The Artist’s Corner – Cooking With Priscilla Smith

I’ve mentioned before that I have a tendency to feed the characters in my stories.  In fact my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, is replete with the mention of food prompting the sharing of recipes.  So when I began The Artist’s Corner, it made sense to feature someone who enjoys the art of cooking as much as I do.  I don’t believe Priscilla has ever cooked for a fictional person, but if she did, they would enjoy her talent as much as the real people for whom she cooks.

Hello and welcome to the Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Well, I’ve been married for fifty-one years, and I have two children and two grandchildren.  I have enjoyed being a homemaker for the better part of my marriage.  I was heavily involved in raising my family and my children’s schooling, but I also worked in the banking and legal industry as well as a volunteer at the fire department.

How/when did your love of cooking develop?

I learned to cook under my mother’s instruction, but growing up in West Virginia didn’t expose me to a variety of foods.  My basic cooking skills didn’t develop until my high school home economics class in Ohio.  My final project was to collect recipes, and I gathered some good ones, but they were basic.

I honed my skills through my relationship with my oldest brother’s wife.  Inta is Latvian, and she introduced me to other foods and methods of preparation.  I fell in love with cooking and realized I could do this, too.

Do you consider the food you prepare art?

All of it.  From the first steps of preparation to the finished meal is the creation process resulting in edible art.  That’s why I take pictures of it and put it on Facebook!  At first I thought just the fancy stuff and my baking was art, but I realized it all is.  The quality of the food contributes to the finished product.  Homemade food is art with love infused.  In fact, something as simple as fried green tomatoes when made with good ingredients and love are impressive.

And don’t forget that the table setting is part of it.  Presentation plays an important role.  You eat first with your eyes, then your sense of smell, and finally with your mouth.  Sure, it’s the same food when you hastily prepare it and eat right out of the pans, but beautiful dishes, large platters, place mats, candlelight, napkins, silver, and crystal:  all this enhances the food.  You make it worthy of being presented in a magazine.

Do you put yourself into your cooking?

Absolutely.  How I season, what I choose to cook for a particular meal, how I approach the preparation process:  this is me infusing myself into the food.  I love to cook what I enjoy eating for other people.  It’s a small expression of my personality that I can share with others.  And you really can’t go wrong when you’re cooking something you like to eat; it’s like giving a present of yourself to someone.

My accent is on good, solid food.  Not necessarily fancy, but I’m not afraid to try something new.  Thai food has been of interest to me lately.  But if asked to prepare something that I’m not particularly fond of or have never made, I’ll still make every effort to please whoever I’m feeding.

I don’t consider myself a chef by any means, but I consider myself a cook, and a good one.  I have training in life experience with cooking.  My education comes from searching through cookbooks, vintage recipes, online, and word of mouth which usually provides the best recipes.  And I can never leave a recipe alone; I always tweak it!  Sometimes my recipes are never the same twice, but they’re always good.

What other cooking experience have you had?

On a whim, I took a cake decorating class with women from a craft club I attended years ago when my children were young.  A bunch of us went.  I fell in love with the art of cake decorating and started making my kids’ cakes, cakes for neighbors, cakes for family functions.  I realized I could channel my talent into a small business.  With a lot of practice, I worked my way up to wedding cakes and was quite successful.

Did your non-cooking work experience lead to the pursuit of cooking?

Not exactly, but cooking for my family fed my interest.  I’ve never even been a waitress, but I’ve been involved with hosting tea parties (in my home, at church, and in other people’s homes), guests breakfasts for Pastor Appreciation, luncheons honoring staff or administrators at schools, catered wedding receptions, wedding showers, baby showers, conference luncheons for two hundred people at churches, a week’s worth of meals for an equestrian group with special dietary requests, and company Christmas parties.  In each instance, I worked with my client(s) to create a full menu that would be visually pleasing and delicious, and then I prepared the food.

What or who is your inspiration for cooking?

Julia Child, Ina Garten, and Martha Stewart—they cause me to rise up to their standard of cooking.  I love watching them and reading their cookbooks.  Factor in Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson.

What do you enjoy cooking?

It would be a lot quicker to say what I don’t enjoy.  My favorite things to cook are my childhood comfort foods which are brown beans and cornbread, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Simple desserts like Crazy Cake and fudge.  Really, it’s hard to say any one thing since I like to make big meals and serve people.  I love to make pasta, beef roasts, chicken in many forms, roasted vegetables.  I love baking pies, breads, cookies, and cakes in that order.

Do you still cook for others as a business?

