Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blue Ice And Wind

The end of February was bitterly cold, so I searched my closet for outfits that long underwear could be worn beneath without adding much bulk, since my work commute from northwest Baltimore County, Maryland, to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. requires walking outside at both ends of the trip as well as standing on an elevated outdoor platform to await a subway train.  I found the perfect foil in a pair of super-wide belled jeans that were custom made for me from a pair I loved that disintegrated shortly after I bought them (see Hanging By A Thread).  

Besides, I was eager to have another excuse to wear this adorable sweater by My Collection, with its icy blue stripes and unusual muff-style front pocket.  The super-wide, three-quarter length Dolman sleeves complemented my wide bellbottoms and make the piece even more atypical, connected the way they are to the side seams of the sweater clear down to the hem.  This could have made the top a bit awkward to wear, since raising one’s arms means the entire sweater rises up.  However, the fabulous color variegation in the yarn, from gray to light blue to navy, makes it easy to layer the unique pullover with a variety of long-sleeve Tees.  On this day I chose a gray, ribbed knit Tee by Faded Glory, which allowed me to raise and lower my arms at will without worry about exposing myself to the harsh winter elements.

This fabulous sweater was a recent gift from Joyce, the mother of my best friend, Kari.  Joyce sent me the top in a box of gently-used clothing she no longer wore.  I was thrilled to get everything in the box, but this sweater really called out to me because of its extraordinary design.
Robinson's department store in Pasadena, California,
was a frequent destination of my mother and
grandmother when I was growing up

I pulled comfortable booties by Pink & Pepper over thick ski socks and played up the gray in the sweater by covering my head with an heirloom mink pillbox hat by Miss Alice that my grandmother bought at J.W. Robinson’s Department store in Pasadena, California, in the 1950s (I still have the hat box it came in!), and added my grandmother’s dangly earrings -- gray pearls that I long ago converted to pierced from old-fashioned screw-backs.

After one of my black walnut trees
snapped clear in half during a
powerful wind and ice storm in
mid-February, workers from
JamesPickett's Tree Service cut it down
The severe winter ice and wind storm that swept across the eastern half of the country in mid-February wreaked mercifully little havoc on my two acres.  I lost power several times through the course of the storm’s worst 60 mile-per-hour winds and had many large limbs from broken trees to drag cross my property into piles that eventually reached far over my head.  One walnut tree, however, broke literally in half. I didn’t feel comfortable about climbing so far up into the tree by myself with a Sawzall, so I called the owner of my trusty tree service, James Pickett.  It took almost two weeks for the company to clear out their post-storm emergency tree removal work before they could get to me.  But on this frigid day at the end of the month, as I was embarking on my chilly commute to the District of Columbia, the owner’s son and a couple of helpers arrived to make short work of the shattered tree and carry away all the broken branches in my two gigantic piles. 

Let the winds howl.  I was warm and comfy in my ice-blue sweater and giant bellbottoms all the way to work and back!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Winter Cooking Issue

My rescue kitty, Ember, "helps" me de-stem
cilantro leaves for salsa as I sip an
"appletini" made with spiced rum
and homemade apple confiture
When the temperatures plummet for weeks at a time, I turn to the stove for warmth.  Not to heat my house, but to boil and braise, bake and roast, simmer and sauté my way through the frigid season.  I put on my favorite music, tie an apron around my waist, and start stirring, mixing, spreading and folding ingredients together to form sweet and savory dishes that warm my heart and nourish my soul.

I keep the temperature quite low in my 150-year-old farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland, in order to save money; just barely 63 degrees during the day and a cool 49 at night (I am snuggled beneath a down comforter and flannel sheets all night, after all).  During the day, when I’m not conducting research at the Library of Congress or the National Library of Medicine in Washington D.C. on behalf of my longtime employer, I huddle at the computer in my home office wearing several layers of winter leggings, wool sweaters and thick socks.  But after only a few minutes in the kitchen on any given Sunday, with Celtic or jazz or even symphonic melodies blasting from my stereo, I gleefully shed the layers and dance from sink to stove to cutting board and fridge.  I am in my “happy place” when I’m cooking, and the glow emanating from my body as I slice and dice is an easy indication of the sheer joy I derive from this pastime.

Here, then, is a pictorial compendium of the foods I have been preparing these past few months to soothe my psyche and fill my stomach.

Butternut squash lasagna was a
good way to ward off an
early December chill
Wrapping dough around the
apples and pumpkin before
baking gives the gallette
its own edible "pie plate"
In early December I made a tasty lasagna using butternut squash instead of meat, courtesy of Food Network magazine. The result was quite good, but was a laborious process for not many fewer calories than a meat version.  For dessert I baked a rustic apple-pumpkin gallette, also from Food Network, which paired the two late autumn foods to fine effect.

