How Julie Saved My Life (or at least my sanity)

Julie Powell, author ot Julia/Julia, has died of cardiac arrest. She was an enormous influence on my life and writing, and I’m just bereft.


      In the early 2000’s, I was struggling through a divorce, drinking too much, wallowing in my own sadness and the fact that I was probably now too old to ever have a happy life ever again. Every day felt like the same exhausting struggle. I tried to cheer myself up— I moved my desk into an alcove off the living room and painted the wall bright red; I bought a new couch without consulting a singe other person. I traveled to Scotland with someone I didn’t like very much. Frankly, I made a lot of bad choices in all kinds of ways that surprised me. I’d always been the flexible, adaptable, unbreakable one. 

        Divorce almost broke me. It seemed to me that a person could actually die of a broken heart. 

        One night, wandering through the wilderness of the Internet, I found the Julie/Julia blog. It was written by a young woman, unhappy in her office job, who decided to cook one recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking every night until she made her  her way through the entire book. She lived in a tiny apartment with a tinier kitchen, and something about the quixotic quest caught my attention. 

        In the Before Times, I’d liked cooking. I mean, no one loves workaday meals for a family on a budget, which was the main thrust of my life, but I’d won prizes for sourdough breads and my delicate jams. My ex was a showy cook, Sunday breakfast for dozens, barbecues in the backyard for all of our friends. Everyone marveled at his cooking. I devoted myself to perfecting corn chowder, tacos on soft corn tortillas, the local pork green chile. 

        Post-divorce, I was lucky to gobble down a scrambled egg or crackers with cheese. 

        It was one of those lonely evenings I found Julie. Her writing was bold and funny and earthy, connecting me to parts of myself I didn’t always claim. I recognized something in her need to make something, to have something in her life that mattered. 

       Starting at the beginning of her journey, I allowed myself to read a handful of blog posts each day. By Thanksgiving, I started to imagine that maybe I wouldn’t die of divorce, and a whispering voice insisted it might feel good to make a loaf of bread to take to the family dinner. I still hated sitting around that giant table where everyone else was married and I wasn’t, but the bread was good and I lived through the day. 

       As the season passed, I dug into the the story of Julia Child and her adoration of French cooking and wondered if it might be something I’d enjoy. At the library, I found M.F.K Fisher’s collected works and read a few of her essays sitting in a chair by a long window as a storm rolled in. I read about her eating a meal she cooked for herself on a single burner in a crummy room she’d rented at the end of a long ordeal, and how nourishing it was to eat the simple meal she’d cooked for herself. 

        For nearly two decades, I’d been cooking for other people. Solid, workaday meals for two growing boys and a man who worked a physical job and needed a lot of calories at the end of his day. I started to wonder what I might like to eat, what I might cook if it was for me.  

       My mother gave me Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Christmas. I didn’t think anyone had noticed my obsession with the Julie/Julia project, but clearly, I’d been talking about it. At night, I sat on my new couch and read the recipes, and read along with Julie to see how she’d managed the challenge of beef marrow soup or rack of lamb. I didn’t think I could manage those, but I thought I could probably bake a quiche. The fragrance of it filled my kitchen. I turned on some music and sang along. I set the table with good cloth napkins and linens, arranged a few greens on the plate with a healthy slice of quiche lorraine, and a crisp glass of wine. It was simple. It was mine.  

      I sat down and fed myself good food. 

      Turned out, I cooked and fed myself right out of that broken heart. I wrote more novels about women and their connection to food, and to each other. One of them was This Place of Wonder, which features a young woman who becomes obsessed with Julie/Julia and it leads to a career. Julie Powell read the book and gave me a quote, which shows remarkable things can happen if you keep showing up and maybe cook yourself something once in awhile.  

      Thanks, Julie, ever so much. 

An Early Spring Challenge

greenhouse--my happy placeFinally, there is real spring in the air. You can feel it burning off the cold by eight-thirty, and a brilliance of light makes everything stretch and awaken.  My poppies are up, green and thick, and the daffodils—a bit scrawny so far—and the tulips, looking sturdy.  I’m surprised by a crop of garlic that must be leftover from last year, and not at all sure that the wisteria that’s supposed to overwinter is actually going to do anything.

We shall see.

In the meantime, I have a new experiment.  I’m madly in love with a chubby Spanish pepper called pimento de padron.  I must have had them in Spain when we walked the Camino, but it was later that I started to love them so madly—they’re often served as a tapas plate in Spanish restaurants, and prepared very simply, pan grilled in olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt.

