From the Department of Short and Sweet at PTMYB comes this cartoon, brought to my attention by dear friend and reader Laura, who in turn found it from the collector funsters at www.B3TA.com. Thanking you all in advance for not hurting me if you find yourself humming the tune.
What was I thinking last Monday?
I say this not with reproach, but with curiosity. LuthorCorp takes a beating in this space, and well it should, but I must admit that this week I am actually grateful for it. This week was every bit as tough as I’d feared it would be, tougher, even. It was not fun, not by a long shot. It took almost all of my energy reserves and attention. It kept me focused on tasks at hand and enmired in packaging trivia. In short, it kept me distracted, so distracted that I was able to get through Monday.
Monday was October 25, the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death. There is very little I can say this year that I didn’t already say last December, on what would have been his 83rd birthday. I feel much the same as I did this time last year and as I did at Christmas, save, maybe, for the anger that simmered constantly beneath my grief. My grandfather was 82; he had lived long, well and with toughness and grace, and I knew I should have been grateful for that, but I couldn’t be. Having survived two diagnoses of colon cancer, radiation and chemotherapy, he spent the last year of his life in and out of the hospital, getting weaker and sicker and depressed, cancer-free but barraged by other health problems his doctors couldn’t suss out. He died two weeks after what was supposed to be minor surgery to drain fluid off his heart. It turned out that there was no fluid on his heart; his heart was inflamed and beating at only 15% of its normal capacity. On the day he died, I was on a bakery crawl with some of my friends from a baking bulletin board site. My mom was supposed to join us, but three days before, she called me to say she thought she should stay close to Grandpop, as he was not recovering from surgery as well as we’d hoped. I remember being sad for his being in pain, but he had come close to death so many times before, only to bounce back, I never suspected that this time would be any different, any more final.
In the days following his death, I knew I’d be sad, and I was. I knew I’d miss him, and I did (and do still). What I hadn’t counted on was the fury at the unfairness of the end of his life. He had worked hard all his life. He adored his wife and kids. He certainly was braver than I will ever be: he had worked for Bell Telephone when it was the safest job in the world, where once you were in, you were basically guaranteed a job until retirement and a pension after; against the conventional wisdom of the day, he had left the world’s safest gig to start his own business, an answering service that thrived during the decades that he owned it and continued to thrive after he’d sold it and trained the new owners. He had earned a quiet and comfortable death, the kind where you spend your last day on earth taking long walks, playing guitar with your best friend, shooting pool in the afternoon, eating a leisurely and fabulous dinner, kissing your wife goodnight and falling happily to sleep, never waking up again. What he got was something entirely different, something much more painful and depressing, and while I knew that some people wouldn’t even get to have that, and would gladly trade places to have the years he had, I still couldn’t shake the five-year-old’s voice in my head, hollering but it’s not *fair*. I managed to bury that voice until Christmas, or more specifically, until four days before Christmas, my grandfather’s birthday. I would talk to my mom—how heartbroken she was! how I ached for her!—and I wanted to tear to ribbons whatever force of nature would put a person through something like that. Limousine drivers would cut me off in intersections where I had the right of way, and I would have to force myself not to reach through their windows and punch them in the head. Customers would call, asking us did their cartons get delivered? was I sure? well, how did I know?, and I would bite my lip to keep from saying you know, all those cartons will be in some landfill somewhere by the end of January.
My grandfather, of course, would have no patience with this. He was not a fan of weeping at funerals, or of religious funerals. This turned out to be a source of laughter for my mom and stepdad and brother and me, for the minister at my grandfather’s memorial service was filled with talk of Jesus and resurrection, and as he talked ever longer about rising with Jesus, we all sat together, imagining Grandpop muttering “Jesus Christ, this guy doesn’t shut up. I wonder if I’ll rise from the dead if I go give him a kick in the ass right now.” A threatened kick in the ass was his favorite form of dispensing justice, of realigning karma, and it never failed to crack us up, particularly my brother, who used to be reduced to helpless giggles at this threat. Every time I want to cry for missing Grandpop, I just think of him threatening to kick my ass for crying, and I smile. I think of all the stories we wanted to tell at his memorial service, but had to save for afterwards so as not to offend his more conservative neighbors, such as his repeated quip that my mom’s birthday was the only one of his three children’s birthdays that he could remember, because she was born nine months to the day after he came home from the war. Or the story of my mom’s cousins, who at the ages of two and four were at my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner; my grandfather had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and they begged to be recorded, begged to hold the microphone and sing. Grandpop, always a sport, invited them to sing a song, and in their baby voices, they sang “Jesus Loves Me.” “Well,” Grandpop said, “if Jesus still loves you after that, then he must be a pretty good guy.” I think of the little songs and poems he made up; he had dozens, but my favorite has always been:
This is Mort
He likes big words
They shoot from his mouth
like rabbit turds.
