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Monday, January 27, 2014

Living Cold

January here in New England usually delivers the coldest stretch.  This week is true to form.  Tuesday evening, snow arrived while the temps were frigid, Vermont cold, I call it.  I spent four years at school there—think, wet hair clinking after a walk across campus (stupid, I know), moisture prickling as what’s inside your nose freezes, the squeak of boots trekking across frozen earth.  During this storm, flakes feathered down so dry they sparkled under the outside lights.  I am not a skier, but watching that stuff settle into air-pocket layers, I knew what it would feel like to push off a mountain a foot deep into it, to tuck into the spray of powder, the sting of ice frosting my cheek. 

Like much of the country, we are holding in an arctic pattern, but when we brave the outdoors, everything is etched at the edges with a razor, as clear as chandelier pendants scrubbed with ammonia.  Buffed to flawless shine.   In pre-dawn treks to the bottom of the driveway, the air we draw in goes down like distilled ice.  Most mornings, cars traveling the two-line highway a quarter-mile away whisper in the distance, but in this weather the thrum approaches us, moves inside.  Down the road, the wind has scoured our frozen pond. It offers up unblemished sky.  

We tend to hunker in this time of year.  Snuggle under down comforters, move close to the fire. Outside fingertips freeze, eyes water, cheeks burn.  But if we bundle up enough to become a part of it, the cold shatters the dull smog of winter.  It forces us to yawn and stretch, while all that is bright and clear invites us to take part in life.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Persistance Makes the Best Potatoes

Early in our marriage, my husband and I spent a lot of weekend nights at home.  As new homeowners, dining out meant blowing up the budget, so I worked hard learning to cook things that went well with an inexpensive bottle of red wine at our kitchen table.  Somewhere in the process, I became obsessed with the idea of perfect potatoes. 

Now, as spuds go, there are a lot of options out there.  Baked, mashed, French fries, duchess, Lyonnais, hash browns, home fries.  In my mind, they’re all good.  But I aimed for the ultimate, roasted potatoes, like the ones that spend an hour in the oven soaking up succulent juices from a whole chicken, a hunk of beef, a leg of lamb.  They land on the plate crusty on the outside, steaming and soft in the middle, as good with gravy as without.  The thing is, I wanted that result without preparing the protein, too.
I taught myself a lot those days.  Homemade marinades, how to use stale scraps for a yummy bread puddings, the right ingredients for meatballs good enough to ensure my husband didn’t miss his mother’s. I prepared  stir-fry meals, and healthy bean soups.  But the potatoes stumped me. In that pre-internet world, I poured over cookbooks.  I tossed potatoes with butter and herbs, changed the oven temperature,varied the spud, threw in onions or garlic, rosemary or thyme. One recipe even called for mustard. Most results were good (my dear husband assured me), but not what I wanted.  It took years of Saturday night experimentation before I hit on a simple mix of components, resulting in crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, saliva producing potatoes.  These days, I may veer from my formula, but I do so knowing that while the final dish may taste lovely, nothing quite suits me like the method I mastered after such a long bout of trying.

Okay, where am I going with this?  Well, I stood at the counter quartering potatoes one night recently and an epiphany snuck in and gave me a goose on the behind.   When I want to do something right, I’m persistent.  It took heaps of potatoes, but now I can prepare those things without thinking and every time I serve them, I’m glad for the time I invested.  An easy-peasy potato recipe that took so long to master, gives me hope that all my writing practice will pay off someday, too.  I am still working at it, still developing the key ingredients, still trying to create a sound formula, and while I may not be there yet, even now, things taste better.  Persistence pays off, right?

Good.  Because, my change of employment years back forced a cutback in house-hold expenses.  We gave up our beloved Friday night treat from the local pizza house and now, I’m five years into the development of the perfect tomato pie.  Thick crust?  Thin crust? Neapolitan style?  Deep dish?  Flatbread? And then, what about the sauce?  This one is going to take a long, long time.

Maybe by the time I’ve got a novel published, I’ll have mastered a worthy pizza pie.   

Liza's Six Years in Development Roasted Potatoes

Step 1) 
Make this simple mix of herbs and keep it in a sealed container. (This is a rip off of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.  By all means, use that if you choose.)
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cornstarch

Step 2) 
Use fist-sized white or Yukon Gold Potatoes. Red potatoes are fine in a pinch, but don’t get as crispy.  Stay away from baking potatoes.   I figure one potato per person (and three more for my husband).

Leave the skins on the potatoes, wash them and cut them into quarters. 

Toss them with one tablespoon of olive oil for every six potatoes.

Sprinkle with the spice blend to taste.  I just shake it out, but I guess I use about a teaspoon or two for six spuds. 

Arrange potatoes on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan, skin side down, (which stops them from sticking and eliminates the need to stir while they bake.)