No, now it’s all for pure pleasure.  Well, actually, I’d take small jobs for close friends or family.  I’ve done everything I want to do business-wise with cooking.  I could turn all my handwritten recipes into a cookbook.  I could see a market for it based on people’s positive reaction to The Pioneer Woman and Paula Deen.  People like well-prepared, basic food that tastes good and isn’t difficult.  Food you already have in your cupboards.

Have you ever competed in a cooking contest or bake off?  If so, how did you do?

I baked for competition once.  When I was a young mother, I made candy apple pie for a local grocery store’s competition.  I took second place and received a ribbon!  I love watching the competitions on television and thinking, I could beat Bobby Flay, but cooking shouldn’t be under pressure or about throwing food around.  I’m not going to cook octopus, but if Bobby and I competed at potato soup or chili, I know I could take him down in a heartbeat.

How have you shared your cooking skills?

Lately, I’ve been teaching a young girl how to cook because she’s homeschooled.  Her mother asked me if I’d teach her to bake cupcakes and cookies because she’d tasted my stuff.  We slowly progressed into pies (double crust and with meringue), and she’s made palmiers, pudding, and angel food cake.  Next she’s going to make cheesecake.  We keep progressing with more and more difficult techniques.

What’s your opinion on the removal of Home Economics from school, specifically cooking?

It’s sad because young people don’t know how to cook.  They come home from work and buy something frozen or already prepared.  And I’m not talking about just girls.  Boys need to know how to cook, too.  My one grandson is prime example that boys can learn how to cook.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, but they need to learn how to feed themselves.  Breakfast and dinner are essentials because that’s usually when they’re home.  Lunch is often eaten out, so they need to learn how to choose wisely.

How is what you cook for yourself different from what you cook for other people?

If I’m making a grilled cheese for myself, I’m going to grab a couple slices of bread from the fridge, use American cheese, and the fanciest thing I’d include would be a slice of tomato.  But if I’m making grilled cheese for someone else, I’m going to use seven-grain or homemade sourdough bread, gruyere, fontina, or a combination of exceptional melting cheeses, spread one side with Dijon mustard, and put a slice of roasted red pepper on that baby.  Still grilled cheese, but see the difference!

No doubt you’d work presentation into this simple fare?

Absolutely!  And it’s not just dressing up ill-prepared or tasteless food.  Make no mistake; it all starts with delicious food, quality ingredients.  Even how you refer to it is important.  Simple things like cutting the crust off toast or sprinkling chopped green onions over an omelet and serving it on pretty dishes can go a long way to turning the eggs and toast you always have for breakfast into something special.

What’s your favorite meal to cook?

Passover.  I love cooking for Passover.  When I’m cooking the Passover meal, the whole experience becomes holy.  Of course the Seder is beautiful; it’s for Adonai.  It can be quite long, so people are getting hungry.  You’d better serve them your best, and I do.  What I hope they know is that I’ve given my best to them because of my love for Adonai.

What’s your dream meal?

To have lunch with Martha Stewart, but I prepare the food.  There’d be a salad involved, probably a soup and sandwich combination.  The time of year, whether spring or fall, would influence the menu.  And I’d make homemade pie, probably lemon meringue because my crust is excellent.

What’s your biggest complaint with cooking?

The cost of good ingredients can be prohibitive.  One meal could be outrageous.  I’ll buy organic when it’s feasible.  My concern isn’t just for myself, it’s for everyone.  We live in a country that wastes too much food.  The GMOs bother me, too.  Whole foods and organics should be available at reasonable prices to everyone.

So do you have a recipe to share with us?

You know I do!

Homemade Potato Dumpling Soup

6 – 8 Redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced

3 – 4 ribs of celery, sliced

Medium sweet onion, chopped

4 eggs, beaten

1 ½ c flour

½ t salt

Stick of butter

4 – 6 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned (enough to cover, depends on the size of your potatoes)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 quart half-n-half

Place the potatoes, celery, and onions in a large pot and cover with the broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cover while you’re making the dumplings.

Combined the eggs, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly to make a thick batter for dumplings.  Take a large spoonful of dumpling mixture and cut off pieces with a butter knife, dropping them into the hot soup.  Add a stick of butter.  Cover and let the dumplings cook for 5 – 8 minutes.

Turn the heat off and add the half-and-half until there is plenty of liquid around the ingredients and the soup looks creamy.  Taste to see if you need more salt, then season further with salt and pepper.

My family likes to top the soup with small chunks of Havarti, let it soften ever so slightly, and then eat it!

The Artist’s Corner – Michelle Smith, Photographer

When I seriously started to hone my chosen craft of writing, one of the first things I noticed was how closely related the approach is too many other forms of art.  Whether it’s cooking, painting, composing, dancing, or taking pictures, we all start with desire and ability.  Where it goes from there depends on our level of commitment, how we respond to mistakes, rejection, and criticism, and how we allow ourselves to grow.  The great artists press on and realize that their success isn’t measured by fame or fortune.