That’s it, but every bite is heaven. They are mostly not very hot, but part of the pleasure is in finding the one in ten that has a bite—it explodes in your mouth, spice and heat and salt and oil, and it makes me laugh, every time.

The thing is, we have peppers of every variety you can imagine here.  I could buy habaneros and jalapenos and Anaheims (which we call Pueblo chiles here) and cayennes; I can grow all of those and more from bedding plants sold at the grocery store.

Padrons are not common. I had to search hard to find a place that would ship me some last fall, and they were $17 a pound, plus shipping.  Worth it, but at that price, not something I’d do very often.

Naturally I decided to see if I could grow some.  Logical,  yes?

Problem #1: getting the seeds. I did find some, and ordered from three sources, to see which ones grow best.

Problem #2: peppers need a long growing season, which I do not have.  They also need a very hot bed to germinate, and my greenhouse is not heated.

This was not the easiest challenge.  I bought some heated mats, but they said they kept the temperatures of the soil about 10-15 degrees higher than the room. Not really enough.  I fretted and considered one solution after another.  I bought a space heater, but when it arrived I realized that even if I hung it from the rafters of the greenhouse (not ideal), I’d worry about it melting the walls.  I put it aside for my real greenhouse (which I vow to you I will have by this summer’s end) and went back to brainstorming and combing the web.

Turns out, many people use jugs of water, painted black, but I didn’t have time for that. Another solution is oil heaters, which I happened to have in the basement. I lugged it outside, but it was too tall for the spot it needed to go, and the slope was too much for it to stay stable—another bust.

I finally decided that maybe I was putting too much effort into what is, after all, an experiment with seeds, a little hobby play.  Keep things in perspective, I said. Let’s just see what happens.

I planted the seeds, along with some celery.  One of the leaflets in the padron seeds suggested putting a ¼ inch of water in the bottom of the trays to what will be padron peppershelp conduct heat, so I did. I also made a special trip to Lowe’s to find seedling greenhouse covers, to help keep the heat and water in.  I tucked some potato starts in a black potato bag and put it on the south end, by the tables, hoping it would hold and conduct heat, too.

Then I closed everything up and waited for the storm. (Oh, I didn’t mention that? Yes, a storm came through over the weekend and dropped the temperatures to below freezing.)  The cats slithered in below the plastic and slept in there, so I figured it had to be sort of warm.

By the time the storm passed, I’d stealed myself to find everything inside frozen—but when I opened the window flap to peek in, a rush of warm—not hot, but definitely warm—air poofed out.  Everything was fine!

Nothing is sprouting yet, but I’ll keep you posted.


A Memory of Potato Salad

I am making potato salad this morning, from a cookbook that is so tattered and well-used that I have to rubberband it together to keep all the pages in.  The cookbook is one I’ve mentioned here before, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, given to me by my grandmother when I married (my now-ex) thirty years ago.  Her handwriting on the fly leaf is fading, but visible, and I feel her with me when I cook.

In fact, this morning as I assemble the ingredients for what really is one of the BEST potato salads of all time, I’m suddenly and inexplicable transported to a day that must well over a decade ago.  My grandmother and my mother-in-law, whom we all called Mama sat in my blue-painted dining room together. They had not had much time to chat before, though I knew how alike they were—both devoted to God, both beauties. That afternoon, they were both quite well-dressed in the way of Southern Women, wearing skirts and good jewelry, their hair nicely done.  One white, one black, both of them exquisitely beautiful, even at their advanced ages.  They sat spoiling Sasha the terrible terrier who charmed every old woman in that room and then spent the evening farting pungently and snoring in pure happiness from all the tidbits they fed her.

Why do I remember that day, in particular? I must have made this potato salad fifty times, a hundred.  But this is the day that rises up, whole and shimmering. The sun shone through the lace curtains and music was playing from the kitchen and I was making potato salad with Fern, Mama’s sister. (My memory stutters suddenly—was it Fern? Or Vivian? Which sisters came with her? I narrow in on that kitchen I so loved, with two windows, and that day sun was shining through the elm leaves. Fern, so tidy and smaller than the others. Yes, that’s who it was.  She taught me to how to boil the potatoes whole, then let them cool so the peeling is easier.

I don’t remember the reason for the gathering—was it an anniversary? Someone’s birthday? Why did Mama and her sister come all the way to Colorado? It was the only time they made the trip. The reason escapes me.  I don’t remember who else was there.  Only Mama and my grandmother and Sasha and Fern.

