Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Current Craving: Maine

It's summertime in Boston, which means it's hot and sticky, and I'm a wee bit cranky about it. But it's also summertime in Maine, which means sea breezes, shady mountain trails, fleeces and hiking boots, the pool and the hot tub, big breakfasts, hot popovers with strawberry jam — and maybe some seaweed soup if I'm lucky. I've been missing our friends and family up there since August. This year, we've planned three trips to our favorite inn, and we're heading there next week for a short first visit. I can't wait: can you tell?

We've been away for so long that I even miss the mosquitoes that attack me at sunset on the dock in Southwest Harbor:


I'm about to get a new freelance project that will probably keep me writing furiously in my lounge chair by the pool. Not the best timing, but at least I'll be writing about art and helping to pay for the trip. And you can be sure I'll also be sending you pretty postcard pictures right here. Three cheers for laptops and wifi. I guess.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

iPhoto

I "organize" my photos with Mac software my husband forced on me, called iPhoto. Otherwise, I'd just keep downloading them into folders on my hard drive, where it would be impossible to easily see them. Then I'd get frustrated and have fits whenever I needed to find a particular one.

I know this for sure, because it's exactly what went on for years before I was told to use iPhoto. It has saved me (and him) a lot of drama and time. It has many fancy features, including facial recognition, facebook options, album-making, etc. I don't use any of them except the photo-editing tools, which are not as subtle as Photoshop's but are simple and quick.

Every now and then, I just drag batches of photos into it and they get arranged by date. For each date, it shows me one photo icon; if I wiggle my cursor over it, I can quickly skim the rest. I can also scroll through all my photos from a given day, or scroll through every single photo I've put there. Which is overwhelming and sometimes upsetting, since I have photos of beloved cats and people who are gone now, whom I miss. I don't do that often.

So it turns out that even this super-techy software permits me to keep my photos in a relatively disorganized state, not so unlike all the thousands of images and negatives I've stuffed randomly in shoeboxes over the years. I like that.

For one thing, I get surprised from time to time. Tonight, I somehow came across this photo, which I hadn't seen in ages:


Back in October 2009, Possum was still settling in to his new digs, familiarizing himself with our library, and befriending the natives. See how he's already crossing his paws while posing for the camera? He was elegant even as a kitten. And he's cleverly positioned himself so you can't tell his left ear was clumsily lopped off at the neutering clinic after he'd been trapped as a feral baby. He hasn't bothered to do that since our vet assured him that a sawed-off ear gave him "street cred."

I showed him this photo and he pooh-poohed it. "That was before I'd read all those books," he said.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lost Souls in Back Bay

We wandered into the remnants of the Zombie March on our way back from some errands. Unlike several other looks we've spotted around town lately — Clark Rockefeller Wannabe, Designer Overdose, and Limping Jersey Girl in Platforms — the zombie look is flattering on everyone. Strategic splashes of gore will enliven even the muddiest skin tone. And it's affordable and easy to achieve. We all have blood and entrails, the foundation of the style. The trick is to let them all hang out.

Click to enlarge...

It's chic to coordinate your outfit with your entrails, 
without being too matchy-matchy.

Zombie casual. Always splatter the backs of your legs, too.

Looks like this happy crowd is leaving Staples. 
Someone is waving a heart in the air.
Does Staples carry body parts now? "Yeah, we've got that."

A little attitude will electrify your zombie style.
Scrubs guy here knows how to work it.

So much more interesting than the usual Saturday crowd in Back Bay.

It's all in the details, worn with attitude. 
Note the torn sleeve on this pensive zombie.

Zombie pirate and wench. 
A skeleton hand is more dashing than a hook.

Lost Soles in Back Bay

Which is more distressing: losing one tiny brown slipper with a yellow steam-shovel, or two?

I hope to never find out. But clearly there were cries and gnashing of teeth on this subject in Back Bay recently.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Weird Little Wendy

Dinner gets cold on our plates these days because Wendy has been insisting on a long petting session with my husband as soon as we sit down. She jumps on the radiator next to our table, flops herself down, and stares imperiously until he pays attention. She squeaks, purrs, and rolls around with pleasure, and gets upset whenever he stops to eat. 

