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.

And now for something refreshing: Ian’s one ingredient ice cream

My son Ian has a quirky approach to the world. When he twittered that he’d created the best dessert in the world (or words to that effect), I tweeted that I wanted the recipe. This is what I got. Enjoy!


STEP ONE: cut up some bananas and freeze them. Three regular bananas will make enough for two people. Freezing takes about two hours. Take the peel off, because otherwise it will be too hard to remove later.

STEP TWO: put the frozen bananas in your blender or food processor. Blend them up. At first, it won’t look like anything, but just keep doing it. Soon, it will suddenly turn into the creamy cold texture you want. Now stop. Don’t over blend it.

THAT IS ALL: you can eat right away! It will have the texture of soft serve ice cream. OR: you can put it back in the freezer and let it freeze more, if it’s gotten too melty or you don’t like soft serve. Then it will be more like regular ice cream. Both ways are good! It’s sweet and cold and good.

OPTIONAL: add a scoop of peanut butter during blending to make it even better. You could probably also experiment with almond butter. I find this makes for a good texture, but a second ingredient is entirely OPTIONAL because this is one ingredient ice cream.

THIS RECIPE DOES NOT HAVE OR NEED: Any added sugar; milk; any animal products at all; ice; any ingredients that can’t be purchased at any grocery store in the land for less than a dollar. You can serve this to tubby children or to lean vegan gluten free athletes: they will all love it. The children may become less tubby, however, so be warned.

YOU WILL LIKE IAN’S ONE INGREDIENT ICE CREAM IF: you like sweet cold treats.

NUMBER OF DAYS IN A ROW YOU COULD EAT THIS WITHOUT GETTING FAT: as many as you want. It’s just bananas!

BEST HIP SLANG SYNONYM FOR “CRAZY” TO DESCRIBE HOW GOOD THIS IS: “bananas,” as in, “It’s bananas how good IAN’S one ingredient ice cream is.”

WILL IAN’S ONE INGREDIENT ICE CREAM CONTRIBUTE TO METABOLIC SYNDROME OR DIABETES? No, it is just a couple of bananas and some optional peanut butter.


HOW DOES THIS WORK? I don’t know. I thought it might be the fat content in bananas, but I looked it up and bananas have less than one half gram of fat each in them, so that doesn’t seem right. Ask Alton Brown if you really care! I do not understand the science of my invention; I am simply its sole and exclusive inventor (Ian’s One Ingredient Ice Cream is patent pending).

DOES THIS JUST TASTE LIKE BANANA PUREE? No, it doesn’t, and I don’t know why not. It really does seem like this should taste like baby food but it does not. It tastes like ice cream. It’s very sweet. I made three bananas’ worth and almost couldn’t finish it because it felt like eating candy. Then I remembered that Ian’s One Ingredient Ice Cream has no added sugar, so I ate it all up. The next morning, I weighed in at my lowest weight in years. True story.

ANY OTHER TIPS? The bananas you use should be ripe. In fact, a little bit overripe is fine and possibly even better. But definitely not green; I don’t think that will blend properly. If you use under-ripe bananas and do not like the results, that is not the fault of Ian or his recipe for One Ingredient Ice Cream.

WOULD THIS BE GOOD TO SERVE IN HOSPITALS? Yes. Bananas do not upset the stomach, and are easy to digest; plus, hospital patients are sad and need sweet desserts to cheer them up. If you are a hospital administrator interested in licensing Ian’s One Ingredient Ice Cream for deployment en masse, please contact Ian Samuel ( for a term sheet.



This morning I was scouring the internet for some new ideas for dishes to experiment with. There are a couple of events coming up and I’ll bring a dish, so it would be fun to try some new things.  Saveur always offers something fantastic, and I spent easily an hour wandering through their catalogue of recipes.  I want to try the Herbed Tomato Tart, but perhaps not until I can buy tomatoes for less than $4 a pound.  Instead, pears are readily available and easy, so maybe this Pear and Walnut Tart for one event, and this Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage for the vegetarian dish.  I haven’t tried gnocchi before, though I love to eat it. I wonder if it’s hard.

At one time, that would have stopped me. I would have gone on to try something a little less daunting. These days, I’ve cooked enough bad dishes that if I don’t successfully carry one off, it’s not some overwhelming disaster, but an opportunity to learn something new.  Anyone have tips for cooking gnocchi?

