In Remembrance

Man reading newspaper and me

WTC Plaza, November of 1985, bronze statue of man reading newspaper (I am unable to find the name of this piece or the artist, although it is similar to The Man with Briefcase by Seward Johnson, which was found in the debris after 9-11)

On a recent Saturday morning, my husband presented me with several boxes of “stuff” from the garage and politely asked me to go through them. I believe my agreement to do so was in part due to some compromise where he agreed to do something for me that he didn’t want to do either. And so it goes in our 28-year old marriage: I’ll do this if you’ll do that.

In one of the boxes I was surprised to find a few items from my childhood. Not much, however, due to the fact that most of my childhood memorabilia was stolen from my parents’ house by Hurricane Katrina, who had the unbelievable gall to take their house as well.

The first item to surface was a page of poetry, written by me on my portable (manual) typewriter. Somewhere around 5th grade I had hoped and prayed that Santa would bring me a typewriter for Christmas. One of the first things I typed was the lyrics to a song I had made-up while riding my bike to and from the swimming pool across the street from my house. Sadly, that page was not among these papers, but I did find this page of seven short poems, neatly typed out in two columns. As much as I aspire to being a published author, I don’t think a book of poetry is in the cards. In analyzing these poems of a young Michelle, I did note some commonalities that exist in all grown-up Michelle: my love of rice, my desire to travel to foreign lands, my love of reading and being near water, deep feelings for my friend Marian, an obsession with yarn (still an issue), and cats!

Tucked behind the poetry was a torn scrap of green notepaper containing what can best be described as a short ode to my favorite time of day. This little gem is in my own handwriting, and while I can tell it is from when I was young because of the affected way in which I made the cursive uppercase “L”, I seem to already have sensed that returning home after a long day of work is the perfect time of day.

Digging further in this box of treasures I found a short story featuring as the main characters the two little girls who lived across the street from me in 1985. They were next door neighbors and best friends, and when I moved into a small rental house across the street from them, they “adopted” me as one of their own. Some days they spent more time at my little house on Robert Street than in their very own dwellings! In a nod to e e cummings, this little short story contains no uppercase letters. The short story doesn’t bear a title, but after reading it after all these years, I decided to call it “mimi and the tube steaks”.

IBMSelectricIITypewriterOperatingInstructionsI don’t remember actually writing that story, but I do remember, even then—more than thirty years ago—that in my little house on Robert Street, I had converted a walk-in closet in the hallway into a small writing studio. I moved the linens and cleaning supplies to the bathroom and cleared out the other junk that had found its way in there. I went to a thrift store in town and swapped an old beat-up chest of drawers for a small desk. It fit nicely under the shelving on the back wall of the walk-in closet. I ran an extension cord from my bedroom into the closet and hooked it up to a desk lamp and my IBM Selectric typewriter that my boss had given me when the first word processors were being brought into the law firm where I worked. I had visions of manuscripts lining the shelves, patiently awaiting their publication and eventual placement on the New York Times Best Seller List. Update: Has. Not. Happened. (Yet.)

Me on top of Empire State Building

Observation Deck, Empire State Building, November of 1985

The last notable item in the box of junk from the garage was a piece of my writing also from 1985, handwritten on pages torn from a yellow legal pad. Again, I don’t remember writing this, and frankly, I was rather shocked by it as I was reading it. It obviously is a reflection on NYC after my very first visit there in November of 1985. I managed to find photos from that trip that document visually what I wrote about in this piece. With the 16th anniversary of 9-11 in just one month, I share with you today (unedited) my thoughts on the majestic twin towers of the World Trade Center, as I reflected on them in 1985.

I recently returned from a trip to New York City. It was my first time in the “big apple” and so many things rushed through my senses, I felt the need to gather my thoughts on paper.

Atop WTC

Observation Deck of World Trade Center, NYC, November of 1985

My first impression was of the massiveness of the buildings. The streets – both sides – are crowded with them, like soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, single file, with their proud heads stretching upward to the sky. Some soldiers are taller than others, they are the young ones, new to the streets, each trying to grow taller than their neighbor. There amongst all of them are the twins, the tallest of all—the World Trade Center, with its two mighty towers, 108 stories high. The elevator ride to the observation deck is in itself comparable to a ride at the amusement park. Once on the top floor, one can walk the perimeter of the building—which is totally encased in glass. The eerie feeling of being that high struck me immediately. I had to sit on one of the metal benches which lined the windows around the top floor. After catching my breath, I began to walk around—I am certain my mouth was gaping open—the site of New York City spread out before me was astonishing. The image was no longer of soldiers standing single file, but of a mob of intense people, huddled together, awaiting the coming of some main event.

