I Am Woman, Watch Me Soar

I’m taking a little detour today, March 8, because it’s International Women’s Day, and March is Women’s History Month.

This is a special time to honor great women and the women who will be great.  It’s a time to appreciate the efforts of the wise and brave females who forged and those who continue to forge this rough path to independence, respect, and equality.

You go, girls.

Because Women’s History Month is also a time to recognize the unique issues that women face in today’s society, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I don’t want to rehash the recent idiocy behind the idea of an all-male congressional committee hearing on female contraceptive insurance coverage that reportedly wouldn’t allow comment from women.  Nor do I want to relive through my computer keyboard the subsequent radio host’s chauvinistic and discriminatory rant dujour on the same subject.  But I will say this: It’s the freakin’ 21st century!  C’mon, guys.

Women make up more than half the population in this country.  Why do we find we’re still climbing that tall, treacherous mountain to obtain equal rights?  After all these years, after all the great contributions and accomplishments from women everywhere, why?

I wish I knew the answer.  I only know that our day will come.  Victory will be ours.  I know that because the big difference between the women’s movement toward equality and the current men’s stronghold, is that women are better at taking care of each other.  Women grow themselves and their surroundings together, while most men tend to move apart from one another no matter what goal they are trying to achieve.  And that difference makes me proud and glad to be a woman.

But the fight is ongoing.  Suffice it to say, we need to step it up, ladies.  Stay informed, stay strong and dedicated — not just this day or this month, but always and forever.

As I type these words, I stop briefly to remove my sweater because I am having a hot flash.  I don’t have a lot of these flashes, thankfully, but they do pop up now and again  — just to remind me that I am a woman.  Apparently, Mother Nature has a sense of humor.

Like I needed a reminder.  I need a reminder to put the trash cans out on Thursday nights, or to take my vitamins.  But a reminder of my gender?  Never.  I don’t need hot flashes for that.  The business world, the political world, and society in general reminds me of that in many ways every day.

Though the independence of women was a quite different venture in my mother’s world than it is in mine, and in her mother’s world even more so, there is an undeniable common thread connecting us all.  Strength.  Women are inherently strong, on so many levels, and you can’t squelch that forever.

So, forge on, sisters.  And take a moment today to remember and honor the important women in your life — and the men who easily offer them love and respect.  Honor the women you cherish, the women who taught you how wild and wonderful this gender can be.  Take care of them and yourselves.

Together, strong, healthy, supportive, committed. That’s how you get things done, boys.

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Give Me the Simple Life

As a kid growing up in the 60s, in a house filled with music and two parents who loved to sing out loud, I learned as a youngster to love the greats: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers, Rosemary Clooney, Boots Randolph, most of the Big Bands, and of course, Doris Day.

When Day sang her signature lyric, Que Sera, Sera, in the late 50s, she may not have known it then, but she was setting the tone for generations to come.

Que Sera, Sera, Whatever will be, will be.

The future’s not ours to see,

Que sera, sera, What will be, will be.

Truer words have never been spoken.  Or have they?  The Rat Pack’s Frank Sinatra told us That’s life, and a few years later Paul McCartney lyrically advised us to Let it be.  The same message in different tunes tells us life is going to do what it’s going to do, and we’d better learn to roll with the punches.  Or, as country star Jo Dee Messina suggests, You gotta bend when the wind blows.

Plain, simple advice that translated into today’s language means, It is what it is.

If that’s the case, then I’ve gotta be me  — thanks to Sammy Davis Jr. for that directive.  Which means that a sense of humor — and a large tumbler of wine — will go a long way toward getting me through the rough days in my currently upended life.

Unemployment, depleted retirement accounts, foreclosures and the like don’t scare me anymore.  They depress me, sure, but they don’t scare me.  What scares me is not having wine in the house and no gas in the car to go get some wine.  It appears that on a limited income I can’t afford gassing up the car and me on the same day.

Which is unfortunate because if I’ve discovered one simple thing through this reinvention it is that the more wine I have in the evening, the less I care about what kind of day I’ve had.  And as long as I have a chicken in the oven and wine in the fridge, I know I’ll be OK.  Hell, I’m more than OK — I’ve got riches beyond compare.

“I wonder what the poor people are doing.” my dad would often say at our modest, middle-class dinner table when I was a kid, casting a glance and a wink at my mom.  It was a signal of thanks for another great meal; a frequent, loving sentiment that said, “Wow, look how lucky we are.”

