“Whew!”

April 6th, 2010

One of my goals with this blog is to examine how we age and how we might age better. My life is a useful laboratory for this pursuit. I’ve begun to notice most of my peers have graying hair, as well as aches and pains. My mom has a birthday this week, her 83rd. She lives near me in her own comfortable apartment in a senior complex. She’s moved from her home, from her community, had to stop driving, and has several non-life threatening but limiting health concerns. It takes some adjustment for this independent, strong-minded, creative woman to adjust to life on a different scale.

She comes to stay at my house a couple times a month for a day or two. On Sunday evening, we returned to her complex about 8:30 pm, after celebrating Easter. There was a steady stream of cars to both entrances at the complex. I commented, almost to myself, “Everybody is bringing Grandma home after Easter.”

Mom riffed without missing a beat and sighed, “Whew!” We laughed together, I ruefully. I often leave her feeling both relieved and wary of what comes next. She remembers her own leave-taking of her aging father, her great aunts, and elder friends.

I pulled up in front of her building, moving ahead a little because a minivan was closing in behind me. An impatient voice called out from the vehicle for me to move ahead. I asked her to wait just a minute while I got the walker and Mom got out of the car and in the clear. Pulling ahead would have taken me to the curb and made Mom’s steps with the walker more difficult.

After I parked the car, the minivan family was unloading their elder.  Mom turned around and waved at the elder woman, a friend of hers who is confined to a wheel chair. May have been a challenging day for that family.

Sometimes we laugh.  Sometimes we snap.

Overheard at Barnes and Noble

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

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

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.

A Moment in Time

February 20th, 2010

I’m fascinated by the clues found in historical records. Sure, the outcome is often known, but the details can change the modern reader’s perspective. I love to imagine a moment in the past, when in command of some facts and moved by imagination, I recreate a moment to better understand its significance.

A picture on a calendar from 1929 gave me such a moment.  It’s a beautifully mounted photograph of a sunny child with two German Shepards.

The 1920’s were kind to small farm towns in the Midwest. The post-world war years were times of plentiful rains and good crops. Irene, South Dakota had a lively main street and thriving businesses, including Johnson Bros. & Iverson General Merchandise. Down the street, my grandfather operated C.H. Gunderson & Son, the son being my dad who was born in 1923. Grandfather sold tractors and cattle.

We know that in late October of 1929, a different era began. Within a few years, the rains stopped, the dust blew, and prosperity was a memory.

The current financial crisis has often reminded me of the stories I’ve read and heard from my parents about their childhood years in a lean time. This image from the calendar is both optimistic and bittersweet. It reminds me of the waves and rolls of time: what we keep, what we must relinquish, and what is sometimes gone against our wishes.

Creative Pursuits: Irresistible Food Images

February 4th, 2010

Welcome MaryGunderson.com Guest Creative, professional food stylist and expert in all things food, Lisa Golden Schroeder

Seven Food Styling Secrets: You Can Do This!

by Lisa Golden Schroeder

As a professional food stylist, I have the luxury of working with amazing food shooters who make my food look incredible. But if you are trying to capture your own food for a personal blog or to document your favorite family recipes, here are a few tips for enhancing the visual sensibilities of your food.

Never use a flash. If you’re in a restaurant, choose a table near a window. The flash flattens everything out and sometimes gives an earthly glow to photos. When that’s not possible, choose one of the camera’s “white balance” settings; for example, the setting indicated by a light bulb compensates for the yellow tint indoor lights can cast.

Get in close. Fill the frame with the dish, making the food the star. Use a camera’s macro setting (often indicated by a flower icon) to bring a part of the dish into sharper focus. Or widen the aperture to reduce the depth of field, which allows you to focus on foreground details—say, the crusty corner on a dish of macaroni and cheese—and keep the background soft (“select focus” in professional parlance). No need for formal garnishing (forget that huge sprig of parsley) if the food is really your hero.

Wipe glasses and plate edges.
Be sure surfaces are free of smudges and greasy fingerprints (a little glass cleaner or rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab is great for small clean ups). In good light, they really stand out.