Brooklyn Bridge from WTC

View of Brooklyn Bridge from atop the WTC, NYC, November of 1985

When an old soldier can no longer march to today’s fast tempo, when the maintenance and replacement of his old “parts” is too costly—he is laid to rest, with the help of a wrecking crew and demolition equipment. And then as quickly as the old soldier leaves; a new, young soldier springs to attention in his place. He wedges himself into the same tired space, bringing new spirit, new architecture, new faces to the street. It is impossible to imagine creating a new structure in NYC, with its crowded streets, the throngs of people rushing, rushing, rushing everywhere. How does the heavy equipment arrive on the scene?

Anne and me in front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza

In front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza, with Anne, November of 1985

How is the concrete foundation poured? How do the large trucks of supplies make their way amidst the thousands of taxi cabs and hundreds of buses? Ah, but everything is possible in NYC. And, soon, the young, tall, proud soldier makes his way among the other giants. People scurry in and out of his revolving doors, up and down his escalators and elevators shopping, typing, learning, serving the millions of New Yorkers and visitors each day.

Chicken and Waffles, Minus the Waffles

Today marks the end of Week One of my kitchen renovation. I use the word renovation loosely, however, as it is more of a building of a kitchen rather than a renovation of a kitchen. As documented in my essay “A Unique July 13th”, it’s a gut job, not a simple matter of new appliances and new counter tops. down to studsMy contractor has demo’d the floor down to the sub-floor and the walls down to bare studs in some places, and in addition, he has demo’d the wall dividing the kitchen from the dining room to counter-height.

This was a difficult decision for me because I was torn over whether to open the kitchen to the dining room. I went back and forth and finally made the decision to leave the wall in place so I could have upper cabinets installed on that wall to create additional storage for my extensive cookware and kitchen gadget collections. half wallBut, my neighbor came down for a chat and said to me, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” We had a good laugh and I immediately emailed my contractor with the change. I know it is the right thing to do, and while sacrificing the additional upper cabinet storage, I can already get the sense that my tiny shoe box-sized kitchen has magically increased in size.

This week my contractor has been busy moving electrical wires that were hidden in the soffits above my old cabinets. Since my new cabinets are going all the way to the ceiling, the wires have to be moved.

This week I, on the other hand, have to figure out how to prepare healthy meals for my husband and me using all that I have available to me: microwave, rice cooker, slow cooker, toaster oven, and waffle iron. I mean, we can’t eat out every day for four weeks! Not only is it expensive, it’s time consuming and not always as healthy. Originally, I thought I would be able to use my gas grill to make dinners but since it is on my back patio, and my egress to the patio is somewhat restricted due to the renovations, I would have to go out my front door and walk around the back of the house, up a slight hill, to get to my grill, carrying raw food up the hill, and then the cooked food back down the hill. I may still get to that point, but for now, I’m trying to work around that.

Today I really wanted a grilled or sautéed chicken breast. So, I headed to the grocery and purchased thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They were sliced maybe two to three slices per whole breast. If I butterflied a whole chicken breast and pounded it thin, I could get the same effect for a cheaper price, but without a kitchen and a dishwasher to sterilize raw chicken cutting boards and other utensils, this was a good option. I marinated the thin slices in a little olive oil, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, and herbes de Provence. I set up my toaster oven in one location and my waffle iron in another, and I preheated them both. I sprayed the waffle iron with Pam and lined the toaster oven tray with foil and sprayed it with Pam.

While they were preheating, I set up my rice cooker and set it to make two cups of jasmine rice (I use Tilda, it is fragrant and lovely). I briefly microwaved one cup of frozen mixed vegetables and set them aside to toss into the cooked rice. Now on to the protein.

waffle iron chickenI put two of the thin slices of chicken breast in the toaster oven set at 350 degrees and two other pieces in the waffle iron. (Yes, the waffle iron is set up on the top of my dryer.) The toaster oven pieces cooked quickly but were a bit bland looking. But, when I lifted the lid of the waffle oven, well, quite frankly, I was shocked to see two beautiful pieces of chicken with “grill” marks, nicely browned and very appetizing. I then moved the two pieces from the toaster oven to the waffle iron to get the same grill marks on them.

Once all five slices were cooked in the waffle iron, I put them all in the toaster oven on 150 degrees to keep warm while I made a caprese salad to finish off the meal.

chicken and waffles minus the wafflesMy husband was skeptical at first, “Danger Dan” was worried that the waffle iron did not get hot enough to safely cook the chicken, but when he sliced into the thin chicken pieces, he could see that they were completely cooked through. It was a lovely meal, and I’m ready to experiment with cooking other proteins in my trusty waffle iron!

