Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cold Soup for Summer and Collections

If I like something, chances are I have it in multiples.

Well, except husbands and kids. I have one of each and that's enough.

But most other things.

If you don't pick up on the collection themes outside, then come inside and you'll see what I mean -- and what I like -- everywhere! I collect what I collect because I like it -- how it looks and how it makes me happy when I see it.

Some of it is useful, of course. I mean besides being so jolly to look at, it has function. 

But then, some of it just sits there and -- well, looks nice -- and that makes me smile. 

That's good because it means all the wrinkles in my face are magically transformed into laugh lines.

Just inside the front door you'll see roosters just sitting around. They don't do much else.

The Prairie Wood welcoming crew
Turn into the living room and you'll see acorns and bird houses and some little boxes.  I like for rooms to sort of have their own theme, but I guess I'm not very strict about that rule.

Oodles of acorns and bunches of boxes
 Continue into the dining room and it's more roosters and chickens.

A new rooster checking out the dining room

Down the hall, peek into the powder room. More acorns and a couple of fancy little chickens. There is also a rotating theme of seasonal guest towels. I'm not sure why the smallest room has multiple themes!

Rooster and summer flower season
Fancy rooster and chicken
Oak leaf and acorn guest towels

OK, try to keep up!

Around the corner and into the kitchen, the collections begin to multiply -- roosters and chickens, crockery bowls and pitchers, vintage Fiestaware, cooking utensils, serving pieces, piebirds, cookbooks ...

Cookbooks as props
My Favorite Husband would like to point out that there are many, many more multiples in the kitchen, but this is not his tour, so just ignore him.

Step on down to the den and there they are -- more roosters, vintage mixing bowls and a few cookbooks. Oh, shucks, you've seen those pictures already -- lots and lots of cookbooks!

Where does all this stuff come from? 

OK, I'll admit it. I do pick up little bits and pieces, here and there. I don't really set out to shop for ... let's say ... roosters. Roosters just happen and before you know it, there's a collection of them.

And here's another great thing about being a collector -- the giftability factor. I have tons of giftability.

An instant collection was tucked inside -- Thanks Anna!
Some of my family and friends like that about me. It is a quality I appreciate in others too.

But there are a few people who say it's difficult to find gifts for me.

I suspect they are not collectors, so they can't possibly understand how it works. They think I already have everything I need. Or they think I have all the roosters -- or whatever -- I could possible want.

To this I say . . . Silly people!

Navajo Rooster from New Mexico
Collections are never finished! And I don't have everything -- yet! Open your eyes next time you visit a collector.

Don't you see all those empty spaces for more roosters . . . or chickens . . .or bowls . . . or cookbooks?

Haven't you noticed that lamps can be elevated to the proper reading height by carefully placed cookbooks -- books that are not only the correct size and proportion, but also have an appropriate theme for the room?

Cookbooks lend a boost to a little lamp
Yes, there are more collections in other rooms, but I won't cover all of those collections today.

I've got to find a place for a new flock of chickens that showed up on my birthday . . . and a birdhouse . . . and a couple of cookbooks . . .

Bird + house
Oh, and this cute little salt & pepper set. A couple of must-haves I found yesterday at Anthill Gallery in Cobden, IL and they span two collections, so I must give careful consideration to their placement. 

Wonder where our roost will be? Dining
The Anthill Gallery is right down the street from Yellow Moon Cafe, where we had a very nice lunch, including a cold cucumber soup that was absolutely delicious.

I also collect recipes, you know, and . . . I'll definitely be searching for that cucumber soup recipe.

I hate to leave you today without passing along a recipe, so here is one of my mother's for a summery chilled zucchini soup. 

Just in case you have a few extra zucchinis hanging around somewhere.

Oh! And if you have a recipe for a Cold Cucumber Soup with yogurt and wine vinegar in it, it might be just what I need. 

Please leave any cold soup recipe in the comments, and good things may come your way.

I wouldn't even mind having a collection of Cold Cucumber Soup recipes!

Too many of a good thing -- impossible!

2 10 ¾-oz. cans of condensed chicken broth
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
2 lbs. (7 cups) zucchini, trimmed and sliced
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup dry sherry
½ tsp. salt
snipped parsley

In a large saucepan, bring broth to boil; add green onions and thyme. Add zucchini and simmer, uncovered, until tender – about 8 minutes. Set aside to cool before blending.

