Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Dinner

I love this painting. Not for the reasons that others do- or don't, for that matter, art is tricky that way- but because it reminds me of my grandparents. It's titled Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell, and was a piece that became a Saturday Evening Post cover in March of 1943. This was one of the five "Freedom" covers he did during 1943.

In the 70's, my parents had given my grandparents an over-sized book of all of Rockwell's Post covers for Christmas which they kept on an early 19th century American mahogany drop-leaf table (salvaged and brought back to life by my grandmother- with the help of a furniture re-finisher!). This table and book occupied a key place in their living room. Every holiday, they would open it up to an appropriate page to reflect the day. This was the Thanksgiving page. Growing up, I only had one set of grandparents. We never had to run to another dinner on the major holidays like so many families have to do today. I also feel fortunate that they moved out to California just after I was born and lived within an easy drive, so we spent a lot of time with them.

Freedom from want... it seems so simple, yet almost unattainable today.  It seems like we all want so much- we can never be satisfied. We are almost born pre-programed to desire stuff, that we can never just "be". There is always a new project or purchase around the corner and then we can have people over or perhaps feel relaxed being in our home. Contrast today with when my parents grew up, first living through the Depression and then the War- it's hard to imagine.  But I heard the stories they and my grandparents told and retold during these family dinners.

Both of my parents were more fortunate than others during the Depression. The grandfather that I knew was a dentist having worked hard to get himself from the wrong side of the tracks as a kid to the right side as an adult. He often told stories about the creative ways some of his patients paid their dental bills. Butchers paid with meat, an artist patient, Mathias Alten,  paid with his oil paintings. It was the first I heard of adults doing what my friends and I always did, barter.

But the War was different. That affected everyone. Everything was rationed and everyone did their part in saving and conserving because it was the right thing to do. 'Want' and 'need' were well defined then. I heard those stories and more at every gathering, and grew to look forward to the retelling and sharing of how things were. I also learned my family's history and grew to love the treasures in my grandparents' home that told this history.

That's what meals around the table can do- Sundays, holidays, or otherwise. It can pass down a family's story and hopefully instill a sense of belonging and purpose. I can't say this will give families freedom from want, but it's so important for families to realize they have a history- a story to tell. It's not always a happy tale, but a family's history can give context and can help members clarify what really is important.

The table upon which the Rockwell book was kept, I found out early on, was my grandparents' breakfast table back home in Michigan all the while my dad grew up. I now have the table in my entry way. In my dining room is one of my grandparents' Mathias Alten paintings. And the stories live on.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Only connect!

We all seem to be addicted to lists. In/out, do/don't, cool/uncool, hot/not- we seem to crave information that validates who we are or what we do or helps us avoid those things that may make us look foolish in the eyes of others.

Splashed across the cover of this month's House Beautiful is a tantalizing: 101 Party Do's & Don'ts. Wow, I'm in! And there in the magazine beautifully laid out are indeed 101 tips from designers, taste-makers, and personalities.

What I love about how this piece was put together was that the editor seemed to be in on the irony of asking so many people the same question. Very often, in numeric sequence, just as one of the glitterati definitively states what he/she ALWAYS does, there is another expert saying the exact opposite (only serve white liquors/never only white liquors, give ideas about how to dress/don't impose a dress code, furniture scattered around the perimeter of a room/don't rearrange the furniture around the perimeter...) It really all boils down to what resonates with YOU and what you are comfortable with. Some tips that I tucked away are:

#31 Serve takeout on your finest china. Kelly Wearstler

#34 Don't be afraid to throw a party because it will cost too much. You can have a good time for $10 with a bottle of wine and a bag of nuts. Thomas Jayne

#43 Make a home-cooked meal, even if it's just as bowl of chili and a salad with garlic bread. Lisa Fine (see Sunday Dinner)

#52 Don't take yourself too seriously. Anything goes these days with your table decor and menu, so have fun. Tobi Fairley

#80 Don't run low on the hooch! David Jimenez

#84 Keep cocktail nuts and a stocked bar so you're always prepared for last-minute guests. Heather Clawson 

Of course, there were other notable ideas as well, and everyone was trying to help and encourage others, and that's the key: Whatever you do, just do- invite some neighbors you just met over (shout out to the 4 A's!) or friends you haven't seen in awhile... The important thing, to paraphrase E.M. Forster in Howard's End, is to "only connect!"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Dinner

Growing up, my mom handled the dinners during the week, but on the weekends, if my dad was in town, he was usually in charge of the cooking. Sunday meals had a tendency to alternate between a vat of his chili or his chop suey (no, we never called it stir fry, and yes, we had a burnt orange electric wok!).

Trying new recipes is great, and I'm all for it, but it can be an endless parade of one-hit culinary wonders. Finding a rhythm in menu planning and providing meals that family and friends can look forward to isn't boring or monotonous; if the meal is good, it creates tradition and memories. And it makes it a heck of a lot easier to plan a family meal knowing you have a few constants in your corner.

So, try a few chili recipes- zero in on one that works for you and you have an instant hit on your hands. Plus, it feeds a crowd, so you could always invite friends over to join. Add homemade corn bread (so easy to make with corn meal, don't do the "box mix"), chopped onions, grated cheese, some sour cream, and maybe a simple salad and you'll have quite the crowd pleaser, and a new Sunday night tradition!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fall has flung!

Okay, in some parts of the country we just have to try a little harder. I love the change of seasons, but don't live in a region that sees these changes too readily. Of course the light is different now and that usually is the indication that a transition is happening, but the temperature outside can stay steady well into December.

It can be tricky getting into the spirit of this time of year, so what helps me is to be a little proactive. Flowers can be a start. This arrangement is a variation on a theme that I can do at any time of year.