Of course, as soon we get up to clear the table, she dashes away and avoids us like we're predators. Until my husband sits in his armchair to do some work. Then she jumps up and demands more petting. Should he shift slightly in his chair, off she'll go at a run.

When we ask her why she's so jumpy and weird, she sometimes does provide an explanation, with a lot of plaintive mewing and squeaking in a language we can't understand. I'm not sure she understands. Our vet's latest Theory of Wendy is that some feline behavior is purely genetic, and can't be changed — such as the eternal skittishness of some feral cats. So, while Wendy has learned that she enjoys attention and petting, she still has an instinct telling her to run from danger. 

Wendy looking rather baffled, and who wouldn't be?

It's got to be a confusing problem for her. I see her watching the other cats as they cozy up to us and let us touch them as we please. She looks on intently, like a fluffy anthropologist observing an alien culture. She would never follow their behavior or allow us to pet her as we're petting another cat. She can't make the leap to trusting us no matter how many safe, pleasant encounters she's seen and experienced.

Hang in there, kitten. We adore you even though you act like we're about to destroy you most of the time. And for a few minutes a day, on your own private schedule, you have the loudest purrs and the silkiest fur ever.  You're well worth waiting for.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Seven Little Secrets

1. I always hope to find a body floating in the Charles. And a diamond on the sidewalk.

2.  I don't trust anyone who smiles all the time or claims to know what god wants.

3. I never liked the taste of alcohol. Wine is completely lost on me. (Diet coke, please.) I've never taken a recreational drug or smoked a cigarette or pot. What a bore I am at parties. I loathe parties.

4. At the gym, I can't recognize the voices of Britney, Beyoncé, Shakira, Christina, or any pop star except Lady Gaga. Heck, I can't tell Britney from Justin Bieber. I don't really care, but it makes me feel old.

5. Somehow, I missed Girl Stuff 101, so I can't accessorize, layer, wear platforms, style my hair, or apply eyeliner. (Those of you who know me have figured out this one.)

6. I don't believe in the death penalty.... except maybe for those who torture animals.

7. I like Facebook because it beats emailing or calling all those people, freeing my day for long, deep conversations with Possum.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Current Craving: "Something Nasty in the Woodshed"

If you haven't read Cold Comfort Farm, a novel (1932) by Stella Gibbons, or seen the 1995 film version, you must. Both are about as close to comedic nirvana as it gets. We watched the movie on Friday night (before the world was scheduled to end) and laughed like fools as various actors took turns stealing scenes from each other and chewing up scenery. I can't imagine a better movie for your last night on earth unless you're a huge Animal House fan or something. I'm not.

Ideally, you should read the novel first, then read it again (you'll want to, badly). And then see the movie, which is one of those rare, perfectly satisfying adaptations (like the Jeremy Irons Brideshead Revisited). Even so, the movie is treasure regardless of whether you can follow the plot's intricacies and the goofy, made-up language or not. You will absorb the language and find yourself involuntarily "clettering the dishes," for example.

In a nutshell, this is a silly tale, a clever parody of the country romances of Brontës, Hardy, and Lawrence.

Kate Beckinsale (dewy and pre-cosmetic surgery) plays Flora Poste, a recently orphaned society girl who's low on funds. She decides to live with relatives she's never met, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. They are a weird, unfulfilled bunch; it's as if they've read too many of the wrong rural novels. Brooding and grimy, they open their home to her in atonement for some unspeakable wrong they'd done to her father. (They always refer to her as "Robert Poste's Child.") Flora discovers that they are all trapped on the farm by their matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom. She rarely leaves her room but controls everyone's destiny with her fits and tirades if they don't do as she wishes. Why? Because she once "saw something nasty in the woodshed," when she was "no bigger than a titty-wren."

Life on the farm is just what Flora expected from reading too many novels herself. There are even two brooding, muscular cousins named Reuben and Seth, exactly as she predicted. ("They're all named Reuben. Or Seth.") She sets herself to the task of fixing each character's life.

"There has always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."

I won't say much more except to highlight some of the brilliant casting. Rufus Sewell smolders as the Seth, as ridiculously sexy as any farm lad could ever hope to be. He should do more comedy. I usually find him playing some powerful, cruel aristocrat in period dramas like The Illusionist.

