Easy Meal #5

Pasta with Tomato Sauce

Never mind expensive jars of salty, prepared pasta sauce. With a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, you can create your own beautiful sauce. Shop your fridge and pantry for items to add to the sauce—leftovers, lone vegetables, an open jar of olives. It’s cooking improv. My fridge quest turned up a half-jar of capers, half a red onion, and an opened box of spinach.

-28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes
-Add-ins (chef’s choice)
-8 ounces pasta

-Saute raw vegetables in saucepan.
-Add can of tomatoes to saucepan of vegetables and simmer until tomatoes break down (about 30 minutes).
-Cook pasta.
-Toss cooked pasta with sauce.
-Top with red peppers flakes, parmesan, ground pepper, or your own inspiration.

Four servings

Tip: To cut down on calories, use spiral-cut vegetables like zucchini in place of pasta or use a mix of both pasta and veggies.

Garden Clips

Lurie Garden in fall

Pots of happy succulents lined the porch railing. “I only grow things that like it here,” said my husband’s cousin as we toured his mountain-top cabin in North Carolina. So obvious it made me laugh. Laugh at how many times I placed a plant where it never wanted to be. Like the azalea—a woody skeleton at the end of a Midwestern winter. Lush cascades of rhododendron roll down the Carolina mountain side. Ha!

Piet Oudolf, the legendary plantsman from the Netherlands, recently came to Chicago to talk about seasonality in garden design. He counters the traditional practice of putting the garden to rest for winter with designs of year-round interest and plants in all their stages of life. The Lurie Garden in fall is a painterly, nuanced vision.

Metaphors grow in gardens. And sometimes I listen to what the plant kingdom has to say. When we lost all the JFK roses, I knew it was time to sell the house.

Apps with a Past

Pickled mushrooms, crackers, and cheese spread in Russel Wright coffee cups from the 1940s

Most everyone these days prefers to drink coffee or tea out of mugs, and thus the squat cup and saucer of yesteryear have disappeared from kitchen cabinet shelves.

But maybe you’re a collector or have some of these nostalgic pieces from your mother or grandmother who likely sipped and talked casually with friends and neighbors.  My grandma always had a cup of coffee (never water, milk,  or soda) with her sandwich and so did Perry Mason, secretary Della Street, and PI Paul Drake after they won a case.

What can we do with these pieces now? Lots. They make novel vessels for appetizers, especially if they are colorful.  They are perfect for soup with the saucer as a resting place for a spoon. Think yogurt or ice cream with berries. Whatever the adaptation I always enjoy bringing a piece of the past back to the table.

What’s in your cupboard?

Librarians Who Don’t Mess Around

Collection management—the technical term for weeding out obsolete books—is an important part of librarians’ work. Sounds like drudgery, right? Well, two public librarians in Michigan have put the fun in collection management with their website Awful Library Books.  Whether you are a bibliophile or not, you have to visit this site,  if only for a good laugh.

Librarians Holly and Mary feature the worst of the worst from their own library collections and those around the country.  What makes their site so entertaining is not only the titles but Holly’s and Mary’s deadpan commentary on what justifies a book’s weed out. Here are some books you’ll find on their site (comments are mine):
•  Macrame Accessories (Lots of groovy photos, including vests for dudes.)
•  How NOT to Kill Your Husband  (Apparently men are too busy and clueless to take care of themselves.)
•  Brainwashing Is a Cinch!  (Just give me 10 minutes with the president!)
•  Make Your Own Sex Toys (This book is available from Amazon in case you’re interested.)
•  Cat Astrology (New pick-up line: What’s your cat’s sign?)

 Inspired by Mary’s and Holly’s tough-love approach, I made the decision to finally discard my 1941 edition of 2002 Household Helps. Below I share a couple gems or “helps” from this book as part of my farewell ritual.

•  SHOPPING TIP—Don’t go on a long shopping trip without first making out a list of things to be purchased, if you would conserve your energy. Don’t shop after you’ve an aching head and jumpy nerves. You will not get good results.

•  LET BOYS PRESS THEIR OWN PANTS—Letting boys press their own suits and sew on their own buttons is an item in training them for self-reliant manhood.

The latter tip evokes a Banale moment: although they didn’t wear suits, the boys here did their own laundry starting in high school. Amen.

Celebrate! It’s National Chip and Dip Day

Doritos painting by Pamela Michelle Johnson

March 23 is National Chip and Dip Day. That’s right! And it’s no secret that Chez Banale is home to a family of chip fiends. Chip-themed artwork like the Pamela Johnson piece above pay homage to our favorite junk food.  Regrettably, chips have sometimes been at the center of family disputes over hiding, hogging, and perhaps the worst offense of all—leaving a near-empty bag in the pantry with only chip dust.

In honor of the day, below is my sister Sarah’s recipe for quacamole, inspired by a trip to Ixtapa, Mexico.  She says, “I used to load up my guacamole with all sorts ingredients thinking more is better. When I tasted this guacamole in Mexico it was so delicious, yet so simple.”

Sarah’s Guacamole Dip

4–6 ripe avocados
1/2–1 red onion chopped
1/2–1 bunch of cilantro leaves only, lightly chopped
1–2 limes
Kosher or sea salt

Half the avocados and scoop out the avocado flesh. Mash it leaving some small chunks. Add chopped onion and cilantro, the amount will depend on your taste preference and size of avocados. Mix in fresh squeezed lime juice and salt to taste. Add 1/2 of the onion and cilantro and juice of one lime, taste, and add more accordingly. Good tortilla chips are essential.

