The Tree That Fought Back

I take after my dad in a lot of ways.

I have his long limbs, his chin, and his impulsive, daredevil streak. 

Combining the colt-length arms and legs with shared underdeveloped coordination means we frequently require first aid.

When I was four, we lived in Mobile Dad was sent to Connecticut for some type of Coast Guard continuing education school.  The rest of us stayed in Alabama.

Mrs. Cotter was a widow in Connecticut who rented rooms in her home for Coast Guardsmen who came from away to attend the school.  That’s where Dad stayed.

One afternoon, Mrs. Cotter mentioned a tree that needed to come down.  My dad volunteered to chop it down with an ax.

He made pretty good progress until he missed.

As the tibia and fibula are much more fragile than a tree, he came darn close to chopping off his leg.  Luckily, he only gave himself a particularly grisly multiple fracture.

After receiving the call, Mom packed all of us kids, luggage, and baby supplies into our very small, very old Opal, and we were on our way to a stately old home in New England—around 1300 miles away.

The house seemed like the largest oldest house I’d ever been in.  There were three floors and an attic that probably served as a model for every creepy attic in every TV show and movie ever made. 

My mom spent her days at the hospital along with Bud, because he was too young to be away from her.  I stayed with Mrs. Cotter and her hired man.

Mrs. Cotter was old.  She was the type of widow for which walks were made.  She may have had kids, but they might have died in the Civil War or gone looking to make their fortunes in the California gold rush.  I don’t think her hired man had ever seen a child.

It was as though a Keds-wearing, fairy tale-loving Martian had been plopped down among them. 

They asked what I’d like for lunch each day. 

I requested peanut butter & jelly, but what I meant was Goober Grape, the concoction with ingredients swirled together in a jar.  But at home, we just called it peanut butter & jelly.  The very first lunch Mrs. Cotter began making my sandwich, and I saw that it came from two different jars, and was spread on separate slices of bread.

“I want it mixed!” It was an objection that was only a little about the lunch.  It was mainly a cry about being little and missing my dad, and scary hospitals, and awful, long car rides, and mom being gone all day, and staying in a strange, boring, old house, with strange old people who didn’t even know anything about kids.

Mrs. Cotter and her hired man had an intense, whispered consultation, and she scraped the bread clean.  A dollop of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly were feverishly stirred, then the resulting melange was triumphantly transferred back to bread. 

They set the sandwich in front of me and stepped back.

It wasn’t what I wanted.  It wasn’t even close.  I’d lost my appetite.  All I wanted was to curl up in my daddy’s lap and have a good, long cry.

I was poised to run out of the room in dramatic fashion, and give in to my sadness, fatigue, and disappointment, when I looked up into their nervous, smiling, hopeful faces. “How is it?”

For the first time in my short life, I thought before I spoke.  I realized it was tough for them too, and they were trying.

“It’s yummy.  It’s perfect.  Thank you.”

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

From Brussels, With Love

There is a musical instrument called, literally, jingle bells.  It’s a short, thick wooden baton, upon which are fastened bells, each around the size of a kumquat.   This time of year, it’s one of the most overworked instruments.

The name though is kind of weird.  “Jingle” bells—bells jingle, that’s their sound.  That’s like having a toot horn, a pound drum, or a strum guitar.

But nobody asked me, so…

I bring up this onomatopoeia-nstrument, not because of the season, or even the music it makes, but its appearance. 

As you may have guessed from the title, this week’s food is Brussel’s sprouts.  Many people have only seen them as loose little cabbages in a bag or the produce bin.  But, they are sometimes sold on the stalk, which keeps them fresher longer.

On the stalk, Brussels sprouts look exactly like jingle bells, only Brussels sprout-colored.

I love them.  I love them so much, I still love them when they’re overcooked and “aromatic”.  The aroma, mushy texture, and extra bitterness that overcooking imparts is the main reason these poor, maligned veggies are so disliked by so many people.

If you’re not a fan, Gentle Reader, this week I’d like to give you a few reasons to try them one more time.

When you get them home from the store, that’s a good time to prep them.  Then when you want to cook them, almost all of your work is done. 

First, though, how does one pick out good sprouts?

Their color should range from sage green to white.  They should be tight, and neither wilted nor slimy.  The cut end should not have any dark dots.  The leaves should be tight, and they should feel solid in the hand.

So, run out to the store, and pick out a couple pounds of beautiful sprouts. 

Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Brussels Sprouts Prep Procedure

Start by rinsing off each sprout, then cutting off the bottom, and peeling any leaves that are no longer attached.  If you plan on cooking them whole, You’re ready.  But I always cut them in half vertically, so the cut side can get some nice browning.

Then get a very heavily salted pot of water on to boil.  Also, prepare a large bowl of salted ice water.  We’re going to blanch them (quickly boil) and shock (instantly stop the cooking, cool them, and set the color).

When the water boils, put in the sprouts and cook until the color brightens, and you can just start to smell a vegetal aroma (3-5 minutes).  Remove with a slotted spoon and place in ice water until they are cool through, then drain well.

Either go to the next step of cooking, or store in a zip-top bag in fridge for 3 days or freeze for a month. 

There is a third option; slice or shred the veg.  You can do this quickly and easily with the cutting disk on a food processor.  You can also use a mandolin or a very sharp knife.  You can then cook them without blanching and shocking.

Braised and Caramelized Brussel Sprouts

1 ½ pounds cleaned sprouts

1/3 cup white wine

1/3 cup water

4 tablespoons butter, divided

Salt & pepper

Place veg, wine, water, 3 tablespoons butter and a pinch each of salt and pepper into skillet.  Cover and cook on medium until sprouts are tender, but not mushy (6-8 minutes).

Uncover and cook until liquid’s cooked out and sprouts are starting to color.  Flip and let other side brown.

Stir in the other tablespoon of butter to pick up any browning on skillet and give Brussel Sprouts a nice, buttery gloss.  Check for seasoning.

Serves 6-ish.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The Second Annual Indy Week Virtual Holiday Potluck

The Potluck is in this week’s Indy!

We’ve got most of last year’s participants and some new ones, including comic actress and arts and crafts goddess, Amy Sedaris. Each recipe shared is included, and Durham Distillery invented two cocktails for us, one is take on a martini using their Conniption Gin, and a sweet creamy punch using their chocolate and coffee Damn Fine Liqueurs.

This project was tons of fun, and I hope you enjoy the results. Plus the Indy called it “a Tradition”, so you know what that means…

Thanks for your time.

I’ll Jingle Some Bells For Ya

It’s time, once again, to share a semi-shameful secret with you, Gentle Reader.

I’ve been listening to holiday music since the first week of November. 

I just love it.  On my MP3 player are roughly 218 Christmas songs organized in nine albums.  But the Johnny Mathis classic, Merry Christmas is as much a part of me as my eyeglasses, the tiny gold hoop earrings I never remove, and colossal love of frosting.  Recorded in 1958, it has been the holiday soundtrack for my entire life (Mom was a big Johnny fan).

For me, Christmas time doesn’t begin until I hear that celesta (a percussion instrument that looks like a piano and sounds like bells) play the opening of “Winter Wonderland”.

After lo, these many years listening to holiday-specific music, shockingly, I have some opinions and questions.

Listening to the 1952 ditty, “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”stresses me terribly.  So, who exactly is this Santa?  Is it the actual Santa?  Because in that case, is Mommy married to another, and cheating with the jolly fat man?  Is it another person in a costume?  Then, same question. 

Is the singer, who I can only assume is a child, completely innocent, and finds it funny that Mommy is kissing Santa?  Or is this kid much more sophisticated?  In that case, the lyrics, “Oh, what a laugh it would have been If Daddy had only seen…” are much more sinister.  Is the little spy working up a little “quid pro quo”?  “Gee, Santa, it sure would be a shame if my emotionally unstable father, with access to weapons, were to somehow find out about what’s going on here…I think a bicycle might make me forget all about the events that took place tonight.”

It makes me very uneasy.

Rudolph, OMG, that poor little congenitally challenged guy.  This song normalizes and defends bullying.  And not just bullying, but it justifies the objectification and exploitation of Rudolph.  Oh yeah, he’s a freak nobody wants anything to do with; until they need him.  Then he’s everybody’s best friend and a big hero. 

And what happens on the 26th, when they don’t need him anymore?  I’ll tell you what.  It’s, “Get away from us weirdo.  Why don’t you go dance on thin ice?  Your beak blinks like a blinkin’ beacon!” 

Those ungrateful buttheads don’t even deserve him.  I would’ve bailed out of that sleigh over the Swiss Alps and let ‘em find their own way home.

The only good thing about the song is that it sings the names of all the reindeer which helps me remember them.  

