Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Science Experiments

Is this scary enough for Hallowe'en?

I like to think that this is how Sir Alexander Fleming got his start - when something senescent in his fridge grew an interesting mold and he thought, "Hmmm, wonder what could I do with that?"

I'm continually finding these interesting science experiments lurking half eaten behind the first layer of food in my reefer. I get this particular affliction directly from my mother; a child of the Great Depression, she never threw any food away. She would carefully wrap six green beans and tenderly place them in the fridge from which I would excavate them, covered in pale grey fur, three months later.

When I married and left home, I usually visited my parents in Hawaii once a year. Tough duty, huh? Because I was living in Rochester, NY where spring comes only reluctantly toward the very end of May and retreats briskly in mid-August, these trips to Hawaii were like visiting an entirely different planet. To go in roughly twelve hours from wading in knee-deep snow to wading in 75 degree aquamarine water was almost a surreal experience. The reverse was deeply depressing.

Oops, got lost in dreams there for a minute - back to the topic!

My parents wouldn't allow me to work in the kitchen while I was there so, instead, I made it my contribution secretly to ferret out and discard the fuzzy foods hiding in her fridge.

Yes, secretly - Mom became most indignant if she caught me pouring out the stinking milk or giving the old heave-ho to dessicated celery or shriveled and puckered tomatoes, accusing me of profligacy most foul. So, each morning before she was up, I'd sneak into the kitchen and hide one more slimy item underneath the refuse in the garbage can. Little did I realize that many years later her gene would express itself in me.

This particular symphony in cream, yellow and turquoise was once Lemon Quark. I think it's a cure for the common cold, or athlete's foot, or some disease we haven't even named yet. If I'm lucky, it will be the cure for Alzheimer's, the early stages of which I have been accused of exhibiting. I call them Senior Moments; others have muttered about dementia as they shovel my two month-old casserole down the GDU.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Crab Bacon Chowder with Anise Seed and Thyme

I read several online recipes for crab chowder, looking for just the right combination of ingredients to enhance my crab stock and the leftover crab we saved to put in it. They all sounded good but none was a home run; that always puts me into invention mode.

Here are the ingredients I used:

3 rashers bacon, crisped and coarsely chopped
2 Tbs of bacon fat reserved from cooking the bacon
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 large shallot, ditto
2 celery ribs, ditto
6-8 fingerling potatoes, cut in small dice
2 tsp. fresh thyme (use less if using dried herb)
2 tsp-1 Tbs. fennel seeds
4 cups crab stock
2 ears fresh corn kernels
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Dungeness crab meat
Pepper to taste (I'd wait on the salt until you see how salty the bacon and crab are)

First, I crisped the bacon, set it aside and drained off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pan before saute-ing a finely chopped onion, two ribs of chopped celery and a large shallot in the same pan. I added about half a cup of finely chopped fingerling potatoes and tossed them until coated, adding about 2 teaspoons of fresh thyme from my herb garden and about 1 tablespoon of fennel seeds which Cookiecrumb had taught me are delicious. I cooked those ingredients until the spuds were hot and a little soft, then added the crab stock and simmered until the potatoes were easily pierced. I added three of the bacon strips (next time, I'd use two more to crumble into the soup just before serving), chopped coarsely back into the pan with the kernels of two ears of fresh corn (by the way, I learned a great way to cut corn from the cob - stand the stem end of the corn in the hole in the middle of a bundt pan and cut down the cob with a sharp paring knife - all the kernels will fall into the pan - no mess!). I simmered that briefly before adding about 1 1/2 cups of half and half (you could use heavier cream for a richer taste but I thought the bacon was sin enough), and added about half a cup of picked, coarsely chopped crab meat. I heated it through without boiling, ladled it into soup cups and sprinkled it with a little parsley. Adding the cream turned it from evil brown to toasty white - much more appetizing!