Work quickly, but deliberately. The longer it takes to set up a shot, the more salads wilt or sauces congeal. For food to look delicious, it needs to look fresh. A small spritz bottle or a paintbrush dipped in water can be used to moisten up food if it needs some dewiness. Pay attention to color, shapes, texture—contrasts in the way you arrange the food on the plate will make a shot more compelling. Drips and crumbs are appetizing, but too much messiness is not.

Keep your hands steady. In low-light conditions, even the slightest tremor can produce a blurry photograph. Brace your elbows against the table to keep the camera steady. Or try this trick: use the top of a water glass as a makeshift tripod.

Shoot a lot. A photo may seem fine on the camera’s tiny screen, but when you look on your computer, it is likely to be out of focus or too bright. So click away, then edit. Capture shots in both a vertical and horizontal format, too. So you have the option of how you can crop it. And less is more—keep your shots simple, elegant.

Shoot food as it’s being prepared.
Don’t get hung up on capturing the quintessential “final shot.” Sometimes the most interesting moment in a food’s life is during its preparation. There are all sorts of great details that emerge throughout the cooking process.

Haiti: Action and a Reading List

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.

“All this and krumkake, too!”

January 6th, 2010

I grew up in a small community, Irene, South Dakota, with many people of Danish and Norwegian descent. Most of the year this fact was most evident by the number of last names that ended in ‘son’ and ‘sen.’ At Christmas, this was most obvious in the plates of krumkake, rosettes, fattigman, and spritz at holiday tables. (A krumkake (CROOM-kah-kah) is a sweet crisp wafer rolled to a crescent as soon as it comes off the griddle. It’s first cousin to the Italian Pizzelle, the delicious flat wafer cookie that uses the same kind of griddle.)

Krumkake

Minneapolis, where I make my home, has more than a nod to the Scandinavian tradition, but it’s more likely that I’ll see krumkake and rosettes in boxes at the grocery stores than on the plates at friends’ homes.

Thus, I’ve become a krumkake maker, purchasing an electric one just before Christmas from Bethany Housewares in Cresco, Iowa, via Minneapolis-St. Paul’s premier kitchen store, Cooks of Crocus Hill. There’s a traditional version that fits over an electric or gas burner. I chose the electric appliance that makes krumkake making almost fool proof.

The recipe adapted from Bethany Housewares:

Krumkake

½ cup butter (1 stick)

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

½ tsp. vanilla extract

1½ cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp. cornstarch

½ tsp. crushed cardamom seed

Melt butter and set aside to cool slightly.  With mixer or whisk, beat eggs and sugar until thick, 2 to 3 minutes.  Stir in melted butter and vanilla. Beat until well blended.

Spoon flour into measuring cup and level—this prevents adding too much flour making the krumkake tough. Sift in cornstarch and stir in crushed cardamom. Stir into egg mixture. Batter has a dough-like consistency.  Spoon 1-inch mounds of batter onto hot griddle. Close lid. Cook according to manufacturer’s directions or until krumkake is light golden brown.

Need some work on my krumkake technique, but oh, the results are sweet anyway!

My next-door neighbors enjoyed krumkake for the first time this year and loved them. Friend Karen, steeped in things Norwegian and Danish, took her gift of krumkake and filled them with lemon curd and whipped cream to share with friends.  Friend Kris, of Danish descent, remarked, upon receiving the expected bag of my biscotti along with krumkake: “All this and krumkake, too!”

Alchemy: Christmas Cookies

December 24th, 2009

The recipe is both precise and vague.  My Grandmother Mae wrote it in her hand and noted it was from P.V. Hansen, which P.V. Hansen’s wife, grandmother of my classmate, Alice.  There’s a teaspoon each of ginger and cinnamon. The leavening is “4 teaspoons of vinegar in which put 3 teaspoons of soda.”  Flour:  ‘Plenty of’ she wrote.

Grandmother—she was quite formal and demanded to be called ‘Grandmother,’ never Grandma or Gramma—was known for her wonderful pies and crust and her ginger cookies.