I see their laughing faces.  I see Sasha begging with her fu Manchu beard and bright eyes—a dog who lived sixteen years and it wasn’t quite enough still.  I have the sense that I knew my marriage was doomed already, that there had already been a lot of trouble, but my husband was there, too, barbequing maybe.  Almost certainly in charge of the music.

Today, my potatoes are ready and I set them in the sink and run cold water over them.  The potato salad today is for my nephew, home for a couple of weeks after joining the Navy.  I wonder how it will all look to him now, after eight months away.  My parents will be there, and I’ll bring my granddaughter back home with me, to sleep over so her parents can go to the fair.  Will I remember this day, a decade from now when I make this recipe?

Who knows? Not me.  What I do know is that the potato salad is delicious, that Mama and Grandma would be thrilled with my grandmotherness—and my darling Amara– now, and that Fern would be pleased to know that I remember her showing me that trick.  Recipes are tradition and love and the very ordinariness of repetition.

I hope you’re cooking—or eating–something today that makes you remember people you love.

Do you have a dish that conjures up memories of people you love, or a day you like to remember? 

The simple pleasure of tea

A reader wrote to me recently with these comments:

I just finished another of your books and I really enjoy them……In your stories the women drink a variety of teas…..I’d like to find a good breakfast tea to replace coffee in the morning, is there one that you would recommend? So many choices on the shelves its confusing……

Although I didn’t realize the characters in my novels drink a lot of tea, it really is not surprising, since I am a serious tea drinker. Always have been. When the Englishman entered my life, that particular habit found a cozy spot and settled in for good.  We always drink tea first thing in the morning, and when together mid-afternoon will often indulge another.  It’s easy and comforting and reviving. If you, like the reader above, are overwhelmed when it comes to shopping for and preparing a good cup of tea, I am sharing the advice I sent in reply. Perhaps you’ll find it handy.

Dear Reader:

To replace coffee, the main thing to remember is that you want black tea. Not green or anything else.  And most coffee drinkers prefer to start with something not flavored, so go with straight black tea.

My #1 favorite breakfast tea is PG Tips, but you have to get the kind that is imported from England (the “English” tea sold in the US is made with different parts of the tea leaves and is not as flavorful). Unless you’re just insanely in love with tea, that’s a bit expensive.  Because Christopher Robin is British and must begin his day with a classic cup (two sugars and milk), we have his mother send boxes of it.  I also buy it at the English store (most towns have one).  Again, pretty expensive, but fun to try maybe.

To get started in the US, I’d suggest trying Twining’s English and Irish breakfast teas.  The trick is to get the water boiling and pour it over the teabag as soon as it stops boiling, then let it steep for a full five minutes.  The color is good after 1 minute, but the flavor is not really developed until five minutes.  Also important: don’t put cream in tea, only milk.  Add sugar as desired.
Do not let my beloved hear me say this, but I also think just plain Lipton’s is very good. It was what we drank as children and I still find it very good if the water is hot enough.  (The temperature of the water is what makes having a good cup in US restaurants so difficult. The water is almost never hot enough.)

Those are the best black teas.

For some other great things to try, here are a few:

Constant Comment, by Bigelow, the classic orange flavored tea.  Also try their Lemon Lift and Mint teas.

If you ever see Twining’s Blackberry tea for sale, grab it.  It’s one of the seasonal releases, and it’s absolutely delicious.

Caffeine free:
Celestial Seasonings have many different kinds.  Peppermint is nice after dinner.  I like Sleepytime when I’m having trouble sleeping.  Mandarin Orange Spice is nice, too.  You might choose a box of mixed flavors and see what you like.

One of the best teas in the world to me is Good Earth caffeine-free blend.  It’s strong and sweet without sugar, and has no caffeine, so I can drink it all morning while I’m writing.  It smells wonderful, too!

Now I’m off to put the kettle on. There’s a rain storm bearing down over the mountains and a nice cup of tea sounds like just the thing.  Do you have other favorite teas to recommend?  I know there are readers here who, like me, have to have the English blend. Raise your hands and be counted.

Potato Leek Soup

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a recipe here.  I made this over the weekend, in two steps. The first night, it was basic Potato Leek Soup, and frankly, a little bland.   The next night, I tried to make it a little more interesting, and it was delicious.   I’ll save you the boring part and get right to the better version.