I do miss him, I do, I do. But this year, unlike last year, I don’t want to rend the universe for taking him away, and this year, unlike last year, I am ready to make spiced beef again. Spiced beef was my own Christmas tradition; fueled by my obsessive reading of Elizabeth David and Laurie Colwin, I persuaded my mom to let me contribute an entree, not just a dessert, to the Christmas table. There are many traditional English and Irish recipes for spiced beef, but I used the one from Mrs.David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. To make it, you take a nice big piece of bottom round, about 6 or 7 pounds, rub it with brown sugar and refrigerate it for two days; then rub it with a mix of salt, black pepper, crushed allspice and crushed juniper berries and return it to the fridge. You keep it in the fridge for 10 days, taking it out to rub it with the spice mix. At the end of ten days, but the day before you want to serve it, you wipe the spices off and roast in a low oven, in a covered roaster with a little water in the bottom to keep the bottom from scorching. You roast it for about five hours, then take it out of the roaster, place it between two boards, weight it down with a heavy skillet or a 5-pound dumbbell and keep it in the fridge overnight. Take it from the fridge and slice it, cold, in paper-thin slices (or take it to a simpatico deli guy and ask him to run it through the meat slicer.)
When I brought it to table, I explained that this was a cured beef dish, meant to be served cold. I could see funny looks being exchanged around the table, but those looks disappeared sharpish as soon as forks were brought to mouths. I was pleased enough that everyone liked it, but I was thrilled much later, when my mom told me, as we finished cleaning up the kitchen, “Grandpop told me that that was the best beef he had ever eaten in his life.” Grandpop was a fooler about all the right things in life, but he was never a fooler about food. He was 75 that Christmas, and he made me feel like I had earned my stripes that night, making the best beef to be found in 75 years of eating well. We had spiced beef every Christmas after that, until last year, our first Christmas without him, when Mom asked shyly if I would mind not making spiced beef last year, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But that was last year, and this is this year, and I know, I know in my heart, if I tell myself “it’s still too sad, making spiced beef this year,” my grandfather will send a thunderbolt down, narrowly missing my head, and growl, “Too sad for spiced beef? That’s the most ri-god-damn-diculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Yes, sir.
Oh, dear friends, I did warn you. It’s not a bad week, exactly, just a buttkicking one, fueled by coffee and antihistamines and sheer nerve. LuthorCorp has been putting me through my paces this week, but I have to admit that even though it’s not a follow-your-bliss job by any means, I did feel a brisk, nanny-like satisfaction at the amount of work I was able to get done today, how much disaster I was able to stave off. I felt like Mary Poppins, only without the nifty carpetbag.
But Jen, what about the paradise jelly? It’s coming, it’s coming, really, just as soon as I take a nice restorative soak in a hot spring somewhere. This one will do nicely.
Ah, that’s better.
On the way to my required-by-my-lease mental health professional’s office, I heard a snippet of conversation between two collegiate-looking youths. “Oh, yeah,” college boy said to college girl, “my parents are, like, giant conservatives.” I had visions of Boy’s parents, 500 feet tall, stomping around lower Manhattan, pulling the roof off of Cooper Union and making vaguely Godzilla-ish noises, dressed in huge, beautiful tweeds.
Apologies in advance if you notice my literacy taking a nosedive this week. It is not enough to have cold-induced thickheadedness; there are LuthorCorp adventures to be had as well. For all of my kvetching about LuthorCorp, I must admit that the people for whom I work directly are some of the best people in the world. If I could afford to hire them to sell my bread, I would do it in a heartbeat. Because I like them so well, I feel compelled to help them as best as I can. This week, that “help” manifests itself as taking care of my boss’s accounts while he is at home with his wife, his two-year-old son and his new baby son, who is about 8 hours old as of this writing. I certainly have no problem doing this—after all, it is what I’m paid to do, and I am thrilled for my boss and his lovely and excellent wife—but I do have to laugh ruefully at how whimsical the world’s sense of timing is, for as soon as my boss called to say his wife had gone into labor, I found myself besieged by emergencies and urgent requests and odd circumstances, the kind that sound trivial to anyone not in the industry, but positively teeth-grinding to those who are. In short, it’s going to be a tough week.