Ripe persimmons, fresh ricotta cheese
and ruby pomegranate seeds combine
with arugula to make a gorgeous salad
In early January I found myself with leftover persimmons and kumquats, quite a few of both, actually.  I adore persimmons, having grown up with a persimmon tree in northern California, so I buy a whole case of them every autumn when they come into season.  Now, however, the holidays were over and I still had several left.  I searched the internet for dishes which incorporate persimmons and found a delightful recipe for a persimmon-ricotta salad at What'  I also discovered a heavenly "winter sangria" of pureed persimmons, mangoes and triple sec stirred into red wine at

Fresh kumquats were a perfect
sweet-tart note in this super-rich
dark chocolate  bark recipe
from Martha 
Low-fat ricotta tart with kumquats
was melt-in-your-mouth delicious
By the middle of January I'd unearthed ways to use up my remaining kumquats in luscious, yet calorie-conscious desserts.  First, Martha Stewart gave me decadent chocolate bark with fruit: in this case kumquats sliced razor thin and sprinkled on melted, sugar-free, extra dark chocolate I ordered from Another recipe utilized kumquats to wondrous effect in a velvety, lowfat ricotta tart.

Baked eggplant is enhanced
with fresh pomegranate seeds
As a portion of the stuffing is
scooped from inside the gourd,
I made sure to scrape out
some tender squash, too
To precede these delightful treats, I served slices of baked eggplant in a heady yogurt sauce tinged with saffron strings, and made a colorful "three-pepper" salad of match-sticked bell peppers, onions, and slivered parsley leaves tossed with a dressing of sesame oil and rice vinegar (only 93 calories per cup, according to! For another winter meal that month I stuffed acorn squash with ground pork, chopped carrots, celery and leeks seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic, rosemary and ground coriander (only 190 calories per cup), and served the gourd alongside roasted broccoli and a carrot-avocado salad.

Lean pot roast is tenderized
with soy sauce and sherry and
flavored with Asian spices
Fresh Shiitake mushrooms are
poached and tossed with
mache rosettes in a Dijon
mustard vinaigrette for this
hearty winter salad  
At the end of January I prepared a chuck roast with an Asian twist, courtesy of Wegman's supermarket menu magazine, which is published quarterly and sent to me in the mail because I am a regular shopper there.  Braised in soy sauce and sherry and seasoned with fresh ginger, ground cinnamon, star anise and garlic, the succulent beef was perfect with a poached mushroom salad, also from Wegman's menu magazine.

Lean stew meat is cooked with
bacon to add flavorful depth
Carrots and onions are simmered
in brandy before being added
to the meat
February's cold, snowy days cried out for my all-time winter favorite: Julia Child's original beef bourguignonne, a classic French peasant dish that, while no more than an elaborate stew, is so time-consuming and complex that I only have a chance to make it once a year.  For this unctuous recipe, I spent all afternoon in the kitchen, entertained by my favorite music, while I prepared the individual components that eventually combined to form the savory finale.

I have a giant metal "tea ball" which
I use for my bouquet-garni instead of
cheesecloth.  So much easier!
Once the carrots and onions are
added to the meat, the whole thing
is drenched in red wine and put in
the oven for a couple of hours
First, lean stew meat is sautéed in bacon fat for richness, then cooked with onions and carrots in burgundy and broth. To that, a bouquet-garni is added of fresh parsley, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, peppercorns, allspice and garlic and the whole thing is put into the oven for two and a half hours. Meanwhile, I blanch, peel and score a cross-hatch in the root ends of thirty or forty tiny pearl onions and sauté them in butter.  More broth is added and they simmer with a little sugar (I use Splenda) and salt for almost thirty minutes.  The third step is to sauté a pound of fresh cremini mushrooms in a little more butter, add some sliced shallots and grind in some black pepper.

Tiny pearl onions (I used red ones!)
are browned in butter and sugar
Meaty cremini mushrooms are
sautéed with shallots before
all the ingredients are combined
into a luscious stew
Once the beef comes out of the oven, I extract and de-fat the jus, then mix in a classic buerre-manie and pour the thickened sauce over the meat.  Finally, the onions and mushrooms are combined with the stew meat and the whole thing simmers on the stove awhile.  Served in wide, shallow soup plates and accompanied by a fine Pinot Noir, the mouthwatering stew is akin to a little slice of heaven on a raw winter day.  There is just nothing like it.

