On Memorial Day weekend this year (the unofficial start of summer), my husband, Les, and I enjoyed a few craft beers at our favorite local brewpub, dreaming up fun things to do for a late-summer vacation. We were hoping to make good on some travel plans that we had to cancel last year, and our decision to drive rather than fly gave us a lot of flexibility for how to spend a week away from home. We knew that we wanted to visit the Northeast, through New York and Connecticut, and we were game for just about anything.
On a whim that afternoon, my husband looked up the concert schedule for one of his favorite Jersey-based bands, and would you believe it? —they were scheduled to play on Labor Day weekend, right at the end of our planned vacation time! Our spontaneous decision to hit the “buy it” button on those tickets turned out to be one of our best moves ever. We counted down the months, weeks and days until our trip, and now the vacation that we had so eagerly anticipated has ended and it feels a bit blurry. The experience of time is an odd thing, and even more so after having spent nearly a year and a half not going anywhere. We are safe at home, exhausted, and still reeling from all the incredible adventures we had over 10 days and across more than 1,800 miles.
During our getaway, which was conveniently timed to coincide with Les’s birthday, we enjoyed visits with family and old friends, made new friends and met a few others face-to-face for the first time, including Bernadette, one of my blogging buddies that I met here on WordPress, and our musician friends, Glenn Alexander and Oria. Those experiences gave me joy that I cannot quite put into words. We also had some of the most incredible food, including pizza at three of America’s top-rated pizzerias and some chicken wings in Connecticut that were, quite frankly, better than any wings I have had from my time near Buffalo. Les and I walked more than 7 miles in one day in NYC, including lunch at Chelsea Market and happy hour at a classic tavern in Greenwich Village, mere days before the record-setting rainfall that wreaked havoc on the city and parts of New Jersey and Long Island, all locations we stayed during our trip. We visited a legendary music venue made famous by Bruce Springsteen, attended a fabulous outdoor concert by a favorite band, and did I mention all the terrific food?
I’m still trying to get my arms around these experiences, and also trying to resume the routines of work-from-home life, and it is a little overwhelming, but I promise more details are coming. Here’s a glimpse of what is to come in the weeks ahead, as I aim to replicate or re-invent some of the culinary experiences we had along the way.
Nearly every leg of our journey was tied in some way to Comfort du Jour, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the many ways starting this blog has changed my life for the good.
We are happy to be home, sleeping in our own bed and loving on our precious pets. It is back to business-as-usual status around here, but not really. This action-packed vacation was a pre-emptive strike against stress, as our kitchen remodel is finally about to begin, so brace yourself for some new posts that will probably be a bit chaotic at times. We still have a lot of pantry items to use up, and Les will be giving me a new “Chopped” basket this evening, and it will be the last one I am able to navigate before the kitchen is dismantled. And then we will have a new adventure, perhaps named “The No-Kitchen Challenge.” Oh, these are the good times!
Thank you, dear reader, for hanging on for the ride. ❤
Everyone has heard of delayed gratification, but what about delayed disappointment? That is the best way to describe the outcome of what was meant to be a super cool and special dessert for my birthday. If you were following my kitchen adventures back in February, you may remember the luscious chocolate-cherry tiramisu that I created for a Valentine’s Day dinner with my husband, Les.
I was so excited about putting a fun flavor twist on the classic Italian dessert, which is a favorite of mine, but not so much for Les, who cannot stand the flavor of coffee. My chocolate-cherry version of tiramisu swapped out the usual espresso in favor of a brewed cacao beverage, and it was oh so delicious.
After that successful twist on a classic, my creative juices flooded over and I created an array of other flavors for tiramisu—at least, in my mind. Every time another great flavor idea occurred to me, I opened the notes feature on my iPhone and added it to the list. To date, I have imagined six more flavor profiles, and one that was particularly appealing to me was pina colada. Could you imagine? The sweet flavors of fresh pineapple and tropical coconut, layered with the mascarpone and ladyfingers—oh, I dreamed about it for months. And my birthday, right in the middle of summer, would be the perfect occasion for it.
Except for one thing. Pineapple has some unusual properties, and in my excitement about what I envisioned would be a huge “wow” moment, I failed to recognize or plan for that.
Nope, I only charged forward with my plan, thinking through the flavor aspects and the presentation and what ingredients I would substitute for the espresso, the brandy and the cocoa powder. I would dip the ladyfingers into a delicious coconut smoothie concoction, spiked with a lovely golden rum from one of our local distilleries. I searched three supermarkets to find a version of pineapple preserves with ingredients that met my approval. I would fold that into the mascarpone mixture, as I had with the cherry preserves in my perfect Valentine’s Day version. Rather than cocoa dusted between layers, I’d sprinkle it with toasted desiccated coconut, and serve it on my grandmother’s vintage plates, and it was going to be great!
I started mixing, following the inspiration of the same Ina Garten recipe that led me to success the first time, and I got to the point of mixing a splash of pineapple juice and rum into the whipped mascarpone mixture, and suddenly the silky, creamy stuff in my bowl turned into a clumpy, curdled mess.
