Monday, November 30, 2009

Craft/Favorite Words


Every writer has them--favorite words and phrases that find their way into far too many sentences. One of my second-draft tasks is hunting down all my darlings and winnowing them down to one necessary and exact instance. I love words. I play with them. And when I find one I can't live without, I know I have to choose its placement wisely and sparingly. Overuse dulls and diminishes. It also leads editors to draw circles around the offending repetitions and readers to lose their curiosity in what you have to say.

I have created a list that I keep in my notebook. "Linda's Favorite Words" is scrawled across the top of my narrow-ruled tablet and I add to it regularly as I find myself going back again and again to a particular expression. It keeps me honest. One "palpable" is evocative; three hammer the meaning into flatness and imprecision.

Take care with your words, and challenge yourself to continue to find new ones.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Reflections

As we sat at dinner on Thanksgiving and I reflected on all that I was grateful for, I took special pleasure in how much of a collaboration this year's meal was. Starting on Wednesday, our kitchen was a hub of activity, with my children and my daughter's significant other chopping, stirring, kneading and mashing. Each of them took responsibility from start to finish for particular dishes: my daughter for the pumpkin and apple pies, including picking the pumpkin earlier this fall and preparing the puree; her significant other for challah and cranberry walnut bread, which he had "practiced" baking the week before and which he hovered over with care, and brussels sprouts and baby greens that he had grown himself in the community garden he manages; my older son for his favorite dish, sweet-and-sour cabbage, and for the orange-cranberry sauce. It was such a treat for me to watch them, and a rite of passage as I handed over what had been exclusively mine for so many years.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Food/Sweet Potato Casserole

Did you know that the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family?

It's also another name for the ocarina, a simple wind instrument shaped like an elongated egg.

This is my husband's favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner, a recipe introduced to the family by my sister. Bubbling with melted butter and brown sugar, the nut topping is a crunchy counterpoint to the custard texture of the sweet potatoes. Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Casserole (12 servings)

  • 6 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ pound butter, cut into small pieces
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup milk


  • 1 cup cornflakes
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup brown sugar

Boil sweet potatoes in skins until you can pierce them with a fork.

Drain, cool, and peel potatoes.

Mash potatoes in large bowl.

Add eggs, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and milk and mix thoroughly.

Spread in large, shallow baking dish that has been buttered.

Bake at 350 º for 45 minutes.

Mix cornflakes, brown sugar, and walnuts for topping. Spread over top of potatoes and bake for 5 more minutes. Watch carefully so that cornflakes do not burn.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Food/Apple Pie

In my latest novel, Across the Table (scheduled for release in June 2010), Rose Dante is a first-generation Italian-American straddling the world of her immigrant parents and the life of an American working woman whose husband is away at war.

Here's a scene from a pivotal Thanksgiving:

I was up to my elbows in pastry dough for the pies. I’d convinced Mama to make an American apple pie in addition to the sweet ricotta pie with ten eggs and grated orange peel she always made for the holidays—not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas and Easter as well. I wanted Al Jr. to grow up an American. It was hard enough, with him spending my workweek with grandparents who only spoke Italian to him. But his father was an American serviceman, fighting for his country. The least we could do was teach Al Jr. to eat apple pie, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

“You spend too much time with those Americans at the bank. What’s wrong with what I cook for the holidays?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Mama. It’s delicious. But we’re Americans too! It’s not such a bad thing. You and Papa chose to come here.”

“I don’t know how to make apple pie and I’m too old to learn. If you want your son to know apple pie, then you make it.”

Which is why I was kneading dough when the doorbell rang. I wiped my hands on my apron and answered the door.

My own recipe for apple pie is a composite of pie crust from Julia Child and filling from The Joy of Cooking. Here it is!

Pie crust (for top and bottom of 9” pie)

  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ sticks (5 ounces) chilled butter
  • 2 tablespoon chilled shortening (Crisco)
  • 1/3 to ½ cup ice water

Place flour and salt in food processor with regular blade and blend for 1 second. Rapidly cut butter and shortening into ½ -inch bits and drop into machine. Turn on for 3 seconds. Stop. Add all but 2 tablespoons of the ½ cup ice water and turn on the machine. In 2 to 3 seconds the dough should begin to mass on the blade and the pastry is done.

Turn it out onto a work surface and with the heel of your hand, rapidly and roughly smear it out in front of you to make a final blending of butter into the dough.

