March 18, 2005


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Girls just wanna have fun . . . talking on their banana phones.

That's Allegra, on the right, wearing my chartreuse shirt in honor of St. Patrick's Day -- and you'll appreciate her color sense, with the complementary red cardi over it. You may not recognize Jennie, on the left, now that she's cut her long blonde hair and dyed it brown -- and pierced her tongue. What a little college education will do for a girl . . . .

You might be wondering how we celebrated St. Patrick's Day around here. Well, for 21 years, Scott has asked that I make corned beef and cabbage. And for 21 years I've made, instead, beef stew and called it Irish Stew. One year I found a recipe in one of those 30-minutes-or-less kind of cookbooks called "Bubble and Squeak," which I tried out. But that was not even close to corned beef and cabbage, in Scott's opinion.

We've developed some rituals, in so many years of marriage. Every year for Christmas Scott gives me a cookbook. Last Christmas I got The New Best Recipe. Not all of the cookbooks I've received from him over the years have had recipes that were worth making. But I got up from unwrapping this one, promptly made buttermilk pancakes for Christmas breakfast using a recipe from this book, and have kept using it ever since.

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I didn't grow up eating corned beef and cabbage; I didn't know how to make it; I didn't think I wanted to learn. Cabbage just isn't something that gets me salivating. (My mother made plenty of other dishes that I would consider equally folksy, equally awful: liver and onions, for example. She did make corned beef hash, but from canned corned beef. But she never made the boiled dinner of corned beef and cabbage that Scott remembers his mother making.)

So, I thought, this year, if The New Best Recipe has a recipe, I can at least try to make corned beef and cabbage. Sure enough, it did have one, although it was called "Corned Beef Brisket and Cabbage, New England Style," not "Irish." Whatever.

The New Best Recipe weighs in at a hefty 1,028 pages. But not all of the pages are recipes -- each individual recipe is preceded by one to two pages of explanation about the testing that went on to come up with the best version of the dish. And I can't help myself -- I read those pages. The corned beef would turn out most tender, I found out, if cooked at a "lively simmer" rather than a full boil. Remove the meat to a warm oven when done, so that it can rest before cutting. While the meat is in the oven, cook the veggies in the broth. And cook the veggies in steps: carrots and potatoes go in first and cook longest, add cabbage and onions later for a shorter cooking time. Well, the dinner was quite a success. Scott especially praised the cabbage, which ended up more like a steamed vegetable than like a mushy mess. (The girls, of course, had a different opinion.)


My eldest sister, Shirley, is quite the gourmet cook. She and her husband are very active in the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Shirley has developed her own "Forest Fudge Brownie" mix, which she sells as a fundraiser for their club. The mix results in a rich brownie -- superb! You can see that we are pretty fond of it, chez Campbell. I've promised to buy a whole case, and earlier this week I picked up from Shirley the first installment. Aren't these beautiful? She not only takes the time to package the ingredients in layers, but she tops off each jar with a circle of fabric cut from a sweet little forest print of birds, berries, acorns and puts that on the mason jar lid, and ties it off with a red ribbon. A feast for the eyes as well as the tummy. Guess what I'll be taking to Mary B's Dulaan Knit-in tommorrow?

Over lunch, Shirley reminisced about our mother trying to teach her to knit when Shirley was 13. Shirley recalls Mom trying to teach her to cast on, but the stitches Shirl created just bunched up and got tighter and tighter on the needle. I can explain why that was -- Mom only knows one kind of cast-on, the knitting on way.

But what's most surprising to me about this conversation is the puzzle about Mom as a knitter. Mom always said that she couldn't knit. She did teach me and the other girls in my Girl Scout troop to knit, when I was 11, as part of merit badge for needlework. The type of cast-on that Mom taught us was the knitting-on one. And I recall as a child wearing hand-me-down mittens, three pairs each in sequence as I grew out of the smaller ones and into the larger ones. (I have three older siblings, and Mom had made them each their own pair of mittens, some time before I came along.) So it has never made sense to me that Mom always said that she couldn't knit. Shirley distinctly remembers Mom knitting a maroon sweater that each of my sisters wore, in turn, handed down from Shirley to our other sister. And Shirley also remembers Mom knitting a pair of socks for our Dad "that wore like iron." But some time after those mittens, Mom gave up knitting. She resumed it only long enough to teach the Girl Scouts. She always did beautiful embroidery and crocheting -- her eyesight prevents her from engaging in these activities now -- but there was something that happened with her knitting that made her give it up and claim that she couldn't knit. It's a mystery.

I leave you, Dear Reader, with this piece of wisdom:

My mother always said about cookbooks, "If they have one recipe in them that's good, that's all you can expect, and that makes it worth the price of the book."

I often think the same holds true for knitting books -- don't you?

Why did the rooster cross the driveway? -- this contest continues for another week. I'll be giving away some wonderful knitting goodie. For your chance to win, post your wittiest response to the question "Why did the rooster cross the driveway?" in the comments.

Posted by Karen at March 18, 2005 04:50 PM

Cause the driveway was just in that kind of mood to be crossed no matter what the rooster did.

hmmm fudge

Posted by: Aarlene at March 19, 2005 03:35 AM

I love the people at Cook's Illustrated, I faithfully read all of their explanations in the magazine as well.

Posted by: Angela at March 23, 2005 02:18 AM

Angela, I've made several recipes from this book -- cornbread, chili, chicken pot pies, in addition to the aforementioned pancakes and corned beef + cabbage -- and every one of them has turned out to be delicious. And I love how they recommend the various appliances/gadgets/gizmos that will give you the best result. (Not that I've bought any yet, but man!, my 25-year-old electric frypan sure needs to be replaced by a newer, Cook's recommended, model.)

Leave it to a librarian (you!) to appreciate the research and documentation involved in these recipes!

Posted by: Karen at March 23, 2005 04:28 AM

What a nice photo and write up about the brownie mixes! The Campbells are definitely our best customers.

I suspect my knitting experiences may have been what caused Mom to give up knitting. I think I rather threw a fit the day the cat unrolled my whole ball of yarn around the yard as I chased in hot pursuit. Mom, of course, made me re-roll it, grass, twigs, and all. That was the day I tearfully thew down my very tight, little knitted-on wad and declared I would never knit again. (Could the expression "tightwad" come from knitting in wads as I did?)

Posted by: Shirley at March 24, 2005 05:16 PM

Shirl: Any time you are ready to resume knitting lessons, I'm there for ya!!!

Posted by: Karen at March 24, 2005 10:45 PM