A Big Salad for Big Papi

This Cobb Salad is almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

When the weather gets hot around here, as it usually does in DC during the summer, my family often requests the Big Salad for dinner. A Big Salad is, of course, a perfect summer meal, since it doesn’t require heating up the kitchen and you can pretty much throw anything you want into it. It is the summertime version of a casserole — all the little leftovers that are taking up space in your refrigerator can generally take up residence in a Big Salad just as you might use them up in a casserole: half a cup of shredded carrots, that Tupperware container that still has a few spoonfuls of tuna salad, a handful of toasted pine nuts, and so forth.

Last night was the Home Run Derby, and through a roundabout route, I was inspired to make a salad to accompany this annual slugfest that takes place the night before the All-Star Game. I am a baseball fan; my dad is from Connecticut and raised me right — meaning that I follow the Red Sox. My husband and I were Baltimore Orioles fans for several years (okay, I admit that I rooted for Boston when they came to town) and had season tickets for all the Sunday games, but Cal Ripken’s retirement and the constant internal turmoil caused by owner Peter Angelos finally wore us out.

We tried being Washington Nationals fans after DC finally got a team, but, honestly, they make it really hard to enjoy watching their games. Another error, another half-hearted run to first base, another phenom pitcher who doesn’t live up to the hype. The stadium vendors wear shirts that say “Eating is not a spectator sport” — likely referring to the fact that a lot of fans seem to spend more time lined up for half-smokes at the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand than actually watching the game — but, at Nationals Park, I’m not convinced that even the players would agree.

The Big Salad of choice last night was a classic Cobb Salad. Hopefully some of you have already made the connection between the Home Run Derby and what is often called the “quintessential American salad”, but here’s how my brain got there for those who are scratching their heads:

Home Run Derby = Anaheim (where it was held this year) = California = Hollywood = Brown Derby Restaurant = Cobb Salad.

The Brown Derby Restaurant, early 1960s. Photograph by Chalmers Butterfield.

The Cobb Salad was the signature dish of the Brown Derby Restaurant, a landmark of Hollywood during its glory days from the 1930s through the 50s. Sadly, the original restaurant is gone, but the salad still remains as a truly American creation, rumored to have been dished up out of bits and pieces from the kitchen by owner Robert Cobb in 1937 as a late-night snack for famed movie theater owner Sid Grauman. It features cold chicken, crumbled bacon, chopped tomatoes and avocado, and sometimes includes crumbled blue cheese and chopped black olives. I chose to make the classic version which includes a really wonderful blue cheese dressing made with a red wine vinegar base.

Not unlike a good baseball game, the key to the Cobb is layers. When you order it in a restaurant, it should arrive with each ingredient lined up across a bed of lettuce. You can then choose to mix it all up together or savor each flavor independently. A Cobb Salad is a team of individuals — together they can form a perfect amalgamation of flavors, but they can also each stand alone if necessary, supporting each other and enhancing the overall result. A classic salad is the perfect metaphor for really good baseball.

Big Papi encourages Ramirez to cool off in between swings at the Home Run Derby. Of course, it may have just been a diversionary tactic — if it was, it worked.

Last night’s Home Run Derby was a big night for Big Papi — David Ortiz, the 34-year-old designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox. Ortiz had a tough season in 2009 and people had pretty much written him off for this year, but he seems to be back in form, with 18 homers so far this season and 57 RBIs; he became the first Boston player to win the Derby, hitting 32 long balls in Angel Stadium. The best part of the Derby, however, was probably the display between Ortiz and his closest rival of the night, Hanley Ramirez, a 26-year-old fellow Dominican who was briefly with the Red Sox before being traded to the Florida Marlins. He openly considers Ortiz to be his mentor and their supportive relationship was clearly evident as they cheered each other on during their at-bats. If the Red Sox and the Marlins were to square up against each other in a World Series, there is no doubt that Ortiz and Ramirez would be fierce competitors, but they’d probably go out together for a salad afterwards.

We generally don’t think of avocado and chicken as ingredients that fit together and they rarely share the same plate other than when part of a Mexican menu. But, somehow, within the confines of the Cobb Salad, they are logical, even perfect, companions, the mild flavor of the chicken balanced against the subtle nuttiness of the avocado. Add in the smokiness of the bacon, the sweet tang of tomato, and the sharp bite of the blue cheese, and you have a group of individual flavors that should not fit together in a logical way, yet add up to a mouthful of Utopian delight. If you have ever loved the Red Sox, or the Cubs, or the Mets — have a Cobb. It’ll make perfect sense to you.

