Need to nurture

I have a need to nurture. I’ve known that for a long time, but I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit it. Does this mean I’m not done mothering? Or am I somehow seeking to make myself necessary to others by providing comfort? I like to bake, and I frequently take food to work to share. Does this mean that I’m needy, looking for approval? It can be confusing. Am I giving comfort, or seeking it?

Well, like many answers in life, I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle. I am giving comfort with food, or by doing a favor, or by…(fill in the blank here). And of course I enjoy the approval that comes my way when my food is appreciated, or I know I’ve made a difference in someone’s day by helping out.

But I also think the answer is more complex than either of these obvious choices. The truth is, I am comforted and nurtured when I give to others. That doesn’t make me a saint or anything special. In fact, it could be argued that because this behavior feeds me emotionally, my giving is more about me than others. But it’s really a nice balance between the two. Everyone has strengths, and I believe that strength is a reflection of behavior or attitude that flows naturally. My strength reflects my core.

I know people who are wonderful leaders, decision-makers, clear-thinking and strong enough to create their vision for work, mission, family. I know others who are detail oriented, dedicated to seeing the smallest task through to completion. I know people who dream big and see the goal to be met. Each personality has strength, and mine happens to be sharing comfort, nurturing when I can, in small ways or large.

It took me a long time to accept that about myself, to recognize bringing comfort to others as a strength. It seemed like I was just being nice, when all along, I was being strong. Good to know!

Fall is in the air

What’s magic about this season? Many people say this is their favorite time of year, and that’s true for me too. I always think the calendar should begin with September. It seems like the true start to the year, forever tied in my mind to the beginning of a new school cycle. From my own years as a student, through the years of my children’s education, that rhythm was permanently ingrained. Even without a tie to the school calendar now, so many rituals focus on back-to-school events that I can’t escape the reality that summer has ended, a new season has begun. And although summer traditionally brings luxurious down time and a more relaxed pace of life, it feels good to get back to a schedule, a routine, a defined expectation of the week after summer vacations end.

Aside from the back-to-school sales, the beginning of football season, and early advertisements for Halloween (already there are masses of bags filled with bite-sized candy bars beckoning in the grocery aisles), temperatures announce that change is in the air. The sun in September has a different quality in its warmth, a different brightness in its light. By October, mornings and evenings are crisp, and by November, some days there is frost on the steps outside my front door. The familiar ritual, pulling out sweaters and boots, gloves and coats, moving the summer wear out and the winter wear in, signals that turtleneck season, stretching from September to May in Alaska, has arrived.

When my kids were little, we made annual visits to apple orchards to buy apples and cider, and to pumpkin patch farms to pick pumpkins. It was fun to have exposure to the harvest season as we weren’t connected with these experiences in other ways. It was good to see my kids learn a little about harvest time and enjoy a taste of fruit bought from the source rather than a grocery store. There is just something completely heartwarming about drinking fresh pressed cider and riding on a tractor trailer pulling excited pre-schoolers around a farm.

I like pumpkins; they’re my favorite choice for fall decorating. I add a few brightly colored leaves and nuts, some seasonal berries and cinnamon scented candles, and decorating is done from September to November. I think you get more bang for the buck from fall decorating than in any other season. And the best part: so much of what you use is available in a natural form, right from the grocery store or farmer’s market. The produce section alone offers enough variety to dress up your look for any party you host from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

The best part of fall has to be the food: iconic comfort food like soups, chili, stews; and sweets made with apples, nuts, raisins, pumpkin and all the familiar spices. Even the beverages are unique to the time of year…apple cider and spiced teas and coffees seem just right in October and November. I never think of drinking a cinnamon flavored coffee in July…why is that? But this time of year I’m focused on warm luxury in my beverages, and topping off a spiced coffee with a little sweetened whipped cream is a perfect start to the day or end to the evening. Sampling a pumkin cobbler or apple cranberry pie is a frequent pleasure. I bake more this time of year, and I appreciate the comfort of homey aromas coming from the kitchen when I open the door after work and remember that I put a stew in the crockpot before I left for the day.

