The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.


Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?

Washed Up

By Susan Greene
Taking a walk along the sea shore, with eyes cast down, encountering the multitude of items washed up on the sand can get the curious wondering. “Where did that come from?”, “is this flotsam or jetsam?”  and more questions will flood the inquiring mind.

seaweed and seashellsSeaweed and sea shells, even though an expected sight, will trigger pondering of the places they’ve been.  What happened to the rest of the plant or the sea creature that once called a shell home?

seaweed and sea shells

How far have these bits traveled?

seaweed on shorePhilosophically, how did these end up in this location, at this time, in this shape at the same time as I?

seaweed on shoreSeaweed, according to the NOAA website, is “utterly essential to innumerable marine creatures, both as food and as habitat, they also provide many benefits to land-dwellers, notably those of the human variety.” It also comes in many shapes and sizes. seaweed on shore

Finding myself tangled up in seaweed thought, I stumble upon something unexpected.

sea shells on shoreA mussel shell like a tiny bowl full of water, even though the tide is out and everything in the immediate vicinity is dry makes me curious, but not as curious as this…

rope on shoreIf only it could talk, what stories would be shared of its journey and ultimate arrival on the sand in Redondo Beach, California?

Spotting sea glass on the local shores is not an everyday occurrence and when it does, I view it as a gift, and also start wondering: how long was it in the sea? what type of bottle was it? how did it break apart?

sea shells and sea glass on shoreIn the absence of concrete answers, let your imagination run wild. The rope is from a colorful fishing vessel off Mexico. The glass is from a Japanese saki bottle and has been in the water for 25 years. The seaweed has floated down the coast from Alaska before getting caught in a current and deposited on this shore all the while playing host to many sea creatures. You get the picture.

Visit the NOAA  website if you would like to learn a bit more about seaweed regarding some of the health properties and benefits to humans and sea creatures.

I will be at water’s edge creating back stories for the lost and found.

~ Susan

The Weekend Dish – Olive Cheese Balls

olive cheese ball appetizer

By Susan Greene
Lets start this weekend with a trip back to the beginning. This appetizer is an oldie but goodie. Our mother used to make them for parties in the 70’s.  I chose to copy the recipe from my mother’s recipe box when I got married and started my own recipe box some 30+ years ago. These days, the internet is my main search destination for recipe ideas and my recipe box holds the tried and true favorite recipes of my own family which I work into the rotation now and then. The olive cheese ball appetizers were forgotten until this past Christmas when they made a surprise appearance at our family celebration. Thank-you Catherine for bringing them. I am happy to become re-acquainted. The richness of the crunchy, cheesy coating is a perfect complement to the salty, tangy olives with a little heat from some cayenne pepper adding a little kick.

olive cheese ball appetizer ingredients

Olive Cheese Balls

  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 3 Tablespoons softened butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 24 stuffed olives – these can be stuffed with whatever you prefer, garlic, almonds, jalapenos or pimientos. Some stuffed olives are larger than the average pimiento stuffed ones and if you want 24 wrapped olives you will probably need to double the cheese mixture if using the larger ones.

olive cheese ball appetizer preparation

Blend the cheese and butter, using a pastry cutter, until incorporated. Stir in the flour, paprika and cayenne pepper. Drain and dry the olives (it is important to completely dry the olives for the cheese mixture to stick.) Wrap the olives with about a teaspoon or more of the mixture and spread until completely covered. Place on a lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake at 400°, 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Note: The backyard sister also made some without olives on Christmas and they are delicious that way too.

olive cheese balls appetizersThe re-discovery of this recipe is the aha moment for launching a project we have discussed, off and on, since beginning this blog. Our grandmothers were experts at preparing some of the most delicious foods and meals. We think their recipe boxes could be veritable treasure troves of scrumptious recipes and we will be using them for recipe inspiration in the coming weeks. It is a sentimental exploration for us, from reading the mostly handwritten recipes with accompanying notes to experiencing the fond memories the dishes will most certainly evoke. Hopefully, you will find a recipe or more to add to your repertoire.

With anticipation of dishes of old being new again.

~ Susan

Begin again

By Catherine Keefe
When Weather Underground Lake Tahoe, and the cabin rental agency, and the Squaw Valley ski report, and the friends who live here, and the drought watchers say, “there’s no snow,” I believe them all with the conviction of a woman who packs boots with slippery soles and thin socks for an alpine January vacation with plans of biking and hiking instead of skiing.

I expect no browning snow patches covering the bike path, no puddles melting into ice on the driveway, no leftover frozen white piles hiding the hiking trail.  I imagine dirt and dust and brown pine needle paths still edging the bluest lake in America but no, I definitely don’t imagine snow.

