Now that summer is here and there are no chorus rehearsals to prepare for and no tennis matches to recover from, I have gotten a chance to read a couple of books and watch some movies.  I’ve read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  and The Magician’s Assistant recently and enjoyed both but if I had to choose one I’d give the nod to the second choice.  I would say this book could be described as elegiac, and I’d made up my mind that I’d turn and run from any book that had that word used to describe it after reading The Sea by John Banville, which won the Man Booker Prize and is described on Amazon as “luminous” as well as elegiac.  Three strikes against! I read that book for a group discussion and there was 100% agreement that The Sea was one of the most boring books we’d read.  It’s right up there with A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer which we’d read many years previously and held up ever since as the standard bearer of painfully boring books by award-winning authors.  Sport of Nature was the book for my first meeting and I naively thought at the time that when you committed to a book group it meant you were committing to the reading of the selected book each month in its entirety, period.  I got to the meeting and found out no one else had bothered to finish the book.  I still believe if you join a book group you should read the book or not go to the meeting.   

What Ann Patchett has done here with The Magician’s Assistant is nothing less than sleight of pen.  Yes, it’s about grief and loss and wallowing, but it’s also about the magic of love, whenever and wherever it can be found.  I read all the one star reviews on Amazon and find some of the complaints about the book valid but still, there is something about it that satisfies, even though I agree with the 1-star reviewer who found  him/herself saying, “Huh?” at the puzzling end.  Maybe I was just grateful I’d made it to the end and the book hadn’t devolved into the wrenching violence I kept expecting from reading all those Oprah books back in the Book Group days.  They all had at least one episode of horrific violence which often felt like it was dropped into the book arbitrarily and for the sole purpose of getting Oprah’s attention and therefore selling lots more books.  The worst offender for me in that category was Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts in which (major spoiler alert if you haven’t read it) a very minor child character was brutally raped by an even more minor character in the book and then never mind and on we go with the rest of the story.  Yes, there is violence in this current book, but it makes sense within the context of the story and serves a purpose in driving the plot.  Yes, I get it that extreme violence happens to unsuspecting innocent people all the time and it makes no sense.  That’s why they call it senseless.  There’s plenty of it to go around in real life, I don’t want it in my books.

The other book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a good read too, and I suspect most people will find it more to their liking.  I read it.  I liked it.  I just wasn’t affected by it in the same way.  I think Patchett’s prose just carries me along effortlessly.  I found myself stopping and noticing the effort behind the prose more in Fowler’s writing.  Also, I guess I’d rather have a bit of, “Huh?” at the end of a serious book than a sweetly tied bow.  Just me surprising myself.

Movies:  “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Sweet Land.”  Both good in their own way.  So nice to have a breather from the blockbusters and all their noisy explosions.  Sweet. Sad.  Funny.  Moving.  Satisfying.  Small films with big hearts.  Thanks for the recommendations Netflix.  Your algorithms are working.

Real Armenian Rice Pilaf

Now we are getting to the nitty-gritty.  This is the classic.  More than just a side dish, Rice Pilaf is King of Armenian Cuisine.  No holiday meal is complete without it, but it also graces the table year ’round and serves as the ballast for all kinds of daily meals.  It’s quick to make and never fails to satisfy.

The Recipe:

  • 1 cup very fine vermicelli, broken into small pieces, or if you like, Orzo.  I buy imported very fine vermicelli already cut to the proper size at a Mediterranean Market.  You can also use Golden Grain Angel Hair Cappellini, which comes in tight coils and you crush it with your hands until the pieces are a uniform size, each around 1/2 inch in length.  
  • 1 cup long grain white rice.  I SO dislike the flavor and texture of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice that I call it perverted rice, but some Armenians use it exclusively for their pilaf.  If you like it and want to use it in my recipe, just don’t tell me, please.
  • 1/2 cube of butter, which equals 1/4 cup.  I said BUTTER.  Salted.  That being said, a friend has used olive oil and says it’s good.  Feel free to experiment.
  • 1 can of Swanson’s Chicken Broth, 14.5 oz. size.  I’ve heard of people using Beef Consomme, Vegetable Broth for vegetarians or even all water, but the classic is the Swanson’s Chicken Broth/water combination.
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

It’s best for amateurs to stage these ingredients prior to starting the rice.  I do this myself when I am making this rice for special occasions and there will be distractions in the kitchen or when making larger batches.  The process moves quickly and requires constant attention to stirring and the quick addition of ingredients at the proper time so there really isn’t time to find and measure out things once you get started.  If everything is already measured out and the can of broth is opened and all is ready to go, you will be much happier.  Trust me on this.