It was wonderful the first day but even better on day two. Makes about 6 servings.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Stocking Up

During the crab party, Cookiecrumb and Cranky, who are experienced seafood shell cooks, suggested that I make stock out of the Dungeness crab shells we were at that moment in the process of picking clean. Having read her blog post a few days ago about her lobster stock and seen the lovely soup that resulted, I was inspired to give it a try.

We scooped up all the shells and dumped them into a big pot with white wine, onion and water plus a few miscellaneous herbs and simmered them for about an hour. This is the result - looks like we boiled seaweed, doesn't it? Eeeek!

However, it tastes great, certainly of crab but also mysteriously of a "sea-ness" that is hard to describe. It's as if we went down to Stinson Beach and took a deep breath of that salty sea air. I can hardly wait to see what kind of soup it will make! Hopefully, not brownish green.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Crabby Friends

You've probably heard this story before - new friends found through blogging - but it was our first. Since I began reading food blogs, starting with My Beloved's niece at Orangette and from there following links to other food blogging sites, I have been "introduced" to a number of wonderful writers and foodies.

When I began writing my own blog, I had encouragement from one of the established bloggers I most admire, Cookiecrumb, and to our delighted surprise we were invited to join her and her beloved, Cranky, for Mexican lunch at a restaurant with Biggles and Dagny one breezy, bright day a couple of months ago. Begins to sound like JDate for foodies, doesn't it, where you meet first in a public place to size one another up? Yes, exactly.

Having had fun and not discovered any alarming traits during that lunch, Cookiecrumb and Cranky invited us to a party at their house where we encountered all kinds of wonderful food bloggers whose famous blogs I had been reading but whom we had never met in the flesh. We also consumed an incredible array of funky foodstuffs and probably drank too much wine but we still didn't turn them off so the next step was to invite Cookiecrumb and Cranky to our abode.

What ensued was a delightful afternoon of mutual story telling, connection making, laughter, sharing and crab consumption, lubricated once again by perhaps too much wine. New friends are the silver of life, as the old Girl Scout song says, and MB and I feel like we've struck a rich vein.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Cheese Dreams

When I was about three years old, my family was living in Virginia Beach on 81st Street and my older sister, whom I always wanted to emulate, started school. She got to climb on that bright yellow bus and be whisked away with lots of other kids to great adventures - or so I imagined - coming home with colorful drawings and the ability to actually read the bedtime stories that were our nightly treat.

One morning, I was determined to go, too, and got my foot up on the first step of the bus before Mom saw me and gently held me back, explaining that N was a big girl now and I wasn't yet and only big girls went to school.

Of course, I thought that was beastly unfair (and, knowing my sister, I'm pretty sure she was lording it over me, probably making faces out the bus window!), so I started to cry. I cried a lot during early childhood, with frustration at not being one of the "big kids," because the big kids were teasing me and, probably, just because I was a spoiled little snot.

In any case, this time, the tears were productive - Mom said, "Never mind, you and I will stay home together and for lunch we'll have Cheese Dreams."

She prepared the Cheese Dreams by toasting bread, covering it with strips of bacon left over (oops! planned over) from breakfast, topping the bacon with cheese (she used cheddar, I used Swiss for this photo, some chevre would be great next time!), and running the whole thing under the broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese. I remember clearly watching the cheese turn shiny, then bubbly, and finally begin to brown under the gas flames of the broiler. Just then, she snatched out the cookie sheet, left the sandwiches briefly to cool, and served us both at the kitchen table, consolation, indeed, for not being a big girl yet.

Fifty-seven years later, I have more than reached big girl status, but I still love it when I find a few rashers of bacon left over from breakfast, think of Mom in heaven and say to myself, "Never mind, we'll stay home together and for lunch we'll have Cheese Dreams."

