Banana bread

It serves bakers well to be naturally alert early risers. Unlike much stovetop cooking where there’s lots of wiggle room for variation, substitution, and off-the-cuff experimentation, baking tends to be a more exact science. Recipes come down to us, revised and devised through precise attention to chemistry: so much leavening to so much fat. Creating a balanced blend of wet and dry ingredients and flavor harmonics:  acid and salt, savory and sweet. In baking it’s physically necessary to handle your work with a varying touch: vigorous with gluteny yeast breads and glancing with pastry trifles, where little left-behind butter lumps serve merely to make the finessing pockets of fat that define the delicacy.

Sometimes, when you wake up before the sun has rightly risen and hit the kitchen with a hungry stomach, your wits may stay abed and let you make silly mistakes like half a pound of butter instead of half a cup. (Ahem. Those stick counts always throw me.) And sometimes you, all unawares, encounter baking disasters you never could have seen coming.

I grew up in a house that loved itself some banana bread. Anytime we had two or three bananas that had ripened too far for acceptable peeled eating or cereal topping, my mom would crank up the mixer to create a fragrant, nutty loaf for several mornings’ enjoyment. The first thing I learned to bake, but of course, was chocolate chip cookies. The second was banana bread. It was tried and true, reliable and delectable.

But on one memorable occasion the result of Mom’s culinary concoction emerged from the oven, cooled, and was sliced with typical mouth-watering anticipation only to hit our tastebuds with a repulsive– I could only describe it at the time as soapy– flavor, which I ran at once to spit in the sink.

What in tarnation could have gone wrong? We wondered and were unilaterally flummoxed.

Mom had used the traditional banana bread recipe, sleep-walkingly familiar, but somehow the result had turned out perfectly awful. Ten-year-old me took to troubleshooting: were the eggs bad? Nope. Butter? Fresh as could be. What the heck could have made that disgusting flavor? By process of elimination I winnowed suspects down to the sugar canister, only to find it full of salt.

Well. That explained it. A full cup of salt in place of sugar would surely produce a problematic breakfast bread.

To this day The Salt in the Sugar Canister Conundrum remains one of those lingering family mysteries. My mom for her part blamed the messenger, assuming I’d done the deed to be vexatious. Fuming in my room, I cursed my older brothers, surely more prone to such shenanigans than me. Years later I still wonder– could it be that Mom, granted a little flighty post-brain surgery, had herself made the mixup? (my sister’s theory) Or was the culprit farther back along the chain, a store who’d stocked its bulk goods bins with the wrong white granular stuff?

We’ll never know. But the taste of that single soapy bite lingers on my palate to this day. Every time I make my own banana bread and take that first bite a little part of me lurches in anxious expectation– and then I’m flooded with the flavor of sweet, buttery goodness, melting into contentment.

This morning, I must admit, rather more buttery than intended.

Banana Bread

Yield: 1 loaf
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream together:
1/2 cup butter, softened (that is, ahem, one stick)
1 cup sugar

2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs, beaten

Sift together and add:
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

Roughly chop and mix in:
1/2 cup walnuts

Fill a bread pan, center in oven, and bake for about an hour (should be solid, no jiggling). Cool in pan for 10 min, cut around loaf, and tip out to cool on a rack.

Slice and enjoy with a nice cup of tea. :)

Flu and soup refrain

Around these parts we’ve been knocked on our collective keister for the past week-and-then-some by the first of the Season’s nasty viruses*. I was quick to take to bed, relinquishing my enervated (and after a few days stinky) self to long pools of recuperative drowse. Even Chris, gallant man of the all-hours stoical slog, collapsed on the heels of a near all-nighter, only to rise with any sort of equilibrium after six days prone and with a sinus infection for his trouble.

It’s a nasty bug with several legs– over a foundation of chills and fever dreams, first day and half brought splitting headache followed quickly by back and muscle aches, sneezing/coughing/stuffy/itchiness, and, in a sort of revolting crescendo, gut cramps and the quick expulsion of most solid foods. Apologies for TMI– but fun, right?!

Myself a few days ahead in the sick cycle**, I took to making medicinal chicken soup (it’s been tested and proven somewhere, I know). Several sustaining brews emerged from the base ingredient of poultry bird in pot. My personal favorite, detailed here, packs flavor to knock your stuffy-headed socks off. For another yummy variation leave out the cilantro and tomatilloes and add a bunch of fresh chopped ginger.

