Saturday, November 17, 2012

An early Thanksgiving

A million people gathered tonight for the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Parade down Michigan Avenue, celebrating the start of the holiday season in Chicago.

A couple of blocks east, I was straightening a Thanksgiving-themed paper tablecloth on a table in the nurses' lounge, the parade on the television behind me. My fellow volunteers set up trays of Thanksgiving cookies.

Today is World Prematurity Day, a day to raise awareness of premature birth. As part of the day, I volunteered through the March of Dimes to host a Thanksgiving dinner for the NICU nurses and doctors at Prentice Women's Hospital, where both Jack and Jossie were born. My fellow NICU grad parents and I provided Thanksgiving dishes and decorations to thank the staff for their service.

What a good, good evening. There's probably not a nicer group of people - a roomful of nurses - to make you feel good about life.  They were very appreciative of our efforts but in our eyes, we can never do enough to say thank you for taking care of our babies. I had the honor of seeing a few of "our" nurses who cared for Jossie. They loved seeing pictures of her today and hearing how well she is doing.

For anyone who has experienced something tough in their life and that would probably be all of us, I hope you get to experience this type of full-circle moment. Twenty-two months ago today, Jossie was born and it was scary. Twenty-two months later, I'm eating pumpkin pie and enjoying the company of some very, very nice and caring people. That was pretty cool. As I headed through the halls of the NICU to leave, the smells and the sounds so familiar, I felt a little lighter in spite of myself.

Reality hits me in the elevator. I see a family and I know that everything is not okay. A million people two blocks away are enjoying the revelry of the parade, and I know this family is not okay. Their life is their loved one's medical fight right now; the outside world is so foreign.

Life is messy and all over the place - kind of like this post. My wish to you is that the high of your highs is much greater than the low of your lows. Good night, my friends.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A mother's memories

Jack bounced on me this morning at 6:22 a.m. and asked me if it was still his birthday.

No, I replied. It's over.

We had a great weekend, and now I'm exhausted. My house is a disaster, and Roscoe the cat puked under our dining room table. I'll clean it up eventually.

Planning special events is a part of my professional work but I still get worked up about planning family events - guests in town; a kids' birthday blow-out Saturday afternoon; and a casual dinner party Saturday night. Everything went better than expected but I have to say, the best moments were the unplanned ones. Cherished memories - the moments I will hold most closely to my heart - include:
  • After Jack's preschool class had cupcakes Friday to celebrate Jack's birthday, the teacher turned on the music and the kids had a spontaneous dance party. While many of the boys stood to the side, Jack and his friend Nicholas were right there in the thick of it, letting the girls grab their hands and dance in circles. It was just fun - being kids and being silly.
  • Jack's cousin Andrew slept over. They fell asleep in the same twin bed, arms intertwined. 
  • Last night, we had some of our family and friends over for dinner. Sitting at the dining room table, it was just really nice. And maybe that's the wine talking.
  • Jeremy's parents bought Jack a bike today. We took him to a park to practice. It's a mild day in Chicago, and Jack was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and his new Star Wars watch from BFF Charlie. We watched him ride his bike joyfully, his scrawny little arms and hands gripping the handles. It was pure joy for him.
  • Jossie and her piece of birthday cake. Enough said.

Go get 'em this week!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Happy birthday to Jack

Jack, we have seen you grow from a vocal, passionate baby into a vocal, passionate little boy.

You are loved, and you are loving. As you whispered into my ear at bedtime earlier this week, you’ll always be my baby. Still small enough for cuddles but growing into a wonderful , boundary-pushing individual and a watchful big brother of Jossie. Happy five years, my love.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Autumn supper club

This year, a group of friends, Jeremy and I started a supper club. Our aspirations were set high - flaming desserts and the like were what we strove for. Saturday night's get-together did not disappoint. Three words for you: blue cheese air.

Our theme and main dish is set by the host; last night's theme was "harvest." It was perfectly appropriate for this early-November night - a lovely gathering of friends around a festive table, lit by candlelight.

