Cookbook History

My old standbys.

We’re the ones who don’t think in measuring cup increments. Instead we think in spice palette increments.

I’m one of those intuitive cooks. You know what I mean? We’re the ones who read a recipe in 30 seconds, then try to recreate it.

“mmmmmm, cumin with honey?” or “Oh, wow, rosemary and lime juice!”

We think of cooking as an art, not a science.

We toss in a bit of this, a smidge of that, stir it around and suddenly realize that it needs buttermilk.

Cooking is my creativity.

So it’s kind of funny that I have a cookbook collection. I have cookbooks from China, Russia, Germany, Italy. I have cookbooks about snacks, cookbooks about desserts, cookbooks that are for kids. And I have a whole shelf of amazing leather bound cookbooks from the past century that tell more about social expectations of women than they do about how to make a perfect squab. I often read them for fun.

Tonight, though, I found myself thumbing through my very favorite cookbook ever. My daughter Kate gave it to me for my birthday during her junior year of college.

Kate and I used to cook together, and often experimented on recipes that the men in the family consumed with pleasure.

When she’d moved from the dorm into her first campus apartment, I’d sent her with a cookbook full of my favorite recipes. She might not be at home in my kitchen anymore, but I needed to know that my girl had the family recipe for red sauce and meatballs at hand.

She’d loved the gift, and had added her own discoveries and creations during the school year.

So when my birthday rolled around, Kate gifted me with my very own cookbook of HER favorite recipes. It was fabulous! She included recipes for “Reverse Chicken Soup” (made with beef broth and ground chicken meatballs) and “Pasta e Fagioli Cucina Lavandino” ( kitchen sink pasta e fagioli).

It was hilarious! I loved it.

I put its pages into my own home made cookbook.

Every time I found a delicious recipe, or an enticing food idea, I included into this three hole punched cooking notebook.


Tonight I decided to add a new recipe, for the first time in years. I have started making more raw veggie dishes, and wanted to add in hand written recipes for two new favorites: Italian Cole Slaw and Carrot Cumin Salad.

I wrote them down, popped them into the cookbook, and then started to flip through the pages.


This is like the history of my marriage and motherhood years. It’s broken into sections (appetizers, main dishes, desserts) but each one is in chronological order. A stroll through these pages is a documentation of my evolution through the basics (meatballs, chicken piccatta, yellow cake) and into our early marriage years.

That was when we wanted quick, easy and cheap (The Sausage Casserole I invented in grad school when each dinner had to come in at under 3 dollars). Dessert was usually a couple of graham crackers.

The book moves on into the early parenting years, when I mastered “Mexican spiced chicken fingers” and a lovely dish called “Heavy Slop.” Filling, easy and healthier than Hamburger Helper.

It goes on through special events that gave us “Christmas Shrimp Cocktail” and even “Red Sox Noodle Dandy”. The latter was created during the playoffs of 2004, when the word “Yankee” was completely forbidden to be spoken anywhere in New England.

Now I find healthier, higher-end recipes being added to the book. Foods with less fat, less salt, more fiber. Dishes that cost three times what the first entries did. Now I see recipes for lamb, for shrimp, for exotic pastas and sauces.

I love them all.

But mostly I love the idea that my life has been recorded as a series of recipes.

I can’t think of anything that would be a better fit for me than this!

Adventures in Eating

Oh, my.  Oh, yummy. Oh, deliciousness.

I went to Dim Sum today with my husband and some of my siblings.  It is so much FUN.  If you are not familiar with Dim Sum, let me explain.

Here in Massachusetts, Dim Sum means driving into Boston’s Chinatown and going into a big restaurant that is packed, packed, packed with young Chinese families, mixed groups of Chinese and non-Chinese, college students, babies, toddlers, old Chinese couples and everyone else you can imagine.

There’s no real menu. You just sit at your round table and wait a minute.  Waiters and waitresses come around pushing steam carts full of all kinds of Chinese delicacies in small steam bowls and little porcelain dishes.

Generally speaking, you have no idea of what it is that you are asking for.  The waiter or waitress will point to the various steamed, fried or sauteed items on the cart and say, in very heavily accented English, “bean, beef, very good!” or “mussel, yes?” or “bao tzu, you like!”

