Magic-Chefmouse.jpg"We'll buy something just as great when we settle in New Mexico," my husband promised.

Famous last words.

Our rental house had an old gas stove that burned propane like it was breathing air.  The landlady suggested we blow out the pilot light when we weren't actively cooking.  Well, that takes effort, and we forgot, until one cold morning I went to light the stove and nothing happened.  It was December, the propane tank was empty, and that day we learned how much extra it cost to have it filled the same day.  After something costs you an unreasonable amount, there's resentment.  I made raspberry jelly on that stove, and lemon tarts my friend Judi keeps asking for, but there was never a bond between that stove and me.  I was not surprised when the new renters moved their own stove in and left the propane sucker in the garage.

Then we bought this house, a place we hope to stay for many years.  M.C. (Magic Chef), the electric stove that came with the place, I barely gave a second glance.  The first thing we planned to do was replace M.C. with gas.  I had visions of vintage stoves, double ovens, custom colors, of bread coming out of the oven with crusty brown top, of potatoes roasted in olive oil and sprinkled with Kosher salt and springs of rosemary, of my first Thanksgiving dinner turkey when my son came through on his way to his R.N. residency in Kentucky.   

Alas.  To my dismay, we learned that to pipe gas to the house would cost more than it would have to move Vi King over international waters.  Sometimes you have to try to love things.  I cleaned M.C. up and dove right in to cooking electric.  In high altitudes it takes longer for things to boil.  Recipes must be adjusted, extended, and for every success there are ten failures.  I began buying double the ingredients for whatever I planned on making so I could throw away the mistake and proudly serve the success.

Then came the mouse.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, we live on a prairie.  Endemic to prairies are prairie dogs, mice, packrats, rabbits, coyotes, and so on.  Well, our house had been empty for a while, and it was over thirty years old.  There were gaps in places where the stucco meets the earth.  Mice can squeeze through envelope-thin spaces, and apparently had a regular route into the kitchen.  Picture the cartoon woman standing on a chair screaming, "Eek!"  and you have me learning that mice were in my kitchen.  I plugged steel wool in holes, wiped the counters down with bleach, never left a crumb of food out, and set humane traps.

One night I got up in the dark for a glass of water.  I walked into the kitchen, switched on the light and there, on top of M.C., was a mouse.  When I screamed, it jumped, and then it DISAPPEARED DOWN THE HOLE FOR THE ELECTRIC CONNECTION TO THE BURNER.  The mouse was not only in my kitchen, it was IN M.C., which never again stood for "Magic Chef," but rather, "Mouse Central."  My husband vowed that more humane traps would take care of things, and he even went so far as to relocate the mice to a remote area--how he still loves me after all these years is a mystery--but part of me will always see that little gray body slipping into the burner hole, headed God knows where.     

Yet my issues with M.C. go deeper.

M.C.'s logo features a round body in a classy black tuxedo, like the maitre d of a fine French bistro.  He and his puffy little hat mock me daily.  Set M.C. at 425 to make a cherry pie, and he heats up to 425 in about ten minutes.  In goes the pie, and off I go to write or play with the dogs or read a book.  But when I return, M.C. will have turned himself up to 500.  HIS DIAL ACTUALLY TURNS BY ITSELF.  He scoffs at my curses.  I tell him, "First royalty check I get you're gone, dude."

Please buy more books because I'm still waiting.

Meanwhile, if I want my recipe to come out right, I have to babysit M.C.

But twice in my life, I had the best, though at the time I didn't appreciate it.  Wisdom isApplePieImage.jpg reaped in retrospect, something my mom taught me by example.  Since man discovered fire, so much good in life has taken place around the hearth that one should not be engaged in battle with a stove.  On a snowy day like today, the sight of steam escaping the simmering soup pot, or the smell of gingerbread baking, or the aromatic steam of slow roasted elephant garlic coming out of the foil tent draws my husband into the kitchen.  

"Hey, Good Lookin'," he says.  "What'cha got cookin'?"

May all the stoves that served us arrive at the appliance corral, and catch the attention of someone like my mom.  Meanwhile, I'm saving my pennies and checking Craig's List.  I know my new lover is out there somewhere, waiting.

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of nine novels, most recently, The Owl & Moon Café. In Fall 2010, Bloomsbury U.S.A. and U.K. will publish Solomon's Oak, her new novel.  She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and five dogs, where she is at work on a new novel.  

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gas burner.jpgI've had better.  Twice.