Cubes of butternut squash combine
with white wine to make
surprisingly hearty soup
Roasted tomatoes add a smoky
note to vegetarian chili
By the end of February, I was ready for some chili. I opted for a vegetarian version, utilizing butternut squash as a stand-in for beef and adding fresh-roasted and canned tomatoes, lentils, kidney beans and black-eyed peas, as well as white wine, tomato paste and chopped basil, parsley, minced garlic and lots of cumin powder.  I finished that hearty meal with Dulce de Leche cheesecake, a decadent but surprisingly low-calorie treat from the Splenda website, which called for low-fat cream cheese and half a can of dulce de leche (caramel sauce) in a graham-cracker crust.

I inherited my mother's prize
Le Creuset cookware and I swear
nothing beats it for making chili
The recipe for this gorgeous Dulce
de Leche cheesecake can be found
At the beginning of March I used the last of my persimmons to make a vegan vanilla persimmon-banana pudding from and topped each serving with Chia seeds for a satisfying crunch.   Now, it's time to start thinking about bright spring dishes -- pasta primavera comes to mind, that wonderful combination of barely blanched spring green beans, asparagus, baby peas and morel mushrooms, tossed with sautéed cherry tomatoes, lots of garlic, red pepper flakes and fresh basil leaves, and served over whole wheat spaghetti with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Good thing I love my exercise classes as much as I do my cooking!
The ingredients for Pasta
Primavera highlight
spring's early bounty
"I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food." ~ Erma Bombeck

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Caped Crusader

The weather was on a roll, it seemed.  Mother Nature would pack a walloping final punch of a winter storm the following day, but on this day, at the end of February, temperatures reached the mid-40s in Baltimore county, Maryland, where I live. Almost 50 degrees!  It was downright balmy compared to the sustained cold we’d endured all season in the mid-Atlantic.

I was on a roll, too.  I have a number of beautiful shawls, most of which are light, lacy confections that wouldn’t offer even a modicum of  protection from bracing air.  But I also own this gigantic, almost blanket-sized wrap in muted shades of orange and gold.  I was dying for a slightly warmer day to wear the cloak for my 90-minute commute by car, subway and foot to Washington D.C.  This last, less frigid day before another round of wintry weather arrived seemed like an ideal occasion for an enveloping cape.

I started with baggy sufi pants by medieval costumer Moresca, which would allow room for toasty long underwear beneath the trousers.  I added a simple brown sweater by Joseph A. and rich, cognac-hued riding boots by Brash which I purchased in New York City just before Christmas.  I wrapped the super-sized cape around me and let the fringe dangle.  I added a wide bracelet of pale wooden beads and a pair of earrings carved from oak to round out my look.

A chill wind picked up in the afternoon, bringing with it barometric changes that foretold the coming storm.  But I was snugly enrobed in my cocoon of soft wool, feeling as if, at any moment, the wind would fill my cape like a sail and lift me to the heavens, Flying Nun style, with fringe fluttering, where I would swiftly flit far above the commuters sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic below.  A girl can dream!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Space And Time

Costumed characters greeted patrons at the BSO's
Sci-Fi Spectacular concert on February 22
It was an uncharacteristically mild (for February) Saturday night in Maryland.  I had tickets to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Sci-Fi Spectacular, a program of mesmerizing compositions from such well-known movies as Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Since this was to be a more laid back symphonic production, conducted by the BSO’s esteemed Pops conductor Jack Everly instead of music director Marin Alsop, I chose more casual attire for the evening.

Having spent most of the afternoon attending the American Craft Council’s annual craft show at the Baltimore Convention Center, I decided the same outfit was quite appropriate (and comfortable) for the evening’s venue, as well: a pair of copper-colored BrazilRoxx jeans with shiny studwork and shimmering embroidery, paired with a gossamer shawl by Sterling Styles.  I changed only my top, switching from a simple cotton tank to a sequin-covered camisole by Ann Klein.  With glittery copper earrings from Chico’s to highlight a gorgeous electroplated oak leaf necklace from Nature's Creations which I found at the craft show, I added only a copper bracelet and a “dea dread” hair comb before making my way to the Joseph B. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore City’s arts and culture district.

The Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is
 a study in modern architecture
A lone Storm-Trooper "guards" the
stage before the concert begins
The evening was delightful. Characters dressed in realistic costumes from various science fiction adventures greeted patrons in the lobby of the symphony hall before the concert.  As I took my seat in the beautiful and modern auditorium, which was designed and built in 1978 by the architectural firms Pietro Belluschi and Jung/Brannen Associates, an “armed” storm-trooper stood sentinel at the front of the 65- by 35-foot stage while musicians warmed up behind him with their instruments.