Olive oil
2 large leeks, rinsed thoroughly and sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 shallots, diced
4-5 cups chicken broth
5 fist sized red potatoes, peeled and roughly cubed
20 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dry mustard or 1 T Dijon mustard
1 tsp salt (or more)
1-2 cups milk (I like non-fat, but cream is traditional)

To top:

6 slices of crisp bacon, crumbled
3-4 green onions, washed and sliced thinly

Cover the bottom of a heavy, large pot with olive oil, heat to medium hot.  Add leeks, garlic, and shallots, stir until tender.  Add broth and potatoes and spices, and let simmer until potatoes are tender.  Carefully pour mixture into a blender and puree until smooth, pour back into the pan and test for seasoning.  (It will often need salt at this point, perhaps another bit of mustard.)   Add milk or cream until the soup is the consistency you like, and let heat, but do not boil.  Put a pat of butter in each bowl and add soup, then top with bacon and green onions.

Lasagna so great you’ll never even notice that it’s really good for you

I was bragging about this recipe online, and someone asked for the recipe, so here it is. It is strongly-flavored, highly nutritious and delicious vegetarian lasagna.  Adapted in part from a recipe I found in Shape magazine a couple of years ago.  The sauce recipe is one I’ve been working with a long time; pretty basic, but delicious.  This version has about 70 percent less fat than an ordinary lasagna.  It freezes beautifully.

Spinach, Goat Cheese, and Sun-dried tomato Lasagna

12 0z crumbled goat cheese

1 T fresh thyme

1 T fresh basil

1 tsp dried oregano

2 garlic cloves, minced

Pasta sauce (use 2 jars prepared, or use recipe, below)

1 pound whole wheat lasagna noodles (I love Barilla)

1 10 oz package frozen spinach or 4 cups fresh

1 10 oz package frozen collard greens or 4 cups fresh

1 cup roasted peppers, sliced (jarred are fine)

1 cups firmly packed julienne-cut sun-dried tomatoes

1/2 cup Parmesan
If desired, prepare pasta sauce (below), let simmer for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375.

Mix goat cheese, thyme, basil, and garlic in a medium bowl.

Spread pasta sauce on the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish or pan. Add one layer of cooked noodles.  Cover with thin layer of sauce, then a layer each of spinach and collards.  Arrange a layer of red peppers and tomatoes, then drop goat cheese over the vegetables.  Repeat.  Finish with a final layer of pasta and sauce.  Sprinkle Parmesan on top.

Bake 40 minutes or until bubbly around the edges.

Red Pasta Sauce, vegetarian

4 T olive oil

2 onions, diced

8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/2 cup fresh basil

1 cup good quality red wine

Salt and pepper

1 28-oz can crushed or diced tomatoes (someone turned me on to the Muir Glen brand awhile ago and I’ve never looked back)

1 cup firmly packed julliene-cut sun-dried tomatoes.

Saute onions in olive oil over medium low heat until tender.  Add garlic and basil and stir for another 5 minutes.  Add wine.  Reduce by half. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, and simmer for at least 15 minutes.  It will be even better if you reduce it more.

Let me know if you try it and agree that it’s amazing.  Or not! 🙂

Autumn beauty: roasted vegetable stock

Roasted veggies 

Obviously, the girls in the basement (my muses) have been taking some pleasure in shooting photographs of everything around us, mostly the reds and yellows of the season.   This was an image that let me play for a solid half hour.   For a writer, photos provide a garden full of color for the off-season, no words required.

I am also on a cooking streak.  Last winter, I spent endless hours perfecting a chicken stock I can make and save easily.  This year, I seem to be wanting the Ultimate Vegetable Stock.  Today, I have a lot of necessary but tedious work to do, and it is a cloudy day, promising snow.  To feel better about the boring tasks awaiting me,  I gave myself permission to cook while I work.  This morning I'm adapting a recipe from the How to Cook Everything Vegetarian Cookbook.

Roasted Vegetable Stock

In the oven at the moment are these vegetables, filling house with a desperately heavenly aroma:  

1 large russet potato, washed and cut into cubes
1 large yam, also washed and cubed (don't bother to peel anything–there are lots of nutrients in the skins)
1 head of garlic, with the top lopped off
Two handfuls of baby carrots (mainly because that is what I found in the crisper)
1 large sweet onion, cut into eighths (I do peel onions, don't ask me why)
7 or 8 baby orange, red and yellow sweet peppers
1 small zucchini, cut into eighths

If you like you can mushrooms, parsely, winter squashes (I meant to add butternut squash, but forgot).

They're now roasting for about an hour, then they all go into the crockpot with:

A handful of celery tops saved for stocks
10-15 peppercorns
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
A couple of sprigs fresh thyme and sage leaves
Water to cover.

Cook for most of the afternoon.  Freeze into ice cubes for easy use later.

Anyone else have a great vegetable stock recipe to share?  I have a vegetarian coming home at Christmas.