Mixing it up in the kitchen

Every night I seem to get the same question from my family: What’s for dinner? Always hungry these people.

My rotation is fairly limited, but dependable — unlike the Boston Red Sox.  Ziti or lasagna, chicken with Mexican rice, homemade pizza, meatball subs, panini sandwiches. I also really like take-out. Growing up my mother seemed to also have her go-to dishes: shepherd’s pie, pork chops, breakfast-for-dinner, are a few that come to mind. On occasion, she tried new things, but they weren’t always met with a warm reception. (To this day, salsa is far too radical of a food idea for  my father to even consider.)

I do remember one new dish my mother made that I loved: French onion soup. My mother found a recipe after ordering it several times at a nearby restaurant called the Barnside Tavern. I was thoroughly impressed that she could recreate the soup at home, served in dark brown crocks with overflowing cheese.

Last weekend my daughter Elizabeth ordered a delicious three-bean chili at a restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., called The Works. Since she had a bad cold, the chili was the perfect comfort food with enough heat to clear her sinuses.

 

IMG_1953

Like Alice, I thought we could recreate the dish at home. I had never made chili before but with the Super Bowl the following day, I thought it would be a good time to try. Here’s the recipe we found from Cooking Light:

Ingredients
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup pre-chopped onion
1/2 cup pre-chopped green bell pepper
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can organic vegetable broth (such as Swanson Certified Organic)
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
6 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pan; sauté 3 minutes. Stir in 3/4 cup water and next 9 ingredients (through diced tomatoes); bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes. Stir in cornmeal; cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in cilantro. Serve with sour cream.

DSC_2839
The Fritos were not an  ingredient, but maybe my favorite part.

The store was out of fresh cilantro so we didn’t add any. And we served with Monterey Jack cheese and Fritos on the side. It was delicious. And everyone liked it. Next time I would double the batch.

I’m not sure why cooking feels like such a chore sometimes. On occasion I adopt an auto-pilot approach. It’s not that I don’t like the final product; it’s the process that I don’t enjoy as much as I wish I did. All the chopping and dicing, the cleaning up. And I know from every self-help book, Oprah magazine and tea bag I have ever read, you are supposed to enjoy the journey. I like the part when we are sitting down at the table. But there is a boost that comes from trying something new.

DSC_2833
I have not adopted the clean-as-you-go approach.

Maybe some day I will be as accomplished in the kitchen as my mother,  but she’s quick to point out that she didn’t start out that way. “I’m not that great of a cook, Susan,” she corrected me the other day. “Don’t put me up on a pedestal. When I first got married I was a terrible cook.”

Before the age of microwaves, she said she especially struggled with timing, making sure the meat, potatoes and vegetables were all hot at the same time. For those of you who watch Downton Abbey (which my daughter Elizabeth says is the same as the Kardashians except the people have British accents) , it calls to mind the struggles of poor Mrs. Hughes. She can’t seem to make her new husband, Mr. Carson, happy in the kitchen. I think she should dump every dish that he criticizes right on his head.

One of my parents’ first fights happened in the kitchen. After trying hard to make a nice dinner for her new husband, my mother dropped the roast beef she was taking out of the oven onto the kitchen floor. She blamed my father, who had repeatedly promised to fix the faulty oven door. My mother was so mad she left the roast beef right where it was. My father was so mad that she blamed him that he did the same.

Growing up we were told that the roast beef sat there for hours. My mother know says it was probably closer to 30 minutes. Eventually my parents agreed to pick the roast beef off the floor together. There may be more romantic stories to share for Valentine’s Day, but I always really liked that one.

image1 (2)
My parents at their surprise 5oth anniversary party in 2011. Photo by John Hart.

 

 

Advertisements

Happy Birthday Mom!

It seems a short blog post is in order today to wish Alice Flynn a very happy birthday. Growing up my mother always made a big deal out of our birthdays. And she says her mother always did the same for her.

Her birthday on Feb. 3 coincides with the Roman Catholic Blessing of the Throats, so part of every birthday was spent in church. Her other tradition involved eating her mother’s homemade hot water sponge cake. Being the youngest of six children, my mother concedes she was a little spoiled on birthdays (and probably in general), especially when her siblings started to work and could splurge on presents.