Sexy Seth and a bull named Big Business. 
Which is which, you may ask?

As you watch the film, you will also note Sewell's striking resemblance to Possum:

Possum, smoldering. He loved the movie, 
despite not having read the book.

While Ian McKellen is inspired as a nutty preacher, Eileen Atkins is the real star, dominating every frame she's in, even without such lines as: "Reuben, drain the well. There's a neighbor missing." She achieves her best effects silently, and above the nose, by squinting, staring, and knitting her brows.

I've seen her recently as the domineering mother-in-law in the new Upstairs Downstairs (she and Jean Marsh were the series's co-creators about 40 years ago) and then again, last night, as a Russian princess in the first episode of Masterpiece's new Hercule Poirot series, Murder on the Orient Express. She's commanding, wonderful, and entirely different in every role. But I love her best as Aunt Judith Starkadder:

I'm hoping to look just like this in a few years, 
especially if I get the same bad perm I had in college.

Since the Rapture was miscalculated and is now all set to happen on October 21, I think we will rent Cold Comfort Farm again five months from now, and enjoy another gleeful last night on earth — eating chocolate cupcakes on the sofa with the cats, the Starkadders, and the all-knowing Flora Poste. The world should end more often; it can be such fun if you plan it right.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hotel What??

Walking along Massachusetts Avenue near Harvard Square tonight, I passed the new Hotel Veritas, a boutique hotel that looks really nice.

But the logo on its sign made me do a double-take, and grin:


So... am I imagining things? Seen from a distance, especially, that little flourish under the "V" looks very similar to the standard female anatomical diagram you should recall from your high school biology or health textbook. The proportions are just right, although the fallopian tubes are extra squiggly. (Obviously the graphic designer knew she couldn't totally get away with murder. Maybe her clients were a bunch of macho types who were driving her crazy, and she giggled all the way to the bank. On the other hand, perhaps the designer was a guy who was just inexplicably drawn to this particular design...)

Shall we assume that the rooms are cozy — even womblike?  Does the concierge mother everyone?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Eternal Questions...

We saw five of those trucks advertising tomorrow's Apocalypse driving in a caravan around Copley Square today, during the Farmers' Market.

Which made me wonder whether there were any Believers buying bread and produce — and not caring at all if it was fresh. (Last supper, after all. No leftovers...)

What if the fundamentalists are right and the world does end tomorrow?  It would be prudent to prepare a bit for this contingency, just so we don't look silly. So:
• We'd better eat up all the Ghirardelli double-chocolate muffins tonight.
• I'm holding off on vacuuming for at least another day.
• Will try not to beat myself up for stockpiling Forever postage stamps.
• Possum's first bath can wait 'til Sunday. Can't have the world end with a soggy Possum.

What if the Rapture comes with the dawn? I'm going to sleep right through it. Too bad; it would have been nice to see it, but no way. I can't possibly get up earlier than 6; I will only do that for royal weddings, every 30 years or so. If only those two events had been scheduled for the same day. Poor planning there, God and Queen....

Now, if there's a chance that I'm going to wake up Somewhere Else, I'd better wear nice pajamas tonight. However, I don't have any pajamas. Let's hope that wherever I might be Going has government-issue nightwear. From what I know about Heaven, from watching It's a Wonderful Life, I suspect that is what they do, with or without wings. And if that movie is anything to go on, it seems you can bring a book with you, as Clarence the angel did. The collected works of Dante would probably come in handy.

And the cats have to come with us, or the whole deal is off.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

That Hummer in the Lagoon

You just know what these Boston mallards were thinking as they checked out this swan in the Public Garden:


"Boy, I don't know why they keep making them so huge!"

"Yeah, they aren't that big in Europe or Japan anymore, I'll bet."

"Too flashy and conspicuous. Who needs to be up that high?"

"Yep, it could run right over a duckling and not even notice."

"It eats up a ton of fuel, too."

"And where the heck could you park that thing in the city?"

"Plus, white is so hard to keep clean...."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

April Showers Bring May Showers

Ah, May in Boston. You'll find yourself stuck on a Prudential escalator behind someone in shorts and flip flops and someone else in a wool coat, gloves, and fur-trimmed boots.