Here we go:  Melt the butter in a 3-4 quart saucepan over high, stirring constantly with a large spoon so it will not burn.  As soon as the butter is melted, add the vermicelli and keep stirring like mad over high heat until it is evenly browned and it looks like this:

browning vermicelliThe butter is now very dark brown and possibly even starting to smoke, but not burned yet.  This is where the distinct flavor comes from.  Be fearless and bold.  Take it to the limit but don’t allow it to burn.  When browned perfection has been achieved, quickly throw in the rice and keep up the stirring like mad to coat each grain of rice with butter.  You can briefly remove the pan from the heat while you are adding and stirring in the rice but as soon as all grains are coated and stirred in, return to the heat and pour in the broth, water and salt, as quickly as you can.  Give it one quick stir or gentle shake to make sure the liquid reaches everywhere within the pot and bring to a full boil.  Cover and reduce heat to simmer immediately.  Leave at the simmer for 25-35 minutes.  This stage can be stretched a bit to accommodate the rest of the meal.  The rice will stay hot and be fine.  You can turn off the heat after the 25 minutes are up and just let it sit but don’t open the lid or stir until you are ready to serve:

rice pilafDo you see how the grains of rice open up and accept some of the lovely brownness (and therefore flavor) from the vermicelli and how the vermicelli swells and releases some of its color?  If you have not browned the vermicelli enough, your rice will be pale, although still delicious.  This recipe serves 6 easily.

You can double the recipe for larger groups and proceed without concern, but if you go above 2 cups of rice, you will want to pre-heat the liquids or they will not come to a boil quickly enough and the rice won’t come out right.  You also have to make sure you have a pot large enough to accommodate the expansion of the rice.  I have done the math and method for large batches and can go as far as 6 cups of rice/vermicelli and when I make that much, I weigh out the dry ingredients rather than using measuring cups to prevent additive measuring errors and I add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice with the liquids to keep the rice from getting sticky.  Beyond THAT you need a restaurant kitchen and the strength to stir all that vermicelli without burning it or yourself and to pour large quantities of boiling liquids from one very large pot to another without mishap.  It’s harder than you might guess.  I make my 6-cup version in a 12 quart All-Clad Stockpot.




Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Pinmoor substitute


When I made my first quilt many moon ago, I found a pattern in a craft magazine for an Amish Roman Stripe quilt and I thought the instructions looked simple enough, so I bought fabric and dove in with both feet armed with plenty of garment construction experience and youthful enthusiasm.  This was back in the day before rotary cutters, so I cut everything with scissors!  Did I mention I was much younger back then???

The top went together fairly well for a first attempt and I was so pleased with it I was ready to tackle what I thought was going to be a quick finish to the project. Since I was nearly at the end of the instructions,  I figured I was nearly at the end of the work and would soon be wrapping my baby in a soft and warm quilt until I read on and all that was remaining of the instructions was, “Now quilt and bind it.”  Wait, wait, there must be another page, I thought.  Nope.  Nice top you’ve got there. Now quilt it.  Then bind it. Huh.  Well, I’d purchased the batting and backing fabric because that was indicated at the beginning of the instructions.  So, I decided I would just put the batting between the top and bottom, pin them together and then stitch them on my sewing machine.  I knew this probably wasn’t what was really expected, but I also knew from my sewing experience that it would work and I would have a usable quilt.  So I stretched everything out on the floor and placed straight pins at every block junction on the top and went to the machine.