Anticipation is key; I know what happens next, and I love it. We’re all getting ready to spend more time indoors, gear up for the Christmas season, celebrate once again the Thanksgiving holiday that reminds us of the importance of family, friends, good times, good food, and the traditions that bind it all together. So here’s to Fall, the magical (and real) start to a new year, a new cycle, and the best of comfort, home, and harvest.

Peaches, taste of summer

Peaches are almost my favorite fruit. They definitely rank in the top three. The perfect mango or luscious strawberry is hard to beat, but fortunately, I don’t have to stay awake nights ranking fruit preferences. I can enjoy any and all without pressure.

Some summers are better than others for fruit, or a particular fruit. Peaches are iffy. Some years I’ve enjoyed a seemingly endless parade of peaches through my summer breakfasts and desserts, appearing every way from bare and minimal presentation to delicate pastries and hearty cobblers to jams and chutneys. Well, some years you get lucky.

This summer, so far, I’ve had a few good peaches. But I’m far from satisfied. I haven’t reached the point of feeling I could spare any fruit for stashing in the freezer. That only happens when I’ve hit the jackpot with both flavor and quantity, and the best opportunity for that is a visit to a farm stand, where you can sample the fruit and decide if you want to buy enough for a meal or two, or a more substantial amount that will translate to jams and supplies for the freezer.

Ketchikan doesn’t have farm stands, and the grocery offering is variable. Sometimes the peaches are heavenly, sometimes a waste of money and effort. But next week I’ll be in Arizona, and I’m hoping to do a little peach eating while I’m there.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself with excess peaches on your kitchen counter, here’s a little tip for having a taste of summer next winter: Peel and slice peaches, as many as you want, to fill freezer bags (whatever size works best for you, gallon or quart). Sprinkle fresh sliced peaches with lime or lemon juice to prevent peaches from browning, then fill bags with fruit, press the air out and seal, and pop in the freezer. Next winter when you want a reminder of a summer day, take out a bag of peaches and make a peach cobbler or peach crisp. Trust me, you’ll be able to close you eyes and think you’ve stepped back to July. The flavor will be summer, all over again.

Here’s a good way to use those frozen peaches:

My mother’s peach cobbler

1 gallon bag of sliced frozen peaches, partially thawed
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

Mix fruit, butter and sugar, and heat to melt butter. You can microwave or do this step on the stove top. Put hot fruit mixture in a deep baking dish.

In a separate bowl, mix:

1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup granulated sugar
Milk (use anything from fat-free to whole milk, your choice) to make a pancake-batter thickness (should be a pourable consistency, but not too thin)

Pour the batter over the hot fruit mixture and bake at 375 degrees, until the batter mixture has bubbled up and browned. (My mom’s recipe doesn’t have a baking time listed; you just “keep an eye” on the oven.) Serve warm with ice cream and prepare for a little heaven on earth.
Reheats nicely too!


Strawberries on my toast

Fresh strawberry jam, that is!

For all the lushness of Southeast Alaska…this is a rain forest you know…this is not a center for agriculture. Fishing, yes. Growing edible things, less so. The growing season for fruits and vegetables is shorter and significantly wetter than in other regions of the country. Some things seem to thrive. Raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries, salmonberries all do well here. I don’t know if any of the berries are native to this area, but if not, they’ve made themselves at home. There are berries all over and berry picking is a local sport this time of year.

Friends who live north of town have a real garden and enthusiastically grow a plethora of fruits and vegetables. They’re gifted with proverbial green thumbs, and are generous with their harvest. So when they asked if I would like to pick some strawberries, I accepted the offer and chose a day to drive the (gasp!) 12 miles out of Ketchikan to gather berries.

The strawberry plants came with the property, and I’m not sure my friends know what the variety is. The berries are small, with the largest ones being about the size of a red grape and the smaller ones about the size of a peanut. They don’t get much brighter in color than a dark pink, certainly not the brilliant red of market berries. But they are fragrant and sweet.

Tonight, I have fresh freezer jam cooling on my counter, with enough to share with friends and kids, and have plenty left for my Saturday breakfast toast (no bread for weekday breakfasts, carb watching).

