Friday, July 26, 2013

Curried Peppers and Tomatoes on Rice with Grilled Chicken or Cooking in a Time of Grief

There have only been a handful of times in my life when I didn't want to cook.  This is one of them.  For a couple of days, we just ate out or ordered something sent over.   I did send up a big pot of chicken noodle soup to the family, because they wanted it.   I guess we had to eat, but I had no interest in figuring out meals for us or lighting the stove.   After a while we thought we'd better fix something, so Dave grilled some chicken and I rustled up a big pan of vegetable curry.  We ate it on trays in front of the tv watching "The Newsroom," my newest tv crush.

You've all been there sometime (or will be there); someone you love dies suddenly.  Incomprehensibly.  The shock's enough to make you ill.  And you are.  Loss is painful, hurting, ugly, even scary.  Our dear friend Rick Lester died last Saturday biking in the Courage Classic to raise money for Children's Hospital in Aurora.  He had trained, was in good shape, and was ready, willing, and able.  I can't say that we lost him because we don't lose people except for kids in stores; we lose keys, sweaters, wallets.  People--not so much. I'd rather say he crossed the river ahead of us.

                       I Get By With a Little Help from my Friends-- Joe Cocker version

I'm a faithful person; I make a living in a faithful church.  And have for a long time.  But I don't know about this stuff for sure.   I kept having odd thoughts, "Where IS HE?" Fearful crying jags were coming out of the garage where Dave, in a fit of pain, cleaned out, threw out, and scrubbed a place that has been a mess for eons. (It's in perfect order and terribly, sadly clean now.)  And Dave, ever thinking--always smart, said, "He's in Sandy, Alyce."  And I knew Dave was right. He's in Sandy, in the kids, in the old friends, in co-workers,  in Dave and in me.  A bright, shining, maybe exploded star that shared the light. He gave away a lot of himself.

 My reactions were first shock, disbelief (still disbelief), and horror.  Not being able to imagine my friend without her husband or her adult children and grandchildren without their dad and grandpa or Rick's parents without their son.  Next, I began to have flashes of my own life without this great encourager, who could also be cranky and hold a grudge like a precious stone.   He was sure I could do anything and let me know it.  If anyone ever believed in my abilities, it was Rick.  Of course I could cook anything; of course I could write a book.  He'd be one of the recipe testers--and he was.  He tested the chicken noodle soup I call, "I've Got a Spring Cold Chicken Noodle Soup," but which may now earn a new name.  He posted pictures of it around fb, saying it was the best chicken noodle soup he'd ever eaten.  See?

Years ago, when I decided to include the Vivaldi GLORIA in a concert my choir was giving, he was the first to say, "Sure! It'll be great!"  We hired strings from the local symphony, I kept the score and cds near at hand for months, and when the performance day arrived, Rick's comment afterward--delivered with a big hug and kiss-- was, "Incredible, Maestro!"  As Rick spent most of his adult life helping arts organizations, including symphony orchestras, figure out how to promote themselves ("putting fannies in seats," he'd say), he surely had heard a lot better renditions of the Vivaldi and both he and I knew it.  Still, he was there, and he helped make my day. The great encourager.

Emily and me at worship in Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary.
The year my youngest daughter was visiting colleges, he stopped by the choir loft one Sunday with a folder of photos, pamphlets, and fliers labeled, "Drury University."  Not much more than that. We spent the next four years ferrying her back and forth to Springfield,, you guessed it, Drury University. He came to her graduation.  Visited her at Princeton during grad school--which he knew well because his Dr. Mrs. Pastor Sandy received her own Mdiv right there, as well.  You begin to get the picture?

Third from the right and just to my left, Rick was the husband of one of my closest friends (Sandy--on his left--who married my son and his wife in 2002), and the instigator of the wine group pictured above.  Based on the premise  OPEN THAT BOTTLE (Don't let them sit waiting until it's too late...), we planned meals; he planned wine.  I cooked or we all cooked and drank.  We traveled to wineries for tasting (once 120 wines in three days), but Rick was the heart of the adventure, the original bon vivant.  He found the best restaurants, better b+bs, knew the winemakers, and made sure everything was always interesting, fun, and letter perfect for us.  Always dreaming up--coworkers nicknamed him "The Rainmaker"-- the next party ("Why don't we go to France next spring?" was a favorite), he was the consummate glass half-full guy.  In reality, he never wanted a half-full glass; he wanted not too awfully much wine at a time in his glass.  "Small pour, big nose," was his mantra.

