Did you hear a distant wailing last weekend? It may have been the sound of hearts breaking at our house as my husband, Les, and I whispered our final words to the sweetest dog God ever made.
And how does one say those words, exactly? It’s so hard to narrow down all the emotions, all the support, all the love, into words that a dog will understand. Or maybe it’s all easier for the dog than it is for us, I just don’t know.
When Nilla was adopted into this family nearly 15 years ago, at the urging of Les’s then-adolescent daughter, she was meant to be “Sydney’s dog.” But this one had the sweetest heart and most engaging personality, and so she became everyone’s dog. And when I say everyone, I mean all the people in this family, plus all the neighbors and all our friends. Her trainer loved her, and so did the pet sitter, the vet and the groomer. Other guests (and dogs) at the downtown brewpub where she was a “regular,” perfect strangers who asked to speak to her when she led the parade of dogs at the ballpark on “Bark in the Park” nights or the streetside crowd at the Pride Parade— they loved her too. All of her daddy’s Facebook friends, even electricians and plumbers who came to the house.
Everyone loved Nilla.
For the past couple of years, Les and I have dreaded and delayed the pain that enveloped our home last Friday, and we had done all in our power to protect our sweet girl and make her as comfortable as possible through her unfortunate diagnosis of Cushing’s disease. On Friday, however, Nilla made it clear that she was ready to make her journey to the Rainbow Bridge, and she was not afraid.
We had been talking with her recently about the Rainbow Bridge, and she knew that her best furry friend, Zoe, was already waiting for her there. She knew there are no thunderstorms at the Rainbow Bridge, and no fireworks, but plenty of snowy days and lots of sunshine, free belly rubs and treats. Oh, and all the dogs get to run off-leash. All the time!
She was good with all of that. Just 12 days before she left us, she had a joyful reunion with Les’s kids— Sydney came from Asheville, N.C. and Alex was here from Budapest. It was the most wonderful day, and she was surrounded by her entire pack (well, except for Zoe, who I’m certain was here in spirit).
It’s crazy quiet here today. We are adjusting and learning to move forward in this space without our girl’s enormous personality. I have not had it in me to be creative in the kitchen, but have focused my energy instead on this video tribute to Nilla. She had but one consolation in times of trouble, stress and thunderstorms, and that was the music of Melody Gardot. There could have been no other song than this one to honor the memory of our beautiful dog.
This video is best viewed on a smartphone or tablet in portrait mode. Press play. 💕
My heart has ached this week, at the approach of today’s one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The people of that nation have stunned the world with their incredible resilience and dedication to their country. Many brave men, women and families have refused to leave in the wake of hostile invasion and are living under constant threat amid air raid sirens, bombings and widespread power outages. They are truly an inspiration.
The older I get, the more grateful I am to have never experienced true hardship or food insecurity, and when stories like the ones emerging from Ukraine are presented, I want to do something, anything, to help. It isn’t possible, of course, for me to make a huge meal to help people on the other side of the world, but I am proud to support an organization that puts itself on the front line to do exactly that.
In a few days, my husband and I will be in attendance for a lecture by Chef José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that has spent the last year bringing much needed food and comfort to war-torn Ukraine, as well as other regions stricken by climate disaster and other catastrophic situations— usually, it even juggles multiple relief efforts at once (see a sampling of their current work here). That’s how strong they are!
The decision to support a relief organization is personal, and if you’re like me, you do some homework to be sure your money is being used responsibly. I am extremely impressed by the integrity of World Central Kitchen, which has earned an A+ rating from charitywatch.org, and meets or exceeds all its requirements for governance and transparency. The organization is powered by thousands of volunteers, professional and amateur, and they are able to activate and mobilize very quickly when a crisis occurs. Yesterday, I also registered to be a volunteer; if a crisis occurs near me, I’m already signed up and ready to go. Giving and volunteering is easy to do on the WCK website.
I cannot make enough bread in my kitchen to feed the people of Ukraine, but I have great confidence in knowing that my tax-deductible contributions to World Central Kitchen are used wisely and effectively to care for the people whose hardships weigh heavily on me. If you also wish you could do something to help, I hope you’ll consider partnering with this exceptional effort.
If I could make enough bread to make a difference, I’d make a million loaves of this one, mostly because it’s a hearty and nutritious whole grain loaf, but also because it is sweetened with honey and embellished inside and out with sunflower seeds. The beautiful sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine, and also happens to be a favorite of honeybees. To me, a bread like this is a reminder that we are all connected on this big blue ball we call home.
Rather than repeat all the instruction I’ve already given for my basic bread, I’ll point to what I did differently for this one, and trust you’ll find your way back to my earlier post if you need more visual information. This bread, like the other, depends on a portion of fed, ripe sourdough starter. It uses a special technique of pre-cooking a portion of the flour in milk, then cooling it before adding to the recipe.
I swapped in a generous amount of white whole wheat flour as well as a portion of an ancient grains blend flour from King Arthur, called Super 10. This super-nutritious flour includes quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and millet, among others. It gives my bread a flavor and texture boost without making it dense or heavy. I nearly doubled the amount of honey from my base recipe, and used the stretch-and-fold phase of the fermentation to fold in about a half cup of toasted sunflower seeds. This dough is very sticky, thanks to the ancient grains and high hydration, so use wet hands to complete the stretches. This is a gentle but effective way to knead the dough and incorporate the extra ingredient of seeds.
When the dough was ready for shaping, I used wet hands again to form a loaf, and then moistened the underside and rolled it lightly in additional sunflower seeds before placing it in my baking pan. Then, I baked the loaf as directed in my original post. Use a steam pan for the first 20 minutes, and a tent foil for the remainder of the baking time.
We love a good sandwich bread at our house. My husband filled two slices of this one with tuna salad for lunch, and I’ve already enjoyed it toasted with breakfast. Without a doubt, this bread will become a regular item in our rotation, and with every loaf I pull from the oven, I’ll hold the mighty people of Ukraine in my heart. 💙💛
“We lost another good one today,” was the text I received from my pal, Tony, whom I met during my time in a 9-ball pool league. Tony and I are contemporaries, born in the same era, loving the same music, and generally dealing with the same variety of heartbreak, despite our different backgrounds.
