Aldra’s Blocks

Our niece Aldra is already 7 months old. She spends parts of each day sitting in a chair. She’s reading at a 10 or 11 month level. She wears 100% Peruvian Highland hats. Needless to say, she has a refined palette and the discriminating tastes to match. When deciding on a gift for her, I knew I had to step up my game.

I made her a set of knitted blocks. She can nest them:

Blocks, nested

Stack them:

Blocks, stacked

Or pose them side by side:

Blocks, posed side by side

For each block, I knit a square for each each side plus the base. Then I sewed some plastic mesh to each square and seamed the four vertical sides into a long rectangle. I hand-sewed fabric lining to the sides and base, then joined them into boxes. Finishing these took a lot longer than you’d think, but was totally worth it:

Special thanks to Eric for doing everything around the house during my sewing/seaming crunch week. And special thanks to Jesse the color/fabric guidance, and for giving me the book containing this pattern.

Exciting Update! This post was republished over on Pinecone Junction!

What I ate for breakfast

The first thing you eat in the morning should be fantastic. So it may as well be this:

1)  Homemade oatmeal bread, toasted. Unable to make your own homemade bread? Marry someone obsessed with baking!

2)  Peanut butter. Normally I advocate for lots and lots of peanut butter, but a thin layer is best here because we don’t want to overpower thing #3. All we’re really going for is protecting thing #3 from melting due to the heat of the toast.

3)  Dark chocolate sprinkles!!! To get these, you need to have dear friends who went to Amsterdam and brought some back for you. Oh wait–you can get them on Amazon, too!

This is as fine of a breakfast as one can possibly eat.

Colm Toibin: The Empty Family

I heard a great description of what makes a compelling story. A few weeks ago I was at a talk and reading by the great Irish author Colm Tóibín. He had guest-edited a local literary journal and spoke about what all of the chosen stories and poems had in common. Imagine a film projected onto the wall of a room, he said. Light from the windows prevents you from seeing any more than indiscriminant flickering on the wall. But certain stories, or even the juxtaposition of two particular words in a poem, have the power to darken the room. And then you can see clearly, even if for a short time.

I have enjoyed thinking about this image: a story darkening a room. Not everything means something, and to worry about what a story is intended to mean can greatly diminish its power. But stories affect us—they do things to us and change what we see around us. They allow us to access buried feelings, they resonate with our memories, give us the compassion that comes with seeing a tiny bit of what’s real.

Almost as a demonstration of room-darkening, Tóibín read the story “Two Women” from his most recent book, The Empty Family. “Two Women” is about one woman’s chance encounter with the woman for whom, decades earlier, the love of her life left her. As the story and its prickly protagonist moved through to its final scene, and then resolved into silence, the room seemed changed. Darker, and smaller too: the walls and corners fuzzy, and the reader and story sharply focused. A moment of clear understanding which joined everyone in the room together, just a little.

* * *

After the reading, I bought a copy of The Empty Family and had it signed. I never know what to say in these situations, so had decided to say nothing. But, when the moment arrived I opened my mouth and told him how I’d never heard of him until a month ago when I read his story “The Street” in McSweeney’s. And I was so moved by the story that I immediately went and read his novel The Blackwater Lightship. I’m glad I said something, because it led to an interesting little conversation. He felt some ambivalence about having his story published in McSweeney’s. They edited the story, shortening it quite a bit, and changing (ruining?) the tone in the process. But in the end he decided to have it published anyway. Good, I said, because I would never have stumbled across his writing. And, because the full version is in the book, I get to look forward to reading it for the first time all over again.

* * *

The week after the reading, I was sick, and while E. was at work, I was at home reading through The Empty Family. Because Tóibín mentioned the altered tone of “The Street” to me several times, I couldn’t help but see each story through the lens of tone and mood. During the reading, Tóibín’s voice changed, which helped demarcate the tone of each section of the story. I noticed that on my own, if I read too quickly, I missed this. But, if I read slowly enough, the tonal changes came through, though a little more gradually than when read aloud. Each word cast a new shadow, gradually but powerfully changing late afternoon light into dusk.

One of my favorites, “One Minus One” is not a happy story, per se. It’s about the death of the narrator’s mother, and is told wistfully and elegiacally to a former lover. It’s not cheerful reading, but the tone is so understanding, compassionate, and honest, that reading it felt restorative. The story was a real friend to me at a moment when I was sick and lonely.

What the doodle: handrail

Every few weeks at work, a word is chosen at random, and folks make doodles inspired by the word. The artists on staff participate in the greatest numbers, but others join in too. Last time, two fellow members of the tech team submitted a haiku and a photograph, so I pledged to myself that I would write a super-short story for the next word.

And the next word turned out to be…handrail.  I made a noble attempt at a story, but it wasn’t working, so I ended up submitting a little scene. Here it is:

During the first week of school, the building is still under renovation, unfinished from the summer, and students have been warned not to fraternize with construction workers. (“Fraternize” has appeared on the vocabulary list of each 9th grade English class.) The school is in flux. Every day, courtyards disappear, and hallways close up, then open again, angled in new ways. Lockers rearrange themselves during 2nd and 3rd periods. In the staircase between science and history, a handrail has begun to climb the wall, inching towards the ceiling.

Even better, here’s what everyone else did, on the Creative Juices blog!

At the Carmel Mission

On our recent trip to the Monterey Bay, E. and I stopped by the Carmel Mission. A slightly dilapidated charm infused our visit. The building and gardens were genuinely pretty, but the contrast between the sacredness of the space and its shabby chic décor really made it for me.