For the fall, I like these rust Estelle roses (much more vibrant of a color than the Terra Cotta or over-bred Leonidas roses) and team them with Super Green roses. Usually I use tonal colors in this arrangement, but there is something about the contrast here that works. To help blend things out and add texture, I use cream Lisianthus and Leucadenron pods. And to top things off, several brown cymbidium orchid blooms. Now, even though there isn't a hint of chill in the air, I can say with certainty, "Fall has flung!"

Of course, heralding this season can be done in a variety of ways from seasonal fruit (think pomegranates in your favorite bowl) to all variations of pumpkins that are available today. What is important is that we mark these changes. Our minds need the cycle of seasons. So, clip some branches, gather some roses, or buy some fruit. It will do your soul some good.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Dinner

A scene Norman Rockwell remembered to paint... What a surprise to open the New York Times this morning and see their Sunday magazine devoted to the premise Eating Together and that the food revolution is actually a story about savoring community, or as the author Christine Muhlke shorthanded in the The Way We Live Now column, "comm". It's as if they've been ghost-following Guy Meets Tabletop... hmmm!

There is an interview with environmental activist Laurie David , who has written a new book The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time. In the brief question and answer by Deborah Solomon, Ms. David says that while raising two teenage girls is unbelievably challenging, she still makes time for family dinners. She makes the distinction that while she makes dinner, she's not a short-order cook. She makes dinner for the family, not individuals and that her kids eat what she eats. As for dealing with technology at the table, if she sees a cellphone, she takes it. They have to hand the phone to her. I have to say, I love a set of rules. This is why I've focused my effort and attention on the dining room. This is the room where community (comm!) is built.

When asked about whether this may be a class issue (Ms. David is the ex-wife of Larry David of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, and has an organic farm on Martha's Vineyard) she disagrees. Family dinners can be had with takeout, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The conversation at the table is just as important as the food.

Her book is, as Ms. Solomon suggests, a cross between a cookbook and a parenting manifesto. The book comes out November 3 and is on pre-order from Amazon.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rose 101

While lots of things can constitute a centerpiece for a table, sometimes you do want to have flowers. The teacher in me thought to share the knowledge that I've gained over the years, and on Saturday, I held my first 'Rose 101' class.

Roses are perfect for an arrangement like this because they come 25 stems in a growers bunch, and that's all you need to complete this arrangement. Plus, many florists will sell growers bunches of roses for a lot less than retail because they don't have to do anything to them other than keep them in water and refrigeration in advance of selling them.

Kate, Brenda, and Michelle were gracious enough to do the test drive with me on this inaugural class, and through demonstration and practical application, they learned how to trim, condition (so important), how to handle a florist knife (or not...) and arrange the 25 stems in a clear vase with water. The final picture speaks for itself; success was had by all! A class schedule is coming this week... get your calendars out!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Dinner

I can't promise that this will be a weekly feature, but I thought since last week I gave a main course recipe, the least I could do was also give out a dessert recipe.

I think that the idea of a "homemade" dessert can be a source of panic for someone hosting a dinner, but this fruit crisp recipe is an easy one. I really like recipes where I can keep the ingredients on hand and then always have something up my sleeve, just in case I need to bring something at the last minute (it travels perfectly) or my sweet tooth is screaming at me. Of course, as with most things I love, this too comes with a story...

If I have the details of this correct, our neighbor down the street passed this on to my mom when I was in my mid single-digits. Apparently, I responded so well to this that when my second grade class put together a recipe book for Christmas gifts, this was my entry with the footnote: "Bobby's favorite!" It is sweet/tart and the topping has the perfect bite your looking for in this type of dessert, without the fuss of having to "cut in" the cold butter. I'll give the recipe as is and then tell how I make it work for myself.

1 3/4 lbs. frozen berries
1 stick of butter, melted
1+ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar (packed)
3/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups flour

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the cinnamon, brown and white sugar, and flour together. Mix in well the melted butter (it will be a "crumble" consistency). Spread the frozen berries in oven proof baking dish (8x8 Pyrex). Evenly sprinkle the crumble mixture over the berries. Make sure you work some of the topping down into the berries with a spoon. Bake for 45+ minutes or until bubbly and nicely browned.

Now, for the new millennium corrections (you can also easily go "all organic" if this is important to you):  Since frozen berries now mostly come in 1 pound bags, I just use 2 bags. Because I don't have a weight scale in the kitchen, I would have to guess-timate the 3/4 of a pound so I figure, "better a little more, than a little less..." Another note on the berries: I prefer blackberries or Marionberries for this. Trader Joe's sells a "Fancy Berry Medley", which is a mixture of blue, black, and raspberries, that works really well, too. My mom always used the more tart berries (never strawberries) so that's what I do, too. For the baking dish, I have a beautiful white Vista Alegre porcelain oval dish (of course I do!) that's 11x8, which holds the extra berries and the topping well, but I've also used the 2 lbs of berries in the 8x8 Pyrex, it is a little snug, though. I suppose you could fill individual ramekins with the frozen berries, as well, but I've always used the one dish.

By the way, there is no shame in using frozen berries. These are picked at their ripest and then flash frozen and are full of flavor. I tried to use fresh fruit once, and it just didn't work quite right. Plus, the berries aren't always available fresh, but I can and do keep a stash in the freezer, just in case. I don't understand it, but the recipe just works with the frozen fruit. The other ingredients are usually pantry staples, so there is no need to run out and get random ingredients.

Served warm with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream, or a dollop of lightly whipped cream (equally easy!), this is an easy, delicious,  no-fail dessert. It's fancy enough for company (it's a go-to for Christmas Eve) or travels to a summer pot-luck.