Monday, September 1, 2014

Popcorn Ramble

I have loved popcorn all my life - it's one of the best foods on earth. Tender kernels freshly popped with a little snap of crispness, coated, if you wish, with buttery goodness. What's not to like? Even in France, where corn is pretty much reserved as animal feed and food trends from other countries are viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, popcorn rules.

When I was a girl of 16, I was dropped into a girls' boarding school in Cannes, France for a year while my mother, older sister, and brother swanned around the Mediterranean following my Dad's fleet to exotic places like Capri, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Athens, viewing great works of art, eating in amazing restaurants, and absorbing marvelous cultures. I was homesick and miserable for about a week, but then I made friends and had a fabulous time despite being envious of their experience. 

The school was regimented and strict, but there was room for fun, too. We ate very well four times daily, including Gouté, afternoon tea with dark chocolate melted in our cups and smeared on slices of baguette. There were art lessons, French lessons, and the usual subjects, plus a few I had never encountered before such as Rédaction and Dictée. I was very good at Rédaction and Dictée, although now I can hardly remember what those terms meant. I even learned geometry in French. Hypotenuse is the same word in both English and French, thank heavens!

Rarely, we boarding girls would escape the school as guests of the day students. Being Navy Juniors, we had access to the PX in Villefranche where we could get all kinds of American things that we had missed. One of the things I bought was a bag of popcorn.

Stepping into my Wayback Machine, I should explain that in the olden days when I was a girl, we didn't have popcorn in convenient little bags already loaded with flavorings that you just pop into the microwave for a few minutes. In fact, microwave ovens hadn't even been invented - maybe even microwaves themselves hadn't been discovered - 'way back then. Instead, one poured a thin layer of oil in the bottom of a saucepan, added a measure of kernels, and heated it on the stove until the kernels popped open, finely coated with oil, ready for salt and munching.

I carried my prize back to school before I realized that, while the school had a kitchen, I didn't. So, I approached Madame Palet, the ancient, wizened mother of the school's headmistress, for permission to use the kitchen for making "le popcorn." We had to describe popcorn to her - she had literally never heard of such a thing and, being French, scoffed at the idea of eating corn - "Corn is for farm animals!" - but we begged and she reluctantly agreed, watching the whole process with bright, skeptical eyes. 

Of course, we offered her a taste and she did try it, with some hesitation. Her eyes went round with surprise and she smiled. She ate more of our popcorn than we did and, as a bonus, whenever she wanted popcorn after that, she would invite us to watch the school's only television with her - if we would make "le popcorn" again!

So, you can see that I'm a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to popcorn. I have my favorite microwaveable brand but I still love it when I see a machine like the one above, one that still makes popcorn with hot oil. We found this one in a tiny movie theatre (and what's a movie without popcorn? Hardly worth going!) in Tiburon, CA where they have cushy seats, reasonable prices (!), and delicious, fresh, real popcorn. I hadn't had popcorn that good in many years so, like Madame Palet, my eyes popped open with delighted surprise.

I could ramble on for a bit longer on the subject of popcorn but wouldn't we all rather I stopped so we could go and pop our own?  Bon Appetit!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Guest Workers And House Guests

Get ready: the following is mostly bleeding-heart liberal propaganda from a tree-hugging Californian hippie freak, brought on by buying a flat of strawberries from a guest worker who was selling them from a cart on the street outside our favorite outdoor restaurant. My soapbox is in place and I'm feeling spouty. If you want to come back tomorrow, that's okay by me.

Here in California, we have an entire economy built on guest workers, hard working people who come north to work in our restaurant kitchens, to help with gardening and building projects, to tend our (baking hot) fields and orchards, and to pick our strawberries. They come sometimes with their families and other times they come alone and work to send money back to their countries - that is so common here that there are multiple ways to wire money, and most are described in Spanish. That money represents a huge, informal form of aid to developing nations. And, without our guest workers, California's economy (and, increasingly, the United States' economy) would grind to a halt.

There are those who maintain that we'd have higher wages and better conditions for these types of labor if we kept them out, as Americans would never do this back-breaking work for the low wages our guest workers earn, and there's probably some truth to that. We'd pay more for vegetables and fruits, too, and building projects, and gardening, and restaurant food, to name just a few. But we'd also lose a part of the diversity of California without the lively Latino influence they bring, and that would make us poorer. It's just my opinion, but I think we should welcome our guest workers as enthusiastically as we welcome our house guests. That Lady with the Lamp welcomed half of my ancestors from Ireland; I would wish the same for today's immigrants.

Instead, we make it hard for them to even get a driver's license, they live with the daily threat of deportation, and families are broken up when that happens. How can any good come out of such a hard system? I wish I knew. One of the children I tutor lost her mother to deportation - the child was seven years old at the time. If that doesn't wring your heart, you must be a potted plant.

