Tuesday, June 28, 2011
What do you serve a group of really special guests for lunch? The four women who came to my house today have been nothing less than extraordinary influences on my writing life. Or maybe I should just say on my life, period.
For almost a decade, we met weekly to talk about writing, to read what we’d written over the previous week, but also commenting, interpreting, suggesting, and praising each other’s work. We had different goals, different needs fulfilled by the writing, and different genres in which we worked. One is a poet, one a short story writer, one a middle-grade novelist and essayist, one a much-published author of romances and young adult novels. And me, the essayist.
Longevity isn’t the only feature that distinguished us from many writing groups. The frequency of our meetings was also unusual, as most writing groups in my experience meet monthly. Being a small group, and meeting that often, we developed an amazing closeness that transcended the writing life and into the rest of our lives. The highs and lows of married life, parenting, professional progress, and mental health in general were often on the table along with our manuscripts.
But after all those years, life intervened, and one by one, we scattered to the winds – or, rather, to Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York City. One lone member is staying put in New Jersey, maintaining our roots, but even she stages periodic escapes to Colorado.
I’ve tried other groups. Even while this New Jersey group was still going strong, I attempted to put together other groups from various writing workshops I attended. But none was so strong or so supportive. In fact, just knowing they’d be here today stirred something in the back of my brain – the need to create, to share that creativity, to hear how it affected others.
So today's lunch had to be special. I started with a cold minted pea soup, a bright green purée so smooth it fairly slips down the throat on its own. The main course was a chicken salad, tweaked a bit to accommodate some members’ dietary needs. But as often happens, the alterations produced a serendipity of flavors that I thought I should share with you.
I accompanied the chicken salad with a batch of Cochineal Drop Biscuits (from my April 28, 2011 posting), and a bright summer fruit salad of watermelon, peaches, and red and yellow New Jersey tomatoes, dressed with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a chiffonade (finely ribboned) of fresh basil. Dessert was sorbet from a local gelateria and amaretto cookies. Yum!
Jersey City Chicken Salad
4 c cooked chicken breasts (about 1½ lb), cut or torn into bite-size pieces
1 c walnuts, toasted (400° for 5 mins)
1 c jicama, cut into ½-inch cubes and sprinkled with juice of ¼ lemon
2 c seedless red grapes, halved
⅜ c (6 Tbl) light mayonnaise
⅜ c (6 Tbl) no-fat yogurt (my yogurt of choice is Fage, which beats all the others I’ve tried in creaminess)
3 Tbl white wine vinegar
2 Tbl finely chopped fresh tarragon
½ tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
[Kitchen Goddess note: I like to cook the chicken breasts all together in the oven – so easy. In a Pyrex dish large enough to hold the breasts in a single layer, sprinkle the chicken with garlic salt and pepper, and top each breast with a sprig of either thyme or parsley and a thin slice of lemon. Cover with foil and bake at 350º for 20 minutes. Uncover the breasts and let cool before you shred them for the salad. Toss the shredded chicken with about ¼ cup of the broth that collects, and save rest for another use.]
In a large bowl, combine the shredded chicken, walnuts, jicama, and grapes. Stir together the mayo, yogurt, wine vinegar, and salt/pepper, and pour it over the salad mixture. Toss until combined well.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
I’m back! And just in time for Father's Day. So in honor of my own dear Dad, I’ve come with a recipe for the best barbecue sauce ever. This is what a loyal daughter does: she declares her father’s barbecue sauce recipe the best ever. Even if he’s no longer around to bask in the glory. But with my own personal bias disclosed, I will still promise that this sauce is pretty damn great.
By most accounts, daughters have their fathers wrapped around their little fingers from Day 1. I am probably no exception. My dad was a great guy who would have done back flips for me if he could have.
Dad defined living large: loving passionately, crying easily, singing loudly off-key, and giving generously, even when he didn’t have much. He grew up on Long Island and in Old Greenwich, but when my mother refused to leave her family in Texas, he adopted the Lone Star State as his own with a zeal you just had to get used to – boots and cowboy hat included. My husband (from Pennsylvania) can still make me laugh with his imitation of the first time he met Dad.
“Hiiiiii, Jeee-um, niiiiiice to meetcha. Ah’m Harry Stokes, and Ah’m from Texas,” he’d say, as the hand pumped up and down for a good 30 seconds.
He was a terrific grandfather to my sons, who remember that he taught them both to ride a bike, and took them to McDonald’s for breakfast where he let them order the Everything Meal and never said a word when they ate a tiny fraction of it.
He taught me some things, too. About loyalty and integrity. That great love is worth working for. That it’s better to embrace the world than to hold it at arm’s length. But most of all he taught me that you must never give up on your children.
Dad was legendary for his skill at the grill, as long as you didn’t mind a bit of char on your meat, because he always started with a BIG fire. For the sauce, he’d mostly rummage around in the pantry, pulling out whatever ingredients he thought sounded good. I had to follow him around the kitchen with a notepad to get this recipe, but it was well worth the trouble. It makes a lot, but keeps well in the refrigerator.
Harry’s Best Barbecue Sauce
1 stick butter
1 medium onion, cut in ½-inch dice
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
8 oz Wish-Bone Oil & Vinegar Dressing (For a slightly sweeter profile, use Wish-Bone Balsamic Vinaigrette)
8 oz Heinz BBQ Sauce (which, for a test, I was unable to find at my grocery store, so I used Jack Daniel’s Master Blend BBQ Sauce)
2 lemons, cut in half and seeded
garlic salt to taste
¼ tsp chili powder
½ tsp cumin
In a large sauce pan, melt the butter and saute the onion 4-5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and saute another minute. Add the salad dressing and the bottled BBQ sauce. Squeeze the lemons into the liquid, then add the lemons themselves to the mix. Bring to a simmer, cover and let simmer 15-20 minutes until the flavors are well combined. Remove the lemon halves.
Use in grilling chicken, pork, and burgers.
Kitchen Goddess note: Dad’s technique with chicken was to dip the pieces into the sauce before putting them on the grill, and to repeat the process when he turned them over. From what I’ve read, this is not a practice that would be adopted by a professional chef. But Dad mostly got raves for his chicken, so who am I to argue with success?