Appetizers and a cocktail
Cider-bourbon cocktail

Serves 2

3/4 cup apple cider
1/3 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 (2 1/2-inch-long) thin slices fresh peeled ginger
2 thin slices lady apple, for garnish

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and ginger; shake to combine. Strain cocktail into 2 coupes. Garnish with apple slices.

Ricotta-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates
From Good Deal with Dave Lieberman
1 pound bacon
25 Medjool dates
1/3 cup ricotta cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Cut the bacon in half lengthwise to make twice as many slices. Set aside. To remove the pits from the dates, cut the tips off each end of the dates and insert the flat end of the skewer until it pushes the pit out of the date. Repeat with remaining dates.

Place the ricotta in the bottom corner of a strong plastic bag and seal tightly. Use scissors to cut a small hole in the tip of 1 of the corners. Now use the bag like a piping bag to fill the dates with the cheese.

Wrap the ricotta stuffed dates with a slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick through the belly of the date. Arrange all the prepared dates on a parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing at least a little space between each one for good browning. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes or until bacon is browned and crispy. Remove from the baking sheet and gently remove toothpicks. Serve immediately.

Figs with prosciutto and blue cheese air 
10-12 figs
1/2 lb prosciutto
Good balsamic vinegar
2/3 cup milk
4 oz blue cheese
1 teaspoon soy lecithin granules (found in Whole Foods health section)
Microgreens for garnish

Crumble blue cheese and combine with milk in a bowl.  Soak for a couple hours until milk absorbs the cheese flavor.  Strain milk from cheese into another bowl.

Cut figs into quarters. Arrange fig pieces, prosciutto and microgreens on a platter.  Drizzle with balsamic.

Pour soy lecithin into cheese-flavored milk.  Create foam with immersion blender.  Dollop foam over the figs and prosciutto and serve.

Main dish
Roasted game hens with caramelized root vegetables and dried-currant sauce
Adapted from

Serves 6

Caramelized root vegetables
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 medium rutabagas, peeled, cut into 1/3-inch cubes (about 3 cups)
2 medium turnips, peeled, cut into 1/3-inch cubes (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1/3-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
2 large parsnips, peeled, cut into 1/3-inch cubes (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 medium butternut squash
2 (7.25-ounce) jars whole roasted peeled chestnuts, halved
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated orange peel
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon juniper berries,* crushed in mortar with pestle
6 (1-pound) Cornish game hens, thawed if frozen, rinsed, patted dry

3 oranges
a handful of thyme sprigs

1/4 cup dried currants

*Available in the spice section of most supermarkets.

For caramelized root vegetables:
Melt butter with oil in very large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes. Add rutabagas and next 4 ingredients; sauté until vegetables are caramelized and tender, stirring often, about 30 minutes. Stir in chestnuts, garlic, and thyme; sauté 5 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper. Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring frequently, until heated through before serving.

For hens:
Mix 1/4 cup thyme, shallots, oil, orange peel, garlic, and crushed juniper berries in small bowl for marinade. Rub marinade all over hens. Place hens in large roasting pan; cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Sprinkle hens with salt and pepper. Stuff cavities of hen with 1/2 orange and a few thyme sprigs. Roast until hens are cooked through and juices run clear when thighs are pierced with fork, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from oven.

Pour pan juices from hens into small saucepan; add dried currants and remaining 1 tablespoon thyme. Boil until liquid is reduced to 1 cup, about 5 minutes (sauce will be thin). Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

Place 1 hen half on each plate. Divide caramelized vegetables among plates. Spoon sauce over hens and serve.

Balsamic-roasted Brussels sprouts
From Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust

1½ pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half through the core
4 ounces pancetta, sliced ¼ inch thick
¼ cup good olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon syrupy balsamic vinegar (see note)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place the Brussels sprouts on a sheet pan, including some of the loose leaves, which get crispy when they’re roasted. Cut the pancetta into ½-inch dice and add to the pan. Add the olive oil, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and toss with your hands. Spread out the mixture in a single layer.