If you have not yet heard, Christine McVie, amazing keyboardist, songwriter and sometimes vocalist for Fleetwood Mac, passed away today at the age of 79.
My husband, Les, and I had the great fortune to see Fleetwood Mac perform in early 2019, with all the expected characters (except Lindsay Buckingham, because there’s always one in every family, right?) and it was seriously one of the best concerts I have experienced, ever. I’ve been to a lot, being a former disc jockey and all.
I remember how my grandmother would lament the passing of bygone-era stars, and now I understand what it means to lose someone whose work has meant so much to you. I guess I’m getting old, but as recently as that show we saw in Charlotte, N.C., Christine McVie didn’t seem to be a fading star.
And this is life, isn’t it? Her music touched my life, and perhaps yours as well. May she Rest In Peace.
Truth be told, I have wanted to write about this subject for some time, and my visit to Trader Joe’s last week has pushed me over the edge. For anyone who has never had a chance to visit this unusual store, with its extraordinary selection of unexpected products and ingredients, you may want to take my ranting with a grain of salt. It’s worth visiting, without a doubt, so don’t let me scare you away. But my husband, Les, and I ride our dedication to TJ’s like a seesaw—we are either raving about their products to everyone who will listen, or flat-out cursing them over some repeated offense—and I have been curious to know if other shoppers have experienced the same.
Make no mistake, there is plenty I appreciate about Trader Joe’s, where the employees wear Hawaiian print shirts and they all seem to be in a perpetual state of excited happiness. Many of the workers at our local store have been there since the doors first opened, so I expect it may be a terrific place to work.
The now-national chain began with a single California store in 1967, and a mission to bring interesting products to culture-savvy shoppers who enjoy exploring the flavors of the world (in other words, me). And for that, they have been pretty darn successful. Because of Trader Joe’s, I learned about zhoug, Calabrian chile paste, za’atar seasoning and nduja. Shopping there is fun, and the stores are small, so it doesn’t take all day to find something inspiring. They don’t mess around with sales or membership cards or loyalty programs or whatever other gimmicks irritate you at other stores. The price is the price, and it’s almost always a good one.
This is not a commercial for them, just an honest personal assessment, but I have more to say—a lot more. I’ll begin with the positive, in no particular order.
Their commitment to products without “HFCS” and “GMO” ingredients
This is a big one for me. Since I first began to learn about the sketchy origin of high-fructose corn syrup, I had spent at least an extra half hour on every grocery store visit, to ensure I had enough time to do proper vetting against this ingredient. Then, Trader Joe’s opened in my city. I don’t have to scan the labels anymore, because of their promise to reject products containing HFCS. The same goes with genetically modified organisms (GMO). Less time reading labels means more time to focus on being inspired toward new recipes.
Good alternatives to big-name items, usually at much better prices
This speaks mostly for itself, but I’ll offer a few of my favorite examples: I love plain kefir as a base for my healthy breakfast fruit smoothies, and the Trader Joe’s brand is significantly less expensive than the Lifeway brand that is available at other markets. Same with their butter, which has short, fat sticks rather than the usual long, skinny ones. They fit better in my butter dish and the packages even fit better in the fridge door. Their organic natural peanut butter has been my go-to for a decade. We use a lot of canola oil at our house, especially for baking or high heat recipes, and the bottle at TJ’s is not only a more convenient shape and size at a better price, it gets bonus points for being expeller-pressed.
The best selection ANYWHERE of dried fruits and nuts
I mean, an entire aisle length of every kind you can imagine and then a bunch more that you didn’t. They have dried sweet cherries and dried Montmorency tart cherries. Raisins and golden raisins and jumbo raisins. Raisins mixed with dried cherries, blueberries and cranberries (this is the “Golden Berry” blend that my hubby enjoys on his morning cereal). Dried figs and apricots and bananas—you get the idea. Same with nuts, and not only every variety imaginable, but also options for roasted or raw, salted and unsalted, even 50% salted! Whole nuts or halves and pieces. Don’t even get me started on the imaginative flavor combinations they put on the nuts, like the spicy Thai, Lime and Chili cashews, Everything But the Bagel mixed nuts, or the brand new Crunchy Chili Onion peanuts (I just bought a bag this week—I’ll let you know).
Helpful, knowledgeable employees who make thoughtful recommendations
Unlike so many other stores I frequent, Trader Joe’s trains their employees to be ready for customer requests, and nine times out of 10, they lead me directly to the item I need (if they have it). I was buying ingredients one day to make my Copycat Chicken Lettuce Wraps, and I couldn’t find canned water chestnuts. Turns out, Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry them. But when an employee noticed me searching and offered to help, she proposed an alternative in fresh, cut-up jicama sticks. “Would this give you the texture you’re looking for, without adding an off flavor?” And they did!
TJ’s is the store for anyone throwing a wine and cheese party.
Their wine selection is vast—an amazing feat, considering their small footprint—and they are big supporters of smaller, independent wineries, with a broad range of private label offerings. You will find your favorite varietals at several price points, from their famous “Two-Buck Chuck”—the house brand** that sold for $1.99 a bottle back in the day but is now up to $4.49, still a phenomenal bargain—all the way up to a Caymus Cabernet that I spotted last week for $75. The wines are well-organized, and labeled with descriptions that don’t sound snobbish, making it a great place to discover wines you didn’t know about, like Vinho Verde from Spain, or an Italian Montepulciano. I especially appreciate that they carry a Kosher for Passover chardonnay, unoaked, and it’s pretty good!
Need some cheese to go with that wine? Scoot on down the row to the specialty cheese case where you’ll find a few standards, such as the Unexpected Cheddar that is immensely popular at our house, with its sharp, salty flavor that hints at Parmesan. And depending on your timing, you’re guaranteed to find a nice “seasonal” cheese, like the cinnamon-dusted Toscana that I picked up on my recent visit.
Speaking of seasonal, count of Trader Joe’s to bring home the flavors
Without a doubt, TJ’s has nailed this. Their stores don’t have enough space to carry all the things, all the time. Their solution for keeping things interesting is seasonal swapping. For better or worse, we are about to enter “pumpkin spice” season at TJ’s which, for me, marks the official start of autumn.
