Of Snow Storms and Fitness and Cookies, Still Warm

 

Soup

When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads.  I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.

At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather.  She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.

I feed her.  I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants.  I start a pot of soup.

The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it  goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for.  Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto.  And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.

Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.

Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us.  She demonstrates good stuff to us.

At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition.  We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.

We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.

Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.

So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share.  Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator.  We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs.  For the first circuit, anyway.  We elevate our heart rates.

Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals:  increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week.  I’ll start, also,  practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.

I am determined. I am committed.

I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.

The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar.  The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.

By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there.  They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner.  By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread.  It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup.  I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.

Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and  chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.

She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often.  But we always had baked goods.  The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.

No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us.  A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.

That’s especially true, I think,  on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals.  I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house.  The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.

She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts.  Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.

“These are GOOD,” they say.  I try one, too, and I agree.

Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary.  The wind picks up.  Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges.  This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.

I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain.  I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry.  I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.

Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm,  is satisfied.  Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing.  But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar.  My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.

Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building.  I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.

PB Cookies

 

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Hashing it Out With Loolie

Hash and a side of green beans...
Hash and a side of green beans…

Searching through the little chest freezer for the package of boneless chicken I know is nestled somewhere down near the bottom, I dredge up a meaty hambone.  Hmm, I think: what can I do with that?

Upstairs, I pull my Joy of Cooking off the shelf and find the recipe for black bean soup; it makes a rich and tangy, wonderful pot of comfort, using a ham hock as inspiration.    I bookmark it.

That evening, Jim fixes the chicken for us with a cheesy pasta side–yum.

The next morning I wake up to my phone bouncing and burbling: the College is on a three hour delay.  I sip my coffee and watch the gentle, inexorable snow, and I think it’s a perfect morning for throwing together a big batch of hearty soup.  Soon, I’m at the counter, happily chopping celery and onion and carrots.  The little dog smells the hambone waiting in its tupperware at my elbow; she comes out and sits next to my left ankle, snout pointing up to the counter, hoping.

The veggies go into the hot olive oil in the pot; the rich smell swirls as I start to cut the ham from the hock, and a memory, floating above my noggin, finds an opening and seeps into my head.

This is just like that time Loolie came, unexpectedly, to visit, I think.

That was a Saturday, and I was up early making black bean soup that day, too.  The veggies were sweating in the pot–the aroma woke Jim up.  He floated downstairs–Damn! If he didn’t remind me of a cartoon character buoyed on curly, misty lines of scent!–and said, “Mom! What smells so good?”

Then he looked in the pot and said, with deep disappointment, “Oh. Veggies.” He went into the family room, dragged the Book Woman blanket off the lounge chair, and wrapped himself up on the love seat. He was snoring within minutes.

I went happily back to my chopping. And then, just like today, my phone started to burble and bounce on the counter.

That time, though, it was Loolie.

She was, she informed me, marooned at the Columbus airport, unable to get her connector flight to Chicago, so she could fly from there to Montana, where her sister Jules lives.

“This is so frustrating!” she bellowed.  “There’s no chance I can get a flight before tomorrow morning.  They said they’d get me a room in the airport hotel, but what would I DO all day?”

I grinned, thinking of Loolie, that high-pitched bundle of energy, ping-ing from wall to wall in a tastefully tiny executive hotel room.  “Absolutely NOT,” I told her; “you’re coming here.  Do you want Mark to pick you up?”

I could hear huge relief in her voice.  No, she said, she’d get the airline to rent her a car instead of springing for the room.  She’d see us in a couple of hours.

By the time she arrived, just before eleven, the soup was doing a long slow simmer, and the house was awake.  I had the vacuuming done, the sofa bed pulled out and made up, and the living room closed off and turned into guest space. One load of laundry was chunking around the dryer; another, splooshing in the wash. Mark and Jim had gone out to pick up a few things, food-wise; the dog had been walked.  I was ready for Loolie when she gusted in.

We took big mugs of coffee to the dining room table, and she told me her tale of woe–how her 45 minute layover in Columbus turned into an overnight stay.  She was on her way to Jules’ house because Jules’ oldest son, Trevor, was getting married in the spring, and the bridal shower was that Sunday.

“Looks like,” she said bitterly, “the best I can hope for is to get there about two hours after it’s finished.”  She sighed a heavy sigh.

Then she shook it off, just like that.

“Oh, well!” she said.  “This way I’ll get to visit with my sister for a week without having to help her cook for the shower.” She grinned wickedly, delighted at her unexpected reprieve. “AND I get a nice long visit with you! Hey, this isn’t such a bad deal after all!”

