Heirlooms

I can be overly sentimental about the things I love; collections or bits and bobs of things that evoke a certain memory or glimpse of a bygone era. I am especially fond of those things handed down or gifted to me by family members – pieces given out of love and the desire to pass along a good story or two.

I have written about my Aunt C before and her knack for choosing just the right gift for me. We share the same birthday and she seems to know this innate part of me that few others see. This year, for my birthday, she sent me the most dear ceramic spice shakers from her own kitchen. Also included was a compendium of recipes and stories from a local Philadelphia bakery called ‘Brown Betty’. Lastly, she included her own family recipe for old-fashioned lace cookies from her mother’s kitchen.

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I keep my spice shakers together with other special gifts from my Aunt C – a decorative light plate (Aunt C has small bits of whimsy like this throughout her California bungalow), a knob for a drawer to hold all those beloved bits and bobs, and a vase shaped like a bunch of radishes (to honor my passion for gardening).

I’ve made the “Plain Cake” recipe out of the cookbook several times now – a cake that was born from a Brown Betty family recipe shared at Sunday dinners and yearly birthday parties. The flavor of the cake, buttery and golden, tastes like home, like family. You feel sated and enfolded in warmth as it melts in your mouth.

If we are to accumulate “things” in this life, I am glad to have such a collection of things that lovingly speak to me of family and tradition and history when I use them.

28

28.

An age I never really imagined I’d see when I pictured myself as some fuzzy version of a “grown up”. When I was a child and in a hurry to grow up I definitely imagined myself at 16 – getting a driver’s license and having the time of my life in high school. I also imagined myself at 18 – going to the prom, starting college, making my own decisions. I don’t really recall any thoughts about life past that point. I’m sure that, at age 10, few kids are thinking about their future selves at 30. Of course, there were the traditional girlish fantasies about marriage and children that I acted out with dolls and my little girl friends, but the possibility of it seemed so remote that it was difficult to realistically picture it actually happening. And now that January 14th has come and gone, I feel that I have so many milestones behind me that I am rather unexcited about moving forward.

I still don’t feel like an adult because I have so many goals yet to achieve thanks to mistakes and detours I have made along the way.  I am still in school, working on a 3rd degree so that I can become licensed as a nurse practitioner in 2014. I can’t remember a time when school wasn’t a part of my life. Many of my coworkers, who took what I would consider a more traditional approach to life, are in long term relationships, have gotten married, and/or now have children. I don’t think I appreciated how much losing a parent in adolescence could stunt one’s progress in moving towards “the future”. Despite finishing a nursing program and starting work in a career that I am excited about, I have still felt a bit stuck and rooted to one spot by my desire to return to life before the absolute-worst-day-of-my-life  in 2009.

Grief, though it wanes over time, is fairly omnipresent. I mean, does one ever not grieve the loss of someone they love? Since my birthday, at least 5 people have told me that 28 is a good year. I don’t know where this consensus comes from or if there is even any truth to it. Several individuals have told me that 28 was their “best” year, that really good things happened to them. I hope to high heaven that they are right. I could use a dramatic twist or turn along this road I feel that I am traveling along at a plodding pace. I can feel all of that potential energy that has built up behind me over the last 4 years about to launch me into some great kinetic state where change happens and achievements are made.

Luckily, I started my new year off right with a hearty brunch at Terrain at Styer’s with some of those nearest and dearest to me. Nothing reminds you of what is most important in life than the important people with whom you surround yourself.

These ladies know me better than most.

These ladies know me better than most.

 

We survived nursing school together.

We survived nursing school together.

 

Winter Traditions

Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.

I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.

I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.

Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.

The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.

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Easy, peasy Christmas banner

The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.

The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?

The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.

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Roof of the conservatory

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Paper lanterns

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Halo of stars

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Kumquat Tree

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Water features

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Fantasy table display

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Outdoor display

Philly Love Notes

Last month, I wrote a post for Philly Love Notes – a local blog that posts “love notes” from anyone who is passionate enough to proclaim their enthusiasm for some beloved aspect of Philadelphia. The notes run the gamut from architecture to restaurants/coffee shops/diners to boutiques to neighborhoods/parks/trees and more. The blog is a lens through which to see Philadelphia in a new light –  it implores you to view the city through another individual’s eyes or to contemplate something that you may have never paid mind to before. Philly Love Notes serves as a reminder that we do live in a pretty awesome, ever-changing metropolis that is as diverse as the people who inhabit the landscape.

My note is an ode to my favorite yarn shop – Loop – in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and can be read on the blog.

Soup Season

I love soup.