If I had been a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped, this would have been the moment that the judges would begin to panic, foreshadowing my disastrous ending. My favorite judge, Amanda Freitag, would have buried her face into her hands, whispering, “oh no, did she just put the pineapple juice in there?”
Yes, I sure did, and now I was puzzled. It must have been too cold, I reasoned, remembering that Ina Garten’s recipe made a big deal about starting with every single ingredient at room temperature. Not to worry, though. I’ve seen plenty of TV chefs fix broken sauces with an immersion blender, so I grabbed mine and whipped that mixture back into shape. It seemed mostly OK, and then I folded in a few tablespoons of the incredible pineapple preserves I had found at Trader Joe’s. This stuff was awesome, and I could almost taste sweet success. And then, dang if it didn’t curdle again!
And that was the exact moment I remembered about bromelain, the powerful enzyme in pineapple that does freaky things when it mingles with protein. I knew about this from years ago when I had marinated a pork tenderloin with pineapple and cilantro. The soaking liquid had smelled and tasted incredible, and I was sure my tenderloin would be remarkable. Oh, it was—remarkably mushy with a paste-like coating after grilling. Bromelain breaks down proteins into weird particles, and it happens quickly. This is why the splashes of pineapple juice wrecked the whipped egg yolk mixture, and I’m sure the immersion trick would have proved only temporarily effective. But I had not remembered any of this in time.
It was clear to me then that my pina colada tiramisu was not going to be successful, and I faced a tough decision to either scrap the whole mess or try to salvage it into some other kind of dessert. It was serendipitous that I arrived at this crossroads while making my own birthday dessert. Birthdays for me are weird occasions anyway, and for many very old reasons, I tend to steer clear of setting expectations of any kind. If I don’t make a big deal of it being my birthday, then it stings less when things don’t work out. But this dessert disaster was more disappointment than I was prepared for, partly because I had spent so much time dreaming up this tiramisu, and partly because the person disappointing me was me. So I took some deep breaths and made my decision. I wasn’t ready to give up, because then I was telling myself that my birthday wasn’t important. I had to be true to me and try to save it. But how?
I had a very successful grilled pineapple and jalapeno ice cream last summer, so maybe I could retrofit this mixture into ice cream—except no, because the egg yolks were raw and already mixed with mascarpone so I couldn’t cook the mixture now. Could I find a way to shift gears and make a pineapple cake? I’m not much of a baker (unless it’s sourdough bread), but I dug around on Pinterest and found a recipe that could serve as inspiration. It called for three sticks of butter, and mascarpone is kind of like butter. So I started whipping new ingredients into the clumpy mess in my stand mixer and I combined it with flour until it looked like batter. And then I crossed my fingers and baked it. Well?
At this point, I had no idea whether the cakes would even be edible. In my mind, another Chopped judge, Alex Guarnaschelli, was pursing her lips and shaking her head. The cakes were so dense and flat, and I knew they didn’t have near enough sugar, so I cooked the coconut smoothie-rum mixture with some turbinado sugar and made a syrup. I poked a toothpick all over the surface of the two cakes and spooned the syrup over them, hoping against hope that they’d soak up some flavor and sweetness. We ran out of powdered sugar for the icing, so I sent Les out to get more, and I pondered why I even bothered. Sadly, birthday disappointment was setting in, but I pressed on. I whipped more powdered sugar into the icing, but I couldn’t get the coconut flavor right, despite addition of coconut power, extract and actual coconut. But at least it didn’t look horrible. I mean, the frosting dressed it up, right?
I thought of the Rolling Stones’ tune, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and I reassured myself that even if my heavenly pina colada tiramisu that morphed into a flat, flavorless cake turned out to be a total bust, it was not the end of the world. It didn’t have to ruin my birthday, and it would not be my last chance to create something spectacular. I stepped outside to call our kitty, and I saw this.
The cake didn’t look horrible, but it really was. It was dense, pasty, heavy and not very sweet. The cooked rum syrup had a strange metallic taste that was not at all reminiscent of pina colada, and it didn’t hurt my feelings one bit to slide the whole mess into the trash. My birthday dessert was, in fact, a bust.
I learned something important about myself, though, and perhaps that was meant to be the point of all the hours I spent on my project. I am not a quitter, and I have gotten better in my later years at changing course when a situation demands it. And though I didn’t get my birthday wish for a tasty pina colada dessert, I did have a front row seat to witness the reveal of my true colors. And that part wasn’t so bad.
Besides, this coming weekend, I’ll be making ice cream. 😊
My husband, Les, and I gave each other a high five on Wednesday morning, when we signed over a down payment for a shiny new kitchen. It is a big decision to chuck it all and start over, especially with such a hefty price tag. But nobody will be shedding a tear in our house when this kitchen goes. We are hopelessly cluttered, land-locked and in each other’s way. I am exhausted from complaining about our shortage of counter space and storage, inefficient flow that is result of a poor original design (who had the idea to put the refrigerator next to the wall?), and especially the lack of decent light. We have talked and dreamed about doing this for a couple of years, and after our year in lockdown, we finally decided that something had to give.