I love it.

I love the whole idea of it. I love the incredible smells of the spicy foods. I love biting into a steamed bun and finding a sweet mouthful of something that tastes like custard. I love the adventure of chomping into a crisply fried bit of dough, with no idea what will be inside. Today’s surprises included shrimp and eggplant.

One of my favorite dishes at Dim Sum is spicy chicken feet. I am not sure why, but there is just something so out of the norm about sucking the spicy fat off of cooked chicken feet……


So often, our lives are simply a set of repeating days.  Toast, coffee, read the news, go to work, eat lunch, home again for the usual dinner. Not bad, nice and comfy.  But still….

How lovely to have a chance to sample an entirely different culture just by going out for brunch!  When I go to Dim Sum, I have a chance to pretend that I am an adventurous world traveler with a love of mystery.  When I go to Dim Sum, I can let go of my usual ideas about food. I can dive into a plate of something sort of wiggly and cabbagy,  and smile at my brother as we both realize that we are munching on slices of spicy beef tripe.

Thank you to my wonderful brother Mark and his wife Sue, and to my sweet sister Liz, for coming to Dim Sum today!  Oh, yes.  And to the ever patient Paul, who would have been perfectly happy with a plate of waffles.

Next time, I hope to get more siblings and some of our kids to join us.  You haven’t lived until you’ve sucked on a chicken foot.


Food is Life, Food is Love

I am such a ridiculous foodie.

Here I am, in the United States of America. I live within an hour and a half of a major city.  I have never, ever gone hungry, or even had to live without a favorite food. Ever. One look at my waistline, and you will know that I do not lie.

I am a terrible gardener.  All 6 of my tomato plants died this summer, for no apparent reason. I got 4 peppers out of 6 pepper plants.  The berries were out of control, but I didn’t plant any of those.  That was all Mother Nature.

So I don’t know where I get the nerve to envision myself as Ma Ingalls, but for some reason I have become completely 100% OBSESSED with local foods.  Like, insanely obsessed.

I belong to an incredible food coop called “Mass Local Foods”, where I go on line every month and order fresh, sustainably farmed, organic, local cheese, eggs, meats, chicken, grains, vegetables, honey…….  I can’t tell you how fabulous it was for me to discover the taste of FRESH pork…..holy deliciousness….. And fresh chicken, flash frozen and kept that way!  Wow. Like a whole new world of food.

The thing is, though, that I seem to be taking the locavore thing to a slightly crazy extreme.

We are approaching “peak harvest” here in North Central Massachusetts, and I am bound and determined to preserve these wonderful foods for the winter.

Why, you may ask yourself?  Given the fact that I can just run to Hannfords and buy canned tomatoes and frozen corn, why am I doing this?

I dunno.

But this is how I spent my Saturday:


I canned a dozen jars of fresh tomatoes, complete with my own fresh garlic, local onions, my basil and oregano.   I burned my arm, made a mess of my counter, broke a jar and burned all ten fingers.  But I have at least 20 meals set for the winter.  Take that, Martha Stewart!

And I did this, too.


I made two batches of vegetable soup base, two batches of carrot/ginger soup, and one big batch of tomato basil soup.  All fresh.  All local.  All made by me.

For the past three weeks, I have blanched, frozen and stored enough local sweet corn to last until next year’s crop.  Yummmmm.  I’ve made blueberry jam, blackberry preserves, strawberry jam and jars and jars of cucumber and zucchini pickles.

And I don’t really know why.

I mean, I guess it will be delicious on a rainy, icy December afternoon to simmer a pot of those tomatoes into a good pasta sauce.  But I don’t think that’s the whole reason.

I think that for some strange, innate, Italian Momma reason, I feel incredibly competent when I can feed people.  And I feel safe when I know that I have a kitchen full of healthy, fresh foods.  In case of an ice storm, a power outage or a Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll be ready to serve a healthy dinner to those I love.

How nuts is that?

My favorite kitchen decoration.  From the local farm, natch.

My favorite kitchen decoration. From the local farm, natch.

Defeated by Quinoa

I am a pretty good cook.

