Thursday, November 16, 2017


Smoking food, it turns out, is a lot of work.

Actually, I take that back. It’s like bread: If you have time and understand the process, it’s not that difficult. However, it is an undertaking.

And it takes a long time.

Have I mentioned that it takes time?

We started the fire around eight o’clock in the morning and finished smoking about twelve hours later. I spent the day at the kitchen window, staring out at the metal beast, watching the smoke drift from the chimney, and fretting. Did the fire need more wood? Was the smoke too thick? Should I give the fire more air? Less air? Was the thermometer giving us an accurate reading?

Accessing the firebox was tricky. Because it’s at the very bottom of the barrel, under the racks of food, every time I wanted to add more charcoal or wood, I had to enlist my husband’s help.

Very carefully, we’d lift the top half off, making sure not to jostle the racks full of water pan and food, tend the blaze, and then re-situate everything. By mid-afternoon my clothes reeked of smoke (kind of nice), and by evening my eyes were watering (not so nice).

But things went just as planned! I forgot to inject the brisket, and I rubbed the outside with a bit too much S&P, but the process itself was spot-on. Mid-afternoon, we hit the stall — when the internal meat temperature refuses to rise above 160 degrees — but then we wrapped the meat in foil and let it go for a few more hours. Right at the 12-hour mark, the meat registered 203 degrees, perfect! We rested the meat in a cooler for 30 minutes (it should’ve been a good hour, but our beds were calling) before cutting into it.

And wouldn’t you know, everything was just as the experts said it would be. There was a smoke ring! The meat separated when stretched! We were able to identify the deckle and flat, and we could taste the flavor differences!


I had made a sauce, of sorts, to serve with the meat, but no one ate it. They all prefered to devour their meat, slice after slice, straight up alongside the still-warm pan of buttered buns. The meat was so tender and juicy and smoky. It almost tasted like ham.

Also smoked that day:

Roma tomatoes
I cut about six tomatoes in half, drizzled them with olive oil, and added S&P. After a couple hours in the smoker, I divided them into two portions and stuck them in the freezer. Later, I’ll chop them up and add them to chili.

Sweet bell peppers and poblanos
My younger son charred these directly in the coals at the very end, and then I scraped off the black, seeded and chopped the peppers, and froze them. These will also go in chili, or maybe I’ll add some to a pot of beans or a butternut squash soup.

Stew meat
I smoked two pounds of beef in beer. Later, I finished it off in the crock pot with potatoes and carrots. The kids didn’t like it that much — I think the beer flavor may have been too strong — but I did.

Baked beans
Since I left them in the smoker longer than the recommended hour and a half, the smoke flavor was intense ... so I divided them into smaller portions and popped them in the freezer. Whenever I want a kick of smoke — in chili, soup, or ordinary baked beans — I’ll toss in one of the bags, my own little flavor bomb.

I’d like to do more smoking — I want to try a roast, and we have a couple fresh hams in the freezer — but, because I need my husband’s help to lift the smoker and it’s hard to find days when we’re both home the entire time, I’m limited in when I can do it.

Isn't it fascinating, all the myriad ways there are to prepare food? Smoking is such a tasty, fun way to go.

This same time, years previous: Thai chicken curry, the quotidian (11.16.15), gravity, lessons from a shopping trip, official, the quotidian (11.16.11), three things, peanut butter cream pie. SSR.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Shakespeare behind bars

I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that my younger daughter, if she’d just break free of her inhibitions, would enjoy acting (says her mother, the woman who wasn’t brave enough to act until she was thirty-five). So a couple months ago when I learned that my friend, the head of the theater department at Eastern Mennonite University, would be reworking MacBeth for a female cast (because she has mostly female students and wanted them to get a chance to dig into some of the more meaty Shakespeare roles), I asked my daughter if she’d like to audition.

She hesitated. “I don’t want a speaking role. And I’d rather work backstage.”