Oh, Mariah Carey.  She truly is a legend.  First, can we talk about those notes she hits and her singing range?  As Petey would say, “What the what?”

But her song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, is a marvel.  It took 15 minutes to write and compose in 1994.  This song is now the number one selling holiday song by a woman.  It has broken records for Christmas music all over the world.  It’s made, in fifteen years, $60 million.  It’s been covered by artists such as Miley Cyrus, My Chemical Romance, and Michael Buble.

The song itself, despite the money it’s generated, is anti-commercial.  When other songs ask Santa for all types of commercial goods (Can you say, “Santa Baby”?), all the singer wants is the “You”, the object of the song.

And if you’re like The Kid, who reacts to Christmas music the way Anna Wintour reacts to the sight of a bedazzled Walmart sweatshirt, I have two things to say to you:

Merry Christmas!

and

Lighten up!

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Mom’s Magical Christmas Cookies 2019

My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.

Then you take a bite. 

And fall off your chair.

The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some.  We can’t figure them out.  How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch?  We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.

When Kid was in college, Gramma baked a batch freshman year and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.

Those NECI people had no idea what they were in for.

There were probably four dozen cookies in the box.  The Kid ate some and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.

Not my mother. An actual random grandmother.

Nobody was very enthused to be offered boring baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina.  My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample.  If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.

Then one person took one.  Eyes lit up, and word got around.  People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections.  Chef-instructors approached The Kid to ask when Gramma would send more.

When making them, I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients. 

Don’t. 

Something about the synthesis of these particular components is the secret of the amazing results.  Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).

When icing the cookies; more is better.  A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right.  Sprinkle each one right after frosting it, so the decoration sticks.

These are not the gorgeous showstoppers of the cookie platter.  In fact, they kind of look like near-sighted kindergarteners put them together.  But, that’s part of the charm.  The astonishing deliciousness is all the more special for their, shall we say…rustic countenance?

About two weeks before Christmas, Mom has a frosting party. Everyone shows up and decorates hundreds of cookies.  We have lunch, and then negotiate how many cookies we can take home.

There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.

You’d think, awesome!   You’d think we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.

Yeah, not so much.

Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when cookies are intentionally broken.  And that woman has a mom-eye glare that can chill your very soul.

So, we usually only scarf about two per session.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Preheat oven to 400°.

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk (whole or 2%)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift dry ingredients into bowl.  With mixer, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse meal.  Blend in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Roll out to 1/8-inch and cut into shapes. 

Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden.  Remove to cooling rack.

Frost cookies when they’re completely cooled.  Makes about 1 ½ dozen.

Mom’s Frosting

1-pound box powdered sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 scant teaspoon cream of tartar

1/3 cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg white

¼ cup of water (or less)

1 tablespoon vanilla

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For decorating: gel food coloring & holiday sprinkles

Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together.  Put water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it’s creamy and fluffy. Dye in festive colors.  Let the cookies sit out overnight to set the frosting.

Otherwise Known As Fentris

Every time I hear singer Joe Jackson on the radio I think of Vinton.  He loved Joe Jackson, an unassuming British singer in a sea of outrageous 1980s acts.  

Vinton was funny and well-read.  He was also very thoughtful—thoughtful of other people, and thoughtful about ideas, and thoughtful of the world around him.  He was smart, but discreet in sharing it.  In a small Southern town, and within our friend group, smart was allowed, but smart-aleck was better. 

He adored my mother, and she loved him.  He was in and out of our house just like the rest of my friends, and attended her Christmas cookie decorating parties every year.  But he always had a special word for her, and a shared private laugh with her.

Years earlier, because of my extreme fondness of Mr. Bell’s invention, I’d picked up the nickname, “Little Debbie Digit, Queen of the rotary dial”.  It had been shortened to Digit. 

But to Vinton I was Didge.  He was the only person on the planet that called me that, and the only person on the planet who I would have ever let call me that.

Among his many jobs when we were young, he worked at the hospital at the same time I did.  When someone called him, they called the main switchboard, and he’d be paged.

 Vinton’s last name was Turnburke.  The first time the operator paged him, she called for “Vincent Turner”.  It became a running gag.  Each time she paged him, she’d make up some convoluted mishmash that vaguely sounded like Vinton Turnburke.

One evening I heard a page for “Fentris Parker”.  When I saw him in the hall later, I told him that that was the best name she’d made up yet.

He said, “I liked it too.  But the funny thing is, I went to elementary school with a kid called ‘Fentris Parker’!”