I personally can’t wait to see the big crate full of fantasy pumpkins on the sidewalk, and I’ll buy a few to dress up our front steps. A big display case will be set up near the front of the store, packed on every side with all things pumpkin spice, including a few things that probably have no business carrying those flavors. It can be a little overwhelming for those who like a taste of pumpkin spice—TJ’s has it for their coffee cup, breakfast waffles, ravioli, hummus, dog biscuits, scented candles and even body butter—and downright annoying for customers who would prefer to just carve a jack-o-lantern and call it fall. Nonetheless, moving products through with the seasons helps Trader Joe’s give the people what they want right now, and they are darn good at it.
Maybe a little too good?
This notion of “seasonal” brings me around to discussing the dark side of Trader Joe’s—the grievances that leave me frustrated, annoyed or downright furious.
Lame excuses for not having the products you have come to love
Oh, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve made a trip to TJ’s for something I’ve gotten excited about only to find it gone. If you dare to ask for something that is even one minute expired from their scheduled inventory, you can bet your pumpkin spice one of their uber-cheerful employees will inform you that the item was—wait for it— “seasonal.” This is their first, go-to answer. It’s so aggravating, and sometimes, it seems like an easy excuse. This idea of retiring products makes sense to a point. I don’t expect Trader Joe’s to have pumpkin spice baton cookies in April, but what about when I’m trying to find the brand-new Crunchy Jalapeno Lime and Onion condiment that was literally in the Fearless Flyer ad I picked up on my previous-week visit?
I walked through every aisle without luck and was eventually told, “Oh, we sold out last week and it’s gone for the season!” Well, damn. Maybe next year—or maybe not, depending on how well the product performed in sales.
I’m still aching from the disappearance of the honey-pale ale mustard I loved. At first, they told me that was seasonal, but I learned the next year it was permanently discontinued because it wasn’t a good seller. This made more sense because, let’s be honest, mustard isn’t seasonal. So, what about the mayonnaise we (and millions of other customers) loved?
When the “seasonal” claim holds not a shred of truth, and when the product was undeniably popular, that’s when you can expect the other pat answer: they’re having a problem with that supplier. That’s what they told us when we couldn’t find our favorite expeller pressed canola oil mayo. That stuff was like oxygen for our sandwich-loving selves, and we were downright panicked when it vanished. The company line was that the “canola oil had gotten too expensive” for them to continue selling the mayo. Funny thing, though—they still carry the aforementioned canola oil that I love, and its price hasn’t changed. There’s a clinical term for this type of response, and I’m pretty sure it’s “gaslighting.”
Fresh items turn south way too quickly
OK, fellow serious home cooks, how frustrating is it—on a 1 to 10 scale—to plan a menu, shop the day before, and discover upon setup for the meal that one of your key ingredients has already begun to spoil? Trader Joe’s has a fantastic return policy, and I have never had a problem with them refunding or replacing anything. But their fresh meats and produce have a very short life, and it isn’t at all convenient to haul myself back across town with a stinky chicken or moldy bell pepper when I need to have dinner on the table in the next hour. Depending on how busy I am the next day, I may or may not be able to do it then, either. I’ve mostly stopped purchasing fresh meat there, which is a shame because they have a good selection. The rule of thumb at our house is, “don’t buy it unless the oven is already pre-heated at home.”
All that plastic wrapping on the vegetables
Why? Just why do all the vegetables have to be bagged in plastic? I don’t want to imagine the environmental impact of this, and though some of their produce items do need to be contained—the yummy salad kits, for example—other items, like bunches of fresh scallions or whole heads of cauliflower, don’t. My hunch is that they don’t have the proper prep spaces to handle the produce differently, but all that plastic troubles me. Another thing that’s interesting about their produce is that nothing is priced by weight, which is a big plus for keeping the checkout lines moving faster, but it does mean you can spend extra time digging for the largest delicata squash to be sure you get your money’s worth on items priced by the piece. I’m speaking hypothetically, of course—delicata squash is seasonal and hasn’t hit the stores yet. (insert smirk emoji)
All that delicious bread comes in frozen
The selection of bread is great, but it all comes in frozen and the moisture that collects inside the bags increases the likelihood of mold. This has not been a problem for me personally in recent years—I have bought nary a loaf anywhere since I started baking with sourdough—but if you want one of those beautiful ciabattas, buy it on the morning of the day you plan to use it. Even the tortillas are affected by the freezing; it isn’t unusual to find them stuck together in the package after something went awry with the thawing. Not much fun when you’re in a hurry to make breakfast burritos.
Consistency of products is lacking
There’s nothing like anticipating a taste of something that you have grown to love, and then opening the bag to find a completely different product. That’s part of the game with some of the items at Trader Joe’s. Les and I have noticed this especially with their snack items, including the spicy ghost pepper potato chips—one bag will be bland and barely seasoned, and the next will burn your lips off. Once, I opened a bag of multigrain pita chips in the car on the way home and turned my car around on the spot to exchange them because they were thicker than usual and stale. I opened the replacement bag there at the customer service desk, and guess what? They were perfect.
I gave up on the TJ’s peppermint fluoride toothpaste—it was my go-to for years, because I can’t tolerate the xylitol sweetener that’s in most commercial brands—but I started noticing that a few tubes had an underlying taste of moldy bread. If you think it sounds disgusting, be thankful you didn’t have a mouthful. It was hit or miss at first, and they always exchanged it for me. But during the height of COVID, they were not accepting returns, and I’ve moved on to another brand.
The “customer engagement” efforts that go a little too far
This seems to have (finally) stopped at our store, but I am curious to know if this has happened to you. For years, I dreaded the quirky, borderline-invasive small talk that the front-end team at my store routinely initiated as they were ringing up my items.
“What have you been up to today?”
“How are you going to use this horseradish cheddar?”
“Are you headed home after this?”
“Aha, the pumpkin spice body butter!”
After a while, Les and I amused ourselves by imagining comebacks that would turn the tables on those awkward conversations. If we really wanted to be pre-emptive, we might have strung our responses together right at the greeting, like this:
Helpful TJ’s employee: “Hi there! I can take you right over here!”