Friday, October 26, 2007

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

When Irish eyes are smiling, you can bet there's Shepherd's Pie for dinner. I suppose it's my half-Irish heritage, all four of my great grandparents on my Dad's side having emigrated to America from different parts of Ireland to meet and marry in the mill towns of western Massachusetts, but any meal that includes lamb and potatoes is top on my list.

I found this very simple recipe for Shepherd's Pie on, one of my favorite websites. All you do is saute' onions (I used little frozen pearl onions this time) and some garlic in a little oil or butter, add ground lamb to brown it, sprinkle in whatever herbs you like plus lots of freshly ground black pepper and a little salt, mix in some still-frozen peas, top the whole thing with potatoes mashed with butter and a little cream, and heat in a 375 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. I used red potatoes this time, since I had some on hand, and left the skins on for interest, nutrition and flavor.

Right about then, Northern California experienced a heat wave.

This is rib-sticking comfort food, designed to get you through clammy, cloudy Irish winters.
Even a dyed-in-the-wool half-Celt like me can't face food this heavy when the temperature hovers around 85. I put it in the fridge reluctantly, as my taste buds were all set for those flavors, and pulled out the salad makings.

Luckily, warm weather never lasts long here by the Bay, so three days later we watched the fog stream in through the Golden Gate and rejoiced, knowing the Irish would be dancing a jig around dinner time that night.

Spying Desserts

Our CIA outing with the cousins was a wonderful day and a lovely meal, capped by desserts of which we all shared bites.

J-Yah and Sher ordered the creme brulee' - rich, sweet, satisfying and, as if that wasn't quite enough, served with a sugar-dusted cookie with raspberry filling to dunk in the lovely cream.

My Beloved adores pineapple upside-down cake so he was drawn to the Pineapple Tatin, steeped in brown sugar glaze, topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream rolled in shaved, toasted coconut and embellished a paper-thin, crispy cross-sectioned slice of pineapple that snapped sweetly between the teeth.

My own dessert, which magically disappeared before I could photograph it, was a pear tart on the butteriest crust imaginable, topped with vanilla bean ice cream into which the chef stuck a thin, crisp slice of frangipane, and drizzled with a lightly sweet butterscotch sauce. We waddled out of the restaurant and into the CIA gift shop, replete and happy as clams at high tide to have spied these three on the dessert menu.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

There's a Fungus Among Us

Okay, blurry photo, but it was a much better lunch that it looks. Three of us cousins enjoyed the Mushrooms on Toast as our main course at our CIA lunch recently.

There were several kinds of mushrooms sliced and sauteed together and topped with shaved parmesan cheese. Our waiter described the dish as sauteeing the mushrooms and a little garlic in generous butter, removing them, then deglazing the pan with dry sherry, cooking that down until it was a shining sauce, then adding a little green onion and the mushrooms back to just heat through. Then, pile them on decrusted toast and top with shaved Parmesan cheese. We all mmmmm'ed and aaaaaah'ed our way through the dish.

It was served next to a sprightly salad of watercress, some milder green, and tiny enoki mushrooms, the perfect counterpoint to the buttery fungus on toast next door. Simple enough even to make at home, I'm definitely going mushroom hunting at the market next week!

But, here's a question we had and the waiter couldn't answer - do mushrooms supply any nutrients, or are they solely a tasty addition to a meal? Does anyone out there know?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Autumn Soup

No, not a closeup of a raw egg, just my delicious butternut squash soup, served in a deep white bowl, topped with toasted sunflower seeds, sage leaves and drizzled with pumpkinseed oil.

The colors echoed the ones we'd been seeing as we drove up to the CIA in the Napa Valley, the gold of the tired vines in bright sunlight, the rich browns of the soil, the fading greens as fall approaches.

The soup itself was as velvet as the smooth California hills and the taste pure butternut squash, sweet and creamy, with only the swirl of oil and the crunch of sunflower seeds to add texture to the dish. Too bad it's not polite to dip one's face into the bowl to lap up the last few smears.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oysters and Caviar

Cousin Sher actually did a little jig in her chair and clapped her hands with glee when her appetizer of oysters and caviar arrived at the table during our CIA lunch.