The fact that my mother made a fuss over our birthdays is even more impressive considering three of her four children’s birthdays were very close to Christmas: December 13, December 19 and January 15. She never did combination birthday/Christmas presents, although she may have wrapped birthday gifts in Christmas paper, but I forgive her now.

Summer birthday parties would have been much easier. Imagine tying the figure skate laces of 10 cranky, runny-nosed elementary school kids at a birthday party held for one of us on the pond across the street. I remember another party at Chuck E. Cheese’s for my brother, back when Chucky E. Cheese’s was The Thing. Tommy had so much fun running around in the tunnels, swimming in the ball pit, playing video games and eating pizza that he threw up on all of his friends on the way home.

I have always loved my birthday, and I know I have my mother to thank. Everyone should feel like a very big deal at least one day of the year.

 

photo-27
Let’s celebrate with Hingham High’s most adorable baton twirler.

 

 

 

In the cards

One of my all-time favorite Alice Flynn memories stems from an event that took place when I was sound asleep. And while I did not witness this incident unfold, my mother’s amusing account the next morning created a recording in my mind that I can replay whenever the mood strikes. It’s so classic my mother that I smile whenever I think about it.

On a Wednesday night back in the late 1970s, my mother won the $500 jackpot at a Bingo game held at a Catholic church in the next town over. She came home so excited that she scattered all her winnings on top of my father asleep in their bed, sort of like rose petals but better. “It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did. But boy he got out of bed quick,” my mother recently quipped.

My mother likes to gamble. She will be the first to admit it. She’s not reckless (in fact she’s probably the opposite), but she likes to win whatever prize is up for grabs. Her mother also liked to gamble, and I have vivid memories of my Nana Kelly having no qualms about taking all my pennies in family poker games despite my quivering lip. My mother’s strategy toward games of chance of any kind is simple: Think positive. She expects to win, and very often she does.

On her first trip to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, she won more than $900 from a crooning Elvis Presley slot machine that landed on three matching gold records. My parents almost missed the Knights of Columbus bus back home to Cape Cod while waiting for their payout.

elvis
My mother was all shook up.

But it’s not just gambling in the traditional sense. She once won round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the United States from a raffle fundraiser run by the high school Boosters. (They went to San Diego.) At a church holiday fair, she bought a chance on the most beautiful wooden dollhouse you have ever seen in your life. Inside, the rooms were exquisitely decorated, like an Ethan Allen showroom, with a four-poster bed, red leather sofa, pedestal kitchen table and pewter dishes. My sister Christine got the dollhouse for Christmas that year.

I share some of my mother’s wishful (perhaps delusional) thinking toward gambling. I expect to win and I really, really, really like to win. My best prize ever was winning two tickets to the Final Four college basketball tournament in 1994, as part of a promotion with WBCN at a restaurant/bar near our house. When they drew the piece of paper with my name on it, I started to shake. I really, really, really thought I was going to win. Earlier that day I had told my mother that we would probably miss Easter dinner because we would be in Charlotte, N.C., for the games. I sort of willed it into happening, or so I like to believe.

photo (4)
My husband (then boyfriend) with Arkansas fans at the Final Four. (Not sure what he was thinking with the Daffy Duck shirt …)

In my ongoing pursuit of living more like Alice, I recently invited three friends to gamble with me. Which is why this past Friday night, we went to the weekly Bingo organized by St. John the Baptist Parish in Salem. I called ahead and spoke with a kind woman named Marilyn and learned the games started promptly at 6:15 pm (doors open at 2 pm) and that the top potential prize for the progressive jackpot that night was $1,700. She wished us luck. I was feeling hopeful; that sum could really improve our family’s February school vacation week plans.

We stepped inside the florescent-lit bingo hall around 5:30 p.m. I thought I would remember the drill from the one or two times I played Bingo in my early 20s with my aunts and my mother. Not so much. Nice older ladies seated behind a long table immediately started firing questions at us: How many sheets do you want? Do you want the blue strips for the 50/50 game? Are you playing the Progressive Cover? How about the Quinella Double Bingo? It was a language we did not speak or understand. I asked one older woman what she would tell her daughter to do: She said she would tell her daughter to go home and not waste her money. I appreciated her honesty, but we were committed.

