistence; the more you do, the more confident and competent you’ll feel.
One day last week, I bought a lovely organic roasting chicken for dinner. A number of years ago, I saw Martha Stewart roast a chicken on a bed of onion halves. It’s a great trick that flavors the chicken nicely and produces a delicious au jus. Unwilling to give up my last local sweet onion, I retrieved from the fridge the last of the celery I’d prepped for Thanksgiving and covered the bottom of the roasting pan first with the celery, then with four or five rosemary stems from the garden. I placed the chicken on the bed, seasoned it with olive oil, coarse salt, and herbes de Provence, and into the oven it went, with a tray of similarly seasoned vegetables to roast beneath.**
Roasting vegetables,*** by the way, may be the greatest example ever of versatility with what you have on hand. Almost any combination works. We had Brussels sprouts, beets, sweet potatoes, a bit of that sweet onion, three baby turnips, and two small white potatoes—a lovely mix of the last of the harvest at the farm market. My daughter does the same with her garden bounty.
In the end, it’s all about having the chutzpah to go off-page, just as our mothers and grandmothers, and generations of cooks before them, did.
*Full disclosure: Baking is another story entirely —it’s chemistry and demands precision. While you can freely substitute the fruits in a pie, you can’t simply exchange butter for oil in a chocolate cake, or baking soda for baking powder, or all-purpose for cake flour.
**By the way, I don’t truss small chickens. Sometimes, however, I will stuff the cavity with sliced carrots, celery, and whatever suitable herbs I have (a trick I learned from Chef Carlo Middione in the early days of FoodTV), a whole lemon, or an onion, or both. This time I just left it open. One other thing: Save the carcass and any vegetables left in the pan for stock. If you don’t have time, toss everything, including some of the jellied pan drippings, into a bag or container and freeze for future use. Because it’s already been roasted, the stock will be much more flavorful than anything you can buy in a store. Plus, it’s free. Slow cookers are ideal for this purpose.
***Once, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, NC, I had macaroni and cheese infused with roasted vegetables—undoubtedly left over from the prior day’s special. I realize this sounds shocking to mac-and-cheese purists, but it was off the charts. I need to try it one of these days.
As I write this, I’m preparing psychologically to clean and straighten out my baking pantry before the Christmas endurance contest begins.
Baking Christmas cookies with my mother the first two weekends in December remains one of my favorite childhood memories. Mom gave cookies away in droves, never forgot a generous box for the rectory, and saved the rest for trays to serve when family came to visit between Christmas and New Year’s. She made the prerequisite Italian cookies but also became very adept at paper-thin German sand tarts, and every year she tried a new cookie from the current Pillsbury Bake-Off collection. Whether the new winning recipe became part of the permanent repertoire depended about equally on how much she enjoyed making the cookies and how much we enjoyed eating them. There were no Toll House or plain sugar cookies (like the ones mentioned in my last post) in her holiday mix—they were far too ordinary for Christmas.
My guess is that every daughter reaches a moment of truth when she realizes that she isn’t compelled to do everything exactly as her mother did. I enjoyed baking for the holidays, but I longed to develop my own Christmas cookie repertoire. One of my dear friends was the food editor of the local paper, and when her daughter was about three, she published a full-page spread on the joys of establishing a holiday baking tradition that children can carry forward. The article was irresistible, and I ended I “adopting” several of her recipes, which my daughter and I still rely on Christmas after Christmas. The clipping is yellow and tattered now. I always intend to replace it with neatly typewritten “receipts”; but truthfully, like Mom’s recipe cards, there’s something so precious about leaving that clipping just the way it is.
With time at a premium, I have tended in recent years not to make cookies, or at least not many, but instead to surprise friends and neighbors with apple pie or homemade bread. I’m not sure what I’ll do this year. Hubby’s mother, whom I was never lucky enough to know, made cinnamon buns for the neighbors. They were memorable enough to be mentioned by more than one of his classmates with great fondness at his recent high school reunion. I would rather like to try reviving that tradition.