And he offered the compliment even when it was just our typical end-of-the-month meal of franks and beans.

These days, my thrifty end-of-month meal is a redo of leftovers on toasted bread — a quick and filling meal whose real appeal lies in its flexibility.  In an article I recently wrote for The Daily Muse, I described the clever crostini as a blank canvas whose options are endless.  Not only are crostini the perfect party food, but the finished product will make even the painfully novice host look like a rock-star chef.

Take a long look inside your refrigerator and pantry.  If it would be good on a sandwich, in a salad, or over pasta, it would be great on crostini — a small toasted slice of bread, usually French or Italian.  It’s fast, easy, and pretty enough for company.  Top your crostini with anything from sliced flank steak and melting blue cheese to olive tapenade or fresh chopped summer tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil.

When life drops you at the desperate point between slim pickens for dinner and next week’s paycheck, grab a baguette and take another long look in your fridge and pantry.  A little creativity in the kitchen will have you living the good, simple life in no time.

Hmm.  I wonder what the poor people are doing.

 

CROSTINI

Slice your favorite baguette into 1/2 inch-thick slices.  Brush lightly with olive oil and grill or bake until golden in color.  Top with whatever your heart and stomach desire.  Some versions are perfect just topped; others can be topped and then broiled or heated to melt cheese or reheat ingredients.  Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Leftover rotisserie chicken, caramelized onions and herbed goat cheese — a delightful combination.  A drop of two of smoky barbecue sauce can add a kick.
  • Shaved deli turkey, shredded Swiss cheese, and finely chopped chives and dried cranberries.  Heat to melt cheese, or not — your call.
  • Top leftover grilled tilapia with a slice of fontina cheese and sprinkle with fresh lemon zest.  Pop back into the oven just until the delicate fontina begins to melt.  Serve with pineapple/tomato salsa.  Kicks your everyday tuna melt up a notch.
  • Mix chopped leftover roasted shrimp, avocado, seedless cucumber, fresh tomatoes, and finely chopped shallot or red onion with a light splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  Serve a spoonful on top of warm crostini.  Great for a lazy Sunday brunch.
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Let’s Make a Deal

Writing, writing, writing.  Words, sentences, paragraphs.  My fingers sing clickety-clack out loud as they dance on my keyboard.  It’s a new week, new year and I’m busy in my home office.   A few recent writing projects have kept me busy over the past few weeks (thankfully!), but they’ve also kept me from my appointed rounds here at The Blog.

The holidays have come and gone, and as usual they flew past before I had time to fully immerse myself in all the festivities.  I did, however, find the time to indulge in plenty of calories — both solid and liquid, thank you very much.

Now, on this sunny but very cold day, a tiny glimpse of spring just peeking around the corner like a giggly toddler playing hide-n-seek has me thinking I should be moving my legs instead of my fingers.  Calories taken in must be calories sent packin’.  Resting my chin in my hand, I stop to ponder, yet again, my next sentence, my next move, my next life.

And that’s when I heard it.  The soft murmur of the panettone bread pudding leftovers calling me from the cold, dark fridge 30 feet away.   Why is it that comfort food speaks louder than the carrot sticks and apples sitting smugly in the back of the fridge?  Why don’t I ever hear their uppity little voices calling out to me?  Because they don’t care if I notice them or not, that’s why.  They are unsociable, despite their appearances at parties everywhere.  Veggie sticks and fresh, healthy fruit slices don’t know how to have fun — not without some help from dips and such.  They have few friends — usually only other foodie outcasts such as rice cakes, naked celery (no peanut butter), and bottled water.  And they wouldn’t know an indulgent moment if it hit them in the face. . . . if they had faces, that is.  But I digress.

I started out the day with black coffee, followed by a mixed berry yogurt and my homemade trail mix: plain walnuts, beer nuts, dried cranberries, and bittersweet chocolate chips.   (The beer nuts were a last minute substitute for the plain almonds at the top of my grocery list.)  I felt the meal was, in the grand scheme of things, a semi-healthy one, given the antioxidant and other good-health accolades of the cranberries, walnuts, and dark chocolate — and the fact that I had earlier thought about turning the cut away crusts of the panettone into decadent French toast with warmed maple syrup and a dusting of powdered sugar.

I could have gone there, but I didn’t.  I could have been really, really bad, but I wasn’t.  Because, let’s face it, if I’m having panettone French toast, I’m going to add some bacon slices to the menu so the salty offsets the sweet, syrupy, eggy bread.  Just rounding out the flavors.