I can make homemade ravioli with four cheese. I can make a fabulous mushroom sage-butter sauce for pasta.

My meatballs have made grown men weep.

When I bake bread, the smell alone can change your view of life.

And yet.

I have been defeated by quinoa.


A few short years ago, I had never heard of this miracle grain.  I was perfectly happy to go through life without it, until I tried it at a High School Reunion Weekend.  My friend Karen made a quinoa salad that was so delicious, the mere memory of it causes “yummy noises” to emerge from my watering mouth.

So I asked for the recipe. Of course I did.  I am the woman who recreated a dinner of seafood risotto over smoked mozzarella after eating it at a local restaurant.

(Mine was better.)

So I tried to make the quinoa recipe.  Karen’s was crisp, and fresh and flavorful.


Mine was a bowl of slimy little wormy things with a few bites of cashew and some bok choy. The quinoa grains looked like baby sperm, with big heads and long tails.  YeeeeeUk.

My friend assured me that quinoa was easy to cook, and really delicious!  So I tried again.

YeeeeUk redoux.

I asked for some advice.  All the cool foodies were into quinoa. I had to figure this out!!!

My friend Maureen told me to make sure that I rinsed my quinoa  thoroughly before I cooked it.  So I did.

I ended up with a pot of slimy little wormy things sticking to the bowl and just waiting for some flavor.  I added salt. I added pepper. I added fresh basil.  And lemon. And nuts.  I took a bite.

I threw it out.   Bleh.  Blehblehblehblehbleh.  It was sticky and a little oozy and slimy and yuck.

What the hell?

So I decided to give it up. I was simply not cut out for quinoa. I returned to making brown rice with roasted veggies and homemade chicken stock.  Yum!

Then I opened my cabinets and found two bags of quinoa: one red, one white.  Oh, oh.  I had already paid for them!  I HAD to use them! So I did a google search. “how to cook quinoa without the slimy little sperm tails making it gross.”

Or something like that.

I found a recipe that said, “Do not rinse”. Instead, it told me to lightly brown the sperm  quinoa in olive oil before adding veggies and stock.  I tried it.

Huzzah!  It was delightful!  Dry and firm and packed with nutritious deliciousness!  Yay, me!  Paul and I enjoyed it alongside our roast chicken, feeling both healthy and hip as we swallowed it down.  I was feeling so. smug.

Until I tried the exact same recipe two weeks later.  Exactly the same.  Precisely the exact same ingredients, cooking technique, temperature, time.

Exactly.  The. Same.

And I ended up with a bowl full of slimy little spermy wormies. I took one bite, gagged a little, and gulped down a swig of wine.

What the hell.

This process has repeated itself four or five times now.  One delicious, healthy side dish followed by two dinners that were nearly ruined by the slime patrol.  Another fabulously nutty salad, followed by a couple of tossed in the trash slime-oh-rific followups.

So I have come to the conclusion that there is a vast international quinoa conspiracy, no doubt lead by left-wing activists who hate America. I have come to realize that all the little dry curled up quinoa soldiers send coded messages at night, telling each other about the latest plan to defeat the meatball maven.

When they get the signal, they all unfurl those super spermy little tails and start to secrete ancient Aztec slime sauce, thereby ruining any plan for a yummy dinner.  In this way, they surely plan to take over the world.

So I am hereby announcing that I am giving up the quest for the quintessential quinoa.  I am switching back to nice cheesy, fattening, compliant risotto.

I know when I’ve been beaten.

Razzleberry Dressing, Anyone?

Magoo Razzleberry Dressing

I’m sitting here in front of the Christmas tree on this cold Saturday morning.  The house is quiet.  Both dogs are asleep because…..well. Because they’re dogs, and there’s no food out at the moment.

My husband is asleep because he probably stayed up late watching sports last night.  My son, my youngest child, is home for the weekend, and he was out visiting with friends last night, so he is still asleep, too.

I am awake.  I am awake because I’m a teacher.  Teachers, especially “seasoned teachers” like me, crawl home on Friday nights, drink a glass of wine with dinner, then faceplant on the pillow as soon as the dishes are washed.