We’ll see how things go. I am happy to ponder, day dream, and anticipate; but I’m wary of over-committing. We all know where that primrose path leads.
If you appreciate a bit of humor as you work through the pre-Christmas frenzy, please allow yourself the time to enjoy this story from a gone-but-not-forgotten CBC radio series called “The Vinyl Café” on the Canadian Living magazine website. After you’ve read it, drop me a line and let me know if you’ve picked your Christmas colour yet.
*I may have mentioned in a prior post that years ago, “wish book” was the popular name for the Sears Roebuck catalogue.
I’ve been “out of pocket,” as they used to say in the ’90s, for the last few weeks, recovering from a surgery that, while not extensive, pretty much knocked the wind out of me. Just to let you know how “zonked” I was (how’s that for a high-class word?), during the first ten days, I barely even opened a book, much less tried to blog.
I am happy to report and reaffirm, however, that the curative powers of the human body are indeed miraculous. In the last week, I’ve perked up considerably and can report with confidence that I am definitely on the mend. I can also say with confidence that healing is far more than physical. Being surrounded by people who care about you, who dispense dose after dose of love with every well-intended (but not always graciously received) direction—that makes the difference. That is what it means to feel truly blessed. Hubby and the kids were loving, patient, attentive, and comforting. I couldn’t have asked for better care. But they weren’t the only ones to be there when I needed them.*
I’ve gotten good wishes and cards and flowers and phone calls and texts from so many—family, friends, neighbors—and I am grateful to every one of them, near and far, for wishing me well. I also received wonderfully nurturing gifts of pudding and soup to get me through the first and toughest patch.
So do cookies.
After days of soft food, though, I began positively yearning for texture. Watching one cooking show after another was probably not helpful, but one has to pass the time somehow. In a moment as delightful as the turning point in any of Shakespeare’s comedies, a grocery store rotisserie chicken finally set me back on the road to “normal” everyday life.
At about the same time I savored that tender white meat, I began fantasizing about old-fashioned soft sugar cookies. The only thing I can compare this fantasy with, from an intensity standpoint, is the wild craving of pregnancy—you know, the kind that would send your spouse out in the middle of an August night for a hot turkey sandwich.** Before long, my BFF and I were texting back and forth about each other’s sugar cookie recipes. My mother’s recipe had come from a Pennsylvania Dutch neighbor; we’ve referred to the big, luscious treats as “Mrs. George’s Cookies” since 1970. My BFF’s recipe came from her cousin’s Pennsylvania Dutch in-law. When we compared notes, the recipes were very similar, except that Mrs. George’s called for buttermilk and were dusted with a bit of cinnamon, while my BFF’s recipe called for sour cream and cream cheese icing.
A few days after the texting marathon, my BFF showed up at the door with a plateful of those pillowy cookies, freshly baked and iced.
How did they taste?
Like a little bit of heaven on a plate, that’s how.
*What’s good for the gander is good for the goose. I tried to be a good, compliant patient and to practice what I preached in an earlier blog post on the idiosyncrasies of the male patient\. My lineage is Calabrese. That’s pretty much all I need to say about that.
**That particular craving was actually not my own, but my dear friend’s, who, on reporting it to me afterward, said with a sigh, “You can’t get a good hot turkey sandwich in this town.” Forty+ years ago, and the story still makes me smile.
Not long ago, I received a jauntily designed email informing me that I’d “won” another Fitbit badge. This time, I’ve walked the length of the Serengeti–500 miles since I started wearing the rubbery black “watch” (which, since it follows me wherever I go, turns out to be double entendre, doesn’t it?) I’d sworn I’d never own.
The older one grows, it seems, the more one eat’s one’s words.