Inside, the main space was dimly lit by mismatched chandeliers, some verging on gaudy, some plain. One was exactly like what hangs in my parent’s dining room, and another I wanted to steal. A tiny window in a side chapel was my favorite interior moment—brightly colored, hand painted designs on the stucco wall encircled the rather plain window. This seemed to sum up the whole space: it seemed loved, even if there hadn’t ever been enough money to love it properly. (By contrast, our visit to the Hearst Castle showed exactly what can be done with enough money. And it was extraordinary, but just a little less inspiring.) While we were lurking around, some organ boys showed up and started playing. The first one broke the silence with a haunting, murky improvisation, which elevated the mood of our entire visit into something more mysterious and enchanting.

Outside it was spring, and the gardens mixed plants with pavement in an inviting way. I’m often drawn to urban and courtyard gardens because of how lovely everything looks against a backdrop of stone (or in this case stucco). Here’s a cell phone shot:

Carmel Mission

And two details:

Carmel Mission, no admittance, fake owl
No admittance, fake owl
Carmel Mission Detail
My little window, but from the outside

With our admission, we got a Padre trading card! This guy started the Carmel Mission, and he’s memorialized on a collectible card. He’s now my favorite bookmark, and he’s also a reminder of the idiosyncrasy of the Carmel Mission: the kitschy gift shop, the splendid gardens, the do-it-yourself décor, the organ boys showing off to each other, old people praying, cracks in the walls.

"He took the name of Junipero."

Exciting developments with seafood

This winter, I’ve been learning how to cook fish.  Every Saturday morning at the winter farmer’s market, I’ve been buying super-fresh fish from the Globe Fish ladies (direct from Boston Fish Pier) and every Saturday evening I’ve been gaining confidence and mastering the two central challenges of fish-cookery:

  • how to turn it over in the pan without destroying it, and
  • how to know when it’s done.

My guide has been “Ad Hoc at Home” by Thomas Keller, which E. received as a holiday gift from his boss.  It claims to contain “family-style recipes” but at first glance the recipes seemed too fussy for my cooking style (duck…roux…gastrique…).  But, there are some good basics here, and well-written instructions.

Ad Hoc At Home

Caramelized sea scallops. I made these three different weeks, partially because they were so good the first week it was all we could think about, partially to practice my scallopsmanship, and partially to use up the clarified butter I made the first week. The scallops from the fish ladies are so sweet. After brining them for a few minutes, searing on each side in the clarified butter, then squeezing on some lemon juice, they’re done. There’s a neat trick to scallops: they stick to the pan until they’re ready to turn. Once they loosen up, they’re ready to flip over, and it’s easy to do it.

Wild cod en persillade.  Yesterday, cod and haddock were the two thickest non-salmon fillets available. Tip from the fish ladies: although the haddock had skin to deal with, it was sweeter than the cod. So I dealt with the skin, which was actually easy to remove with a sharp knife, and made wild haddock en persillade instead. I watered down some whole-grain dijon mustard and brushed it over one side of the fillet, then dipped that side in bread crumbs. A persillade is a mixture of bread crumbs and parsley, but I didn’t have any parsley, so at this point I was making wild haddock en bread crumbs. After one or two minutes in hot pan on the stovetop, I moved it to a warm oven for 8 or so minutes, finishing it up without the need for any messy spatula aerobatics. Joy of Cooking makes the audacious claim that “all fish is done at 137 degrees.” So that’s how I knew it was done.  Yum, yum, and yum.

A new cookbook

For Chrismas, C & A gave us “Mexican Everyday” by Rick Bayless.  Considering the lack of good Mexican restaurants in our neighborhood, and my lack of knowledge about Mexican cooking, it was a most welcome gift.  And also welcome because, in this time of year, in the lull after the holidays, in the bright snow-covered days of the middle of winter, I love spending late weekend afternoons in the kitchen.

Last weekend we inaugurated the book by making two recipes.  First, a mixed-berry Skillet Upside-Down Cake which we enjoyed with some of our neighbors over Banangrams, and then for our New Year’s dinner, Chicken in Oaxacan Yellow Mole with Green Beans and Chayote.

Everyone loved the cake–it was simple and light, yet somehow felt more rich and more generous than it was.  Over the past two years I’ve been baking almost exclusively from Martha Stewart’s “Baking Handbook,” whose recipes are delicious, buttery, and labor intensive.  As much as I enjoy that sort of fussy baking, this cake was a great contrast.  It’s half whole-wheat.  It’s mixed by hand, and quickly.  The finished result is practically eaten straight from the oven–you just invert it onto a plate, admire the jammy berries still bubbling on the top (they look like chocolate), and devour with friends over tea.

Many of the recipes in “Mexican Everyday” contain riffs, or suggested variations.  I appreciate the encouragement to approach cooking from a more improvisatory mind.  The skillet cake recipe called for pineapple.  I went with the frozen berry riff, and used a blend of blueberries, raspberries, and marionberries.

Mexican Everyday

According to Bayless, the yellow mole is much quicker and simpler than other moles. For me, it was plenty complicated.  It sent me around town on a hunt for previously-unknown ingredients: dried guajillo chiles, Mexican–as opposed to Turkish–oregano, masa harina, and hoja santa leaves (I never did find these last two).  It required a blender, a strainer, and faith.  The result was worth the effort: a nuanced, warm, pretty, red-not-yellow sauce, more of a thick broth in which I braised chicken, potatoes, green beans, and chayotes.

Chayotes were another new-to-me ingredient, and were unexpected and sweet.  Though they’re a kind of summer squash, the raw flesh is crisp like an apple, and after cooking they taste somewhere between a potato and a turnip.  Hooray for new squashes, new recipes, new snow on the ground, and a new year!