Tart & Pungent Chicken Soup

bring to a boil and simmer for 25 minutes:
1 4.5 lb chicken
1/2 an onion
1 stalk celery in quarters
1 carrot in quarters
1 bay leaf

Remove chicken from pot, let cool enough to handle, remove meat, return bones to pot. Simmer for 3-4 hrs.

Strain and remove fat from the stock. Easiest way to do this is to refrigerate until to fat solidifies and then skim. I was less patient, so simply skimmed the top layer from the pot the best I could into a glass measuring cup, where I could see it separate, etc.

Slice and saute:
6-8 small young white bulbed green stemmed onions
6-8 cloves garlic
1 stalk celery
4-5 tomatilloes
1 plum tomato

Add broth and bring to a boil.

1 6-oz. package soup-sized pasta (star shaped is fun; today’s is bowtie)

Simmer for 8-10 minutes.

Add 1 cup of the chicken meat cut in bite-size pieces, juice of 2 lemons, and 1-2 cups chopped fresh cilantro.

Heat through and serve.

*Note to self: flu shot

**Yeah, okay, so I presumably “gave” my husband this contagion. Can we finally just put this catholic construction to bed and agree that influenza is a guerilla terrorist that hijacks one and all the same? I’m really working on covering my mouth when I sneeze, I swear. Kthanxbai.

Fall fare

Here in Chicago over the last week or so those omnipresent grace notes of August, cicadas, have stuttered into silence in the cooling, imperceptibly shorter days.

With changing weather comes the slapdash donning of stray cardigans and odd socks to ward off chilly mornings. Yesterday witnessed season-appropriate culinary observances around here with concoctions of hearty bean soup, Golden Nugget bread, and a zucchini and green onion quiche so light and creamy it was like biting into a gently collapsing cloud of savor (just ask Chris, it’s true).

The chopping, the kneading, Vivaldi on the radio, pots of tea, afternoon sun, my honey at the end of it all. A very good day.

Hearty Bean Soup
Some would say I cheat by using canned beans. I would retort vehemently, “Bah!” Canned beans are both readily available and ready-cooked to a pleasing texture. It seems to me one of those no-brainer modern conveniences like ketchup and the washing machine. Hey, if you‘ve got the stamina and will to plan ahead and soak that pot of pebbly nodules overnight or–a shortcut of some questionable efficacy– bring it to a boil and let stand to soak for an hour– if, that is, you’re confident that the end product of all this additional effort won’t ultimately emerge in the form of wrinkly little al dente abortions… Well, then I say, fine, have at it, you. I remain unconvinced and unwooed, both flummoxed and jaded on the subject of dry legumes– black-eyed and split green peas entirely aside.

  • 1 yellow and 1 red onion
  • 5 large cloves garlic
  • 2 ham hocks
  • 2 cans diced tomato
  • 10 cups water
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can red kidney beans
  • 1 can butter beans
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaked red pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh or 4 T dried parsley
  • salt & pepper to taste

Zucchini and Green Onion Quiche

I was, incidentally, tempted just now to call this recipe “Green Quiche,” quite liking the sound of that– but realized that, really, Green Quiche would of course be made with pesto. Just so happen to have a cup and a half of the stuff in the fridge– may need to be a two quiche week.

tart pastry:

  • 1 cup AP flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) cold butter cut in pieces
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons ice water

quiche filling:

  • 1 cup zucchini, roughly shredded
  • 1 cup green or young onion sliced thin
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (saute in)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs + 1 white leftover from the pastry
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup blue cheese

Golden Nugget Bread
(from The Fanny Farmer Baking Book)

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 3 tablespoons softened butter
  • 2 cups wheat flour
  • 3-3 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt

Gimme smore

(Be advised: The crumbly/gluey quotient of today’s Food Porn entry practically pleads for enjoyment al fresco— so get on out to that back deck while the weather’s still fine. I can see smores making a big retro comeback at this year’s Labor Day barbecues. Just saying.)

This here little slice of childlike heaven ranks among the three or four all-time top reasons to love a campfire, as this cowgirl well knows: packable, stackable treat for assembly under the stars above that dusty trail.

Even hiked ‘way up over the speedy traffic of a big hoss town like Chicago a gal might work up the craving for some toasty marshmallow from time to time and crank up a flickering blue ring of fire on that ole gas range.

I prefer mine all golden and gooey, while my cowpoke feller likes ’em singed to carbon and uncomplicated by augmentation. I’ll slap that oozing badboy inside a combo wedge of Hershey’s/Graham, and we’re in business for a sweet tooth fiesta.

side note: be careful when you’re grabbing the marshmallow off the skewer that it’s not still actually flaming… else you can give yourself a small searing molten sugar burn.

not that I’d know anything about that, personally.


