Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Here

WarriorsImage by sarihuella via Flickr

It's been fascinating to track the spread of swine flu. On the one hand, you have the hysterical alarmists and on the other, those who insist it's nothing to worry about and unlikely most people will come in contact with the disease or be in danger. I tend to side with the latter, mostly because I know the former are providing quite the windfall for the makers of Tamiflu.

Except....if one happens to spend 12 hours a week in close contact with recent arrivals from Mexico who live, work, and visit with other even more recently arrived friends and family from Mexico. Or, say, if one happens to have an autoimmune disease, making it harder to fight off invading microbes.

Of course it was only a matter of time until the disease made it to Portland. Our first probable case was reported today and I'm sure others will follow soon. I've asked all my students to wash their hands before coming into the classroom. We've gone thorough most of a big bottle of hand sanitizer this week and the students are alert to the slightest sneeze or sniffle. I sent one kid home who looked awful, and I'm a little worried about another who was sick two days last week, then came to class on Thursday and apparently had a relapse over the weekend. I'm hoping he's better soon and that no one picked up anything late last week. I'm having my kids wash their hands frequently--my own are raw from regular scrubbing. I'm upping my Vitamin D and following other suggestions from Dr Mercola, and other than that, just hoping for the best.

Stay healthy, everyone!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Which Melisa Comes Out as an Omnivore

There have been a few changes in my kitchen of late. I've written recently about my changing body and my increasing need for protein. I have been madly craving meat in recent months much as I did through two of my pregnancies. I'm pretty sure it's all about the protein and meat is doing the trick.

Vegetarians, I love you, and I'm glad to have you here. But this might be a good time for you to go elsewhere because this post is going to be flesh-heavy. But come back soon, OK? I promise the meat posts will be few and far between.

Anyone still here?


There are only two beef dishes I know how to make and I'm rather burned out on one of them (brisket) which leaves me with my second specialty: beef stew. I recently scored a lovely enameled cast iron Dutch oven which goes from stovetop to oven to table and this purchase was responsible for a sudden glut of beef stew.
I first started making beef stew many years ago during my second pregnancy. Julia Child's recipe in The Way to Cook was so very good that I've never really bothered looking for another. The key? Most of a bottle of red wine. That and tomato puree make for tender meat in a very flavorful sauce.

I make this on the stove top and then transfer to the oven for long, slow cooking, though a crock pot would also be an option. Either way, served with a green salad and some crusty bread, it's hard to come up with a simpler, more satisfying meal.

The recipe is here.
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Here's a little reversible tote bag I just made for a young friend's 8th birthday. It was given to her with a new sketchbook, colored pencils, and fine tipped pens. I'd envisioned her taking her supplies outside and drawing on a pleasant spring day.

Unfortunately there are no pleasant spring days on the horizon. It's chilly and rainy and we're stuck inside today instead of visiting the zoo as planned. The kids (we have 2 extra today) are making the best of it, having turned my dining room into a vast, complicated landscape of block cities populated by elves, tigers, dragons, and....teenagers!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I promised myself I'd lay off the glum posts, so I won't go into detail about my very hard morning. Kaddish and tears--that's about it. That and a wise rabbi who told me to go and do something good in my brother's memory.
I made a donation to the good folks at Growing Gardens and then put on my grubby clothes for a solo afternoon in the garden. Last weekend's glorious weather had sent me eagerly to more than one nursery in search of veggies, herbs, and flowers. Now that our unseasonal heat wave has passed, it seemed a good time to plant. We lost a lot of plants last winter so there are plenty of pots needing to be emptied of dead twigs and refilled with new life. There's so much cleaning and tidying to do. Our yard debris bin is stuffed full with a week to go before pickup so there are bags and piles of clippings and trimmings what need to be moved along.
I swept and shoveled and pulled and dug, and eventually got every little thing in some dirt: strawberries, rudbeckia, rue and motherwort, bok choi and cosmos, echinacea and geranium--all were liberated from their little nursery pots and tucked into soil, some in pots, others in the ground.
It felt good to work hard and I feel more or less back to normal, grateful for the gift of my garden.

