Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spaghetti

It's Tuesday night and I'm in the process of making spaghetti. This is something I do often, at least once a week ever since I could cook for myself. You should bear in mind that this is no ordinary spaghetti, but a family recipe handed down for at least three generations, a concoction that my sister and every single cousin (on my Dad's side) also know how to make, to varying degrees of success, a simple meal that will last for a week and is worthy of every bachelor(ette) in this great world (who isn't a vegetarian [or following a gluten-free diet]). This is MY spaghetti.

I don't know whether it started with my Grandma Tammy or whether her mother taught her. What I do know is that my Dad picked it up from his Mom, as did his three brothers, and it served him exceptionally well throughout his life. When the time came, my sister and I learned how to make it as well. Grandma always made it for us during our childhood visits, without fail. Even within the past few years, as Grandma marches through her eighties victoriously, if a bit slowly, we grandchildren have been known to still request a small pot of it be whipped up. Grandma has never failed us.

No one ever knew what made Grandma's spaghetti so undeniably good and no one else was ever able to make it the way she did. Some came close, some not, but none ever really made spaghetti that tasted as good as Grandma's. This was not rocket science, people. The list of ingredients contains only three essential items and the whole thing takes less than an hour to make. It should not have been Mission: Impossible to replicate this stuff...but it was.Dad was convinced the secret lie is letting the water boil off the pasta naturally, so you wouldn't have to drain it before the next step. This incorrect assumption led to many eye-peering sessions over the kitchen sink as he would attempt to get just the right amount of water into a shallow sauce pan in which he would boil the pasta, traditionally thin spaghetti. Regular spaghetti noodles were too thick, angel hair too thin. Often, Dad would trade out thin spaghetti for elbow macaronis. This substitution is acceptable, though his theory ultimately was proven wrong...by me.

You see, I cook this stuff every week. It costs less than $8 to make an entire pot, which will last all week. On nights when Mom was out, this was dinner. As I worked my way through my twelve years of undergraduate studies, this sustained me. Throughout my thirteen months in France, spaghetti was my solution to escargot. And even as I've progressed through my adult life, I still absolutely love this stuff. In my life, there have only ever been two people who didn't like my spaghetti (and one of them eventually recanted her testimony). The other guy was my first boyfriend. O_o Yeah...

Ground beef, thin spaghetti, tomato juice...that's it. Salt and pepper to taste. Traditionally, the tomato juice would come from a jar, having been canned by Grandma from tomatoes picked from her garden. On the table, a butter dish and a short pile of bread slices. Next to the bread, a chunk of cheddar cheese. Grandpa loved his cheese. Of course, there was also the skinny green can of Kraft grated parmesan cheese, which I loved to unceremoniously dump onto my plate after having heaped it full of spaghetti. I would fill myself to bursting, I love this stuff so much and would have happily eaten it every day of my life.

I just now ate a small bowl of it. No bread and butter, no parmesan cheese...I find that the first bowl, fresh out of the pot, is best enjoyed unadulterated. Kort likes it was a tablespoon of Schnuck's small curd cottage cheese and a sprinkle of Geifro. In France, I added crème fraiche to the mix, rendering the whole thing creamier and delicious. Sometimes, I'll slice up a quarter pound of hard salami, sliced thin and cut into squares and added to the frying pan toward the end. A couple years ago, I switched from ground beef to ground turkey and, with the building of my gardens last year, have also been adding fresh lemon thyme, basil, rosemary and whole sage leaves to the meat.
I still don't know why it tastes so good. Thanks, Grandma...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dangerous Knitting

Have you ever noticed how we knitters seem to develop relationships to our projects, to our patterns? I never really did until this weekend.

As I mentioned before, I've started work on a Lily-of-the-Valley scarf for Dame Grandma Snyder and this weekend provided me with plenty of time to work on it in earnest. I even have the mixed blessing of being home sick for the past two days with a touch o' something tummy-special. In any case, if you've never knitted lace, there's a certain amount of trepidation and excitement when you start a new pattern. Some prefer to work from a chart, full of left- and right-leaning slashes, circles, dashes and other cryptic symbols; others prefer to have all that transcribed into text, preferring to work with abbreviations like yo, k2tog, ssk and psso. There's a framework that needs to established, and established well, within the first few rows of stitches. The edge stitches, usually 3 or 4 in a row, often done in straight garter, provide the frame within which there are smaller motifs: the 4-nupp diamond, right triangles created through the use of increases and decreases, the flower motif itself, with an arc of nupps suspended from a left-arching branch. When you're establishing the frame, all of these combinations are new and curious, a picture-pattern whose form is revealed stitch by stitch, line by line until, after 5, 10, 30 rows, you've completed one pattern repeat. You stop and the fabric you've just put together so expertly, admiring the simplicity and complexity of what you've just done.

