homecoming

sometimes when i sit down to write in this space, i wonder forward about whether and how my words will crystallize this particular time in my life. when i read them back to myself at some indistinct point in the future, what will they help me remember?

old passages i’ve written conjure up memories of a particular summer sweetness, or a dull and heavy dread, an uncertain waiting, a sharp vibrancy. and i am grateful for that. this course i’m traveling has felt long and varied, deep and complex, and i am glad to have records of it here.

i think of this now, because i have more to write. i have closed a stressful, demanding, exhilarating year as a teacher and grad school student. i have returned from two weeks walking so many unnamed roads and riding so many crowded buses and trains through europe. and i have come home to a house that is losing its sense of comfort and warmth.

during my travels, i came across this quote by maya angelou: “i long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever i find myself.” i love it. but i also wish, sometimes, that it wasn’t true. sometimes i want home to really be somewhere—or someone—outside of myself. for the homecoming to be a clicking into place, a slipping on of something soft, a true return. for now it’s just me; i am the keeper of my history, my comforts, my sense of place.

but i do my best. when i came back from my trip, i made sure to cook again. often, the kitchen—my kitchen—is where i feel most like myself. frantic trains of thought dissolve, self-doubt is replaced with self-assuredness, and i let myself be fully absorbed in what happens before me. the easy slice of the knife through juicy, meaty, ripe tomatoes; the sizzle and crisp of fat cheese slices on a hot pan; the smell of bread toasting behind me; the dry shake of garlic salt and fresh pepper sprinkled over it all. i ate this lazy summer meal every day my first week back, trying to regain my sense of land and ground. i hope embedded in this stack of ingredients—and this string of words—i’ll remember this odd, open-handed, wandering time of mine.

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Fried Provolone and Tomato Sandwich
Adapted from Food52
Makes 2 open-faced sandwiches 

Two 
¼-inch slices provolone cheese
1 
Tablespoon mayonnaise, plus more as needed
Two ½-inch thick slices sturdy, country-style bread
1
 medium-sized ripe tomato, preferably heirloom
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

  1. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully add the slices of provolone and let them fry until crusty and golden on the outside but still gooey in the center, about 2 to 3 minutes total, carefully flipping them halfway through with a pair of tongs. Once they’re done, carefully remove cheese slices from the pan, allowing any excess oil to drip back into the pan, and blot gently on a paper towel.
  2. Spread the mayonnaise evenly across the slices of bread, adding more as desired. Core the tomato and cut it into 4 slices. Place the fried cheese on the bread, layer 2 tomato slices on each piece of bread, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
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cake for a summer morning

summer is for unadorned pleasures: an evening stroll without a jacket, sweet cherries straight out of the bowl, bare feet in the grass… a single slice of butter cake to go with the morning sunlight.

…perhaps it’s just me that likes to have cake for breakfast, but seeing this peculiarity resurface is fine by me. this is me feeling like myself again.

i have, as i mentioned, been reading – voraciously now, for i think it may become a favorite – atonement. i am also – as is my other little habit – making my way through a second book, the help by kathryn stockett, which is set in the south in the 1960s. at the narrator’s first mention of caramel cake, my mind was swinging towards a recipe i remembered seeing once on the blog smitten kitchen. suddenly i needed to bake a cake. (which, by the way, is just the kind of whim i am apt to indulge in.) so in between chapters about minny and aibileen, i was setting eggs out on the counter, measuring buttermilk into a cup, and twisting up the knob on our old gas oven – also, i think, from the 1960s.

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summer fare is best left simple, though. as much as i love caramel and the idea of the stuff sliding down a cake in curtains of amber sheen, it just isn’t the season to be standing over a bubbling pot with a candy thermometer in hand. so for the golden round that was rising and baking in the oven, i had a vision of sliced strawberries on a small pillow of cream.

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simple as it was, this cake astounded me. its texture was just what i was dreaming of: soft as air and just moist enough to hold its crumb and slice beautifully. perfectly sweet and warmed through with the aroma of butter. i’m not sure i’ll need to try another yellow cake recipe again.

i will find reasons to bake this one again, and dream of different ways to dress it up, and get around to that originally-intended caramel glaze, i’m sure. but for these summer mornings, when i am lucky enough to linger as long as i like at the seat by the window, all i need is this one and an open book.

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Softest Butter Cake
recipe for caramel cake, repurposed, Gourmet, January 2008
found via smitten kitchen
Makes one 9-inch round cake

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring)
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line with parchment paper; then butter parchment. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  2. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, and then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture may look curdled). Add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  3. Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, and then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment; then cool completely, about 1 hour.

barefoot

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summer is settling its big bottom down and making itself comfortable.

the days are hot, and so often i have the urge to do nothing but twist up my hair in a knot, lie back, and listen to the air conditioning hum and whir.

these are the days when evenings are best spent walking off the day, or climbing stairs to stare at your city from a rooftop. you’re free to roll down the windows in the middle of the night and feel not a single chill the whole ride home. and when the next day comes: lap up the warm morning light like syrup.

i just got myself a rather large tv with some rather fascinating dv-r abilities, but it’s nice to know that it’s still good music that has the power to kick me up and awake. this song may be called “barefoot winter waltz,” but i’ll dub it a summer song anyway.