A Unique July 13th

Today is my younger daughter’s 25th birthday. Any other July 13th, I would have been busy baking her a beautiful birthday cake and cooking one of her favorite meals. I would have spent all day in the kitchen, making everything from scratch, chopping, dicing, slicing, and mixing away while watching my favorite cooking shows on TVbirthday. I’m pretty sure I know what she would ask for as her birthday dinner: Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken with white rice and steamed green beans.

But, this is not a normal July 13th. First of all, my daughter lives in Los Angeles now, where she works for a film company that makes movie trailers and other marketing tools.

And secondly, the real reason why I am not in my kitchen today, though, is because technically I don’t actually have a kitchen right now. I mean, the room is there, but as of Tuesday, July 11th, none of the components of a kitchen is in there.

This is Day 3 of a full kitchen renovation, a gut-job as they call it on all the home improvement television shows. New floor, new cabinets, new countertops, and new appliances. A brand-new kitchen.

Copy of Copy of soffits and weird wood cutout over fridgeOn Tuesday, Day 1, my contractor ripped out some of the cabinets and the white appliances, including the electric double wall ovens and “built-in” microwave original to the house when we purchased it in 2004. The dishwasher and gas stove-top were things we replaced, and they are gone, too. The new-ish stainless steel fridge with French doors is the only thing that is staying in place. It is currently playing musical chairs in the kitchen space, moving from corner to corner as the contractor works around it, because it is too big to move out of the kitchen. When it was delivered two years ago, the delivery men had to take off the back door of the kitchen to get it inside.

IMG_0359 (2)On Wednesday, Day 2, out came the rest of the cabinets and some of the soffits above the cabinets. The new cabinets are going all the way to the ceiling, giving me more storage, and thankfully, less wall space to hang knickknacks and my crazy collection of vintage and reproduction copper molds.

Dragged to the contractor’s trailer with the cabinets were the countertops, light gray Formica with tiny charcoal speckles. I think they were masquerading as granite, which is what will be their replacement. Although those countertops saw their fair share of dripped Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, I always managed to clean any stains with the Magic Eraser. Copy of Copy of French Onion Soup SmirkI never cut anything directly on the Formica so there were no chips or scratches either. The only blemish was from the cooking of a very large pot of French onion soup, which I left to simmer on the back burner in a pot really too large for the burner. Boy, was I surprised when it came time to serve the soup: the large black “smirk” on the Formica backsplash has mocked me ever since. The soup was a welcome home meal for my older daughter, who had brought a friend home from college for the weekend.

white ceramic floorToday, Day 3, started with him smashing to smithereens the white ceramic tile floor. GOOD-BYE FLOOR. I am so happy to never walk on you again! I have hated that floor since we moved in. What were they thinking, a white floor in a kitchen? Every crumb, every drop, every speck, it all showed up on that white floor. That floor has seen it all: drops of plum jam as I filled Mason jars for canning, chocolate cake batter as I filled cupcake tins for church bake sales, Italian bread crumbs as I dredged chicken strips or pork chops for frying. We even bought one of those steam mops to try to keep that stupid floor clean. On top of all that, the tiles were not set evenly so if you walked barefoot in the kitchen your toes would inevitably get caught on the lip of a tile sticking up higher than the rest.

My daughter and I had a lovely chat this morning as she was walking to work in West Hollywood. She told me of her birthday dinner plans with a group of friends at a trendy dim sum restaurant. She was happy, doing her thing out there on the west coast. My contractor is busy doing his thing, tearing my kitchen down to bare walls and floor. Even though I didn’t spend the day baking and cooking, this July 13th turned out pretty good. And, in honor of my daughter’s favorite birthday dinner, I leave you with the recipe for Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken (or Beef)!

Turning the Tables

The first time I really felt like a grown-up was when my parents came to spend the weekend with me in my tiny studio apartment. I cleaned like a fiend all week, shopped for all my dad’s favorite foods, changed the sheets and made my bed like a hospital orderly (I would be sleeping on my couch), and planned out every single cup of coffee, snack, and meal. I made sure I had some new magazines on the coffee table for my mom to flip through while watching tv, and I also put a fresh roll of toilet paper on the night table by my bed for her to use to “wrap her hair” before bed. When the weekend had come to an end, after morning Mass on Sunday and a nice lunch out compliments of my dad, I remember feeling completely drained, totally exhausted.