"Repeat rows 1-28 twenty-nine more times."

Yeah, 29 more times...because scarves are long. Even shorter scarves are still long when you're dealing with a 30-row pattern repeat. You mean...I've got to read through that chart 29 more times? Well, yeah...but...kind of not. What do I mean? I mean...you begin to develop a relationship with your pattern. You come to know it, each little motif and the one situated next to it. You come to know that the flower nupps get knit on a stitch in between 2 yarn-overs on the row below. You learn that you can turn a 4-point diamond into a 5-point simply by moving the right yarn-overs either before or after the decrease. A P5tog gets easier with practice...but only a little bit.

Depending upon the complexity of any given line, some patterns seem impossible to ever memorize. But if broken down into even smaller bits, you don't end up looking at the chart (or the written directions) nearly as often. It's truly an exercise in meditative concentration. I never watch movies or television when I knit lace. I can't. I've tried...and failed. I suppose I could if I used lifelines, but I don't. I think a lifeline, while definitely an excellent and recommended practice, steals a little of the fun. For those who don't know, a lifeline is a length of yarn, often of a contrasting color, that is periodically threaded through every stitch of a given row. Why? Because it's not uncommon, with complex lace patterns especially, to miss a stitch, drop a stitch, forget a yarn-over or in some other indeterminate way come to the end of a row and realize that you're off by one stitch.

Off by one stitch...so? What's the big deal? Can't you just...you know...make a stitch there at the end and keep going? Sure...you can. But keep in mind the integrity of any motif is really just a reflection of the harmonious relationship between all its component parts, in this case rows of stitches and the stitches themselves, one lining up onto the one below, a hundred thousand little squares all coalescing into a pattern, a picture...and missing even one of these little bits could throw the whole pattern off.

Emphasis on the "could." Sometimes, if you read your row closely, you can pinpoint where the missing stitch is supposed to go. This usually is accompanied by a small sigh, some small relief and a small amount of tinking back to that spot with the intention of putting that errant stitch where it belongs. And sometimes you can, simple as that, no harm, no foul. But sometimes, when you arrive and you replace your previous knits with the exact same knits, it occurs to you that the problem might not have been on this row, but on some previous row. Suddenly, this problem just got bigger.

Enter stage left the Lifeline.

If you were a conscientious knitter, thorough and practiced due diligence, you would have, not too long ago, threaded some yarn, possibly red, through the stitches of one row. The point: if need be, I could break-glass-in-case-of-emergency, pull the work off the needles and carefully frog the stitches back to that row, the row I know was perfect, the row that was knit before...before...oh, it's too much to think about.

Anyway, I don't use them. I know, it is shocking. Maybe I should but...it's like rock climbing without a rope. It's dangerous, exciting even, to knit lace without a lifeline. Admit it, knitters, in our knitting world so full of softness and comfort, you love a little danger with your wool! You love it! Traveling without your needle tips? Your sock might come right off the needles! Dangerous! Starting a new cardigan without knitting a gauge swatch? Look out! Danger...

Where was I? Oh yes...no lifelines and you're off your pattern by one stitch. What to do, what to do? Ask the Doctor, he'd know! Yeah, but he's not here. Bugga...

This is where you trust your knit-stincts and the relationship you've developed with your pattern. You read the line, you see where the stitch is supposed to go to but not how it's supposed to go there. You've got a nupp coming up and you know where it needs to go to preserve the arc of the branch and the placement of the buds. The lightbulb suddenly goes off. You couch a little k1fb next to the k2tog to make it less noticeable. Magically, now you've got the right stitch count and the lily-of-the-valley perfectly lines up and no one, except you, is the wiser.

Retrospectively, about 5 pattern repeats into the scarf, I'd be hard pressed to look back and try to find where I made that little improv repair. My solution blends in perfectly to the lines of the pattern and I still have no idea where that missing stitch went to. But the mistake hasn't been repeated since. I rock...

Important To Watch...

It's Tuesday and while I'm home with a touch of the flu (or some other unidentified bug that causes bad tummy feelings), I thought I'd blog it up a bit. Fancy a cup of coffee? In the process of getting to this point, however, I was distracted by a tweet I found from the Huffington Post regarding the release of video from 2007. When I went back looking for it to share with you, the tweet seems to have disappeared. I found it again via The New York Times.

You can find it here.

I watched the 17-minute version and it completely took the wind out of my sails. The footage in question documents the shooting of two Reuters employees, a photographer and his driver, in Baghdad in 2007. I don't even know what to say...except that I think it important to watch.