We bought our cards/strips, colored daubers ($1), some sodas and grabbed seats near the front. We found a few nice women nearby who took pity on us, and one, in particular, who took it upon herself to make sure we understood the many combinations of games. Before long we figured out the Coverall, Broken Picture Frame, and Number 7-to-Letter-Z games. But the Picnic Bench was tricky.  I’m not quick enough to stamp only the numbers that fall into an area that would form a picnic bench base. That’s at least an intermediate skill.

photo (3)
My friend Leeann and I feeling positive at the beginning of the night. Photo by Julie Diewald.

What’s amazing is how some people can play 50 cards at once without batting an eye. With daubers in hand, they move up and down the rows, blotting with efficient precision. Many are very serious. We learned some don’t appreciate chit-chat.  They line up their good luck charms in front of them, share salty snacks on paper plates, and sigh loudly when someone shouts “Bingo” from across the room. I suppose you should feel happy when someone else wins. But I kind of understood the chorus of collective disappointment. I may have even joined in.

 

photo
As Rudolph’s friend Yukon Cornelius liked to say, “Nothin.”  I was once “waiting” on one number, but most of my cards were duds.

Sadly, the night ended without any of us winning a penny. As my friend Julie pointed out, the odds were not in our favor because we played a lot fewer cards than everyone else. But we laughed a lot, maybe too much, considering some of the looks. Could Foxwoods be our next adventure?

Honestly, I‘m OK with the outcome. It wouldn’t have been fair if I won $1,700 at Bingo in January and then won the HGTV Dream Home in March. I have a good feeling about this one.

dreamhome
Friends and family are welcome to visit me in Florida. Just call first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl of my dreams

In fourth grade I got my first, and only, “N” on my elementary school report card. Back then N stood for “Needs Improvement” but it really felt like an F. My handwriting skills were seriously lacking, and I guess my teacher couldn’t bring herself to give me an “S” for Satisfactory. It hurt, but even back then I knew she had a point.

My drawing skills were no better but I guess the art teacher was more forgiving. Maybe she saw an abstract expressionist in the making. I don’t think my art or handwriting abilities have advanced much past fourth grade. For a few years I helped oversee the bulletin board designs at my daughters’ elementary school. More than once, I wrote words that someone mistakenly thought were done by a student. I just went with it.

I offer this as a somewhat long-winded way to introduce my elephant. This is the go-to doodle that I have relied on for as long as I can remember.

elephant.IMG_2331

I was always particularly proud of the three drops of water that come out of his trunk, a playful detail that brings the sketch to another level. Maybe fifth grade. I have signed many a birthday card with this little guy, and he often shows up to keep me company as I’m taking notes during long meetings.

My mother, of course, creates a much better doodle. For as long as I can remember, she’s been making “The Girl,” as I call her. I just learned that my mother learned how to make “The Girl” from her mother. And her four sisters also drew their versions of “The Girl,” and somewhere in her house she has a collection of some of their respective drawings. (She’s still looking for them and I will post if she finds them.)

Nana-photo (12)
This is an old drawing of “The Girl” that I keep on my bulletin board at work.

What I also recently discovered is that The Girl was actually my Nana’s version of the Gibson Girl. In the 1890s, a man by the name of Charles Dana Gibson created the so-called Gibson Girl, known for her hourglass figure, aristocratic air and perfectly upswept hair.  His pen-and-ink drawings appeared in popular magazines and came to represent the spirit of this new, independent woman at the turn of the century. I read somewhere that the Gibson Girl influenced popular opinions about femininity in the early 1900s in much the same way that Barbie did in the late 1900s.

 

GibsonGirl
The original Gibson Girl

 

Who knew Nana was so hip to the scene?

On a recent visit, my mother agreed to teach me how to make her version of the  Gibson Girl, step by step. (I cut her off at the end as she’s adding her bow.)

I have been practicing the technique. I can’t get the lips down at all. They should be more heart-shaped. My girl also doesn’t look as sweet or as pretty as my mother’s.

myphoto (11)

 

In fact, I think we can all be honest: She needs improvement.