In A Snapshot of Writing, I detailed one of my favorite crossover art forms, photography.  After re-reading the post, the idea came to me to feature other artists and discuss their approach to their chosen art form.  I decided to start with brilliant, budding photographer Michelle Smith.

Welcome to The Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a survivor.  My strength is my compassion.  I’m a pet person with a rescue cat addiction.  I’m destined to be the crazy cat lady, but my husband and son won’t let me.

Do you put yourself into your photography?

I do.  I’ve had some rough spots in my life, so I’m trying to tell a story through what I’m taking pictures of.  They reflect who I am and how I’m trying to find myself.  I want to be seen, and although it’s who I am now, it’s not where I want to stay, it’s not who I want to be.

Ankle deep in commitment.

What has your experience been?

I was a stay-at-home mom for ten years before I started my career at thirty-four as an EMT and then progressed to paramedic.  I worked for a private ambulance company for eight and a half years, three and a half years of that was in training and education.  I currently work in the ER Department of a hospital as an active paramedic.  I love it!

Did your work experience lead to the pursuit of photography?

No, actually it didn’t.  My husband’s job did.  He’s a detective who trained in taking crime scene photos.  His experience piqued my interest in photography.

How did you develop your passion for photography?

I started going with him to take picture outside of the crime scenes.  He shot landscapes, objects, places, and eventually senior class pictures.  I found myself telling him what to take pictures of, and I started taking the camera from him.  He’d just chuckle at me.  Then he started explaining what I was looking for and how to work the settings, but I didn’t pay attention at first because it wasn’t my camera.  I let him move the settings, and I took the picture.

That lasted for about six months until he gave me a camera for Christmas.  We were going on vacation, and he knew I’d want my camera for the trip, so I got it in November.  It was either give me my own camera or lose his!

What’s your inspiration?

Spending time with my husband because it’s something we have in common.  Listening to him patiently tell me how to use my camera.  Taking long car rides to where we’re going to go take pictures and chatting about it on the way.

What do you enjoy photographing?

I enjoy taking pictures of abandoned places because I feel sad for them.  I think of all the things that took place there.  I don’t have memories of these places so I think what happened here?  I wonder about the families that were displaced, the moms who raised their kids there, and the people who lost their jobs.  Where are these people now?  Time has forgotten these places and no one wants to hear the stories, so I take pictures of the abandoned places and tell their story through my photography.

Where can someone find you online?  Do you have a website?

I have some of my pictures posted on ViewBug under the name Just4FunPhotography.  You can find them on the home page newest to oldest.

In which contests have you competed?  What awards have you won?

On ViewBug, I participated in peer-created challenges and received the People’s Choice award in the categories of Lanterns, Save the Rain Forest, and Toy Planes.  I also received the ViewBug Member Selection Award and Staff Winter Selection for 2015.  I took first place in Nature and also in Architecture at the Portage County Randolph Fair.  At the Lake Community Branch of the Stark County District Library’s Annual Photo Contest, I took first place in Nature and second place in Architecture.

Do you take photos for people?  How does a client contact you?

I haven’t yet for major events such as weddings, graduations, but I’m willing to learn.  I think I’m afraid to because you can’t have that moment back like you can with a landscape or object.

What is your process for photographing people?

Well, actually, my focus is on landscapes or objects.  I’m not a big fan of people pictures, so all the movement in my photographs is natural:  waterfalls, wind through the trees.  Right now, I don’t incorporate people.

How is what you shoot for yourself different from what you do for people?

When I shoot for myself, I look at the picture with a more critical eye because I am the photographer.  I’m harder on myself than when I’m shooting for others.  That’s not to say that I don’t put all my effort into shooting for other people.  I take their requests very seriously.

It’s a great satisfaction for me to be able to take a photo for someone and capture it exactly as they wanted.  Recently, I took pictures of pigs at a fair for a friend who grew up raising pigs for 4-H.  I wasn’t sure I got exactly what she wanted because I couldn’t get past the fences to take the pictures.  She loved them because that’s what she remembered:  looking at pigs up close through the fence.  It was a successful shoot because I made her happy.

Has your work ever been used for commercial purposes?

No, but I’d definitely consider it.  For National Geographic; I want that shot!  It’s the dream.  I’d also like to see my picture of a baseball player on a card or the electronic billboard at the game.  Or maybe a hockey player because of their facial expressions.  If you have patience, and capture the right moment, they have some intense expressions.  But then I’d have to photograph people!

