Seize the day

Not long ago, I helped to organize the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which brought together talented published authors, writers who wished to learn from them, and appreciative readers who sought to immerse themselves in writing at the longest running conference for women in the nation.

But I’m not going to talk about that today.

I bring it up, though, because it was this conference — and the book written by acclaimed author Bonnie Jo Campbell  — which led me to hunker by the size of a busy road yesterday morning, in the polar conditions of autumn which bore down upon the Commonwealth, and pick two giant mushrooms the approximate size and weight of my head.

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Back in the spring, I dove into Once Upon a River, which tells the compelling story of a young girl driven by circumstance to live by her wits and considerable outdoors acumen along a semi-wild river near Kalamazoo, Michigan. The author, Campbell, was due to appear at our conference in the fall.

It was shortly after reading this book that I practically became Bonnie Jo Campbell’s sister — yes, it’s true. But that’s a story for another day.

This day, I point directly to Once Upon a River as my first exposure to Calvatia gigantea or the giant puffball mushroom, which our heroine harvests and dines upon as she literally lives off the fat of the land.

Giant puffballs growing wild. And edible? I had my doubts. But she could shoot the eye out of a buck — and attract any male who may or may not be a card-carrying member of the NRA — so I tended to trust her on the issue of free-range fungus.

Fast forward to yesterday morning.

Driving home after taking my son to school, I spied on the side of the road, two large, round white shapes which could have been:

A) used diapers chucked from a car traveling the adjacent New Circle Road (a local bypass);

B) Styrofoam blown out of the back of a pickup used for who-knows-what unholy purpose; or

C) actual, bonafide giant puffball mushrooms.

I slowed down for a closer look. And then I drove home and, like most people in 2013, posted about my discovery on Facebook.

Were they these fabled things that me, a girl raised in semi-rural conditions, had never observed, let alone ingested? Were they something that I could harvest, like dandelion leaves and poke sallet, and eat from the side of the road and call it actual food?

Or were they some other, more nefarious form of fungus, intent upon poisoning me with their plump charms — the deadly I Will Kill You in Horrible Seizing Agony mushrooms, which present identically to the giant puffball shroom?

At home, I applied mascara and pondered. I would never know what they were, I thought between eyeliner applications, unless I stopped for a closer look.

As you can see in the photos, they’d already been munched by some resident fauna, and I flicked one off before pulling them up. (A slug! Eww!)

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They came out of the ground easily and they really are surprisingly heavy! Maybe not as heavy as my head (filled with all these brains, you know) but pretty hefty for something that goes by the name of puffball.

I put them in a plastic bag, braced myself against the buffets of passing cars, popped myself back into the Prius, and off to work I went.

But were they actually edible? I got confirmation from Bonnie Jo herself, via Facebook, that I did indeed have two gorgeous puffballs on my hands and I should prepare them with lots of butter and invite all my friends.

At this point I wasn’t sure I was going to convince a Doubting Husband that I brought something home from the side of the road that we can actually eat. But, gamely, I cooked one of the things up last night, and as I mentioned earlier, documented the whole process on Facebook for the entertainment of my far-flug friends.

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Yes, from Kentucky to Rhode Island, and North Carolina to Texas, people were following  the Great Potentially Death-Inducing Mushroom Saga, hoping I presume, that I would live to cook another day.

I won’t doubt that there were some expecting I would experience violent vomiting at the bare minimum, with seizures, coma, and death a distinct possibility.

No such luck, you guys!

This is the mushroom I prepared, shown here cleaved in two on the cutting board in my kitchen:

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Cubed and ready for the sautee pan:

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Cooking:

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I assure you I did not fail to eat some of these cubes, atop my spaghetti, but I did fail to take a picture of it. Doh!

Since nobody touched the things except me — despite the fact that they were drenched in butter, olive oil, garlic and salt — I put the remainder in a bag and tossed them in the freezer. The Internets told me I could.

I am here to report that I am in fact alive. Although for all I know I’m a zombie, Walking Dead in the wake of my mushroom induced-death, getting my just desserts for daring to eat something that wasn’t purchased at the grocery store.

And if you ever see any giant mushrooms that resemble severed heads along the road, you too can take them home and cook ’em up. They’re delicious — especially around Halloween.

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Doggone it!

I love animals. The puppies, the kitties. The horses. As a kid, I went to camp every year, and rode away in to the sunset aboard many a noble steed, on paths now overgrown with Northern Kentucky development, but when I was a wee lass, were the woods and wilds of Camp Marydale.

I had a paper route in the seventh grade, and in addition to packing my papers into the route bag, I also filled my pockets with Milk Bones, ready to feed the hordes of strays and their most-likely owned brethern who followed me around. That year, I determined I would grow up, go to college and become a veterinarian, and bolstered by reading every installment of the James Heriott All Creatures Great and Small books, knew I was meant to be the savior of all animal-kind.

Then I ran up against college calculus and, unsurprisingly, kept taking classes in English and political science and wound up the writer type personage you see before you today.