The problem with sudden loss is the myriad of empty shots of the future that keep popping up.  Did I know that I hoped for meals, trips, talks for years to come?  Did I plan on mailing my published books to him?  I didn't know I planned on a future that included Rick Lester; I feel sickeningly unaware of my own dreams.  Because, you see, I think it's the future that I'm so very sad about.  I have no regrets (though I turned down  a chance to see him just two days before he died) about the past, except for being too busy.  But that's everyone I know.  Just too busy to see friends often or for very long at a time.  But the future hurts.  The idea of a life without my friend Rick shows events, dinners, holidays, wine tastings, and trips with  big, gaping holes in them.  There will always be an empty chair at my table.  At many tables.

Here we are at Soter Winery--just a glimpse of Rick, at rear, second from right.

Rick's favorite meal was hamburgers and french fries.  He was crazy about ice cream.  Had to ration it (Once, when he, his parents, and Sandy borrowed our house for a couple of weeks during a fire evacuation, I later returned to find no less than 3 or 4 kinds of ice cream stuck away in my little freezer.) He dressed simply in the dark suits needed for work or in plain old jeans and polo shirts or tee-shirts--a button-down oxford if it were an occasion.  He loved The Beatles. And Doctor Mrs. Pastor Sandy, as he called her. He didn't like olives...and could on occasion be selfish.  He read...lots of stuff. He once said to me (couldn't be true--but...), "I read EVERYTHING." Amazing.  (I was sometimes surprised to find he had read many of my posts, for instance.)  He was nuts about his grand kids and was ever in love with and proud of his two children.  Rick wouldn't drink out of a crappy wine glass and he'd drink Oregon wine whenever he could get it. He could be damned picky.  He was a tireless and talented writer, as well as a first-class storyteller. (Ok, some were yarns.)  He grew weary of classical music sometimes and rarely talked work with friends.  While he lived a decent lifestyle (when home, anyway--he traveled more than anyone I know), I don't think  money ever particularly was his thing.  Unless it bought better wine.  Or provided a spot for the kids to watch movies or have a bon fire.  Holidays?  A bigger Thanksgiving every year was likely his goal.  While an accomplished cook (I'll attest to that.), his family tried to keep him out of the kitchen sometimes because he made such a mess.  He dirtied every pot and pan available, they said.  (I watched Rick cook quite neatly many times.  Must have been only for company!)

              Wanting Memories--Cantus

The world is a big empty stage, a vast, unending void without Rick Lester, that Beautiful Dreamer, that lover of Pinot Noir and grandchildren. Nothing can fill it and that hurts my heart literally and figuratively.  The nasty saying goes that some people "suck the air right out of a room."  Rick opened the window and drew fresh air INTO the room. He enlarged the space available and did it all with a great big smile that created light and possibility. We didn't call him Mr. Entertainment for nothing.


My last communication with Rick was a couple of days before the big race. He called to offer some free tickets to a show in Denver and we spoke briefly, talking over one another the way folks do who are in a hurry.  I texted him back to save time (shit) and to let him know we couldn't get up there on Thursday, but also cautioned him to be safe while riding the bike that weekend.  His last communication to me:

                "No worries."
...          ...             ... ... ...           ...           ...         ... ... ... ...        .. .. ...             ... ... ..           ... ...

When I finally cooked, this comfort meal was what we ate:

curried peppers and tomatoes on rice with grilled chicken
serves 4
  • 3 cups cooked jasmine rice, kept warm
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • Crushed red pepper
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, and sliced thinly
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, cored, and sliced thinly
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 3 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 cup cooked thin green beans (haricots verts)
  • 2 tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 2 large grilled chicken breasts, sliced thinly
  • 1/4 cup sliced, toasted almonds

In a large, deep skillet, add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and heat over medium flame. Add onions and peppers and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until softened and tender--about ten minutes.  Stir in garlic, ginger, curry powder, the other two tablespoons of olive oil, and vinegar.  Let cook a minute or two to marry flavors and develop a bit of sauce.  If dry, add a tablespoon or so of water or white wine.  Stir in cooked beans, tomatoes, and grilled chicken slices and warm through for a minute or two.    Spoon curry over rice (3/4 cup per serving) and spoon a bit of sauce on top.  Garnish with a sprinkle of sliced, toasted almonds.
A couple of days after this, I was slicing eggplant:

Rick, whom no one would call an angel, is, I'm sure, flying high and very fast with the brightest and best.
Too soon.  Too soon.