If for nothing else, I love fall and winter because they are soup seasons. There is something very comforting about sipping warm broth on a blustery evening. My neighbors are also big fans of soup and we gather every Sunday during Advent (the month-long season of preparation before Christmas) for a soup night where we enjoy the company of friends and family, give thanks for the many blessings we have, and look forward to the coming new year. Each Sunday brings a new group of soups and we eat bowl after bowl of long-time favorites and new variations. I look forward to this tradition every year. Maybe more so than Christmas itself.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of meals in big pots. I am especially fond of her bright orange Le Creuset dutch oven that I can only now just lift. A lot of good, family meals have come out of the piece of crockery – meaty, melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts with a menagerie of root vegetables and burgundy broth that was sometimes served with creamy mashed potatoes or over egg noodles, pork roasts with apples and tart apricot glaze drippings, and hearty stews with deep brown gravy that creeps up the flesh of crusty bread as you clean your bowl. The other big pot is a silver stock pot that was used to wilt collards and kale for traditional southern “greens”. Sometimes the remains of a chicken or ham hocks or turkey legs would find their way in for stock. We would ladle out thick, green split pea soup or maybe a variation on a corn chowder or possibly something bursting with beans of all shapes and sizes.

Soup is easily my favorite meal. You can make a soup as complicated or as simple as you like given your time frame and list of ingredients. With the marvel of modern technology, we can now add a few cans of this or that and be done in an hour’s time. If you have a crock pot, cooking time can be drastically reduced as well.
Soup is also a very easy way to hide a multitude of sins as you don’t have to worry about getting every detail just right – you can adjust your flavor and your ingredients as you go along. Not to mention that it is such an easy way to incorporate those foods that are tremendously good for you but not palatable in their raw form. I will easily eat my weight in kale if it is in soup.

A friend of mine passed along a recipe for kale, sausage, and cannelloni (or cannellini) bean soup that she and her family had given high marks. My version of this idiot-proof dish is below. I was skeptical about the addition of lemon juice but found that it added a bright flavor that contrasts well with the smokiness of the sausage and more bitter flavor of the kale. This recipe could be easily made vegetarian or vegan if you substituted vegetable or mushroom brother and left out the sausage. In the future, I may add more vegetables and beans to boost the antioxidant value of this meal.

Other tweaks I made:

  • I did not use sundried tomatoes packed in oil as I didn’t want to add extra fat/calories. I found that my local Whole Foods sells sundried tomatoes in a resealable pouch that I can just keep on hand in the fridge.
  • Crushed or diced tomatoes could be used to avoid the mess of chopping whole tomatoes.
  • I used the “juice” from both the tomatoes and the beans.
  • I added a few extra leaves of kale and used regular curly leaf as I could not find lacinto. Wash well! Kale often has little tiny pests that look like gray or white fuzz.
  • I used 4 links of italian-style turkey sausage. I cooked it first then cut it into pieces.

The recipe says that it serves 4, but unless your family includes 4 giants it will easily feed you several times over. I placed a few portions in the freezer for later this winter. As a single lady, I do not shy away from recipes that make many portions as I love being able to pull things out of my freezer that are already made!

Kale, Sausage, and Cannelloni Soup

* 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 to 4 sausage links

* 2 cloves of garlic, minced

* 2 cans of cannelloni beans

* 1 can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

* 40 ounces of low sodium chicken broth

* 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned, packed in oil and patted dry before using

* 1 bunch (6 to 8 leaves) of lacinto kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped

* juice of 2 lemons

* 3 Tbsp grated parmesean cheese with more for serving

* 1 tsp salt, more to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and cook sausages through. { I wanted my sausage completely cooked before being added to the soup } Add garlic and sundried tomatoes and cook for one minute. In a large pot, add chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, lemon juice, kale, 3 Tbsp cheese, sausage/garlic/sundried tomatoes from skillet, and salt. Simmer on low, uncovered for 30 minutes.

To serve: Ladle into bowls, top with more cheese and serve with crusty bread.

Badger Pride

This past weekend, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin A.

A is the youngest of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family. I remember getting a call from my mom (who was present at her birth) on the day she was born. Despite being 8 years older and living on opposite coasts, she has come to be more like a sister to me. A reminds me to not take life so seriously sometimes, to treasure my friendships, to smile widely and laugh often, and to love with all my heart. I truly relish the fleeting time that we get to spend with one another.

Our family was pretty surprised (and proud!) when this southern CA girl decided to make Madison her home for college. My college experience was very intimate with only 2,300 students on the Barnard campus and I’ve been eager to see what life is like in Madison. The University of Wisconsin at Madison is home to the Badgers – the school’s immensely popular and successful football team. October seemed like a good time of year to see A, catch a heated game between UW and Minnesota, and try cheese curds (FYI – cheese curds are tasty little morsels when fried but will feel like lead pellets in your gut later).

Airplane goodies? Check!

Having your red gear is a MUST

Bascom Hall after a trek up Bascom Hill. It was quite the climb

Babcock Hall is where a lot of agricultural research takes place. More importantly, they also make ice cream here.