[the first one here, by the early hours]

moregon

(yeah, i really just did that.)


– silver falls state park –

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oh oregon

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i think i might be a farmgirl at heart.

all right, so i arrived in 3-inch heels that kept poking into the dirt whenever i stood still for too long… and we got teased for locking our car behind us (“where are you guys from?” “los angeles.” “ohhh.”) but you know, on the inside. i’m all country.


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the wedding was a sweet little ceremony in front of the house, complete with a princess bride reference and a dog named frodo as the ring-bearer.


then there was a little mingling here and there under a great big tree.

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everything took place under the great big tree. i love great big trees.

the groom was the oldest son of one of my dad’s two old grad school buddies (diagram needed?), so the wedding brought the trio back together again.

i don’t think i’ve ever seen my father so giddy. these were the guys who – when my dad first arrived in missouri, fresh off his flight from a faraway country – became his friends. and taught him inappropriate words in english. i overheard tales of halloween pranks and hallway ice fights, and it’s doing strange things to my idea of dad.

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good humor

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heehee! more ice cream-related nostalgia.

the porch swing

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i mentioned earlier that i had slipped some of that strawberry lemonade into something boozy. that’s it up there, a drink called the porch swing. it’s a swill of equal parts gin and pimm’s no. 1 cup, plus the lemonade and a splash of 7 up – and it’s mighty delicious. i’m so glad it actually tastes good, too, because i had already loved it terribly for its name alone. i’m a sucker for things like that.

i have to tell you, i’m pretty much a pansy when it comes to alcohol. my friends make fun of me because, like a typical girl, i like all the stuff that tastes like juice. the list is short: moscato d’asti, lindeman’s framboise, pear cider, malibu and coke, sangria. every once in a while, though, i can handle something stronger… it just has to go down easy. so, um, long island iced teas and shots of soco and lime. let’s not get into what those extremes say about me.

this drink would fall into the latter category. it’s a drink that’s got some muscle, but without that unpleasant burn or the aroma of sharpie. this recipe calls specifically for hendrick’s gin, which apparently is just about the most expensive gin they have at bevmo


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…and pimm’s no. 1 cup, which was new to me. it’s a syrupy brown liqueur the color of tea that is supposed to have citrus and spice flavors. it is bri-ish. (say that with an accent. my friends do it all the time.)

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the result is quite lovely. it’s fresh and clean tasting with a pretty, floral flavor (perhaps because of that pricey gin, which is “infused with rose petal,” among other things). i served it at the cocktail party over the weekend, and it paired so well with the summer evening and its slow breezes.

…i’m adding it to the list.

note: i might consider making it with strawberry lemonade from now on. i’m fairly certain it tasted prettier that way.


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Porch Swing
{for a crowd}
Quantities multiplied from this single-serving recipe
Makes about 7 cups

1 ½ cups Hendrick’s Gin
1 ½ cups Pimm’s
No. 1 Cup
4 cups lemonade (1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, ½ cup sugar, and 2 ½ cups water) or
strawberry lemonade

Combine all ingredients in a pitcher and stir. Pour by the glass, adding ice and a splash of 7-Up to each just before serving.

roasted roma tomatoes

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i had friends over this past weekend for a quiet little cocktail party. some brought fresh mint to muddle into mojitos and whole peaches to slice and plunk into the blender, i made lots of little appetizers and miniature desserts, and it was a grand time. i don’t live in the best neighborhood – think bars on windows and sirens at night – but i tell you, twilight and christmas lights can make just about any venue charming.


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i brought out one of my favorite recipes to headline the menu: roasted roma tomatoes on toast. it is a recipe that i’ve got bookmarked in an old issue of sunset, glossy pages wrinkly from spills, i’m sure, and probably still wedged into the bookshelf at home between some jane austen books and even older issues of national geographic. but since i don’t live at home anymore, i did some figurative bookshelf browsing and found the recipe online. it is here.


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i first came across it during my balsamic vinegar kick. i used to go through these phases when i’d browse through recipes or restaurant menus with certain choice ingredients on my radar. i had a period when i loved roasted red bell peppers in just about everything, another when i had my eyes bright and open for anything with goat cheese, other times for caramelized onions, grilled sourdough bread, roasted garlic… come to think of it, all those things would make a really good panini right now.

anyway. roasted roma tomatoes.

in the recipe, the tomatoes get halved and roasted for a little over an hour in the oven, basted all the while in a sauce made of balsamic vinegar, finely chopped onion, brown sugar, and just a bit of olive oil.