For me, the commitment to remodel is a personal one, and it is scary. I have been down this kitchen makeover road before, and it did not end the way you see the big reveal in so many HGTV makeover shows. I won’t terrify you with the details, but I will summarize my DIY misadventure this way—remodeling projects sometimes reveal hidden truths to the homeowners, and not only in the form of moldy walls or termite infestations.
In a previous life, I had a vision for restoring the kitchen in a new-to-us-but-chronologically-old home. Along the way, several previous owners had “redone” the kitchen, but not very thoughtfully and certainly not in keeping with the 1927 bungalow’s character. Removal of all the old stuff (including five clunky layers of flooring, which exposed the most gorgeous original antique heart pine) was amusing and liberating, but the installation of our new expectations went off the rails, and just kept going. Much of the trouble could have been avoided, but for my spouse’s loyalty of keeping peace with the contractor, who was a social acquaintance. My desperate pleas for reset fell on deaf ears.
As the weeks morphed into months, I watched in silenced horror as my dream eroded into something more aligned with the contractor’s abilities or undeclared time constraints or perhaps his own vision—I’m not really sure—and my confidence in the outcome quickly followed. It was during this excruciating, exhausting project that I learned two important truths. First, don’t hire a friend to do work on your home, especially if you are emotionally invested in the outcome. Second, a home renovation project can make or break a fragile relationship. Frankly, I think it should be a required exercise for people contemplating marriage. In my case, the “big reveal” was a glaring situation of irreconcilable differences. Of course, dear reader, it was never really about the kitchen. Cracks in any foundation cannot be repaired with a fresh coat of paint.
A few years after my past nightmare project began, I made a clumsy exit from the yet-unfinished kitchen—and also from my marriage. I put down roots in a tiny duplex apartment with the smallest kitchen known to mankind. It was quiet (except when the neighbor was home, which is entirely another story) and I was learning how to be me again. When anxious thoughts woke me up at 3 a.m., I calmed myself by making handmade pasta. Sometimes I had popcorn and wine for dinner, and nobody cared or complained. Other times, I invited friends over and basked in the joy of entertaining, something I loved but rarely got to do during the previous decade. I nurtured a sourdough starter and learned how to make beautiful bread. I got better at smiling and my love for cooking intensified.
Not all was lost, and I was reminded of this by a wise, unexpected philosopher who spoke a wonderfully hopeful truth:
Fast forward about two years to a vastly different scene, set in a different kitchen in a different part of town. I had been dating Les for a few months and on one evening, after much laughter and a bottle of wine and cleaning up dishes after a meal that we had cooked together in his kitchen, I felt a shiver run down my spine as my mind’s eye caught a glimpse of the future—it would one day be our kitchen. Don’t ask me how I knew, but two years after that, he became my husband. We have had some good times in this kitchen, and Les and I have turned out some incredible feasts, despite our less-than-fab space.
This kitchen we are giving up has no hold on Les, and I am delighted that we are on the same page with the updates we have planned—new cabinets and countertops, a new layout, better traffic flow and the promise of more storage. And lighting, lots of new lighting. We have replaced all of the appliances within the past couple of years, and we are keeping those. Well, except the microwave. In support of my passion for baking, we will introduce my own special space in a presently unused corner. I am so excited!
The contract we signed this week puts our project into the trusted hands of a reputable contractor whose design partners have helped us select some beautiful materials. We hope that we have designed the perfect solutions to our storage needs and spatial challenges. When the work begins at the end of summer, we will be expelled from the kitchen for about eight weeks, and we are doing some creative planning to make that part of the ride more tolerable and, perhaps, even enjoyable.
And we have a few fun surprises that will involve you, dear reader. Our cabinets are bursting with pantry items that we must thin out—and fast. In keeping with our playful personalities, we are turning it into a game, and I can’t wait to share that with you. Les and I will not break under the pressure of this remodel because we will be having way too much fun!
It’s the end of my kitchen as I know it, and I feel fine.
On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.
Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.
Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.
Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.
As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniels. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.
I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.
A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.
1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856
0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)
2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters
Quick squeeze of fresh lime
About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*
Lime wheel to garnish
A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.
Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:
If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.
Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀
For someone trained from a young age to “waste nothing,” dealing with sourdough discard has become quite the dilemma. From the time I first “birthed” my beloved starter, I have been in a regular habit of making homemade bread at least once a week, and that has kept me on a healthy schedule for feeding and refreshing the starter. But cutting off the edge of my finger on a mandoline slicer has messed up more than just my cooking goals—it has also suspended my favorite activity of baking, and that is tougher for me to accept.
I have my KitchenAid stand mixer, which is my trusty assistant for many of my bread recipes, but the mixer cannot replace my hands for stretching and folding, final kneading or shaping my loaves. I miss doing those things. And I imagine that my starter, Pete, is confused and lonely, sitting untouched in the dark, cold refrigerator with no attention. OK, probably not. It’s me that is wrecked inside, and I look forward to reuniting with bread dough, and I will probably go nuts and make so much extra that I’ll be dropping it off for all of the neighbors.
