Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sharp as a Knife


Last night, as I stood at the counter chopping veggies for stuffed shells, I lamented how dull my knives are. I have a couple decent knives, but I'm not easy on them. I do make the occasional effort to sharpen them. But I use them naughtily, cutting apples on paper plates, using those plastic cutting boards that can go in the dishwasher. Even the knives go in the dishwasher. As I struggled with cutting a carrot into decent matchsticks, I knew I had no right to complain. It’s my own fault my knives are so dull.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with an artist friend awhile back. One morning, as our children played together, we got talking about how upsetting it is when we don’t have time to follow our respective muses. I told her that, not only does not writing give me an unsettled, cranky feeling, but I know my skills grow dull if I don’t write daily.

She surprised me by being surprised.

Maybe painting is different that way. You can clean the house and garden for a few months, then come back and pick up where you left off. But I can testify that writing requires regular practice. Otherwise my writing muscles grow lax and stiff, which is destined to show up in my writing. So I write. Every day. Even if it’s only a few lines.

Lately, things have been going well. I have several stories nearly ready to send out into the cosmos. Folly still molders, but I’m working on it. Chapter Three needs a complete revamp. I’m reshaping it on the back burner. I’m pleased with my progress. The ideas come fast and hard. I just need more time to execute.

Now back to the stuffed shells. They came out terrific, in spite of lousy knife edges. That’s encouraging, because it means we can get satisfying results, even when things aren’t perfectly sharp. But I have to admit, I noticed the clunky carrot strips. Time to sharpen the knives and make them even better.

Veggie Stuffed Shells

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup shredded or diced carrots
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1 cup chopped broccoli
6 ozs. spinach
2 lg cloves garlic, minced
2 - 3 Tbsp minced fresh basil
sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
1 egg
1 cup cottage or ricotta cheese (Drain in colander if using cottage)
1 - 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
24 jumbo pasta shells, cooked and drained
1 - 26 oz jar marinara sauce (I use Prego Traditional)
1/3 cup fresh grated parmesan

Heat oil in large sauté pan over med-low heat. Add onion; sauté over low heat until onions begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add carrots; sauté 2 – 3 minutes longer. Add mushrooms, zucchini and broccoli; sauté 3 minutes. Add spinach and garlic and sauté until garlic is tender and spinach wilts, about 2 minutes. Stir in fresh basil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove pan from heat and place vegetables on a plate lined with several layers of paper towel to drain excess moisture.

When drained and cooled, place vegetables in a large bowl with egg, cottage or ricotta cheese, and mozzarella cheese. Stir until combined.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13” pan with non stick spray.

Pour 1 cup marinara sauce in bottom of pan. Stuff shells with veggie and cheese mixture. Lay in pan over sauce. Pour remaining sauce over shells. Cover pan with foil. Bake 45 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and shells are heated through. Remove foil. Sprinkle parmesan over shells. Return to oven 5 minutes longer. Remove from oven. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

5 – 6 servings

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lunch and Lessons


Friend Jane came over for lunch and a visit on Saturday. Jane brought an amazing sun dried tomato and brie appetizer. I did up my usual down home – upscale fusion. As we slathered garlicky brie onto crackers and munched hot beef sandwiches, we chatted optimistically about our writing.

Let me say: it’s amazing how much we writers can learn from one another. Not just about our craft, but about how writing exists as part of our lives. As she always does, Jane gave me a lot to think about. About embracing our roots and using them as a creative force for the future. About finite time and how to be a responsible steward of it. About learning everything we can from the resources around us. And about moving on when we’ve grown beyond them.

After she left, I sat in the quiet space she left behind and considered my situation. It’s clear I have some choices to make. Up until now, I’ve done a rather scattered approach to my writing: throw seeds of myself at every opportunity and see if anything viable takes root. The problem is I now have seedlings growing everywhere. Some are dying. Some are neglected, some overgrown. I’m not doing anything well, because I’m trying to do it all.

Clearly, it’s time to prune.