When cooled to room temperature, strain to separate the liquid from zucchini. Pour ½ the liquid and ½ the zucchini into the blender and process until smooth; return blended liquid to saucepan. Repeat with remaining soup and zucchini and add to saucepan.

To the zucchini mixture in the saucepan, add heavy cream, dry sherry and salt. Stir until blended. Refrigerate soup until serving. Garnish with parsley.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Caprese Salad and Forever Friends

 Happy Hour

We had our annual gathering of the clans last weekend.

It has been our summer tradition since moving back home six years ago, and even longer ago than that, now that I think about it.

 Mingle Mingle

My lifelong best friend, Robin, her three sisters, their husbands and all of their kids (grandkids and great-grandkids) come home every summer to spend a few days all together as a family with their parents. Robin has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember -- all the way back to Mrs. Price's nursery school. Our parents have known each other since their college days. 


So, I gather my parents, my brothers, our spouses and most of our kids (grandkids, but no great-grandkids on our side ... yet!) and we get both families together to talk, laugh and share a big family-style dinner together. My best friend and her sisters, with my brothers, and me -- our extended family. And you know, as I sit here working on this post, I realize that next year we really need to take a more organized approach to pictures and do group shots of small family units and all-together family groups.

Pop, friend Bob G. and my brother and grillmaster, Jeff

Spending time together during the summer is a long-standing tradition for us. When we were very young, our parents began taking all of us to SIU Alumni Family Camp at Little Grassy Lake every year. We'd spend a week (or sometimes two!) with twenty, or so, other SIU alumni families living in rustic cabins, eating our meals in an open-air dining hall, hiking through the woods to the community shower houses, drinking well water that tasted like iron and participating in counselor-supervised activities, like arts & crafts, archery, riflery, horseback riding, swimming, canoeing, pontoon boat rides, hayrides and even an annual evening trip to the Giant City Lodge, just for the "older" kids.

 Solar cabins? Basketball? 
Not the Little Grassy camp we remember!

All the kids were assigned to small groups, divided by age, and under the leadership of very capable and entertaining college-kid counselors -- from 8-noon and 1-5 everyday and some evenings -- and that suited us just fine!

A little more mingling.

We were livin' the dream!

Our parents were free to engage in these same activities, on their own, no counselors -- or they were free to do simply nothing!

 Little Grassy Camp #1 Dining Hall - 2009
 Screens are now glass windows  :(

Most of the mothers could be found in the dining hall, all day long, talking and playing cards. Our two mothers, Pat and Marilyn, were queens of the card tables -- and at supervising their children to set tables and fetch the bowls of prepared hot food, three times everyday! Oh yeah, did I mention all the meals were prepared by professional cooks, in a kitchen located at the opposite end of the dining hall -- the end our mothers rarely, if ever, entered.

I guess they were livin' their own dream!

 Is Pat waiting for supper or a deck of cards for Nertz?

Our mutual mission though, kids and parents alike, was to cross paths only at meal times for the whole entire week!

Dan, Matt, Jinn and Brennan

We all loved camp -- kids and parents, alike -- and who wouldn't! No hovering parents, no kids under foot, lots of enthusiastic counselors and all kinds of age-appropriate "dangerous" activities that enticed even the most reluctant kids to join in the fun.  We looked forward to it all year long. It was a special place, suspended in time and devoid of boring routines. A place of ultimate joy and sweet, sweet freedom.

 Essential iron in every gulp!

From my very first year at camp, which was the summer I turned six, all time was measured by how long it was until we would return the following summer. Years later, probably in the middle of a dreary Southern Illinois winter, Robin and I were silently pushing our trays along the high school lunch line when we both turned to face each other at the exact same moment and said, "I can't wait till camp!" The allure was never lost, even as we began to "age out" of needing counselors to lead us around.

 Caitlin, Francis and Dan

Eventually though, the oldest of us kids began to drop out of our family vacations to Little Grassy Alumni Camp. We had summer jobs, summer classes and other obligations that kept us in town. We were old enough to be left alone at home, while the rest of the family traveled those twelve long miles -- to a world far away from home. For us though, that particular coming of age passage was bittersweet. We missed camp then, as we still do to this day.

But since Dean and I have moved back to town, we are so fortunate to have our two families come together for at least one day every summer at Prairie Wood. We talk and laugh and play outside and share a meal together. It's a lot more than just coming home, though, and I know I'm not the only one to think back to those carefree days of Alumni Camp at Little Grassy every year, when Robin and her sisters get together with my brothers and me.   

