From letters to my Grandma Jan, January 2013
Saturday, Kyle and I took the boys to ride on calTrain; we went north to a town where the train station sits on the main street, right across from a big green park. We got coffees and the boys split a morning bun, and we walked in the freezing-for-here but sunny morning. We played for a long time at the playground, then wandered back up through the shopping district before riding home on the train. Jacob declared it “a wonderful-est day” and it was.
There are hyacinths plopped in the mud by the mailbox – candy-striped pink and aggressively cheerful. All of the rosemary in the yard is blooming and something about the blooming rosemary (I suppose it is seeds?) attracts flocks – flocks! – of finches. Jacob was the first to notice them one morning – they were hanging all over the rosemary, crowding onto it, and the colors – I don’t know that I ever realized how very many colors finches come in. There were sunny yellow ones, and bright golden ones, and raspberry colored ones and orange ones and even something turquoise that probably wasn’t a finch at all but was right there with them. Like some strange feathered jewelry collection, moving in unison and swooping out in the willow tree whenever something spooked them – and then they would be right back to the rosemary.
In somewhat related news, we saw what I think was a great blue heron. Jacob thinks it was a “great grey and brown and black heron,” and that is true too.
These first weeks of 2013, Jacob has made the leap from Duplos to little Lego blocks. He spends all the time he can with them, thrilled with how much more detailed his creations can be, with how the hinges and doors and wheels make the creations “more real”. This morning he spent an hour at the table by himself, hunkered down with one of the packages from his new set, and when he called me over to help him with something, lo and behold – he had built a little blue car!
He has been building with Kyle in the evenings and I don’t think I realized that he had become proficient in both snapping the little bricks together and following the picture-book instructions. He has a rainbow fleet of vehicles now, the centerpiece being tonight’s project with dad: a bright orange tow-truck. He’s hooked.
We have been roasting cabbage this winter, and it makes me think of you, since the only other cabbage I make that isn’t in soup is your stuffed cabbage recipe. But this cabbage is just roasted in wedges, with a little salt and olive oil, and we have been topping it with mustard. Kyle made the most wonderful mustard in December – it is a hot-sweet mustard and I will never live down the fact that when I first tasted it, I gagged and said it was DISGUSTING! Turned out that, after a few days in the fridge to mellow, it is AMAZING. But I can’t even look at it without Kyle teasing me – “Ah, so terrible that you’re going back for more?!” –
Anyway. I have been using the mustard to make a mustard-butter chicken, and the leftover pan sauce on the roasted cabbage … gosh, how do I describe this? It tastes at once new and exciting, but also like you could have found the recipe in the original Joy of Cooking. It is light and zesty and sort of vigorous – but at the same time, it is hearty and comforting and deeply familiar, like the best winter food should be. It’s no secret that this dinner wins big with Kyle – but not particularly being one for cabbage, chicken, OR mustard, I’m surprised by how much it has become a favorite with me. It is the signature dish for this January, that’s for sure.
Lucas got this terrific garbage truck for Christmas. It looks just like a real one, and came with several cans. Lucas still cheers “Yaaaaayyy!” when it is garbage day and the trucks come rumbling down the street – he has confounded these things, and while he can now say ‘garbage’ pretty well he still calls garbage trucks “Yay Trucks” and garbage cans “Yay Cans.” (He says this, if you can imagine, as though yay were a two syllable word: Yay-Yee). Lucas’s buddy has a similar truck and at a recent play-date they came to blows over them – with Lucas screaming “Yay-yee truck!” and little Hollis yelling “Garbage day!” as they both tried to yank the truck from the other.
I have to send J and L out of the kitchen while I make my tea because they’re having so much loud, laughy, bouncing fun together. Jacob can make Lucas giggle like no one else can, and he can also get Lucas to participate in any of the raucous and riotous good times he dreams up. Every day, we have a new band performing a concert, a new human train ricocheting through the house with two eager conductors, a new rocket ship launching on a trip to Mars, Jupiter, or just plain old Outer Space. I think the bands are my favorite: Jacob is playing a child-sized electric guitar with a mini amp these days, which means Lucas has taken over the little acoustic. Sooner or later the concert ends when someone gets bashed with a guitar – they’re legitimate rock stars, after all.
There’s a middle school a town over that has a huge flat top yard, like a prison yard – all concrete and basketball hoops and painted track lines. Kyle and I took the boys there to ride bikes and play with super bouncy balls: they would have stayed forever if we hadn’t needed to come home. Jacob flies across the asphalt on his balance bike, whooping and hollering and you’d never know that just last summer he was barely starting to get the hang of it. When they learn to walk, there’s this sort of slow and natural progression, and even once they’re walking they’re not really moving all that fast – (well, maybe except for Lucas) – I imagine this bike riding might be what it feels like, sort of, when they learn to drive. He’s using his body, yes, but the motion and the speed and the momentum are all so much bigger than he is.
Lucas meanwhile is still riding the wheely bug, using it like a sled: there’s a slight slope to the school yard, and so he hauled the bug up to the top, and then rode it down, each time with repeated hollers – “ready – set – GO!”