“Well, how about you audition anyway, just to do it. On the audition form, you can say what you’re willing to do.”

My daughter hedged.

“Listen,” I wheedled. “If you get a role you don’t want, you can always say no, right?”

And so my daughter did her first audition. A friend of ours, an EMU student, went to the audition with her to provide moral support and help her prepare (shout-out to Clara!). And my daughter got just what she wanted, a non-speaking role as an inmate (because this version of the Scottish play is set in a women’s penitentiary, how cool is that?)

For the most part, my daughter’s been mum about what goes on in rehearsal. I did hear about the fight director who came on Wednesdays to teach combat, and once when I arrived to pick her up, I walked in to see my child holding another actor in a stranglehold while stabbing her in the back and bellowing with rage.

She told me she got to eat and drink on stage, too — she was quite excited about that. And then dress rehearsals started and she began waltzing into the house late at night sporting black eye makeup and neck tattoos, oh boy. 

The show opened last week. I have yet to see it (can’t wait!), but a couple of the other kids saw it already and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. (My brother and sister-in-law saw it, too — my sister-in-law said it was so full and rich that as soon as it was over she wished she could see it again.)

Sunday afternoon (when I went to hang around the green room, observe the fight warm-ups, and watch my daughter get ready) was the first time I had seen the set — seen anything, really — and it kind of pulled me up short. The tall chainlink fences, the industrial lighting, and the concrete walls bring the harsh reality of prison to life. It's disconcerting.

I’ve heard reports that my daughter, who also gets to play janitor and mop up all the blood (and on opening night actual vomit!), plays a delightfully sullen inmate. When I heard that, I busted out laughing. I could just see her angrily pushing a mop bucket around and ramming into anyone who gets in her way. I live with the child, after all. She’s been rehearsing for this role for years.

The other day I asked her if she'd be interested in auditioning for another play. "Yeah, maybe..." she said with her typical reserve, but her body told a different story. It had snapped to attention — she was suddenly sitting on the edge of her seat — and her eyes were sparking.

For tickets (three shows remaining!), go here.

This same time, years previous: enough, for now, George Washington Carver sweet potato soup with peanut butter and ginger, butternut squash galette with caramelized onions and goat cheese, the quotidian (11.11.13), refrigerator bran muffins.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

unleashing the curls!

Apparently, wishing out loud for a magical cure to my hair problems was a smart thing to do. Within minutes of posting, people were chiming in via the blog, Facebook, emails, and phone calls.

I had no idea hair could be such a fascinating topic!

Since then, I have completely reworked my hair care routine. As per your suggestions, I clicked over to the Curly Girl website where I learned about hair porosity, washing methods, and product ingredients. I researched the specific products you recommended, purchased a few of them, and then set about unleashing the curls I didn’t know I had.

“What I can’t understand,” my husband said, fed up with all my hair talk, “is how you’ve managed to live this long without knowing you have curly hair.”

(The answer, as any woman knows is, of course, hormones. Also, one-track thinking. I used to have straight straight hair, so I simply assumed my hair was still straight, and my hair straightener — oh the irony! — allowed me to maintain that erroneous belief.)

So far, I've learned that:
1. Thanks to sulfate shampoo and other abrasive hair products, plus the hair dryer and straightener, my hair was much drier than it ought to be,
2. My hair is wavy-curly! In some places, especially around my face, I have actual ringlets,
3. Curly hair can be made more curly by: not using heat, washing it less often, not rubbing it dry with a towel, refraining from using combs and brushes, applying a couple softening/curling products, and scrunching.
4. It’s most effective to apply products when the hair is sopping wet.
5. Hair products make hair smell awesome!
6. My hair gets curlier the longer I go without washing. Weird, right?

And now, for the actual hair care method!