Roast in a 375 degree oven for forty-five minutes.  Send your husband out to grill a steak.  The potatoes will be done when he brings the cooked meat in (about sixty minutes total, because I like them brown and crusty. You can take them out earlier if you prefer.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Java Jive

I am cheating.  I was reading Robin, here, and I found out about a coffee blog hop.  I am so in.  Except, I'm re-running a blog post from 2009.  For those of you who read my coffee, oops, I mean my blog regularly, that's a lifetime ago for me. Or maybe it feels that way, because I haven't had ANY coffee today. Ugh!

 The blog hop participants are listed here.  Thank, Robin, and Michael, for inspiring an (old) post.


Over the course of my oversleeping, spill the breakfast smoothie, forget to make the lunch, stub my toe morning yesterday, I never drank my coffee. I’m not a coffee addict per se. Not for me the multiple trips to Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, a back seat cluttered with crumpled dead soldiers.  I'm too cheap for one, and a cup a day does me fine.  On the occasions that I imbibe in more, my fingers vibrate. That cup though, has become my comfort, my hand warmer, my morning snack, my distraction, and yes, I suppose, my habit.

I’m not a “first thing in the morning” coffee girl. I don't require it to wake up.  The shower I stumble into at dawn accomplishes that feat well enough. The blend of coffee and orange juice churns like an acidic ocean in my belly, so caffeine isn’t a part of breakfast—unless that meal includes eggs over easy, corned beef hash, potatoes and someone named Thelma, scribbling on a pad while asking “Coffee to start you off, hon?” Then the answer is a plain and simple “Yes.” Sigh. Sans a paycheck, restaurant breakfasts have become few and far between.

My practice though, back in the day when life included an 8:30 – 5:00 obligation, involved a drive to work between 7:30 and 8:00. There I kicked-off each day with a winding walk to the corporate cafeteria for the complimentary, albeit bitter brew, offered as a company perk for my last eight years. Yup, spoiled rotten, lazy. For more mornings than I can remember, there was no requirement to make the coffee, clean the pot, dispose of the grounds, or absent all that, dig for spare change. Over that last year or so, I acquired an environmental conscience, abandoning the Styrofoam cups dispensed in the cafeteria and going green. This added a journey to the office kitchen to clean out my cup, a trip I forgot to make enough times that it necessitated a detour for a wash up before getting that routine mugful. That was the only effort though. Gosh, free coffee. Some days it tasted better then a comprehensive benefit package.

Now though, there’s no brewed beverage waiting for me. Many mornings, I sit down in front of this computer around the same time as “back when" and writing inhales me to the point that I fail to pour the water and flip the switch on Mr. Coffee— at times also neglecting lunch. On those days I lift my head blinking at 2:00, a few minutes before I need to pick up my daughter, realizing my stomach has been yowling louder then our temperamental cat--which is all good.

There is so much to be said for when the work you love sidetracks you from other err, attractions. In the corporate world, coffee, lunch, even an occasional mid-afternoon snack provided excuses to break away from employment that was simply “fine.” Now I’m so immersed in this “job,” I have to put the timer on to remind me to pick up my daughter or I risk a call from an annoyed teen: “Are you coming?” Oops.

Yesterday’s rough start may have distracted me from filling the pot, but it’s this blog, my practice, my teacher and my guide, the writing that engrosses me so that time loses its meaning—that's the real cause of this caffeine withdrawal. I’m not getting paid in cash for what I’m doing. Yet the rewards warm me like a cup of coffee between my palms on the coldest winter day.

Except when writing about it reminds me that it’s the second morning in a row that I haven’t tasted coffee, and two days with no java will not fly.

Excuse me while I go grind the beans.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Life Lessons

This is January’s contribution to Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group.  To read more participants, read here.

Over the last month, life delivered challenges.  So much so, at times I thought, "I really can’t write now.  I’m too preoccupied.Once or twice I gave into it and perused blogs during my regular writing time, but all that did was add to the storm-surge inside of me, by making me feel worse for not writing.  Not helpful. The next time that temptation settled over me, I shrugged it off.  Instead, I sat down in front of the thing I sent out to sixteen agents last winter (one full read, seven no-thanks and the rest dead-air) to incorporate lessons I learned during my Grub Street writing classes last year. 

Two weeks later, I’m two-thirds the way through, not revising as much as fixing my writing.  Between a long manuscript rest and objective feedback from a professional in regard to my foibles, there is a lot of cutting going on.  And while I’m working on it, real life blurs in the background.  I’m not sure where the effort will lead for this particular manuscript.  But, whatever.  Doing this thing I love gives me a reprieve, from well, things I don’t love.  When I’m writing, I’m working to conjure up the most conflict, the right rhythm, the strongest images. And I can’t do that if I’m dwelling on other stuff

I don’t spend a lot of conscious time wondering if I’ll be published, though it’s a background hope, a quiet brook running at the heart of me.  But these last few weeks have delivered proof that even if I never attain that goal, writing is my salvation.  It gets me through.  And then I move on.

If you are interested in a little more educational reading, here's a link to a great article from Writer's Digest: Important Writing Lessons from First Time Novelists.