Until that time, I am finding other ways to use my discard starter—that is, the portion of starter that must either be used or thrown away at feeding time. When the natural yeast has consumed all the usable nutrients in the previous feeding, the starter becomes “flabby” and lifeless, and isn’t suitable for leavening anything. I don’t often waste starter, given that I am baking frequently, but these are desperate times. So this morning, I made my favorite sourdough waffles. The recipe begins the night before, when a generous lump of flabby sourdough discard is combined with flour, a dab of sugar and a cup of buttermilk. In the morning, egg, oil, salt and baking soda go into the mix and then—waffle magic!
This King Arthur recipe is the best I have found for making exceptionally light and flavorful waffles with a crispy exterior. Half the recipe is more than enough for the two of us, and we usually have at least an extra serving that we can toss into the freezer for a future “lazy” breakfast. We served up today’s sourdough waffles with real maple syrup (of course) and the best bacon we have had in a very long time. Simple, but delicious, and I am relieved of guilt because I have not wasted my starter. If you’re riding the sourdough train, but haven’t yet tried waffles, they are a fun way to enjoy the fermented goodness of spent sourdough. And please, share with me your favorite uses of sourdough discard, too. I will appreciate the ideas.
It’s Saturday, and we missed our chance this morning to visit the weekly farmers’ market for more of this amazing breakfast meat. I don’t know what has been going on in the world of bacon lately, but we have been repeatedly disappointed with our usual, favorite “no-nitrite” brands from the grocery store. And that’s a good thing, in the sense that it led us to the farmers’ market last week. We made a terrific haul of local, sustainable, home-grown foods. Something about the just-picked freshness makes me feel like I’m doing good in the world.
I’m always tempted to buy up everything that looks amazing, but we kept it reasonable this time, purchasing only what we knew we would finish in a week, and I took it to the limit with the collard greens, which I cooked as usual, but then I quick-pickled the stems with a couple of radishes and garlic cloves. You know, waste nothing. I will probably never be the wonder kid that my grandmother was—but I’m working on it!
First of all, I’m fine. As the Black Knight declared after King Arthur slashed off his entire arm in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, my injury also is “just a flesh wound.” And it is already on the mend. But as I scrambled this past Wednesday to rip off wads of paper towels to stop the profuse bleeding of my right ring finger, it sure seemed a lot worse.
My afternoon had been going swimmingly up to that point, as I had just finished making a perfect stack of fresh, handmade corn tortillas for our intended Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner. The wild-caught American shrimp were thawing in a colander over the sink, ready to be peeled and deveined. I had a lovely homemade ranch dressing that was ready to be spiked with green chiles. And as I sipped down the last of my dry martini, happily distracted by two separate texting conversations I was having on my smartphone—one by text and the other by email—I brimmed with confidence because all the prep for our shrimp tacos was done in advance of my husband, Les, walking through the door.
All, that is, except for shredding the fresh cabbage.
If only I had reached for the food processor to handle this task. But I really didn’t want to deal with having to take so much time to clean it later, and my multi-function mandoline was right over there anyway. Uh-huh. Friends, those things have a safety warning (not to mention a perfectly good safety feature) for a very real reason. It is a lesson I should have learned long ago, and one that I promised the doctor at our urgent care facility I would hold dear going forward.
“Cabbage doesn’t even fit in a mandoline,” Dr. Obvious declared. And of course, he was correct, and that was the reason I had skipped the safety guard in the first place. He was good-hearted in his teasing, though, and he fixed me up in no time, with assurance that my finger will be fine—I just need to take it easy in the kitchen for a few days. Les, who was ironically lamenting just last week that he never gets to cook anymore, is being a sweetheart and picking up my slack. In the meantime, I am constantly reminded how much we use even the lesser fingers for everyday essential tasks—including zipping up jeans, latching the seat belt, washing the dishes and using a cimputer keyb0ard (oops, there I go again).
There’s still plenty that I can do, including complain (ask Les), pour wine (from a screw-top bottle, anyway) and shop for more clear plastic containers (to hold all the extra kitchen things I don’t really need). I’ve been doing my share of all three since my little kitchen accident.
I’ve also been remembering a similar, but much worse experience many years ago—one that ultimately resulted in me leaving my upstate N.Y. home for greener pastures here in the South. I was 21 and nearing the end of my long shift in my tiny town’s only grocery store. I was about to clock out and get home to ready myself for an especially important job interview the next day. It was a Tuesday, and I know this because Charlie, the produce manager, was off on Tuesdays and he had trained me to be his backup for his days off. I wore a green apron and I loved working with the fresh produce, and Charlie had trained me well. I was a conscientious worker, proud to keep the fresh cases looking nice, and I noticed as I was about to remove my apron that the “moonlight mushrooms” were nearly emptied from their endcap display. On sale at 88 cents a pound, they would certainly be sold out before I even punched the time clock.
So, me being me, I went back to the walk-in, grabbed another wax-coated case of the white button mushrooms, rolled them on a produce cart onto the sales floor, and swiftly slashed open the case with my brand-new box cutter. First the right-hand side of the box, then across the front, and then down the left side—except by that time, my blade must have picked up too much of the waxy coating on the box because it slicked off the edge and landed on my left thumb, straight down and hard, through my skin, the tendons, the artery, the nerve, all the way down to the bone. I spent eight long weeks healing, four of which had me in a cast over my whole hand. Fortuitously, a hand specialist was on rotation that day in the E.R.