Three different flavors of caviar and three different raw oysters - what more could a seafood lover ask for? Things were mighty quiet on her side of the table while one by one the oysters and caviars disappeared.

She reports (although notably there was no offer to share in this course...) that all were scrumptious!

Monday, October 22, 2007


It has become something of an autumn tradition for My Beloved and I to go with our cousins J-Yah and Sher to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena each year. We drive up together, picking up the cousins on the way and using the travel time to admire the mellow countryside and to catch up with their doings. They are an active pair so we are mostly there before we've managed to point out all the colors to one another and learn what's new in each other's lives.

We usually begin our meal with Temptations - no, not the '60s singing group - a tiered lazy susan with five or six little bites to sample while perusing the menu and choosing a flight of wines to taste with lunch. The temptations are different each time, seasonal and inventive and varied. There's usually a thimbleful of soup to taste - this time it was celery root soup. We also enjoyed mission fig halves topped with cheese and a little Serrano ham, smoked salmon gmisch on a crisp lavosh cracker, a dab of duck confit cooked with a little Mexican heat and served on a diminutive round crisp corn tortilla, and a bite of pate' topped with soft cheese and a tiny, incredibly tart pickle.

Sampling all these flavors and enjoying the lively ambiance of the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant really gets us in the mood for lunch. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Skulking at the CIA

I'm still digesting the wonderful meal I shared with cousins J-Yah and Sher at the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena yesterday, so let me rhapsodize not about the food yet but instead about the gift shop.

I love beautiful tableware. I admit to having six sets of dinner plates and keep thinking I need one more. I actually drool when I see food service items that I can just imagine with food placed beautifully on them. I think it's a sickness but it's a benign affliction.

So, yesterday, wandering around the gift shop at the CIA, I saw this charming set of glasses, all clear glass but each a riff on the clear glass theme, and fell instantly in love. And, for once, this wasn't the sixth set of that size glasses that I own - we actually needed this size! They'll be perfect for juice in the morning or for the modern presentation of wine in stemless glasses. I'm tickled pink.

If you ever need a gift for a foodie friend, I can recommend a leisurely drive with favorite people through the fall countryside around Napa, with the golden vines glowing in the sunshine and the sky washed deeply blue by recent rains, to the CIA where it's a huge pleasure to skulk among the gift shop treasures.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Living with Landmarks

When I worked for five years at the oldest and most prestigious art school west of the Mississippi, I crossed this bridge twice daily and never failed to marvel at living with an American icon. It's called the "Golden" Gate but it's really red. Bright, orange-red. Massive. Impressive. As you drive across, six lanes wide plus room for pedestrians along either side.

Yet, when you see it from afar, it seems as delicate as jewelry, stretched lightly between the Marin headlands and the city, more like a tiara than a titan.

Here in San Francisco, we have many of these icons - the cable car, Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf - but, none can outshine this amazing piece of human ingenuity that is at once dainty and mighty.

Driving across last week with the convertible top down, shooting pictures as quickly as my camera would take them, we caught her on a clear day but with her head in the forming fog. Living with landmarks demands that you open the eyes of your heart.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sociale Climbing

In another of our seemingly never-ending celebrations, My Beloved and I were getting the impression that the restaurant we planned to visit was in a swishy neighborhood as we followed a very shiny new Maserati down the street. We needn't have worried, however, that we working stiffs wouldn't be welcome as we were headed for Sociale.

Sociale was a delight. Full stop. End of the dance. Terrific.

My pictures of our meal didn't turn out at all, but what the heck - when you eat this well, enjoy truly professional service and relax in a lovely setting, who cares if the blog photos are second rate?