By the time Mark and Jim came back in, Loolie’s ordeal had turned into her adventure.  She enveloped the boyos with great big hugs; she helped them unpack their bags–“Ummmm! What is this?” she demanded, pulling out the crusty loaf of sliced french bread Mark picked up at Giacomo’s.  Jim opened it up and grabbed a slice for himself and a slice for Loolie; they ate it like candy, like potato chips: no butter, straight from the bag, marveling and ‘ahhhhhhing’ at its goodness.

“Save some to go with the soup!” I reminded them.  Jim ran down to get a frozen pizza to pop in the oven for his own, non-vegetative, lunch.

While I putzed around getting lunch ready, Mark and Jim re-connected with Loolie, whom–since I usually visited when I was traveling solo,–they didn’t often get to see.  It was fun to listen as I chopped the ham into tiny morsels and stirred them into the rich, fragrant soup–fun to watch them all spreading the past year out on the table like a funny, lumpy hand of cards, picking out things of interest and delight to snatch up and examine.  By the time I brought big bowls of steaming soup to the table, garnished with little rings of green onion, they were caught up and comfortable.

We sat and ate the soup–we actually each had two big bowlsful; it was tangy and good, pure comfort food. Jim chowed down on his pizza. We watched as the blue winter sky clouded over and the snow began, first gentle, then fierce.  Loolie sighed with satisfaction.

“I am so glad you were home! I was afraid you’d have meetings or plans or visits scheduled,” she said.  “This is so NICE.”

“After lunch,” said Jim, “Aunt Loolie and I are going to watch Star Wars.  You want to join us, Mom?”

“And I’m making dinner,” said Loolie firmly.  “This was a wonderful lunch, and you’ve cooked enough for the day.  James, you’re making dessert, okay?”

Jim saluted.  “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!” he said smartly.

We finished our soup, mopping up the final remainders of the rich broth with the good bread, and everyone crowded into my tiny kitchen to clear away the mess.

“I’ll get the movie ready!” Jim said, and he slipped out of the chaos to the family room. The kitchen sparkled in ten minutes, and we grabbed comfy seats in front of the TV, dragging in the big round ottoman so the love-seat-sitters had a place to park their feet. I sat in the plaid chair; I pulled the old foot rest closer, and I grabbed my knitting–a scarf I was making from scraps for a vibrant young colleague who shared a passion for repurposing.  The uplifting, regal Star Wars music filled the family room, and we settled in.

The snow fell, the beloved old movie played, the knitting slipped from my fingers.  I surfaced a couple of times–once to hear Loolie say, gleefully, “See? See? Han steps right on Jabba’s tail!” Jim launched into some back-story he knows about that particular scene and I drifted away again, waking to the distinctive music and the final credits rolling out on the TV screen.

“Oh, my gosh! What a hostess, eh?” I said, and we all laughed, and then somehow,–I think it was Loolie who suggested it–we were all bundling up to go outside and conquer the snow.  We divvied up the push brooms and the snow shovels, and the four of us, hooting, a few snowballs flying here and there, cleared the driveway and the front walk, the back steps, and the paths from the carport to the front door. The snow had gentled down; the neighborhood was hushed and lovely.

And we, we realized, were getting hungry again. It was 6:00. Loolie took charge.

“How are we on beer?” she asked, and she sent Mark and me off to the Wine Rak with clear instructions on what to buy.

“Can I use anything I find in here?” she asked as we were leaving.  Her nose was deep into my freezer.

“Sure,” I said.  “And Jim will help you find anything you need in the cupboard.”

James, gathering the ingredients to make a brownie mix, nodded in agreement.

Mark and I went out; we got the Sam Adams; we came home to find a merry mess in the kitchen.

Jim had his IMac on the little glass table; an episode of “How I Met Your Mother Was Playing,” and he and Loolie were roaring at something Barney Stinson said.  The rich smell of brownies baking perfumed the air.    My counters were covered with potatoes in various stages of undress, chopped onion, garlic bulbs, and some cooked, indeterminate meat Loolie had plucked from the freezer.  The microwave was churgalating merrily. The little dog was everywhere, hoping for free-fall, as Loolie chopped, chopped, chopped.

She whirled as we came in, brandishing the serious knife I bought at the College bookstore, a knife recommended by and intended for the culinary arts program.

“You two,” said Loolie, happily in her element (which is to say, in charge), “grab a beer and go sit in the family room.  James and I have things under control. I am making,” she added, “HASH.”

“Hash!” said Mark reverently; he believes it is one of nature’s perfect foods.

“Hash?” I said questioningly.  “I’ve never MADE hash. I’ve only OPENED hash.”

“Oh, honey,” said Loolie, brightly, “you ain’t lived, then. You just wait.”