George Takei and Kristen
Plumley added an authentic
note to the evening
Shortly after Maestro Everly took the stage and led the orchestra through a rousing rendition of John Williams’ main Star Wars theme, we were treated to a medley of theme songs from some of the syndicated television shows of my youth, including My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space and Twilight Zone, after which members of the audience were invited to raise their hands to name at least four of the shows whose unforgettable music we had just heard.  It was a riot.

These Star Wars characters helped
put patrons in the mood for space
But the highlight for me was when George Takei took the stage to thunderous applause and, after bantering with the audience for a few minutes about how Baltimore compared to Los Angeles, narrated the introductory sequence to the original Star Trek series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as the orchestra played the familiar refrain in the background.  Then, just as magically, soprano Kristen Plumley, attired in Lieutenant Uhuru’s dress uniform, took her place on stage to intone the soaring melody as the orchestra enchanted the audience with the Star Trek suite. I was entranced.

Following an intermission, we were treated to compositions from The Day The Earth Stood Still, as well as additional works from Star Wars and Close Encounters. Each piece of music was accompanied by a laser show bouncing rays of colorful light off the walls and ceiling of the symphony hall. Altogether, the evening made for a spellbinding trip down memory lane – from the far reaches of the universe.

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” ~ Star Trek’s introductory sequence, narrated by William Shatner at the beginning of all but one of the series’ original episodes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

American Crafts

Kevin Loughran of House Jewelry, makes artisanal switch-
plates and doorbell covers, as well as other accoutrements
 for the home
In my opinion, the be-all, end-all to craft shows is the American Craft Council’s annual late winter show at the Baltimore Convention Center, the largest in the nation.  Since the first time I attended this juried event almost a decade ago, I have been blown away each year by the talent with which my countrymen (and women) are imbued.

This year’s ACC show was no exception.  And for once, Old Man Winter took a breather and allowed me to attend the event in heels and a delicate top instead of snow boots and an overcoat.  The crafts were absolutely amazing.

Over 600 booths filled the vast auditorium near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  Everything from textiles and art to jewelry, pottery and furniture was displayed to elegant effect. I always prepare myself to experience sensory overload.   Over the years, however, I have become accustomed to the sheer magnitude of what American crafters create out of their vivid imaginations.  So it was nice to overhear a woman exclaim to her companion upon experiencing the show for the first time that she was “overwhelmed” by all there was to take in.  Exactly.  Her comments brought back fond memories of my first time or two attending this fabulous event.  I smiled at the memory.

In celebration of the unusually mild February temperature, I pulled on a pair of BrazilRoxx jeans, handcrafted with copper studs and glittering embroidery, which I paired with a simple lace-trimmed cotton camisole by Eyeshadow and a filmy shawl by Sterling Styles, given to me by my dear friends, Robert and Jan, who themselves are loyal attendees at this event, although they always go on the day the show is open to shopkeepers who buy wholesale.  I rounded out my outfit with almond-toed platform booties from, a pair of earrings with citrine and amber stones set in silver from Fire & Ice jewelers of Baltimore, and a matching necklace from Russia featuring a hand painted ceramic brooch.

These brass and copper switchplates
now grace several rooms in my home
For this year’s craft show, I planned ahead.  Long a fan of California’s Kevin Loughran, who makes what he refers to as jewelry for the home, I counted the visible switchplates and outlet plates in my 150-year-old farmhouse.  Many years ago I had purchased one of Kevin’s gorgeous, custom-crafted brass and copper plates for my dining room dimmer switch, and promised myself that someday I would buy matching switchplates for the other rooms in my home.   This was the year!

Throughout the afternoon I perused booth after booth of exquisite jewelry, clothing, blown glass objets d’art and fine woodworking specimens, eventually coming upon Kevin‘s “House Jewelry” booth.  Mr. Loughran was surprised and pleased by my order: eight single switchplates, three double switchplates and a half dozen outlet plates.  As I munched on a turkey wrap at a nearby table, Loughran’s staff collected my pieces from their show inventory and bagged them for me. I was ecstatic that he had them all in stock.  Talk about instant gratification!

Dennis Ray shows off
his beautiful creations
made from leaves
A few rows later, I came upon another cubicle whose contents I could not resist: natural leaves and acorns electroplated with copper, brass and gold and made into exquisite, one-of-a-kind jewelry.  I quickly gave in to temptation and placed a copper-covered oak leaf necklace at my throat.  It was breathtaking.  And it was from a Maryland tree!  The craftsman, Dennis Ray of Rockville, Maryland, locally harvests leaves and twigs for his business, Nature’s Creations, although he is happy to electroplate almost any leaf you send him from anywhere in the world.  I just had to have one of his unique pieces which, by the way, can be worn as a pin or as a necklace.

I love my new necklace!
As a longtime member of the American Craft Council, I wholeheartedly support these and other talented Americans who have made it their life’s work to create whimsy and beauty in our world.