First, I washed the berries:


I measured about 7 cups of berries into a medium-sized pot. Then I added granulated sugar, about three cups, and a few drops of red food coloring to punch up the color. That’s it, no pectin or other ingredient. Fruit and sugar boil and eventually reduce to a thick jam. The cooking time is at least an hour, but there’s no set length of time until the jam is finished. You can continue to cook and concentrate the flavor and let the mixture thicken. As long as the heat is reduced to simmer, you can relax and quit stirring.


When the jam is thick enough for you, pour into clean jars, or other small containers, and your kitchen project is complete. Remember to store the jam in the fridge once it’s cooled.


Signature Recipe – my favorite salad

I don’t often think of myself as having “signature” characteristics or likes. I don’t have a signature color (although I wear a lot of green, and black figures prominently in my wardrobe as well). I don’t have a signature fragrance. I like a variety of perfumes and colognes. But as we go through life, we all find ourselves gravitating to some things again and again. I think I can safely say that I have a signature salad because this really is my favorite, and the recipe I go to most often when I need a green and leafy element in any meal.

So, one of the few recipes I would tag with the term “signature:”

Sheila’s Salad

Mixed spring greens, or baby spinach leaves
Thinly sliced red onion rings, separated
Fresh cilantro leaves (I like lots of cilantro!)
Craisins, or you can substitute fresh seedless red grapes or raisins
Roasted Pecan halves
Crumbled Feta cheese (be generous)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Salad dressing of your choice (creamy poppy seed, huckleberry, or wine vinagrette work well with these flavors.)


You can use as much or as little of each ingredient as you like. I would suggest a ratio of salad greens and the remaining ingredients in a proportionate amount: half greens to the remaining ingredients. The feta cheese and pecans provide a savory flavor, while the craisins or alternate fruit adds just the right balance of sweetness. You can also make this a dinner salad by adding sautéed shrimp or grilled fillet of salmon or halibut, flaked into bite-sized pieces. The contrast between the chilled greens and the hot grilled or sautéed seafood creates a perfect light but satisfying summer entree.


Food must-haves

The Market

Grocery time again…how does it come around so often? I make my list, because I never go without a list – that’s fatal – a sure way to come out with a cart full of essentials that have nothing to do with What’s For Dinner – you know – olives, and favorite teas, special cheese, fancy herbs and spices. You get home and realize: I just spent (fill in the blank) and have…nothing to eat. But I could garnish a fabulous salad bar, and I have a pantry full of exotic extras. So, everything goes on the list, even standards like milk and cream. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about shopping…if it’s on my list, it’s more likely to make it into my cart and out the door. No guarantees…oh no, the grocery cart is just like life…being on the list doesn’t mean I’ll actually pick up the item. If I’m with Rob I’m much better. If I’m shopping alone, I’m likely to be one of the multi-tasking people who is also on the phone strolling down the aisles. (I do make a point of being off the phone when I go through the check-out. I mean, there are limits!) Check out etiquette demands that the customer have the standard chit-chat that’s required for the process of spending amazing amounts in a few short minutes and leaving with checker and customer feeling like there was a fair exchange of produce for cyber money.

But the point of all this is…I suddenly noticed that so many of the things I now consider standard for my pantry/fridge were once unknown in my kitchen universe. Some of the change is due to exposure…you experience a taste and can’t get enough of it. Or you suddenly have access to an item that you haven’t been able to purchase in the past. Sometimes the adventure of trying a recipe that has an ingredient new to me is enlightenment enough, and I find that I have a new staple to stock.

Now I buy (on a regular basis):

~chopped dates – essential for making English Toffee Pudding dessert. I don’t make this often. But I might need to make it at any time. Best to be prepared; when you need this dessert, you NEED it.

~lemongrass – amazing flavor for Asian dishes, subtle but distinct.

~cilantro (love that taste and fragrance) – kicks up Mexican standards and Asian recipes, or just plain good in salads.

~fresh mozzarella – required for Caprese salad, and let me just say that I could eat this salad every day for the rest of my life; also perfect for a grown up grilled cheese (definition of grown up grilled cheese is multiple cheeses on a grilled panini that creates an ultimate ooey-gooey-eating experience when you take a bite…)

~ginger-peach tea – best flavor for unsweetened iced tea, my personal choice for beverage of the year.

~turbinado sugar – perfect for sprinkling on top of muffins or cookies to add a finishing touch before baking.