Holy guacamole

Not long ago I discovered that I can once again eat avocados, as for many years I had quit because of a peculiar but apparently not uncommon stomach sensitivity which is interestingly documented here. I can’t explain why I haven’t recently been experiencing adverse reactions where once I did excruciatingly, but, heck, I welcome this twist of fate or chemistry or fickle mother nature with wide open mouth.

Indeed I’m not quite sure how to adequately express just how much this means to me– just how dearly I adore that array of flavors: avocado, lime, garlic, salt and crunch!

I really think you need to taste it to understand:

holiest of guacamoles

3 ripe avocados, mash-o-la’d
juice of 1 juicy lime
2-3 cloves minced garlic
1 small onion chopped fine
1 red tomato chopped small
small bunch fresh cilantro chopped roughly

scoop with crisp corn chip rounds.

savor flavor heaven.


Fresh basil pesto

summertime means…

… lots and lots of basil! and, consequently, time to make some yummy pesto.

Basil & Walnut Pesto

  • 5-6 cups fresh basil leaves (basil is traditional– also try interesting and nutritious variations using other leafy greens like arugula, spinach, chard, etc.)
  • 1 cup walnuts (pine nuts are traditional– vary using other nuts like pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, etc.)
  • 4-5 cloves garlic (optional– I love garlic. not everyone does.)
  • 1/2 cup pecorino romano or parmesan
  • enough good olive oil to reach desired consistency

Blend in food processor.


Visions of piracy and profiteering

Let’s say you grow up in an affluent, White suburb of Detroit (let’s not bother to pointe it out by name), yourself a nannied babe in the bad summer race riots right down the road of ’67. You’re weaned thereafter on some beast of fiscal/racial paranoia from your situation in that place of brutal contrasts between the haves and distinctly have-nots, in which you distinctly have and have lived right up and down one side of the very dichotomy, bumped up uncomfortably close to unfathomable neighbor next door, Detroit. Ensconced in green and boxy suburbs, you feel something like a weird egg and inevitably develop/inherit over the course of some years a complicated perspective on those blocks and blocks of dilapidated and burnt-out festering once magisterial houses where no one you know now lives– or, well, rather, yes, except for the maid.

So then you get the hell out– off you go away to a preppy, East Coast-scale affluent boarding school poised on a green and tended hilltop– away for a bit and back again, sort-of: to Michigan, nearby, an hour west and a world apart: thriving liberal college town Ann Arbor, fondly referred to in inaccurate geometric geekery as “A-squared”; then westward-ho! and  la-di-da driving an American-made hatchback across the continent to pre-boom San Francisco with its succulents and steep dropoffs for a frolic with the software industry; down to the new-old South on a culinary/domestic Disney version of purgatory; up over rolly windy Grant Wood furrowed fields of Iowa for writing, porch-sitting, and getting square with the intellectual ego; and then, at last, into this other big and bigger, alive and kicking, steel-hard Midwest city…

Some days I’m appalled by my position of unrooted third floor ease, sit gazing backward, just spitting distance, really, just splitting the distance toward the old family ground– back there where a sister and a brother raise up families of an altogether other generation; where a desiccated and spindling matched set Mom and Dad trace vertical geologies up and down the staircases of that same prewar brick colonial, staking a claim despite age and rainwater cascading through the house’s porous foundation and down the basement wall.

I sit here just… something– amazed, appalled by the range of perspective contained in adjacent email messages– provoked into a fantasy of broken and resprouted urban acreage while reading this gorgeous GQ piece written by Howie Kahn (and including photos by the late Tim Hetherington) on the monumental demolition work in wasting, cancerous Detroit:

In 1950, with nearly 2 million people living within its boundaries, Detroit was the fifth-largest city in America. Over a forty-year period, the auto industry had boomed in a way that changed the country, and Detroit’s population more than sextupled. But starting in the ’50s, the city fell into decline. Factories closed. Jobs vanished. In the wake of the 1967 riots, race relations collapsed and the city became increasingly segregated. By 1980 the population had dwindled to 1.2 million. With far fewer Detroiters to shelter, many of the city’s houses were orphaned, threatening the existence and safety of everything around them. Blight metastasized across town, leaving much of the housing stock better suited for crackheads and squatters than for legitimate investors, possible gentrifiers, or working-class families with any remaining desire to stay. Today only 700,000 souls call Detroit home, and nearly a fourth of the city’s houses—a number approaching 72,000 units—are empty…

Wreckers in Detroit are like human Google Maps: They track all the physical changes—the torn-down houses, the fires, the new vacancies—practically in real time. They’ve also developed a finely tuned sense of protection that the city at large greatly lacks. Ask a wrecker here what he does and you won’t hear him talking about demolishing anything. When wreckers get talking, they talk primarily about making things safe.

