Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Just Right at Home

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Gale Steves has more than a hunch. She has an educated observation that wherever you live right now might be just right. You see too few closets and no decent office space?  Gale sees where there’s more storage and how you can set up a working space, all in the home where you are.

For a wider glimpse of Gale’s work, see her recent column at aarp.com. For a 360-degree vista, check out her book, Right-Sizing Your Home: How to Make Your House Fit Your Lifestyle (New Century Design).

(Full disclosure: Gale hired me as an editorial intern for her as food editor of “American Home” magazine when I was a pup in the workforce. She’s an amazing source of good ideas, the latest trends, and just plain fun. And, she’s still a friend and creative professional quite a few years later.)

Gale has right-sized her own home, a NYC apt, and influenced design choices for millions, currently as a home consultant, formerly as editor-in-chief for “Home” and in key positions in New York’s publishing world. She sees home in a practical light, encouraging you to make the space work for you instead of trying to live up to outdated definitions of a particular room or piece of furniture.

Nothing like a True Friend

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

A dear friend passed away a few weeks ago. I wrote about Martha in early May (See May 6, 2010). By coincidence, kismet, or simply how things have a way of working out, about the time of Martha’s passing, my octogenarian mom lent me the book, A Walk by the Sea, written by Joan Anderson, known hereafter as ‘the author.’  Mom had received the book from a friend of hers to whom Mom has been a mentor. They are true friends.

The author is a 51-year old woman at a crossroads in her life when she meets Joan Erikson, who with her huband, the psychologist, Erik Erikson, formulated elegant theories of human development. The author met Joan as they each walked on the beach near their homes. Joan, then 91, became a beacon to the author toward how to live the rest of her life.  Joan Erikson’s friendship along with her vibrant outlook and zest for life, helped the author to make bold new choices  and move into a productive, creative tension between action and contemplation. It’s a sweet spot of balance to live into, never to hold.

Martha and I became friends when I was just beginning my professional career as a writer.  She was into her second act as an interior designer. The corporate position she left behind had brought recognition and creative satisfaction. As a prelude to her independent design business, Matha traveled around the world absorbing color, texture, and light.  For the next 37 years, she gave back the color, texture, and light to her clients and to her friends.

Martha was a beacon to me, though as in all friendships, at times, I resisted her wisdom. Long will I draw upon her wisdom and belief in the ‘right idea. as well as knowing when to wait and when to act. But, always, move toward action.

Part of the celebration of a friendship across the generations lies in that the elder can openly receive the younger, not only as a mentee, but as a true friend. The author illuminates this with joy. I am thankful for Martha’s friendship and the lessons of being a friend to her.

Rites of Spring: Rhubarb

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Rhubarb tastes best to me when I pull it myself and cook it right away. Always pull from the root plant to get the ‘good end.’ I’ll be replacing my small, unproductive rhubarb patch this year. In the meantime, I watch for stands of rhubarb that look as though the owners have more than enough of the stuff or simply don’t pick it. I look for the pale green bulb, meaning the plant has “bolted” or gone to seed. The stalks taste best if it has only just gone to seed.

I’m not shy to inquire about the rhubarb. If the answer is “no,” no problem. But, it never is.  Yesterday, I was granted permission to pick what I wanted and got enough rhubarb for two pies and some sauce.

Adding eggs to rhubarb pie makes a creamy filling that balances rhubarb’s tart, sour flavor. Sugar is essential, of course. My mom’s recipe came from the Better Homes and Gardens “Red Plaid” and the Betty Crocker “Big Red” cookbooks she received as a bride in the early 1950s. Alas! Neither the latest BHG book nor the latest BC book still has the recipe. My copy of the Pillsbury Kitchens Family Cookbook, 1979, has it.

A side note: in my first job, I helped test the recipes for the dessert section of the Pillsbury book, working with experienced home economists who contributed to my development as a cook and food writer. Later I wrote as a staff food editor for Better Homes and Gardens magazine and worked often as a freelance food writer for the Betty Crocker kitchens.

Rhubarb Crumble Custard Pie

Adapted from the Pillsbury Family Cookbook, 1979.

9-inch single crust pastry

4 eggs

1½ to 1¾ cups sugar

¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon nutmeg

5 cups sliced rhubarb, ½-inch pieces

Oatmeal Crumble:

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup oatmeal     TIP: I use a mix of  steel-cut and rolled oats.

¼ cup all-purpose flour

¼ to ½ tsp. nutmeg

3 tbsp. butter

1/2 cup chopped nuts of your choice:  pecans, walnuts, almonds

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place pastry crust in 9-inch pie plate.

TIP:  Pastry cooks most evenly in pottery or ceramic pie plate than in glass or metal.

In large bowl, beat eggs. Stir in sugar, flour, and nutmeg; mix well.  Stir in rhubarb.

In separate bowl, prepare Oatmeal Crumble: Stir together brown sugar, oatmeal, and flour.  Cut in butter with pastry blender or two knives. Stir in chopped nuts.

Spoon rhubarb mixture into pastry. Flute pastry edge. Sprinkle filling evenly with Oatmeal Crumble. Bake in 400 degree oven about 70 minutes. Place aluminum foil collars around pastry edge to avoid over-browning. If it browns too fast on top, place a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over top. Bake until golden brown, filling is set, and mixture bubbles. Makes 8 servings.

Overheard at Barnes and Noble

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

The first thing I noticed at my local Barnes and Noble on Friday evening was the large booth advertising the BN digital book. As I made my way around the display–truly it almost blocked the way to the escalators that lead to the fiction section–I had the recurring conversation in my head as the to future of the book. Will there be stores stocked with such an abundance of books of all kinds in ten years or even five years?