Roast the Brussels sprouts for 20 to 30 minutes, until they’re tender and nicely browned and the pancetta is cooked. Toss once during roasting. Remove from the oven, drizzle immediately with the balsamic vinegar, and toss again. Taste for seasonings and serve hot.

Note: You can buy aged balsamic vinegar that’s syrupy—and very expensive—or you can boil good balsamic vinegar until reduced to half its volume and it will become syrupy as well.

Sweet potato casserole
From my mom

4 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes (4 medium-sized)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup 2% milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine above ingredients thoroughly  making sure to cool potatoes slightly before adding eggs. Place in a greased baking dish and sprinkle with topping (I halved the topping). Bake for 30 minutes.

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Blend together brown sugar, nuts and butter. Add in flour and stir to combine.

Old-Fashioned Apple (and Pear) Crisp
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties That Are Really Fun

Serves 10

2.5 pounds Anjou Pears
2.5 pounds McIntosh or Macoun apples
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the topping:

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 pound cold unsalted butter, diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9 by 14 by 2-inch oval baking dish.

Peel, core, and cut the apples into large wedges. Combine the apples with the zests, juices, sugar, and spices. Pour into the dish.

To make the topping, combine the flour, sugars, salt, oatmeal, and cold butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until the mixture is crumbly and the butter is the size of peas. Scatter evenly over the apples.

Place the crisp on a sheet pan and bake for 1 hour until the top is brown and the apples are bubbly. Serve warm.

It was a wonderful evening with good food and friends with numerous bottles of wine and stories shared. Happy election week ahead...

Friday, November 2, 2012

Desperately seeking Ina

Coconut cupcakes.

Those were the words I planned to say to Ina Garten at her book-signing today at the Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, Ill. Ten years ago, my then-roommate Emily came home from her friend's bridal shower and was raving about the coconut cupcakes that someone had made from a Barefoot Contessa cookbook. We did our research, bought The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, and discovered her new show on Food Network. A love affair began. Since Jeremy's parents have a house in East Hampton, NY, where Ina's show is based, I am not afraid to frequent (or stalk, call it what you want) many of Ina's favorite haunts, like The Seafood Shop and Loaves and Fishes. My sister Laura and I once stopped at the Bridgehampton Florist, hoping to see the owner Michael, a frequent guest on Ina's show.

And I have been known to slowly ride my mother-in-law's bicycle past Ina's tall hedges, in hopes that Ina might be out in the driveway and would wave me in for a drink in her garden.

One can dream.

Alas, due to the storms out east (my New York-dwelling in-laws are fine, by the way - sister-in-law is still without power but hoping it will be restored tomorrow), the book tour was understandably postponed. I did not do my research ahead of time, so Jossie and I were dismayed to see this sign this morning when we arrived at the bookstore.

I will probably not be able to make it to the rescheduled signing, so I will resume my quest to run into Ina next summer.

I had anticipated that we'd have some time on our hands regardless of the book-signing, so I had signed Jossie up for a trial Gymboree class. The instructor was enthusiastic and engaging. (When we first arrived, he tried making small talk with my 21-month-old about her Halloween costume. She just gave him her signature wilting stare but quickly warmed up.)  Jossie loves to dance and move and had the best time.

As we sat in a circle at the end, I brushed my lips against the back of her head and held her close.

It hit me then how little time I really get with my daughter one-on-one, with her being the youngest and me working full-time. She is good about fitting in and going with Jack's flow but it was nice to see her personality on her own. I love watching her with other kids - she quietly surveys her fellow students. One adorable little boy was tugging on a colorful fabric tunnel in class, and Jossie jumped in and started tugging the other side of the tunnel, gauging his reaction.

So the cancelled book-signing did not ruin our day. It was really nice to have this time with Jossie, my little love. I can only imagine what life will give this mother-daughter duo. Maybe someday she'll join me for that bike ride past Ina's house.

Happy Friday, loves.