My first, best stove was a vintage, four-burner gas with a chrome griddle, two ovens and a broiler.  The top shelf folded down to cover the burners in sleek white enamel with a few character-inducing chips.  Vin T., I called him.  His stove innards were that deep cobalt porcelain with the white speckles.  So what if he had to be cleaned by hand?  I was twenty-three years old and thought I knew everything.  Decades later, I realize that Vin T. came into my life thanks to my mother's fearlessness.  She found him for me at a used appliance store in the heart of Santa Ana, California, back when gangs were new and terrifying and women didn't go such places alone.

Imagine her: five-foot nothing, ninety pounds, walking around the appliance corral andGas-Range ad.jpg choosing Vin T.  Until recently, her world had been easy.  She had just moved into the custom built home she and my dad planned and worked toward for years.   But only two years later, he suddenly died of a heart attack.  He wasn't even fifty.  Of all the things my mother could have been doing, she chose to venture out and find me a vintage stove.  I learned to cook on Vin T.  Bread never failed to rise in his always-warm oven thanks to his pilot light.  

Pilot light:  a metaphor lost to history, thanks to the Energy Star appliances we're encouraged to buy.  But there's something about it I miss.  Like an ember in the woodstove, banked against the cold.  The tiniest stoke brings back fire, and fire is life, comfort, and a necessity.
We foolishly left Vin T. with the first house we owned when we moved to the ranch style tract home we'd live in for twenty-five years.  When the first house fell out of escrow, I suggested we go back and steal Vin T., but by then I had a new stove, and I talked myself into believing it was a better deal all around.  Over the years I've thought about Vin T. many times.  He was the Appaloosa horse of stoves, sturdy and uncomplaining.  I hope he's still making somebody Sunday pancakes.

The cookers between Vintage and the Viking don't bear remarking upon other than to say if we can make Mercedes automobiles and Volkswagens live forever, what is up with our cheap, ugly appliances?  Look at the gorgeous Aga cookers in the U.K.  Why America doesn't make beautiful, curvy stoves I cannot figure. 

viking.jpgOnto the Viking: my dream stove.  Vi King was the jewel of my newly renovated kitchen.  Stainless steel, with a matching hood.  A fan that sensed heat and turned on automatically.  Four, easy-to-clean, lift-out burners.  A switch for convection and regular gas heating.  A perfectly designed pullout tray that caught all the crumbs.  When I set Vi King to 400, she heated up in less than five minutes.  She delivered crusty bread, butter-seared halibut cheeks and far too many brownies than a middle-aged person should consume over eight Alaskan winters.  My only lament is that I was working so much that I didn't have time to try everything Vi King was capable of cooking.  When we got ready to move back to the lower Forty-eight, I experienced that same sort of pang as I did for Vin T.  But Vi King was a behemoth, too heavy to move, and the buyers of our house were already in love with her, as well they should be. 

"We'll buy something just as great when we settle in New Mexico," my husband promised.

To be continued...
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bread alone2.JPG
It's almost anti-climactic.  

In case you haven't been keeping up with this experiment, I built a pâte fermentée starter, also known as "old dough," which doesn't sound nearly as exciting.  I started from scratch, using only organic whole wheat flour and commercial yeast.  The only yeasts involved are the natural yeasts in our good old New Mexico air and the ones that live on the wheat berries themselves.

The term "old dough" describes the way bread was made for ages uncounted before fresh yeast cakes or packets of dried yeast became widely available at the grocery store.  The way most people leavened their bread was by keeping back a piece of dough from each batch to jump start the next batch.  These starters were often handed down from mother to daughter.  

But, of course, somebody had to have made that first starter.  Which is what I wanted to try.  And I finally succeeded.  From starter to dough to bread in 6½ days.  Good thing I'm not a pioneer woman, depending on this bread to feed my family.  Our bones would be bleaching on the prairie by now.

The loaves are smaller than I expected, which may be partly due to the cold weather--about 7" in diameter and 3½" high.  I proofed them on flat sheets instead of in bannetons or bowls, so they were pretty flat before I put them in the oven.  But they're attractive (I think) and delicious--moist and chewy crumb with a nutty grain flavor, thick, crisp/chewy crust.  They make fabulous toast.  

So now I'm thinking...pain à l'ancienne baguettes like Phillipe Gosselin makes in Paris.  Or maybe a semolina bread such as Pane Siciliano, a traditional S-shaped bread from Sicily.  Or olive cheeks, adorable little rolls from Daniel Leader's book Local Breads by way of my friend Susan Thomas's incredible food blog, Farmgirl Fare.

That's the amazing many breads, so little time.  And if you ever think you've finally got it all figured out, something new--a technique or a book or kind of bread you never even heard of--comes along and you just have to try it.  Not to mention quick breads...muffins and scones, biscuits, flatbreads...don't get me started.

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Thumbnail image for Day Three and a halfcompressed.JPG
The good news: my starter has started!  See photo, left.