Once downstairs and leafing through a table of the current crop of fiction, I heard a young woman, 20-something, remark to her friend, “When I’m old and tired, I’m going to come and buy a book to read, every other day.”

I loved that she loves to read.  And, I heard her joy of the experience of simply being around all these printed books. If the digital book does become the future standard of reading, I hope libraries and bookstores survive for readers to jostle together, simply reveling in books.

Easy Red Wine Sauce for Vegetarians or Not

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I cooked for a vegetarian friend today. As I thought through my favorite recipes, I kept having to remember: no chicken broth, no sausage, no ham. I eat and enjoy meat, but even more, I rely on those ingredients to add the extra dimension of flavor that vegetarian food may lack. It’s unami, the fifth flavor, the flavor of broth, meat, and salts. Think grilled and sauteed meats, olives, Worcestershire sauce, miso, tamari, mushrooms.

White Bean and Vegetable Stew in Red Wine Sauce, adapted from wonderful vegetarian cookbook author Deborah Madison, solves the challenge with a red wine sauce that I can’t wait to make again with a meat dish.  My concern was unfounded that a red wine sauce would discolor the white beans. The sauce enhances both the flavor and appearance of the beans and veggies.

After the beans and veggies are cooked, brown a couple tablespoons butter and add chopped shallots or green onions. Stir in red wine and reduce the mixture by about 2/3’s.

Let it simmer 10 or more minutes until the mixture reduces to  about 1/4 cup total.

When the sauce has reduced, fold it into the beans and veggies.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with hot, cooked rice alongside a green salad.

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

by Deborah Madison, Broadway Books, 1997

4 cups cooked cannellini, Great Northern, or white Aztec beans

1 medium sweet potato, pared and cut in 1½-inch cubes

5 carrots, cut in 2-inch lengths

2 large or 3 medium leeks, cut in ½-inch rounds

2 to 3 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch lengths

6 tablespoons butter

3 shallots or 6 green onions, chopped

1 cup dry red wine

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Hot cooked rice

Chopped parsley

In 3-quart saucepan, place sweet potato, carrots, leeks, and celery. Place beans on top. Add water to cover about ¾’s vegetables and beans. Cook until vegetables and beans are tender, about 25 minutes. Drain excess liquid and reserve. Set aside.

In a medium skillet, melt half the butter with shallots or green onions. Cook over medium heat about 3 minutes. Watch carefully and let butter brown. Stir in wine and simmer until only ¼-cup remains and the pan is nearly dry.

Stir into beans and vegetables.  Stir in garlic. Season with salt and pepper.  Simmer about 5 minutes. Cut remaining butter into small pieces and gently stir into beans. Let cook a few minutes. Stir in a few more tablespoons of reserved cooking liquid.

Serve stew with cooked rice and chopped parsley.  Makes 6 dinner-sized servings.

“My Antonia” Onstage

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

I was a teenager in a prairie town when I first read Willa Cather’s My Antonia — accent on the first ‘A.’ I’d read the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books and identified mightily with them. But, My Antonia was a revelation. I suppose I was beginning to know there was a big world beyond my little town. This wasn’t a kids’ book. Here was a story about the immigrant life and the promise of something more. For Antonia, the promise lies in the prairie.  For Jim, the narrator, it’s in cities and universities.

Cather wrote My Antonia and her other novels about prairie life long after she moved east from the Nebraska prairie. This and others of her novels mined her memories of the prairie, its harsh beauty, and, most importantly, the people.

Last week, I experienced a world premier stage production of My Antonia at the Illusion Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, showing through March 20, 2010. If you’re in or near Minneapolis, I highly recommend the show.

The stage was simple and the adaptation faithful to Cather’s book. Allison Moore captures the essence of the characters and the actors are just right in each part.

I left the theater refreshed, again connected to my own span of prairie memories and reminded of what we make from our memories. More about Cather and the food in My Antonia, soon.

Haiti: Action and a Reading List

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

The Wall Street Journal’s 1/20/2010 Front Page has a couple of lines about Haiti’s earthquake. They direct the reader to pages A8 and A10 where there are full-page stories. Mia Farrow writes about better disaster response on the Journal’s Opinion Page.

Life goes on.

The best action is to send money to the reputable organizations who have long worked in Haiti and are best equipped to help people right now. I recommend Partners in Health, Dr. Paul Farmer’s Boston-based organization and the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains . (I have no financial stake in either Partners in Health or in Kidder’s book.)

I find myself seeking to learn more about Haiti.  How did this country so close to the beaches of Florida become what even before the 2010 earthquake the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? Edwidge Danticat writes from her experiences as a Haitian-American, born in Haiti, raised in New York City. Her books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat's novel of life in Haiti and New York City

and The Dew Breaker,

A daughter learns about her father's part in Duvalier's violent regime.

capture both the immigrant experience and the heartbreak and promise of Haiti.

I’m reading, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, set in the mid-20th century in Port au Prince. From the news of the last week, I recognize the Olafson Hotel, the presidential palace, and Petionville, the upscale area the earthquake crumbled along with the rest of the city.

A portrait of Haiti under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier

Madison Smartt Bell’s All Soul’s Rising, next on my reading list, captures Haiti in its struggle for independence from 1791 to 1803. It’s the first in Bell’s trilogy of Haitian independence that includes Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused. The author makes his own suggestions for books about Haiti, both by Haitians and non-Haitians at

“…the narrative power of history.”

in the 1/17/2010 New York Times Book Review (you may need to register to get access) and in the 1/15/2010 Huffington Post.