I had big plans for tonight, dear friends, plans to share the sweet potato pierogi recipe and the paradise jelly recipe and maybe even a chutney recipe or two, but tonight, it is not in the bond. I do plan to share them all, but it will have to be incrementally, in baby steps, or angstrom units. Since I promised, and since there seem to be a lot of fans of sweet potatoes and/or spinach and/or dough-wrapped foodstuffs, here is the sweet potato and spinach pierogi recipe, inspired by the pierogi I had at the Kiev restaurant on St. Marks Place and East 7th Street. The dough recipe is a variation on a recipe created by Faina Merzylak, a Russian nurse living in Brooklyn whose recipe was printed in New York Cookbook (Workman, 1992) by Molly O’Neill. The pierogi themselves are homely but compelling, in the way that all pierogi are, but the filling is, frankly, beautiful, bright orange and bright green, each component highlighting the beauty and goodness of the other. Lloyd loves these.
Sweet potato and spinach pierogi
Yield: 32 large pierogi
2 cups Greek yogurt or plain whole-milk “regular” yogurt
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 - 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 1/2 - 2 pounds spinach
salt and pepper to taste
For the dough: Combine the the yogurt, eggs and salt by hand or in a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment. Add the flour, a cup at a time, and mix in. Switch to the dough hook (or turn it out onto a floured surface and knead by hand) until the dough is firm and smooth. Wrap dough in a kitchen towel and let rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours (overnight is fine).
For the filling: Peel the sweet potato and cut into large chunks. Put in a saucepan, cover with salted water, bring to the boil and cook until potato is very tender. Drain the water, add 3 tablespoons butter, salt and pepper to the pan and mash the potato until it is smooth. Taste for seasoning; add more of anything that it needs. Set aside. Wash spinach and rest in a colander to dry (there should still be some moisture clinging to the leaves). Heat a skillet, toss in spinach and stir until spinach wilts. If your skillet is too small to take all the spinach, wilt it in bunches. When all of the spinach has been cooked, press all the water out of it (a potato ricer is great for this, but you can also use your hands—you may want to run the spinach under cool water first to keep from burning your hands!) When the spinach has been squeezed dry, chop it finely. Return the skillet to the heat (make sure any water from the spinach has been discarded!), melt the butter, add the spinach and heat through. Add salt and pepper, and/or some nutmeg if you prefer.
To assemble the pierogi: Divide the dough into 32 pieces and roll into balls. On a well-floured board, pat a ball of dough into a round approximately 3 inches wide. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of spinach and 2 teaspoons of sweet potato onto the round. Fold the edges of the dough together and pinch closed, until you have a half-moon shape. Repeat with as many pierogies as you wish to serve. (Any leftovers will keep in the fridge nicely, but you can also assemble the whole batch and freeze whatever you do not plan to cook right away.)
To finish: Bring a pot of water to the boil. Salt it, add pierogi and gently stir to ensure that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. When they rise to the top, they are almost done. When they are just bobbing gently on the surface of the water, they are done. Remove with a slotted spoon and serve with your favorite pierogi condiments (fried onions, applesauce or sour cream). Eat. Smile.
I could blame it on not enough sleep, too much stress, or the natural result of living in a place that can comfortably fit 3 million people, but has 8 million people squeezed into it, but I think I’ll blame the internets instead. Jo and Billy Boy and Realgurl and Pam are all coldridden, and now I am, too. As Richard Dreyfuss did not say, but would have if the opportunity had presented itself, “We’re going to need a bigger pot of soup.”
“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart,” Debby Bull writes in the opening sentence of Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning. You can read wonderful books about putting food up, and wonderful books about how to heal a broken heart, but this is the only one I have that addresses both. Debby Bull turned to canning after her boyfriend broke up with her in the midst of a dinner party to celebrate the publication of his novel; as part of the effort to get his stuff out of her house, she made huckleberry jam out of the huckleberries he had picked and stashed in the freezer, and from there she saw the means to get better. She says that canning works its magic in two ways: 1. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You sterilize your jars and lids, you cut up fruit (or vegetables, if you’re making pickles), you weigh, you measure, you boil everything like mad, you test for a set. There is a certain level of tedium involved, but you can’t let your mind wander off to contemplate the things you usually contemplate when your mind wanders, for therein lies the way to bad burns and scorched fruit on the bottom of the pan and jelly that has crossed the fine line between a firm set and a jujube. 2. When you’re done, you have something you can give away to other people, or put up in your pantry. This is what makes canning separate from, say, baking: when you bake, you pretty much have to eat what you’ve made right away, or give it away immediately, whereas jam or jelly or pickles will wait patiently for the right moment and the right recipient.