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at the end, the tomatoes get kind of melty – soft and rich with the caramelized flavor. it’s the perfect topping to go with a smear of creamy goat cheese on some crispy toasted baguette.

we moved the party in by the end of the night, and as we were sitting in the living room, i heard a crunch and an “mmmm” behind me. one of my friends had gone into the kitchen for a second round, it turns out. that noise is just about the best sign of gastronomic approval, i think.


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Roasted Roma Tomatoes on Toast
Adapted from this recipe {Sunset, June 2003}
Makes 8 appetizer, 4 main-dish servings

8 Roma tomatoes (equal size, 1 ½ lb. total), rinsed and cored
½ onion (about 4 oz.), peeled and finely chopped
¾ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Goat cheese (about 5 oz.)
Baguette, sliced crosswise, brushed with olive oil, and toasted
Salt

1. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise. Lay halves cut side up in a single layer in an 8- by 12-inch oval or rectangular casserole (rim should be at least ½ in. higher than tomatoes).
2. In a 1 ½- to 2-quart pan, combine onion, vinegar, sugar, and
olive oil. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often. Pour over tomatoes.
3. Roast in a 400° oven (convection not recommended) until tomatoes are dark brown and sauce is browned and thickened (bubbles will be large and shiny), about 1 ¼ hours; baste tomatoes with sauce and onions about every 15 minutes at first, then more frequently as mixture begins to thicken, to avoid scorching. Use hot, warm, or at room temperature.
4. Spread goat cheese equally on oiled sides of the olive-oil toast slices. Spoon tomatoes and juices equally onto toast slices. Add salt to taste.

sweetness

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i think summer has come around to be my favorite season again.

i loved it as a kid, of course, because it meant three months of freedom and sunshine. some of my brightest moments from kidhood were summer afternoons with my best friend: we could fill an entire day with sewing clothes for our stuffed animals, scooping a ridiculous amount of ice cream into the blender to make milkshakes, inventing new hairstyles, watching horrible daytime tv, taking turns listening to simon and garfunkel on my walkman…

but some time in college, i came to dread summer. once late may rolled around, i had to confront the fact that i had lost touch with my old friends, and all my new ones would be at home for the break. instead of freedom, summer came to mean empty days in an un-air conditioned house, halfheartedly reading a book or watching reruns of trading spaces, if i was lucky. i recall one year i decided to strip all the wallpaper from my bedroom – using a spray bottle of vinegar and a scraper – and repaint the walls, just so i could have something to do. i learned a very handy home improvement technique, yes, and ended up with a very pretty blue bedroom, but i will also forever have mixed feelings towards the scent of hot vinegar.

these post-college years, i believe, have given summer back to me as my enchanted season. despite working at a school, i don’t have any extra time off, so it’s not about the leisure these days. it’s something else. there’s something to the sweetness of the air in the evening, and how the good weather changes everything. i can have the most trying, confusing day and still come home and sit outside in the light of dusk with a cold drink and my thoughts. that just couldn’t happen on a winter night. i suppose that’s what it is: summer offers some softness, some forgiveness at the end of every day. some space. and – whether i use that space to breathe and quietly try to regain my sanity, or to look up from a relaxed dinner with friends for a moment to notice the twinkly lights – it promises to be there.

strawberry lemonade

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maybe it’s bad form to spend my precious time here complaining about the weather… but it is HOT. i don’t know what the temperatures have been lately, but i would venture a guess that it’s around one hundred and shrivel degrees farenheit. i don’t even know if it’s a dry heat or a humid one; i just know every time i go outside in the afternoon i regret my decision.

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so i spent a little spot of last weekend mashing ripe strawberries and reaming juice out of lemons and limes (using a fork, ’cause it’s what i got) to make some strawberry lemonade, to see if it would help. i’ve been revisiting the pitcher of it in the fridge throughout the week: pouring a glassful over ice, or splashing in some fizzy soda, and even mixing it into a delicious and boozy drink (which i’ll be telling you about soon). i think it’s combating the heat quite nicely.

it’s a tasty way to cope.

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Strawberry Lemonade
makes 8 servings
adapted a whole bunch from this recipe {Martha Stewart Living, July 2009}

Strawberry Syrup:
2 cups water
ripe strawberries, sliced then mashed with a fork to make 1 cup
1 cup sugar

Lemonade:
1 ¼ cups fresh lemon and/or lime juice (I used the juice of 4 lemons and 4 limes)
1 cup sugar
5 cups water, or to taste

  1. Make strawberry syrup: bring water, mashed strawberries, and sugar to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Strain mixture through a fine sieve, pressing gently on berries to release juices; discard solids. Let syrup cool completely.
  2. Make lemonade: strain juice(s) through a fine sieve into a large pitcher. Add sugar, stirring until it dissolves. Stir in water.
  3. Add syrup to pitcher and stir to combine. Serve immediately with lots of ice; or dilute with more water to taste and chill for later.