 

 

Blossoming relationship

I have gushed at length about my mother’s many talents, but today I must divulge a weakness: computers (remote controls can be problematic as well). She tries, she really does. And I know I should have more patience. But … On a recent visit, she insisted that I refrain from touching the “wifi” plugged into the side of her laptop or it would  mess everything up. It was actually a mouse. She had two mice plugged in at the same time.

Seated side-by-side at her kitchen island, I had offered to try to straighten out an ongoing problem with email and so I took control of just one mouse and started clicking. But she insisted that I  teach her how to the fix the problem herself. You know, “Teach a man to fish,”  that short of thing. I relinquished control and guided her through the steps.  It was excruciating.

Less than an hour later, my mother and I had switched roles. She became the expert and I became the person painful to watch. I had asked my mother to teach me the steps to make a fresh flower arrangement and before long she actually took the scissors out of my hand, more than once in fact. It was a nice moment of understanding, or payback. We both laughed.

My mother’s expertise with flowers far, far exceeds my knowledge of technology. She has worked as a professional floral designer for some 40 years. And before that, as an amateur, she would cut and dry bunches of sea lavender to make centerpieces and wreaths to sell at school fairs. She taught me how to decorate my window boxes and mantle with greens for the holidays and how to hang a garland around the front door. She made flowers for my wedding and my two sisters’ weddings. She’s talented. And now famous.

The winter issue of Cape Cod Home featured a story on houses decorated for the holidays, including this one (see above and below images) done by my mother for Harvest of Barnstable. My favorite line: “Our beautiful designs were conceived in house by Alice Flynn.” Yeah Mom!

IMG_5680

I love flowers, but I tend to place them in a vase after I get home from the supermarket. I don’t arrange. So that’s what brought us to Trader Joe’s on a recent Saturday morning for some hands-on learning.

IMG_1862
Photo by Elizabeth Leighton

The selection was good. We picked out white hydrangeas,  purple delphinium and stalks of pink/purplish alstroemeria, along with three varieties of eucalyptus. You always want texture in addition to the flowers. Remember that. I also discovered that it’s best to select an odd number of each variety of flower (3 hydrangea, 5 delphinium, 7 alstroemeria).

And here’s a few other beauties I gleaned:

Tip 1: Before you start, always cut the stems diagonally, under running water, about an inch from the ends. You don’t want them all the same height, though. That would make for a boring flower arrangement.

Tip #2: Before placing flowers into arrangement, you must remove any leaves that would be in the water. My mother was adamant about this step.

Tip #3: Add water and preservative to the vase. (I always did this after the flowers were in the vase and it made a mess.)

Tip #4: Start with the larger, more dominant flowers first. In our case, it was the hydrangea. It’s best to work with a single type of flower at a time.

IMG_1874
My mother looks worried.

 

Tip #5: Turn the arrangement as you go along to make sure it looks even on all sides.

Tip #6:  Generally speaking, the height of the arrangement should be one and a half times the height of the vase.

Tip #7: Keep layering the flowers, and edit as you go.

Tip #8: Use baby’s breath to break up any heaviness. “When in doubt, add white,” advises Alice.

In the end, the arrangement looked beautiful. I can honestly say I did 85 percent of it myself. I did catch my mother “editing” some after I had briefly left the kitchen and returned. She couldn’t help herself. I’m not complaining. There are far worse things a mother could meddle in.

IMG_5663
The finished creation at home on our buffet. Photo by Sarah Leighton.

 

 

F

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I

Nana’s Candy

First off, some apologies are in order. This Christmas I made “Nana’s Candy” from memory to give to some co-workers and neighbors. Then on Christmas Day my mother brought bags of her delicious candy to give to her children and grandchildren, as has been her tradition, and I noticed it tasted and looked a little different than mine. Then we started talking ingredients. Turns out I forgot a key one: sugar. I left sugar out of a candy recipe. I also shortchanged on the butter and bought the Toll House chocolate chips instead of her preferred Ghirardelli brand.

Some people can cook without following a recipe. I am not one of those people. My sister used to laugh when I set the timer to boil pasta. I like to measure; any advice to add a dollop of this, or a dash of that, is ultimately a recipe for disaster, or at least food that doesn’t taste as good as it could.