Us: “Thanks so much! We’re in a hurry to get home so we can puree this horseradish cheese with moldy peppermint toothpaste. Won’t that be an awesome crostini topping for this half-frozen bread? Hey, double bag our order please—we have to stop off at the morgue for an identification on the way home. Whew, I’m glad it’s pumpkin spice season. So, here’s what I plan to do with this body butter…”
We are still feeling the love
At the end of all this ranting, I readily admit that the positives of Trader Joe’s outweigh the negatives.
It would take an awful lot to make us walk away, and our local store even has a place in our personal story. Sometime around the middle of 2014, I spotted a familiar face on my way to the checkout and commented on the fact that we each had a box of Trader Joe’s brand Toasted Oatmeal Flakes cereal in our baskets. I recognized Les from the pool league we both played in at the time, but he was drawing a blank—apparently, he didn’t recognize me without high heels and a pool cue in my hand! Later that year, we became teammates, then friends the next year, and what followed is obvious.
That “coincidental” meeting is further testament to the fact that some things are meant to last and others are not—this summer, Trader Joe’s discontinued our favorite cereal. I think it was a problem with the supplier, or something like that.
When I first sat down to write this post, the world had just been stunned by the mass murder of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. I was still personally reeling from the shooting in a Buffalo supermarket, a horror scene that happened a mere hour from where I grew up. Since that time, there have been more mass shootings—at a nightclub in Chattanooga, a busy downtown section of Philadelphia, a graduation party in South Carolina—wait, am I missing one?
The good old U.S. of A. has seen 246 mass shootings so far in 2022. And it isn’t even the Fourth of July.
We may still have time
we might still get by
Every time I think about it, I want to cry
With the bombs and the devils
and the kids keep coming
Nowhere to breathe easy. . . no time to be young
Ann & Nancy Wilson
The truth is, I’m starting to feel numb about it, and I hate that. As much as it hurts to learn of yet another senseless slaughtering of innocent lives, I don’t want it to become normalized. I don’t want to dismiss it as just another headline and then scroll down my news feed to see who wore what at the MTV Movie and TV Awards or what adorable thing the British royal grandchildren did this weekend or 12 fun cocktails to usher in summer. It feels wrong and entitled to look the other way, and is it even safe to do so, when it very well might be you or me that is gunned down next at the grocery store?
The stress takes a toll on all of us. For me, stress has stalled my creativity, almost as if my brain is stuck on idle. I feel like my every attempt to move is just revving the engine but going nowhere. Ask my husband how many times in the past couple of weeks I’ve texted him at the day’s end, asking him to pick up takeout on his way home from work.
This is not normal because—c’mon, say it with me— nothing is normal anymore.
It isn’t that I’m not trying, or that I don’t have time to make food for us. It’s more that I’m distracted and frantic inside, and my creative efforts in the kitchen have been equal to those of an artist who randomly flings paint every which way in hope that a beautiful portrait will appear. Without focus, the outcomes of my experiments have been, well, “meh.”
Studies show that when people are under heavy stress, they gravitate toward the familiar rather than the new. We need comfort and soothing in times like these, and at mealtime that might mean grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, baked beans or ice cream. I have made all of the above recently and I look forward to sharing some of them with you, as soon as I figure out how to calm the hell down. The yearning for familiarity has also brought to mind favorite music from my younger years, and one song in particular has been on auto-repeat in my subconscious.
“Crazy on You,” by Heart, is a classic rock standard, and though it is mostly a raucous love song that has endured for its from-the-gut vocals and that astonishing acoustic guitar intro, there is one lyric that stands out most to me—“Nowhere to breathe easy, no time to be young.”
I recently watched a YouTube interview with Ann Wilson, frontwoman of Heart, and she recounted the story of co-writing that song with her sister, Nancy, way back in 1975, when I was the same age as many of the Uvalde shooting victims. It was on the heels of the Vietnam War and amid gas shortages and civil unrest and so many other uncertainties, and it seemed to her that the world was ending.
“It’s very stressful when you’re in your 20s and you don’t see a good future,” Ann said. The only thing that kept her going during that time, she explained, was the fact that she was in love, and could pour all of her energy into her relationship and her music. And so she did.
Please bear with me, dear readers, as I hope to find a way to do that in the kitchen. Soon.
You know the feeling, I suspect. For months, you plan and look forward to a vacation—whether it’s a full-blown trip or a quick driveaway—and you can’t wait for the rest and relaxation that comes with it. And then you get home exhausted. You need a vacation after the vacation.
That’s how it has been for my husband, Les, and me in the aftermath of an almost-weeklong getaway to celebrate our 5th anniversary. Our fun getaway started with the Jimmy Buffett concert that we bought tickets for way back in 2019, before the entire world stalled to a halt because of COVID. It was the first time Les had seen a Buffett show, and we had a fun time, even imagining how we might plan next time to do some hardcore tailgating on par with some of the other “Parrotheads” we encountered in the parking lot. The tropical vibe of the evening seemed like the perfect introduction to a few days of relaxing at the beach, and we couldn’t wait!
The countdown to our getaway was expected to coincide with completion of our master bath remodel project, which started in mid-March, and we looked forward to coming home for a nice, hot shower in our beautiful new space. But, well, that didn’t happen. Getting a straight answer about the timeline of the project hasn’t been difficult, but getting a true answer has, and we ordered the work suspended during our vacation because the ruckus is very stressful for our pets. But at least we would have a break from the noise and commotion that has consumed our home for the past six weeks.
We kept our eye on the prize—a peaceful escape to a rental home we’ve enjoyed before, and we yearned for the calm, quiet rest that awaited us. We’d sip wine or bourbon every evening and enjoy unadulterated views of the beach from our oceanfront deck, and we’d slumber with the sliding glass door cracked a few inches, allowing the calming sound of waves crashing ashore to invade our dreams, with no alarm clock set and no pets clamoring for 3 a.m. potty breaks.
Only it didn’t quite happen that way.
Nobody mentioned to us—and when I say nobody, I mean the rental company that happily took our money for the condo stay—that the federal government had funded a significant renourishment project along the coastline we were visiting, or that the work would occur all day and all through the night, with the incessant beep-beep-beep that signals the backup of heavy equipment, and a constant clanging of enormous, rust- and barnacle-covered pipes that spanned the beach directly in front of our rental and down the beach as far as the eye could see.