"Sometimes your heart speaks best through your hands" ~ The Knit Cafe

Monday, March 24, 2014

All Wrapped Up

There was a momentary lapse in the snowy, wintry weather.  I still had five inches of the white stuff on the ground, with another couple of inches forecast for that evening.  But for a sliver of a day on the 18th of February, the temperature warmed and the barest hint of spring was in the air.  I was ecstatic to be temporarily relieved of the bitter cold, and I’m a gal who loves the cold!

I grabbed the opportunity to shed thermal underwear, heavy outerwear and furry boots and don something a little more feminine for a change. Black moleskin gauchos from Rod’s Western Wear were on my mind, paired with a simple cashmere sweater that I’ve owned for decades, and a pair of super-comfy booties by Pink & Pepper that were loose enough to wear with thick ski socks. I would, after all, be walking across the long parking lot at the subway station on the outskirts of Washington D.C. on my way to a day of research at the Library of Congress, which meant standing on an exposed, elevated outdoor platform to await my train.  The temperature might have risen above freezing for a few hours, but the air still had a frosty bite.

My “statement piece” for the day was a dramatic paisley shawl, which I wrapped around my shoulders and secured in place with a small brooch. I received the cozy wrap as a gift from my dear friends, Robert and Jan, several years ago when they returned from one of their many overseas trips. Adding only some casual chandelier earrings made from orange disks to brighten my look, I declared myself ready to absorb some winter sun and headed out into the day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Red Velvet... What?

I was taken out for dinner on February 15 by my frequent companion and former husband, Jesse, to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Our destination was the Highland Inn, a new restaurant only open since the beginning of January, which is the mastermind of esteemed Baltimore County chef, Brian Boston, who made a name for himself with his highly regarded Milton Inn restaurant, a fabulously romantic dining destination housed in a 272-year-old fieldstone lodge in historic Sparks, Maryland.

Boston’s latest eatery, located in a decidedly newer farmhouse (early 1900s) in Clarksville, Maryland, puts the chef’s stamp on Howard County, a moneyed municipality south of Baltimore toward Washington D.C.  Boston, named Chef of the Year in 2011 by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, has dedicated his newest establishment to sustainable foods from local farmers in a certified green building retrofitted with geo-thermal heating and cooling. He hopes to appeal to the District of Columbia crowd, and I don’t blame him. They’re big spenders.

Chef Brian Boston
For this auspicious occasion I donned a little black dress by Joneswear, which I picked up for a song during a Macy's sale last summer. I added my all-time favorite gems from Fire & Ice jewelers in Baltimore: citrine and garnet earrings, bracelet and necklace, and added a wrist full of gold-tone bangles I found in my stocking this past Christmas. Together with sky-high platform pumps by Call It Spring and a sequined handbag I’ve owned for ages, I was ready to step out into almost two feet of snow to commemorate Lupercalia.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a cocktail in the Highland Inn’s lounge was $14. It was a very good cocktail, but the steep Washington D.C. price tag for a pre-dinner libation was a bit of a shock. The Valentine menu, however, was prix fixe, so I was able to relax and enjoy the evening without worrying about unintentionally breaking the bank.  Walls were decorated with the artwork of renowned equestrian sports painter, Sam Robinson, which lent a well-heeled vibe to the atmosphere. 

Following a delightful amuse-bouche of scallops with fennel relish and blood orange gastrique, my date and I shared a first course of lobster bisque and honey roasted baby beets with frisee and goat cheese.  For our entrée, we thought ourselves terribly clever when Jesse chose lobster tail and I chose steak and then had our waiter split the plates so we each had a meal of perfectly prepared steak and lobster.  With a shared chocolate truffle tort to end our meal, we declared our Valentine supper very, very good, but agreed that nothing will ever compare to the unsurpassed elegance, romantic ambiance and superb cuisine at chef Boston’s original Milton Inn.

Roasted beets lent their crimson
color to my red velvet cake
Poured into a cookie sheet for
baking, the batter was definitely red
Not to be outdone by an upstart restaurant, I baked a red velvet cake for Jesse the next evening.  Not just any red velvet cake, mind you, but one which would get its ruby hue from beets instead of food coloring, courtesy of Food & Wine magazine’s February 2014 issue.  It was my way of injecting a healthy dose of vegetables into an otherwise nutrient-void confection.

The recipe called for a pound of fresh beets, roasted in the oven and then pureed and combined with flour, butter and almost a dozen eggs.  The frosting called for two pounds of sugar!  In an attempt at calorie-consciousness, I substituted Splenda, and while the outcome was quite pretty, my cake tasted heavily of beets (no surprise there) and was dense enough to use as a hockey puck.