Lake Mendota on a cloudy morning

Displaying one’s Badger pride is very important. Note that those are W’s not M’s.

Camp Randall – aka where the football stadium resides

Kickoff

A sea of red in the student section

All smiles after UW won 38-13

Milestones

Yesterday, my father would have been 80.

I was at work at the hospital until 9:30p and almost forgot about the meaning behind October 3rd until I was caring for a patient with a new cancer diagnosis.

In nursing, though, the hectic pace of the day tends to leave little room for thought about the rest of life and I was glad to be busy.

I had never really thought of my dad as “old” until he was ill with cancer and it made him look hollowed out and lifeless. Maybe, I would have thought him “old” at 80 but his death in 2009 robbed me of the opportunity to see him as he would have been now. I can barely remember the sound of his voice at times. Photographs help but frustrate me with their two dimensions. The memory is a funny thing. When the moth of time has begun eating away at the facts and details of a memory, the imagination fills in the holes to create a slightly different version of the reality that was there before. While memories are comforting and it may have been better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, nothing compares to the real thing.

Dad at the Trinidad airport in 2005.

Dad, in remission from cancer, at my cousin’s wedding in Grafton, Wisconsin in 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

Fruits of Fall

Figs are one of the simple pleasures of early fall. Their season in the Northeast is relatively short – if you blink, you may miss the small, plump fruits heaped into green cardboard containers at your farmer’s market or grocery store. You may be able to find a relatively local crop, but chances are that they came from the west coast. Figs grow very well in drier climates like southern California as they are a crop that made their way from Asia over centuries. I feel that Philadelphians aren’t very familiar with these purple-y black gems. The black Mission figs are the most common in the Philadelphia area and you’re bound to find them at DiBruno Bros and Whole Foods beginning in September. People seem bewildered by them – do I just eat them or put them in something? I like to eat figs plain, taking bites out of the fruit as if it is a little apple. I also like crusty bread spread with a soft cheese and sliced figs on top. In the morning, I may add them to my steel cut oats with some local honey. The easiest and most inexpensive way to enjoy figs by far, though, is by picking up some fig jam. Or, making your own!

Lately, I’ve been inclined to spend time creating when I’m feeling down. Sometimes this means that I knit or write, but today I felt like being in the kitchen. This past week has sputtered along with set-backs and disappointments. I pulled Marisa McClellan’s Food in Jars off of my shelf to see what I could make. My friend, M, had recently hinted that he would be very happy to accept a jar of fig jam so I settled on that particular recipe. I got my large, copper Mauviel preserving pan out and set to work chopping 3 pounds of fruit. The rhythmic, rocking motion of my chef’s knife is soothing and focuses my brain on one and only one thing – not chopping off a finger. It is a welcome distraction from all of the other clutter in my brain. I like Marisa’s canning recipes because you can get everything done, start to finish, in a couple of hours instead of an entire day. I prefer small batch canning because I can whip up 3 or 4 pints of any given recipe which is enough to get me through a season instead of having to be overwhelmed by the dozens of pints that traditional recipes produce. Someday, I will have a pantry lined with rows and rows of preserved foodstuffs, but that’s in the future along with the flock of chickens and small farm I want (another post for another time, perhaps?). For now, I just want something to slather on toast.

Preserving the season’s best produce isn’t the chore that it used to be. I managed to make this 5 pint batch of fig jam while studying Pathophysiology, eating dinner, walking two dogs, and catching up on prime-time season premieres! Start small and make what you like. Soon you’ll have a collection of homemade goodies at the ready for holiday gifts, parties, or even just for spicing up your own breakfast.

On Metamorphosis

Bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage in Ohiopyle State Park. August 2012.

I am sure that the caterpillar can relate. The path to becoming something new is long, a bit messy, and often times a complex process of intertwined efforts.

Somewhere, beneath all of these soft layers that bounce and jiggle, is a person that I am hoping to meet. We really aren’t very different. We are both beautiful and intelligent and wildly funny human beings. This other woman has a bit more confidence, though. And much less need for self-deprecating humor. Mostly, she doesn’t worry about what everyone else thinks when they see her because she is no longer hiding behind her wit and her intelligence, she no longer lives on the offensive in fear of rejection or judgment. She just is. She is the sigh of relief I will let out when I’ve metamorphed out of this pudgy body and into one that is stronger, more powerful, healthy, and happy.