This is important work. The renourishment is necessary for preservation of the beachfront, not just for the enjoyment of tourists, but for the conservation of the coast and the ecosystem around it. We could deal with this for a day or two. At least we would enjoy dinner in nearby Wilmington and walking the boardwalk and grabbing a Britt’s donut—a must-have when you are in Carolina Beach (except, they were closed). And we could still enjoy our planned beach day. Thank goodness we had arranged for an umbrella rental, which they promised to place in a safe spot. Well, kind of.
I’m not complaining; I’m just pointing out the irony of our “getting away” to a new place with equal-or-greater commotion than what we left at home. Yep, it was still full-on ruckus, only with a change of venue. We did enjoy some incredible food (and drinks), and I look forward to recreating some of that—and sharing it with you in the months ahead.
The whole “vacation” experience reminds me of our wedding day, which was the basis for our celebration now, five years later. Les and I were supposed to be married outside, beneath a sweet little white pergola at the entrance of our neighborhood. The homeowner’s association even moved up the date for painting the thing so it would be fresh and perfect for our big day and our very small wedding party of five (plus us and the rabbi). But you know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?
On that day, we threw together a last-minute plan to exchange vows in the loft of our home, a decision that led to some precious and humorous moments with our pets, who decided they should be in on the action. At the end of that day, we were married, so we accomplished the main thing. Everyone assured us that rain on your wedding day is “good luck,” which is some brand of Southern nonsense that falls easily out of the mouths of people whose weddings were not rained out. Les said the wedding day weather was apropos, because life ahead would bring plenty of storms, so this was just good practice. We had a lovely time with friends and family despite it all, and we still think of our special day when we climb the stairs up to the seldom-used room.
I’m convinced that amid the curveballs that come at us all the way through life, we either get better or worse at rolling with the punches, and we get to decide which it will be. I’m grateful to be married to a man who has perfected the art of “let it go,” thankful for the experiences we share—rain and ruckus and all—and if a vacation turns out to be simply a change of venue in which to experience the chaos of life, well, I guess that’s a blessing, too.
I can almost feel all the eyebrows lifting out there, and I’m sure it sounds contradictory coming from someone who has posted—ahem, 257 recipes in the past two years. But here goes, anyway. I don’t like recipes, and they are not my friend. Whew, that was tough to admit. Despite the immense collection of cookbooks in my kitchen, home office, attic storage, garage and the new one that I just bought two weeks ago, I don’t like recipes. The reasons are many, but I have boiled it down to a few, and they all point to the same issue: recipes hardly ever teach you anything, and they can even set you up to fail. Kind of like the way GPS can get you more lost than you’ve ever been.
When I clicked “publish” on my first Comfort du Jour post—exactly two years ago today—it was my mission to share ideas for elevating classic comfort foods and demystifying more extravagant dishes to make them more approachable for the home cook. My hope, of course, is that cooks of every skill level will find something interesting on my blog, something worth trying themselves and perhaps with a few changes to make one of my dishes their own. Inspiration—that’s my goal. Short of having you literally join me in the kitchen, however, some of my ideas might leave you with more questions than answers. And that’s the problem with recipes.
Like almost everyone I know, I have successes and failures in the kitchen, and some of them are spectacular on both ends of that scale. In my opinion, it is better to work toward developing one’s own skills in the kitchen rather than following recipes, because understanding techniques will carry you through any new dish. As I embark on my third year of food blogging, my new (or, I should say, additional) goal will be to help explain how I have honed my cooking skills so that learning or trying new dishes feels natural and fun.
With that in mind, I offer what I consider to be the top 5 problems with recipes. Rebuttals are welcome, of course, as are your own recipe peeves and observations. Here we go!
5. Recipes can be too vague or too detailed
Have you ever tried to follow a recipe that seems to assume that you graduated from culinary school? This happens to me when I look at many older cookbooks, and even some of the cookie recipes left behind by my own dear grandmother. What if I didn’t know, for example, that “mix all ingredients together” really means to cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, blending after each, then stir in the vanilla and then stir in the flour? When my Gram passed away in 2019, I was startled and saddened to realize that I only had four of her recipe cards in my collection—four! But my panic quickly turned to relief when it dawned on me that I have a whole backlog of memories to guide me. During all the afternoons I spent in her kitchen, she taught me her techniques, and that is worth a million recipes.
On the flip side of that, too much detail in a recipe can be just as bad as not enough. If the author of the recipe assumes that you have zero cooking abilities, you may have trouble following all those words. And if you should happen to need to double or half a recipe like that? Ugh, forget it. I have literally wrecked the simplest of recipes because the wordiness made me lose my place or second-guess my own instincts. It is embarrassing to admit, but I lost my mind a little bit because I couldn’t figure out when to add the toasted pecans to a carrot cake in the Bobby Flay book. The recipe literally did not address it, but I should not have needed it in writing. When I lose my confidence in the kitchen, I also lose my joy. Don’t let this happen to you! 🙂
4. Ingredient lists that are too long or don’t offer substitution ideas
A dish needs what it needs, but one that uses a miniscule amount of every condiment and spice in my kitchen isn’t going to happen. This is exactly why I have never made pad Thai—a fantastic dish, but 25 ingredients is too darn many for me! And if you can’t find two or three of the ingredients, does that mean you can’t make the dish? There is a substitute for almost everything in the world of food, and the more unusual the ingredients, the more likely you’ll need to know what those substitutes are. This is also true for those with food allergies or sensitivities; understanding how a substitute ingredient will behave in the recipe is as important as knowing how it will taste. Gluten-free flour cannot be substituted evenly for wheat flour in a yeast bread, but it may work fine in a pancake recipe. The protein in dairy milk might play a role that can’t be handled by almond or cashew milk. Aquafaba, the liquid in a can of chickpeas, can be a vegan substitute for eggs in one dish (if the eggs are primarily a binder) but you obviously cannot scramble it up into an omelet. A perfect recipe would describe how to adjust for substitutions but spelling out every possibility will lead back to the problem of the recipe being too detailed.