The oddly puckered cookie-sheet cake
was then sliced into fourths and
layered between coatings of cream-
cheese icing 
The end result was attractive and
the Splenda-filled icing was not bad,
but the cake itself was an
impenetrable disaster 
I read some online reviews of the recipe before publishing this post, and was relieved to see that every single reviewer had similar results (even without the sugar substitute).  You all know that my successes have been mostly hit and miss with baking, so I felt a degree of vindication that the less than satisfactory results were not my exclusive province.

The snow was just starting to fall when
I took this photo on Valentine's Day. I
ended up with almost two feet of snow
My cousin in Wyoming
sent me these beautiful
flowers and an adorable
teddy bear with
No matter.  After shoveling 21 inches of “Valentine snow” from the 110-foot gravel driveway leading to my 150-year-old farmhouse in Baltimore County, I felt I’d earned the right to consume a delicious, if highly caloric, Valentine dinner out on Saturday night – and to taste and then discard (with Jesse's blessing) my less-than-satisfactory beet-infused effort the following day.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Garden In Her Pocket

I’ve been on hiatus, friends, very busy with work and a bit overwhelmed by life for the past few weeks. I am getting back on track now and will be catching everyone up, hopefully, with all I’ve been doing since, well.. since the Superbowl.

Let’s start with February 7.  In my post of January 28, I told you all about my friend, Anna, a talented chemist for the state of Maryland and a respected professor who is suffering her third recurrence of an insidious brain tumor which has finally left her bedridden at a nursing home in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live.  With none of her relatives living nearby and visitors few and far between, I have struggled with how best to help Anna cope with long hours spent staring out her hospital room window.  There is only so much public television one can watch, after all.  

Too weak to hold a book or turn its pages, it hit me that Anna might enjoy listening to “books on tape”, so I launched a project, which is to say that I contacted my good friend and fellow board member at Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc., who is also a longtime employee of the Baltimore County Public Library system.  Jason not only gave me a comprehensive overview of how the library’s “books on tape” system works, but very generously donated a portable CD player he no longer uses and a brand new set of earbuds for Anna’s utilization.

I prepared a basket to hold Anna’s goodies – the player and the earbuds and a pack of extra batteries.  I visited my local branch of the library and checked out two audiotapes I thought Anna might enjoy: one scientific and the other a novel about elephants, and made a pretty tag with Anna’s name and hospital room number and a list of the contents. 

Then I thought about ways the now waif-like Anna might regain enough strength to eventually hold and enjoy an actual book.  Getting some nutrients into her seemed like a good idea.  Anna told me she disliked the bland, institutional food and wasn’t eating.

I thought about what sustenance Anna might enjoy.  She told me that before falling ill, she had been learning all about Afghanistan. I remembered an Afghan favorite, kaddo bowrani, a dish of sumptuous chunks of sugared pumpkin fried in oil and herbs and served with a tangy garlic-yogurt sauce.  It is a specialty of the house at Baltimore’s Helmand restaurant, owned by Qayum Karsai, brother of the president of Afghanistan.  The restaurant kindly published their recipe for kaddo bowrani in the Baltimore Sun newspaper several years ago and I jumped at the chance to make it that year as a Thanksgiving appetizer.  

But this was February.  Where would I get fresh pumpkin at this time of year?  I put in a call to  Asad Akbari, manager of the Helmand in Baltimore.  Do they serve their baked pumpkin appetizer all year long, and if so, where on earth do they get their fresh pumpkin? I asked.  “We grow them ourselves”, Mr. Akbari replied, “and then we keep them in a cold storeroom all winter."  I explained my plight and offered to buy a pumpkin from the restaurant, but upon hearing Anna’s story, Mr. Akbari wouldn’t hear of it.  “I shall give you a pumpkin for Anna”, he said.  I picked up the gourd from the Helmand the very next day.

A basket to hold Anna's books on tape, and food
containers with pretty labels combined to form a festive
ensemble for Anna 
A few days later I whipped up a batch of cinnamon-scented kaddo-bowrani before work.  I stirred garlic into thick Greek yogurt and made pretty labels to affix to small containers. I packed up a fork and some napkins.  On my lunch hour, I gathered up the components of my multi-faceted project and drove to the convalescent hospital.

February 7th was very cold.  I insulated myself against the bitter weather with denim leggings by HUE from Macy’s, a ribbed-knit, long-sleeved Tee and a funky new sweater with a cowl neck and bell sleeves by NY Collection, a fabulous find in a box of hand-me-downs I received recently from my best friend’s mother, Joyce, in Spokane, Washington.  Over warm socks I pulled fur-covered Slovakian après-ski boots by Linda and stuck a beribboned dea dread hair comb in my locks. I was ready.