And we turn away mothers and children who are coming across our borders, fleeing conditions an American simply can't imagine. If we could imagine it, we wouldn't be so unwelcoming and harsh with people who are so desperate that they have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles just to have a chance of life in this country. They leave behind everything that is familiar - land, families, even their language - for the whisper of a chance. 

I wish those dolts in Washington would read this and do something to help the folks who give us so much in their labor. Okay, I'm stepping down from my soapbox now, feeling a little better for having gotten that off my chest. 

On to the house guests!  

We invited, many moons ago, our Florida friends to stay with us when they come for their annual visit their daughter, s-i-l, and two year old granddaughter (who live in an apartment only big enough for them). As you know, the room we offered them is in the house that is still in full construction mode. 


It just so happened that My Beloved's daughter is away with her family this week visiting her husband's family on the East coast, so we and our house guests are bunked in Marin county for the long weekend, thanks to their warm generosity. My Beloved and I awake each morning to powder blue, stencilled on one wall with the Eiffel Tower, and a little crystal chandelier that hangs from the ceiling of our granddaughter's bedroom. Cora is enjoying having a back yard to roam around in and friendly neighborhood dogs to sniff butts with. We are enjoying our friends in congenial new surroundings.

If I'm a little late with Monday's fresh post, chalk it up to house guests. Gotta enjoy 'em while we can, before they head back to Florida for another year. And those other guests - I wish we gave them a good welcome, too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Last Straw

I think we are losing it. This late into the remodel, we are starting to be crabby with each other and our patience for delays is definitely wearing thin. We think of ourselves as, more or less, the ideal clients for a builder - willing to spend pretty much whatever it takes for a quality outcome, happy to run errands when they need running, cheerfully forgiving of the inevitable mistakes and delays, making a coffee run for the workers each day, and generally being genial at all times. 

I think our geniality is starting to wear thin.

Last week, we decided to pick up some paint that we need for a couple of patches in two different rooms. We had acquired, noted, and marked the perfect colors on the paint chips, consulted with the painter as to what equipment he might need and, on our way to lunch,  marched off to the paint store for the millionteenth time.

That's when we hit the snag - I laid the paint chips down on the counter and went to consult with our salesperson about a technique and, when I returned, no chips. Gone. Vanished. Disparu! I looked everywhere and even searched through the trash buckets in the store (don't ever do that - you don't want to know!) to no avail. So, we couldn't order the paint. Which meant that we had to collect the blankety-blank paint chips again, take them home to consult again, and come back some other day with paint for the patches.

You can see that this represents, at worst, a minor setback, right?

That's why I say our good humor is wearing thin; we were both seething when we left, our reactions far out of scale with the size of the setback. Shoulders tight, teeth clenched, really, really ticked. I will give us credit that we didn't explode at the sales person, but we each knew we were on our last nerve.

So, we went to lunch. And we each had a glass of wine with lunch. We are not normally lunch drinkers but, by golly, we had wine for lunch that day!  And it was a good thing. Between the wine and our excellent meals - My Beloved has mussels and frites, and I had steak and frites - and that blessed glass of wine, we were in a much, much better frame of mind when we left.

Just so you know, the restaurant is a favorite of ours called Rendez-Vous. It's a bistro with inexpensive, standard French fare, nothing fancy but everything cooked just right. They have little awnings over the booths with the names of Paris neighborhoods on them, and fun little French sayings on the walls. And, high above the awnings are "windows" of light with silhouettes, as if apartments were above filled with French folks living their Parisian lives. They even have a scattering of stone pigeons perched for authenticity.

I can recommend it highly when you reach your last straw.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ready To Roll

All during construction, we have been living downstairs in our guest room. It has been good for me, as I get lots of exercise going up and down stairs, when normally I live mainly on the top floor. When we get ready to go somewhere, be it hardware, paint, or plumbing stores, Cora wants to go with us. She loves riding in the car and would far rather be left in the car (don't worry, we are super careful about the hot days) than left at home. So, as soon as I either pick up my purse or go to the closet for a jacket, she is up and trots upstairs so as to be ready to roll at a moment's notice.

This is the view I usually get of her - she is halfway to the door but peeking back to see if I'm following. Her ears are pricked and her tail is waving. You can almost hear her thinking, "Jeez, lady, what's taking you so long?"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Best. Chicken Breast. Ever.

If this seemingly endless remodel has taught me anything, it is how much I value setting a nice table. I used to love using my real silver and my great-grandmother's china when I had a dinner party. Even every day meals called for nice china and decorative flatware, with cloth napkins and pretty placemats. Even a crummy day can be at least partly rescued by sitting down to an attractively presented place setting. 

I miss those days!