3. Recipes with steps that are based on time
I recently bought the book, Beat Bobby Flay, because my husband and I are somewhat addicted to watching the competition show on Food Network. One of the first recipes I checked out made me shake my head because it described cooking a mixture for 5 minutes, adding an ingredient and cooking 2 more minutes, adding something else and stirring constantly for 2 minutes. And I wondered to myself, how does Bobby know how long it will take on my stove, with my pans? There are so many variables from one cook to the next—everything from your stove to your cookware to the ambient temperature in your kitchen can shift the cook time on a recipe. Even the various burners on the same stove will perform differently, so unless the recipe also describes the visual cues to watch for, don’t trust the time marks. Bobby Flay is a very accomplished chef (and one of my favorites), so this is not a slam against him—just a reminder that knowing how to cook is a prerequisite for using recipes. The clock has very little to do with it, except for planning what time to get started.
2. Recipes that sound too easy to be true
With the advent of social media came the prevalence of recipes that have not been tested prior to publishing, and there seems to be a newfound fascination with recipes using the least number of ingredients (which is a joke, given that each “ingredient” has its own lengthy ingredient list). I’ve seen some flat-out crazy things on Pinterest, and some TikTok users get their kicks by posting impossible recipes—I suppose just to see if people will click on it so they can go viral. If you honestly believe that self-rising flour and mashed sweet potatoes will produce the fluffiest dinner rolls you’ve ever seen, and that they can be baked in the microwave, then you might also be interested in buying some oceanfront property in Kansas. Not to discourage experimenting, of course, but trust your judgment. If a recipe smells like a scam, it probably is, and I hate wasting food.
1. Recipes are made for the author’s taste, not yours
If you don’t believe this one, just look at the online “reviews” for any recipe. It won’t take more than a minute for you to find a review that gripes that the dish is too salty, followed immediately by another review that says the dish has no flavor and needs more salt. This is not a problem with recipes as much as it is a reminder that taste is subjective, and the more you are able to understand and adjust a recipe on your own, the happier you’ll be with the finished dish.
So let’s hear it. What are your thoughts on recipes, and what makes them better or worse for you?
And speaking of recipes, get ready for some more inspiration from me, including—you guessed it—some new dishes I’ve been cooking up in the Comfort du Jour kitchen. I’ll do my best to avoid these common recipe pitfalls as I describe the techniques behind my creations.
The new year is off to a slow start for me and Comfort du Jour, but it isn’t for lack of trying. I have begun at least five times to write an introduction to our beautiful new kitchen, and here’s the thing—I just have too many favorite features to put it into words!
If I could invite you all over for dinner (or breakfast, brunch, lunch, coffee, cocktails), which would be my preference, we could demonstrate all the cool things we like about our new space and you could touch the textured backsplash tile and try out the features of the faucet and we would have a grand time. Until that is an option, and without trying to use so many words to explain what I want you to see, I am going to do the big reveal mainly in pictures. There are a ton of them ahead, and I would like to recommend that a computer, or at least a tablet, is a better way to view this post than a smartphone. You will see the detail better and the captions will not cover the photos. If you typically visit my site on the WordPress Reader, I recommend that you use this link to visit my actual page for a better experience as well. The slideshows do not translate as well in the reader.
Dear friends, you were terrific about supporting my husband, Les, and me as we stumbled through those awkward weeks of renovation, and we thank you for your comments, suggestions and “been there, done that” empathy. As we all know (or at least as the Bible teaches), God created the world in six days, but you can count on a minimum of six to eight weeks for a new kitchen. It was quite a ride, and well worth it in the end.
Here we go!
When we sat down with Matt (our general contractor) back in June 2021, Les and I discussed with him three primary trouble spots in our tired old kitchen: not enough counter space, poor traffic flow and lousy lighting. We asked for storage solutions, reworking of some of the existing layout, premium materials, under-cabinet lighting and a few fun bells and whistles, and I am pleased to report that we got everything we asked for and more!
Let’s begin with the layout, which mainly affected the sink and fridge side of the kitchen. You would think, with a 22-foot length, space would not be an issue. But things were not arranged well in the original design.
The changes to the stove side of the kitchen are less dramatic, but still noticeably improved. We went for symmetry on this side, swapping out a standard base cabinet for drawers to match the other side, and each side was increased by 3 inches. You’d be amazed at the difference that made in the big picture.
We worked with a designer to select our cabinets, countertop and hardware, and we were intentional to choose as many American-made products as possible. Our cabinets were made in Minnesota byLegend Cabinetry, and we liked the sleek, Shaker-style doors with light gray stain over birch hardwood. The color is warm, but fresh, and the movement of the grain is evident underneath.
We invested in a few splurges, including the Kohler sink, which I call the “Queen of the Kitchen.” We paired it with a Kohler faucet, primarily because both are made in the U.S. and also for the special features it offered.
The apron front, cast-iron sink has been on my “dream kitchen” list for years and I love it. This kind of sink may not be for you, especially if you stand taller than me. It is deep to begin with; being mounted underneath a slab of stone makes it seem even deeper. Even I, at 5-foot-5, find myself stooping at times to clean the dishes. I don’t mind it, but it is something to keep in mind if you are considering a remodel.
When I first spotted the plugmolds (on Pinterest, of course), I got so excited! Part of my frustration with outlets on the backsplash has been pure vanity; I didn’t like them photo-bombing my food photos for Comfort du Jour, and I cursed them every time I tried to get a good image. But my blog is not for profit, so that was not the only justification for our splurge on this unusual item. We need all the counter space we have, and our appliances do not live there permanently (well, except for my coffee grinder, which uses a very small footprint in one corner). The plugmolds keep cords and charger cables up and out of the way when we use our small appliances, and there is nothing to obstruct the view of our gorgeous subway tile when we don’t. We like the clean look very much, but if you prefer always having appliances within easy reach, or always plugged in, this may not be for you.
Also, the plugmolds do not afford the convenience of a ground fault interrupter, so all the kitchen outlets must be on a breaker box circuit. If we get crazy and trip a breaker, we will need to trudge to the garage to reset it. So far, so good, as that hasn’t happened. Had this been explained to us on the front end, I would have agreed to one GFCI outlet in the kitchen, right there in the space where my coffee grinder lives.