The bad news: So has the other starter I started when the first one didn't start.

I know it sounds confusing, but when my natural levain was just sitting around getting chilblains, I got bored.  I figured it would be two or three more days before I'd be able to do anything with it.  So I made a poolish for a whole wheat bread with lemon, honey and poppyseeds.  This recipe came from Daniel Leader's seminal work, Bread Alone.  Catchy title, eh?

The poolish method of bread making has been around for a long time.  I remember myfinished product.JPG gramma using it, only she called it a sponge, which doesn't sound particularly appetizing.  It involves making a starter from a small portion of the total ingredients--in this case it was ¾ cup of water, 1 ¼ cup of flour, and ½ teaspoon dry yeast.  You mix that together and let it ferment anywhere from 2-10 hours and then use it as a base for your bread dough.  You get some of the advantages of a natural starter--kick-started yeast, enhanced taste, texture, and keeping ability, for instance--without having to wait five days for the starter to get ready.  Here's how the whole wheat bread turned out.

But then, suddenly everything got ready at the exact same time.  So I had to make the dough for the whole wheat bread and then hurry up and do the next addition to the all natural levain.  My Heat & Heal pillow worked great.  You nuke it in the microwave for 3-4 minutes and then for the next 45 minutes to an hour, it radiates a lovely moist warmth.  It's big enough to drape around aching shoulders, neck and other body parts.  And now I'm going to have to call my friend Jo Ellen Thompson, who makes them, and tell her I've discovered a whole new market for her creations.
HEAT 'N HEAL pillows.jpg

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We live in a 1949 Stamm house in Santa Fe (Stamm being the builder, who became somewhat of a legend in this town.)  Unfortunately, postwar builders apparently weren't too eco-savvy, or maybe heating was cheaper then.  So, while I love my house, I usually spend the winter wearing long underwear and my heavy-duty fleece hoodie.
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The warmest room in the house is the master bath (probably because of the room's size relative to the heat vent) so it's never a surprise to walk in and find the dog asleep on the rug, wet clothes drying, butter softening, or bread dough rising.  Which brings me to the subject of this post.

I'm making--or trying to make--a natural levain or starter from scratch.  No commercial yeast.  We have so many great bakeries in Santa Fe that finding great bread is never a problem.  Someone asked me the other day why I bothered to spend five days building a starter, then another two making country French bread.  

Answer: Because it's fun.  And because I can.

Well, this person continued, what about the (old) new, no-knead bread baking methods that are all over the internet now, where you simply mix flour water, yeast and salt, let it sit for 18 hours and bake it off.  Presto...instant artisan bread.

Answer: The words "instant" and "artisan" don't belong in the same sentence.  

Yes, I've tried that method.  Beginning in 1999 when Suzanne Dunaway's book, No Need to Knead, was published.  I've also tried Kneadlessly Simple by Nancy Baggett and My Bread by Jim Lahey and Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg.  They all make good bread.  Very good bread, actually.  But not the best, in my opinion.  I find the texture leaves something to be desired, not to mention the depth of flavor.  And really, now, what's the big fuss about kneading?  Ten minutes by hand, six to twelve minutes when my tendonitis is kicking up and I have to resort to the KitchenAid.  To me, having my hands in dough is the most pleasurable part--other than eating the bread, of course.

levain.JPGRight now it's cold outside and we're getting our first real snow of the winter.  I like being in the kitchen, and it doesn't take but 15 or 20 minutes more with the kneading and shaping than it would with the no-knead method.  So I decided to try one of the "formulas" from Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb.  Peter is one of my bread heroes... ever since I read Brother Juniper's Bread Book back in 1991.

I'm an intuitive baker, but I accept the fact that baking is somewhat of a science and, particularly when making a starter, a formula comes in handy.  Although, having said that, I realized yesterday morning (Day 2) that here at 7000 feet, high and dry, the 1/3 cup water called for just wasn't enough to hydrate the fairly dry seed from yesterday plus another 4.5 oz of bread flour.  So I ended up adding another few tablespoons of water.  

The second day refreshment was done, although it hadn't risen much, if at all.  According toDay Two First Feeding.JPG Peter, that wasn't a problem.  It was a problem, however, that by this morning (Day 3) it still hadn't budged.  And the formula says not to move on to the next step until the starter has doubled in size.  Of course, it didn't help that we had a power failure during the night and the house, even the bathroom, had the approximate ambient temperature of a meat locker when we got up this morning.

So right now my starter is cosseted in the microwave with my Heat & Heal pillow, which I nuked for four minutes and which is now radiating a lovely warmth.  I feel like I should put a little knit hat and scarf on my poor, chilly starter.  Hopefully, as the dough warms up, those little wild yeasts will get active.  We'll see.  Stay tuned...