Let me tell you something. There’s no snow like you think there’s no love sometimes, like you want the thrill of skiing the big bowls but the coverage is so light you stay off the mountain so you don’t scratch your new skis and tell everyone there’s no snow, it’s no good. But it is there.

Look – Just now as you come around a corner and catch a glimpse of peaks and those endless pines that aren’t too proud to reach all day, there it is. Snow! Just like love.


It might not be new and it surely isn’t making the news, but there’s pure white evidence that you simply forgot how it fell, silent one night at Christmas time which, truth be told wasn’t even a month ago.

There really is snow because it really is winter and even if it’s not showy and causing road closures or lost hikers or skidding trucks or epic skiing conditions it’s there, a little off the beaten path, a drift in the shadows. It shines under the moon and sparkles in the sun.

There’s less than usual, but when hasn’t that been true about something like your perception of the presence of hope or goodness?  So here I am, entirely unprepared clothes wise and shoe wise and activity planning but I couldn’t care less. Why?  Because it’s winter and there’s snow in the mountains and no one acknowledges it is there. Do you see it?


Once again, I’m delighted, as a child who first discovers snow and now I’m even more apt to believe what Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It:

Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones. The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be?—it is the same the angels breathe.

In this month of beginnings, under the influence of angels, I once again am allowed the opportunity to let go, especially of expectations.  How blissful to discover I have everything I need after all:
a fireplace.
a match
a husband of 33 years
a contemporary book of poetry written by a woman who lives here
a notebook
a pen

With cold feet,

p.s. One of my travel pleasures is picking up a book written by a local author.  If you ever travel to Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend regional poet Judy Tretheway’s book Rubicon Ramblings.

Here’s one of my favorites:

What is Enough?

Tell me how it happens,
magnificent one,
who stretches
into the golden light above the creek. Tell me how you can stand
so full
when under you flows
a rush of water and foam,
rock and debris. The very water that feeds you
washes away
the earth from your roots.
You grab onto the big boulders
while the soil
full of your food travels on. Every other tree I can see
greets the earth with a full embrace.
Your tether is tenuous,
yet it must be enough.What is enough
in this swiftly flowing world?How much security beneath our feet
do we really need
while we reach for our place
in the sun?


That awkward phase

photo-67By Catherine Keefe
Oh, the late 1980s. Neon ruled; hair was big, and bib ski overalls were still in fashion.

While it’s easy to observe fashion’s fluctuations it’s a little more difficult to discern how the adult phases of life slowly meander bearing unexpected gifts and challenges.  One thing that surprises me at this mother-of-young-adult-children phase is how difficult it is to make new friends.

I do have a deep connection to many wonderful women. But I’m often reminded how impermanent relationships are. This friend followed her husband’s job to Davenport, Iowa. That friend is eyeing a move to Phoenix when she retires to be closer to her grandchildren.  And so I begin a plunge into the inevitable awkward phase of trying to build new friendships. As if the universe listens to me, the following e-mail arrived from a woman I barely know.

Hi Gals,
I’m starting something new this year. It’s a salon (ala Dorothy Parker’s soirees at the Algonquin Hotel in New York), and I’m calling it “The Interestings.”

Did the woman who sent this, a former Broadway actress, current screenwriter and almost novelist, know she had me with the Dorothy Parker reference? It’s forever been my dream to start or belong to a salon like the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of poets, writers and critics that convened in NYC from June 1919 until 1929, a group that “strongly influenced young writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway” and where “Harold Ross, legendary editor and friend of The Round Table, created The New Yorker” according to the hotel’s website.

I immediately imagined a group of smart women, part writing group, part literary critique and visionaries who might support my desire to turn the abstract concepts I glean from literature into concrete action to affect social change.  Would we begin a new magazine or a Writer’s House? Start a movement?

I wondered what connection there was between us and the novel the group took its name from. In The Interestingsby Meg Wolitzer one character famously blurts, “Specialness — everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do — kill themselves?”

Last night’s inaugural agenda was to create vision boards, something I was a little snarky about. “I feel like Oprah will show up any moment,” I said not long after I walked in and eyed the leaning stacks of magazines, scissors and glue sticks. The circle laughed, a little uneasily and I made a mental note to be more open-minded and close-mouthed.  I wondered what Dorothy Parker would have made of our earnestness.  Quit talking about what you want to do and just do it.

But there I was and so I sat around a table with 8 other women snipping pictures and words from travel brochures, Yoga Journal, Bloomingdale’s catalogs, and a beauty salon’s stash of titles like O: The Oprah Magazine, InStyle, and bon appétit. I felt like a little Brownie Girl Scout at Craft Afternoon as we diligently put ruffled cut edges around camels in Saudi Arabia or a front porch weeping wisteria blossoms and I wondered if I was destined to wander alone through the end of my life unable to fit in with a group of nice women.