Also: I love this photograph, which is taken by Todd Sullivan, for Saveur Magazine. (It’s time for a new camera and the next step in lessons.  I have a lot of photos of gardens and foods coming up, and it would be fun to get a bit better at it.)  In this photo, the food looks easy and interesting and nourishing, but it’s the light that catches me, the quiet spirit of what feels like it would be a hearty simple meal.  Just off screen, I imagine, is a decanter of some pleasant table wine and a crusty loaf of bread.  A window overlooking a wild kitchen garden, dormant at the moment, but fecund in summer. What do you see?

An organic farm…in my backyard!

Just before Christmas, CR surprised me by bringing in a landscape architect to make our yard over into a beautiful urban farm. Perhaps he wants more fresh potatoes like the ones I grew in a black bag last summer. Or maybe he is tired of me complaining about the price of organic produce. Whatever it is, I am thrilled.

The trick is to use vegetables and fruit trees, along with ornamentals, to create a pleasing setting for a backyard barbecue, but also use the land and water productively.   (You may have heard me rant before about watering grass in Colorado, which is an exercise in waste.) The first draft is here, and I am SO excited. I thought you might want to follow along with me on this journey.   This is the draft.

There are many challenges to growing a hearty garden in Colorado. For one thing, the season is short–Zone 4 where we are, thought some parts of the city are Zone 5.  For another, we sit at just over 7000 feet, which means a lot less oxygen and much harsher sunlight.  To maximize my success, I’m starting plants indoors, in waves.  Last week, I attended a class on starting seeds with grow lights, and have stocked up on materials.   I can begin March 1. (Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes!!)

What a Christmas present, huh?

Do you have a garden? What are the challenges where you are, and what crops to you most like to grow?

Ramona’s Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread

(A recipe from How to Bake a Perfect Life. )

These are actual texts from my sister a few days ago:

Feb 5, 2011 7:13 pm
Making sunshine fruit and honey bread 🙂

Feb 6, 2011 12:36 pm
OMG OMG OMG. That bread is soooooo good I could prolly eat the whole thing!!!

Feb. 7, 2011 12:26 pm
I can’t stop eating this bread ! I feel like the guy in the window in Chocolat. LOL


I can’t promise you will like it as much as she does, but it’s one of my favorites, too.  It would be an excellent offering at a book club.

Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread

Sometimes a recipe is born from a moment, and this is the recipe that I came up with after my first night with Jonah. Filled with light and juice and tenderness, it is one of my favorite things. Try it with a cup of sweet chai.

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup raw sugar
½ cup dark honey
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp orange extract
2 tsp grated orange zest
2 eggs
1 cup raspberries, whole
1/3 cup slivered, toasted almonds

Juice of one orange, mixed with enough powdered sugar to make a thin glaze

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9 x5 inch loaf pan

Whisk together dry ingredients. Cream butter, honey, and extracts and zest. Add eggs one at a time. Mix in the dry ingredients just until moist, then gently, gently fold in the raspberries and toasted almonds.

Bake for 55-60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool for 20 minutes, then tip bread out to a wire rack and cool thoroughly, then drizzle the top lightly with glaze.

The wonders of British food

The Brits get a bad name over food, but I’m here to say there is a lot that’s lovely about British cooking. Saveur Magazine has a feature
today on their website about British Pub Food.  I receive their emails and clicked right through to find this lovely menu:

Welsh Rabbit, which I thought for years was Rarebit, no idea why, and is only cheese and toast.  How simple and lovely is that?

Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, served bloody rare, which I loathe.  Not a fan of roast beef, though I love the gravy, and that gravy is a wonder with Yorkshire puddings.

Beef and Guinness pie . I once made this recipe, or one quite similar and forgot that I had it in the oven (before the crust was on it). It cooked at 300 for a couple of hours and the flavors were as deep and rich as some precious old wine.  Highly recommended.

Banoffee Pie, which I have talked about here before.  It’s an English classic, made with digestive biscuits, bananas, caramel and whipped cream.  CR’s mother served it at a holiday meal and I licked the spoon and practically my plate, so she sent me home with tins of caramel, which are not sold here.  It is unbelievably sweet, but the cream and the bananas and the digestives give it texture and depth, so it’s not as horrifying as you might imagine. (Go on, try it, you know you want to!)

What’s funny is that my traditionalist younger son, also a very picky eater, fell madly in love with Banoffee pie the first time I made it for a Christmas meal and he begs for it at every opportunity since.  Though CR’s mother sends those tins of caramel, I don’t always have a can when I need it.  This recipe has a work around that makes the caramel with condensed milk and brown sugar. (And I recently discovered you can buy cans of dulce de leche in the Mexican food aisle at the grocery store, so I am saved, anyway.)