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authorpicdecure.jpgMidway through Judi Hendricks' latest novel, The Laws of Harmony, the heroine, Sunny Cooper, listens politely as her new co-worker and friend, Freddie Russell, describes the romance novel she's been writing. Freddie is quick to explain that books about nature and biology-- the subjects of her college studies-- don't sell too well.

"I've heard it's hard to get published," Sunny says.
"I know," Freddie concurs, "but somebody's got to make it. Might as well be me."

Anyone who has ever written a novel with publication in mind knows that Sunny speaks the truth, while Freddie, for her part, displays a matter-of-fact toughness that should help ward off the rejection-letter blues. The conversation has a ring of authenticity to it, a correctness of detail typical of the hundreds of small exchanges that collectively give The Laws of Harmony and its characters a compelling quality. Yet Sunny's observation about the publishing world hardly qualifies as a newsflash. Obviously Freddie gets that-- she's already gone as far as to choose a book genre based on potential sales.  
I'd like to believe you can program a book for success and, because I found Freddie to be an appealing character, as I read this scene I also found myself wishing right along with her that it were true. Why shouldn't Freddie be able to position herself to be the next shining light in the literary constellation? Aside from some nature books, her home reading selection is made up of "mostly bestsellers and romance novels", Sunny tells us after secretly perusing the living-room bookshelf, So Freddie knows the medium, which is an important first step. So then, can't a talented, determined writer just pick a genre and get going?
Yes, I suppose.  And ... no.

Yes, because others have done it. Before he became a mystery and police procedural writer, Michael Connelly took a job as a crime-beat reporter for a Miami newspaper, soaking in every on-the-job detail he could for use in future novels. Janet Evanovich first tried her hand unsuccessfully at literary writing before turning, like Freddie, to romance novels. Before he became the dean of all modern crime-fiction writers, Elmore Leonard churned out numerous paperback Westerns, a few of them brilliant-- Hombre and Valdez is Coming are classics-- because ... well, that's what was selling in the late fifties.         

Yet, beneath the surface with these three writers something more than cold-eyed calculation was also at work. Call it a high level of dedication. Persistence. Devotion. A passion that can't be faked. Yes, Connelly pursued a job to dovetail neatly with his writing aspirations, but think of the commitment this must have taken-- waking in the middle of the night to the blast of a telephone; the bleary-eyed drives down empty highways; the bad coffee; having to wade through endless cop jargon and official doublespeak (nobody ever simply steps out of a car, they have to "exit the vehicle") to get the story. Evanovich spent a decade attempting to write serious novels, toiling over three consecutive manuscripts that never saw the light of day, before discovering, through perseverence, what she did best; slowly she gravitated toward romance and stuck with it because she believed she had a few things to say about women who suffer through bad relationships and keep trying anyway. As for Leonard, those one-horse towns and open prairies may seem to have merely served as an early practice field for the far more popular stories he would later set in the dive bars and prisons and decaying mean streets of urban America, but every Western he ever wrote carried with it the tight, slyly moralistic, dialogue-driven style that sets him apart.

bluebirdcover.jpgSo yes, an author can consciously chose a genre and find success as a result-- but not without a distinct passion for telling that type of story.

No, I'd say, one cannot just choose a genre in eenie-meenie-miney-moe fashion and reasonably expect to make real headway. For one thing, the field of writing is full of specialized authors who do what they do very well, so unless you're ridiculously talented it's unlikely you'll distinguish yourself-- let alone be published-- by going through the motions. And writing a book is such a long, arduous endeavor, why would any sane person commit to such a laborious journey armed with anything less than an unshakable conviction that theirs is a story that simply must be told?

Getting back to Freddie Russell, had she invited me over that night and asked me what I thought of her on-again, off-again work on a romance novel, I'd have told her that was just fine, as long as she was being true to herself. If I'd had some wine and got to talking a bit, I'd probably also have said: never mind the genre, Fred, and while you're at it, forget the industry's future sales projections and latest identifiable trends-- the publishing world is loaded with smart, sensitive people who haven't a clue about how business really works. I'd have told her to firmly, consistently tune out any know-it-all friends and relatives who think they know better. And finally, before she kicked me out for talking too much, I'd have said: live inside the story you want to tell, cherish the characters you bring to life. Love the process. This way, whatever success comes along will truly be yours.