But now I hear the bread pudding saying things like, “C’mon, you know how good I would taste with another cup of coffee . .  .” and “Nobody stays with a healthy eating routine in the first couple weeks of a new year, especially when two of those Mondays are federal holidays!”

I will not be led to failure by refrigerated bread pudding!  It is nearly lunchtime, so maybe I’ll opt for a tuna sandwich or cup of soup.  Somehow, with the melodic beckonings from the leftover bread pudding still resonating within my brain, tuna doesn’t sound so appealing.  Instead, I compromise.  One tiny piece of the panettone bread pudding in exchange for 30 minutes of dancing to the oldies in my living room and one 30 minute dog walk.  That should do it.  Compromise is good for the soul, I tell myself.

And so, too, is the delightfully decadent Italian powerhouse waiting for me in the fridge.

Panettone -- a fragrant, sweet Italian bread perfect for French toast or bread pudding.

Panettone is not your average bread item.  First of all, it comes wrapped up like a Christmas present.  You gotta’ love that.  And it has an aroma like nothing I’ve ever known.  It is so fragrant that simply removing the tight paper wrapper releases the exhilarating charm of this fruit-studded, delicately sweet, soft-as-silk bread.

The good thing about a compromise made between me and me is I’m unable to skirt a deal made with myself . . . because I wouldn’t stand for it . . .  I’d hold me to it . . . we shook hands on it, you know.  Whatever.

My mother used to make bread pudding with raisins that was warm and filling and creamy good.  But when I tried Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for bread pudding, well, it took the old fashioned dessert of my youth to another level.  It’s the panettone that does it.  Of course, in true fashion, I added a little something to the recipe and left off a little something.  More compromises.

Once the 30 minute exercise deal has been met, it’s straight to the fridge for my payoff.  Then a walk for the dogs before getting back to the keyboard.  Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack . . .  All in a day’s work.

PANETTONE BREAD PUDDING  (My version of a Giada De Laurentiis recipe)

Cut down the middle of the panettone’s tall, round frame and inside you’ll see the color of a yellow cake mix just before it’s poured into its greased and floured pans.  Studded with bits of candied fruit, panettone is delicious when sliced thick, toasted and spread with real butter, or, as earlier suggested, dipped in beaten egg, pan fried into golden submission and served alongside smoky ham or thick-sliced bacon.  But if you want to really surprise the family, resist the urge to showcase the panettone at the breakfast table.  Instead, dazzle family and guests with a rich, homey dessert they’ll talk about for weeks to come.  I put my spin — and a nod to my mom — on this recipe by adding vanilla and fresh lemon zest.  Giada’s recipe includes a cinnamon syrup topping for the pudding; I opted to leave it off because I think the pudding is absolutely perfect without it.  To see the recipe featuring the syrup go to her website or http://www.foodnetwork.com/.   (Panettone bread can be hard to find in stores once the holiday season has ended, but many specialty or Italian stores carry it, and it can be ordered online.)

  •  Butter (don’t you just love a recipe ingredient list that begins with the word butter?)
  • One 2-pound loaf panettone bread, crusts trimmed, bread cut into one-inch cubes (Giada’s recipe calls for a 1-pound loaf, so I adjusted the recipe to fit the size loaf I already had on hand.)
  • 10 large eggs
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • 3 and 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 and 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 heaping tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest

Lightly butter a very large, oblong baking dish.  (Mine is about 10 x 13 x 2.)  Arrange the bread cubes in the dish.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, milk, and sugar to blend.  Add the vanilla and lemon zest and blend well.  Pour the custard mixture over the bread cubes and press on the bread cubes gently with your (clean!) hands to submerge them in the custard.  Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, occasionally pressing the bread cubes into the custard mixture.  (Can be prepared two hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)

Bake at 350 degrees until the pudding puffs and is set in the center, about 45 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly.  Spoon the bread pudding into bowls and serve with fresh berries, freshly whipped cream, or Giada’s cinnamon syrup (see her original recipe).

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A Tasty Diversion

In the delightful Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks film, You’ve Got Mail, there is a point at which Meg’s character realizes she’s in a very tough fight — it’s Christmas time and she is desperately trying to save her business, her livelihood.  In the middle of this fight, she remains upbeat and casually waves away a nagging feeling of inevitable doom with the classic line, “Meanwhile, I’m putting up more twinkle lights.”

It’s the great diversion.  You can’t hurt me if I don’t allow myself to feel the hurt.  It’s the  self-defense jab that says that even if her enemy ends up winning the round it will go nearly unnoticed if the defeated one refuses to take ownership of the painful loss.