Here’s a link for the perfect Cobb Salad recipe — it takes a little time to assemble but is worth the effort.

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On the importance of birthday cakes

Madison's first birthday was the day before Thanksgiving and we had six houseguests, so I whipped up a quick chocolate layer cake with whipped cream for the frosting. I topped it with roses because her middle name is Rose.

I love birthday cakes. Growing up, birthday cakes were not a big part of our birthday celebrations, probably because my mom, who is an amazing cook, is not really a huge fan of baking. She also had a full-time career to manage along with her family, so birthday desserts tended to be something fairly simple like strawberry shortcake (my mom makes the best, with huge homemade lightly sweetened biscuits and fresh whipped cream) or, if I was lucky, I got to pick up a Pepperidge Farm cake out of the freezer aisle, preferably Devil’s Food or Coconut Layer.

A classic Devil's Food cake with a rich marshmallow-like frosting.

I happen to really enjoy baking, however, and I have always made it a point to make birthday cakes for my daughter’s birthdays. It helps that her birthday is in late November, a time of year when I enjoy warming up the kitchen anyway — she might be out of luck had she been born in August. Because her birthday often falls on or near Thanksgiving, I have made a concerted effort to not just stick a candle in a pumpkin pie, although I have occasionally been tempted.

Ah, the 5th birthday cake — it was a Clifford the Big Red Dog party, so I used a 16" x 16" pan to make a chocolate pound cake (much sturdier when you want to cut a shape), then I drew out a template and carved it out. A lot of work but totally worth it.

For family birthday dinners, I have generally made a classic Devil’s Food cake — not because it was Madison’s favorite, but because, as you probably guessed, it is one of mine. In recent years, she sometimes flips through my cookbooks and makes a different request; when my niece Kelsey was visiting just before her own birthday one year, she chose two different varieties of cupcakes from “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero — they were amazing cupcakes and you really would never have known they were vegan at all. For birthday parties, I sometimes went over the top and created enormous creations swathed in colored frosting that left Madison and her friends smeared in food coloring for days.

My most recent foray into birthday cakes was for my husband Rick, who just celebrated his 50th birthday. We gathered our friends and family at the Biergarten Haus, a new German-style beer garden on H Street here in DC, not far from our house. Rick is a first-generation American whose parents, who are of German descent, grew up in Eastern Europe and Germany, settling in the United States in the early 1950s. So, it seemed appropriate to celebrate at a place that would remind him of that heritage, and we had a great time dancing the polka and drinking way too many litres of schwarzbier.

Because there were a lot of things going on at the time — final exams and term papers for Madison, work commitments for both me and Rick, and an onslaught of houseguests — I confess that I first looked into just ordering a birthday cake, rather than making one myself. But here’s the thing: I’m picky about cake, and a decent cake from a good bakery is not inexpensive, and I simply could not bring myself to spend a minimum of $150 on the type of cake I wanted.

One of the things I really wanted for the cake was to include an edible image of Rick when he was 3 years old dressed in his lederhosen. It seemed like a must-have, and a quick search on Google yielded that it was pretty easy to order custom cake toppers printed on edible sugar paper. I chose to order from Icing Images and a perfectly-sized image arrived in the mail just 24 hours later, at a cost of about $20.

We celebrated my husband's 50th in style with a personalized Sunshine Cake, complete with edible lederhosen. It was a hit, and he was inordinately touched by the custom beer can candles — although that may have just been a result of a few litres of good German beer.

Since it was June, I wanted to make a cake that wouldn’t seem overly heavy, so I went for a cake recipe that is quite popular in Florida, where I spent much of my youth; it’s citrus-based, of course, and is generally known as a Sunshine Cake. I wanted to do a Grand Marnier buttercream, so imagine my joy when a jaunt through epicurious.com not only provided me with a Gourmet Magazine recipe for Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream, but the buttercream recipe actually included Grand Marnier. Some things were just meant to be.