Every two days I wash my hair. One day I'll wash it with a shampoo and conditioner and the next time I'll wash it just with conditioner, also known as a co-wash. I use Shea Moisture’s Argan Oil and Almond Milk Smooth and Tame Shampoo, and Shea Soft and Smooth Conditioner. Since my bangs show grease more quickly than the rest of my hair — plus they get skanky from running — every morning I give them a light wash and blow dry. However, in a few months I won't even need to do that because, thanks to my persuasive cousin-in-law, I’m growing them out. (It might be a terrible mistake, but I guess I won't know until I try it, right?)

After washing, I wrap my hair in a towel while I get dressed and then, while it’s still super wet, I run a comb through it and massage One ‘n Only Argan Oil Styling Cream into the ends and up to about an inch from the scalp. I scrunch my hair all over, and then apply Taliah Waajid’s Curly Curl Cream to the ends and up the sides and back (not the underside), scrunching continually to hold the curl.

I let it air dry and that's it. 

On no-wash days, I lightly comb through my hair. Immediately my hair frizzes out and turns semi-straight, but then I spray it all over with water and it seizes right up into curls, magic! After applying a little product to hold the curl, I'm good to go.

Sometimes, if my hair is feeling drier than normal, I rub in a few drops of Moroccan Oil, a sample from a friend’s bottle. (And another friend gave me a different product to try, too, but I haven’t sampled it yet.)

I am not a purist. A couple spots have (lots) less curl than others, so some days, if I’m feeling fancy, I will do a little touch-up with the curling iron. Most of the time, though, I wear my hair all natural. 

And guess what! Over the last few weeks, my husband’s irritation has shifted to admiration. Sometimes I catch him looking at my hair, a mystified half-smile on his face. “Wow,” he’ll say, “You really do have curly hair.”

Yes, m'darling, I guess I do!

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (11.7.16), the quotidian (11.9.15), for the time change, "How are you different now?", maple roasted squash, pumpkin cranberry cream cheese muffins.

Monday, November 6, 2017

the quotidian (11.6.17)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Over polenta: braised beef short ribs with black lentils.

Mousetracks in the butter.

Little Red, Voldemort, Trash.

#nudistonstrike (his words, not mine).

Sixteen hydrocodon pills prescribed to a teenager for a routine wisdom tooth (teeth?) extraction 
and in the middle of an opioid epidemic, too, ARE YOU FREAKIN' KIDDING ME?! 
(She took one and puked her guts out. Ibuprofen was much more effective.)

Smile for the camera, Chipmunk!

Airing a pillow + cat = fail.

Rewired: Christmas tree light plus battery.

When Stranger Things gets scary. 

This same time, years previous: musings from the coffee shop, awkward, bierocks, crispy cinnamon cookies, brown sugar icing.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

old-fashioned apple roll-ups

Um, about those apple dumplings, don’t make 'em.

I mean, you can make them, if you want, but — and my apologies for being so wishy-washy — I’ve got something better now: Old-Fashioned Apple Roll-Ups.

It’s the same recipe as the dumplings — and it’s actually from the same cookbook, just an adaptation that immediately follows the dumpling recipe — the only difference being that the apples are chopped and then rolled up in the biscuit dough (along with melted butter and brown sugar) a la sweet rolls. 

The method is sort of a disaster because the dough doesn’t roll very well and all the apples fall out but persevere. The apples cook directly in the syrup, which is most delightful, and the lower half of the biscuit drinks up a fair portion of the sauce which makes the stickiest, sweetest dumpling bottoms ever. Also, the apple roll-ups are way more manageable to eat — no more wrestling with oversized hunks of scalding hot apple — and it’s easier to serve, too: simply scoop out as little or as much as you like.

I added “old fashioned” to the title because only people who churn butter by hand, hoe potatoes by the blasted acre, and walk six miles to town (uphill both ways) can justify eating this much butter and sugar. (It's a good thing I'm not into justifying my food.)

* Media Break * 

Stranger Things (Netflix streaming)
Have you watched the second season yet? The first day it came out, my older son watched the entire thing. My husband and I have been a bit more measured; we are halfway through. (Though he just tried to pull me away from my writing to get me to watch another episode! And in the middle of the day, no less!)