Let me get a hamburger and ice cream post together, my friend,

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Eggplant-Tomato Salad on Mint Rice with Warmed Mozzarella

If you're a loving cook (and most cooks are), you make your loved ones' favorite foods.  In fact, you know that what we love -- or hate-- in some ways defines us.  For instance, I am a chocolate fiend and, if I'm smart, when I'm trying to slim down, I don't even keep it in the house.  I buy a tiny, perfect piece at the grocery check out (50 calories or so) and I eat JUST THAT ONE.

If I want chocolate cake, I make one for a friend's birthday and have a piece.  Perfectly happily.  This one was Roberta's.
Dave's a baseball nut.  My mother-in-law loves peppermint.  My sister-in-law hates green vegetables.  Roberta has a  life-long love affair with the organ--even has one in her house.  Your favorite color is ____.   My boss "never met an egg she didn't like."  Tony's passion is national parks and scotch; I don't know in what order.  Artist friend Dan is nutty about bluegrass and my friend Bud waited long years for his Bosendorfer piano.  My sister Helen adores green beans.  Sue loves the beach and anything lemon.  We know who people are (partly) because of these things. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shop and Chop Pickles: Every Night Now!

It's too warm to do much cooking indoors unless you do it in the wee small hours of the morning.  Lately I'm not up then unless I need to bake and then I start between four and five.  Mostly I throw together fresh vegetable soups in the food processor or get Dave to grill while I whip up a salad or vegetables and dip to go with the vodka tonics. That said, there is the odd exception when I do something like cook up a pot of Turkey Italian Sausage chili mid-summer, which I did yesterday afternoon, an unusually cool day.  Just for grins and change. We still ate it outdoors, as we do nearly every dinner in the summer.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ina Fridays --Desserts and "Other" Recipes -- Eli Zabar's Shortbread Cookies Three Ways

Tiny, fluted, showered in sugar:  "Sparkly, Very Sparkly Stars"
Raspberry Sandwich Cookies
Dipped in Vahlrona chocolate and topped with fleur de sel

These cookies are always on all my cookie trays in one version or another.  Each shortbread cookie is made from the same recipe, but is simply finished differently.  The recipe is Eli Zabar's  (NYC) and I took it straight from Ina Garten, who I guess took it straight from Eli, who, it appears got it from his mother!  My cookies, however, are quite different than Ina's.  Your cookies will be something else as well.  And while these are not terribly innovative or cutting edge, they are terribly delicious.  Addictive, in fact.  Just add coffee.  Just add tea.  Just add sherry.  Just

If you watch Ina regularly, you'll know she talks about Eli Zabar quite often and even has him on the show occasionally.  Eli Zabar's is a store and catering business in the Big Apple; he's a baker; he's a gardener; well just....Check him out here.   Watch Ina cook an Eli Zabar salmon recipe here. 

    These are versatile... 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Fourth of July Berry Cake--Buy a Pound Cake if You Don't Want to Bake

I first posted this recipe in Oct., 2012, but think it's perfect for the 4th, so am reposting.

Just looking at this cake will tell you that it's not difficult to make and it's NOT.  A quick glance at the recipe, however, might put you off.  Don't let it.  There may be a little reading involved, but the cooking and baking are fairly simple and don't take long.  In fact, though it's two layers, you only bake one cake.  After it's cool, you cut it in half.

But listen, if you're not a baker, this is just the cake for you... because you can get away without baking a cake at all!  Just buy a Sara Lee pound cake (or one from your bakery) and cut it into layers--maybe three?--and do a loaf-shaped cake on a pretty rectangular tray.  Follow the rest of the directions for the berries and filling and there you are!   You could also bake a box cake into cupcakes, slice them, put half in a pretty coffee cup and decorate from there.  Whatever you do, this is a beautiful, tasty cake for 4th of July, Easter, Mother's Day, or the Memorial Day picnic.  (Assemble this cake where you're serving it.)  If you don't have a special cake plate, don't worry about it.  Whoever eats this will be happy no matter what.  Next time you run in Good Will, see a funky antique shop or a garage sale,  keep an eye our for great serving pieces.  No need to spend a fortune at the department stores.

Another idea comes from my mother-in-law, who, when I was  a young wife, often made a similar cake using a homemade or store bought angel food cake.  To cut calories, she used Cool Whip, but I can't go that far.   If I'm eating cake I want to eat cake.  Let them eat cake!  But if you really must cut the whipped cream for health or allergy reasons, try the Cool Whip version.