After that first time, and soon married with children, I always loved when they came to visit me, and I always felt so grown-up and responsible, taking care of their needs, taking my mom shopping at her favorite stores, taking them to Mass at our parish church where we knew everyone and everyone knew us. Years and years later, when they came to stay with me for a few weeks after having lost every single thing they owned in Hurricane Katrina, I fretted over them to the same degree, but that time it was out of deep concern and compassion for what they were experiencing. My parents are both gone from this world, hopefully enjoying eternal life and true peace after so much hardship, illness, and personal tragedy.

This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Pittsburgh to visit our older daughter. We stayed in a hotel Saturday night, had a wonderful meal Saturday night to celebrate Father’s Day and her birthday a bit early, met her for Mass on Sunday morning, and then enjoyed a nice lunch before my husband headed back home to Maryland. I stayed behind and spent the night in her apartment, as we are about to embark on our first ever mother-daughter trip. My daughter has a conference in Niagara Falls, and since I am out of school for the summer, I am tagging along.

Yesterday after my husband left us, we went out to do a bit of shopping. She took me to the two places I needed to go to pick up items I had mentioned I wanted, knitting needles and flip flops. Neither was absolutely necessary but she drove me around and waited patiently while I made my purchases. After a lovely dinner at the home of her friend’s parents, we returned to her apartment and watched tv and chatted. She fussed over me, made me a cup of tea, and after some wrangling, I convinced her to let me sleep on the couch since she had to rise early and dress for work today.

Today I have enjoyed a quiet and peaceful day alone in her lovely apartment, reading and doing a bit of writing. While saying my morning prayers, I prayed for my brother-in-law who is ill, in thanksgiving for my husband’s safe return home, and for my parents whom I miss greatly. As always, I also thanked God for the gift of my two beautiful daughters, now grown-ups living off on their own, far away from home, working and making a life for themselves. Being a guest in my daughter’s apartment has brought me much joy and a fond remembrance of hosting my own parents over the years. The tables have indeed turned.

Should I Put an Egg on It?

I am a very adventurous eater. I will taste just about anything, and my lemon curd tartlist of things I hate is very, very small. Lychee nuts and eggs. Yes, eggs. I don’t eat eggs unless they are beaten up in a cake batter or the whites have been whipped into a meringue sitting on top of egg yolks that have been beaten into a rich and creamy lemon curd, baked into a beautiful pastry shell.

lycheeMy first taste of a lychee nut was in 2002 in a restaurant Waterloo, Belgium, where we ordered chocolate fondue for a family dessert. The pot of gorgeous, glossy, dark chocolate sat atop a platter of just about anything you can imagine for dipping: cookies, pretzels, banana slices, pineapple chunks, marshmallows, strawberries, and then something I had never seen before. A quick word with the waiter confirmed it was a lychee. I tried it. I didn’t like it. It tasted like soap to me, perfumed soap.

scrambled eggsI’m told that I was fed scrambled eggs as a baby and spit them out immediately. My mother even tried arranging the scrambled eggs in a smiley face pattern on the plate to entice me into eating them, to no avail. Eventually she gave up and never offered me eggs any other way: boiled, fried, poached. I just opted out of eggs altogether with no further experimentation.

This was no big surprise because in truth, my mother didn’t eat eggs either. She worried that she had somehow influenced her first born into not liking them either. My first cousin, Penny, also doesn’t eat eggs. That makes three of us, so it seems to be genetic. Except that my father and my two brothers could have happily lived off of eggs. My dad liked them any kind of way, and for a while we had one of those old-fashioned egg poaching pots with a metal insert that held the little poaching cups suspended over the boiling water. He also loved a fried egg with his grits.

no eggAt all family get-togethers, my mother was in charge of the potato salad. She made really great potato salad and everyone in town knew it. She frequently made ten pounds of potato salad for receptions after funerals at our church. Of course, when she made the potato salad for our family, it was always divided into two bowls, one with hard-boiled eggs and one without, just for Penny, my mom, and me. Boy, do I miss her. My brother John Roy made potato salad for the reception after my dad’s funeral in May of 2015, and because of Penny and me, he left the eggs out. It was delicious, and with one bite I nearly started crying. Already melancholic over the loss of my dad, tasting my brother’s potato salad brought me right back to my mother. I have tried numerous times, but I don’t think I will ever get it just like hers, or in fact, just like his.