Form into a cake 5 inches in diameter, flour lightly, wrap in plastic and a plastic bag, and chill for at least 2 hours before using.


  • 5 to 6 cups apples (peeled, cored, and cut into very thin slices)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Place apples in a large mixing bowl.

In a small bowl, blend sugar, salt, cornstarch, and spices until well mixed.

Gently stir sugar-spice mix into apples, coating them well.

Making the Pie

Divide the pie dough into two slightly uneven parts, keeping the smaller one for the top. Roll each part into a circle about 1/8 inch thick. The larger circle should be about 2 inches larger than the pan, and the smaller circle should be about 1 inch larger.

Place the larger circle in the pie pan and press it into place. Brush the bottom with egg white.

Fill the pie crust with the apples.

Cut the butter into small bits and place around the apples.

Cover the apples with the smaller circle. Pinch together the top and bottom crusts and press together with a fork.

Cut vent holes in the crust with the point of a sharp knife. If you wish, decorate the center of the crust with scraps of dough (I usually make the shape of a turkey--see above).

Brush the crust with a beaten egg yolk.

Bake the pie for 10 minutes at 450 º. Reduce the heat to 350 º and bake for an additional 45 minutes.

Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Food/Thanksgiving Menu

Those of you who have been reading my posts for the last several days may have detected a nascent structure to my musings, broadly hinted at by my headings. I can’t help myself—I’m the sort of person who needs some basic order in her life. My daughter used to warn her friends not to be surprised when they went down to our rec room in the basement and caught a glimpse of my pantry. All the cabinets (the original pale green metal cabinets that had been in the kitchen before it was renovated) were labeled with their contents: soups, pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil, preserves, etc.). It was so much easier to unpack the groceries or find something when I needed it.

So, like my basement pantry, my blog will be labeled. It’s my intention to focus on a different theme each day of the week: Craft, Discoveries, Inspiration, Encounters and Food.

That being said, I’m throwing out the structure for this week because all I’ll be doing between now and Thursday is cooking. As long as I’m focused on food in the real world, I figured I might as well be in the virtual world.

I have always cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my family and assorted guests. When all our parents were alive and our siblings lived close enough, it was a very full table. This year, we are hosting only eight. Although the quantities are smaller than in years past, I’m still making the same variety of dishes.

Here’s my menu for this Thanksgiving:

Assorted Cheeses
Artichoke Pesto
Olive Tapenade

Roast Turkey with Gravy
Quorn Roast with Mushroom Gravy (for the four vegetarians at the table)
Chestnut Stuffing
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Walnut Topping
Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
Green Beans with Olive Oil and Lemon Dressing
Brussels Sprouts with Maple Syrup
Mushrooms Baked with a Garlic, Parsley, Parmeggiano and Breadcrumb Topping
Cranberry-Orange Sauce
Homemade Breads
Tossed Green Salad

Apple Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Figs, Dates and Nuts
Roasted Chestnuts
Assorted Fresh Fruit Bowl (Apples, Pears, Grapes, Tangerines, Pomegranates and Persimmons)

I’ll be sharing the recipes for some of these dishes later in the week. For now, I’ve got to go check on the homemade chicken stock simmering on the stove—the basis for the gravy.

Happy cooking!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Food/Broccoli Rabe

One of my favorite comfort foods is broccoli rabe. Like dandelion greens and arugula, it’s an acquired taste (as my husband will attest). But I grew up with these dark and distinctly flavored greens and I love them. They grew in both my grandmothers’ gardens (one in the middle of the city and one in rural upstate New York) and I remember eating them often as a child—plucked fresh, rinsed off under the outside faucet and sauteed quickly in olive oil with slivers of garlic.

When my mother was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer and I had flown to Florida on a few hours’ notice to be with her, I returned from the ICU on that first day to her home in Palm Beach Gardens, exhausted, overwhelmed and hungry. Waiting for me was my mother’s sister, Aunt Kay, standing at the stove with wooden spoon in hand. She had cooked up a pot of broccoli rabe—we called them “robbies”—and served them with a loaf of crusty bread. It was exactly what I needed.