Paper plates are all very well at picnics and barbecues, but I miss having a plate stiff enough to carry across the room without risk of collapse and one that doesn't leak through to the oilcloth table covering at each meal. And, speaking of oilcloth. Okay, whatever I thought was charming about that concept has diminished over the months. Yes, you can wipe it off with just water, but I keep imagining the growing colony of bacteria that are thriving between the threads. It's better than a bare table top (the table top being a tired glass garden furniture-come-indoors-for-the-meantime one), but only just barely.

Okay, enough bitching. 

As it turns out, a good meal still tastes good, even served on paper. And, even with my limited cooking options, I can occasionally turn out a really kick-ass meal, such as the one we enjoyed last Friday evening. I made Jamie Oliver's chicken breast dish, the one you bash with the bottom of a frying pan to flatten. I've talked about it before on this blog, so I'll content myself with a link to the recipe. It's pretty quick, it's killer-delicious (I'm pretty sure his Italian wife came up with this one), and it has pretentions to elegance, something I am missing just now. 

And bashing those chicken breasts goes a long way toward releasing the frustrations caused by collapsing paper plates.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hidden City

Sometimes, in the evening, My Beloved and I will stroll downtown for dinner, taking Cora with us. If the restaurant we choose doesn't have an outdoor deck where she can join us, we tie her to a tree outside and she waits with amazing patience for our return. 

We never leave her unless we can see her from inside the restaurant. She is the calmest, kindest dog - I never worry about her behavior - I just have to make sure that the passing people are as kind and calm as she is, and that they treat her with sweetness. She usually gets a word and a pat from the passing strangers and, once or twice, such a covetous look that I have hurried outside to make sure they know she's mine! 

I have said it before and I'll say it again. Best.Dog.Ever.

As we amble back up the long hill to home (it's only three blocks, but on a full stomach it feels like miles), we zig and zag through the streets of our quirky little town. Each house is different and most are sweetly unpretentious. There are zany Victorians festooned with curlicues next door to sleek moderns, and many more of mixed heritage and history, houses that have grown with families, incorporating several architectural styles over the decades. There are demure little houses peeking from behind picket fences and houses painted pumpkin orange or cobalt blue that seem to shout, "Hey, look at me!"

It's not called the Hidden City for nothing - few people in the area even know it's here, and we like rather it that way. It began as a railhead (and it still is), but those boisterous days of bars and whorehouses have tamed considerably since then. Now, it's a bedroom community for San Francisco, with only three blocks of businesses arranged in a triangle and punctuated by a statue of a lone Indian. No one seems to know why the Indian, but we love him anyway.

So, here we are, strolling home replete with Chinese chow from Little China, leftovers boxed, bagged, and swinging from My Beloved's hand, when we turn a corner and find the most amusing pumpkin patch I have ever seen.

Built along a low cement retaining wall and outside the wooden fence surrounding the house was a most creative way imaginable to support growing pumpkins. A complicated chain of boards and heavy string suspended the golden orbs and kept them safe from foot traffic, tall dogs, and ground rot. They are all connected by a rope of green stem and seem to be doing very well in their whimsical aerie.

Maybe it's this that I most love about our town - it's quirkiness. One never knows what charm will pop up from day to day. In the case of this pumpkin patch, the house is painted a paler color than the pumpkins (you can see the corner of it in the first photo), but it toned beautifully with the swelling fruit. If I see the owners, I will ask if they planned it that way. For the meantime, I'll just enjoy knowing it's there and the short break it afforded from hill climbing while I took its picture.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sweet Tart

We have subscribed to Sunset magazine for, basically, ever. I discovered it when I first lived in California, 'way back in the '70s, and I kept up my subscription even when I lived in New York State, as I always enjoyed the recipes and craft ideas. I'm no longer in my Craft Stage, but I do still enjoy the ideas of great places to vacation and the recipes.

Even though there are many things I can't easily make during construction, I do look for new ideas that might translate well to two burners and two frying pans.  This one for pork chops topped with agrodolce peaches required three frying pans but could easily be done in stages, so I was game. And my peach tree had a banner year, so peaches are in abundant supply at our house just now. I have given away four bags full and the branches are still loaded with fast-ripening fruit.

I made the agrodolce peaches first, and transferred them to a serving bowl. Agrodolce means tart-sweet in Italian, and that's completely descriptive. The vinegars give it zing and the honey gives it sweetness. The fruits lend their flavors of fresh and dried, and the thyme offers that funky, earthy undertone that gives the dish complexity.

I used pork tenderloin cut into medallions rather than pork chops - they sauté up very nicely in just a few minutes, then are topped with the peaches. Nice porky flavor, no bones, and no waste.

It was luscious. I can't think of another word that adequately describes the combination of sweet, tart, herbal, and savory. Layer upon layer of flavors made My Beloved, who loves variety, very happy.