Another great dip for tortilla chips is Rick Bayless’ Roasted Tomatillo Salsa.  So easy. And let’s not forget an old-time party staple—Knorr’s French onion soup mix dip with sour cream. The perfect companion to any potato chip.

Easy Recipe #4

Spinach quiche decorated with the last of the season’s cherry tomatoes

Up close and delicious

Sigh…farmers’ markets in the Midwest are coming to a close.  This easy recipe uses fresh spinach, a cool season character, as the main player. If you don’t have spinach, use a cup of another cooked vegetable. Quiche contains the main Banale ingredient—that is, versatility.   Mushrooms and onions make an excellent segue to the winter months.
Serves 6–8


1 prepared pie crust for 9″ pan (or if you’re a purist or advanced chef, make your own crust)
1 to 1.5 cup(s) cooked vegetable(s)
3 eggs
1 cup milk or cream
1.5 cups grated cheese
Salt, pepper, and any seasoning inspiration


→Preheat oven to 375°
→Place vegetables on bottom of pie shell
→Place cheese on top of veggies
→Beat eggs and wisk together with milk and seasonings
→Pour milk-egg mixture on top of cheese
→Cook for 40 minutes or so until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
→Let cool 10 minutes before serving

Tips: Pack a slice of quiche for lunch. Pass this recipe along to those new to the kitchen or the time-strapped folks in your life. 




Tomato Bouquet

Heirloom beauties

Rejoice!  Fresh local tomatoes have arrived at farmers’ markets for a glorious, albeit narrow, time frame. This is a BIG deal for tomato lovers in colder USDA zones. Not only are fresh tomatoes superior in taste and texture to their bleak mid-winter counterparts, they make vibrant center pieces in lieu of flowers. As you eat your tomatoes, downsize the display plate.


Tip: The University of Illinois Extension advises storing tomatoes at room temperature and away from direct sunlight. Do not store them in the refrigerator, which can make them mushy and tasteless.

Housekeeping Dept.

Femme Banale is done with fancy, thick washcloths. They take forever to dry unless you have the body-builder guns to fully wring them out. They are expensive and prone to mildew. The Banale solution: a pack of inexpensive “lite” cotton washcloths often available at larger drugstores or big-box stores. Those shown above came from Target—$4 for eight cloths.

Picture a nice stack of these fluffy squares in your vanity ready for service.  In Femme Banale’s household, she gets them all to herself because the men folk here do not use washcloths—a mystery she prefers not to explore.  If you are having houseguests, they can be rolled easily and stacked spa-style. Retire them to the cleaning-cloth bag once they get raggedy.

Tip: Throw a couple in your bag when travelling. You never know.

Do you have a domestic tip to pass along?

Spa look for guests

Show and Tell

Today Femme Banale shares a few selections from her modest vintage book collection.  Space is scarce, and what has earned these books a place of honor on her bookshelf is their timeless human stories. These classics were written in the early part of the last century, but  they present life’s enduring drama of longing and conflict and triumph and defeat and triumph again (sometimes).

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

This is an “unexpurgated” edition, which contains the book’s original love scenes once deemed pornographic. Critics describe Lawrence’s social commentary and portrayal of England’s idle and ineffectual aristocracy. Femme Banale’s takeaway is this: women prefer men with skillz.


George F. Babbitt is a “manly man” of the 1920s who “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.” Babbitt is a story of all the folly in social climbing and conformity.

Students of American English usage may be amused to find these words in 1920s speech: chump, buttinsky, and shindig.  Let’s not forget the book’s own contribution to the American dictionary—babbitt, of course!

Obscure Destinies

Obscure Destinies contains three short stories of tender humanity.  In “Neighbor Rosicky,” we see how the immigrant experience has formed the warp of our country’s fabric. “Two Friends” is a story of friendships gained and lost; the truth is things change. The best here is “Old Mrs. Harris”—let’s say you’re a young girl who longs to go away to college but whose family doesn’t have the money…

What treasures are on your shelves?  Show and tell in the comment section of this post.

Easy Meal #3

Asparagus soup with chive garnish. Yay! Fresh asparagus has started to appear in the Midwest.


For a long time Femme Banale considered homemade soup “hard” to make and thus assigned it to the entertainment-only category. That thinking changed with the purchase of an immersion blender.* With this gadget you can quickly make soup using only one pot. Even without an immersion blender, making soup is not difficult—maybe a little messier with a food processor or blender—but not complicated.

Here’s a simple soup formula calling for fresh or leftover vegetables and your creativity:
1 lbs or 2 cups vegetables + 1 onion or leek + 4 cups broth

Chop vegetables and onions or leeks. Sautée onions/leeks in stock pot. Add vegetables and broth. (Sometimes FB adds a chopped potato to the vegetable mixture for a thicker soup.) Simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Blend mixture until smooth. Season to taste. Add cream or milk for a creamier flavor. Serves 4. Easily doubled or tripled and freezed. Bread, sandwiches/paninis, and salad make perfect soup companions.

*What is an immersion blender? Basically, it’s a hand mixer shaped like a wand. Femme Banale bought hers for about $60.

Immersion blender