Here's an odd pair of surprises worth reporting: I wrote the above remarks without having noticed a brief Q-and-A interview with the author that's tucked into the back pages of The Laws of Harmony, but lo and behold, there it was yesterday morning as the commuter train delivering me to work in downtown L.A. lurched through a rough patch of tracks and Judi's book fell out of my briefcase. Surprise Number 2 came when, upon reading the Q-and-A, I noted that Judi was asked to what extent she actively resisted writing "works that can be categorized by genre or theme", as The Laws of Harmony seemed to combine "mystery, romance, self-discovery, and all things culinary." Judi answered by explaining that these elements are included in the book because she finds real life to be a "fascinating pastiche" of just such elements. In other words, the novel is a direct reflection of the world as Judith Ryan Hendricks alone sees it.

I'll take that as the author's endorsement of my advice to Freddie.

A final note: setting the literary labeling and genre-talk aside for a moment, there is one simple term of art that neatly describes a novel like The Laws of Harmony, the kind of story that springs not from a deft marketing strategy but instead is born purely from the inside out. Such a book is referred to as "an original work of fiction."      
-John DeCure

John DeCure is a third-generation Californian and lifelong surfer whose three novels are set in and around the greater Los Angeles and beach communities in which he grew up. He graduated from California State University at Fullerton in 1981 with a degree in English before entering law school in 1987. His novels, Reef Dance and Bluebird Rising, were published by St. Martin's Press; both books feature attorney and surfer J. Shepard as their protagonist. In the Spring of 2009 he completed the manuscript of a third, stand-alone novel, Tell You What I'm Gonna Do, which is set in the hard-knock world of outside sales. DeCure lives in Long Beach, California with his wife and three young sons. His fiction and non-fiction pieces have appeared in Surfer magazine and The Surfer's Journal for many years. A long-time prosecutor, he is a senior deputy attorney general with the Office of the Attorney General in Los Angeles.

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Patricia McFall 05-2009.jpgSome writers tend to ruminate, and I'm one of those. Like agonizing endless minutes over the menu for a take-along picnic. It was for an evening of blues at the Hollywood Bowl with a sorta friend, the kind who might get to be something else, only nobody's sure what or knows when.

As my polar opposite, he likes lists and categories, so in deciding what to take, I knew I was walking some dangerous edge between a misleading romantic evening with handmade chocolate truffles to feed each other like mama bird/baby bird, on the one hand; and an unfairly contemptuous takeout of curled meat on dry bread from some fast-food vomitorium on the other. Either was likely to send the wrong message. I needed to seek the middle ground, and at first, I thought past experience might be a guide.

I can cook, but I immediately realized that would be ill-advised since it had happened once before and might lead him to expect it again in this lifetime. Yes, I made the guy a sandwich once, and he wanted to know exactly everything that went into it. I don't usually go by recipes unless there's going to be real company, so a dish may be different from one time to the next. Below is the list I spoke to him.
Any measured amounts would be entirely fanciful, so I'll leave it to you as better cooks to suit your taste. It's pretty good, like tuna salad, only better:

Patricia's Slapdash Salmon Salad

One 14.75-ounce can pink salmon (all canned salmon is wild caught; did you know that?)
Ingredients chopped fine:
Green onion
Green pepper
Dill pickle
Parsley and dill weed, fresh or dried
Nonfat plain yogurt

Take out and discard some of the edible skin and/or bones, if you prefer. (I dislike the idea of eating a spine, even if it is full of calcium!) Deposit fish chunks in a medium-sized bowl, and break them apart with a fork. Add chopped ingredients, parsley and dill weed. Dress with a half-and-half mixture of mayonnaise and yogurt, mixing thoroughly. (You won't taste the yogurt.)

Although this concoction had been entirely satisfactory spread on La Brea Bakery wholegrainpicnic.jpg bread from Costco, I decided to butt out completely and turn to the professionals. I meandered up to the Continental Deli, a German concern where the sandwiches taste so good that whenever I tuck into one, I want to cry with gustatory joy. The rye bread is softer than a down pillow, the mustard has a nice head-kick, and the meat is so--well, it may cause you to hear heavenly choirs of moos and oinks, even if you're ordinarily a carnivorous nonbeliever.
I asked about alternatives to the potato salad that comes on the side with a dill pickle. The Sandwichmeister reeled off a few options, took in my expectant expression at the end of the list, and gave me a pitying stare. "We're not coleslaw people," he explained dryly. I went with the default potato salad, first because it boasted a short list of ingredients for my friend to digest--potatoes, cooked eggs, and mayonnaise--but also because the potatoes appeared to have been riced, unusual and probably excellent for texture. And yes, it put the sandwich in the spotlight in the same way a sideman--say, a terrific bass player or a background vocalist--enhances a star like Buddy Guy.

In addition to the fresh-peach streusel I got at the deli, I threw in some grapes from Trader Joe's. Last, after apologizing to the planet in advance for the environmental assault of plastic flatware and cups but attempting to retain a bit of my character with cloth napkins I would take home and launder for reuse, I flipped the picnic basket closed, filling the outside woven cylinders with bottles of sparkling water and wine, and there it was--enough, but not too much.