The fact that these people aren't walking hurriedly on the escalator to get where they're going sooner indicates that they are: 
  1. Tourists, suburbanites, students — out-of-towners who think all this walking is weird
  2. Lazy, patient, and/or mellow Bostonians — very rare
  3. Hallucinations: you don't need to pass these, just walk through them
  4. People on crutches, canes, or walkers
  5. Buddhists or meditators
Bostonians know there's a standing lane and a passing lane on every escalator, even those silly, narrow ones at Copley Place. I pass people on those all the time.

* * * *

I know I won't be popular for saying this, but I love this cool, rainy weather. If it lasted until August, I would not mind. I happily dug out that ratty gray wool turtleneck I wore daily for four months and pulled it back on, along with my favorite tall boots. 

Happy to avoid smearing on the sunblock and wearing the sun hat  for as long as possible.

Happy to walk everywhere without sweating, burning, and steaming.

Happy to warm up the apartment with cozy dinners, soups, and baking.

Happy to snuggle under the comforter with a huge, sleepy Possum acting as hot water bottle (mine started leaking, dammit).

Happy to keep windows closed and avoid the neighborhood's ambient noise, dirt, and exhaust fumes.

Happy there are no more long lines for overpriced frozen yogurt clogging Newbury Street.

If I had a garden or a pool, I'm sure I'd feel differently. But I don't. So there!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Stinky Cheese

I love almost all cheese (not Swiss or Port Salut). I also love a bargain, so I am drawn like a moth to a flame to Harry's Cheese Shop at the Haymarket, where you can pick up chunks of imported and domestic varieties for as little as two for $5. He also sells more expensive cheese, but I've yet to be tempted.

I'm especially a sucker for any cheese that comes in a cute wooden box. These tend to be small French cheeses with rinds and soft interiors, although I made a mistake a couple of months ago and brought home what I thought was going to be a good Camembert — but it turned out to be a U.S. product.

It's great to buy American-made shoes and clothing, as well as many other kinds of American cheese. I love sliced white American deli cheese passionately, not being a cheese snob. To me, it's butter in solid form, easy to eat while keeping your fingers clean. But an American "Camembert" is another thing entirely, trust me. We each tried one bite and then it went right out. I've had my ups and downs with Harry's cheeses, but I enjoy the roulette aspect of the transaction. I've snagged some divine cheeses that were a fraction of their price in other shops.

Nowadays. I check to make sure that the darling little "French" cheese in the wooden box is a French product. On Saturday, we brought home this, for $4:


It's Petit Pont l'Evêque, a soft cheese with a rind from Normandy. "It's like Camembert," Harry told us. He has said that before, about every single cheese that comes in a little box. I took the gamble. And I checked the expiration date, which was close. It should be nice and ripe, I thought. We put it in the bag with a nice slab of Dubliner ($2.50).

As we made our way through Haymarket, we noticed a strange odor each time we added something to our shopping bag. It was the cheese. Wow. The correct word is "pungent," according to the description of the cheese in Wikipedia. The more accurate word is "Stinky."  We wrapped it up as well as we could in a second plastic bag, which helped. I did not notice people taking pains to avoid us as we walked home. As soon as we got there, I wrapped the box in foil and a fresh plastic bag before putting it in the fridge.

Unwrapped, later, it looked promising:


This is allergy season, after all. Half the time, I can't smell anything, or I think I'm smelling one thing, when in fact, it's something else entirely. For example, dead lilacs and stinky Petit Pont l'Evêque smell a lot alike. I guess.

We were having soup for dinner, with Iggy's bread and cheese. I put the cheese on the table, relieved that my husband hadn't run screaming from the apartment from the smell.

Now I need to backtrack. In my household, certain cats have always formed an alliance called "The Cheese Patrol." Snalbert is the official head of The Cheese Patrol. When dear Bunnelina arrived, she instantly recruited herself as his deputy. Whenever cheese is removed from the fridge, the Cheese Patrol arrives on the spot and demands samples.