Last night we watched two episodes and then had to decompress with some light reading. Once in bed, the lights off, we heard faint music. Was there a car outside? I opened the window but only quiet night-time noises came wafting in. Was our older son having a late-night dance party? My husband checked, but no, his light was off, too, the room perfectly quiet. And there were no noises from our older daughter’s room, either.

Back in our room, my husband turned off the fan so we could better detect where the sound was coming from. Briefly, the music disappeared all together, and then it came back, louder and louder and louder. What in the world? And then I recognized the music — the creepy theme song for Stranger Things! My husband opened the little storage cupboard above our built-in closet, and there sat my older son’s Bose speaker. My husband stomped down the hall to my son’s room, the blaring speaker in hand. From my bed, I could hear my son shrieking with laughter. That child! 

Beatriz at Dinner (got it from Red Box)
My husband watched about ten minutes of this before quitting — he can’t handle anything socially awkward and this movie is intensely awkward. I loved it. There were so many layers, so I had a lot to think about afterward. (And it also made me mad at my husband for not watching it because I wanted, needed, someone to process it with, grr.)

Jane The Virgin (Netflix streaming)
A funky blend of both mystery and comedy, my husband (!) and I are enjoying this show that spoofs telenovelas, the Catholic church, and Latin American culture. (I love seeing a Hispanic actor in the lead role — she’s fantastic.) Even though the characters are (hilariously, wildly) stereotypical, they (some more than others) still manage to be authentic.

Our Souls At Night (Netflix streaming)
I loved this movie, too: Slow and meandering, wonderful acting, intriguing premise. (And no, my husband didn’t watch it with me.)

* End Media Break *

Old-Fashioned Apple Roll-Ups 
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Feel free to add raisins and chopped walnuts or pecans to the filling, if that sort of thing makes you happy.

for the pastry:
2 cups flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup butter, cut into chunks
½ cup milk

for the filling:
6 baking apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
4 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar

for the syrup:
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter

To make the pastry: Stir together the dry ingredients. Using your fingers (or a food processor), cut in the butter. Add the milk and knead lightly to form a ball. Press into a rectangle, wrap in plastic, and chill in the refrigerator. (It can be refrigerated for a couple days, or frozen, if desired.)

To shape the roll-ups: Roll the dough into a large rectangle. Spread the melted butter over the pastry and then sprinkle with the half cup of brown sugar. Mound the chopped apples over top. Roll up the pastry as best you can and cut into eight pieces. Place the pieces in a 9x12 baking dish as best you can. Scoop up any pieces of apples that didn’t make the transfer and sprinkle them between the rolls.

To make the syrup: Put the sugar, water, and spices in a kettle over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Pour the hot syrup over and around the apple roll-ups.

Bake the roll-ups at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Serve warm, drowned in cold milk.

This same time, years previous: meatloaf, the quotidian (11.4.13), laid flat, lemon squares.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

apple dumplings

I’m a little discombobulated. My morning was busy, but in an “occupied but not really doing things” way: I took my daughter to get her wisdom teeth pulled (while I was in the waiting room, I read a substantial chunk of my book — it’s good!)…

...and then went to the bank and pharmacy before returning home to oversee chores and studies, help The Woozie One change her bloody gauze pads and take her meds — and then laughing uproariously at her when she drooled all over herself — and feed the kids leftovers (braised beef ribs over rice, sweet potato casserole, oatmeal, banana, apples and cheese, plus applesauce for the sicky).

I’m attempting to get back into writing the book, but it’s a hard shift to make. Carving out the space to think, uninterrupted, is really not that difficult, but somehow it feels almost insurmountable. So far, I’ve been scribbling “write 2 hours” on my day’s to-do list, but that’s not cutting it. Probably, I need to actually schedule blocks of writing time on the calendar, sigh.