Our parents are older now, and we "kids" are parents ourselves! Among the 10 of us, we now have 16 kids of our own, and even 1.5 2 grandkids!

 Colin and Evan 

And, already, we see the changes beginning, as members of our family can't always make the trip home. This year we missed Sydney, who stayed home in Virginia to finish a summer course. Gage, Alicia and toddler-Kai also stayed home in Kansas City this year, awaiting the imminent arrival of the newest member of the family. Baby Miles finally showed up just yesterday and we can't wait to see him!

My brother, Tom, and his son, Andrew, haven't made it home from California to join us yet. I suspect it is difficult to trade summer in San Diego for sweltering heat in Southern Illinois, but we are always hopeful they will . . . maybe next year. And, of course, we missed my brother, David, who will always be with us, in spirit and in our favorite stories of camp escapades.

Our little Prairie Wood Pond is just perfect for canoeing.

So now, it is our kids who canoe, fish, swim, play croquet and enjoy time spent outdoors in the company of family. They don't have counselors, of course, but the older ones just naturally look after the younger ones.

And our mothers sit and visit together, still pleased as punch that someone else is preparing the food, serving the meal and cleaning up the kitchen. Sometimes, throughout the rest of the year, they play cards together. I'll just bet they laugh a lot and talk about camp, just like we kids do.

 Grilled salmon, roasted asparagus and 
corn on the cob, and lots of salads!

Yes, it seems we "kids" are still fetching the food from the kitchen and setting it out for our families. No camp cooks here! But we work well together and are delighted to serve the four generations who gather at our tables.

Marilyn and Pat

This year, my brother, Tim, who just moved back to town last fall, wanted an assignment for his first appearance and contribution to our big family supper. Afterall, my brother Jeff always mans the grill, with Dean's help, of course, and Francis can be counted on to shuck corn. Stephen has been known to make a dessert, or help Mother make her enormous batch of potato salad. So I was only too happy to accommodate Tim's request! The girls are in charge, of course, but we are equal-opportunity-in-the-kitchen families!


I asked Tim to bring fresh farmers' market tomatoes and corn. He arrived with two bags full of corn and one bag full of tomatoes -- plus two bonus bags, one of fresh mozzarella and another with enormous bunches of fresh basil! Bonanza!

Tim, the Tomato Man and Pop

Immediately, Sarah began to shuck the corn and some of the other girls began slicing and arranging tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves on a huge white platter -- a colorful visual with an impressive wow factor, for sure! We do all of our own meal prep now, and I guess it's no surprise that I serve as the big bossy cook and kitchen supervisor!

Robin, Sarah and Mary sliced the tomatoes and mozzarella, and then Emily and Caitlin "assisted" Robin in carefully arranging the slices on the platter. Sarah and Mary plucked, washed and dried the basil leaves and then they were tucked between the tomato and cheese slices. And as the finale, Jane came in with her "expert drizzling hand" and splashed the whole platter with a lovely, unfiltered fruity olive oil, some excellent balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, a grind of fresh pepper and a sprinkling of capers.

 Jane dresses the beautiful Caprese Salad - simple pleasure.

I guess this year we answered the age old question, "How many women does it take to make a salad?" Two families and two generations worth -- and we wouldn't have it any other way!

The platter was paraded about for pictures, just to build the excitement a little -- which was probably totally unnecessary. I mean, just look at that platter!

 Caitlin, Emily and Robin display their tempting salad.

Is there anything more beautiful than a huge platter of Caprese Salad? Well maybe just one . . .
forever friends in the kitchen together!

As usual, after supper, we "kids" gathered around a big table -- one big happy family, together again! Our spouses and kids usually sit off to the side, confused and/or content to just watch and listen to us talk about old times. We tell stories and laugh . . . and then repeat it all, over and over again . . . until we cannot laugh anymore!

We will never run out of conversation. We never have for more than fifty years . . . we just jump right into the middle of the next conversation, whenever two of more of us are together.

Some things will never change about us. Thank goodness! We are the happiest kind of family -- one that has come together over a lifetime. We simply cannot remember a time before we knew each other.

We are forever friends -- and friends forever.