Snalbert prefers American cheese and cheddar. Bunny, in her day, enjoyed everything from Stilton and Armenian string cheese to strong Gorgonzola and fresh mozzarella. She never met a cheese she didn't love. After she died, I had hopes that at least one of the kittens would round out the Cheese Patrol and relieve Snalbert of some of his responsibilities in his golden years. Wendy is trying, but she still can't recognize cheese as food; it doesn't have the right scent for her. She watches avidly as Snalbert takes cheese from my hand, but she only sniffs it and walks away, disappointed. Possum can't even handle cheese. He has trouble getting it into his mouth and keeping it there. It keeps falling it out. This may be why he likes to eat canned food and sometimes even kibble with his paws. (Possum doesn't need extra calories anyway.)

The sole, surviving member of the Cheese Patrol arrived on the table shortly after the cheese:

Snalbert takes his cheese duties seriously.

He saw. He sniffed:

He investigates carefully.

His educated assessment:

Oh, dear. And I knew what he meant after I sliced the thing open.

After Snalbert swiftly departed, Wendy arrived, registered her disapproval, and took off, aghast.

Wendy thinks Petit Pont l'Evêque is an outrage.

That left us to eat the cheese ourselves. I cut small triangular wedges for each of us, as you are supposed to do when confronted with a square or round cheese with a rind. There's an intricate cheese-slicing etiquette in France, you know, where cheese is often served towards the end of a meal or in place of a sugary dessert. You can study the basics here so, if you ever find yourself among the French at a dinner party, you won't reinforce their impression that we Americans are all ill-mannered slobs, slicing the tip off the wedge of Brie as if we'd been raised in caves like cheeses ourselves.

We spread the Petit Pont l'Evêque on our fresh Iggy's Francese bread, and we took a bite. We surveyed the cheese, figured out, individually, that we could carefully remove it from the bread without too much damage, and did so. We contented ourselves with some aged Gouda we had lying around. The French cheese was wrapped back up and put into the freezer for trash time. The Cheese Patrol had been correct.

But I won't resist trying more cute little cheeses in boxes from the Haymarket.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beacon Hill Window Boxes

Spring went full blast last week, and Boston's gardens went lush and green with new leaves — and finally, some shade from the unseasonably warm sun.

This is the best time to visit Boston, I think. When autumn's color is gone, the place often looks dull and dingy until winter ends. There's only so much that Christmas decorations — even amazing wreaths — can do to brighten things up until the flowers start to bloom again.

Here's the Public Garden, a green oasis on a gray day (my favorite kind), with the swan boats moored in the distance:


Here's a view of Marlborough Street. The magnolia petals came down and turned brown, but now we have dogwood, flowering crab, and other trees for color. You can peek through that redbud tree to the white dogwood further down the block.


While we Back Bay residents excel at postage-stamp gardening and flowering trees, we are often lacking in the window box department. For those, you need to wander over to Beacon Hill.

Here's a sampler of several I photographed on a recent stroll, mostly along West Cedar Street, which runs parallel to Charles Street, one block up the hill. Most of these boxes are large, filling the largest window on the first floor of a brick townhouse. Many of these are right next-door to each other, and they are at eye level, so the effect is wonderful as you walk along the street. I wish I were better at identifying plants, but I'll do my best. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong...

Old-fashioned. White alyssum with violas (johnny-jump-ups) and vinca.

A stately arrangement in Kate Spade shades of green and pink.

A wild array of vines plus flowering branches for height, 
and I think there are also tiny pink tulips.

 An abundance of purple-and-white cineraria with variegated ivy.

  Purple pansies peeking from greenery. I have no idea what any it is.

A sunny design in tangerine and yellow, including daisies, wallflowers(?) and juniper.

Orange begonias, ivy, and yellow-tinged juniper, I think.

This isn't West Cedar Street, but blue hydrangeas are my favorite.

But I'm not entirely positive that we can credit the residents themselves for their gardening artistry. I suspect the trophy belongs to the florists at Rouvalis, conveniently down the block from all of these beautiful boxes. They've clearly supplied the ingredients — and perhaps the green thumbs, too:


Of course, if you're lucky enough to have a wisteria vine, you've one-upped window boxes. This townhouse on Beacon Street turns up its nose at fussy little planters, preferring a magnificent lavender waterfall tumbling down its brick facade:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Please Ignore "Bad Account" Pop-Up

Blogger has been having problems and outages lately; I think they were rolling out a redesign, or something equally major that turned into a disaster. A lot of us lost posts, temporarily, and couldn't access our blogs.