Many native Californians, myself included, pride themselves on their ability to cork wine effortlessly. My friend brought some nice old French stuff that he opened quite competently for a Midwesterner, and I took a backup bottle of Domaine Alfred Syrah in case we wanted it later. We enjoyed our on-rye sandwiches--corned beef for him, turkey and Black Forest ham for indecisive me--on a spacious patio before the concert. As the sun set, we loitered up the motorized conveyer belt to the stars, found our bench, and settled in happily to hear great music.
During intermission, we had dessert, and as the lights went out for the second time, my friend mentioned that other bottle of wine. I whisked it out, sliced the foil off in one clean circuit of the knife, plunged the corkscrew point into the target, twisted, clamped and extracted--all in the dark, as though blindfolded with a linen napkin.
Of course, he couldn't see either, which is actually good. Same thing with the food--excellent, but nothing fraught with implications. Wouldn't want him to think I was showing off for him when we're just friends, right?
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Patricia McFall has published both long and short fiction, as well as non-fiction that includes book reviews and features on books and authors. She has privately edited more than a dozen trade books and thousands of manuscript pages in addition to teaching, coaching and editing many writers. Her story "On the Night in Question" will appear in the anthology Orange County Noir from Akashic Press in April 2010.

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with-pups.jpgFrom Wikipedia:  There are many theories as to how the dish ropa vieja was named. One of the more popular ones is a story about a man whose family was coming to his home for dinner. Being very poor, the man could not buy them enough food when they came. To remedy his situation, he went to his closet, gathered some old clothes (ropa vieja en español) and imbued them with his love. When he cooked the clothes, his love for his family turned them into a wonderful beef stew.
All my adult life I dreamed of having the perfect kitchen--a gleaming Viking stove, a proper stone surface to make pastry, a Kitchen-Aid mixer, a chef's sink in addition to the apron front farmhouse sink--and for a while I had it.  When we moved to Anchorage my husband designed and built me my dream kitchen.  But circumstances were such that I was working full time and writing full time and there was no time to make the fabulous meals I'd planned for decades and decades.  He did learn to cook, though!  When we sold the house and moved I felt sad at all I'd missed in that wonderful space and figured I'd never have it again.  Oh, poor me.

Now we are in Santa Fe in a little house I love.  The kitchen is galley-style, features a plain old electric stove and tile counters in a space one-tenth of the size of the other kitchen.  Yet I find myself cooking more than ever.  I spend my day working on my new novel, following my characters on their hikes, picture-taking, the wedding receptions they host on their tiny ranch with secondhand horses, goats, chickens and rescued dogs.  When I stop working for the day, I head into the kitchen to see what's there to work with.

The Calphalon pots became too heavy for my arthritis, so I gave them to a student who likes to cook.  I bought a set of Revere ware on eBay, which were the first pots and pans I cooked with when I got married, and every time I touch one it's like seeing an old friend.  The gunmetal gray Kitchen Aid mixer takes up a whole corner of the counter top gathering dust.  I use the handheld mixer I bought at Sears a jillion years ago, my cast iron fry pan never leaves the stove top, and my McCoy mixing bowls that are so old they're now collector pieces see use every day.  

Returning to those early tools, my cooking has gotten simpler.  If I can serve a one-dishtomatoes.jpg meal--stew, pasta salad, soup--I do it.  Do we grow wiser as we age or do our palates simplify?  Maybe we finally realize that there's only so much energy to go around and we must decide if we want to spend it on making our own crackers or enjoying conversation instead?  Yes, I used to make my own crackers.  Chilled a fragile dough of unsalted butter, cheese and flour, and sat on the floor by the oven and peered through the glass until they were perfectly done.  For the first twenty years of my marriage I did not buy frozen food or commercial jam or bread.  I made it all.   And on holidays or for parties, I'd cook for days and still have energy left to enjoy what was going on.

Now I have a few dishes I cook well and they are my go-to menus when I have guests.  I watched my Italian grandmother make gnocchi and risotto and pizza and couldn't duplicate her work because it wasn't work to her, it was a lifestyle.  I maintain fidelity to my writing and bless her heart every time I cook a frozen pizza.  Eventually I decided that it was better to have a couple really great dishes than try to make a dozen.  

Ropa vieja--its translation is literally "old clothes"--is the one my family and friends always request.  It's a lot of prep work, but after that all you do is simmer it all day, stir it once in a while, and then you eat it, savoring the blend of flavors that only mature from slow cooking.   On a cold night, it warms you to the core.  On a hot day, the spices seem perfectly suited to icy limeade and conversation in the shade.  When I make ropa vieja, I always make a ton because that way everyone can take home a serving, because the next day you want more just from the memory.  