~Balsamic vinegar – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: good for salads, marinades, sweet and savory dishes.

~Dubliner cheddar cheese – so sharp it practically squeaks! Cannot. get. enough. of. this.

~egg beaters – an essential for Rob’s morning scramble.

~water crackers – perfect light pairing with sharp cheeses.

~small containers of gourmet ice cream – I love to get a BOGO or 2-for price and choose our favorite flavors. The small size is perfect for indulging without too much guilt, and this size has a significantly smaller freezer footprint than standard containers.

~edamame – I love these little beans, and they’re good for you. I think if you eat enough of these they actually erase the impact of cream addiction.

~Greek yogurt – so thick and luxurious!

~sparkling water – another thing I buy for Rob, when he’s not drinking “Hawaiian” water – water with various fruits diced up and added to give flavor without calories.

~rhubarb – best for fruit pies and crisps, and the best combination is rhubarb and orange. If you’re lucky enough to have a rhubarb plant you will never need to buy this again. You will have plenty to use in season, to freeze for out of season, and you may find yourself looking for unlocked vehicles to share your extra rhubarb bounty with fortunate strangers…yes, it grows at an amazing rate (at least in a rainforest).

~Bocca burgers – I can hear my son groaning now…he’s a meat snob and looks askance at anything vegetarian that masquerades as a burger. I don’t say that this replaces the classic grilled beef burger, but in a pinch, and especially if I’m eating dinner alone, it’s an easy and good alternative.

These are a few of my favorites at the market. Ten years from now, or possibly sooner, I’ll have a different list of kitchen standards. But at the moment, I’ll be feasting on these things. Hey, I know What’s For Dinner!

Key Lime Pie

Summer is officially here, and even in Ketchikan the weather is warming up. The afternoons are bright with the peculiar late day sun that is characteristic of Alaska. The best part of the day is late afternoon, and it stays light far into the evening, elongating the period between getting home from work and dinner: almost like a second afternoon to enjoy and linger in.

One of our favorite summer treats is Key Lime Pie. Couldn’t be easier to make, and you can prep the day before you plan to serve, so it’s a great option for entertaining.

This is the recipe for a classic version of the traditional Southern favorite:

Key Lime Pie

For crust
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice

For topping
3/4 cup chilled heavy cream

Make crust: Preheat oven to 350°F.
Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate.
Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.

Make filling and bake pie: Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly).
Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.

Make topping: Just before serving, beat cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream.


Homemade Vanilla pudding

May is a fickle month, weather-wise, at least in this region of the country. Last Friday it was warm. I actually felt hot running around doing a few errands in the afternoon. But the cooler temps are back, and I have my sweatshirt on over my turtleneck. Yes, I’m still wearing turtlenecks. It’s my uniform from September through May, so I’m in the home stretch, getting ready to switch over to clothes that at least suggest warmer weather is in sight. But it will be a little while yet before I break out the tank tops.

Tonight it seemed just right to  mix up a little warmth for an after dinner treat. One of my favorite comfort foods, plain vanilla pudding has just the right everything: the right amount of sweet creamy buttery warmth that makes it irresistible on a chilly evening. This makes a small amount, so if you are making this for more a couple of people, you’ll probably want to double the recipe.

Vanilla Pudding

Vanilla goodness


1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups half and half

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract


1. Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan.

2. Whisk in about a third of the half and half, stirring until smooth. Stir in remaining half and half until well combined.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened (about 5 minutes, but the time will vary).

4. Reduce heat to low and continue to heat, stirring gently, until the mixture reaches a simmer.

5. Cook one minute more over low heat, then remove from heat.

6. Fold in butter and vanilla extract. Spoon pudding into serving dishes.

I like this served warm, but if you prefer it chilled, just make early enough in the day to chill in the fridge before serving. I always have a bit left over, and it keeps well for a day or two in the fridge. Just reheat briefly in the microwave if you like it served warm.

This is a thinner pudding than the instant variety, but it is simple to make, silky smooth, and has no artificial ingredients!