In the moment, as the doctor sewed my thumb back on, my biggest concern was how I was ever going to manage my next-day interview for what I had hoped would be a steppingstone to my dream career—as a radio deejay.
As an only child, who spent a lot of time (grounded, and for no good reason) in my room, I found comfort and kinship in the voices behind the radio that sat on my nightstand, and I yearned to one day be on the other side of the speaker. I grew up counting down the hits with Casey Kasem’s weekly “American Top 40” show, and listening to the real-life stories narrated by the legendary Paul Harvey. I stayed up late to listen to Dr. Demento and I can still sing the jingle for Chicken Man (“he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere”).
The day after my dreadful thumb accident, I was scheduled to audition for a small, part-time job at a radio station in Springville, N.Y., a burg that sits about halfway between Buffalo and my tiny hometown. A friend of a friend that knew the guy who ran the station had hooked me up with an interview and I was elated, though I had no previous experience and no idea how I would manage working weekends on the radio in another town when I was already on the weekend schedule at the grocery store. Thanks to my hand injury, that concern resolved itself. I was so doped up on pain meds on the day of my audition that I could barely recite my own name, let alone talk up a record intro in front of two strangers. The program director admired my persistence in making it to the interview (I had paid my cousin to take the day off from her waitressing job to help me wash my hair, get dressed and get there on time), but he wished me well and politely invited me to try again another time. And this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
If I had gotten that job—and that is a big IF because radio is extremely competitive, even in small towns—I may have stayed in western N.Y., where I would still be bitching about the snow and the utter lack of adventure that made me so restless in my life. I wanted more than my tiny town would ever be able to offer, and so I packed up the next summer and moved to North Carolina. It was here that I later satisfied my career dream of being a deejay in ways that I did not ever imagine or expect, and in an unexpected but related turn, I also wound up in a concurrent, part-time gig at A Pinch of Thyme, the catering kitchen I’ve mentioned here previously.
I used a mandoline for the first time in the “Pinch” kitchen, and I remember being cautioned, ad nauseum, about the safety risks associated with them. And, given that I am not busy making food this week, I’ve had plenty of time to recall some very specific adventures and even a few of those recipes, which I can’t wait to share with you. First though, I’ll have to explain how I got there. And that, as Paul Harvey would say, will be “the rest of the story.”
Happy Friday! The end of this week is a welcome sigh of relief for me, as I am recovering from my second COVID vaccination. Thankfully, I’ve had no horrible side effects so far, only a very achy left arm and a general feeling of sluggishness. Now I can look forward to getting through the next couple of weeks so I will be officially on the “other side” of COVID—at last, my husband, Les, and I will be able to hang out with friends again without so much concern of contagion. And just in time for summer—yay!
April has been a month of reflection for me, in part because of my commitment to walk every day toward a 40-mile goal, which, I am sorry to say, I have not quite met. It has been fun to share my “official” progress with my walking buddy on the West Coast, but the Map My Walk app we have used to share progress is only helpful when I remember to actually start the timer on my walks, and so the other walks I have done without hitting the “start workout” button were not captured. I wish that I had remembered to hit the button on every shopping adventure, given that this trip to Walmart added 2.6 miles to my total. The app is helpful, but it is not fail-proof.
My iPhone, on the other hand, which apparently tracks every single thing I do (whether or not I request it), reports that my steps during April have added up to 31.53 miles, leaving me almost 10 miles short of my goal. I can only imagine how many steps were missed while I circled laps around the house looking for my phone! That’s another problem altogether. The walks have been fun, and the challenge paved the way to a new friendship with my pal in California, so I’m hardly a loser. 🙂
What I have realized from all this reflection and walking is that I had made a gradual slide into a sedentary lifestyle, and that is not a good thing, physically or otherwise. I feel like a stronger person when I am busy and moving, and being out and about among neighbors and strangers has opened my mind and my heart. My walks have given me clarity to realize how frequently I tend to focus on the wrong things, and how quickly I call failure on something that did not end as planned. OK, I did not walk 40 miles, but I have gained knowledge for improving some other things in my life, and I’m quite sure that will not end with April.
I am also still learning to give myself some leeway to be less-than-perfect when it comes to the stuff that happens in my kitchen. Take, for example, these lovely “rose tarts” I planned to unveil, just in time for Kentucky Derby, and the “run for the roses.”
Aren’t they gorgeous?! Only one problem—that is a picture of someone else’s apple rose tarts. No, I’m not plagiarizing another cook’s work; I’m offering a point of reference to help explain the disappointment in my kitchen yesterday, when I attempted to make those tarts, but something went off the rails and I ended up with these doughy lumps, which were equal parts burned and raw.
Despite having followed the instructions of a Pinterest-inspired recipe to the letter, my apple rose tarts turned out very different, and I’m pretty sure it was a problem with the recipe, but it could have been my fuzzy, just-vaccinated brain. I could see halfway through the prescribed “40 minutes” bake time that this was headed south, but I stuck with it. I ended up leaving the tarts in the oven for over an hour, eventually moving them closer to the bottom of the oven. I laid a loose tent foil over the top (too late) to prevent over-browning—in other words, I pulled out every trick I had in my baking knowledge bag in an effort to save them. Finally, after much fussing and cussing, I gave up and pulled them from the oven. Les was brave enough to taste one, and he just looked at me and said, “Nope.” I love him for that kind of raw honesty.