I spent the rest of the weekend considering options. I have too many things that distract me from my writing, too many things that drain my energy. There are things I invest effort in, but receive only nominal return. And one or two things that are just plain more than I can handle. But they’re choices, which means I don’t have to keep saying yes to them.

So thanks, to Jane, for friendship and good advice. You didn’t know you were giving it, but I’d be smart to take it. And just for the fun of it, I’m going to post my hot beef recipe. Now you can have lunch and Jane's good advice, too :)

Shredded Roast Beef for Sandwiches

2 -1/2 - 3 lbs. boneless beef chuck roast
1 sweet onion, chopped
1/4 – 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 cup water
1 tsp. beef base or 1 beef bouillon cube
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
seasoned salt, to taste

Place roast in slow cooker with onion, garlic powder, water, beef base, thyme, bay leaf and pepper. Cook on high for 5- 6 hours, or until tender and meat pulls apart easily.

Remove meat from slow cooker and set aside to cool slightly. Leave juices in slow cooker. Pull meat apart with two forks. Remove any fat or gristle and discard it.

Return shredded meat to cooker with juices. Add seasoning salt to taste. If too juicy, sift 1 - 2 Tbsp. of flour over the meat and stir. Turn slow cooker to low until serving. Serve hot on rolls.

Serves 6 – 8.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Shortbread Moment


This weekend, I had a shortbread moment.

Let me explain: I have this incredible recipe for shortbread that worried the hell out of me the first time I made it. It seemed too simple. Flour, butter, sugar. That’s it. How could a cookie shine with so few ingredients? Then, the dough seemed a little odd. When I put everything in the mixer, I watched the paddle churn away, but the dough didn’t hold together. All I had was a crumbly mess. I was about to toss it out. But then suddenly, the ingredients melded and I had dough. Half an hour later, I had pale golden cookies that coated my tongue with the satisfying taste of butter. Since then, I’ve baked them many times.

Now to this week’s shortbread moment.

As you know, we’ve just spent a month doing our very first MySixWriMo. I’ve had mixed feelings about it. A week ago, I wanted to throw the whole batch of my stories in the trash. I was sorry I’d even suggested MySixWriMo. Only my commitment to my fellow Sixers kept me going. MySixWriMo ate up all my daily writing time. Folly went from the back burner to stone cold and congealed.

On May 1, I sat down at the PC, grateful the posting was over. I was never going to do MySixWriMo again. But I figured I should get something tangible out of it. That morning, I sent off my last micro from the month, “Hands.”

By the time I came back after lunch, “Hands” had been accepted by Boston Literary Magazine.

The dough began to meld. BLM had accepted one of fellow sixer Jane’s micros already. Two days later, BLM accepted another MySixWriMo from sixing pal Stephen. As I read Stephen’s email, I savored a warm satisfaction I’d never expected when I started this. I’d suggested MySixWriMo on a whim. Now three writing buddies would share page space in Boston Lit Mag.

Cool stuff indeed. I plan to track all our successes born from MySixWriMo, so keep me posted on how our April babies are faring. I’ll post their status in the sidebar.

My feelings have changed about MySixWriMo. That one monumental success has convinced me this is something we should consider doing again. But I’m going to make a change. Come back next April and I’ll let you know what I’ve got planned.

And for anyone interested, here's the recipe for that shortbread. Trust me, they are AMAZING.

Simple Shortbread Cookies

2 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 cup butter, chilled and cut into chunks

Preheat oven to 300 degrees (low temp + longer baking time = tender cookies). Combine flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, work the butter into the flour mixture until all the ingredients hold together, about 5 minutes. (It looks like dry paste when it’s done)

Using hands, roll generous teaspoonfuls of dough into balls. Place about 1 ½ “ apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Using tines of a fork, flatten the cookies to ¼” thick by making crisscross pattern on the top.

Bake the cookies until they’re light golden in the center and a bit darker around the edges, about 30 minutes. Cool the cookies on the sheets, then store in an airtight container. Makes about 4 dozen.

Note: if using unsalted butter, add ½ tsp salt to this recipe. Do not use margarine or shortening in place of butter.