I slept for ten hours.

So now I am awake, and I’m thinking about Christmas dinner. There will be nine of us here for the day, which is just about a perfect number.  Enough to cook a feast, not so many that its overwhelming.  So I’ve been thinking about the menu this morning.  And I just found myself humming the line from “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”, where the adorable little Tiny Tim sings, “With Razzleberry Dressing!”.

Did you know that there is an actual recipe for “Razzleberry Dressing”? In fact, there are a whole bunch of them.  Some include hot peppers (what?), while others are based on any kind of red jello (shudder).  At any rate, I started thinking about Christmas dinners of the past, and the various triumphs and tragedies of the meals.

Which got me to remembering the Year of the Goose.  Since no one is awake to share the hilarity, I’m putting it down here. If I spell anything wrong, its because I’m laughing so hard.

The Year of the Goose was way back in about 2002.  I was involved in local politics at the time, and it was UGLY, to say the least. Our School Committee had fired one Superintendent, dealt with an interim and a hired a new guy, all while engaged in fierce verbal battles with our Town Manager, Selectboard and Finance Committee.  It was awful, to put it mildly, and I was losing sleep over the whole mess, and feeling so much pressure that even the upcoming holiday season seemed like it wouldn’t lighten the mood.

One day, just after Thanksgiving of that year, I was at the grocery store, furtively darting around the aisles, trying to fill my cart while avoiding any local people who might want to give me some unsolicited feedback about town politics. I hurried around one corner, and almost crashed carts with the Chairperson of the Finance Committee.  She was a woman about my own age, with teenaged kids like mine.  We had almost the same pile of foods in our carts, which now stood nose-to-nose.  I gulped, and managed to rummage up a small smile.  This lady and I had gone at each other in a recent public meeting, video of which was making its way around town, from what I’d heard.  I felt a little sick.  We greeted each other civilly, “Happy Holidays!”  and “Nice to see you!”.  I suddenly realized that she was flushed, and was fidgeting with the edge of her jacket.  Holy Moment of Clarity; she was as faked out as I was!

I decided that it was time for a truce, and so I asked her about her holiday plans, and what she’d be cooking.  You know, woman to woman bonding and all that.

Turns out that this woman was a very back to nature, old fashioned, pioneer spirit kind of gal.  She told me that her favorite holiday meal was fresh goose.

Really?  Visions of Razzleberry dressing began to dance in my head.  She assured me that it was the most delicious flavor, that it was one of the most authentic of American foods, that it was easy to prepare.  I was slightly startstruck.

I was also feeling slightly competitive.  I mean, never let it be said that the Fincom could outcook the School Committee! I’d lose every budget debate for the next five years if it ever got out that she made a fresh goose while I served a commercially farmed, previously frozen turkey!

I took the bait, dammit.

Now, we don’t hunt, and I honestly don’t know where you can find a last minute “fresh goose” without shooting it, so I had to settle for a frozen goose from the supermarket.

Did you even KNOW you could get a frozen goose at your supermarket?  Yup.

It looked nice and plump, but I’d been warned that geese contain a lot more fat than turkeys, and that it would reduce in size as it cooked.  I was prepared for that!

I looked up recipes and studied all about goose roasting for the next two weeks.  Then Christmas morning dawned, crisp and clear.  We opened out presents and oohed and aahed, and everyone settled down to read the new books, play the new games, eat the big breakfast and generally just loaf.

I got up, wrapped myself in an apron, and prepared The Goose!  I was so excited! I felt so sweet and Victorian, carefully rubbing the bird with salt and spices, slitting the tough skin of its breast and around the legs to allow the grease to escape, carefully placing it in a roasting pan surrounded by slices of fresh orange.

I placed the “drip pan” underneath it and set the oven on 350.  I checked the timer, poured some eggnog and sat down to relax and enjoy the enticing smells that would soon be wafting from my oven.  I hummed a little and smiled to myself.

An hour later, all the windows were open and Paul was trying to deactivate the smoke alarms.

My “drip pan” was a cookie sheet with half inch edges. It had overflowed and goose grease was smoking and splattering on the oven coils.  We pulled out the bird (yikes….it really was shrinking!) and carefully took out the drip pan. I replaced it with a huge roasting pan with 4 inch sides.  I crossed my fingers and replaced the middle sized goose.