Blogger seems to have resolved most of the troubles — except that lots of us are now getting this "bad account" pop-up window. I know it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in me or this blog, but it's meaningless. It's perfectly safe to click it closed and read as you please.

I hope they fix this soon.... so far they haven't acknowledged the situation nor offered anyone an explanation. But I know I'm certainly not alone.

Update: Some brilliant blogger figured out that the "Bad Account" pop-up window is caused by a gadget called "FreeStats." Remove its HTML code from your Blogger template, and that nasty little window will go away.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Scenes from Brimfield

We go to the Brimfield Antique Show a couple of times every year, although I usually come home empty-handed while my husband adds to his vast collection of old foreign postcards. I don't mind not finding things. I go for the experience; antique-hunting is always fun, no matter how fruitless. I like spending hours walking and browsing in the grassy fields. And there are apple fritters.

But I finally realized yesterday that what keeps me going back — it's a long drive, the weather is often unpredictable, an ever-increasing percentage of the merch is pure junk — is Brimfield's Surrealism quotient. I love the silly spectacles and strange juxtapositions that many dealers create for their booths, deliberately or not.

Click to enlarge any photo and see all the gory (or Gorey) details...

One of the first things I spotted after we'd parked the car was this tall stuffed ostrich with striped wooden legs and sneakers. It had a patient expression and some kind of ancient pot hanging around its neck. You can also see veteran Brimfielders with their wheeled carts, backpacks, sneakers, and sun hats. (I wear a Red Sox cap and carry a rucksack myself.)


These two figurines appeared to have formed a special bond. How could you take one without the other? (On the other hand, how could you take either?)


There are always dolls, like this disconsolate Eskimo:


And this one, with shrunken hands:


There's a bear in this birdbath:


Mannequins in uniform caps:


I'm not sure how you'd be able to choose from the assorted glittering heads below. You'd have to take them all:


Many people were taken aback by these china-headed clock people, as we were:


Then we saw that the same dealer/artist had made dozens of assemblages from old tins and funnels, etc.:



I felt bad for this "Antique Warrior," but at least his arm was conveniently nearby. Like the knights in Monty Python, he looked determined to keep selling even if he lost his other arm, both legs, and his head:


The sign on this car reads, "Female Navigator Wanted to Tour New England this Summer." That lady in the floppy hat looks interested:


After several hours and five miles of wandering in dusty fields, I envied this fish:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

I'm posting this partly because my only copy is on a tiny scrap of paper, which is getting old....

2 oz. butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2-3/4 cup milk (regular, skim, whatever)

1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/8 tsp pepper (or to taste)
1/8 tsp nutmeg (or to taste)
1/8 tsp cayenne or red pepper (optional)

1 lb pasta shells, penne, or similar
14-18 oz. shredded cheeses: fontina, cheddar, gruyère, aged gouda, etc.
1/2 cup or so of breadcrumbs
Any other mix-ins, like chopped ham, etc.

1. Set the (salted) water to boil for the pasta, and grate the cheese. (How much cheese? When the amount seems embarrassing, you have enough. I've never measured my cheese, I just keep shredding whatever I've got until it looks like a ridiculous amount, definitely more than 3/4 lb. The quality of your cheese determines the quality of your dish. Use more than one kind, and don't be afraid to experiment.)

2. Heat the milk to just below boiling. I do this in the microwave, right in my glass measuring cup. You can do it in a pot on the stove.

3. Melt the butter over low heat in a large nonstick pot (I use a big saucier, a deep pot with rounded sides, great for stirring). When it starts to bubble, gradually stir in the flour, and whisk, cooking for one minute. It will turn pale gold. (A rubber whisk is the ideal tool for this recipe. And you've just made a French roux, more or less.)

4. Slowly whisk your hot milk into the roux until it bubbles and thickens. This can take awhile. (Now you're making Béchamel.) Keep stirring; I sometimes raise the heat a bit to help this along. Don't forget to cook the pasta when the water boils.

5.  When your Béchamel is thickened and somewhat bubbly, take the pot off the heat and add the spices and the cheese, stirring until they are all melted and smooth. (This is sauce Mornay, or close enough. At this point, you can also stir in chopped ham, prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms, tiny pieces of roasted tomatoes, or whatever you want to add to the dish. Or you can put that stuff on top, later, if you prefer.)