I made two 9 x 12 layers and changed up the Gourmet recipe slightly by spreading the bottom layer with orange marmalade (something you’ll find in a lot of the older Sunshine Cake recipes) before adding the first layer of buttercream. It was quite easy to add the edible photo, which I just had to trim down to fit so that I could add beer can candles (which I customized with tiny labels of Winged Lion Lager, the amber beer that Rick brews for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill).

So, the next time you’re faced with the prospect of a birthday cake, I am hoping that you’ll be inspired to make something original for that special birthday boy or girl. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the store-bought variety — I crave those Pepperidge Farm cakes every time I walk past them in the supermarket — but there’s a certain sense of accomplishment you’ll get out of the ooh’s and ahh’s that come with “You made that yourself?”

Here’s the recipe I used as the basis for Rick’s birthday cake:

Sunshine Cake with Citrus Butter Cream

If you’re looking for more cake inspiration, check out my friend Kim’s blog, Sweetly Savory. She makes very cool fancy cakes with fondant and other fun stuff.

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Passing the Buck

Making "chipa" in Paraguay — they sound scrumptious.I am cheating a bit this week and am sending my readers to check out a terrific blog post that was written by a high school girl in my neighborhood who is spending a semester as an exchange student in Paraguay. I’ve known Ann Elise since she was probably about five years old — she’s smart, friendly, and pretty spunky, too, judging by how fearlessly she seems to be embracing a very different life in Paraguay.

She is blogging for her friends and family about her life in another hemisphere and it is very engaging reading. I was, of course, especially captivated by a post she did all about food; it’s possible that the local food may be one of the biggest culture shocks for Ann Elise, as it might be for many American foodies — and for any kid who grew up on Capitol Hill, where the farmer’s market at Eastern Market, overflowing with fresh produce, is central to the community. As she notes, the people of Paraguay eat a lot of meat and carbohydrates, which are plentiful and cheap, and not much in the way of fruits and vegetables, which are pretty expensive. They also eat several small meals throughout the day besides a large midday meal, with a salty snack in the midmorning and a sweet snack in midafternoon.

Having grown up in hot climates, this sounds pretty familiar to me. In Paraguay, Ann Elise is having an empanada for her salty snack — in Florida, we were more likely to have french fries from Wendy’s, dipped in mayonnaise. Not to be indelicate, but you sweat a lot when you live in a hot place and that salty snack is essential to keeping your body in balance.

Ann Elise’s sweet afternoon snack generally features dulce de leche (caramel); as I wrote in an earlier post, when I was a child in the West Indies, our midafternoon snack often consisted of a can of sweetened condensed milk, which is not that different. I heartily approve of Ann Elise’s preferred method of eating dulce de leche — all by itself, with a spoon! Why mess with perfection?

Her blog post was featured on the AFS Intercultural Programs website and is well worth the read:

http://afsblog.org/2010/05/time-to-grub-reflections-on-food-in-paraguay.html

I’m hoping that Ann Elise will bring back recipes and give her neighbors some hands-on lessons when she gets home — she seems to be pretty skilled at making “chipa” now!

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Safeway Snobbery

A fireplace and wifi at Safeway? Okay, that is kinda nice.

Two new Safeway grocery stores have opened up in Washington, DC in the past couple of weeks. One is just off Capitol Hill in the Waterfront neighborhood and the other is in Georgetown. The one at Waterfront is nestled between public housing projects and riverside condominiums; the Georgetown store — long dubbed the “Social Safeway” in reference to the well-heeled single yuppies eyeing each other longingly across the cereal aisle — has a parking lot filled with Lexus SUVs tagged with diplomatic license plates.

I will say up front that I am a Safeway Snob, and not necessarily in a good way. My experience with Safeway in DC goes back more than 20 years, when I first frequented the “Soviet Safeway” in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, nicknamed for its tendency to run out of everything, leaving its shoppers to peruse shelves bare of pretty much every basic necessity except the occasional loaf of Wonder Bread and a half-eaten banana.

Things didn’t improve when I moved to Capitol Hill, where my husband and I would wheel our portable shopping cart on the three-block trek to what some called the “Social Security Safeway”; that particular store’s claim to fame came from some snappy investigations in the 1960s by local resident and Washington Post columnist Marguerite Kelly, exposing the store’s practice of raising prices — coincidentally, of course — on the same day that welfare checks were issued to low-income families. There were not a whole lot of grocery stores in the city at that time, so the aisles were so crowded that you could barely move your cart. We used to try to shop during Redskins games, since we didn’t really care about football and it was the one time when you could count on the store being empty.