How many restaurants have you visited where they serve two different kinds of bread, and both are delicious? Then, when we had wolfed down that serving, the waiter brought us a third different one, equally delicious and tempting! It's a little thing to change up the bread in mid-meal like that but it signals that every detail of the experience has been carefully considered. We knew we were in for a treat.

I started dinner with a wonderful house specialty drink, MentaLimone, a filtered lemonade flavored with mint, served in a stemmed glass with a mint leaf captured under the lemon wedge on the rim - a simple but lovely decoration that added fresh scent and a colorful touch. It was light, lively and slightly sweet, with neither flavor dominating the other.

MB's "Brick Chicken" was moist, caramelized, with oyster mushroom and roasted tomato-stuffed small red peppers tucked underneath. He reports that he has rarely enjoyed a chicken dish so much.

I wasn't terribly hungry, so I ordered two veggie sides, Brussels sprouts with little chanterelle mushrooms and a potato/artichoke torte with cheese layers. Rather than bring two awkward little dishes, as often happens when I order like this, the chef plated them beautifully together, embellishing with a little bright green pesto drizzle to accent the dish. Both were simply heavenly - the sprouts were lightly sauteed in olive oil and the mushrooms made an almost crispy accent,. The torte ingredients were unusual
with layers of savory cheese in between and all the flavors well balanced in each bite.

We almost passed up dessert, but I was intrigued by the "Coffee and Donuts" wondering what at that wonderful place they would do with such a homely dessert. The donuts were freshly hand made, still hot when the dessert came to the table, one coated with fresh, shining dark chocolate sauce and the other a cinnamon-sugar donut.


The "coffee" was an espresso milk shake, served in a smaller version of the classic "soda fountain" glass with two straws.

Yes, please.

Lest you think we spent a small fortune to be in such a toney neighborhood rubbing elbows with the Maserati crowd our entire bill, including MB's glass of chianti, appetizer of wild boar raviolis and after-dinner coffee, was 78 simoleans. Of course, we had to add a generous tip to that amount, because the service was also perfect, attentive and informative without being smothery.

If this is how the other half lives, I want to join them! I'm such a Sociale climber.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lunch with Loved Ones

One of the small joys of life in California is lunching in the sunshine. Under an umbrella or right out under the rays of the fall sun, eating outdoors is a pleasure. Our recent trip to The Ramp in San Francisco is a good case in point.

My godson, Mark, was up from LA for the weekend so My Beloved and I drove into the city to take him and his Brazilian friend to lunch. We struck out on a sunny Sunday morning at a couple of interesting looking spots before MB had the good idea of trying The Ramp.

The Ramp is in the China Basin section of San Francisco, a funky, industrial sort of waterfront complete with immobile outmoded ocean liners and crumbling piers. Cheek by jowl with an active boatyard, there is a concrete ramp running down into the water, hence the name.
Don't go when the sun doesn't shine, as there is no indoor seating at the Ramp. It may not sound esthetically pleasing but on a sunny day, add a scattering of tables under cheerfully commercial umbrellas, a crowd of happy, hungry Californians, a dog or two tied just outside the seating area, some colorful characters and equally colorful food, and you have the makings of a party.

The drinks are served in plastic cups, there are no placemats and the napkins are paper - this is not a pretentious place - but the food is fresh and everyone is there to have a good time while enjoying the sparkle of sun on the water and the blue sky above. When my loved ones are at the table with me, I couldn't ask for more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Celebration Lunch

My Beloved knows how to celebrate life. He flew to Boston to celebrate his first granddaughter's welcoming into the community of her church, we had a wonderful dinner at Moose's to commemorate his latest business success, and we celebrated his homecoming from Boston with a terrific lunch at the Hayes Street Grill in Hayes Valley - all in the past week!

Stepping off the plane from Boston, MB made a few business calls in the morning before picking me up from work for a late lunch. We arrived just as the Hayes Street Grill was closing down their lunch service but we were not turned away or greeted with cold tolerance, rather we were warmly welcomed, ushered with a flourish to a wonderful table and presented with a menu guaranteed to make choosing a difficult exercise.