But I never gave up loving the puppies, the kitties. The Internet explosion of Teh Cute shows me that I’m not alone, but frankly I think things have gone a little too far.

Story time. The other day, someone dropped by NouveauSoileau, made a few comments and made me smile, so I checked out her blog. I was amused by the name,  I Don’t Get It, and it bears the helpful tag line “Things That Don’t Make Sense.”

How many, many things could fall into that category.

So as I was trudging through the Wal-mart Sunday, laying in the weekly supplies of all the healthy, nutritious foodstuffs I provide on a daily basis to my teeming horde, I beheld a sight which made me think of her.

“I don’t get it,” I thought to myself.

Seriously, WTF
WTF

“Here is a thing that Does. Not. Make. Sense.”

This is dog food. Food for dogs, and cats apparently, that is FRESH. It also, as you can see, is SELECT. It obviously is CHOICE and meant for the pwecious widdle pups and dwarling witty kitties which now make up pets in America and frankly, I am OMG about it.

I have been a tad OMG over pet ownership for a little while; a couple years ago I was irritated by ad in Southern Living I think it was, featuring big doe-eyed doggies begging MOM to do, or not do, something. “Mom, buy me this dog food,” or “Mom, please get me this flea collar.” I would look these furry faces straight in the eye and say, “I gave birth to human beings, not animals, pal — don’t you even DARE call me ‘mom!'”

My growling didn’t have much effect on a print ad, but it made me feel better.

Now I’m confronted by pet-food manufacturers who have installed refrigerators in the dog-food aisle containing some sort of fresh meat and, apparently, people are buying it.

They’re also the type of people, I’d say, who are buying these.

Dog dresses, 2013

Dog dresses. With bows and flowers. For dogs.

Of course I’ve seen the little sweaters and even T-shirts you can shove onto your schnauzer; everyone has, for years. But this, this is just too much.

Dogs aren’t people, people. They’re animals. Yes, they’re wonderful companions, yes they bring a lot of joy to a lot of people. Yes, I am for the kind and humane treatment of animals. But I have to say I am not for the ridiculous expenditures Americans with more money than sense are obviously making at Wal-mart and other places to feed and dress their dogs better than many, many humans are fed and clothed both here and around the world.

Sure, spend your money on stupid stuff, we’ve all got our vices *cough*shoes*cough. But I’m still going to point, laugh, and drag out my internet acronyms and WTF and OMG my way down the aisle with a side dose of I Don’t Get It. It’s one of those things, the blogosphere has taught us, that Just Don’t Make Sense.

That’s the way I like it

I’ve been thinking of going vegetarian again. It’s been nearly nine years since I fell off the veggie wagon, which I rode happily for about a decade previously.

Barcode me baby
Food Inc.

I wasn’t a PETA pusher. I wasn’t a Food Inc. convert. I wasn’t even especially doing it for any sort of diet benefits. Initially, I just got sick of the taste of meat, and the idea of going without struck me as something interesting to do, something that required some discipline, and something that might be good for me.

On the whole, it was. I liked being vegetarian for all these reasons, and I liked that I felt more energetic. I had no trouble with my weight. But, as I say, this was nearly 20 years ago and when you’re 30, or at least when  *I* was 30, keeping weight off wasn’t any problem at all. Now, eh. I weigh a lot more than I’m comfortable with, and, remembering how good I felt when I wasn’t consuming animals, I’m thinking I might do it again.

But things are different now. Tras, while a good sport in general, isn’t a bit interested in giving up meat. He’ll eat some meatless meals, and no matter what I do he’ll support me … but he just isn’t interested in giving up his PETA status — People Eating Tasty Animals. And hey, I do admit, even in my veggie years, I found it hard to resist pepperoni, of all things. Trassie, who’s 8, is a grazer and eats probably 60 percent of what I cook. He’s more malleable but he’s still in that “I hate X” phase, where X  represents anything the recalcitrant child has never tasted before.

So there’s that. In the previous vegetarian years, my older two, Claire and Christopher, were in the macaroni and chicken nugget years; that’s about all they’d consume.

They did eat a lot of bean burritos, too, but what they were eating was easy to whip up, and I could make my stuff separate, any way I wanted to. Their dad covered his own food.

Now, I like to cook and experiment. I do enjoy making some meats; cooking a whole turkey for 20 at Thanksgiving, for instance, was interesting. I once made roasted goat thanks to the generosity of a Muslim neighbor, who knew I’d like it when she found out I’d cooked and eaten lamb in the past.

In a valiant effort to create something the whole family might enjoy, I dreamed up a vegetarian enchilada casserole, which bears only a passing resemblance to a genuinely Mexican dish. But it turned out great. Both Tras the husband and Tras the son liked it, as did Christopher the Beginning to Eat a Whole Lot More Variety Now That He’s 15. It hasn’t yet been tested on Claire, who these days dines most often in the company of Mssr. Le Boyfriend.