My hairdresser was really excited about the new Safeway by the Waterfront and told me that it was beautiful and that I needed to check it out — she’s a Safeway Snob, but in reverse. Actually, I have a lot of friends who swear by Safeway and shop there religiously, but it has just never been my cup of tea; they just never seem to carry the kinds of foods that I like to buy. I’m sure my friends think I’m a Whole Foods Snob or a Trader Joe’s Snob, and they could be right.

But there was such a hubbub about the Social Safeway on opening day last week that I impulsively pulled into the underground garage as I was passing by. Crowds of shoppers streamed up the escalators clad in carefully-distressed jeans and Gucci loafers; my first vision was a gleaming sushi bar nestled beside a gourmet cheese display where a cheerful employee gave out samples of an imported Gouda being sold for $17.99 a pound. Black truffles were located in a locked plexiglass case in the produce section for $999.99 a pound. Welfare moms need not apply.

I’ll admit that I called my husband and gushed “Wow, this place is really cool!” I was standing next to the automated deli kiosk where I had just placed an order for a roasted vegetable sandwich on focaccia with garlic aioli, which seemed like a steal for $6.99. Excited shoppers were lined up at the gelato bar, bursting with over two dozen exotic flavors, the cabernet gelato beckoning like an amethyst jewel.

Alas, I had no time to shop, so my husband and I decided to stop at the Waterfront store on Sunday. It was all there — the sushi bar, the Starbucks, the wi-fi café featuring a central gas fireplace. And, as we began going through the aisles in search of food, there were all the other things I remembered: the Wonder Bread, the cans of Hormel Chili (on special with your Club Card), the towering pyramids of Spam. The produce section was definitely better than I remembered from the past, and I was pretty intrigued by the fresh garbanzo beans, like miniature tomatillos in their papery green husks.

But, yeah, for me, it’s still just Safeway. Some people dislike Trader Joe’s in the same way, while I can look past its deficiencies (like those shrinkwrapped packages of zucchini — why, Joe, why?) to find well-priced food that I want. Safeway sure doesn’t need me, serving its purpose for so many others as it continues to thrive, building a Shining Store Upon a Hill that brings yuppies together to share cappuccino and coy glances and provides candy-free checkout lanes for tired working moms with three kids under the age of 5 stuffed into a shopping cart with a week’s worth of juice boxes and Rice Crispies.

Still, I have to admit, the fireplace and wifi is pretty nice, especially on a rainy and unseasonably cool spring day. Maybe I can learn to live with Wonder Bread.

Wonder Bread Soufflé

I used to adore this dish when I was a kid — it was a recipe that my mom would make only for dinner parties. She made amazing cheese soufflés from scratch using the recipe from the huge Larousse Gastronomique that graced our kitchen, but she also liked this recipe when she had to whip up something elegant after a long day at the office.

One loaf of Wonder Bread, crusts removed and each piece buttered

3 eggs

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

3 cups shredded cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives

Make the custard by combining the eggs, milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper in a bowl. Butter a 13″ x 9″ baking dish and place a layer of bread in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese, then continue with two more layers of bread and cheese. Pour the custard evenly over the whole dish, being sure that all the bread is soaked in the custard, then sprinkle the chives over the top. Place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and as long as overnight, then bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 – 45 minutes, or until risen and golden on top. Serve immediately.

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A meal fit for a Coupon Queen

Paula in 9th grade

My friend Paula is the Coupon Queen. She regularly updates all of her friends on Facebook of her latest coupon conquests, and the results are impressive. On one trip to Publix, she saved $74.46 off her total bill, paying just $37.15 for milk, lunch meat, cereal, bread, trail mix, cookies, nuts, spaghetti sauce and other bits and pieces. As a busy mom with a family of five, Paula began her coupon fetish in an effort to curb hefty grocery bills; at the same time, she’s trying to figure out how to counter a lifetime of poor eating habits which has added 150 pounds to her once-tiny frame.