For the next few months, I predict you'll be able to find me right about here:

Friday, April 17, 2009

My April

The sun finally came out around here and my thoughts turned to gardening. It's hard to get an early start here in Portland at least for the casual home gardener like myself who has no intention of mucking around with greenhouses and row covers. I just tend to wait out the rain until things look good and then I jump in with a few cool weather transplants and what I fondly refer to as sacrificial tomatoes. Planted in April, they're as likely to wither and sulk as they are to take off and grow beautifully, but some years we get lucky.

But here's the the thing. Inevitably my first serious foray into the garden happens in mid to late-April. And while I'm out there, pulling up bindweed, turning over garden beds, and whacking the hydrangeas back to something manageable, my mind inevitably wanders and I grow quite melancholy. This time of year, so ripe with possibility and optimism, is also terribly sad for me, as it's the very time of year when we lost my brother.

I've written here about my brother before but if you're a new reader the short story is that he took his own life 6 years ago at 33 years old. It's still hard for me to believe how long he's been gone and all that he missed. His son is a sweet, strapping young man with his father's wry sense of humor and love for animals.

When I first get out in the garden, I am always overcome with memories of him. Nothing reminds me of him like growing things. Somehow my brother got his hands on a copy of this book in his teens and from then on he was always growing something, always working proudly on his gardens. When we lived on a huge lot, he would come over and help us beat back the grass and weeds that seemed impenetrable. At that same house, he decided to build us some raised garden just because we hadn't gotten around to it yet. He was famous in his block for running out, post shower, in nothing but a towel, to remove an errant weed. And I'll never forget his excitement showing me the first blossom on his passionflower vine.

The day he died was one of those days when we finally accepted that it was spring and time to get moving in the garden. We headed off to the nursery that day and when we returned home with, among other things, a lovely Autumn Joy sedum, the creepy people from the sheriff's office were waiting for us to break the news.

[big long pause, lots of typing, deleting, re-typing, more deleting.....]

You know what? I don't know where I'm going with this, folks. I thought I had all these deep, weighty things to say about life and death and the changing of the seasons but the words aren't coming and I still can't make sense of what my brother went through, and what my family continues to struggle with. Another year and still no answers. You'd think we'd be used to it and stop asking why. Years pass, seasons change, and there's an ebb and a flow to the sadness as well. It's always worst just as things are bursting into bloom.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Goodbye to All That

I came across a great piece in my morning reading by novelist and academic Alison Lurie. In The day I threw away fashion, she writes lyrically about letting go of commonly held ideas of feminine beauty and the euphoria of being herself. It's a lovely little piece which made me want to cheer out loud. I hope you enjoy it.
Photo by Phyllis Rose

Bollywood Dal

Finally! My love of Bollywood films comes, with complete legitimacy, to Magpie Eats!

I can't even remember where I came across this link, but when I saw that Anil Kapoor was recently a guest on Martha Stewart's show, my curiosity got the best of me. Most of you will know Anil Kapoor as the slightly sleazy game show host in Slumdog Millionaire, but he's made over 100 Indian movies. He has an impressive mustache, very puffy hair, and a rather charming goofiness in the roles I've seen. I think my favorite Anil Kapoor movie must be Nayak which is a wild and occasionally surreal romp through the pitfalls of political power.

But Anil alongside Martha? Not to be missed! He shared his wife's recipe for a very rich dal and appeared to give Martha a run for her money.

Honestly, this isn't the best dal I've made. It's very rich, due to the addition of heavy cream, and the spicing was not as intriguing as I'd hoped. But it's my first recipe from a Bollywood mega-star so I how could I not write about it?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Welcome, Spring!

If you read my last blog post some two weeks ago, you'll know that between starting a new term at work and preparing for Passover, I've been running non-stop. That California vacation seems like months ago. No wonder things have been quiet here--though it's been hopping (relatively speaking) over at Magpie Eats!