Shortly after our first daughter was born, I remember my utter panic when I asked the pediatrician for advice, and he said it’s up to me to decide what felt right. I can’t even remember the question, but was seeking definitive answers on how to care for this helpless infant completely dependent on us for everything. ‘Trust your instincts’ wasn’t one of them. YOU’RE THE EXPERT. PLEASE TELL ME WHAT TO DO. I eventually did learn to trust my gut as I navigated this motherhood thing. Most of the time I’m just winging it. But in the kitchen, I like rules.

Before I share the recipe, my mother wants to make sure everyone knows she didn’t invent it. There are many versions out there.  And she also noted that it’s “not the healthiest thing in the world.” You would have figured that out for yourself. But the salt-sweet combination is delicious, and addictive. It has magical powers over me, like the trance-inducing Turkish Delight that The White Witch used to control her subjects in The Chronicles of Narnia. More than once, I have climbed out of a warm bed, late at night, because I craved one more piece of my mother’s candy before I drifted off to sleep.

Without further ado, here is the recipe:

Nana’s Candy

1 sleeve of Saltine crackers

1 1/2 sticks of butter

3/4 cup of white sugar

1 12-ounce package of Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup crushed walnuts.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat cookie sheet with nonstick spray. Arrange Saltines on cookie sheet.

DSC_2686

In saucepan on low heat, combine butter and sugar, stirring occasionally, Once butter is completely melted, pour over Saltines, trying to distribute equally.

DSC_2699

Then bake for 15 minutes. Remove cookie sheet from oven and sprinkle crackers with chocolate  chips.

 

DSC_2701

Using plastic spatula, spread the melting chips out evenly over the crackers.

 

DSC_2703

Then sprinkle walnuts on top.

DSC_2704

Place cookie sheet in freezer for at least three hours; I left them in there overnight. Remove from freezer and break into small pieces.

DSC_2707

You could create small bags of candy to give away on Valentine’s Day, or  you could hide it and keep it all for yourself.

DSC_2711

Nana approves of either approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s try this again

One of my favorite quotes comes from the movie Babe, which tells the story of a sweet pig that learns to herd sheep. The pig’s unconventional method was to politely ask the sheep to move this way and that instead of barking orders at them, like those demanding dogs. Impressed by his pig’s unusual yet highly effective technique, his owner starts to wonder if his pig could be entered into a sheepherding competition typically reserved for border collies. It was a radical idea. Yet, as the narrator tells us:

“Farmer Hoggett knew that little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny.”

Babe

This blog is one of those ideas that has tickled and nagged. I thought it would be fun to devote one full year to acting more like my mother, Alice Flynn. I would learn to sew throw pillows, refinish furniture, make grape jelly from scratch, and see the best in everyone (or at least try to). I tried to launch it once before, on Mother’s Day in 2014. At the time my mother was lukewarm to the endeavor.

Truth be told, I was disappointed by her reaction. I thought she might well up with tears of joy. Instead I think she said something like, “I don’t know about this. Wait a minute. What’s this all about? I’m not so sure …” I took the mature road and said something like, “That’s fine. We can forget about it,” channeling my 15-year-old former self. I must admit there was some relief, too. Now I didn’t have to actually do the work.

But the blog idea kept tickling and nagging. And then I discovered an old email from my brother. Tommy happened to be there the day I introduced My Year of Living Alicely to my mother. He followed up later to encourage me to stick with it. He thought my mother would like the blog, eventually. She just didn’t understand it yet. She didn’t want it to go “viral.”  My brother knew all about SEOs (search engine optimization) and other tricks to maximize readership. Tommy always thought like an entrepreneur. He was a schemer, and a dreamer.

50thanniversaryparty2 (2)

One year ago, on Dec. 4, 2014,  my brother Tommy died in a tragic accident. He was 40 years old.  As a family we will never quite be the same. While it may sound naive, and I almost stopped myself from typing this, I never fully grasped the finality of death, until now.

One thing I do know for certain is that Tommy thought this blog was a good idea. And I think he’s right that my mother will warm up to it. We shall soon see. It is the new year, time to pursue those ideas that tickle and nag in all of us. So here we go. Stay tuned.

scan_pic0001.jpg
My mother, me, my older sister Kathleen and Sammy.

 

My mother and I celebrating my recent December birthday.
My mother and I celebrating my recent December birthday.