Here is how I prepare them:

1 bunch of broccoli rabe
2 large peeled cloves of garlic
Olive oil
1/2 cube of vegetable broth
1 cup water

  • Rinse the broccoli rabe, trim off the stems and chop the leaves and florets into 2-inch pieces.
  • Slice the garlic thinly.
  • Film a heavy saucepan with olive oil and heat on medium high.
  • Add the broccoli rabe and stir, coating the greens with the oil.
  • When the greens are slightly wilted, add the garlic slices and continue to stir for about 1 minute.
  • Add the water and vegetable cube, stirring to dissolve.
  • Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cover.
  • Simmer for 5-10 minutes, checking to make sure that liquid does not evaporate.
  • Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Encounters/Visiting With My Aunts

I have been blessed with many aunts—fourteen to be exact, the sisters and sisters-in-law of my parents. When I was a little girl they took me downtown for ice cream; as I got older, they organized excursions into Manhattan for a Broadway show and lunch at La Fonda del Sol; and when I was a sulking teenager, they rescued me from the boredom at home by whisking me off to their summer places at the Jersey shore or Cape Cod. They celebrated my accomplishments, taught me how to wear make-up and gave me a glimpse of my heritage with the priceless gift of my grandparents’ love letters.

Now that my mother is gone, they take turns filling her shoes.

Last Saturday, I visited with two of them for what seems to be turning into an annual affair. My cousin Lisa brings her mother, Aunt Cathy, from Connecticut to our Aunt Kay and her daughter Kathy, and I drive in from western Massachusetts to join them. We spend hours around the kitchen table, lingering over homemade soup and pumpkin pie and a few glasses of wine. We tell stories and call up memories that link us in our shared history. We talk about our hair—curly—and our children, all trying to make their way in the world.

The conversation, the laughter and the love nourish us all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Inspiration/The Woman on the Bus

Although I’m writing a book about a muse, I’m not one to sit around waiting for the muse to sit on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. I realized a long time ago that I had to actively seek my inspiration. One of the ways I do that is by being open to possibility. I observe; I listen; and I always carry a small notebook and a pen to capture the fragments of overheard conversations or the tableaus playing out in the lives around me.

Thirty years ago I was riding on a bus along Mass Ave in Cambridge late one winter afternoon, my four-month-old son asleep in the Snuggli on my chest. As babies tend to do, he elicited a comment from the much older woman sitting next to me, and we began a conversation that lasted all the way to Arlington. She was the widow of an Armenian poet, and she shared a few stark memories with me of being a young mother alone with an infant during World War II.

“It is the women who carry the responsibility for civilization,” she told me. “It rests with us.”

I remember what she said, what she looked like (olive-skinned, her hair covered in a scarf, her body small and thin, not bent but held with an elegant strength). I remember, because that night, after my son was asleep, I wrote it all down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Discovery/Dirt Under My Fingernails

The last leaves are finally wafting from the high branches of the oaks in our New England neighborhood. A few isolated bursts of late fall color punctuate the landscape here and there, but for the most part, the trees are now sharply defined silhouettes against the sky.

Fall cleanup is generally a family affair around here, with my husband and my energetic 87-year-old mother-in-law leading the charge as they vigorously scrub the lawns and flower beds with their broad rakes. Over the years, I’ve taken ownership of one particular patch of garden—a broad sweep of juniper shrubs that flank both sides of our driveway. The shrubs lie directly under the oaks, and by November are covered in a thick blanket of leaves that lie not only on top of the shrubs but get caught in the tangle of spreading limbs. The only way to remove them is by plunging into the hip-high bushes and plucking them by hand. It’s a slow and painstaking process. I wear two layers of gloves, thick socks and my indestructible, 25-year-old Wellingtons, but I still emerge with long red scratches on my arms and legs, a runny nose and flecks of leaf debris in my hair.

Despite the physical assault of unyielding branches that do not want to give up their prisoners, cleaning out those bushes is enormously satisfying. Even after only a few minutes of combing out the leaves with my fingers, I can step back and see progress, which spurs me to keep going. The task is a kind of detangling, teasing out the layers of clutter until the stark, prickly beauty of the juniper is revealed.

I find writing to be a kind of “cleaning out of the bushes.” You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, to get on your knees and scrape around the roots of things.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Craft/Banishing Writer's Block

To make your unknown known — that's the important thing. (Georgia O'Keefe)

Often when I speak about my writing life I’m asked how I cope with writer’s block. In the early days, when I was struggling to begin my first novel, I stumbled upon a few simple techniques that coaxed my paralyzed brain into actually putting words on a page instead of agonizing about it. I still use them, and because of them think of myself as a disciplined writer. In fact, I believe that discipline is one of the defining characteristics of successful writers.

So that you do not have to stumble, but may walk upright, here is what worked for me (and which I hope will work for you).