6. Stir the cooked, drained pasta into the sauce and put it back on the burner to heat for about a minute. Taste to see if it needs more salt or spice. Pour into a large, shallow baking dish (or a series of smaller ones if you want to freeze some).

7. Top liberally with breadcrumbs. I like panko. You can mix yours with a couple of teaspoons of melted butter if you like. (I don't bother; I'm already staggered by the amount of fat and cholesterol in this dish. Omitting the butter makes me feel noble.)  Put it under the broiler for a few minutes, until the top is golden and crispy. Serves 6 to 8.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mixing It Up with Possum

Possum suggested I put our bright, striped jersey sheets on the bed even though we're already using our raucous paisley duvet cover.

"But, Possum," I said, "They'll clash. As you know, I like a bed to be soothing and restful, not a cacophony of patterns and colors. That combination sounds awful. One pattern at a time, if that. Now, kindly let me have those white sheets you're sitting on."

"Please humor me and try it." he replied. "I spend more time on that bed than you do, and I know what's what. I think the colors harmonize in an interesting way."

 Possum, our local expert on interior decorating.

And he was right, they do look rather interesting together. But even so, when Possum finally lets me make the bed in the morning, I like to cover up everything with a simple white matelassé coverlet and shams. He fights me every step of the way, sprawling lazily on each sheet and rolling under and on top of the comforter. I have to plead, cajole, and order him to move, because he is so heavy to lift.

When I told him I liked his idea, Possum said, "I told you so. I hope you don't mind my saying this, but you have terribly boring taste. It's a mercy you weren't born with my spectacular tabby markings because you'd probably try to dye yourself gray. So tedious."

Well, I don't know about that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My New French Baking Dish

My new Pillivuyt oval baking dish has seen a lot of action since it arrived last month. I've used it for roasted chickens, casseroles, and, tonight's macaroni and cheese. It's deeper than my previous baking dish, which is fortunate because I like to make a ton of mac and cheese for the two of us.

Excessive amount of mac and cheese

I rarely follow recipes exactly; this one, cut from some magazine long ago, demands serious improvisation (or intervention) because it calls for 8 ounces of pasta to 18 ounces of cheese. This would not result in mac and cheese that you'd recognize. You would get something more like cheese fondue with macaroni lurking in the depths. I use a pound of pasta instead, and a little less cheese (although I still fill a good-sized bowl with a shocking amount), and those proportions are just right. I also top it with a layer of panko breadcrumbs and run it under the broiler because crunchy topping is an essential part of the mac-cheese experience. And sometimes I add ham, or tiny pearl tomatoes, or both. I go heavier on the salt (I think sea salt makes a nice difference) and nutmeg and much lighter on the ground pepper.

I can see that there wouldn't be much point in giving you the recipe because I don't come close to following it anymore. If you want my version, which relies on instinct as much as measuring cups and spoons, just say the word, somebody, and I'll attempt to write it down here.

Why don't I find some other, more reliable recipe? — you may ask. I happen to like this one despite its troubles. Not all mac-and-cheese recipes start with making a roux — melted butter whisked with flour until it's the right shade of gold — and I can't imagine making mac and cheese any other way. The next step is to whisk in scalded milk, so I'm now making Béchamel sauce, although my butter isn't clarified (I can't be bothered). And adding the shredded cheese turns it into Mornay sauce (especially if I use Gruyère and cheddar, a traditional combo). So I'm making three classical French recipes for one all-American, low-rent dish. It's fun. (It also fills the sink with dirty dishes, but who cares?)

Tonight's variation was a winner. I used nitrate-free ham, and a lot of very aged Gouda, bought weeks ago from Harry's Cheese Shop at the Haymarket. I also shredded more than a half-pound of mild Wisconsin cheddar from Trader Joe's. I've always been suspicious of mild cheddar and orange-colored cheddar, and this is both. But I was in the mood to experiment, and it turns out to be ideal for mac and cheese. The color softens to a beautiful gold when you stir it into the Béchamel, the texture is extra creamy, and its flavor didn't overpower the Gouda. Cheese was freely oozing out of the penne, which is just what you want.

It's what I want, anyway. And it's a good thing, because I made enough for three more meals.