In all this cold we’ve been building Keva Contraptions, making play-dough, playing hide-and-go-seek. Today we braved it outside though – the sky was so blue and we needed some air. We played with some friends we hadn’t seen in a while; there was bike riding, and jungle gym climbing, and much studying of the big kids playing touch football on the concrete. Then when we were all chilled through, the setting sun was firing its arms from behind a gray cloud so that the playground and the trees and the chain link fence were gilded gold, and it was beautiful. We tumbled fresh and chilly and well-spent, across the street and into our friends’ cozy house. We had tea and cookies and warm pear cider, and I got to hold a chubby and smiling baby who has just reached that delicious giggly-cooing age. 40 degrees feels so cold here, but really it is just enough of a chill that you get the pleasure of warming back up. It’s a good kind of feeling.
Roasted Cabbage with Mustard-Butter Chicken
The roasted cabbage recipe I have been using (and using, and using) this week is based on a post from Sarah at The Yellow House, whose frilly wedges of savoy caught my eye. Roasting cabbage this way is brilliant: it is everything we love about brussels sprouts, without twenty minutes of peeling and trimming. Just rinse, dry, chop, roast. The edges are crisp-crackled and salty, while the insides are sweet-soft and melty. Served with a drizzle of mustard thinned with olive oil or water, or an awesome mustard vinaigrette, they are unbeatable as a vegan side dish or lunch. But then – plated alongside this chicken, with the buttery mustardy sauce in a puddle for dipping, these cabbage wedges have risen instantly to cult status at our house. I declare, emphatically, that this is our new favorite vegetable.
Mustard-butter chicken is one of the stalwarts of our marriage, and I don’t remember where we originally got the idea or the recipe. But almost anyone you meet has a recipe for mustard chicken: this just happens to be a very good one. For many years, we used chicken breasts – and sometimes, we have also added a panko crust, or played around with baking them, or tried cutting back the butter. These days, I’m a fan of air-chilled organic chicken thighs on the rare occasion that we use parts instead of whole chickens. They are cheaper, tastier, and far less likely to dry out, butter or no. I am to buy 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, which for our family easily gives a good size dinner plus leftovers for Kyle’s lunch. If you tend to eat more than 1/4 pound of meat per person, you can easily adjust the recipe. Also, I use my largest cast iron skillet, because it is easier to reduce the sauce that way, but a Dutch oven or even a crock pot could do wonders here, if you wanted your meat to be shreddably tender.
For the cabbage:
2 small savoy cabbages
1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Using a large, sharp knife, quarter the cabbage. For us, quarters were plenty small enough as our cabbages are quite small, but cut eighths if you need to. Trim away any ugly brown ends, but leave the core intact to hold the wedges together while they’re roasting. Arrange the wedges on baking sheets and drizzle with olive oil. Rub the oil in to the wedges, coating all sides, and then sprinkle all sides liberally with kosher salt. Roast the cabbage for 30 minutes, turning the wedges half way through so that they get browned and crisped on all sides. If you don’t want dark-crisp edges, you can take them out a little earlier (we find the crisp parts to be the best parts though, so we might not invite you over for dinner).
Plate the cabbage while it is warm. I have been eating this drizzled with thinned-out mustard, but a nice vinaigrette is a good idea, crumbly-crisp bacon would be perfect for some people I know, and a puddle of sauce from the mustard-butter chicken is probably the very best thing of all. (Served together, this is dinner party material just waiting to happen.)
For the chicken:
2 teaspoons grapeseed oil
1 1/4 pounds chicken thighs
Once cooked through, remove thighs from pan, raise heat to high, and cook, stirring constantly, letting sauce reduce just until it coats your spoon (about five minutes, maybe a little more). Turn heat to low and return thighs to pan, turning them to coat with the sauce and gently heat back through.
Serve at once, or cover pan and reheat later with a little stock or water to thin the sauce.
Kyle’s Hot-Sweet Mustard
This is based on the mustard recipe from the women of Canal House that appeared in the December 2012 Bon Appetit. Kyle loves it because it reminds him of a certain pretzel-dipping mustard from Lancaster County that he really misses. He has seriously eaten about 95% of this batch of mustard on top of crunchy little pretzels, when he is not eating it straight from a spoon. My brother Dan is also a big fan of this one, likening it to his favorite mustard – that is, Mendocino mustard’s hot & sweet mustard – but saying that it is, actually, even better. And even if you’re not as mustard-devoted as those two, in a pretty Weck glass jar this stuff can turn that bottle of Pliny and bag of pretzels into a respectable hostess gift.
Christopher and Melissa call for an entire 4 ounce tin of Colman’s mustard powder in their version of this recipe, and they are speaking Kyle’s mustard language – that is, HOT (and sweet). If you, like me, are more Hot and Sweet – I’d suggest using 3 ounces instead. Colman’s packs a punch!
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
3 to 4 ounces of Colman’s mustard powder
1 cup good-quality apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey (preferably a nice grade B such as my current obsession, the wonderful Avocado Honey from Lynne Bottazzo)
3 large eggs, beaten well to blend
Whisk the brown sugar and the mustard powder. Add the vinegar and the honey and mix well until very smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large metal bowl (I like to use the one from our stand mixer, which makes a nice pseudo double-boiler). Add the eggs and whisk until everything is smooth and well-blended.
Set the bowl over a large saucepan of barely simmering water. It is important that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water, as that will scramble the eggs! Cook, whisking well the entire time, until the mustard is thickening and reaches 160 F (this takes about five minutes). The mustard will continue to thicken and mellow as it ages, and it tastes best if you let it sit for a few days before eating it. It will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 months.