 Vinton and I spent so much time together, got along so well, and were so fond of each other, we decided it would be logical to begin dating.  It made perfect sense.

Until we kissed.

It was like licking a battery. 

It was then that we learned that logic has nothing to do with romance.  We loved each other fiercely, but it was the deepest of friendships, which we cherished as much as the relationships we each had with our own spouses.

He settled in South Carolina, and when we spoke on the phone, he’d always say, “What’s going on, Didge?”  And we’d talk for hours, transported back to those days in Elizabeth City, instantly as close and familiar as we ever were.

He was my rock.  I always knew he was there, and no matter what, no matter when, he’d be there for me.

I can’t remember that last time I spoke to Vinton, but it’s been a while.  You know, life gets in the way, and you tell yourself you’ll call and check in soon.

His wife Barbara called last week.  After a short but ugly illness, Vinton passed away. 

My friend, that very special chunk of my heart, was no more.  I wish I could remember the last time I talked to him.  I wish I could have said goodbye, and told him I loved him, one more time.

It sucks and it hurts.

Gentle Reader, don’t do this to yourself.  Call them.  You know the one.  The one you love, but take for granted that you’ll get around to.  Knock it off.  Call them now, listen to their voice, tell them you love them, and hear them tell you they love you.

Just call them.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.

…And See What’s On The Slab

So if you’ve been following along, you have in your fridge or freezer right now, The Kid’s cornmeal piecrust.

Now what?

Well, this week we talk fillings.

Because we want to do this crust justice, we’re making a slab pie.

It’s pie made on a sheet pan, rather than that pie tin.  It’s easier, attractive, and feeds a crowd.  It’s actually pretty perfect for a Thanksgiving feast—savory as part of the meal, or sweet, for dessert.

Both pies have no-bake fillings; which means the crust needs to be prebaked.  The pan we’ll use is a half-sheet pan.  The exact specs differ from company to company, but the approximate dimensions are 18’ X 13’, with a 1-inch lip around it.

As for pie crust, you’ll need the entire cornmeal crust, or if you’re using your own, a double crust, or for a storebought roll-out like a Pillsbury, both crusts (stack them and roll them to size).  You want to roll the crust the size of the pan, with enough to go up the sides, and an extra bit for a pretty crimp on the top.

Once rolled out and formed into the pan, refrigerate it for about an hour to reharden the pastry.  Then bake at 450° for 15-20 minutes or until it’s completely cooked through.  Let it cool completely before filling.  This will be the serving vessel, so if your pan’s a little scruffy, like mine (and frankly, me, this time of year), you can cover it with foil, and hey presto, shiny and ready to party.

Slab or conventional, homemade or store-bought, eating in or dining out, may you and yours eat some wonderful food, enjoy friends and family, and put your feet up—that holiday marathon starts tomorrow!

From the Matthews Family Band to yours, Gentle Reader, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.   

Mushroom Onion Filling

2 pounds mixed mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

4 yellow onions, sliced into half-moons

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup butter

½ cup cognac

Salt & pepper

½ pound Chapel Hill Creamery Farmer’s cheese (place in freezer for 20 minutes prior to using for easier cutting)

Place mushrooms, onions, butter, thyme, and big pinches of salt and pepper into large, heavy pot with cover.  Cook on medium and stir gently until butter is melted.  Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes until moisture has released from veg.  Uncover and cook, stirring often until veg are browned and moisture is completely cooked out.

Pour in cognac and stir, getting up bits on bottom.  Cook until totally dry.  Store mushrooms in fridge.  Cover crust and leave on counter up to 24 hours.

To serve: Turn on broiler.  Warm veg in microwave.  Spread over crust and dot all over with cheese.  Place under broiler and watching constantly, cook until cheese is melty and beginning to brown.  Scatter the fresh parsley across the top before serving.

Serves 18-24.

Now, for the sweet:

Carolina Pecan Cream Pie

2 cups heavy whipping cream

½ cup powdered sugar

4-8 oz. bars cream cheese softened

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup dark corn syrup

3 cups finely chopped, toasted pecans

big pinch of salt

Combine heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar in bowl. Beat until stiff peaks form.

In separate bowl, combine softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and corn syrup. Beat until combined and creamy.

Fold whipped cream into cream cheese mixture until combined. Stir in 2 cups chopped pecans and salt.

Spread mixture into baked and completely cooled crust. Sprinkle remaining pecans on top. Cover and let refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight before serving.

Serves 24.