It has been a (thankfully) long time since I suffered that kind of wreck of my heart, but I can, and will, vouch for the calming properties of putting food by. Of course, I can say this now that I’m done, and have seven jars of crabapple jelly sitting in the kitchen. If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was, I’d be back in the kitchen, slicing the blossoms off the six pounds of crabapples I bought yesterday, or cooking down the cherries and sugar I took out of the freezer yesterday morning, instead of consigning them to the fridge with a vague promise to turn them into sour cherry ice cream. Even at my most industrious, with the most abundant market haul sitting in my kitchen and the most abundant coffee-fueled energy reserves at my disposal, there comes at least one moment in every canning session where I decide I can’t cut up one more piece of fruit. The thought of washing all those jars and lids, the thought of filling up the canner, the thought of scrubbing sugar syrup off the kitchen table yet again, it is almost enough to get me to put everything away and write the whole damn thing off as a loss. Then I remember how much I like the moment where I bring fruit juice and sugar to the boil, and how neat it is when the excess water evaporates and you can see the point at which the sugar and fruit and their various acids and pectins kick in and do their stuff, and how good it feels when you do the plate test, pulling a plate from the freezer and dropping a little blob of syrup on it and nudging it with your finger and seeing it wrinkle obligingly, and thinking that’s it, it’s jelly! Then you pull the jars from the canner, you begin to ladle the jelly into the jars, and if your hands weren’t so busy, you’d be patting yourself on the back for how nice and clear the jelly is, the result of all the careful skimming you did during the boil, to get the sugar scum off the top. This is always a fun moment, but it’s particularly fun with crabapple jelly, which turns a beautiful shade of light seashell sunrise pink. You wouldn’t think that something so pretty, so fragrant and so delicious and tart and appley could come from such an unpromising package. Crabapples are pretty enough, but you don’t want to eat them. “Sour! Sour!” warns the stand at the market, but it’s not just the sourness that’s the problem. If they were merely sour, I’d be popping them into my mouth, pressing them against my cheek and biting down just enough to release the juice and send my tastebuds into shock, the way I do with those salty-sweet tamarind candies I bought at the Asian market in the Strip District in Pittsburgh. Nope, they are sour and dry and mealy, not what you want in an eating apple at all. Much like the damson is brought into its own with the careful application of sugar and lemon juice, so is the crabapple, albeit with a much different result.
I keep telling myself I’m going to try using crabapples in my absolute favorite jelly recipe, paradise jelly, a mix of apple, quince and cranberry that my parents fall over when I bring them a few jars at Christmas. Every time I have the opportunity, though, I shy away. Because the apples in paradise jelly share the stage with two other, more assertive fruits, it would probably be a waste to take such a singular jelly and bury its subtle charms beneath the louder ones of the cranberry and quince. Nope, I’ll keep making apple jelly until the crabapples are all gone, and then it will be time to stock up on Winesaps and Golden Russets, pounds of cranberries and bag after bag of fuzzy yellow honey-scented fuzzy quinces, the kind that compel me to pop my face inside the bag and inhale deeply and sigh out loud, loudly enough to cause my subway neighbors to move a seat or two and mutter about the drug problem.
Spinach plus sweet potatoes equals more, please: For the first three years I lived in New York, two of those years were spent in a predominantly Ukrainian neighborhood on the Lower East Side, where I put away a staggering, unhealthy but soul-satisfying quantity of pierogies: potato and onion, please, boiled, served with fried onions and applesauce. (I know people who think that a boiled pierogi is just a ravioli of a different color, and a pierogi isn’t a pierogi until it is fried and served with sour cream. That’s as may be, but as it is I can barely take a nibble without a frisson of guilt; add more fat to the mix and I’ll be too neurotic to eat the damn things.) In general, I am a purist about pierogi fillings: there is potato and onion (with maybe some mushroom thrown in), there is cheese and onion, there is sauerkraut. Then I hosted a friend from out of town, and we went to a restaurant that served a sweet potato and spinach pierogi. I did not have high hopes for this combination; I was afraid that the sweet potato would be afflicted by that common sweet potato affliction, too much added sugar in the form of maple syrup or brown sugar, but no, it was nice and savory. Ever since I tried them, I wondered how hard it would be to replicate them in my own kitchen. Yesterday I found the answer: not at all. It is not a good recipe for a harried after-work weeknight dinner, but it *is* good for a weekend, particularly if your cooking is—as mine frequently is—of the “cook it, throw it in the fridge, finish it later” stripe.
I probably know the answer to this, but I’ll pose it anyway...dear friends, are you interested in the recipe?