Oh well. Sometimes we fail, right? And it may be that circumstances are to blame, or it may be that we are to blame. Either way, it doesn’t end the story, and in the case of the rose tarts (or anything else that doesn’t go perfectly in my kitchen), I will raise the bar and try again. Maybe we will see the tarts come to successful fruition this summer, unless I get distracted by something shiny, which is entirely likely.
Even though the tarts flopped, I had a fun interaction with Miss Nilla, my “at-home” walking buddy, who was more than happy to help by eating the ends of the apple. And if I hadn’t tried the recipe, we would have missed that. So, even though the rose tarts failed, I’m putting the experience in the win column.
I love watching babies as they shift from scurrying on their knees to toddling around on their feet, and I find it not only adorable, but inspiring, to see them diligently rise after every fall, though they are clumsy and awkward in their efforts. The older I get, the more I find new things to be challenging or even daunting, but I seldom give myself grace to be clumsy in the transition.
The first step toward anything new is often a shaky one, and this week, I have been reflecting a great deal on my original purpose for Comfort du Jour. It has been a year since I launched my little blog, and I am aware of how easily I lose sight of my own goals. My perfectionist tendencies are notorious for hindering movement on personal projects, as I noted in my first post on CDJ, the day I announced to the world—or, more accurately, to about three people—that I finally took the first step toward starting a food blog. I shared the news initially with one of my girlfriends, who loves me, despite (or maybe because of) my insecurities and who also knows and has tasted my passion for cooking. I shared it with a cousin, whose love for food was nurtured in the same “Grandma kitchen.” And, of course, I shared it with my husband, who edits every story (except this one) for grammatical correctness and content flow. He is a trained former journalist and news editor, so he knows best on such things (and I am grateful). I did not ask him to review this post, because he might suggest that I am rambling (and I probably am), but I promise that I will bring my point full circle.
In all my review and pondering, I feel that I have lost my way somewhat in my original intention for Comfort du Jour, to be not only a creative outlet at the onset of stress resulting from a world pandemic, but also a place where I could be free to put my love for food on full display. I wanted to share what I have learned along my journey, which began in my Gram’s kitchen, picked up speed during my three-year stint in a commercial catering environment, and manifests today in my desire to simply appreciate and share all the flavors of the world for the greater good. In my panic over “page hits,” I become prone to compromise what I do best in favor of what I think everyone else wants. And that, sadly, is a theme of my life, and my therapist agrees.
Comfort du Jour is a virtual expression of what I had imagined might have been a cozy, diner-style restaurant, where guests would be transported in time to a table in their childhood, just like the fictional food critic, Anton Ego, in the Disney-Pixar film, Ratatouille. In my imaginary diner, my own “dish of the day” would be some combination of family-inspired comfort food and modern elegance. But there is more than that. I also want to share the many ways that cooking has taught me about life, and helped me to grow as a human being. It is no surprise to me that I am often more proud of my “leftover” creations than of any exquisite, perfect dish I have made. The sense of accomplishment in transforming unwanted scraps into something fresh, new and interesting is one of the best feelings ever. And that, happily, has also been a theme of my life, and one that I intend to continue.
So, as much as I had intended to roll out an exciting, “One-Year Awesome Anniversary” kind of post, filled with images of mouthwatering, “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” creations, I am offering something else—a real look into what drives me in the kitchen. It is not only the love of cooking that my grandmother instilled in me, but also my experiences in the catering world, which were brimming with high emotion, exquisite foods and naughty adventures. I was invited into that world by their events manager, a dear friend who recognized that my passion for cooking was a good match-up to their need for extra hands during busy seasons. Sadly, my friend is not here to appreciate or enjoy Comfort du Jour because we lost her to cancer almost three years ago. Let me tell you, she would have loved this. It is difficult to relive some of those memories, but I promise I will share them because there was plenty of joy in that part of my journey, and laughter is still the best medicine.
And that brings me, full circle, into my title for this post: “Watch that first step—it’s a doozy.”
Every adventure begins with a single step, and I’ve made a specific commitment to walking during the month of April, which I am secretly hoping will carry on into the months beyond. Walking is great exercise and affords me the opportunity for reflection and “resetting” my mind on goals, expectations and direction. It begins with the simple decision to get out of my chair and into the world outside myself, away from the computer screen and the TV and the smartphone and all these recipes and everything else that distracts. After a year of sheltering-in-place, it feels awkward to get out there, but the view is quite exhilarating.
It helps, of course, to have a walking buddy, and I am lucky to have a few of them. My husband, Les, and I took our dog, Nilla to nearby Tanglewood Park on Easter Sunday. It was our first time there in ages (maybe ever, together), and the walking trails were busy with families and couples and singles and dogs, all enjoying the same glorious day. Nilla met some new friends, including one of the beautiful horses who allowed her to get close enough for some socially distant sniffing. The hope of spring and fresh beginnings was visible all around us, and it was exactly what I needed.