In other words, positive thinking.  I’m trying the same thing these days, which is considerably easy, since it’s the Christmas season and I love nothing more than an overabundance of twinkle lights at this time of year.  While it may sound like an ignorant dismissal, the change in focus is a way to cope with the ongoing and uncontrollable car wreck that appears to be my life right now.

Lately, I could go crazy trying to decipher the page-long, convoluted online job descriptions that scream so loudly for a rewrite that I can barely hear myself groan as I read them.  Some are so badly jumbled, so irritatingly loquacious, that I have to laugh when I think about the poor schmuck who had to come up with this description.  In exchange for an hourly pittance — and medical benefits after six months!  Yipee! — the job applicant is expected to have Einstein’s brain capacity, the marketing skills of Donald Trump, the success rate of Steve Jobs, and the team-building skills of Starbucks.

LOL.  These over-the-top job descriptions are much needed comic relief until I realize I desperately need the job I wouldn’t want in a million years.  Hard to be positive about that.  Bah humbug.  I need a diversion.

Where Meg had her twinkle lights, I’ve got fresh lemons right off my tree and the last of the fresh basil off my windowsill.  The culinary versatility and reliability of three absolute year-round staples of my kitchen: lemon, basil, and chicken, puts me in a better mood.  Their flexibility and teamwork give me a lift.  I love chicken — I think I’ve said that here before — and I love to combine it with many varied flavors that lend themselves deliciously to the sometimes bland and boring chicken breast.

Dive in, goat cheese! You'll love it!

Today, it was a blending of the colors of Christmas, with fresh herbs, dried cranberries and a sprinkling of lemon zest smothering a pat of creamy white goat cheese.  The result was a testimony to the perfection and power of complementary flavors, and as I enjoyed the last bite, I made a mental note to ensure the word teamwork is somewhere on my resume.

It is the holiday season — the time for hope and miracles.  We are nearing the end of another year, and my heart and soul are holding the hope that the New Year will bring me better days, better opportunities — and a job description I can warm up to.

In the meantime, I’m putting up more twinkle lights . . . and preheating the oven.

TART & ZESTY CHICKEN w/HERBED GOAT CHEESE

Glammed-up chicken breast with goat cheese, herbs and fresh lemon zest.

The versatility of the lofty lemon goes largely untapped by many cooks who have no idea how it can complement so many different dishes from sweet to savory.  Here, a thick pat of plain goat cheese is allowed to frolic in a pile of fresh lemon zest, dried cranberries, chopped smoked almonds, and slivers of fresh herbs, before being tucked in for a nap under the skin of the chicken breast.  Experiment with your favorite herbs, or choose pecans instead of almonds.  Design the dish to your liking — it’s a great diversion from every-day woes.

  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped or cut into slivers
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons fresh chopped sage (or thyme, tarragon, rosemary, if you prefer)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped smokehouse-flavored almonds
  • 2 tablespoons sweetened dried cranberries (such as Craisins), roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 2 large, plump, boneless chicken breasts, skin on
  • 4 thick slices plain goat cheese (about one 4 oz. log)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine the first 5 ingredients in a small, shallow bowl or plate.  Lightly press each goat cheese slice into the herb mixture, coating all exposed areas of the cheese; set aside.

Gently use your finger to loosen the skin from the chicken breast, making sure not to tear the skin.  Tuck two slices of the glammed-up goat cheese next to each other underneath the skin of each chicken breast, gently pulling the skin over the cheese pats to cover as much of the breast as possible.

Drizzle the top of the chicken breasts with olive oil, and sprinkle well with salt and pepper.  Squeeze a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice over the chicken.  Place the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken breasts.  Remove from oven and tent with foil, allowing the chicken a few minutes to rest.  Slice crosswise into thick slices, showing off the creamy-herby goodness in every bite!

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Holiday Traditions & Reinventions

I opened up the house today to air it out before the fireplace season really kicks in.  The sun was out, there was a great, chilly breeze, and I wanted to finally flush the house of a spent Summer and fill it with the winds of Fall and the scent of holiday pine.  It’s invigorating and has the feel of a fresh, new start.  Like a clean sheet of paper on the first day of school.  Jotting down my thoughts, I wrote . . .

Enjoying Fall,

the cool, crisp breeze

brings sweet aroma of cakes baking.

