Friday, April 30, 2010

Food/Pasta e Fagioli

I came home late this evening after a brain-numbing day reviewing my organization's Form 990--the tax return for nonprofit organizations. Traffic on the Mass Pike was at a standstill for awhile, an ominous reminder that my Friday evening commute lengthens as the weather turns warm. While waiting for things to start moving, my stomach started growling and I began to long for the comfort of a bowl of pasta. When I arrived at last in the kitchen, it was easy to pull together a staple of my mother's repertoire--pasta e fagioli--or, as it is commonly pronounced, "pasta fazool." A can of chick peas, a jar of chopped tomatoes, an onion, some garlic, basil and parsley, and a pound of pasta. We lingered over supper, as I hope you will too. Here's a simple version:

Pasta e Fagioli

1 pound shaped pasta, such as shells, elbows or ditalini
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 15.5-ounce can chick peas

Cook pasta according to directions.
In a deep saucepan, saute onions in olive oil until soft.
Add garlic and continue cooking for 1-2 minutes.
Add parsley and basil and stir to blend.
Add tomatoes and chick peas.
Simmer for ten minutes on medium heat, stirring frequently.
Serve with pasta.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--More First Lines

I've been busy building my new website (soon to be launched--stay tuned), so today's writing prompt has been pulled from the pages of The New York Times. Some writers cull their ideas from the headlines; these prompts are the first lines of news articles. Have fun.

By age 12, she knew how to bake bread from scratch, braid a horse's mane, pin a kilt and set a dinner table correctly.

He clambered up and then down a narrow, rocky footpath that snaked around some hills, paying no heed to coffins that, in keeping with a local funeral tradition, hung from the surrounding sheer cliffs.

The monks, stifling their rage, mumbled a Tibetan prayer for the dead.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In the last two weeks, I've encountered three widows--one a dear friend, another the writer Elinor Lipman, and the third a woman I know only by name who works in my building. They are all young by the standards one usually expects among the widowed. I cannot fathom the loss and the sense of unreality that shrouds their experience. My husband is standing at the kitchen sink right now, washing the dishes as he has done throughout our marriage. I drank from his glass as we sat at the table tonight, batting back and forth a decision our youngest child needs to make about traveling home from college after exams. Later on this evening, I know with assurance that I will be wrapped in his arms as soon as I climb into bed.

As a wife, I don't want to consider widowhood. But as a writer, I find myself in awe of the women who, confronted by such loss, try to find their way in this new and unwelcome role. My close friend, widowed only six months ago, is astounding in her reaching out to others not for her own solace, but to offer with grace and wit the friendship and mentoring that has been her trademark. She continues to give as she always has. A group of her friends--about 30 of us--celebrated her birthday in January, and everyone of us had a story of the influence and impact she had had on our lives.

Have you experienced a loss as profound as widowhood?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Inspiration/Marathon Running

My daughter ran the Boston Marathon on Monday, the culmination of months of training and incredible focus, not to mention the realization of a goal that probably had its origins when she was eleven years old and joined her middle school's cross-country team.

I'm in awe of her accomplishment, her dedication and perseverance. Her achievement makes one acutely aware of the possibilities open to us if we commit to the work and the practice. Running a marathon truly is putting one foot in front of the other--a phrase I often repeat to myself when I feel overwhelmed.

In writing, it's putting one word after another.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--Using a Photo as a Trigger

Forgive me for being a little out-of-sync today. It feels like a Monday because I live in Massachusetts and we celebrated Patriots' Day yesterday, the commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere's ride. It's also the day the Boston Marathon is run, about which I'll blog later in the week.

Given that I've mistaken today for a Monday, here's a note on craft:

I keep a folder in which I store images that intrigue me, that lead me to ask "What's the story here?"

I tear them out of newspapers and magazines, scan them from family photo albums. Sometimes they sit in the folder for awhile, but if the image is compelling enough I find myself continuing to go back to it until I've figured out what it's trying to tell me.

It was just such an image that was the seed for my novella, "A Daughter's Journey." The photo, a portrait of a young woman reporter during the Vietnam War, became the inspiration for Mel Ames.

Start your own collection. And in the meantime, take a stab at creating a story from the photo above.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Food/Frittata of Onions, Potatoes and Eggs

One of the first challenges Rose Dante, my heroine in Across the Table, faces in the early days of her marriage is cooking. Not learning how—which Rose had absorbed growing up in her mother’s kitchen—but coping with the unfamiliarity of the barely edible on a naval base in the middle of the Caribbean.

The base had a commissary where we could get tins of evaporated milk, peas, potted beef and Spam. But I longed for fresh, so soon after I arrived I walked down to the little village that was halfway up the hill between the base and the harbor. I’d seen chickens pecking around a yard the first day, and vegetables I didn’t recognize growing in a field. I knocked on some doors, talked to the old Mama who had the chickens, and walked away that first day with a basket of greens, some eggs, and a packet of spices—cardamom, cilantro, some dried chili peppers.

They eat spicy in Trinidad. I knew Al was used to Calabrian cooking and that was spicy, so I gave a try with the local things. If I had to open another can of Spam and make it into something recognizable, I thought I would shoot myself. Or we’d both starve.

But fresh eggs I knew what to do with. I had some potatoes and onions and made a nice pan of frittata, with the greens on the side. Al came into the house and smelled the familiar aromas. He ate that night with gratitude and pleasure.

Frittata of Onions, Potatoes and Eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium potatoes, cooked and sliced

4 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Sauté onion in a heavy, ovenproof skillet until translucent.

Add potatoes and brown lightly on both sides.