In other recipes there are variations using yucca and plantains, but I don't like those tastes so I make it simpler.  Some recipes will say to use cheap cuts of meat, and you can, but make it with better cuts and it really shows.  All the measures below are approximate.  It will serve 6-8 the way it's written.

1lb pork tenderloin
1-2 lbs tri tip steak or any other cut  
olive oil
1-2 onions, sliced in rings
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
one whole sack of those baby carrots
4-6 green chiles (roasted, skinned and diced)
1-2 red bell peppers (roasted, skinned and diced)
2-4 T vegetable broth--I like Better Than Bullion Organic Vegetable Paste*
4 C water
1 bunch cilantro
1-2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

*Once you try this kind of broth paste, you won't go back to the hard little cubes.  It's great, organic, and it comes in several flavors.  If you need a cup of broth to get to feeling better, this is the stuff.

Cut the meats into stew-sized chunks.  Salt and pepper liberally and then brown in olive oil.  Once meat is brown all over, remove it and set aside.  In the juices and oil caramelize the onion and cook the chopped garlic until it releases its scent.  

Roast the bell pepper and chiles and remove the skins.  Dice and set aside.  Put the carrots in with the onions and the bell pepper.  Add the meat back in and cover with water.  Add in the bullion.  Place the chiles in when it's simmering nicely.  Cook for hours, simmering slowly, stirring and tasting.  Eventually the meat will start to shred and most of the liquid will evaporate.  Taste it as you go.  The recipe is forgiving, so you can add water, take away water, add chiles to make it hotter, remove them if it's too hot.

Just before you serve, add a can or two of black beans that have been rinsed and drained.  Chop a whole bunch of cilantro and put that in just before you plate it, so the cilantro stays pungent.  If you want a shiny glaze to the juices, a pat or two of butter just before serving will make things shimmer.

Sometimes I serve it on top of garlic mashed potatoes or white rice, or even thick slices of sourdough bread.  It would make incredible burritos, but I prefer it in a bowl, where you can see each ingredient fall off your fork.  The Bisquick biscuit recipe made with cream instead of skimmed milk makes the perfect biscuit to accompany this stew.

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of nine novels, most recently The Owl & Moon Cafe.  She lives in Santa Fe with her artist husband, Stewart Allison and their five dogs, Verbena, Cricket, Henry, Piper and Rufus, where she is at work on a new novel.  She teaches in the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage.  Her website has cobwebs it is so out of date, but you can visit it anyway at  Her favorite meal is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with an Oreo and milk chaser.

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Jeri portrait002.JPGIt might be as basic as your mother's spaghetti sauce or as special as Aunt Helen's Christmas cookies. Maybe it's the cake you always have on birthdays, or the pumpkin chiffon pie that says Thanksgiving to you.

The dish that means so much to you may have been in your family for generations or it may be a relatively recent arrival. You may be surprised to learn just where it came from, and when it arrived on the scene.  And the one person who makes it may or may not have it written down.

Get it in writing.

If there's a dish that's special for you, whether it's a holiday treat or an everyday one, get the recipe and learn how to make it. Now.

Talk to the person who makes it. If the recipe isn't written down anywhere, arrange to stand by while she or he makes it. As you watch, write down the ingredients, the method, the oven temp, the pan size, everything you observe. Then make it. If it doesn't turn out well, talk to her and try to figure out what went wrong. Then make it again.

If you don't, these treasured dishes will be lost. The one person who knows how to make the birthday cake or the sauce or the pumpkin pie will, sadly, not live forever. And one day, after she's gone, you'll realize that a birthday is coming up, and you don't know how to make the cake. Thanksgiving will dawn, and you'll have one less dish to be thankful for. You'll hunger for spaghetti with mom's sauce, but you'll never be able to taste it again.

True, even with the recipe, it may not taste exactly the same when you make it. But it will be close. And it will make you feel closer to the one who's gone.

You'll make the birthday cake and laugh about the year you decided on a different one, regretted it, and never made the same mistake again. Or, on one future Thanksgiving, as everyone is saying how good the pumpkin pie is, you'll remind them of the year your aunt dropped it, and it splattered all over the floor. And how relieved everyone was to see her take another one out of the refrigerator.
So call the person who makes that special dish and ask her to teach you how to make it yourself. She'll be pleased and flattered and, in addition to getting the recipe, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you're keeping tradition alive. As a bonus, you may hear a wonderful or a surprising story about how the recipe wound up in the family repertoire.