The microwave cabinet was under discussion from selection of our materials all the way to installation. We wanted to move the microwave from its previous position above the range, where it not only obstructed my view of the back burners but created havoc when Les and I worked in the kitchen at the same time. He could not warm leftovers or give our breakfast bacon a quick zap to rewarm it without bumping into me as I finished an omelet.
Many people choose to place a built-in microwave above a wall-mounted oven, but that was not an option for our kitchen footprint. Our house is on a slab and we were not interested in the enormous expense of moving walls or plumbing to make room for wall ovens. And for sure, we did not want to lose counter space to a microwave. We chose the GE Spacemaker microwave, which is low-profile and only 12 inches deep, but housing it remained a challenge.
Our cabinet designer, Molly, presented the terrific option that we chose—she ordered from the cabinet manufacturer a 24-inch depth microwave cabinet (the same kind that would be used for a standard built-in), and her cabinet technicians modified the cabinet to a 15-inch depth and added a secure shelf for our microwave, leaving space below for storage of our cutting boards! There is plenty of space around the microwave for ventilation (this was confirmed by the microwave manufacturer as well), and if we should ditch the microwave in the future, the shelf will be perfect for displaying our favorite cookbooks.
The butcher block countertop makes my baking station feel special—even the lighting seems warmer reflected off the wood tones—and I love the surface for bread dough and pasta dough. The water-based finish is every bit as smooth as our lovely quartz countertops and does not require any special maintenance. We ordered the block with a greater overhang than what is standard, and that gives me plenty of space to attach my pasta machine to the counter—something I could not easily do on our other counters.
Finally, the special little touches that give our kitchen pizzazz. We wanted the former dinette area to feel cozy and inviting, so we did not choose to have bright wafer lights in this part of the ceiling; rather, we changed out the frazzled old fixture with a beautiful piece that was handmade from recycled glass, by Bicycle Glass, a company dedicated to sustainability, and you know how much I like that.
We also added a uniquely handcrafted table that was made locally, and we now refer to this region of the kitchen as “the bistro.” 🙂
The end of our remodel means the beginning of a new chapter of food adventures. We have already enjoyed our first holiday season in the new space, and many more fun meals will be served up soon, so stay tuned!
In my radio days, I had a co-worker who proclaimed that every month had a color. March was green, July was red, October was orange and January was (as if we couldn’t guess) gray. It couldn’t be truer, right? The twinkly lights are all packed away, the parties are over (or in the case of the past two years, they never even got started), the festive music is no longer playing 24/7 on the iHeartRadio station and it’s back to work as usual. One of my least favorite things about the holiday season ending is taking down the Christmas tree. This year, our tree made it clear that it, too, was “over it,” and it did so by drying up and dropping all its needles into the corner of our living room. Dry and gray.
The month is already off to such a gloomy start that I have procrastinated more than usual on writing up something for Comfort du Jour, though I have been busy in the kitchen. I have made soup and baked bread and used up leftovers. Most of our meals have been from the archives, so there isn’t much new to share. More gray.
As if the month of January is not already dismal enough, I made a reluctant decision to participate in the no-alcohol-for-a-month event known as Dry January. The concept has plenty of appeal, with the lure of better sleep, reduced inflammation, higher productivity, likely weight loss and improved overall health. All of those things sound great, but in January? What in the world was I thinking?
Could it have been the complete absence of having anything to wear when we rang in the new year last week? It’s true that none of the cute things in my closet even come close to fitting me because of the weight I’ve gained in the past two years. Leave it to me to choose an international lockdown as the time to both begin a food blog and go through menopause. So, yeah, that was part of it. And it didn’t help that in the middle of December, I got reckless and went shopping for a new bra (because none of those fit me anymore either) and found myself stunned and disgusted by the semi-naked figure gawking back at me from the full-length mirror in the try-on room. I knew the calories from all of my food and drink experiments would add up, but when did Mrs. Doubtfire’s costume team take over my body?
I would say that this Dry January commitment was a spontaneous opt-in, a last-minute positive peer pressure kind of thing, but that wouldn’t be true. I have considered it in previous recent years; I have friends who have done it and found it cleansing and rejuvenating after an indulgent holiday season—but I always made excuses about doing it myself, from a desire to use up the lingering champagne from New Year’s or to keep mid-month brunch plans with a girlfriend or just to give myself a distraction from the boredom and low-grade depression that always hits me after Christmas. I even considered it last year, for about five seconds, but no way was I going sober for a month under the grim circumstances of COVID without vaccines. This afternoon, when we reach the one-year anniversary of the insurrection, I will probably be rethinking this whole thing again. Would Democracy be safer if I have a cocktail in my hand?
But this year, my decision was intentional, and though I am reluctant, I am curious to see what I may learn about myself this time. A good number of years ago, I entered a voluntary period of total sobriety for about eight weeks—long enough to drop 16 pounds without even trying, and long enough to find the courage to confront inexcusable abuse from my childhood. I was only 27 then, and it was an important emotional exercise for me at that time. Perhaps I am overdue for a personal revelation, or maybe I am finally finding the maturity to realize that my body needs a break from all this “moderation.”
Either way, I won’t be doing it alone. It is estimated that 1 in 7 people participate in Dry January, and when I casually mentioned it last week to my supportive husband, he instantly said, “Yeah, I’ll do that with you, Babe.” Thank goodness only one of us overthinks everything.
No matter your religious leaning or background, this time of year is meant to inspire joy and wonder. It is inevitable as the new year approaches that we take stock of the year that is almost done, and we will begin to make plans (if we haven’t already) for the next one. As if our best-laid plans really set the course for anything these days. I can barely get things off the ground for a weekend, so I dare not even look ahead to the coming year just yet.
As the year closes, I find myself as frazzled and worn out as I always seem to be this time of year, and though some of my exhaustion is my own doing, the rest is the culmination of a busy season at my job, preparations for the holidays and confusion in the wake of our kitchen remodel (I still can’t find everything). I am convinced that peace does not come from getting everything done, but from letting things go.