I downloaded a Couch 2 5k application to my iphone. Not so much because I have a desire to complete a 5k, but more because I was getting bored of 40 minutes on any given cardio machine without some sort of goal or purpose. Also, it’s time to get over my fear of running. I am TERRIFIED of running. In my body, it is uncomfortable – my breasts heave painfully with each step, my legs quiver precariously beneath me, my lungs threaten to collapse, and my stomach sends mayday signals to my brain that I just may vomit any second. It’s my body’s way of shouting “NO! STOP! Stop this right this minute before I quit”. All that over 30 seconds of running. The program guides you through alternating sessions of 30 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking, a warm up and cool down period. I was waiting for the endorphins everyone talks about but I only felt them for a fleeting minute or two if at all. I managed to power through the discomfort by channeling my absolute loathing for the body I currently inhabit. Somewhere around the halfway point I even forgot about the other gym members that could very well be snickering about my jiggly bits behind my ample rump. Even though Week 1 Day 1 of the program only lasts for 40 minutes, I wanted to jump for joy when I finished. “Take that, treadmill and chubby thighs!” Then I remembered I still had another half hour of strength training to complete. So I pulled myself together and kept going. Change is intentional – something to be thought about every day, to be lived deliberately. One foot in front of the other, choice upon choice, thousands of beads of sweat until I wriggle out of this chrysalis.

Mile marker 72 – we started here, rode to 82, and made the return trip.

 

The Youghiogheny River viewed from the bridge that connects the bike paths. Those yellow things are white water rafts.

The quintessential view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” – constructed in the late 1930’s over a waterfall. Another reason for the 5 hour drive west.

 

 

Five Years

At the end of May, I attended my 5th college reunion in NYC.

 

Barnard College was a place of incredible growth for me. I fell in love with Manhattan. It was where I developed into an independent individual, learned to navigate a subway system, discovered Anthropology, and came to terms with the fact that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor even though it had been a childhood dream.

I never thought of myself as the type of person to attend renunions, but Barnard throws one heck of a party and it seemed too good to pass up. Barnard has been home to so many amazing women throughout the decades that our reunions seem more like an exclusive A-list event than a staid gathering of old college friends. There are lectures and performances to attend, cocktails on the lawn, fine dining and dancing in the quad, tours of the city we once considered our beloved home, and plenty of photo opportunities.

Cocktails on Lehman Lawn.

 

Milbank Hall where I spent most of my class days.

 

Barnard has been parterning with The Moth for several years now to give alumnae a chance to showcase stories about their experiences at the college. As an avid Moth listener, I submitted a story for review and was thrilled to have it chosen to be part of the event about the Mentors, Monsters, and Muses who shaped our time in college. It was such a privilege to work with one of the producers of the Moth and to learn how to really hone and craft a good, live story. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Barnard gave me to share my story, to overcome a bit of stage fright, and to fulfill a dream I’ve had of participating in a storytelling event.

The weekend also included trips to some of my favorite places in Manhattan like Purl SoHo. I discovered Purl during my sophomore year when I was looking for a good yarn shop in the city. Starting at 116th Street, I would ride the 1 to Times Square to then hop on the N train downtown to Prince Street. It was a trek  to their tiny space next to a French bakery on Sullivan Street, but the cozy shop always made me feel at home – warm and safe and deeply happy – surrounded by all those luscious fibers and saturated colors. Since 2004, Purl has since moved to a larger home on Broome Street to combine their yarn and fabric shops into one joyful, colorful space. I make it a goal to visit every year!

 

 

Liberty of London “Tana Lawn” prints in embroidery hoops

 

 

I can never visit Manhattan without choosing something to see in the theater district. This year, I chose Porgy and Bess knowing that it had received a great many Tony nods. I also couldn’t bear to miss vocal powerhouse, Audra McDonald, as Bess. In my life, theater has always been a way for me to lose myself in song and dance and the tragedy or triumph of the human spirit. Live theater is energizing in a way that movies are not, especially when you are in the third row of the orchestra seating! I’m not much of a stargazer, but I did hang around after the show to collect the autographs of the cast members – even Audra. I may still be on Cloud 9!

Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theater

 

The actor who played “Crown”

 

Me and my mom with Norm Lewis who played “Porgy”

There was also a trip to The Frick Collection on East 70th Street to marvel at the collection of some of the best known European artists. I am especially fond of anything from the court of King Louis’ XVI. Frick also had several of the best works by El Greco – an artist very much overlooked until the 20th century. I got lost in the Roccoco beauty of the Fragonard Room and Boucher murals – all works acquired for Mrs. Frick’s private rooms.

If you are on the East side and you have just been marveling at French masterpieces at The Frick, you must, of course, stop at La Maison Laduree for the finest French macraons. These delicate cookies are a delicious combination of light and flaky meringue with decadently flavorful cream in the middle. The salted caramel and rose are my favorites. At $35 per dozen, though, Laduree macarons are a true luxury.

Macaron trees!

 

Pretty pastels

 

Then, without warning, the weekend is over and it is back to Philadelphia on the train until next year, knowing that time slips by all too quickly and soon I will be back at Barnard for my 10th renunion.