Caprese Salad - For Summer Only!
the absolute freshest red, ripe and juicy homegrown tomatoes
fresh mozzarella - don't even make the salad, if you can't get it
fresh leaves of basil
good quality extra virgin olive oil
good quality balsamic vinegar
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
capers - optional

Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella, alternate the slices around a large platter, placing a basil leaf for each pair of tomato and basil slices. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Toss on a few capers, if desired and serve at room temperature.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chicken Salad on Grilled Polenta Rounds

 Poolside at Prairie Wood

A beautiful summer day is reason enough for a late afternoon drink or two by the pool, don't you think? And a drink always goes better with a little something to eat.

Back in March, while visiting our friends, Mike and Libba in Ripley, TN, we enjoyed some delicious hors d'oeuvres, and I was just itching to try my hand at recreating them -- so a tiny poolside party was born.

Mike and Libba served us these very simple, but elegant, grilled polenta rounds topped with chicken salad on the evening we arrived.  We watched as Mike grilled the polenta, sliced from a ready-made and packaged tube.
Mike's version

Since his chicken salad was made ahead of time, I asked how to make it as he plopped it by spoonfuls onto the grilled polenta. Mike is an accomplished man about the kitchen, so he gave me one of those "some of this and some of that" recipes, which rarely comes out the same at home.

The presentation was beautiful and the taste was delightfully light, so I figured if I took a picture, at least I could mimic the appearance, if not the flavors. Besides, I just love taking food pictures!

 Cora's version!

I was optimistic when I set out to make my own, and in this case, I actually was able to capture Mike's delicate chicken salad almost perfectly!

Grilling the polenta was a little more challenging though. Turns out I don't have Mike's patience while waiting for those lovely blackened grill marks to appear. Mine could have been grill-ier, but worked quite nicely, all the same.

Please don't think less of me for the fake potted sunflowers on my table -- it was too early in the season for the real sunflowers and I did mention this was an impromptu gathering, didn't I? Even a quick trip to the grocery for some fresh flowers required more time than I was willing to wait to see if my chicken salad on polenta rounds would turn out well.

Doesn't that cute little plate stand with summery pastel plates more than make up for fake flowers. That, and those itty bitty canning jars with the mini celery strips for the Buffalo Hot Wing Dip! C'mon -- it's as close to a Martha Stewart moment as I'm likely to come on short notice.

boneless chicken breasts
Lawry's seasoned salt
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper to taste
1 tube refrigerated polenta
olive oil
sriracha hot chile sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sprinkle boneless chicken breasts on both sides with Lawry's Seasoned Salt and lay on a baking sheet. Place baking sheet with chicken breasts into oven and bake until just cooked all the way through - internal thermometer should read 165 degrees. Remove from oven and cool. Finely chop chicken breasts or chop on pulse in food processor.

In a small bowl, combine chopped chicken breasts, Herbes de Provence, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste. Add enough mayonnaise to moisten mixture well, but do not use too much, or it will be runny. Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper and more Herbes de Provence, if desired.

Slice polenta into 1/4" rounds. Grill for about 8 - 10 minutes, or until black grill marks begin to show on each side and rounds are slightly crispy. Polenta rounds can also be broiled in oven, until lightly browned and slightly crispy. Remove from grill or oven and cool for a few minutes.

Top each polenta round with a spoonful of chicken salad and garnish with a drop of chile sauce and serve.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Prairie Wood - Six Wonderful Years In The Place We Call Home

Six years ago, on this Fourth of July holiday weekend, in a move that shocked my family, and even surprised us, we signed the papers for the house we now call home.

It was the first time the three of us had been free to choose a place to live, all on our own, simply because it was the right house, in the right place to call home.

We chose to come back to the Heartland, back to Southern Illinois, back to my hometown and back to my family.

It was a really big deal, so we even chose a name for our special new home -- Prairie Wood.

The view down the driveway after the wedding

Never did we ever think we would find everything we wanted in a single house -- including a kitchen, fully equipped and big enough for my cooking classes. A huge dining room for big family holidays. And an outdoor brick oven for baking breads and pizza with family and friends! But we did!

Gail and Jeff making brick oven pizzas

And, certainly, we never imagined that such a house would have a pond, and a pool, and gardens, and a jungle gym, and a playhouse, and a huge detached garage with room for a workshop, and a wine cellar and an unfinished apartment. But it does!

Cocktails beside the pool, ceremony on the dock just beyond the reception tent

And if we had ever allowed ourselves to think all of this existed in one property, we would have been absolutely certain that such a place would be beyond the farthest reaches of our budget and we would never be able to afford it. But we did!