  1. Set a goal. When my children were small, I managed, with the help of my husband, to commit to an entire day of writing every two weeks. I left the house early and hid out in a remote carel at our community college library. I had eight hours, and I was determined to finish the day with eight pages. Sometimes I’d find myself at 3:00 p.m. with only two or three pages of my notebook filled. But I pushed on, and every time, walked out of the library with my goal fulfilled. I still set a daily goal for myself.
  2. Set a timer. This was a composite of the “timed writing” exercises in various workshops I attended and a housekeeping tip I found on-line. The theory is that we will undertake unpleasant tasks if we think we only have to do them for a short time. I use a small electronic timer (they don’t tick), set it for 20 minutes, turn its face away from me, and don’t do anything else except write until the timer buzzes. The practice has trained me like Pavlov’s dog to ignore everything but the empty page in front of me.
  3. Write by hand. This may not be for everyone, but when I switched from composing on the computer to writing on narrow-ruled pads it freed me to carry my writing with me and use small pockets of time whenever I found them. I also discovered that the visceral activity of moving my hand across a page with a smooth-flowing pen was a more effective way for my brain to get the words out than hovering my hands above a keyboard.

Writers write. Find your own tools for making sure that you do.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Encounters/The Women of the Philoptochos Society

“Love is the doorway through which the human soul passes from selfishness to service and from solitude to kinship with all mankind.”

Georgia Skeadas (President, National Philoptochos Society)

In the last two weeks I was honored to be the guest speaker at separate events hosted by the Philoptochos Society, the women’s groups of Greek Orthodox churches in Springfield and Worcester, Massachusetts.

I discovered in high school that if you put me in front of a group and hand me a microphone, I will find something to say and actually enjoy it. This was a great surprise to me at the age of sixteen, when I was more apt to shrink into a corner and try to disappear if I had to have a conversation with a boy my own age. But a roomful of people? I had no fear. I emceed my school’s hootenanny two years in a row (I know, I’m dating myself)—welcoming the crowd, introducing each singer with amusing anecdotes and finding myself reluctant to leave the stage and the connection I was making with the audience. I may have been compensating for my lack of a singing voice—everyone except me seemed to be in Glee Club or performing in local coffeehouses—but it was the one arena where I felt confident and free to be myself.

It was a serendipitous lesson to learn, and led me to embrace opportunities as a writer to speak to groups whenever I’m invited. I’ve had the good fortune to be welcomed time and again by an amazing community of Greek women in Springfield known as Philoptochos. They meet for fellowship and charitable works, which is how I came to know them. Every year they hold a fundraiser, and three years ago they asked me to speak when my first novel, DANCING ON SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, came out. The book’s focus on the immigrant journey, family and food resonated with women who looked, sounded and acted a lot like my Italian extended family. Since then I’ve been back as each new book came out, and this year, added a visit with the Philoptochos Society in Worcester.

At both events recently, I looked around the room. Every table was filled with beautiful, vibrant and caring women, ranging in age from elegantly coifed matriarchs to busy young mothers. The food and wine were abundant; the conversations touched on celebrations and concerns; the occasions were an opportunity to share both joy and wisdom. I felt as if I were home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Food/Plum Preserves

When I was a girl, the end of summer was always marked by two events—the week-long feast of the Madonna del’Arco and the canning of the bounty of my grandmother’s garden. My mother and my aunts sat at an oilcloth-covered table under the pergola that supported my grandfather’s grapevines, peeling, slicing and preserving bushels of eggplants and tomatoes that during the winter would become the basis for antipasto and Neapolitan marinara.

It was the memory of my Aunt Susie’s grape jelly that spurred my own initiation into the mysteries of turning ripe produce into preserves. During our sojourn in Germany, one of my husband’s colleagues with an orchard had a bumper crop of plums and shared them with us. I have a wonderful plum tart recipe from my mother-in-law, and made it that night. But I had far too many plums and had to figure out what to do with them before they turned to mush. That is when I remembered Aunt Susie’s paraffin-covered mason jars filled with Grandpa’s grapes and decided one purple fruit was as good as another.

Since that summer twenty years ago I’ve put up plums almost every year, sometimes sharing the weekend-long labor with friends, as my mother and aunts did. My fingers turn purple, my kitchen is sticky and fragrant, and at the end of the day my counter is covered with rows of glistening jars filled with luscious fruit.

Plum Preserves

30 lbs Italian prune plums

12-15 lbs sugar

· Rinse and slice plums into quarters.