What’s your favorite photograph that you’ve taken?

I have to choose one?  I have two!  I captured it on my first day out with my own camera.  Picture this:  With butterflies all around, capturing just one was difficult.  I turned to notice the curls of a flower vine hanging just above my head.  As I admired its beauty, this butterfly fluttered right down onto the dangling vine.  I was filled with excitement and literally shook!  I slowly raised my camera into position, took a deep breath, and then snapped the picture.  Then I recalled my lessons; even though I took the picture, the settings may not have been correct for this situation.  I reined in my excitement and slowly changed the settings to capture the picture as you see it.  I smiled, thinking to myself, Wow that’s going to be amazing.  This photograph has no post-process editing.  I named it Curly Q.

My second favorite is of the 1792 distillery rickhouse in Kentucky.  It’s called Master Distiller Approved.  I applied the rule of thirds and vanishing points to the picture, but when I snapped it, it came out with too much backlight from the windows.  I closed the aperture, and it was perfect.  Plus the smell of bourbon in there was heavenly!

What’s your dream photograph?

Are you really ready?  People are going to think I’m freakin’ crazy.  I want to capture what was left behind after Chernobyl.  After viewing other photographers’ work, I became inspired and decided that’s one of my dream shots.  It’s part of the abandoned place thing.  So many lives were lost, these people had no time to pack, they were evacuated in forty-eight hours, and told they were leaving for just a short time.

The other, I’m claustrophobic so it’s never going to happen, is to photograph the abandoned hulls of underwater shipwrecks.  I’d like to do war ships, but you can’t get close.  Talk about stories to tell!

What’s your biggest beef with photography?

Photoshopping!  Lightroom, a program that fixes the picture and makes it more than it was to begin with.  It’s not real, and photographers are getting awards for this type of work.  The pictures are over processed, over edited.  There’s a minimum of allowable tinkering.  All I’ll do is sharpen, define, and noise reduction which fixes shaking.  If the picture is already good, it’s not even noticeable.  There is some post-processing no matter who you are (National Geographic, Victoria’s Secret, or Sports Illustrated), but you can’t make a bad photo good.  Well, you can, but that’s cheating.

My other complaint is photographers who steal other people’s work.

Would you like to work full-time as a photographer?  If so, how do you see your business growing?

Absolutely!  To enjoy your hobby as a career could be more relaxing than the grind of an everyday job that is so-so.  Not that my job is so-so.  Remember, I love being a paramedic.  Breaking in to the world of photography to make your name takes time and commitment.  There’s the investment in equipment unless you get hired in somewhere that supplies equipment.  So, I’d work for someone commercially to get started.

Then there’s the investment in your craft.  I’m still learning and growing my confidence.  I need to work at handling variables such as people (they’re so unpredictable!) and not putting a picture in my head and trying to make it happen.

Do you work alone or with a partner?

I prefer going with someone else.  I enjoy going with other people whether they’re photographers or not because when they see something they want a picture of, I can give it to them.  I don’t have to guess at what they’ll like.  It’s quite confidence building to deliver a picture right then and have them be pleased.  Plus I like to chat with people!

Gag Me With a Spoon

Lightning Juice is all about funny tales from family life, so today’s is a Retro Lightning Juice from the Reagan years. Enjoy!

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Gag Me With a SpoonBoys will be boys, and girls will be girls. But when they’re teenagers, regardless of the decade, they all turn into little monsters. I’m reminded of this by my own teenager, who reminded me of an incident that took place during the late ‘80s, also known as the golden era of big hair and great music, in which my younger brother and I acted in a way that should have earned us a grounding.

Out of the blue one day, our father asked my brother, Heath, and me to make chili for dinner. In our defense, I’m not exactly sure what Dad was thinking. It’s not as if Heath and I could cook and not because our mother didn’t try. We just didn’t care. We were teenagers, and the only thing that concerned us was getting to the dinner table on time. How the food arrived was not our concern.

Of course, being teens we were highly disgruntled at Dad yanking us away from whatever leisurely activity we were engaged in, which is to say we weren’t doing a stinking thing. I recall that we had some sort of idea how to make the chili, and Dad helped by setting out all the things that went into the pot. At least we had enough sense to brown the meat before adding the rest of the ingredients. That’s where our common sense ended.

When it came time to season the chili, a devious little plan entered our heads. Well, actually, it entered my head, but Heath was quick to accept the idea. He even snickered in the most sly and sneaky way, so I’m crediting him with fifty percent of the accountability on this one.

Now everyone knows that chili is a zesty, spicy dish that ranges in degrees of heat from the mild “did I really just eat chili or was that oatmeal,” to the hot “oh, my goodness, I feel warm.” Heath and I opted for “Dear Lord in Heaven, I can no longer feel my tongue and throat, somebody call an ambulance.”