I’ve known Paula since I was 14 — we each probably weighed just over 100

That's me. Ah, the eighties...

pounds at the time. She was a pretty dark-haired horse fanatic, I was a mousy-brown-haired (on my way to blonde) beach girl. We worked on the school literary magazine together, Paula married her high school sweetheart, and I left the beach behind for greener pastures. Growing into womanhood, I added about 25 pounds to my girlish figure, which was well within a healthy range for my height. Paula, on the other hand, began struggling with her weight as she got older, beginning a lifetime of yo-yo dieting that brought her to where she is now — 250 pounds and totally frustrated when new friends think this must be how she always looked. Those of us who grew up with Paula know better.

I originally got the idea for this blog because Paula would ask me for advice about how to make her favorite foods healthier. As she told me, her own mom would actually add sugar to the kids’ Frosted Flakes at breakfast, so Paula did not have the advantage that I had, of having a great cook in the kitchen while growing up. Now Paula has started her own blog about her quest for lap band surgery, which is possibly covered under her insurance and that she thinks may be the key to getting her body back under control. You can read it here:

http://my1000milejourney.wordpress.com/

I do use coupons somewhat, but I am definitely not a Coupon Queen like Paula. My kitchen is regularly stocked with organically-grown (or at least pesticide-free) ingredients, and, inevitably, people always tell me that they “absolutely can’t” afford organic foods because it’s too expensive. This is an excuse that I just don’t buy. Anybody can purchase reasonably-priced,  good quality food that is not doused in unnecessary chemicals or loaded with hormones if they just shop smart. However, I think that shopping smart also requires people to think outside the box — something that Paula is working through right now. If you are accustomed to buying Hamburger Helper, then you probably have no idea how to make a comforting but healthful “Cheeseburger Macaroni” from scratch that your kids will love.

No coupons in this batch of groceries, but some smart buys nonetheless!

Last night, however, I made a different pasta dish which was decidedly low-cost and incredibly low-fat — perfect for a Coupon Queen who wants to lose 100 pounds. I purchased my ingredients at Trader Joe’s, and although I know that Paula doesn’t have a TJ’s in her area, she can still find all the same ingredients for the same low cost. My ingredients included a pound of spaghetti (99¢), a 16-ounce bag of fresh mixed Southern Greens ($2.99), olive oil (at 24¢ per ounce, then less than $1 worth), one lemon (40¢), two cloves of garlic (about 25¢), and a 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese (less than $1). I added a protein-rich side dish of Great Northern beans (14-ounce can = 99¢) mixed with one chopped tomato (45¢) and a handful of chopped green olives (at 29¢ per ounce, probably less than 50¢), drizzled with a bit of vinegar and salt and pepper. Total cost for dinner for 5: $8.52 , or $1.70 per person.

For Paula’s kids, it may take time to get used to food that has a lower sodium and fat content, but now is the time to make the change, while they are younger and less set in their ways. For Paula, it’s all about getting out of that box — and clipping coupons for foods that will help her find that thinner person that she knows is still inside of her, just yearning to be free.

Fresh, uncomplicated, and beautiful — a perfect recipe for life!

Spring Spaghetti with Greens

One pound spaghetti, cooked until al dente, then drained and rinsed with cold water

16-ounce bag fresh chopped greens (mustard, turnip, collard)

Juice and zest of one lemon

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 tsp. crushed red chili pepper (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large skillet or wok over medium heat (or, if you’re like me and you don’t like to do dishes, then just re-use the spaghetti pot) . Add 3 TB olive oil and then add chopped greens, stirring quickly to coat with oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. of salt and lemon juice and stir once more. Cover for two minutes, then stir and cover again. Repeat for about five minutes until the greens are wilted and the stems are slightly tender. Add garlic, lemon zest and spaghetti and toss thoroughly with another 2 TB olive oil until heated through (you can also add the crushed chili pepper if you wish). Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately, with grated parmesan on the side.

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Calling Callaloo

A scene from Admiralty Bay taken in 1966, just a few years before I first skipped along that same beach.

There’s a point when driving across the St. Mary’s River from Georgia into Florida when the sky suddenly spreads out across the marshes and the air becomes faintly scented with cocoa butter and orange blossoms and I realize that I am home. Never mind that I still have another three hours on the road to get back to my actual home — Cocoa Beach — but hurtling down I-95 past the clumps of palmettos and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop billboards (“World’s Largest”), I feel that lift in my spirits that tells me that I am back where I belong.