Anna’s face lit up when I entered her hospital room.  But nothing could compare to the delight in her eyes when I opened the container of soft pumpkin and handed her a fork.  Once Anna had eaten her fill, I showed her the basket with the CD player and the audiotapes I had checked out for her.  I made sure to meet with the activities director at the nursing home before I left to explain that someone would need to help Anna get the player started when she was ready to engage with her "books". And someone would need to change the CDs for as long as she wished to listen.  Each “book” consisted of about ten discs.  

We had a wonderful visit, Anna and I.  There was a spring in my step as I left the nursing home that day, made possible by the kindness of people like Jason and Asad Akbari, who didn’t even know Anna, yet reached out to embrace her needs with their compassion and generosity.

For many years Anna volunteered with me at Soldiers
Delight Natural Environment Area.  In this 2009 photo,
Anna shows off grasses native to the serpentine
barrens on which the preserve lies.
I’ve made several visits to Anna since I delivered that first set of books on tape.  Yesterday I retrieved from her The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a novel about five Afghan sisters who built a successful business in Kabul despite harassment by the Taliban.  She loved it.  Anna was delighted to tell me that she had eaten all the nuts and apples I’d brought her on my last visit, and wants more.

In a week or two I will bring her Life At The Speed Of Light, a book by J. Craig Venter, the scientist famed for his role in sequencing the human genome, who details an ambitious vision for a future in which custom-made organisms heal the planet, sure to get Anna’s scientific brain cells firing happily.

It isn’t always convenient or even particularly fun to help someone in need.  I don’t know Anna all that well, and like most institutional facilities, the ambience at Anna’s convalescent hospital is a bit dreary; the sight of so many patients in various stages of diminished capacity shuffling the hallways and mumbling incomprehensibly can be depressing indeed. But if not me to temporarily dispel Anna’s boredom, then who?  The joy on Anna’s face when I walk into her room makes my heart sing.  We don’t always realize how much a kind word or deed resonates. But it does.
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket. ~ Chinese Proverb

Monday, February 17, 2014

Two-Point Conversion

My rescue kitty, Ember, "helps" me stem
cilantro leaves for a batch of Superbowl salsa
The big game was drawing near, but I was not inclined to spend the famous four quarters in a public place this time.  For many years I enjoyed watching the Superbowl with my Baltimore amigos in their rented warehouse flat.  In that vast industrial space, 50 to 100 friends and acquaintances gathered on sofas and folding chairs before a giant projection screen.  In one corner of the concrete floor, folding tables were erected to hold everyone's favorite potluck offerings. During half time we took turns batting a homemade piñata strung from the ceiling, out of which candy and other treats eventually spilled.  The party was very laid back but always a ball of fun.  I relished our annual Superbowl get together.   

Over the years, the friends who rented the warehouse space graduated from college, married and bought homes of their own.  No one needed the flat anymore.  We held our annual Superbowl party in assorted public venues for a time, with varying degrees of satisfaction.  Eventually the gang started renting out the Ottobar for their yearly event, a Baltimore city live-music venue whose dark and primitive interior echoed the industrial vibe of the old warehouse space.

Organizing the food for
a large Superbowl party
was fun for me until last
year, when the event grew
to overwhelming proportions
For years I had been in charge of setting up and organizing the potluck food at our Superbowl party. I enjoyed my role in the annual fete.  But last year was different. Maybe it was the fact that our Baltimore Ravens football team was a contestant in the Superbowl which drew such an overwhelming crowd.  Maybe it was because the Ottobar inadvertently advertised our private party as a public event and allowed all comers entry at the door without question.  But last year’s Superbowl party was more work than fun for me.  I did a lot of baking and cooking leading up to the event, and then set up all the tables and supplies and ran wiring for hot plates and microwave ovens at the tavern before the game started, followed by organizing the offerings as they arrived and monitoring emptying crockpots and other serving vessels as the game progressed.  Hundreds of strangers showed up, most without any food offerings at all, devouring our culinary goods like so many locusts. There were even a few groups who brought their own food and kept it to themselves.

I recognized hardly any of the faces last year.  My friends were lost amid throngs of outsiders.  Our gathering had lost it’s intimacy.  I didn’t enjoy myself nearly as much as I have in the past, despite the Ravens’ ultimate victory over the San Francisco 49ers. To make matters worse, I contracted a terrible cold from a wayward germ at the event and was sick for the entire month of February, barely recovering in time to attend my annual ski trip to Utah with my best Friend, Kari, and her parents in early March.