Last week, one of my new blogging friends shared about her commitment to walk 40 miles during the month of April, as part of a fundraising movement for the American Cancer Society. I cannot participate by means of the Facebook group associated with the effort—oh, let me count the reasons I hate Facebook—but I will be walking, alongside my new friend (though she is many miles away), and in memory of my departed friend who will oversee my steps. Walking is a small effort, but it’s a start, and it is something I can do without concern of whether I’m getting it right. I will donate to the cause, and I will proudly wear my “Team Tammy” bracelet as I work toward my goal, and I encourage anyone who has lost a loved one to the dreadful disease of cancer, or cheered them on to victory over it, to do the same—donate, walk and raise awareness as best you can, so we can keep our traveling partners beside us for the long haul.
Gotta go lace up now, because Nilla reminds me it is time for our walk. And here begins my second year of Comfort du Jour. May it be even more adventurous than the first…
Find out more about the American Cancer Society
Click the link below to donate in memory or in honor of someone you love.
April, I have decided, is a lovely time to visit New York. When my husband, Les, and I traveled there for our honeymoon trip a few years ago, I realized that being in the city with someone who grew up in the city is the best experience of all. When you are traveling with a “native son,” you don’t feel as much like a tourist, but you quickly get used to the idea of walking—a lot. Les and I walked, on average, about 6 miles each day, and I was free to enjoy the scenery along the way. In New York, in April, there were tulips everywhere.
The city was abuzz with the sounds, sights and smell of spring, and I was positively in love—with N.Y., of course, but especially with my husband of only a few days. His confidence in navigating the city of his youth gave me even more reason to appreciate being with him. I didn’t have to worry about a thing! Les knew instinctively which subway trains to take for various planned excursions, what time to leave and (most importantly) where to go for the best food, including John’s on Bleecker Street for pizza, which became the gold standard in my own effort to achieve the perfect N.Y. pizza dough.
One of our day trips included a visit to the Freedom Tower, now the tallest building in N.Y., at the site where the North Tower of the World Trade Center once stood. We had visited the landmark and the memorial earlier in the week, and merely seeing the names of the people who died on that dark day of history was truly devastating. I cannot (and don’t want to) imagine what it must have been like to witness those events.
We had intended to ascend the Freedom Tower on that first visit, but were offered a reschedule on our tickets because of heavy fog that apparently made visibility from the top almost nil. We had better luck on the second visit, and the view from the One World Observatory was jaw-dropping.
All that walking left us feeling pretty hungry, and our steps (and appetite) led us to the Lower East Side, to the most iconic eatery in all of Manhattan.
From the outside, Katz’s Delicatessen is pretty unassuming—just an old-school corner building with a neon-letter sign—but inside, the joint was jumping! We squeezed into line with all the other hungry tourists and locals, pulled our tickets and shouted our orders to the sandwich makers behind the counter, who were generously offering samples of the deliciousness to come. It was the most exciting lunch I’ve ever eaten, in a place you’ve probably seen, even if you have never visited New York. Katz’s Deli was the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the film, When Harry Met Sally. And if you do visit the city—you know, when the world reopens—I highly recommend a visit to Katz’s, and I highly recommend that you have what I had—the $23 pastrami on rye. Worth. Every. Penny.
When business is booming, Katz’s reportedly sells 15,000 pounds of pastrami a week—and as you can see, most of that ends up on one sandwich. I did my best to stretch my jaw onto that thing, and my city-savvy hubby had to show me how it’s done, face-first and with both hands.
We had a ton of leftovers, of course, so we wrapped up the remains of our sammies and took them back to our room. It was on this trip that I learned cold leftover pastrami on rye is fantastic for breakfast.
I’ve had a hankering to try making pastrami at home ever since that trip, and although we cannot match what they do at Katz’s(at least, not without giving up our full-time jobs), Les and I were pretty darn excited with the results of our first pastrami effort. When we began our corned beef adventure this year, we had purchased two large, grass-fed briskets, knowing that both would be brined at least a week, and that one would travel on to the smoker with a spicy dry rub to become pastrami. My inspiration came from Katz’s, but my recipe is drawn mostly from The Gefilte Manifesto (Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern), the same book that inspired my pierogi with potato, leek and spinach last fall. Jeffrey’s pastrami recipe instructed a 7-day brine, followed by extensive rinsing, a generous rub-down with copious amounts of spices and, finally, several hours in the smoker.
Our driveway, where the smoker was set up, smelled like the stuff deli dreams are made of, and our first pastrami was fabulous! I will not torture you with three pages of ingredients and details, because you probably just want to see the pictures, anyway. So, here you go!