We didn’t exactly abandon Mom’s recipe, we kind of ignored and/or enhanced it by doubling, possibly tripling, the amount of chili powder we put in the pot. It was our way of ensuring that Dad never again made the mistake of interrupting our nothingness with the silly request to make dinner. And then we spotted the cayenne pepper.

By this time we were both giggling as we spooned in the cayenne and the red pepper flakes we also spied in the cupboard. But wait—there’s more. We rummaged through the refrigerator searching for anything else that might be remotely toasty to the palate and came up with Texas Pete peppers and Tabasco Sauce. Do you know how many shakes of that tiny Tabasco bottle it takes to empty half of it?

Like a couple of witches standing over their cauldron, Heath and I added and stirred, making sure our secrets ingredients were well hidden in the mix. Imagine how pleased our mother was to come home from work to find dinner made by her darling children. I remember her exact comment after the prayer during which Heath and I barely suppressed our laughter all the while making surreptitious eye contact.

“Well, this is interesting,” Mom said after a choked down spoonful.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it was nigh unto inedible. At any moment, Dad would realize his gross mistake and concede that the making of dinner was best left to him or Mom. It wasn’t to be. We all looked to Dad who was slurping up the concoction like it was manna from Heaven.

“This is (slurp, slurp) the best (slurp) chili I’ve (slurp, slurp) ever had.”

With faded smiles slipping from our faces, Heath and I tried to conceal our disappointment. Sure, Dad’s forehead had broken out in beads of sweat, his face was beet red, but he ate two bowls of chili without a single sip of milk to quench the burn. The rest of us gagged it down.

My brother and I probably sound like little demons. We were. I’ll never know if Dad ate the chili to make us feel good for giving it the ole college try, or if he suspected what we had done. To this day, he’d never admit either way. But keep one thing in mind, as far as my brother and I go, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. Don’t believe me? Just ask Dad’s three sisters how ornery he was as a kid.

Spread the Love

One of my earliest memories of butter includes sitting on the carpet in the kindergarten classroom, all of us in a large circle, passing a massive canning jar from person to person as we shook the sealed jar full of whipping cream as hard as our little arms could manage. We’d been told that this would produce butter. I remember my skepticism, but since I loved butter, I gladly took part and watched the magic unfold.

It’s funny how many of my food memories are attached to my Grandma Smith, but I believe her kitchen is where I developed my love of butter.Butter versus Margarine There was something different about the sunshine yellow block that sat in her cut glass butter dish. It was lighter, sweeter than the golden-colored sticks of ‘butter’ we used at home. As a young child, any yellow, creamy substance that one spread on toast or crackers was referred to as butter. My mother provided the explanation of the difference, and I learned the definition of margarine. It wouldn’t be until decades later that I learned what an evil substance margarine is, but I digress.

Grandma Smith would bring me packets of real butter from restaurants where she had dined. Nothing against my mother, but she used margarine for years until I finally convinced her to switch. Glory be–my taste buds rejoiced and food became so much tastier.

Where is all this leading you ask? To my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, of course. I’ve already established that as an author, I love to feed my fictional characters. Twice I reference butter specifically, once in conjunction with biscuits and again with cornbread, but what I want my readers to understand without mentioning it every time is that butter is my fictional characters’ ingredient of choice when it comes to cooking and baking.

As I wrote the scenes involving food and envisioned the preparation, butter was always in the picture, sitting in a crock or dish, just within reach of the experienced hands that would lovingly incorporate it into the recipe. I’ll spare you the debate on the health benefits of butter versus margarine and simply say don’t fear butter and all things in moderation.

To sum up this post, I made butter with my son because I wanted him to experience how easy and fun it is. The added step of washing the butter is new for me based on research for this post. The instructions for this activity follow. I highly recommend doing this with your kids because the memories you’ll make are priceless.

Enjoy!

Homemade Butter

2 c whipping cream (Raw cream from grass-fed cows is recommended, but store bought organic will work as well. This quantity will yield approximately ½ c of butter.)

sea salt

I used a stand mixer with a wire attachment for this process and chilled the bowl and wire attachment prior to using.

Pour the cream into your mixing bowl, filling the bowl halfway so it does not overflow as air is whipped into the cream. Mix on a medium-low speed to prevent splashing. As the cream thickens, you can turn it up to medium.

This process should take about 15 minutes but can vary depending on how much cream you are using and what type if mixer you have. Whipped cream will develop first. When the whipped cream begins to deflate, watch closely as your mixture can rapidly change to butter. To prevent splashing, cover the bowl with a lightly dampened tea towel.