With only a tiny jot of guilt–Loolie LIKES to be busy; she has, we often joked, two speeds: high, and asleep; she is NOT your typical guest–Mark and I settled into the cozy chairs in front of the set and found an old episode of “Salvage Dogs”.  Loolie poked her head in once.

“Do you still get,” she asked, “those wonderful eggs from your buddy Heather at work?”

I assured her that we did.

“Yes!” said Loolie, triumphant, as she whirled back to the kitchen.  More pans clattered, and I envisioned my entire shelf of pots and pans denuded, each pot coated with dregs of some concoction or other and flung haphazardly around the kitchen.

“Hash and eggs,” said Mark dreamily.

My first taste of home-made hash was a revelation.  Loolie had diced potatoes and onion and garlic; she had chopped up the meat, which we theorized was a chunk of leftover pot roast. She had stood at the stove and stirred and sauteed, stirred and sauteed, until flavors blended and shared their secrets with each other.  She stirred in the broth she’d microwaved; she poached eggs.  She took out the thick and sturdy Fiori-ware plates and put a steaming scoop of hash on each, topped with a perfectly cooked egg. She seated us at the dining room table, and insisted on bringing our plates to us.

Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet...
Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet…

As she served she sang, a riff on Sting’s “Fields of Gold”:

You’ll remember me when I serve you HASH
with EGGS from HENS of
HEATHER!

You will sigh with JOY
when you cut inTO
those eggs with yolks of GOLD!

The song might have been boisterously off-key, but the meal was so GOOD.  I thought Mark would float away from the table, he was so uplifted. The hash was perfectly cooked, a little bit crusty, tender and savory.  The fresh eggs DID have yolks of gold, and the flavors were perfect together.  We had our first helpings with egg–vegophobe James had a sandwich–and then we divvied up the rest of the hash in the pan and ate every single morsel, scraping the crust off the cast iron skillet with forks and fighting, to the little dog’s dismay and disgust, over the tiniest remaining shard.

Mark and I cleared away the preparation mess; we ate Jim’s brownies, still warm, with scoops of ice cream (CHURNED ice cream, I consoled myself guiltily, after a day of rich eating–only half the fat) drizzled with Hershey’s syrup.  I poured coffee for Loolie and me; Mark and Jim steeped themselves mugs of tea and hot cocoa; we pulled out the playing cards from the sideboard and dug around for nickels.  We played game after game of ‘skat’–uproarious games that elicited groans of dismay and crows of delight, and that ended–no surprise–with Loolie heavier by a hefty stash of coinage.  Then, realizing that Loolie’s flight could require an early morning departure, we bundled everyone off to bed.

We were up by 6:00 AM, and that was good, because Loolie called and found she needed to be back at the airport by 10:00.  She packed up quickly, expertly; she ate a fast breakfast of bran flakes, gave us all big hugs, and was gone like the whirlwind she is.

She called me a couple of weeks later, and she said she and Jules had a great visit.  Loolie loved meeting Trevor’s intended, a feisty young woman named Amy who volunteered as a ski guide when she wasn’t working as a CPA.  Loolie and Jules cooked up a storm together and went to all the local sites and had a big family dinner to make up for the beloved faces Loolie missed seeing at the shower.  It all, she told me happily, turned out GOOD.

Things have a way of doing that when Loolie is involved, I thought.  And now, as I slice the ham from the hock, getting it ready to go into the pot, I muse about visits with Loolie: they always yield unexpected gifts, surprising dividends.  Homemade hash has become one of our family staples–I begged Loolie for her recipe, but she could only natter about a hint of this, a pinch of that, and what’s in your freezer and your pantry? That’s a little loosey-goosey for me, I’m afraid–I need structure, instructions,–so I start with the Joy of Cooking method (here’s a link to their ‘Farmers’ Market Hash’ recipe: http://www.thejoykitchen.com/recipe/farmers-market-hash) and give myself free reign to improvise.  Hash is a warm and comforting Saturday night supper, and the memories it evokes of a visit from the Whirlwind make it taste even better.

The soup is simmering; it’s starting to perfume the house, and Jim, once again, drifts downward, following the good smell.  The snow has stopped; in 90 minutes or so, I’ll head off to work.  For dinner, we’ll cook up a big pot of rice and scoop the black bean soup over the top; we’ll tear apart slices of Giacomo’s french bread and mop up the last remains of rich broth.  Jim will eat his pizza, and we’ll reminisce about the time that Loolie got stuck in Columbus.

Mark will mention how good some hash would be; Jim will say how impressive Loolie’s Star Wars knowledge is; I will think to myself that travel season is coming upon us. Time to think ahead, maybe planning a visit with Loolie, to connect with her and Kerri and  some of our high school buddies–a time to recharge  and revitalize.

And to, maybe, discover a new recipe.  Spring is coming.  I can’t wait!