Passover got off to a lovely start. We hosted my cranky relatives on the first night. They never stay past dessert to finish the seder, but I'm used to it now and it only drives me a little bit nuts. The Princess decided this was the year she'd learn The Four Questions to ask at the seder, which is kind of a big deal given that it involves singing in Hebrew. With MonkeyBoy's excellent assistance, she learned and snag beautifully and took the responsibility very seriously.

We spent the next two nights with friends, sharing another seder and a festive Shabbat meal complete with silly songs and much hilarity. It was a lovely few days of cooking and eating and talking and laughing and a great deal of wine so I spent the weekend mostly at home and mostly quiet which wasn't bad at all.

Now that things are slightly calmer, I'm gradually turning my thoughts towards the garden. I went out this morning during a sun break between the rain and the hail, and found that, while so much needs attention, thankfully there's a great deal happening despite my neglect.

We have bluebells all over:

The figs are just beginning to make leaf buds:

The peonies and rhubarb are up:

And the andromeda is covered in a froth of scented blossoms:

It was a long, hard winter and we lost quite a few things which we'd had for years, including the Meyer lemon trees that were a gift from my sweetie for our fifth wedding anniversary. Kind of bummed about that.

But the succulents seem to have mostly made it through and today's sun breaks were surely welcome:

It's supposed to start drying out soon and I'm hoping to spend lots of time on yardwork in the coming days. Welcome, Spring!

News to Me

I realize that Romesco Sauce is hardly new on the food scene, and it's one of those things I've been meaning to try for years--maybe even decades. I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to it. Now that I've made my first batch I feel terrible for all the time I've not had this punchy sauce in my life.

I was given the potato assignment for a Passover dinner with friends the other night. Normally I love my potatoes in pretty much any form but I wasn't feeling all that enthusiastic this time around. This may have had something to do with the potato disaster earlier in the week. I'd planned a big pot of simple steamed baby potatoes to serve at our seder. Seder meal planning can be a bit tricky as the pre-meal part can be quite long though we never know exactly how long. This means you want dishes which aren't fussy in terms of timing and heat. I'd thought the steamed potatoes would be a snap but things ran a bit long and next thing I knew people were asking if something was burning. The steaming water had boiled away, leaving my tiny new potatoes well cooked but with a distinctively smoky flavor.

Perhaps it was thoughts of that smokiness that got me thinking about how to mix up my potato assignment just a bit. They had to be simple, of course, for the kids. But a sauce alongside would allow the more adventurous of us to have some fun. Leafing through Martha Stewart's New Classics I came across a recipe for roasted potatoes with Romesco sauce that sounded perfect: smoky and nutty with just a little bite. Also it didn't include the bread which is part of many recipes--something to keep in mind at Passover (and when feeding the gluten-free).

I made only a couple of changes. I used a kosher-for-Passover balsamic vinegar rather than sherry vinegar and even though I had the fresh mint called for in the recipe, I forgot to add it. Once I tasted the delicious sauce I didn't think mint would do anything positive for the overall flavor so I left it out.

The sauce was a huge hit. It perked up the simply roasted baby potatoes nicely. I can't wait to try it on grilled fish or chicken, alongside my basil aioli and a platter of grilled vegetables, and of course once Passover ends, spread on nice, crusty bread.

My version of the recipe is here. Let me know how you use it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pesach Brownies

The seders are over, but there's still plenty of time for Passover treats. Much as I adore it, even I can only eat so much matzoh crack (though I must say that this year's addition of coarse sea salt was brilliant).

I needed a quick dessert to share with friends last night and decided to look through a new cookbook I found the other day at the library: Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen. Its subtitle A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisation pretty much says it all and I'm enjoying coming across the twists on classic dishes.

The Rich Fudge Brownies are lovely. Rather than a dense slab of heavy chocolate, these puff slightly in the oven and feel lighter than any Passover baked dish should. The cocoa flavor is deep and rich and the brown sugar provides a lovely moistness and depth of flavor but they aren't overpowering. I'll admit I'm not a huge brownie fan and I'm not sure these particular ones will make brownie lovers all that happy. But they worked for me. I guess we'll need to put these head to head with the Baked brownies to determine the new house champion.

You'll find the recipe here.