Kid foods

Kid stuff for dinner

Stephanie was taking care of a friend’s kids recently, and for dinner they had fish sticks and mac and cheese from the blue box. You know, the classic Kraft mac and cheese, food of kids everywhere (and secret weakness of some adults I know). Made me think about some of my kids’ favorite foods. Let’s see…when they were little, they used to eat:

  • Sloppy joes and tater tots
  • Spaghetti
  • chicken fingers
  • the classic grilled cheese
  • Fairy Cake (recipe here)
  • Animal crackers
  • Goldfish
  • Gummy bears
  • String cheese
  • Applesauce
  • Rice Crispy treats (homemade, the only way to go)
  • Oatmeal
  • Kid pizza (mostly cheese)
  • Fruit leather
  • Ketchup (a food group to my daughter)
  • Milk (needed a cow in the back yard for my two milk-a-holics)
  • Potato soup
  • Pop-tarts
  • Hot pockets (Alex loved these. I was probably a terrible mom for buying them for him, but looks like he survived that abuse)
  • Pizza Rolls (see above confession)
  • Beef stew
  • Orange sherbet push ups
  • Chocolate chip cookies, the original recipe from the chocolate chip bag
  • Tiny green peas
  • carrots (see, they did eat some good stuff!)
  • Bacon and eggs
  • Waffles and pancakes
  • Strawberries
  • Breakfast cereals (shall be nameless here…what can I say, they wore me down)
  • French fries
  • Chicken noodle soup

The above items were some of their regular and favorite foods. They ate other things too, some of it healthy. I’m usually in the camp of “all things in moderation,” so while I’ve tried to make good choices at the grocery, I’m not fanatical about avoiding sugar or fat. I’m happy to say that they did not grow up on a diet of fast food. That’s one gift we gave to them, mostly by accident of where we bought a house: too far from fast food restaurants to be even remotely desirable for a dinner option. 

Well, maybe that list isn’t so bad. You’re only a kid once you know. And that old blue box mac and cheese…it isn’t gourmet, but it is tasty, especially if you’re a little kid who’s just learned how to open the pantry door and point. And what do you think that kid wanted for breakfast? That’s right! Kraft Mac and cheese. Long live kids! They like what they like, and they don’t get hung up on time of day to eat the right kind of food. 

Confessions from a cookie monster

I’ve been good for a long time. I rarely buy junk food: chips, sodas, cookies, all those things that get their taste from sugar, fat, and artificial flavoring. They aren’t good for you, and I’m usually strong enough to avoid them.  But I had a major downfall this week. So here’s what happened.

Had an event I needed to take a little treat for, and in a very uncharacteristic choice for me, I stopped by the grocery to pick up something rather than bake a dessert myself.  What can I say? I don’t always have to be in the kitchen! I was strolling around the bakery looking for a likely treat when I spotted them: the Lofthouse Sugar Cookies. You know those fat, soft, white sugar cookies with the really bright frosting? They aren’t the most beautiful cookies I’ve seen. But I love the soft texture and the just right mix of the frosting and the cookie. So I bought a tray of them.

Downfall of the diet

Then…no event! Ended up being rescheduled. And now I was home, facing these cookies, just watching them watching me. I decided to have just one. Of course they wouldn’t keep for another week, so no need to save them all. My back up plan: take them into work, which is a frequent option for me when I’m in baking mode. But somehow, I walked out every day this week without those cookies. And every day, I’ve had another one. Ok, twice I had two for dessert. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have enough left to take into work at this point.

I comfort myself. I can’t remember the last time I bought cookies. I certainly don’t know the last time I ate a whole batch by myself in one week. Maybe this is a once in a lifetime behavior? I’ll just finish these off and then I’ll be done with this episode. That’s the plan. Don’t bring them in the house, they can’t stare at me from my kitchen counter if I don’t buy them first.

Ok, it’s everyone for themselves. I tried to save myself, but it looks like I’m going down with the ship…er, cookie. I can’t ignore them. They call to me. Just try them, see if you’re any stronger. I dare you. I double dare you! These cookies are evil! And delicious. And addicting. And fattening.

Sorry, I know there are lots of world issues occurring. I’m just having a moment here. I’ll pull myself together and give up being self absorbed shortly. I just have one more to go and then I’m finished. I can throw the evidence…box…away, and go buy myself the makings for a week of salads.

No standing on the scales until next week. By then, I hope the salads will have erased the cookies. It works that way, doesn’t it?