When the butter begins to clump and stick to the whisk, it is done mixing. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer to separate the solids, butter, from the liquids, buttermilk. If you want it to last for more than a few days, you need to wash the butter. This will remove as much buttermilk as possible to keep the butter from going rancid. Put the butter back in your mixing bowl and cover with clean, cold water.

Use a large spoon to press the butter into the sides of the bowl. The water will become cloudy as the buttermilk is removed from the butter. Pour off the cloudy water and add more fresh. You can repeat this process until the water stays clear. Stir in a large pinch of amount of sea salt for every ½ c of butter.

Store in refrigerator or at room temperature if you will use it within a week or two.

Cast Ironclad Alibi

One of my most prized possessions is the cast iron skillet I inherited from my beloved Grandma Smith. The skillet is twelve inches in diameter and easily weighs as much as my Kia Spectra. I have to use both hands to lift it, and if it weren’t so unwieldy, it would make one heck of a weapon.

I know I surprised Grandma when I asked her if I could have the skillet when she broke up housekeeping. She was leaning toward giving rest-home living a try about a year after my Grandpa had passed. I assured her there was no rush and that I’d wait until she was completely ready to part with it.

“What do you want that ole thing for?” she asked and laughed.

I explained to her that is was infused with memories of her and all the delicious things she ever cooked in it. She smiled sweetly, I imagine still somewhat amazed that I’d asked for it, and said okay.

The day my father brought it home to me was actually kind of a sad day. Grandma was still with us, but her days of clomping about the kitchen (she wasn’t exactly light on her feet) and directing the creation of large meals for family gatherings were over.

Unfortunately, I let the pan sit for many years because I was too intimidated to use it. I wasn’t sure I could live up to my Grandma’s reputation as a great cook. Besides, I had a shiny set of Revere Ware Copper Bottom pots and pans. They were dishwasher safe; the cast iron skillet was not.

So, Grandma’s skillet languished in my stove, setting off the fire alarms every time I forgot to remove its oil-preserved self from the oven prior to preheating. I’m ashamed to say that I moved it to the storage shelves in the basement. Its presence was replaced with a non-stick skillet from my mother.

A couple of years ago when I began writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, the skillet drifted back to the edges of my memory. As I mentioned in a previous blog post (Edible Fiction), I love to feed people, both real and imagined. One of my characters, Collie Mercer, is responsible for a great deal of the food mentioned in my novel. Without realizing it, every time I wrote about Collie cooking, without even stating it, I pictured her using a large, cast iron skillet exactly like my Grandma’s.

Black Beauty with a gleaming coat of oil.

Black Beauty with a gleaming coat of oil.

Long story short, the skillet, re-seasoned and currently in use, now reigns supreme in my kitchen. I never thought I could fall in love with a cooking implement, but I have. Who knew that cast iron was not only healthier for you, but the non-stick qualities put the new skillets to shame? And keeping it seasoned is not the chore I initially believed it to be.

There is so much about cast iron that I want to share with you, but I’ll direct you to two books, The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook by Sharon Kramis & Julie Kramis Hearne, and The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America’s Favorite Pan by Ellen Brown. What I love about these books, besides the delicious recipes, is the sentiment the authors express for the cast iron cookware they inherited.

So, whether you’re starting out with a brand new piece of cast iron, rescuing an old relic from the back of someone’s cupboards, or just pulling out Grandma’s skillet to use for making dinner, get your hands on a piece of cast iron and fall in love with cooking all over again.

Dream Cooking

Dream CookingThe weather in Northeast Ohio has been bitterly cold lately. We’re paying for the month of December when we ran around in shirtsleeves and windbreakers. Personally, I’d rather spread out the bad weather instead of having it dumped on us all at once.

The cold puts everyone in the mood for soup, stew, or chili. Recently, my husband’s family all met at his parent’s house where everyone enjoyed a delicious ground sirloin and root vegetable stew. I took two loaves of bread which we cut into huge chunks for sopping up broth. The evening was a perfect blend of good food, great conversation, laughter, and reminiscing.

Today I’m making a pot of chili to combat the falling temperatures. Every family has their own recipe, or rather non-recipe, of ingredients combined without measuring until the chili tastes the way it’s supposed to. As I chop the onion and green pepper, press the garlic, I think about my Swedish photographer friend who I met on Twitter.

I came late to social media because it served no purpose in my life. If social media couldn’t allow me to hear my friends’ laughter, dry their tears, feel the warmth of their hugs, share a glass of wine or cup of tea, or lend a shoulder, then it held no value. Why would I even consider it when I’m the person who complained that e-mail doesn’t allow for the tone of voice to come through and it leads to too many misconstrued statements and hurt feelings? I’m still extremely cautious about what I type in posts, e-mails, tweets, etc.