Blend eggs and parsley and add to skillet.

Cook over low heat until eggs are almost set.

Sprinkle shredded mozzarella on top of eggs.

Place under broiler for a few minutes until eggs are set and cheese has melted and golden in color.

Cut into wedges to serve.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Inspiration/Mother Campion

I was musing the other night with my friend Ann, whom I've known since we were 14-year-old freshmen in high school, about the influence of our teachers at the School of the Holy Child. She prompted my memory of Mother Campion, who taught us not only Latin, but rigorous thinking. She took her name from Edmund Campion, a brilliant 16th century Jesuit scholar and martyr who had not yet been named a saint when she professed. In reading a brief biography of him, I understood why she would have chosen him. It was said that Campion had "bearing, beauty, and wit," and that "his preaching, his whole saintly and soldierly personality, made a general and profound impression."

Mother Campion was an imposing and substantial figure, demanding of us intellectual discipline and challenging us to question and analyze, not simply accept what we were told as passive sponges. At the same time, I remember her warmth and sense of humor. She believed intensely in our potential to be great women and pushed us to meet that potential. We were blessed to have her as a teacher.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Discoveries/A Stack of Books

One of the perks of teaching a workshop at a writers' conference is that I come home with a totebag full of unexpected treasures. At every meal one finds a book on one's chair, courtesy of the speaker of the hour; giveaways abound as raffle prizes--bags and baskets filled with chocolates, writing implements and lots of books; and the book signing that closes the conference provides lots of opportunities to scoop up a stack of books by one's favorite authors.

I came away from the New England Chapter-Romance Writers of America Conference with an eclectic collection. Some were by authors I know and love--Brenda Novak's The Perfect Couple, a chilling and emotionally gripping story that kept me up at night turning pages; Judith Arnold's Looking for Laura, whose unconventional heroine made me ache with recognition and cheer for her determination and grit. Other books were complete strangers to me, but having roared with laughter at 7:30 in the morning listening to MaryJanice Davidson, I couldn't resist reading her Undead and Unemployed, a most unlikely book for me but which entertained in surprising ways. I'm now in the midst of Night Swimming by Laura Moore, who happened to sit next to me at the book signing. It's a complex story, rich with political and ecological conflict as a backdrop to the relationship between two childhood friends reunited after many years.

I'm always struck by the range of stories that fall under the definition of "romance." It's an extraordinary collection with such different perspectives--and every one of them a good read.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt-Emotional Honesty

A couple of months ago I enjoyed a spirited discussion over lunch with a group of writing colleagues. One of them spoke about struggling with a story until she had an epiphany about emotional honesty. She realized she'd muffled how she truly felt about an experience from her past that she was trying to translate for her character. It was only after she pealed back the layers of her own history that she was able to create an effective and authentic moment for her heroine.

Think about a moment in your own life that was particularly harrowing, enraging or thrilling. What about it made your emotions so raw? Mine those feelings. Describe what precipitated them in specific detail and how you responded.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Food/Easter Pie

At my Uncle Pal's 90th birthday party last week, conversation drifted to the recipes of our Aunt Susie, the most extraordinary baker in the family. Each of us has a few fragments of her repertoire, and a story I had heard many years ago was repeated that afternoon. Susie "left out" ingredients when she passed on a recipe, the family insists, because nobody has been able to replicate her amazing culinary feats. In addition to the missing item, Susie's recipes often don't contain measurements, just a list of ingredients. She was a magician, unwilling to reveal her secrets.

Somehow, many years ago, I managed to extract from her the recipe for what we called the "sweet pie" at Easter, complete with amounts. It seems to work, so if something is missing, I haven't detected it. I'll be baking it tomorrow for our Easter dinner. The recipe that follows is reduced by half from Susie's original.


(Susie made a pastry crust, but I tried this cookie crumb crust one year and have continued to use it.)

1 ½ cup fine crumbs from either macaroon cookies or anisette toast cookies

6 Tablespoons butter


1 lb. ricotta cheese

½ cup sugar

4 eggs

½ cup heavy cream

Zest of one lemon, grated

Zest of one orange, grated

½ cup orange juice

1 tsp. vanilla

Melt the butter and blend with the cookie crumbs. Spread mixture over sides and bottom of a 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Bake for 15 minutes at 300 degrees. Cool.

Beat the eggs.

Combine all filling ingredients and stir until smooth.

Pour filling into pie shell.

Bake for 1 ½ hours at 350 degrees until filling is firm.

Squeeze lemon juice over top of the pie after baking and sprinkle with sugar.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Encounters/Pal's 90th Birthday

My father's youngest brother turned 90 on Palm Sunday and we gathered to celebrate. Uncle Pal was born on Palm Sunday and hence named "Palmino." The party was the first time I'd seen many of my relatives since the funeral of another of my father's siblings, and it was truly wonderful to be together at an occasion that wasn't associated with someone's passing.

As expected, the food and wine were abundant, the conversation lively and full of reminiscences, and many of the moments were touching as faces and names from my childhood crossed the room to reconnect. Pal and his wife, Rita, were surrogate parents to my sister, brother and me. Every winter, my parents took a vacation in Florida and Pal, Rita and their two daughters moved into our house to care for us while my parents were away. It was a vacation for us as well--filled with laughter, Rita's delicious cooking and the tumult of five kids around the kitchen table.

My father's youngest sister, my Aunt JoAnn, was also at the party, looking beautiful and brilliant as she recounted to my husband tales from my childhood.

Such encounters fill me up and nourish me as much as the pasta with broccoli and chicken francese on the buffet table.