The Prairie Wood Guest House is just for little visitors who like to play house
And never, in our wildest dreams, did we think we would find such a house, on 10.5 acres, in a heavily wooded setting with regular visitors like wild turkeys and chipmunks and deer and foxes and horses and possums and raccoons and coyotes -- in a real neighborhood. But we did!

Wild turkeys were plentiful this year

And, as unbelievable as all of this sounds . . . and it still sounds unbelievable to us! . . . the most amazing thing about the whole move into this house of our dreams has been . . . our neighbors.

The neighbors at Grant & Kristen's wedding

Six years ago this month, people we did not know, welcomed us to their neighborhood with open arms, warm hospitality and enormous generosity.

Gail and Megan canoeing on Prairie Wood Pond

They allowed our gigantic moving van to drive on their perfect lawns to make the nearly impossible turn from our narrow country lane into our driveway.

Joey and Kristiana fish from the dock

They showed up -- before we could ask, and at just the right moment -- with a chainsaw to cut limbs from our trees to allow the moving van to get all the way up the driveway to our house. Did I mention the 10.5 acres is heavily wooded?

A group of friends, neighbors and family enjoy some brick oven pizza

And that was just the beginning!

The neighborhood visits a winery for a little music and local wine
Since then they have always been there when we needed them and . . . 

Across the herb garden to the rose garden and the fountain
  • helped us prepare our lawn and gardens for Grant and Kristen's wedding on our dock and in a big tent on our lawn,

Grant and Kristen - 5-24-08
  • invited us over to dinner and out to dinner,
Alaska Salmon dinner at Dan & Dianna's
  • served late afternoon drinks and sunset views in the Martini Lounge, the new backyard open-air lodge, and the best bug-free-screened-in porch around,
Jim and Becky, our hosts at the neighborhood Martini Lounge
  • shown us every out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place to find the best fried chicken, fried fish and barbecue ribs, 
Dinner with the neighbors at Trail's End Lodge
  • looked out for my welfare when I was home alone,
Derecho devastation 5-8-09 - I've seen coastal hurricanes cause less damage
  • shared honey from their backyard beehives,
Dan, the neighborhood's first beekeeper
  • included me in a great group of women who meet monthly for dinner,
Birthday Club gets a pizza making lesson - they passed with flying colors!
  • shared their homegrown bounty -- fresh asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, flowers and anything else that grows in their lovely gardens,
Summertime supper under Jim & Becky's grape arbor
  • and introduced us to all the people and places who had just what we needed, when we needed them most.
    Snowplows, something we never saw in our neighborhoods in TX, CA, NC, LA or GA, even though we had snow in all those places!

    And now, these dear friends -- who all share our love of growing, preparing, seeking out and eating good food -- have turned into the most generous supporters of my food column and my blog, in a way that fills my tummy, inspires my writing and warms my heart with the countless ways they help me discover new things about food, family and friends in my own hometown.

    Kenny & Phyllis baked this blackberry pie for Fourth of July

    Like this blackberry pie that Kenny and Phyllis made today.

    Actually, I think Kenny made it, but Phyllis is the one who called, in the middle of preparing for the first weekend of their big family reunion festivities -- the second half of the family comes next weekend.

    She said the blackberry pie had turned out to be quite nice and offered to photograph it for me. They know that I'm always on the lookout for good food and good food photos. The pie recipe, if they even used one, will come later. Their family is big and this pie is not for me.  Well, not to eat anyway.

    But that didn't keep them from taking four different pictures of it this morning . . . with four different background set-ups . . . just for me! Not only are they great cooks, but now they are food stylists too!

    A corner of my kitchen
    There were hundreds of reasons we wanted to buy this house, and thousands of reasons why we love it.

    The pool house/brick oven baking house
    g prize of finding our dream home, came six door prizes . . . six wonderful friends.

    A full house at the Martini Lounge

    So, to our neighbors . . .  Phyllis and Kenny, who wield chainsaws and bake pies . . . and Becky and Jim, generous hosts of the neighborhood Martini Lounge on their gorgeous lawn . . .  and Dianna and Dan, who will drop everything to go anywhere at anytime, just for a foodie adventure . . . thanks again for your warm welcome, your hospitality and your friendship!

    Dean on the deck
    Happy Sixth Anniversary to Prairie Wood
    Happy Fourth of July to the USA!

    Home again, home again ... it is so good to call this place home