It is funny that I feel that way, because I have no desire to live in Florida again, but I am living proof that once a beach girl, always a beach girl. No matter where I live, I always feel somehow most like myself when I have sand between my toes and a slight crust of salt on my skin. This feeling goes back to when I was 5 years old and my mom packed me up in the dead of a frigid New York City winter and bundled us onto a plane to the West Indies. I remember pulling on heavy tights and a wool jumper and a sweater in the pre-dawn chill and a few hours later I was blinking in the raw sunshine of Barbados. My mother bought me a pretty flowered sleeveless shift dress in the airport and, as I stripped out of my winter woolens, I remember that sudden sense of total freedom, the silky feel of the breeze on my bare arms, the Crayola box kaleidoscope of colors — sky, water, plants, people — that seemed to wrap me up in a new kind of warmth.

We ended up eventually on the tiny island of Bequia, after another plane ride to St. Vincent, and then a mailboat trip across the Caribbean Sea to Admiralty Bay (which my mother still describes as a terrifying journey, mainly because I clambered all over the place like some monkey escaped from the zoo). From that point, it was a short walk along the beach to our hotel, but it felt like we were a million miles from anywhere. Life suddenly felt as slow as maple syrup drooling down a stack of pancakes, yet each moment was more intense, as if I had been sleepwalking and was now wide awake in Paradise.

The flavors of the Caribbean are notably intense and are a perfect melding of many cultures: African, British, French, Dutch, South American. At that time, the cuisine was the essence of what we call today “slow food”, which is to say that most everything was local because it was too difficult to transport food from one place to another. The only thing I really ever remember eating that wasn’t something that could be caught from the bay or picked from a tree was sweetened condensed milk, cans of which would be tossed out to all of us kids as we ran barefoot across the island together each day. We’d crack the top open and crouch in the shade of crabapple trees, dipping our fingers into that creamy sweet goodness and noisily slurping in an ecstasy of delight.

I spent portions of three years on Bequia with my mother and the food of that time permeated our meals forevermore, in one way or another. My mom is an amazing cook and would often become fascinated with certain cuisines, especially French, Greek, and Italian, and her Caribbean cookbooks are well-worn and filled with her pencilled notations regarding proportions or possible substitutions for ingredients not easily obtained in the United States. So, on my recent Spring Break visit to my folks’ house in Cocoa Beach, I found myself pouring through the old cookbooks and thinking with great fondness of callaloo.

Callaloo refers to the dark green leaves of the taro plant — imagine collard greens or swiss chard in texture. The flavor is somewhere between spinach and mustard greens, smooth with a slightly peppery undertone. Callaloo soup is a true Caribbean staple, although it can be made a hundred different ways, depending upon where you are and what ingredients are available that day. It might include ham or crab or both, it could have coconut milk and conch, or it might have okra or tiny potatoes or even rice. In general, it is light and refreshing, even on the hottest day close to the equator.

I was challenged to figure out how to make this vegetarian version — if you want to try something more authentic, you can find many recipes on the internet, along with the complete lyrics to the Jimmy Buffett song of the same name. No matter what version you make, you might want to try spinning a little calypso on the CD player during your meal and maybe topping things off with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Just wash your hands first.

Mock Callaloo Soup

Yes, I call it “mock” because callaloo is just not readily available in the U.S., but if you are lucky enough to find the real thing, then go for it! My version calls for delicate nutmeg-scented dumplins (that’s Caribbean for “dumpling”), which give the soup just a bit more substance for dinner.

for the soup:

One pound swiss chard, stems and leaves roughly chopped

One onion, sliced

6 ounces vegetarian “ham” or “Canadian bacon”, diced

10 okra, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (if okra isn’t in season, try using fingerling potatoes instead, to give the soup a bit of starch)

6 cups vegetable broth

1 cup white wine

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 springs of fresh thyme

salt and pepper to taste

olive oil

1 TB butter

Heat 2 TB of olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the “ham” and stir well. Reduce heat and allow to cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the okra (or potatoes) and garlic and stir well, then add the stock and wine. Bring to a boil, then add the chard and reduce heat to simmer. Add the parsley and thyme and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir the butter in until it melts.

for the dumplins:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated would be perfect, but it’s okay to use ground)

1/2 tsp. salt

1 TB butter

1 egg yolk

3 TB milk

Mix together dry ingredients, then cut in butter with a fork or your fingers until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Beat together the egg yolk and milk and mix with the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Drop into the simmering soup by the spoonful — you should have enough for six decent-sized dumplins. Cover and allow to cook for 10 – 15 minutes, until firm on top. These dumplins are quite delicate, so spoon them carefully into each bowl before ladling the soup around them.