Then one day I had to take the plunge into Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for the sake of my author platform. I’ll cut to the chase and admit that’s it’s proven to be successful and quite fun. Also quite addictive, so remember why you signed up in the first place. Don’t ignore the work, writing in my case.

But the most important part of my social media experience has been the connections I’ve made with people I’ve never met, only seen in the little photos they use as their profile icons, and never heard speak. They’ve become real friends, and it’s them I’m thinking about today as I cook.

I wrote a post about apple pie not too long ago, and the friend I mentioned above commented that it’s a favorite in Sweden as well. She tweeted a picture of her beautiful kitchen, and I instantly fell in love with it. I replied that someday, we would cook together in her kitchen. She agreed…someday.

Ever since that tweeted conversation, I have dreamt about the two of us baking together. We would probably start with apple pie, while laughing and chatting at her kitchen table, hands warming around mugs of tea. We’ll take turns peeking in the oven, mouths watering, as we anticipate the rich dessert.

My imagination doesn’t end there for I’ve made other wonderful friends online. My handsome photographer friend from India breezes in without knocking because all are welcome here. He arrives from whatever exotic location he was photographing. A touch of mystery swirls in on the chill breezes, and we laugh and scold him to shut the door. After much foot stomping to knock snow off his boots, he sits at the table with his own mug of tea. No apple pie yet; it’s cooling on the counter.

Right behind him, my American poet friend knocks politely before poking his head in and calling hello. His online presence is so kind, so thoughtful, that I imagine him as soft spoken, warm, and gentle: a perfect blend of Robert Frost and a favorite uncle. His photography includes familiar pictures from daily life. That, too, is comforting. He joins us at the table, eyeing up the cooling pie.

Three more photographer friends arriving from India, America, and Finland join us as if they lived right around the corner. There’s enough room around the table that’s magically big enough to accommodate all of us. Many hands participate in the preparation of a pot of something savory now simmering on the stove. Fresh bread is baking. The men demand dessert; the ladies smile and say not until after dinner.

Then my writing friends drop in. I’ve invited them to meet the photographers. The first is a lion-hearted writer with a terrific smile. Then my comic-loving writer friend and my successfully self-published writing friend from England join the United Nation of Artists gathered at the table. Just as the table is being set for dinner, my part-scientist/part-writer friends hustles in. He laughs and says the weather is either cold with too much snow to shovel or hot with too much grass in need of cutting.

Chairs are added to the table, writers squeeze in between photographers, dinner is served. Conversation is replaced with murmurs of satisfaction. The stew is delicious. Suddenly, the door bangs open announcing one more writing friend to add to the mix. She apologizes as she wriggles out of her coat, tosses her snow-crusted gloves on the warm stove, brushes her long brown hair over her shoulders, and finds an empty spot at the table meant just for her. The t-shirt she wears catches every eye; it’s printed with the naked torso of a man staring just below the chin and ending just below his navel. Grins of appreciation for the intriguing shirt leave no doubt in which genre she prefers to write.

After dinner, as friends turned family push back from the table claiming they have no more room for another bite, dessert is served. Coffee and tea are refreshed. A pie that normally would have served eight at the most transforms into miraculous bounty. There is enough for everyone to have seconds. It is around midnight, and everyone’s spirits are still high. All heads turn at the sound of the door opening one more time.

The last friend to join our impromptu party has been out walking, planning paintings, sussing life’s situations, and enjoying his retirement. His wandering has brought him home, so to speak. Everyone presses him into a chair, places stew, bread, and pie in front of him, and asks after his wellbeing.

I sit back and listen contentedly as writers, photographers, and painters blend perfectly. Art talk abounds. Mugs of warm beverages have given way to glasses of wine. We’ve already started planning our next meal together.