· Layer plums with sugar in a crock or large plastic container, in the proportion of ½ cup sugar for every cup of plums.

· Cover and allow to rest for 12-24 hours.

· Bring the sugar-fruit mixture slowly to a boil and simmer until the fruit is a deep purple and translucent. It’s important to cook the fruit in small batches of 4-6 cups at a time to preserve the best flavor.

· Ladle fruit into hot sterile jars.

· Stir the fruit to remove air pockets.

· Wipe the rim, seal and store in a dark, cool place.

Yield: approximately 24 pounds of preserves (48 8-ounce jars)

Plum Tart

2 cups flour

7 ounces butter

½ cup sugar

1 cup ground almonds

1 egg

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

12 Italian prune plums, sliced thinly

· Blend all ingredients except plums in a food processor or mix by hand.

· Press dough into a 10-inch tart form.

· Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, until firm to the touch.

· Arrange sliced plums in concentric circles on tart base, starting at center and moving out to edges.

· Bake for 10 minutes.

· Allow to cool and remove rim.

· Serve with whipped cream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inspiration/Die Mauer

Twenty years ago this week, I was driving home from my weekly German class and listening to the news on the radio. Although I’d been living in the country for over a year and had become comfortable in using the language in my daily life, I didn’t always catch the nuances of conversation, especially when I was only hearing a voice coming out of a box instead of face to face with a speaker. And that is why I didn’t trust what I thought I’d heard the newscaster say, although it was a simple declarative sentence of only four words, “Die Mauer ist weg!”

The Wall is gone. It was such an impossible concept that I assumed I had mistakenly translated some idiomatic expression. But the agitation and exuberance of the normally somber German announcer convinced me that something extraordinary had happened.

When I arrived home I immediately turned on the television, seeking in images what I couldn’t believe in words, and understood that my initial grasp of the announcement had been correct. The Berlin Wall had been toppled. That night became etched in my consciousness as it did for the millions of Germans in both the East and the West who experienced it.

Being in the midst of such a moment taught me to pay attention to its meaning on a personal level to the people around me: the friend who was able to baptize her infant daughter in her husband’s ancestral village in the former East Germany; the new family that moved into our neighborhood from East Berlin who became fast friends, sharing meals, life stories and late-night glasses of vodka; the empty field in our village that was transformed nearly overnight into emergency housing for the thousands of East Germans pouring into the West in search of better jobs, a better life.

The emotional impact of that night on those around me became the seed for my novella “The Hand That Gives the Rose.” The political reverberated into the personal, changing lives, and that is what captured my imagination as a writer.

Inspiration/The Painting in the Attic

When my husband and I lived in Germany for several years, we had two memorable encounters with one of his great-great-aunts, the wife of a painter. Twenty years later those memories have become the inspiration for one of my stories.

The first encounter took place on a brilliant fall day in a nursing home where we had gone to visit Tante M. We entered a long, dreary institutional hallway with beige tiled walls and closed doors and knocked at the room belonging to Tante M. The door was flung open by a vibrant and colorfully dressed woman of indeterminate age. Her black hair was pulled back into an artful knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a yellow blazer and white slacks, Birkenstock sandals and long earrings that dangled from her earlobes. Chunky bracelets and a ring or two completed her accessories. It took me a few seconds to comprehend that this was the 90-year-old Tante whom we had come to visit.

She welcomed us effusively into her room, filled with sunlight and lined from floor to ceiling with paintings. Her bed had been transformed into a sofa, draped in a richly patterned throw and piled with embroidered pillows. An oriental rug hid the dun-colored terrazzo floor. Every surface was covered with sculpture and books.

We took Tante M. to lunch at an open-air café and were transported by her vivacious conversation to the salons she used to hold in Berlin, entertaining potential clients whom she charmed into purchasing her husband’s paintings.

The second encounter was a year or so later. We were spending Christmas at my mother-in-law’s home in Bavaria and were rummaging in the attic for the tree decorations that had been stored there. Leaning in a corner, its face to the wall, was a cobwebbed painting. We turned it over and discovered a languorous nude. It didn’t take long to identify who she was—Tante M., muse, manager and, we now understood, model, painted when she was in her twenties. We cleaned up the painting and took it home, where it still hangs above our bed.

Tante M. has been an inspiration to me—not only in shaping the spirit of the heroine of the novel I am writing now, but also in giving me a perspective on defying expectations as I grow older.