You might guess where this is going.  All those straight pins were a nightmare.  They did the job of holding the quilt together well enough…when they didn’t fall out…but I had bloody scratches up and down my arms and even some on my legs from when the quilt rested on my lap.  I might as well have been wrangling wildcats as sewing up a quilt.  I just thought I’d made a silly mistake by using straight pins and went off to learn how REAL quilters did things, which in this instance for machine quilting, was with safety pins, duh.

Now here it is all these years later and I find out (on Craftsy, but more about that later) that the most up-to-date millennial quilters baste for machine quilting with, you guessed it, plain old STRAIGHT PINS, and one very clever person has created the product I needed all those years ago: Pinmoor, colorful, re-usable, easy on, easy off little silicone caps to cover the end of the pins and prevent them from falling out and from piercing your skin as you maneuver the quilt around.  So those look really good, but awfully expensive and only available via mail order.

A little more scooting around the ‘Net reveals that someone else uses                Caulk Backer Rod from the hardware store for the same purpose at approximately 1/10 cost.   Well, I ran out to get some of that caulk backer rod today and have basted up this batik fabric to make a small whole cloth table topper and the backer rod works fine.

My hands are sure happy they don’t have to open and close all those safety pins, my arms are happy they don’t have to endure all those painful scratches, my pocketbook is happy I spent less than $4, and my psyche is happy I was on to something all those years ago by basting with straight pins and my solution wasn’t a mistake, it was just a product waiting to be born.



New tools for an old trade

Applique tools


It’s been a while since hand applique was on the front burner so when I wanted to drag out an old project and finish it up, I decided to look around and see what was new in the applique world.  I found the excellent class called Machine-Finished Hand Applique taught by Beth Ferrier and took a look.  Oh my, glue basting applique pieces is an amazing step forward from either needle-turn or turn-and-baste over freezer paper!  Beth suggests using regular office supply glue sticks as they are cheaper, readily available and she likes the squishy tackiness they give, but I did like this more expensive fabric glue pen by Sewline better than either the Elmer’s purple or standard office supply water soluble glue stick.

I also found the “Purple Thang” stick a bit more responsive than the cuticle stick recommended in the class for pushing and turning fabric. Yes, again, it’s more expensive and only available from quilt notions suppliers while cuticle sticks are cheap and easy to find, but it really did work better for me and so was well worth the price.  Actually, I use both tools at the same time for these very small circles, one in each hand. My fingers are too clumsy by half.

Those little scissors with the green handles are by someone named Karen Kay Buckley and she calls them Perfect Scissors.  The clerk at my favorite quilt shop insisted that if I was doing applique, I should have these little scissors and I should trust her on this.  They are nice.  Supposedly, their micro-serration prevents fraying and they do cut right to the tips and are very maneuverable to cut around complex shapes.  I can’t speak to whether they prevent fraying since with this technique, the glue accomplishes that nicely.  Sometimes you just have to trust.

You can see above and below how nice and round my circles are using these new techniques, even though I used a slight variation on Beth’s instructions by putting adhesive dots on top of the fabric as a turning guide rather than freezer paper on the inside.  Will all that glue wash out you ask?  Well, once more I’m going to trust and not worry about it.  Better to have a finished project with a little glue left in it after washing than a glue-free never-finished top lurking in a drawer.

Look at those pretty little circles! Bring on the applique berries!  Thank-you Beth!


Glue baste

Surprise Walnut Squares

What is surprising about these chewy, sweet bar cookies?  Only that they taste so rich and yummy you could swear they are larded with fat as well as sugar.  Nope, just lots of brown sugar.  There is no added fat beyond what is naturally occurring in the eggs and walnuts.


Here’s the recipe:

Mix with a fork in a good size mixing bowl:

  • 2 eggs
  • 15 oz. brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla

Then stir in:

  • 4.5 oz. flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda

And finally these:

  • 8 oz. chopped walnuts, by hand or carefully in processor with pulses to prevent getting ground walnuts.  You want a fairly coarse chop.