What didn’t we talk about? Our jobs. Our children. Our relationship to the hostess. We were untethered to any identity other than what made us smile for our future.

Finally, like kindergartners as Star of the Week, we held up our vision boards. “An open-mouthed shark bursting through the ocean’s surface represents a desire to attack new projects,” one woman said. The next woman pointed to a small photo of hundreds of lanterns floating on a river.  “Not that we’ll get to the Loi Kratong festival this year, but this reminds me to spend more time with my daughter who will go to college next year.”

There was a murmur of low sighs. Oh. Mhmm. A recognition of that awkward phase when who we were, who we are and who we want to be eddy in the rapids. Last night I heard enough dreams to light a million candles and enough desire to share those dreams even at the risk of seeming hopelessly earnest and decidedly unliterary and I think how no amount of talent or literature can save a person or sustain forever a circle of friends.

As we walked together into the full moon night, each of us clutching one cardboard idea of a life, the relentless Santa Ana winds battered our newly envisioned futures so we had to protect them tightly against our bodies. We agreed to meet in a month, to talk about and write poetry. Who knows what will happen? Our called-out promises were blown away under watchful stars.  


With more white space than most,

p.s. You can read one idea on how to create a vision board version here, but I highly recommend instead, gathering a group you don’t know well. Make small talk as you release your rational brain and sift through images to see what makes you sigh or your heart quicken.  We all agreed there were more surprises than deliberate compositions and for that we were grateful.

We’re Walking, We’re Walking

Santa Monica Bay morning

By Susan Greene
As the minutes tick away, our carpool slowly cruises down the coast in our neighbor’s VW van. Their mother keeps her eyes peeled for the telltale spout of the California gray whale. Upon spotting one, she pulls over urging careful observation. This was my first introduction to the annual migration. The whales would surface several times spouting sea mist and then take a deeper dive indicated by the appearance of the fluke. The fleeting moment was gone, as was the chance to be on time to school. Every winter, I recall the thrill in her eyes. While I certainly did not appreciate the majestic creatures because I associated them with tardies, that is no longer the case.

CA gray whale spoutingIt is exhilarating spotting one of the large creatures on its way to Mexico, especially when, on  the rare occasion they are close to shore.

CA gray whale in waveThis one seemed to want to ride the wave. Every winter, since those carpooling years, I keep my own eyes peeled on the horizon from late December through March hoping for a sighting. More common but still exciting is spotting some bottlenose dolphins swimming in the surf.

two swimming dolphins finss The dorsal fin popping out of the water is the first and sometimes only sign. If your lucky, you will see a head pop out of the water.

bottlenose dolphinPresenting the opportunity to see their smiling faces to anyone fortunate enough to be in the vicinity.

bottlenose dolphinInevitably, they will head back out to sea.

bottlenose dolphinSaying “goodbye” with a wave of the fluke.

dolphin flukeA dolphin sighting always elicits ooohs and aaahs from lucky walkers, joggers and/or beachcombers. I have begun a quest for catching dolphins in all their glory. I am hoping to capture at least one jumping and more of their behavior. I will be devoting at least a day a week for taking my camera to the beach, zoom lens attached, with dolphins in my sights, and if I spy a whale or two, all the better.

Click here to read and hear a story from NPR about a recent “traffic jam” of whales off the southern California coast.

With eyes on the horizon,

~ Susan

The Weekend Dish – Apple and Sausage Tidbits

apple and sausage tidbitsBy Susan Greene
Beginning a meal with a small bite or two of a flavorful food introducing the rest of the meal, otherwise known as an amuse bouche, is a practice I can embrace. In Europe, it is common to place an order for an apertif which is accompanied by a small portion of a tasty morsel. At home, I have gotten into the habit of enjoying a small bit of something such as a handful of nuts, small plate of cheese with crackers and/or olives or fruit, as I prepare dinner. These apple sausage tidbits are more extensive in their preparation than I use for an everyday meal, but they are an impressive treat for guests or special occasion meals.

apples and sage Start with your favorite sausage. I used hot and sweet Italian sausages. Place the sausage in a large frying pan, add a quarter cup of water and cover. Cook over medium-high heat approximately five minutes, until the sausage is firm enough to cut ( if you are using pre-cooked sausage this step can be skipped). Slice the sausage and return to the pan and continue cooking until browned.

cooking sausage bitsRemove the sausage from the pan and set aside for later. Slice one or two Granny Smith apples, or your favorite tart firm apple, into inch sized cubes. Add to the same pan with one pat of butter, a splash of brandy or sweet wine, to de-glaze the pan, and about a tablespoon or so of brown sugar and cook over medium heat stirring often until softened but still firm in the middle.