So here, my friends, is the recipe. Give it a try and see if you like it as much as we did. It sort of looks long and involved, but truly it’s not. Bon apetite!

Vegetarian Enchilada Casserole

8-9 small corn tortillas
1 can red beans, drained & rinsed
1 can petite diced tomatoes, undrained
1/2 container large curd cottage cheese
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground chipotle pepper
3 tsp onion salt, divided
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground sea salt
1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
3 cups fresh spinach
1 small can sliced black olives
Shredded cheddar
Red pepper flakes
Chopped fresh tomatoes
Sliced green onions
Plain yogurt or sour cream
Queso blanco or feta

In medium mixing bowl, stir together tomatoes, beans, cottage cheese, cheeses, eggs, and spices, reserving 1 tsp onion salt.  Set aside.

Coat bottom and sides of oblong glass baking dish (8×10) with oil or cooking spray

Wrap tortillas in damp paper towels; microwave for 30 to 45 seconds until soft. Lay 4 tortillas in the bottom, overlapping as necessary.

Spoon half the bean mixture over tortillas. Layer half the sliced zucchinis over mixture, top with spinach.

Place next layer of tortillas over spinach and press into place. Layer remaining zucchini and the rest of the bean mixture.

Top with some shredded cheddar, olives, queso blanco (or feta), red pepper flakes and onion salt.

Cover with foil and bake in 375-degree oven for 1 hour, removing foil after 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to set for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice into squares.

Serve topped with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream and fresh tomatoes and green onions.

6-8 servings

A guilty woman’s tour of New York

There are lots of ways to see New York. As a tourist, you go to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. If you’re an art lover, you head straight to the Metropolitan Museum and, especially if you like saying it out loud, MOMA.

If you’re me, you eat a lot, discover a whole lot of what you don’t know, and feel guilty about both.

Take this for example.

Wouldn't we all

Thanks a lot, David Barton Gym. This is supposed to be motivational, I know, and in a world where there are TV series featuring serial killers as heros and chemistry teachers making meth, I shouldn’t be surprised. The sign looks a bit strange because like a lot of New York buildings, it’s being renovated and the scaffolding protects passers-by. Who presumably have murder on their minds.

But of course, after a couple days taking huge, salt-and-butter laden bites out of the Big Apple, I was starting to think such ghoulish thoughts sounded good.

Visiting my sister Cara, chef of a darling restaurant, Cafe Ghia in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, means eating. A lot. She and our other sister, her twin Leah, are only 30 years old and ridiculously active. A few 1,000 calorie “starters” (what we in New York are now calling appetizers) sit lightly on their yoga-trimmed and cycle-pared thighs. Add 18 years and a lot of sitting around on your ass blogging, and such delights tend to drag down one’s derriere considerably.

So there’s that guilt trip: eat your way across New York and no matter how much walking up and down stairs to the subway you do, you still arrive back home in Kentucky with a newly minted double chin and a drawer full of jeans you can’t zip.

Chelsea HotelHere’s something else: The Hotel Chelsea. Heard of it? Maybe? Well, maybe I had too.

“It’s famous for something,” Leah allowed, as we walked past it to get to the Doughnut Plant next door. (Mmmm doughnuts. See above.)

“Well, it’s also closed,” I announced, seeing the sign on the door.

“Probably bedbugs,” was my mother’s Regis and Kelly-informed opinion.

Well, as it turns out, it too was being renovated, as a group of pretty good-looking guys rolling giant iron carts to the curb told me. Their accents were as thick as the iron too. I felt like I was in On the Waterfront. They couldda been contendas!

As it was, they approved of my photographing the building, wisely acknowledging its fame. I snapped away, wondering, what for?

Leonard Cohen! I know right?Ah, how good of the Chelsea, to provide historical-markeresque plaques for the rubes from the hinterlands. Reading along, I learned this was the famous hotel where writers would go to write, holed up in their New York-fueled frenzy, churning out Pulitzer Prize winning novels and one Great American Novel after another.

Welcome to the ChelseaGuess what? Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while at the Chelsea and oh, who else stayed there? Just a few nobodies like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road there.

Good stuff! Why then, the guilt? Oh, because I majored in LITERATURE for Pete’s sake! Literature of the English language! The literature written by people like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. You’d think the name “Chelsea” might have penetrated my consciousness at some point. Not to mention all the musicians who flopped, dropped acid, or were murdered within its walls (Nancy, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Viscious was found murdered there.) I SAW SID AND NANCY!

Ah well, I’m an older, wiser, and more well-traveled woman of the world now. I may have to slap on the Spanx and hold my breath for 15 minutes to get into my jeans now —  but by golly, I’ve eaten octopus and rabbit in Brooklyn and consumed pizza and fried dough in Manhattan. And I’ve stood on the sidewalk before the buildings where John Lennon died (the Dakota) and Nancy Spungen expired (the Chelsea).

Maybe it’s not necessary to do any killing to look better naked. Hanging around  New York literary hotspots might just make me thin by association.