“Before we can put a hole in a house,” explains Mike Farrow, owner of Farrow Demolition, “we have to make sure it’s clear. The city doesn’t clear it. If there’s squatters, dealers, crackheads in there, we’ve gotta get ’em out… One time I was clearing a house,” says Farrow, “and I got cut. The guy thought I was a cop. He was all doped up and slashed me with a knife.” Wreckers and inspectors enter these houses never knowing who or what lurks inside. They could be empty but could just as easily provide cover for the impulsively violent, the mentally unstable, or some solo junkie intent on protecting his daily ritual of dissolving into the ruins.

And then, just like that, with the abrupt unceremony of the whole digital media information delivery-receipt transaction, I find myself confronting a detailed description of the intensive workout routine of lean/mean and “tactical” “new Rahm” Emanuel as envisioned in the pages of Businessweek:

“I’ll give it to you if you are really that interested,” the 51-year-old mayor of Chicago says, sitting in a City Hall conference room one day in late June. “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I swim a mile in a 50-meter pool. I do a short chest exercise. Then I run two miles home. Tuesday and Thursday, I do 25 miles on the bike on random level 15, 15 minutes on the elliptical. You don’t want to know this, but I do 100 sit-ups, 50 push-ups, and a weight routine. Saturday, I bike 20 miles outdoors.” On Sundays, Emanuel attends a yoga class, to undo the side effects of his running and biking…

The stakes are immense. Emanuel’s success or failure could well determine whether Chicago remains a premier American city or suffers the kind of decline seen in Cleveland or even Detroit. If he can restore the city’s fiscal health with the participation of its workforce, he’d be able to portray himself as a new kind of Democrat able to work with labor unions to avoid mass layoffs, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did in June.

To my reading there’s a palpable implicit suggestion throughout this piece that a smart political operator in Emanuel’s shoes would beat a fast political course elsewhere.

There is, also, for me, an implicit and all-too-frequently encountered kneejerk disdain of these here “flyover states” in which we reside. Many the quick Californian I’ve “known” in one RL/digital arrangement and another who’s drawled that phrase before me like so much pocket lint. The same prejudice was present in elsewhere transplants to Iowa, onhand to partake of its famed writing milieu and accreditation gained away, dismissive of the daily pace and perspective of life beside a midwest river. There were as well those Westchester friends of boarding school days, the dyed in the wool New Yorkers, who queried closely and not at all ironically about the unimaginably savage lands westward, out in a mess of god-knows-what-all troubled with a pernicious lack of delis.

Here, for me, however, although brown-winter land littered with remnants of failed industry and Bunyanesque ferris wheel turned automobile tire, narrow expressway lanes past looming hulks of graffiti and char, is home.

I’m reminded again of just how marvelously and profoundly local reality is.

Since we returned from this summer’s grand adventure Up North, Chris has been kept busy with Downtown Civic concerns, minding the poor wounded Frankenthumb, which unswells and begins to show off its spiffy set of laces today to a city legal team bent on wrangling yet another labor union hairball.

Some days, the prospect of busting out strong-handled, sharpened implements, and rehabilitating a scourged plot of ground in New Detroit makes me feel weirdly optimistic and giddy, despite all traces of postapocalyptic gloom.

Here, today, refreshed by the recent change of scenery, I’m feeling around for moorings, taking snapshots of graffiti on neighborhood walks, shifting some pieces both psychic and physical that have needed rearranging or evaluation for scrap, and attempting to accomplish concrete somethings– fending off echoes of that “daily ritual of dissolving into the ruins”–shaking and ruffling my own distinct predisposition toward dereliction of a fluffy and bourgeois variety.

Today I feel I resorted somewhat to pilfering from notes composed to friends in, perhaps, more intimate arrangements of association, and transcribed here, a bit, into a wholly other arrangement of communication.

This action causes me to wonder yet again about the compulsion to communicate in this way as well as about the ever unknowable relationship between writer and ostensible reader here: an arrangement which bears the unique intimacy of thought inscribed in language and shared blind. These are, it feels to me and I suppose I hope, potentially potent and intimate experiences of writing, of reading. 

For you, who are here in my imagination, I offer thanks and the invitation to write back and be read in turn.