Slowly, each friend fades from view, disappearing in the steam rising from the pot of chili I am stirring. But I can still sense them with me. I say still even though I haven’t met them yet. Someday. Someday it will all start with an apple pie baked in a beautiful kitchen in Sweden.

~~~~~

Thank you to my wonderful friend, Rosita Larsson, for the picture of her beautiful kitchen which inspired this post.

The Bitter Truth

Horseradish and GraterWhen I first chose the meal my protagonist, John Welles, would enjoy with Reuben and Hannah Wise, I flinched at including horseradish sauce. A website on authentic Jewish cooking suggested the pungent condiment as a topping for the salmon patties I had Hannah serving.

I hate horseradish. My earliest memory of it involves cocktail sauce served at a seafood restaurant called Arthur Treacher’s that went out of business in our area years ago. My aunt was pumping the sauce out of a dispenser into little paper cups when one hefty pump spewed the offending sauce all over my shirt. I was mortified, and I guess my face showed as much because my aunt busted up laughing even as she wiped me off with paper napkins.

To this day I can sniff out horseradish in any meal even as someone is setting the plate down in front of me. I was sure I wouldn’t include it in my Edible Fiction posts featuring food from my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Until my mom made fresh horseradish sauce.

Homemade horseradish sauce is a whole different creature. The key, as I discovered, was to grate the horseradish fresh instead of using the jarredHorseradish Grated stuff. Freshly grated horseradish is zesty like radishes; it actually has flavor. Unlike the jarred stuff, which is bitter without much flavor at all, fresh horseradish tastes like peppery herbs.

As for recipes, there are thousands to be found for homemade horseradish sauce. I imagine Hannah would have mixed her freshly grated horseradish into a quality mayonnaise with a little salt and pepper to taste. Sour cream or crème fraiche is another suggestion as is the inclusion of white wine vinegar, chives, and Dijon mustard. You really can’t mess up the recipe; it’s just a matter of tasting as you create until you achieve the flavor you’re looking for.

The following is a basic recipe that provides a great jumping off point.

Horseradish Sauce

4 ounces of freshly grated horseradish root

1 ½ cups of mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and grate the horseradish root. Stir into the mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper.

Simple Fare, Shocking Secret

An invitation to dinner is a most coveted offer for a bachelor to receive. While many of them are experts at instant foods or eating out, single men rarely take the time to prepare a decent meal for themselves. It is no different for my protagonist, Dr. John Welles.

John grew up eating delicious food prepared by his stepmother, Collie, and later by his Aunt Prudence’s cook, Lucia. Unfortunately, their culinary skills never rubbed off on John. If not for the good food he eats at Bea Turner’s diner, John would probably lose a considerable amount of weight while living on his own in West Virginia.

During the snowbound winter of 1955, John accepts an invitation to dine with Rueben and Hannah Wise. The Wises own a small grocery store, and while they aren’t wealthy people, they provide a meal that is both simple and delightful. In addition to saving him from his own bachelor cooking, the Wises second, more important reason for inviting John to dinner completely catches him off his guard.

The following recipe for salmon patties is the one I had in mind as I wrote this scene. Salmon patties were cause for nose wrinkling when I was a 1422563010122child; I didn’t develop a taste for them until I became an adult. I do suggest making them when you can have the windows open or prepare them in a skillet that can be covered. Salmon patties are delicious, but they will leave a pungent, lingering aroma in your home for a couple of days!

Salmon Patties

1-14.75 oz. can of pink salmon, drained

½ cup crushed Ritz crackers

1 egg

1 T parsley

1 stalk of celery, minced

2 T onion, minced

Tabasco, several hearty shakes

Black pepper & Sea Salt to taste

Approx. 2 T Olive Oil

Approx. 2 T Butter

Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl until well blended. If mixture is dry, add 1 tablespoon of half and half at a time until mixture forms a ball. Gently press out salmon patties on a cutting board using your hands. Be sure to keep the edges neat so patties won’t crumble while cooking.

Melt the butter in a skillet with the olive oil. When the skillet sizzles, add the salmon patties and cook on a high heat to set each side. Take care not to burn. Flip once to cook the other side. Patties should be nicely browned and lightly crisped. Serve immediately.

Get Your Italian On

Below are three fabulous websites I used while researching food for my short story “Italian Cooking.” If you don’t want to visit Italy or at least cook something Italian after reading these then all I can say is, you’re not enjoying food and/or cooking to its fullest. I was ready to hop a plane for Italy and sign up at Academia Barilla. I have no idea how I would pay for it, but who cares?

Buon appetito!

Saveur

Academia Barilla

Wine Weekly

Edible Fiction

About a month ago, I had a brilliant idea for my blog:  feature the food in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. That very same day, a patron at the library where I work checked out a book called Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried.

I could have been bitter, believing my brilliant idea to have been stolen right out from under my nose, but realized I was on to something good. I placed the book on hold and waited another month for my turn to read it.

In the meantime, I scoured my own novel for every mention of food. There were plenty. I’m not really surprised because I have always enjoyed eating. Also in that vein of thought, I love to feed my family and friends. It made sense that I fed my fictional people as well.

Based on this discovery, I decided to provide recipes and pictures of the food in my book. My goal would be to immerse the reader into the world of my main character, John Welles. Not to mention, it has been and will be incredibly fun to create the food, photograph the food, and eat the food.

Bon appétit!

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