But my favorite thing about British food: cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese.  Check out these 9 artisan cheeses. But don’t forget Stilton or Wensleydale with cranberries or mangos or some other something.  They’re all great.

What foreign foods do you love? Have you even fallen in love with something in a far away land?

Food and love and important things like that

One of the ways writers get their books out these days is to guest blog everywhere.  It’s actually fairly productive, but it leaves the local blog sadly neglected.   As I said before, I will be posting at Lipstick Chronicles twice a month starting in February, and you can catch me there talking about food and women’s fiction and…well, you know, the whole catastrophe.

In the meantime, this is a blog I posted there that I think many of you might enjoy

“A little while back, when I first blogged here at Lipstick Chronicles, a couple of people mentioned writer MFK Fisher.  I had never read her, but always hungry for food writers, I googled her and started reading.  Two hours later, I ordered four of her books from Amazon, including the hefty anniversary edition of The Art of Eating.

When the books arrived, I curled up in my chair with two kittens and a class of wine and cracked open Art, and I’ve been dipping into every day or two ever since, doling out the pages like some rare, complex cheese.   Sometimes, I cannot stop reading as fast as I’d like, carried along by the drama of her narrative as surely as if I’m lost in a novel.  She led an unusual and adventurous life, and was a highly celebrated woman writer during at time when that was not at all common or easy. I feel as I did when I first read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—how is it possible I missed this work until now?

All things in their proper time.  Thanks to some of you here, I have found a new favorite in Fisher.

For those who are not familiar with her work, she was a food writer who predates Julia Child by some decades.  She wrote in the thirties and forties and fifties, writing with good humor and intelligence and wit.

In The Gastronomical Me, she writes in her foreword:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?


Feasting and friendship in New Mexico

It is a lusciously gloomy morning here in Colorado, and despite the long list of tasks that are calling me (the tamales, the wrapping of gifts, walking the dog), I find myself drawn here, to write.  The subject almost doesn’t matter—the desire is simply to be here and put some words on the page, capture something.

Last week, my friend Heather and I went to Chimayo. It’s a tiny strip of settlement along a two lane highway leading into the mountains from Espanola. You may remember the mention of these places from The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and I will say that it was oddly disorienting to see again all the places that inspired the book—the elaborate descansos, some now lovingly decorated for Christmas, the arroyo that saved Elena from bleeding to death; the wide open field behind the Santuario where I imagined her companions bidding her farewell.   It was like visiting another part of my life, a me I once was.

Heather and I were there to make vision boards, which is simply a poster-sized collection of words and images to represent goals and desires for the coming year. We wanted someplace quiet—and got it.  The Rancho de Chimayo hacienda is an old inn, with the rooms built around an internal courtyard in traditional hacienda style. A friendly white cat with black patches on her ears and paws visited us.  We had no television. No radio.  And horror of horrors: my iPhone did not work. No texts. No phone calls. No compulsive checking of emails every ten minutes.  It was wildly uncomfortable at first, and then we both grew into the quiet.

The first night, the only restaurants in town were already closed and the B&B had nothing, so we traveled back down the road to a convenience store where two tall blonds stood out like bright yellow lights among the small dark men.  Sometimes I’ve felt slightly afraid in Espanola, but not that night. The clerk was friendly, and one of his customers joked with us about our purchases—bottles of water and a can of prepared tuna salad and guacamole chips.   I had tucked away some good cheese and bottles of beer and Izze sodas for the trip, so we had those, too, and it was a decent supper. We cut out photos and started arranging our vision boards in the utter silence, and went to bed early.

In the morning, we both we ready to leap for more civilization. Breakfasts both mornings were very good, carried to our room on trays, with tiny oatmeal muffins and juice and pretty fruit the first day, a giant blueberry muffin and good yogurt the next.

That first morning visited the Santuario, which is one of only a handful of pilgrimage sites in North America. (You can read the story here.) It was only a few hundred yards up the road, and there we mulled spiritual things. I found small gifts for my Catholic son and friends who would appreciate the holy dirt. I shot photos and then spent a long quiet time in the chapel.   I found Heather, who is the queen of animal charmers (and believe me, that takes some doing in my world) making friends with a dog and a horse.

And then, like the city women we are, we bolted for Santa Fe. Heather had never been and I was delighted to show her around, thinking we could eat at my favorite diner, The Plaza.  First, we wandered around the La Fonda hotel, which is a very old, sprawling hotel with a beautiful restaurant in the middle.  Heather asked if we were eating here, and I realized I’d never tried it—I always eat elsewhere in Santa Fe.  “Another time,” I told her, and we headed for The Plaza.