We finally decided on hamburger with homemade bun for MB and housemade boudin blancs for me. The hamburger was done to a turn, according to MB, and the bun was more than a way to keep one's fingers clean, a fresh and flavorful wrapping for the burger and cheese.

My serving of boudin blanc was simply scrumptious, moist and full of taste while not being at all greasy or fatty. The sausages yielded to my knife with a little "pop" and a flow of scented juice. The little salad was nicely dressed and the pot of mustard was one of the nicest I've tasted, a tangy and flavorful Dijon-style but with a rich mellowness that complemented rather than overwhelmed the mild sausages.

It's easy to celebrate life and lunch with a guy who knows how to make it all such fun.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Belgian Treats

About three years ago, My Beloved and I spent two weeks in Belgium enjoying every minute, every sight, and every taste. Belgium is heaven for food lovers, with more four-star restaurants within its small borders than in the whole of France. One of its treats that we revisited recently is the chocolate.

My Beloved's younger daughter K had the good sense to recognize a delightful young man the first time she met A - they have been inseparable ever since. We all love A, even when he's not bringing us boxes of truffles to remind us of those delightful Belgian adventures.

A was in Brussels last week on business and flew back with the real deal, Neuhaus Belgian Truffles.
You can find Neuhaus chocolates in the US, and they are delicious - but they are not the same as you get in Belgium. These are good-sized dots of dark chocolate filled with even richer chocolate mousse and dusted, as if the two-chocolate theme was not sufficient, with almost-bitter cocoa. Even serious chocolate lovers can only eat one at a sitting. We have been savoring this gift one by one ever since. As K knew from the moment she met him, A is a keeper!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Swiss Chard Courtship

Swiss chard was an unexpected pleasure, one that My Beloved introduced me to during our courtship. I think he wanted to impress me with his culinary skills. I learned later that they are limited, but he certainly succeeded with his Swiss chard method.

I had long heard of the glories of Swiss chard from our dear family friend, Bobbie, who always tried to grow Swiss chard in her spacious Michigan back yard, but the woodchucks liked it even more than she did so we never got any. We did get a big kick out of her grumblings and swearings to wreak revenge on the woodchucks. Because she was the most tender-hearted animal lover ever to grace the earth, her threats of shootings and miscellaneous mayhem couldn't have been more laughable. Thanks to the woodchucks, whom we kids secretly thanked, we were always spared having even to taste Swiss chard.

So, when MB offered to make dinner one night and chose a colorful bunch of chard and a big bulb of garlic
as we cruised through the market, I was somewhat, shall I say, skeptical about the outcome of dinner.

Here's what he did: He put a about a tablespoon of butter in a wide frying pan over medium heat and added three or four crushed cloves of garlic. After sauteing the garlic, he added washed, stemmed and cut up strips of the whole bunch of Swiss chard (about 10-12 leaves) to the pan with just the water clinging to the leaves after washing. Within minutes of tossing it lightly around in the pan, all that bulk cooked down to just 3-4 servings of the most buttery, garlicky delicious dark green puddle ever to surprise my palate. Turns out that Swiss chard is like a very mild spinach and it acts much the same in the pan, too, shrinking dramatically with the addition of heat.

I love this stuff best under a serving of roast chicken or next to a nice piece of steak but it's delicious all by itself, as well. It was unexpectedly appealing - kinda like MB's culinary skills.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Souped Up

If you'll remember, I tried to make fresh tomato soup a few days ago but, despite the yummy ingredients, the soup got all the way up to blah. So, I asked the blog audience what they would do and got three really good suggestions, to which I added an idea I got from Moose's.

My Beloved and I are celebrating this week; he has had a rather significant business success. To celebrate, he took me to Moose's in North Beach (by the way, if you haven't tried it recently, it's spectacular!) and on the menu was a tomato-corn chowder. The chowder was really heavenly and it made me think about adding fresh sweet corn to my sad little soup.