Spread in a greased 9 x 13 pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.  These are better under-baked than over-baked.  When cool, cut into squares.  Best to cut and serve as needed.  


Keeping score

Most of the time, keeping score makes life miserable since scores beg to be settled eventually, but in baseball, keeping score is the best way to enjoy the game. Never go to a ballpark without your scorebook!


Right tools for the job

There is a special place in my heart for the clerk at our local kitchen specialty shop who gave me, yes GAVE me this little black scraper tool for removing stubborn stickers from things. I asked her if I could buy one when I saw her using it to remove a sticker before wrapping a gift for me and she said to her knowledge you couldn’t buy these handy little tools, but they had plenty since they came along free with some product they ordered for their business. (Presumably those dratted price stickers they put on everything that you can’t remove without this handy tool!)

Sometimes, well okay, ALWAYS after you have used the handy scraper to remove all the paper from the sticker there is glue residue left behind. That’s where the peanut butter comes in. If the item is not going to be used in the kitchen, I use Goo Gone or some other solvent product, but for food prep or serving items, I don’t want to use solvents. They are not welcome in my kitchen. So a little peanut butter on a paper towel works like a charm. Rub that glue residue and watch it dissolve and disappear. Yes, you now have a greasy smear of peanut butter on your glass (in this case), but a clean paper towel easily gets most of that off and a trip through the dishwasher finishes the job. You will never know there was a stubborn sticker there.

Before I learned this trick I had some cups that retained a gummy residue in perpetuity, no matter how long I soaked them in sudsy water or how many times I sent them through the dishwasher.

Radical Transformation Underway

Okay, maybe not so radical, but it sure felt that way, especially while I was doing it.

Sweater transformation1


I knitted this sweater a few years back and found I never wore it even though I was mostly happy with how it fit and how it turned out.  The bright circles are not buttons, but are pins marking the center line for the planned transformation into something I might actually wear.

While they are fast and easy to knit, I find that pullover sweaters are functionally useless for me these days.  I like a cardigan I can pull on and off as needed.  So I decided to try and make a cardigan out of this pullover that had been malingering on a shelf in my closet.

Having done steeks before, I knew a tight zig-zag would secure everything so I did that first:  2 rows of zig-zag stitches down the center front, about 1/4 inch apart.  Then, I took a deep breath and my Gingher shears and started cutting between the machine stitches.  Since the remaining yarn from this project is long gone, the option of picking up stitches and knitting a band on after cutting is also long gone.  I had to think about what to do to control that edge for…oh about 30 seconds.  I chose the fastest, easiest option that came to mind:  zig-zagging one more time over the cut edge, and I just let the stretch happen as I noticed it was wanting to do after the cutting and look at that now stable edge with the lovely ruffle, a happy accident that looks planned, at least to me and especially given the current popularity of ruffles.

Sweater transformation2


Say, Sam-I-Am, I DO like this sweater and I will wear it in a box, with a fox, on a train, in the rain…after I trim off the thread tails.

Secret’s Out

Secret recipes are doomed to die and isn’t that sad? Therefore, I am sharing the secret of my (extremely) locally (sort of) famous “Tennis Tuna” with the wider world: lots of mayonnaise, ditto sweet pickle relish, a little freshly ground pepper, a splash of vanilla and mix with a fork until there are NO CHUNKS of tuna left. Basically, mix ’til it hurts. The vanilla is the real secret, passed down from an aunt who was an amazing cook.

My tennis team wants finger sandwiches made from this tuna at every match, thus the moniker.

Puppy Love Scrubs

Long ago I decided I would never “take in sewing” for money. This has allowed me though the years to take on only projects I want to do for people I care about and is no doubt why I still like to sew.

Here’s a fun example: a scrub top for someone dear to me who works in a veterinary clinic and has to wear scrubs every day.

There are so many cute animal fabrics to choose from it was hard to decide, but this one was sui generis, my phrase of the week, lifted from a biography of Winslow Homer.

How many times will I have to use it to cement it in my vocabulary? Sui generis: peerless, without equal, just like the recipient of the scrubs, in fact!