Don't wait until next year or the next birthday or holiday, do it now. When you've made the dish, and you're happy with the result, go to your computer and key in the recipe. Print it out on plain white paper. Or on colored paper with fancy borders and decorations.  Make several copies and give one to everyone who loves it and to a few people who've never had it, but who you know will love it.

Here is one I'd like to give to you.
Quiche Quinzio

This is a typical Italian spinach pie, but years ago my father had the happy idea of adding some cooked sausage to it. That took it from ordinary to extraordinary. We named it Quiche Quinzio for the alliteration, although it's not a classic quiche. It is one of our family's favorite dishes. I hope you enjoy it.
Unbaked pie crust- homemade or store-bought
One or two links of sweet Italian sausage
One ten-ounce package of frozen, chopped spinach
One large egg
One pound ricotta (whole milk)
Half teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
Half cup freshly grated Parmagiano
Teaspoon of salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove sausage from casing, crumble up, and fry slowly until cooked but not crisp. Let cool.

Meanwhile cook the spinach for a minute or two, then drain, squeezing to get as much moisture out as possible. Let it cool.

Whisk egg, then mix in the ricotta, nutmeg, salt and all but a couple of tablespoons of the Parmagiano together in a bowl. Add the cooled, drained spinach. Mix well.

Spread the crumbled sausage in the bottom of the unbaked pie crust. Spread the ricotta and spinach mixture over it. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmagiano. Then top with a few slivers of butter.

Bake at 350 for about forty minutes. The crust should be lightly browned, and the filling should puff up a bit. Let cool for a few minutes, cut and serve.

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Jeri Quinzio is a writer who specializes in food history. Her new book - Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making is just out from the University of California Press.
Her blog is


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Death stands next to me in the kitchen watching me make cookies.

He gets way too close, his murky odor distracting me as I measure portions of raisins andSurdut.observer1.jpg.jpg oats.  Death's shadow and I have been keeping company a lot these days.  I think he especially wants beautiful Sara because her heart's so good. A bad-mannered suitor, he grabbed her breast and slid into her spine, not realizing what kind of backbone he was dealing with. That woman's faith has gotten her through fifty-some-odd years of more than you want to know. We know she needs a miracle, and she's gotten sidetracked from what she does best, which is full-time ministering to people as a pastor.  I think when she comes through this, she'll fill her kitchen with people seeking the warmth of her great spirit.

I add a teaspoon of ginger and listen to a public radio interview with a Unitarian minister who has esophageal cancer. He got himself so right with God and Death that for a long moment that man forgot his family was in this, too. Then he got a year's reprieve. When Death came knocking a second time, "My family and I had already had the dress rehearsal," said the minister. Bet his wife and kids didn't look at it that way.
I hear people say, "I'm not scared of dying."  Maybe all the people who love them are scared. So think of that next time you get all philosophical about leaving this earth. We still want you.
RavenTell copy.jpgDeath still hangs around as the flour and rising agents fall gently out of the sifter. At least one of us is disturbed to see something wiggling. I scoop out the little wormy things and give Death a few treats.
"That's all you're getting from me today, buddy," I say, as I cream the healthy substitute butter with the natural substitute sweetener that's supposed to help keep me on earth longer.
Some of the cookies are for a rabbi with a sweet tooth. "Who will say kaddish for me," asked the bachelor Rabbi in a sermon twenty years ago, when he could still tap dance. Possibly everyone he has ever met, I think, as people come up to him whenever we go out. From birth to death, he has been a part of every life cycle event. Now, at 82, brilliant and sparky despite crippling spinal stenosis and Parkinson's, he taps sitting down, his feet clicking to Gershwin and the Beatles.
I'm making these cookies in my writer friend David's kitchen. "So what happens when Jews die?" he asks. His lymphoma has him walking the tightrope between Christian Science and modern science. So far, he's finding his balance.
"No heaven and hell. We're about the here and now, though reincarnation would be great. I can't get everything accomplished in one lifetime," I tell him as I plop cookie dough onto the next baking sheet.
When I bend over to open the oven door, Death pokes me as rudely as a wet nosed dog.
He leans close, rotten breath whispering, "Make room for me." 

I slide the second batch into the oven. Then, fed up, I shove Death in, too, and quickly close the door. No matter how much sugar you add, death stinks, but for the time being, the comforting scent of oatmeal cookies completely fills the kitchen.
I divide up the sweets for Sara, David, and the Rabbi.

Beth Surdut is a visual storyteller--a designer, colorist, and writer whose paintings and wearable art are collected internationally. Her recent move to New Mexico has inspired two new series-Art From the Kitchen and Listening to Raven.  Santa Feans can participate with her in Bubbe Meises and Cuentas de Abuela, a story telling workshop .

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