sauteeing applesAt this point, you can fry sage leaves until crisped, or not. I like the touch of green it adds to the presentation but flavor-wise they are not essential. To use the sage, add enough olive oil to the pan, after removing the apples, to cover the bottom about 1/8 inch thick. Add the sage leaves cooking for approximately 1 minute or until crisp. This process doesn’t take long. To assemble, place a sausage slice on a plate add a sage leave and top with an apple cube. You can either skewer with toothpicks now or put the toothpicks out for your guests to use. The amounts can be adjusted for the number of people you are feeding. One pound of sausage and one apple make about twenty-four bites, so you would need 24 sage leaves.The final tidbit is a wonderful mix of sweet, salty and spicy.

apple and sausage tidbitsAdd an apertif and your meal is off to a great beginning! Don’t you wonder what comes next?



Where to begin?

By Catherine Keefe
January is a new romance, a second date with someone you will fall in love with. It’s you on your best behavior as the very most outstanding human being possible. It’s Brahms’ Op. 22, Num. 8 before the wedding; the predawn temple ball’s call to prayer; the first line of the first page of the first book you ever wrote or read.


                                                                                          Photo Credit: James Keefe

“Then there was the bad weather.”

Ernest Hemingway’s first line from A Moveable Feast cuts to the quick of great beginnings. He starts in media res, or “in the midst of things,” talking about the weather. His 1921-1926 Paris was so dreary “…the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.”  But what makes this simple sentence such a classic book beginning is that it creates an immediate intimacy between the reader and writer with that word “then.” We can almost imagine a “before” without knowing what it was.  And even though Hemingway’s collection of “Paris Sketches” is about his experiences as a writer in the European expatriate community, it’s as much about the golden moments before the unraveling of his first marriage to Hadley.  Weather is both literal and metaphor although it isn’t until we finish the book, and reread the first line that we can make the connection.

As you begin this year and set your intentions for it, will your end – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets –  be found in your beginning?

For writers, each new project is a January. But unlike the calendar which rolls forward ready or not, a writing project can become balky as a skittish pound puppy facing the first open gate. How do you move forward?  The answer is so simple. Where do you wish to end?


Alhambra, Granada, Spain                                                      Photo Credit: James Keefe

The superlative beginnings – of a novel, memoir, essay, short story, poem, or screenplay – portend a shadow of the end the same way the foyer of a building establishes possibility for its inside architecture or a chef’s amuse bouche introduces first flavors to a restaurant visitor. Surprises can be expected, but organic.

As Richard Goodman clarifies in, “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful, and Compelling Openings”:

The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work.  This is simply beause it is the beginning…Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You are looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.

I often think of writing beginnings much like fishing. Can I catch a reader with one cast? Will the fish follow my bait for a few more feet?  Sometimes when I’m stuck I randomly open some favorite books to remind me what a great beginning can do. Then I write a stumbling forward of dozens or even hundreds of words that do nothing more than become cast-off scaffolding by the final edit. It’s not until I’m amidst the construction that I discover what I most want to say and I feel like the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s Company. “A voice comes to one in the dark.”

Take advantage of the energy of January and its superlative nature as a time to begin something new.

And may all your kisses this year begin a hug,

For more ideas on how to begin your new year check out “Through the open window.”


Putting Pen to Paper

wooden dip pen with ink on tip

By Susan Greene
Wrapping and packing up the holiday accoutrements, produces, in me, a conflicting sense of sadness and excitement. Sadness for the end of the holidays and the joy of spending extra time with family and friends yet, excitement in the start of a new year. The house appears barren when the holiday decorations are gone but an opportunity to take a fresh approach to the everyday decor presents itself. With the new year, comes a chance to re-evaluate and set new goals for the next twelve months, a blank piece of paper to fill as you wish.

hand writing on blank paperThis year, the backyard sisters are using literary terms as springboards for stories, photos and teaching; maybe even some food.

writing with dip pen

Sharing thoughts, experiences and emotions with others, through writing, is an art. The writer of the sisters will provide the terms and offer her insights while I will supply a photographic interpretation. I am excited to see what the “writer sister” of the backyard sisters has up her sleeve for challenging and sharing with us.

wooden ball point pen on paperMy tools are ready for the inspiration. Writing is an important part of how we communicate and to write well is a gift. Our backyard father has been sharing his memories of growing up through an ongoing book titled “Jaunts with the Memory Elves”. Each year at Christmas, for the past ten years, he gifts us with the addition of a new chapter. These are priceless gifts and I am grateful for the ability to experience, through his narration, not only our grandparents as parents but also living in New York and driving and moving cross country.

keyboard typing handsMy fingers are ready for typing and my pen to be put to paper.

dip pen tip on paperI am anxiously awaiting the first term, sister . . .

~ Susan