omeletMy husband loves eggs. When we go out for breakfast or brunch, he almost always orders an omelet. In theory, this sounds delicious to me. Cheese, onions, peppers, sausage, all sautéed together. But then add scrambled eggs to that and it is just not appealing to me. I feel the same way about frittata and quiche, although I do have a quiche recipe that I will eat. The secret is that the ratio of cheese to eggs is way out of proportion in my favor. I got the recipe from a co-worker’s wife decades ago. Let me know if you want me to share it with you.

magazine coverEggs are huge right now. Magazine covers, podcasts, Food Network cooking shows, eggs are everywhere. Bon Appétit’s April cover declares, “Put an Egg on It”. They followed up on April 12th with a podcast devoted solely to eggs. I listened intently. Poached eggs are still big apparently, but fried eggs are surprisingly huge, too. The podcast’s discussion on the fried egg centered on the use of olive oil as the fat, with “crispy edges”, and I must say that does sound appetizing. There was also a great deal of discussion about the “jammy egg” which apparently is a soft-boiled egg that can be peeled and sliced in half as opposed to eaten directly out of the shell. (That’s a six and a half-minute egg, in case you are wondering.) jammy eggJammy eggs are really popular right now plopped down in the center of a bowl of steaming ramen. I love ramen, but I’m not sure I want to mess that up with a runny yolk dripping all over my noodles.

So, the question is: Should I put an egg on it? Should I give eggspoached egg
another try? I mean, it’s been a really long time since I was a toddler spitting out scrambled eggs. Where would I start? I feel like Julia Roberts in that scene from The Runaway Bride. Oh, well, the jury is still out. In the meantime, I’ll have the potato salad and the ramen, hold the egg.

Irish Soda Bread in a Hurry

ACBCMy spring break is drawing to a close. For once I made sure I could really relax and not have a ton of school work hanging over my head the whole time. It made a huge difference. I had a great visit with my older daughter, did a bit of spring cleaning, baked an elaborate from-scratch chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday, had long walks with my dog each day, finished a short story I’ve been working on, did some other writing, and read a lot. This morning I slept in and then read for a while, a cozy mystery by an Australian author. It’s my first book of hers and it is enjoyable, light reading. At one point the characters, who have formed an Agatha Christie Book Club of all things,  have afternoon tea together, and being mid-morning, I decided to have a cup of tea and a bit to eat.

BWJMy husband and I have all but eliminated bread in our house but that’s what I really wanted. Tea and toast. Staring into the abyss that is a nearly empty fridge I saw the leftover buttermilk from the chocolate birthday cake recipe. Hmm, buttermilk. That made me think of Irish soda bread. Irish soda bread is a snap to make and goes really great with a steaming cup of tea, Irish or not. So, I grabbed my Baking with Julia cookbook and headed to the kitchen.

irish soda bread muffinsBecause of the low-carb mandate we have been living with, I had almost no all-purpose flour, having used three cups for the birthday cake earlier in the week. So, with a nod to Marion Cunningham’s original recipe, I had to improvise and substitute a bit to produce a half-recipe of her Irish soda bread. And, since I was in a hurry to get back to my book with the tea and toast, I baked it in a muffin tin to speed things up a bit.  I set up a tea tray with good Irish butter and my homemade orange marmalade. The end result? Yummy!tea tray

Irish Soda Bread in a Hurry

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup of self-rising flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 cup of buttermilk

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Spray muffin tin with vegetable cooking spray and set aside.
  • Put all ingredients in bowl of stand mixer except for buttermilk. Mix briefly to combine.good butter and jam
  • With mixer on low, slowly drizzle in buttermilk. Mix on low-medium until dough comes together and forms around paddle. If too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour until ball of dough forms. (Likewise, if too dry, add a few drops of buttermilk until ball of dough forms.)
  • Using an ice cream scoop, divide dough evenly between 12 muffin cups.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until tops are golden and toothpick comes out clean from center of dough.
  • Serve warm with good butter and jam.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old by Michelle Blanchard Ardillo

What “new friends” have you made recently? Who are your favorite “old friends”?

Nerdy Book Club

Over Christmas break, I gave my 7th and 8th grade students a one-sentence homework assignment: read a good book. I told them it didn’t matter if it was long or short, above or below grade level, fiction or non-fiction. Just read a good book.
Upon their return to school, I asked them to write on an index card the title and author of the book they read over break. They then took turns sharing this information with the class, as I asked them general questions about the book: did you like it, was it good, was it challenging, would you read something from that author again? My goal was to inspire them to read each other’s books or, at least, do some reading for leisure. You see, in spite of having two built-in bookshelves in my classroom chockful of books, one organized by genre in pretty, brightly-colored and labeled baskets…

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