Hey, that was fun!  I haven’t written a haiku since it was an English assignment back in high school.  Long, long time ago.  I tried another one . . .

Holiday dread,

no money for gifts,

bills pile up, treats go to my hips.

Ok, so much for that.  Before my unemployment anxiety has a chance to take hold, I shake it off and try to cast a positive glance toward the incoming holidays.  Tis the season to be jolly, right?

But it’s going to be a bit difficult this year to be jolly when all around me are holiday traditions I can’t participate in as I normally would, such as planning a shopping list for just the right gifts for friends and family, or making a long grocery list for a table so full of food that it might appear to be the last supper, sharing laughs and a glass or two of wine with longtime coworkers at the office party, frantic last-minute treks to the mall, evenings spent wrapping a mountain of gifts on my huge coffee table while watching an old holiday favorite like White Christmas or Pocketful of Miracles.

Time for concessions — or reinventions.  This year I’ll revisit the simple gifts of the season in the one place that has always been the center of holiday festivities for as long as I can remember: the kitchen.  Hanging my wreath on faith, hope, and love — instead of Macy’s, Visa, and Amazon.com — I’m looking forward to losing myself in the midst of sweet treats and baked traditions that were the basis for my joy of cooking and baking.

Anticipating the upcoming festivities, I sat down on the couch with my mother’s recipe box, which includes scraps of paper, magazine clippings, and a small recipe journal where she has recorded ingredients and instructions for creating her family’s favorites: simple, familiar, delicious gems like chicken tortilla casserole, layered strawberry Jello salad, and the ever-popular sherry wine cake that she usually reserved for the holiday season.

You simply can’t beat the intoxicating aroma of this moist cake.

Whenever I need a little holiday cheer, I make this cake.  Depending on my position in life, that can sometimes happen in July.  As it bakes, the aroma weaves itself through the house until every room smells like a tiny, crowded French bakery.  The house seems to swell as it inhales the spicy sweet aroma, and the fragrance lingers like an undisturbed patch of snowflakes hiding in the shade of a thicket.

It’s a glorious food memory of my youth, of Christmases past, of holiday parties long over.   In December, when the decor in my childhood home took on a red and green hue, we’d find this cake on a dining table that proudly displayed mom’s homemade fudge, my dad’s special penuche, and many other sweet offerings that friends and relatives had come to expect out of our holiday kitchen.  I can close my eyes today and easily recall the many aromas and the memories that stroll hand-in-hand with them through my mind.  Certain traditions are meant to live on, even as they outlive the home cooks who happily prepared them for family and guests.  This cake is one of those traditions.

I don’t know where it originated before the recipe ended up in my mother’s recipe journal, but I know ours isn’t the only household to bake a version of this cake.  And, as I’m always tempted to tweak, especially in my current reinvention state, I added an ingredient to glam it up and take it to another level.

It’s good practice, this practice of reinventing.  It increases interest and promises something new — even when the original is an oldie.

SHERRY WINE CAKE

If you’ve got a home appraisal coming up or prospective buyers walking through, this is the cake you want in the oven for that special moment.  The house will smell fantastic.  My mother’s version of this cake never called for pecans but, what can I say?  I love to tweak.  I’ve added candied (or glazed) pecans as opposed to plain pecans because I like to live on the edge.  And I think they go very well with the sherry and nutmeg.  Switch it up if you have a dark side.

  • 1 box yellow cake mix — not the one with pudding in the mix
  • 1 small box instant vanilla pudding
  • 1 healthy teaspoon nutmeg — if using jarred, make sure your jar isn’t outdated; freshly grated nutmeg is wonderful, but potent
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup sherry wine (I used dry sherry)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup candied or glazed pecans, chopped
  • 1/2 cup or more powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; prepare a Bundt or fluted pan with non-stick cooking spray.  With a fork, combine the cake mix, dry pudding mix, and nutmeg.  Add the oil and sherry, and beat with an electric mixer until combined.  Add the eggs one at a time and, using medium speed, beat well after each egg.  Beat batter for another two or three minutes until thoroughly combined and smooth.  Using a spatula, blend in the pecans.  Pour batter evenly in prepared pan and bake for 40 to 50 minutes.  Cake is done when it is golden brown and the edges start to pull away from the pan.  Insert a toothpick into the middle; if it comes out clean, it should be good to go.  Allow to cool in pan; use a knife or spatula to loosen cake from sides of pan; invert onto a plate or platter.  Dust with powdered sugar before slicing and serving.  Great with a glass of champagne or a rich cup of tea!

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