There were hundreds of people last
year, most of whom were not part of
our core group of friends. I only knew
three people in this photograph
I longed for the intimacy of the old days, when our Superbowl party was held among familiar folks with a shared history in the time-honored warehouse tradition, but was resigned to the fact that such a gala would never be possible again. I just didn’t feel like attending a mega-party with so many outliers this year.

My next door neighbor in Baltimore County graciously invited me to watch the Superbowl on his giant screen.  But he and his wife and their two little girls caught nasty colds a few days before the game.  It wouldn’t do to burden them with company when they were so miserable.

What to do?  Watch the game on my old fashioned cathode-ray tube television set?  I pondered the purchase of a new flat screen TV.  It seemed an extravagance for someone who watches almost no television, yet I felt as though I should make some sort of effort to join the 21st century, technologically speaking.  A smallish television I could hang on the wall sounded like just the kind of baby step I could handle.

Now you see my new
flat screen television...
...And now you don't
Then there was a question of where to put the beast.  I don’t like television.  I certainly didn’t want to have to look at such a monstrosity (smallish or not) hanging on my wall when I wasn’t watching it, which would be most of the time. And, finally, there was the issue of enticing my frequent companion, Jesse Turner, to watch the Superbowl with me at my home when I knew he would much prefer to enjoy the fabled contest with his friends at the Ottobar, intimate vibe or not.

My cunning strategy was ultimately successful.  I became the owner of a new flat screen television. I bribed Jesse with a promise of a juicy game-day ribeye steak, grilled just the way he likes it, along with a fully-loaded baked potato, his favorite vegetable and a special salad of field greens, caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, crumbled blue cheese and my signature vinaigrette. I further enticed my dear friend by proposing a project.  The talented woodworker, construction manager, interior designer and architectural model maker can’t resist a project.  Instead of hanging my new television on a wall, how about mounting it in my window, up high where I could hide it behind my mini blinds when it wasn’t on?  Jesse was intrigued by the challenge of installing a television in a window.

As with most of my projects, I started
with a rough sketch and some
A quick trip to Home Depot produced a length of flat, aluminum bar stock, which Jesse promptly cut into two pieces and clamped into my grandfather’s old bench vise.  Once bent to conform to the contour of my window frame, the metal pieces morphed into mounting brackets.  A few drilled holes later and my new flat screen TV took its place, positioned squarely in the upper half of a double-hung wood-sash window in my circa 1862 farmhouse.

Elfie, left, and Ember wondered what
was to become of my old media cabinet
Now… what to do with my old media cabinet?  Made of honey-stained oak with Tambour doors concealing the cavernous space which used to hold my 25-inch dinosaur, the old hutch wasn’t ready for the scrap heap just yet. Besides its sentimental value, it was an attractive piece of furniture. The lower cabinet still housed my stereo equipment.  Surely there was a purpose the old TV shelf could serve.  An idea came to me in the dead of night a few days before the game. For years I have kept my liquor bottles down in an unheated, unfinished basement.  Over the  decades I have amassed quite an inventory of elixirs, some dating back to the Reagan administration, when my siblings and I cleaned out my deceased father’s condominium in California and divvied up the contents of his bar.  Not being much of an imbiber of mixed drinks until recently, the colorful bottles mostly gathered dust on an old wooden stand in my cellar.  But recently I have enjoyed experimenting with craft cocktails I read about in newspapers and the foodie magazines I so enjoy.  What if I converted the TV shelf in my media cabinet to a bar?

First, an interior
shelf and mirrored
backing were  installed
Then, strips of LED lights were
fastened to the back of the new
Poor Jesse couldn’t help himself when he heard my idea.  An innovative plan for such a project began to form in his head before I even got all the words out.  Another trip to Home Depot was made for an in-line switch and mounting hardware. There was a sojourn to Lowe’s for mirror glass, and a quick drive to Jesse’s studio for ingenious malleable strips of LED lighting (did I mention he is also a lighting contractor?).  Jesse made short work of sawing and staining pine boards for shelving, creating braces for a mirrored bar-back, and wiring interior lighting to a hidden switch I could press to illuminate the contents of my new bar.

A hidden switch allows me to
illuminate the pretty bottles
from behind
The 81 bottles of liquor
in my collection stay
out of sight behind
Tambour doors when
not in use
By kickoff on game day we were ready.  I made homemade salsa to serve with tortilla chips.  I found a recipe for “apple-coladas”, a delicious cocktail of warm spiced cider, coconut rum and sour apple schnapps, reveling in the luxury of seeing all my inventory before me in my new, beautifully back-lit bar.  We watched the big game on a state-of-the-art flat screen television as we reclined comfortably on chairs set before a crackling fire, and dropped wooden blinds to conceal the monitor once the Superbowl was over.  I didn’t miss the madding crowd at all.