Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Comforting Foods of Fall

The other day, I spent a rare peaceful moment reading on our front porch swing, inhaling deep breaths of warm autumn air and mourning the loss of summer. Fall can be a lovely time in Minnesota, but hiding just behind the smell of wet leaves are sharp icy winds, so I can never quite leap onto the autumn bandwagon.

My husband, however, is a creature of fall. He eagerly anticipates the resurrection of his sweaters and the recollection of early October mornings spent on the North Shore of Lake Superior. But most of all, he loves the reappearance of fall foods. 

Ingredients are seasonal, as you might expect. The cycles of growth and weather ensure that the watermelons we eat in excess in the summer are far superior to those we might find on a grocery store's bottom shelf in the winter. Restaurants take seasonal ingredients into account when changing menus, to fit both availability and mood; I am always relieved when berries and heirloom tomatoes appear on menus after months of silence.

But Chef Matt's attachment is largely to the ingredients of autumn, foods that defy the image of dying crops and weakening sunshine: apples, sweet potatoes, wild mushrooms, pumpkins, squash, beets, cranberries. Such foods are wonderful in their stamina and subtlety. A sweet potato can hold its ground paired with something as delicate as a cream sauce or something as hearty as peppercorn-crusted steak, without disappearing under either. And apples, so fine alone, are equally beautiful in a pie or garnishing a pork loin. 

I feel as if fall foods are Mother Nature's way of shouting at us, "Wait! Wait! I'm not done yet. See what else I have before you turn in for the winter!" Summer foods are abundant and brash and sweet, and winter foods unleash survival instincts in the way that they stick to our bones. The produce of autumn settles neatly in between. 

My preference is generally for the foods of summer, but I see the allure of the fall harvest.  Butternut squash ravioli and pumpkin pie are cozy and comforting, and as the days cool, there are few things more healing than a cup of hot cider. If I must endure fall on the way back to summer, I shall at least eat well on the journey. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mouse in the Kitchen, Girl on the Counter

As a rule, I try not to dwell on the aloneness that comes with being a Kitchen Widow; it only frustrates me and makes Chef Matt feel guilty. But try as I might to rise above the frustration and the occasional dip into self-pity, I do have nights that stretch on forever or nights where every minute is filled with some sort of near-catastrophe that is impossible for two hands but would be manageable with four. 

These nights test my stamina as a Kitchen Widow. Mostly, I do all right: the kids always get fed, bathed, read to, pajama-ed, and tucked in. If it is sometimes 10:00 before the toddler actually stays in bed, so be it. But I had a moment tonight that brought me to the edge of my tolerance for the aloneness, a moment when I briefly considered asking Matt if he knew of any cooking jobs with bankers' hours, and it had nothing to do with our kids and everything to do with a small brown rodent that scurried past my feet as I was starting dinner.

I am the cliche when it comes to mice. At the first sight or sound or sign of a mouse, I am perched on furniture and leaping from chair to chair to avoid the miniscule possibility that I might come in contact with the critter as it runs past. Usually, Matt is home to reassure me that my cowardice is unfounded, and he charges bravely in, armed with traps, to save his damsel in distress.

Tonight, our baby was in his high chair and our daughter playing outside when I spied the mouse and immediately took a flying leap onto our center island, where I sat for ten minutes, formulating a plan. I stared at the corner where the mouse had fled, and while tossing baby treats at our son to keep him happy, I snatched up our Swiffer and advanced on the corner. For me, this constitutes the height of bravery. 

The mouse reappeared twice, both times sending me back up onto the island, and tried to get out the back door. Finally, I opened the back door wide, still blindly throwing snacks at my poor baby, and waited for him to try one more time to get out. I did not want to use the Swiffer as a weapon if the mouse went anywhere but outside, but I steeled myself nonetheless. Finally, after 30 minutes of my glaring at the corner and calming a fluttering heart, the mouse snuck out the back door, and I slammed it shut behind him. 

The great casualty in all this was the lovely dinner I had planned. There was no way I was going to mash potatoes and saute mushrooms, when such inattentiveness might allow the mouse to escape to another part of the house. Instead, I threw a frozen pizza in the oven without ever taking my eyes off the corner. Thoroughly tweaked out, I hauled the kids upstairs immediately after dinner, where we hid the rest of the evening. 