In reviewing all my notes and looking back at the instructions offered in The Gefilte Manifesto, we realize that we made a couple of missteps, primarily with the finishing of the pastrami. We should have waited to cut into it, pending an overnight in the fridge and a two-hour steaming. But the aroma caused us to lose our minds a bit, and so we just charged in and cut the thing. Fantastic flavors, and we will steam the slices as we go. We’ve got nothing on Katz’s Delicatessen, but our pastrami was pretty darn delicious. We will absolutely do this again, and by that time, we hope to invite all of our meat-loving friends to join us for a pastrami feast, fresh and hot off the smoker. Who’s bringing the potato salad? 😀
On this date last year, my husband, Les, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of unmasked strangers in an historic theater for a concert performance by Little River Band. You remember LRB, and the group’s inescapable 1978 hit, “Reminiscing?” I had convinced Les to go with me to this show, one of more than a dozen concerts we’d been to over the course of the previous two years. While he was plowing through an online master’s degree for his new career as a mental health counselor and working a full-time job in another city, we did not have a lot of meaningful time together. Les had proposed the idea of us going to concerts—lots and lots of concerts—as a fun way to stay connected during the hectic stretch. We dropped some major money on tickets, but we always had something fun to look forward to. We saw legendary acts, including Eagles, James Taylor, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, and, well, Little River Band.
Yes, I know, even a second grader would be able to correctly pick “which of these doesn’t belong?” Though LRB may not come to mind as iconic in the way the others do, this show had special meaning for me. As I sat in that beautiful theater (wondering whether any of the people around us were equally nervous about our close proximity and potential spread of the deadly virus that had hijacked the news), I did some reminiscing of my own—back to Red Rocks Amphitheater on Sept. 7, 1981—where my first-ever boyfriend took me to experience my first-ever concert, Little River Band. The Red Rocks show didn’t come up in my search, but this clip from another stop on that tour takes me right back to that beautiful night.
Things got a little blurry for me after last year’s concert. We had dinner out with friends a couple of nights later, and I remember being concerned about a cough I’d picked up somewhere. There was talk of closures and a potential shortage of basic supplies, so I made a run to Costco, where I did my best to act as if all was normal—of course, because I always buy three towers of tuna cans at a time, 12-pack flats of black beans, jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds, cases of bone broth, and the 7-pound bag of quinoa (which I still haven’t opened). We went to Michael’s to purchase canvases and new acrylic paints so that I would have something to keep me distracted if things got scary.
Meanwhile, the nasty cough didn’t go away, and I spent the rest of that month in the guest room, terrified out of my mind that I had coronavirus and would infect my husband. Les drove me to urgent care the next week, but the 12-year-old, unmasked doctor took my temperature and said, “you don’t have a fever, so it isn’t coronavirus.” Wow, have we learned a lot in a year. He gave me a strep test (negative) and a prescription for cough suppressant (which made it worse). The next day, we lost a dear friend suddenly, but couldn’t gather for a funeral to say goodbye. The following week, our governor issued the executive order to close all non-essential businesses, urging us to shelter in place and ride out what we all hoped would be a rough couple of months. And I was still coughing.
It all happened so damned fast.
I thought of my friends who worked in the food service industry and wondered if they would be OK. Should I send them some money? I thought of my friend whose mom was in cancer treatment and wondered if she’d even survive (she’s doing great). My job was already work-from-home and not likely to change. Les entered his counseling career in the nick of time, and business was booming. And yet, life as we knew it seemed over.
And then, of course, came the notifications that so many upcoming concerts we held tickets for were re-scheduled, postponed, re-scheduled again, cancelled. The first was Tony Bennett, and with the recent sad news of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I’m sure we will never have another chance. Then Jimmy Buffett, The Rolling Stones, matchbox twenty, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical—and then I began to consider the most obvious juxtaposition—what if Little River Band, the first band I ever saw in concert, turned out to also be the last? And what a bummer that would be, given that this new version of LRB bore little-to-no resemblance to the original band I had seen with my first boyfriend 39 years prior. It was a pleasant-enough show, and they performed perfect harmonies on all the right songs, but when I boiled it down, it was pretty much a tribute band with none of the original members. After all the amazing concerts I’d seen in my lifetime, would that be the final hurrah?
And would any of that even matter?
A year into this thing, we are offered faint glimmers of hope for a new normal, but it has come with an excruciating price tag. There are too many people still struggling through illness (COVID-19 and otherwise), separated from loved ones (either by miles or a fingerprinted window pane), fearful of eviction notices when the moratoriums end, terrified for their health as they await vaccination, exhausted after 12 months on the front line in hospitals, discouraged by unemployment, living with so much uncertainty, and the grim fact that more than half a million lives have been lost.
Jimmy Buffett has rescheduled again for April—next month. But is that even appropriate? Les and I won’t be going if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to a bunch of unmasked strangers, partying like it’s 1981. It was excusable last year when so much was unknown, but not anymore. The matchbox twenty show has been rescheduled for late July, but I’m not sure I’ll be ready then either, unless we are in a good place with vaccination rates. I still believe our COVID-19 sentence could have been a rough couple of months, if only more people had listened to the health experts rather than loudmouthed politicians. But here we are.
Life as we knew it may well be over, and “normal” may be completely different from here forward, and that will be uncomfortable for people who want everything to stay exactly as it always was. I miss the anticipation and excitement of live shows, but we have also thoroughly enjoyed the creative remote experiences artists such as Bon Jovi and Melissa Etheridge have provided, right in our living room. Little River Band wasn’t the same last year as in 1981, but the group put on a fun show. And if it turns out to be the last-ever concert I see—well, then I’m glad I was there, with the last-ever boyfriend of my lifetime. ❤