More than six months into the Fitbit shtick, I grudgingly confess that I’ve grown to like it. Yes, it’s a good motivator. Yes, I am definitely walking more and have lost a bit of weight. Yes, I feel more energetic. Yes, achieving little goals, one after the other, gives me satisfaction. And yes, I get mad on days when something, however, legitimate, interferes with my steps.
I have a long way to catch up with Hubby, who started a few months before me and has, per his Fitbit badge, “walked” the entire Italian coast. Or with my other Fitbit friends. My belle soeur* invited me to join her Fitbit workweek challenge as soon as she learned I was stepping it up. There are four to six participants, and whoever logs the most steps in the Monday-to-Friday race wins.
I don’t always manage 10,000 steps. If I do, it’s often on the weekends, which doesn’t count in the challenge. I haven’t won this competition once. I’m a morning person; morning is the best time for me to do just about anything. I get my first few thousand steps doing the morning chores and walking Miss Puppy, hopefully reaching my admittedly modest goal in the early afternoon. Then, depending on the length of our late afternoon constitutional, and whether I’ve done the grocery store (always good for a couple of thousand steps), I fill in during the evening hours. This often involves a kind of pacing from one end of the first floor to the other that makes Miss Pup, like the dogs in a James Thurber cartoon, regard me with utter disdain.**
This “morning person” almost never makes major progress, with steps or anything else, after 7 PM—especially with darkness arriving earlier each day. Whereas I am entirely diurnal, at nightfall, my belle soeur is just getting started. If I go to bed at 11, comfortably in second place, I will inevitably awaken the next morning to find that she has surged past me, like the near magical horse who flies into the lead in the last few furlongs of the derby. I have affectionately referred to her as my “night stalker.” Still, I’m glad to be a part of this friendly competition, and I’m actually pretty happy with my overall performance. Every 10,000-step day is especially satisfying.
As I write this, early on a Wednesday morning, my belle soeur is about 1,000 steps behind me. Then again, it’s not even 9 AM.
*I refuse to use the phrase “in-law” for anyone I care about, much preferring the gentler French expression for the relationship.
**If Miss Pup could talk as I pace, she’d surely be saying, “Have you gone totally bonkers, and, if so, why are you taking me with you?”
Update. Yet another Bonne Maman jar has been welcomed into the family. If you read my previous post from months ago, you’ll recall my homage to these marvelous little jars and the preserves they hold—the “gift that keeps on giving,” just as Cousin Eddie observed in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. By the way, Bonne Maman products are made only with good stuff, as the website attests.
I’ve been transitioning gradually to glass food storage containers over the last five years. The plastic ones I still have, while advertised as “BPA free,” will eventually go, too. My plan is to follow my daughter’s lead and use space-saving canning jars for everything I freeze . That will happen in good time.
Meanwhile, as I use up each little taste of France that Bonne Maman preserves provide, I add another perfectly sized glass storage container to my collection. This year, I’ve used them for the herbs I’ve dried from the garden They find their way to the pantry shelf, too—for the last small quantities of rice, pasta, or dried beans. And with just the two of us, they are exactly “right-sized” for leftovers and for storing prepped ingredients till it’s time to put the dish together. Mirepoix and other basic flavor bases at the ready when you need them? That’s convenience! With the ready-cut veggies at the grocery store so expensive, it’s economical, too.
By the way, as long as we’re talking economy, bell peppers are always inexpensive at our farm markets this time of year. Yesterday, I bought a bunch, cut them into strips, cooked them till almost soft in olive oil, added some balsamic for zest, and popped them into the freezer to enjoy when peppers are $4 a pound. Today, I’ll be heading back to the market for another batch—this time to roast, peel, and freeze. By the way, fresh sliced peppers, gently sautéed with or without garlic and seasoned with a bit of sea salt, are wonderful (and colorful!) tossed with spaghetti. The oil they exude on their own is just delicious. And you can store the leftovers in your Bonne Maman jars.
Wishing you all a bon weekend!