We put up our tree last Friday night, an endeavor that always seems to provoke passionate differences of opinion. My Jewish husband (who only began erecting Christmas trees a few slight years ago when he hooked up with me) had some unconventional ideas about how to stabilize the wobbly tree in our cheapo plastic Christmas tree stand. And I (of course, being me) provided a fair amount of pushback on his helpful suggestions. To some degree, I admit my resistance to Les’s ideas was result of my perfectionism, but mostly, I was having flashbacks of Christmas trees past, toppled over in the middle of the night, with microscopic shards of glass splayed in every direction. This is no fun, especially with pets in the house, and given that our tree is adorned with special, impossible-to-replace ornaments, some of which I have had since I was a child.
After several rounds of shouting over the problem of stabilizing the tree (obviously, that didn’t help anything), I did what any reasonable (and utterly exasperated) person would do. I asked the internet if anyone, after all these centuries of decorating indoor trees, had yet discovered a better way to prop the damn thing up. Lo and behold, a German-based company has cracked the code on Christmas tree stands with a carefully engineered cable-and-lever system. So we shoved the half-steady, strung-with-lights tree into the corner and made a run to Ace Hardware the next morning to get this stand, which has an ingenious method for securing the tree, and even alerts me to the water level. Best $79 I’ve spent so far this Christmas. To be fair, since I haven’t yet begun my shopping, it is the only $79 I have spent. But this tree stand is not playing.
As we began digging through our box of whimsical ornaments, including the one we picked up in Asbury Park at the end of our summer vacation, we realized that it had been exactly two years to the day since we lost our sweet cat, Zoe. This little girl looooved Christmas, especially lying beneath the tree, and she even knew which stocking was hers. I still miss her so much. When she left for the Rainbow Bridge, I had printed her sweet face onto a sheet of vellum paper and inserted it into a glass ornament tied up with ribbon.
Placing her precious kitty face in the best, most prominent spot on the tree was a reset button on our moods, and we spent the rest of the day reminiscing over the stories behind our eclectic ornament collection and eventually lighting the menorah on that seventh night of Hanukkah. And a short-lived peace fell upon us.
I have been reflecting on a message that our rabbi shared in his Hanukkah message, pondering the miracle of the oil. It is easy enough to understand what made the overall event of Hanukkah miraculous—the oil being enough to keep the eternal lamps going for eight nights, despite the fact there was only one night’s worth of oil in the jar—but what was the big deal about the first night, for which the oil was already sufficient? As Rabbi Mark put it, the miracle of the first night was that the people had faith to go ahead and light the lamp. They had no idea what would happen on the other nights, but they trusted that things would work out, and that it wouldn’t be by their own figuring or planning or careful conservation of oil. Without their faith on that first night, the miracle would not have been realized.
This is a good message for me. During the holiday season (and any other time I feel overwhelmed), my default mode is to freeze up and fret about whatever it is I’m running short of, and it’s always something: time, resources, strength, faith, help, extension cords. This year feels particularly rough—we had no sooner returned from our fabulous, much-needed vacation, and it was time to dismantle the kitchen for six weeks of remodeling, which wrapped up (mostly) at the start of what was literally the busiest, most hectic two weeks of the year for my day job. Amid the chaos of long workdays, Les and I had to move everything back into the kitchen, then it was time for aesthetic adjustments to the new cabinets just two days before Thanksgiving. Whew. Not 72 hours later came Hanukkah, and now here we are staring down the Advent season and barreling toward Christmas. Yep, I’m pretty well frozen in terms of getting things done, including sharing any of it here on Comfort du Jour. But another thing happened last weekend to give me pause and put my priorities under a microscope.
On Sunday, Les suggested that we take our dog, Nilla, to her favorite downtown brew pub for a relaxing afternoon. Nilla knows everyone at Fiddlin’ Fish, it seems, and we love watching her soak up the attention of the staff, fellow patrons and other dogs. It was a beautiful day and we should have gone. But we stayed home because I felt strangely obligated to follow through on making more latkes (using parsnips, carrots and purple sweet potatoes). I wanted to get that done and posted on the blog while it was still Hanukkah, as if it made any difference. My day in the kitchen did not end well, and if I could go back to that afternoon, I’d make a different decision. Our Nilla turned 13 at Thanksgiving and one (hopefully far away) day, we will have to memorialize her sweet face on the Christmas tree. Doing something together that is fun for Nilla brings joy, and I hate that we gave it up for lousy latkes. This weekend, we will be there.
It is not only the Hanukkah miracle that has been on my mind. There is a well-known story in the Bible’s New Testament about two sisters entertaining Jesus in their home. One of the sisters, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet, enthralled at every word He spoke. And the other sister, Martha, was busy as a beaver in the kitchen and she complained that Mary was not helping and that she had to prepare the meal by herself. Jesus gently informed her that Mary had the right idea. Martha was missing out on the wonder.
When I’m doing Martha’s kind of “busy,” I can be robbing myself of peace, and when I am caught up in all the self-imposed trappings of the season, I do miss the joy and wonder. What I want most of all is to be fully present for the holiday season, and I will be thankful to see people face-to-face rather than on Zoom calls. I want to experience the pleasure of simple things like sipping hot cocoa by our chiminea on a cold December night. I want to make Christmas cookies—not for the blog, but just because I love making them and never seem to make the time. And this year, for the first time by myself, I’m going to make “crub,” a traditional Norwegian dish that was always on the table at my great-grandparents’ tiny little house on Christmas Eve. It is not a photogenic dish and I may or may not post it later, but it is special to me and tastes like home. Great-Gram, whose crub recipe is scattered across the country with her descendants, had words of wisdom for times like these. She’d say, regarding things that went wrong or didn’t get done, “a hundred years from now, nobody will ever know the difference.” It’s funny how that comes back to me now, and I’m grateful that I knew her.
Les asked me the other night if I was ever going to post the story from our vacation about the fantastic VIP tour I experienced at one of the nation’s top-ranked pizzerias. I’ve been sitting on it for three months now, and yes, eventually I will share it. Others (maybe even you, dear reader) have wondered, “Are you ever going to show us your kitchen?” Yes, and I’ll be excited to do it. But I am busy actually using the kitchen for Christmas and I don’t want to stop to tidy it up for pictures just now. But I promise, soon.
We will always fall short of something at the holiday season. This year, I want to fall short of stress, and I want to open the door for joy and wonder to enter. I hope the same for you! ❤