It may seem illogical that I felt the aloneness more acutely tonight with the appearance of a mouse than I do when handling the necessities of home and family by myself. But I think it is merely an issue of practice. I handle the solitary feeding/cleaning/bathing just fine alone because I do it almost every day. If I had to combat mice every day, I might be less of a shrieking little girl. As it is, I'll just let Matt handle it, by himself, when he gets home. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blessed are the Messy Children at Dinner

A few years ago, there was a television commerical that depicted a couple gazing at each other over a quiet, romantic dinner. Then the camera panned out and showed screaming children throwing food and running amok, sandwiching the couple and their amorous moment in a circus of mealtime chaos.

Sometimes, when I glance at my husband across the table, I get lost in a cloudy dream sequence where it is just me and him and a beautiful osso bucco. It is only when a baby sneeze showers rice cereal into my hair that I am jerked back into the reality of dinnertime with children.

I have occasional flashes of our brief life together before children: leisurely meals that took hours to prepare; leaning against a kitchen counter, talking, with a bottomless glass of wine; spontaneous walks to the pub down the street; long evenings at dimly lit restaurants. We ate without curfews or timelines or interruptions, without pauses to cut chicken into chewable pieces or squish bananas into a texture appropriate for a mouth with four teeth. It was an unknowingly selfish time, and I admit that there are days that I long for such quiet, singular meals.

Our house is certainly quiet now, at times, but the silence of sleeping children still pulses with life and the potential for noise, in a way that our two-person home never did. But I know that someday, when our house is once again the living space of just Chef Matt and myself, I will long for the dinners with loud, messy kids. I will recall the merry-go-round of child-feeding -- one parent spoons cereal with the other argues the case for vegetables -- and will certainly miss the sticky fingers and the early victories with silverware and the surprisingly sweet way that babies chew.

I do love occasionally having Matt all to myself, eating without having to cajole or scrub food out of little eyebrows, but a dinner table with laughing, yelling, chattering children is a profound joy that we could never have imagined while sitting alone, in candlelight and stillness. We were missing out, but did not know it yet.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Great Minnesota Eat-Deep-Fried-Foods-Together

Early on a Thursday morning in late August, as the sun rises over a muggy Twin Cities, a slumbering animal comes to life on 320 acres in St. Paul. Crowds wait outside entrance gates to be the first ones to view the largest pumpkins, witness the birth of lambs and calves, navigate the wares, and be endlessly entertained.

The mass of humanity that pulses up and down the streets for 12 days, rain or shine or oppressive heat, comes to the Minnesota State Fair for any number of reasons, but chief among those is to answer the most pressing question of all: How much deep-fried food can I consume in one day?

Chef Matt and I only attend the State Fair every other year, partly because of the price tag and partly because the consumption of so much fair food makes my heart stop a little in protest. We love fair food, which is best eaten while sitting on a curb somewhere, engaged in the best people-watching of the year, but after one particularly ugly fair-food binge a few years ago (and the harsh realization that alas, we are no longer 18), we have trimmed our fair fare to a highlight reel.

There are three non-negotiables on our list: corn dogs, roasted sweet corn, and Sweet Martha's cookies. Corn dogs, that quintessential fair food, are best when the fried batter is still hot and chewy, drizzled with mustard that inevitably lands on your shirt, shorts and shoes. The roasted corn, plunged into hot butter, is nothing less than a Midwestern confection. And Sweet Martha's cookies, always our final stop and always eaten with cold milk, are warm and gooey and piled impossibly high in a cone cup, or even better, served by the dozens in a bucket.

Aside from the Big Three, we vary our food choices to hit a solid representation of the fair's offerings. We have eaten, at various times, deep-fried pickles, hot dish on a stick, spaghetti and meatballs on a stick, mini donuts, deep-fried risotto balls, Australian battered potatoes with ranch and cheese sauce, and cheese curds. The infinity of food at the fair and our flexible list of snack requirements are all part of the fun for us biennial visitors: will we eat alligator on a stick in 2012? deep-fried candy bars in 2014?

The State Fair is, at worst, a strain on your wallet and your arteries. At best, it is a jolly 12-day block party where all diets are shelved, no one can stop comparing foods consumed, and the food groups descend into two categories: fried and not fried. But leave your food guilt at the door, Minnesotans, and eat a deep-fried pickle in the alternate reality that is the State Fair, where there is no shame attached to eating cookies out of a bucket. Such blissful freedom won't be back for 353 days.