First, I pureed the soup base. Then, we found some still-pearly fresh corn at Andronico's and added that. Namastenancy had suggested lime juice to perk up the recipe so I did a riff on that and added Meyer lemon juice (one lemon's worth to about four servings of soup) because I had one on hand that needed eating. I also swirled in some cream as Muffintop and Peggasus had suggested and the resulting soup is absolutely delicious!

The citrus sparked up the too-mild tomato base, the corn added some crunch and sweetness, and the cream sort of gentled the whole thing into a cohesive whole. Killer souped up soup, thanks to bloggers near and far, with a little assist from Moose!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Get 'Em While The Getting's Good

Interesting how even the cherry tomatoes in the farmer's markets reflect at this time of year a fall array of colors slightly different from the clear brights of high summer season.

These little purplish-brown cherries have appeared in the market just in the past couple of weeks, getting us used to the idea that very soon we won't be tasting good cherry tomatoes again for many months.

Better get 'em while you can - the days of cardboard tomatoes are just around the corner!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cucumber Sandwich

Rooting around in the fridge for something easy for dinner while My Beloved was on a business trip, I found a nice, fat cucumber and a loaf of sourdough bread. Promising ingredients, but cucumber sandwiches demand really, really thin bread to showcase the cuke, not the bread.

So, I whipped out my all-time favorite kitchen gadget, the Slice-a-Slice my mother bought in the '50s, which separates a normal piece of bread into two.

I love this thing! You insert bread into it, squeeze it gently together, and slowly saw the bread in half with a good, thin bread knife.
A little mayo, a little cucumber and nice firm white bread - even if you leave the crusts on, it's a refined and subtle treat.

Among my earliest memories is Mom making piles of skinny cucumber sandwiches to take to our Sunday picnics at Makaha Beach on Oahu, back before Statehood when we were the only family on the beach. She had a big wicker basket into which she would pack - ever so neatly, arranging and re-arranging until it all fit perfectly - our sandwiches and thermoses of water and iced tea. Dad would fill the trunk of our two-tone gray Oldsmobile sedan with umbrella, towels, wicker beach chairs, straw beach mats and diaper bag.

We'd stop at a pineapple stand on the way to the beach to buy paper plates of unbelievably sweet sliced pineapple for dessert, still warm from the field and wrapped in waxed paper to keep the juices in. These stands were nothing but a covered booth into which the fruit was tossed through the open back, peeled, cored and sliced in a jiffy with an enormous and lethally sharp machete, and offered with a wide smile and an assurance that it was "Mo' bettah" than anything else on earth.

On the way home after a day at the beach, hot, sandy (we never did get all the sand out of that car), salty and tired, we'd always stop at Tastee Freez for a soft ice cream cone, a special treat to keep us kids from squabbling in the back seat. We each got a cone whose size corresponded with our own; my Dad got the Bus Driver Special (three scoops), Mom and big brother enjoyed the Truck Driver Special (two scoops) and us little kids each licked a Car Driver Special.

I don't know if the Slice-a-Slice is made any longer but I'll bet you could find one on eBay. Very cool - almost as cool as the cucumber sandwiches and the sweet Hawaiian memories.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tomato Bounty, part two

When my friend Patty arrived at My Beloved's birthday celebration with a nice big basket of lovely homegrown tomatoes soon after my pal Jeanne had enriched our lives with a nice big bag of same, I found myself in tomato heaven. I wanted to make something that would use up all those beautiful fruits since we have only three serious eaters in the household and one of us, the cat, turns up her nose at tomatoes.

I remembered a recipe for Spicy Tomato Soup that I had made years ago from my much-spattered copy of the hallowed Moosewood Cookbook, back in my almost-hippie phase. When I lived in Western New York I had visited Ithaca and eaten in the Moosewood restaurant - I was most impressed, so I bought the book. I remembered this soup as being really richly flavored and delicious, redolent of garlic, onion and dill.