Grandmother Mae's Ginger Cookies

Grandmother used one round cookie cutter with scalloped edges for her entire batch. Her cookies were thin and crisp, and in my memory, never jagged or tough.

My Mom, Grandmother’s  daughter-in-law, taught me to make them. We branched out into many, many shapes with Mom’s family cookie cutters including lions, sheep, fish, and birds.  I’ve added buffalo, tiny bears, and angels.

Mary Gunderson' 2009 Ginger Cookies for Christmas

The number of cookies depends on the size of the cookie cutters, the eating habits of the cookie makers, and how many times to re-roll the dough. My best cookie rolling secret is this:  mix equal parts sugar and all-purpose flour for the rolling medium.  The mixture lessens the chance of adding too much flour, which will make the cookies tough.

My 5th grade neighbor rolled cookies with me this year. She especially liked to knead the cookie dough and found it easier to roll that way.  The trade-off is that the cookies will be less tender.

Grandmother Mae’s Ginger Cookies

Adapted from the original

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup butter, softened

2 eggs

1 cup molasses

About 6 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

4 teaspoons vinegar

3 teaspoons soda

In mixer, cream sugar and butter.  Beat in eggs and molasses.  In separate bowl, combine flour, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Stir flour into molasses mixture.  Mix vinegar and soda and add immediately.  Stir just until combined.

Chill dough about 1 hour.

Remove dough and with a small section at a time, roll in half flour/half sugar mixture to desired thickness.  Shape cookies with cutters.  Transfer to parchment-paper lined cookie sheets.  Bake in 350° F oven for about 10 minutes or until set.

Continue with all cookies.  Cool on wire racks and store in air-tight container.

Makes 80 to 100 cookies, depending on cookie cutter size.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, 2009

Playing for Keeps in Pakistan and Afghanistan

December 21st, 2009

Greg Mortenson seems more like an avatar, the embodiment of a principle, than a real live, flesh-and-blood human. He is a hero to me and I got to see and hear him in person December 18, 2009 in Bloomington, Minnesota, where I was one of a thousand people who came to be inspired and left energized.

Greg travels with friends, including his chihuahua.

For anyone who dreams of world peace and has a secret desire to save the world from poverty, violence, and ignorance, Greg seems too good to be true. He lacks sarcasm and breathless self-promotion.

Greg Mortenson greets students in Korphe, Pakistan, the village where the Central Asia Institute built its first school with the support of Haji Ali, Mortenson's mentor and inspiration.
Greg Mortenson greets students in Korphe, Pakistan, the village where the Central Asia Institute built its first school with the support of Haji Ali, at left, Mortenson’s mentor and inspiration.

How ya gonna get your brand out there without those?

He does it and has been for 17 years. Humble, earnest, tenacious, and possessing a gentle sense of humor, Greg builds relationships and schools and more in isolated tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since 1993, he has spent 75 months, more than six years, in the two countries. His first book, Three Cups of Tea, is required reading for top military advisors, including Secretary of Defense Gates, and all US Special Forces troops serving in Afghanistan. Greg’s work to promote peace through education, especially for girls, has brought him to the short list of people who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Under the flag of the Central Asia Institute, based in Bozeman, Montana, he raises money to build schools in the same areas where the Taliban, Afghanis, and troops from the US, Britain, and many other countries vie for hearts and minds. The thing is, Greg credits his success to tribal elders. It’s left to the rest of us to credit this remarkable man for showing how one person can and is making a difference in the face of what seems impossible.

Tribal leaders try out the playground swings at Afghanistan's new girl's high school, built by the community and Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute.

A recent example:  His organization set a goal to build the first high school for girls for five provinces in Afghanistan, the same area that’s home to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The CAI gave themselves 20 years to make it happen.  It took just one year and includes a playground. Elders from another area expressed an interest in building their own girls’ high school and were invited to meet at the new school. Before the meeting began, the men insisted on seeing the playground and in minutes, they were swinging. Old men who have lived through 30 years of war and strife were playing, joyfully. They quickly approved a school in their area; the playground to be built first.

Follow Greg Mortenson on Twitter.