To my dismay, it was closed under renovations.  Not only was I disappointed that we couldn’t eat there, but even more that the restaurant I loved would not exactly be there the next time I visit. No more the kitschy little booths, the old diner style in red and turquoise, the spirit of Route 66 lingering in the old tiles on the floor.   While I recognize things cannot always stay the same, I’m hoping that they’ll preserve the spirit of the old restaurant.

So we ended up at the La Fonda restaurant after all.  We sat by the fountain and I shot photos of the handpainted window panes thatgive the room its unique beauty. Light floods into the room. The menu had some northern New Mexico dishes, but my eye was captured by a spinach tart, puff pastry over sweet potato puree and topped with spinach and goat cheese. It is an elegantly balanced dish, and I’m sure a person who likes beets would have found even that note charming.  I left with the resolve to recreate the dish, and to have traditional northern New Mexico food at dinner.

We wandered the shops in the mild afternoon. I noticed again that Santa Fe is genuinely graying—far more people in their sixties than their twenties or thirties. I also remembered that love Santa Fe style architecture and decoration, the color and splashy details, the coexistence of buildings to earth and sky.  I should live in a Santa Fe style house someday.

Back in Chimayo, we had an indifferent meal at the local restaurant. Nothing was terrible, but nothing was particularly interesting, either.  Back in our room, we rigged up music through my iPad (and discovered we do not have the same tastes in music at all—since she likes mainly modern country and that might be the only form of music I don’t really know very well).  In the morning we made a second visit to the Santuario. I talked with the old priest, a tiny very old man with a Catalan accent, who told me he was “95 years old, soon to be 100!”   I bought Chimayo red chile, and a rosary made of turquoise and silver.

Our last meal was on our way home through Santa Fe to catch I-25, at Café Pasqual, and it was the best of the trip.  A chile relleno that might be the best I’ve ever eaten, delicate and not overwhelmingly cheesey, and a black bean and roasted corn tamale, that inspired me to give this version a try. I don’t even like black beans, and have an aversion to corn in things, and it was marvelous. We took a picture to remember the day, and drove home in a blustery day, across the vast, empty landscape with its harsh mesas and faraway mountains, talking and talking and talking and talking, which is what one does on a road trip.

It was quite fine. We agreed we will find another place for this trek next year, and make our vision boards again together.

Postscript: my vision board was not quite finished, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was waiting for.  It sat on a table in my family room for several days.  During the eclipse on the solstice, I awakened at exactly 1:48 and went outside to discover the shadowed amber moon at full eclipse.  I went inside, finished my vision board, and came back outside to see the bright white edge of blazing moon emerging from the shadows.  Magical!

Do you love Santa Fe, too, or some other place you like to go eat?  Do any of you set goals by using a vision board?

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.

Fresh local food…from my backyard

Today, I harvested two handfuls of red potatoes from a black potato sack. I’ve never grown potatoes before, afraid of them for no reason I can really pinpoint, maybe just because they grow deep in the mysterious earth and you have to dig them up.  How would I ever know when I should harvest them? What if I spent all that time growing them and they were rotten when I dug them?

But when we visited CR’s mother in the UK, she had potatoes growing in a soft-sided bag. The local garden club was having a contest and she was serenely certain to win over her neighbor Barbara (who tries not so show her aggravation with this serene certitude). Something about that little sack kindled my interest, and Gina gave me brand new bag of my own, along with a little flyer of instructions, to take back with me.  It was late to start anything by the time I returned, late June, but I found some seed potatoes and followed instructions.  They began to grow.

And grow.  Every week, I gave CR the news to give to Gina: the plants were sturdy and strong, vigorous as we all know potatoes can be.   I started too late to get much of anything, but a million strawberries and raspberries, but today it was time to harvest the potatoes.  I marched to the back of the yard where the sturdy vine was growing, and stuck my hands in the dirt.  Nothing.  And then only a potato the size of a quarter.

Disappointment tugged my chest.  I picked up the bag and upended it. And there, in the bottom of the bag were the potatoes.  Tiny ones and medium size, and the size I would choose at the store.  It made me laugh to see them all, so plain and vigorous and unmarred, their thin skins a color of pinkish red that I might have thought was dye if I spied it in the grocery store.

Fresh, local, organic.  As fresh as you can get, from the ground to my table in less that twelve hours. We ate them with butter and salt, and they were as sweet and tender and perfect as any potato I’ve ever eaten.  Next year, I’ll be planting more.  Gina says they really should go in at Easter.

Mmm… garden.

Do you like to garden? What are your favorite food crops?