Tag Archives: Cooking

Cooking for Friends

House Rule #1: Maximum Fun!

One of the finest aspects of a work schedule structured around the academic school year is the three-month reprieve that marks summer vacation.  An educator devotes all of her year to working with students – long hours, wearying weeks and responsibilities that seem never to end, bewildering efforts that are seldom adequately compensated… at least, not by salary.  Boarding school life adds extra pounds to the professional weight, since school life is inseparable from home life.  A teacher or tutor remains a teacher or tutor, on-call even at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.  This uninterrupted stress is relieved on the last, blessed day of the school year.

We seize upon the freedom of summer as hungrily as if we’ve been on a yearlong cleanse.  I untether myself from tutoring appointments, becoming a freewheeler who runs at six in the morning and stays out late with friends if she feels like it; released from his second home in the classroom, my husband stays up all night and sleeps until noon.  We use the humble savings we’ve accumulated throughout the year to travel: visiting family, camping, and making the annual pilgrimage to the cabin my grandfather built for my grandmother, nestled deep in the woods of central Idaho.  This year, we invited friends to join us.

I love working at a boarding school.  I love the high school students’ energy, I’ve met incredible faculty families from around the world, and I have never had so many engaging, quirky lunchtime conversations.  My friends are some of the hardest working teachers, counselors, tutors, and administrators I know.  My life is better for knowing them, which is why I thought it would be fun to invite them to my own private Idaho – to commune, cook for them, and laugh without reserve.

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I’ve been coming to the log cabin since I was a baby.  I have pictures to prove it: a chunky toddler, all pudgy thighs and blond ringlets in a flowered swimsuit, wiggling her toes in the riverbank’s soft, white sand; a seven-year-old brunette in a short sleeved red dress, gazing out the window of a car into a swath of established, fragrant ponderosas, blurred olive and amber brown; a gawky teenager, outfitted in silver braces and a strange black skirt, caressing her aunt’s thick-haired Kairn Terriers; a bride on her wedding day, resting on a bed of pine needles outside the kitchen window.  I married at the little church in the wildwood.  I catered my own reception and held it at the cabin, where we blew bubbles over the river and partied long into the night at the town saloon.

Of all the places I’ve lived or travelled to, the cabin feels most like home.  I feel most like myself there.  I remember how much my grandfather enjoyed inviting guests to the cabin, particularly in autumn when the sycamore trees flared golden before browning and shedding their leaves in the river.  He flourished in the company.  He loved playing Scrabble late into the night (and he usually won – with triple word scores using the high-point letters).  I think he also savored his guests’ appreciation of the home he’d built in the woods, of the area’s raw scenic beauty. I hope to perpetuate my grandfather’s legacy of laughter and communion by sharing the cabin with friends.

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On this trip, I cooked:

Kielbasa with wild rice, green beans, green salad
Penne alla vodka, garlic bread, crisp salad
Pulled pork in spicy chipotle sauce, jasmine rice, black beans with green chiles
Gruyere egg casserole with mushrooms and tomatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes
Crème brulée bread pudding and margarita lime pie (a birthday celebration!)

My friends asked: “Are you sure you want to cook for us?” Unequivocally yes.  I would make a living out of it if I could.  The act of food preparation quiets my frenetic mind; sharing with others soothes my soul.  Their pleasure is my pleasure; their company, my extreme good fortune.  Cooking for them is an earnest gesture of appreciation.

While our children played in the river, riding its currents on ancient black rubber inner tubes and building castles in the sand, I held vigil in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and sautéing.  My friends went on hikes, biked the area trails, tubed, read books, and sunbathed.  I registered their comings and goings as I cooked, smiling into the pans sizzling on the stove, and squeezed in pockets of time to run, read, and write as well. When we all sat down at the dining table, huddled together under the big brass lantern, the rugged outline of pine trees silhouetted in dwindling evening light, I watched my friends dig into what I’d made, delighted by their enjoyment and delighted to share this time with them.

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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