Serves 6.

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A Sisterhood of Margaritas

At the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis about 10 years ago — pretty sure Diane was anticipating an icy cold margarita right at this moment.

It’s the Ides of March, the day when Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC. This year it is also the fifth anniversary of the day my husband’s sister died, and so it tends to permeate the thoughts of all our family in myriad ways. Diane was just five weeks shy of her 49th birthday when she died after a 10-month battle with breast cancer. The last time I saw her, during the summer before her death, she had a colorful silk scarf wrapped around her head and we drank margaritas.

The anniversary of a death is like the elephant in the room — you know it’s there, you think you should acknowledge it, but you also think that maybe if you ignore it, it will just go away. Unfortunately, an elephant can’t fit that easily through the door, so what you end up doing is walking around it uncomfortably, trying not to get too close to it and wrinkling your nose at its strong odor. We tend to want to acknowledge Diane’s birthday, perhaps with a drink or flowers, but not her deathday. It somehow feels wrong to acknowledge it — but it is possibly the single most important day in our collective family, something that each of us has shared in and of which we all hold some memory, however painful.

For me, there is the knowledge that I did not know Diane that well. She lived in suburban Detroit with her wonderful husband and two beautiful daughters — all of whom I adore — but I did not feel that much of a connection to her. She was quiet, and nice, and maybe she represented for me the things that I feared — a suburban mom with a no-fuss haircut and sensible shoes. She also had that thing that I feared most, a 9-to-5 job with a retirement plan — although I have come to realize that maybe the thing I feared more was that if I ever had a job doing something that I loved, then I might end up not loving it any more. I honestly don’t know if she loved her job or not, or even if it mattered to her if she loved it, but her coworkers came out in droves to her funeral with beautiful and kind words about her impact on their daily lives.

Prior to her diagnosis, Diane and I were basically just connected to each other through her brother, my husband, occasionally chatting about our daughters and sometimes she would ask me for recipes, because she liked my cooking and was, she admitted, not a very creative cook herself. After her diagnosis, we talked to each other more often, because she wanted to learn more about organic foods and vegetarian dishes, crossing her fingers that a change of diet could slow the growth of cancer cells.  I did the only thing I really knew how to do, which was to type up a three-page list of ingredients and resources, explaining how to substitute soy and vegetables in her favorite recipes, and I packed it all up in a care package of beans and rice and whole-grain pastas and organic brownie mix.

It didn’t work. In the end, all that was left to do was for her friends — and she had a large group of loyal girlfriends, something I will always envy — to make her margaritas and play Tom Petty really loud on the CD player. Diane loved margaritas and was known to travel to Daytona Beach on vacation with her blender; in fact some of my fondest memories with her feature hanging out on the beach by Perry’s Ocean Edge Resort, drinking frosty margaritas and watching her husband bake in the sun.

Diane told me once that she was glad that she’d had two girls, because she always wished she’d had a sister (not that having my husband as her annoying little brother wasn’t a treat, of course) and she was glad they could have that special relationship with each other. The most unsettling thing about death is that it leaves the living filled with regrets — could I have been more than just a sister-in-law, if I had had more time and been less absorbed in my own little world? I’ll never know the answer. What I do know is that perhaps the best thing I can do today is to acknowledge Diane’s life — and death — with a cold margarita — no salt, please.

 

 

 

 

You gotta watch out with the margaritas when you’re hangin’ with the Weber clan, or you end up with the big sombrero.

 

Italian Margaritas

I’m thinking that there’s nothing like a little tequila and imaginary sunshine to chase away the blues on the Ides of March or a deathday. This tasty version of a margarita is a favorite in our family — I generally make ’em by the pitcher, but I will give you the single serving recipe and you can multiply it for the masses. Cheers!


One ounce good Tequila

One ounce Grand Marnier

Splash of Cointreau

1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 TB sugar or light agave syrup (add more if you like your margaritas sweeter)

Shake the ingredients in a shaker with ice; pour into a glass (I like it with the ice cubes), mix in a splash of Sprite, and top with a 1/2-ounce of Amaretto. Garnish with a slice of fresh orange.  Yum.

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