About two hours after that, we sat down to enjoy our dinner.  We had coats on because the oven was still smoking, and the windows were still open.  The house smelled like burnt tires.

The side dishes were plentiful and delicious, thank God. And there was enough wine.

I had taken the Goose out of the oven with joyful anticipation, picturing a golden, crisp bird like the ones in all the old Dickens novels.  As I reached in and slowly, carefully drew out the roasting pan, what I found instead was a dark brown, shriveled piece of shoe leather. It looked like it had been mummified, except that it was literally swimming in grease.  The drip pan was full, the roasting pan was full, the bottom of the oven was a lake of grease.

I put the tiny blob of leather on a dish and tried to dress it up with oranges.  I put it in the center of the table. The kids looked slightly horrified, but they’re good sports.  We got out our hugest serrated carving knife and everybody got a piece of the bird. It took all of our strength and skill to carve it. “Tough” does not begin to describe this meat.

Picture this: three teenaged kids and two middle aged parents, sitting around a brightly decorated dining room, gamely chewing.  And chewing.  And still chewing.  Heads begin to swivel back and forth, and eyes send slightly desperate messages. Cups are raised to grease-coated lips in an effort to help get the mess down.

Finally, with some hilariously audible sounds, most of it is swallowed.

We all put our forks down.  We all looked at each other.

I didn’t know what to say!

“Well”, my honest daughter began. “That was interesting.”

“Kind of like eating a huge mouthful of rubber bands,” added one son.

“Only less tasty”, added the other.

I felt my face heat. I looked at my lovely table, at my freshly baked bread and piles of creamy mashed potatoes.  I looked at the greasy mummy.

“I was duped!” I cried.  “Pass the Razzleberry Dressing.”

Food is love

I’m an Italian Mamma; food is my creativity, my outlet, my gift to those I love.

When the kids were small, I mastered the fine art of home made chicken nuggets.  I learned to make baked macaroni and cheese.  I made delicious home made soup.

When they grew up, I mastered chili with green salsa, chicken parmigiana, chicken pot pie.

As the Mamma, I considered it my job to provide meals that nurtured both the body and the soul.  I cooked what they wanted.  To quote an old friend, “Food is love; love is food.”

Now, though, my babies have grown up, moved away, and established kitchens of their own.  I no longer rush home to make the meals that will hold them close to me.  Now I am feeding only two.  The delicious pressure is gone.  Now dinners are smaller and freer and easier to create.

Now food is love for my first true romance, my honey, my partner, my friend.  Now dinner is lamb chops or home made ravioli or locally raised beefalo steak.  Food is still love, but many a night that love is made of leftovers from the night before.  Pasta, pizza, pork roast, beef stew; it all heats up as a filling meal the next day.

But one thing that has not changed with the advent of the empty nest is that dinner is never, ever a meal of fish or shellfish.

When the kids were small, they didn’t like fish very much.  As they grew, Matt learned to love shrimp, but no other seafood.  Tim was allergic to shellfish, so this devoted Mamma never even considered cooking it.

And the love of my life, my husband of 34 years, will eat fish if I make it, but he doesn’t enjoy it.  As a good Italian Mamma, that means that I don’t ever cook it!

Tonight I am at home alone.  Paul is having dinner with an old friend who is struggling through a difficult time.  The kids are in their own homes, making dinner for themselves.  I am here, all by myself, in a house that is empty of anyone needing love or nurturing.

Anyone other than me, that is.

Today I went to the grocery store to fill the larder for the week.  Apples and orange juice, mouthwash and wheat bread; I filled the cart with everything that we would need to get through another work week.

And then I came to the fish market.   And I saw the blue mussels.

Tonight I made homemade wheat bread, more coarse and less sweet than what my family likes.  I steamed a pound of mussels in butter, garlic and white wine, a meal that no one else would have eaten.  I poured myself a cold glass of white wine, dipped the hot bread into the luscious buttery broth, and popped those garlicky mussels into my own grateful mouth.

Tonight, I fed myself.