Several of my friends (maybe you, too?) are participating in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), and even though they urged me to join them, I declined. I’ve been writing reams on my topic for years, and at breakneck speeds, too, but I’m at the point now where I need to inch along. So while they’re cranking out their fifty thousand this month, I’ll be doing fantastic if I hit four. Again, sigh. (But knowing so many other people are slogging away does give me energy, and that’s not nothing.)

I’ve been messing around in the kitchen a little more than normal. When it comes to cooking, one of my favorite parts is The Quest: tackling a new recipe, researching different methods, and then experimenting. In the book I’m reading, the author quotes Alice Waters who says of Edna Lewis: “She enjoyed a childhood that could only be described as idyllic, in which the never-ending hard work of farming and cooking both sustained and entertained an entire community.” I read that line and then I read it a couple more times because, hello YES. Even though my life is neither idyllic nor filled with never-ending farm work, the last part is absolutely true: cooking both sustains and entertains me.

Enter apple dumplings.

Earlier this week, I drove over to the orchard to get a bushel of apples — half Fuji for fresh eating, and then a mix of Granny Smith and Jonathan for baking (as well as a couple more gallons of cider and a bunch of butternut squashes because why not) — so now, along with beef, I have apples on the brain.

Yesterday, I plucked several of my most promising dumpling-esque cookbooks from the shelf and then sat down at the kitchen table to do research, finally settling on a recipe from the Mennonite Community Cookbook (and after toying with the ideal of systematically making every single apple recipe from that cookbook a la Julie and Julia). I was pretty sure I’d made dumplings before, but when I told the kids I was making then for supper, they were all like, Huh? What are apple dumplings? I guess if I made them before, then it was a long time before. Which is kind of sad because it feels like apple dumplings and a proper childhood ought to go hand-in-hand, don’t you think?

The dumplings were quite easy to slap together: peeled and cored apples (left whole), each one set atop a square of pastry, and then the apple's hollow insides filled with cinnamon sugar before bundling it up with pastry and placing the little package into the baking dish. A hot brown sugar and butter syrup, seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon, gets poured over and around the dumplings, and then, a couple times during baking, the syrup is spooned over the dumplings so that the sugar caramelizes the pastry, turning it golden brown and crunchy.

By the time the dumplings are done, the majority of the brown sugar sauce has boiled away, leaving a thick syrup in its place, and the entire kitchen smells like heaven.

We ate our dumplings hot with cold milk poured over top. And the leftover spiced syrup I saved, to swirl into our breakfast oatmeal.

Apple Dumplings
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Update, two days later: Before making these dumplings, check out this recipe. It's way better.

for the pastry:
2 cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup butter, cut into chunks
½ cup milk

for the fruit:
¼ cup white sugar
1-2 teaspoons cinnamon
6 tart baking apples, peeled and cored but left whole

for the syrup:
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups water
¼ teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter

To make the pastry: Stir together the dry ingredients. Using your fingers (or a food processor), cut in the butter. Add the milk and knead lightly to form a ball. Press into a rectangle, wrap in plastic, and chill in the refrigerator. (It can be refrigerated for a couple days, or frozen, if desired.)

Roll the dough into a large rectangle and cut into six squares. Place an apple on one square of pastry. Spoon some of the cinnamon sugar into the cavity. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the apple, pressing the edges closed with your fingers. Place the apple in a 9 x 13 glass pan. Repeat with the remaining apples and pastry.

To make the syrup: Put the sugar, water, and spices in a kettle over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Pour the hot syrup over and around the dumplings.

Bake the dumplings at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes, basting every 15 minutes or so. Serve warm, drowned in cold milk.

This same time, years previous: cinnamon pretzels, 2015 garden stats and notes, chatty time, for candy, cheesy broccoli potato soup, why I'm spacey, sweet and sour lentils, Greek yogurt, oatmeal bread, blessing hearts.