Thanks to my old friend, Sunset. I can count on you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What (In Heaven's Name) Shall I Make For Dinner?

What do you make for dinner when you have nothing in the freezer but five very tired pita rounds and a package of lamb stew meat? You improvise, that's what. You search around in the vegetable drawer for a zucchini, an onion, some garlic, and (thank heavens!) a nice, ripe heirloom tomato.

You scrape the fuzzy mold off the top of your container of creme fraiche, you get out the jar of lemon mayonnaise, and you give a silent prayer of thanks for half of a pint of Caesar salad that came with your last pizza delivery. Looks like dinner to me.

My Beloved got busy warming the pitas while I sliced the onion, garlic, zucchini and tomato, and cut the lamb into bite-size pieces. I had two pans going, one on high to brown the meat, and one on medium to cook first the onion in olive oil with fresh thyme from the pots outside the front door, then adding the zucchini and, last, the garlic. 

When both pans were ready, we brought them to the table, smeared the inside of the pita pockets with lemon mayo and a tad of creme fraiche (I didn't have feta cheese or Greek yogurt), then piled in the meat, veggies, and fresh tomato slices. The meat juices melded with the mayo and tomato water to make a nifty little sauce. It was messy as all get out and nearly as good. The juices ran over our hands and dripped down onto our plates. We each needed several napkins. The thyme gave that extra herbal push that most dishes need and our hunger did the rest. The salad was really just a sop to our consciences, but it did provide a little crisp counterpoint.

Next time you are faced with Empty Fridge Syndrome, remind yourself that you really do have a full meal in there - it's just not immediately obvious.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Don't Eat This

Don't eat this. It's bad for you. 

In fact, it's so bad for you that it should carry a warning label. "Too much fat," it should say, and "Too much salt." Or, in flashing lights, it should read, "Too much guilt!"

SPAM is an amazing product, any way you look at it. It keeps forever, it tastes vaguely of ham with a soupçon of lining-of-the-can-it-comes-in, and it is an enduring pleasure in Hawaii. Hawaiians use it in all kinds of dishes from SPAM musubi to SPAM omelets to grilled SPAM brochettes alternating with chunks of fresh, ripe pineapple. I have always assumed it was popular in Hawaii because it kept well in the tropical heat, unlike any fresh meat would. But, who really knows?

I learned to love it when I lived in Hawaii, both as a child and as an adult. Last time we were in Hawaii, back in May (which gives you an idea of how well it keeps), we found these single serving packets of SPAM, an irresistible innovation. They were in the super market in an aisle that contained at least 10 different varieties of SPAM and SPAM-related products. You gotta love a company that moves with the times, right?  Low fat, low salt - even turkey SPAM!  I snapped up a couple single-serving packets as a gift for my buddy Irene, who loves SPAM almost as much as I do. I kept one for myself.

I browned mine in a frying pan before scrambling in some eggs, which you will be glad to know I shared with My Beloved so I didn't get all that salt and fat for myself. It's a simple preparation, but one of my faves. It was good in all the ways that are bad for you.

The warning label should also read: "Seriously addictive."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Meanwhile, In The Bathroom...

My Beloved has a thing about glass blocks. Don't ask me why, but he just loves the way they look. Ever since we have been together, going on 20 years now, he will point out windows, walls, or shower stalls that use glass blocks and remark about how cool they are. So, when we were surfing the web for materials to use in our refurbed master bath, he at last got the chance to use glass blocks. He was thrilled.

Actually finding glass blocks, however, turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Even a favorite tile store that has an enormous wall of glass blocks said they couldn't get them any more. Huh? We see them everywhere!  There must be a source!

Well, we finally found one and ordered a shower wall's worth of the blocks after making sure that our tile guy knows how to install them. The source didn't make it easy, however, as the style we liked best was no longer available, they mistakenly ordered the wrong end pieces, and they only sell the top curving end piece in sets of four. Four pretty expensive pieces, that is. 

But, compared to My Beloved's delight in our new shower, a mere pittance!

I am proud of my idea to use the other three end pieces, turned sideways and mortared in, as shelves in the shower. I'm nothing if not frugal, and they look cool, too.

Sorry about the crooked cell phone picture, but of all the pictures I took, this one represents the color of the shower best. We used glass tiles with a matte finish and the color is just dreamy. It accepts the light in wonderful ways, glowing around the window and casting a pale, bluish-green light on the glass blocks.

There will be a vanity and those wonderful sconces that we ordered many months ago, and we have yet to choose a toilet but we are working on finding the right one. I know, I know!  It's crazy to be obsessing about how a toilet will look, but welcome to my world. 

I'll take another picture when it all comes together but, meanwhile, we spend a lot of time just admiring the bathroom tiles.