When I opened the book, I discovered that it called for mostly canned tomatoes but I thought I could substitute fresh ones and make it even better. Unfortunately, that wasn't true - either my tastes have changed or using the canned tomatoes really is better. This time the soup, while beautiful to look at, was disappointingly flat in flavor. I'm thinking if I had roasted the tomatoes first, the soup might have had the rich tomato flavor I remembered. It looked beautiful in my black soup bowls from my pottery phase but, as my mother used to say, pretty is as pretty does.

For what it's worth, here's the recipe I used, mainly Mollie Katzen's but with the substitution of fresh tomatoes for the canned. Maybe you can think of ways to spice it up and make it a bit more interesting?

Not-So-Spicy Tomato Soup, adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook

1.5 cups minced onion
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp dill weed
1/8 tsp (or more) black pepper
6-7cups chopped, skinned fresh tomatoes, plus their liquid
1 Tbs honey
1 Tbs mayonnaise or sour cream
yogurt, parsley and scallions for topping

Saute' onions and garlic, with salt, in combined olive oil and butter in a kettle or large saucepan. Cook five minutes - until translucent, then add dill, pepper, tomatoes and honey. Cover and simmer at least 45 minutes on low heat. Five minutes before serving, whisk in mayonnaise and taste to correct seasonings. Serve hot, topped with yogurt, parsely and scallions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Big Mac

I moved to California about 12 years ago from Western New York, where despite really cold winters and late, unpredictable springs, they grow all kinds of wonderful fruit. Strawberry season is only two weeks of heaven in the middle of June. Cherries have a little longer season but it, too, is fleeting.

Apples, however, enjoy a much more prolonged and delightful season in and around Rochester, NY, stretching from the first Macintoshes of the late summer on into the fall and winter with the varieties that keep better than Macs do.

I love Macs the best. In twenty years of living in WNY, I eagerly anticipated the first fresh, crisp, tart-sweet Macs. They make the best cider, they make the best applesauce and they make the very best eating apples, as long as you snag them early in the season. But, they don't seem to grow in California - or at least I rarely see them here.

So, you can imagine my delight when last week I found shiny, red-accented-with-apple-green beauties and immediately recognized them as Macs! I bought four, even though My Beloved is away on a business trip, and paired them with sharp cheddar for dinner three nights in a row. On the first night, I pigged out and ate two.

I don't miss much about WNY other than my friends who still live there - California has lovely fruits and far more sunshine - but on the rare occasion when I find Macs, I am reminded of one of the simple joys of life by the Great Lakes.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

I'm Chicken

Even though I eat meat and love it, some aspects of carnivory kinda turn me off. The beef chart in the butcher shop, for example, showing me exactly where on the formerly living being my steak is coming from. Hearing the worried mutterings of the live chickens in the poultry truck at the Civic Center farmer's market. Being sold a Marin Sun Farms chicken with feet still attached. I know I'm a hypocritical wuss and a wimp, too removed from the realities of life and death on the farm and too cityfied for my own good and I know they were nice, clean little feet but, anyway, eeeeek!

I tried to bargain with the nice young man at the Marin Sun booth - "If I buy this $25 chicken, will you'll cut off the feet for me?" Nothing doing. "Sorry, Ma'am, I can't do that." (By the way, I detest being called Ma'am). The young woman who was also staffing the booth assured me that they'd make great chicken stock - as if I could imagine first lopping off and then boiling the sad little toes!

By then, I was too embarrassed just to walk away so I shelled out for the chicken anyway, chiding myself for being silly and squeamish (all the things you are thinking about me as you read this shameful confession), and moved on to easier booths, like the fresh raspberry and white peach booths.

So, imagine my surprise when I got home, plucked up my courage (no pun intended!) to sever said chicken feet, got out the near-machete my Hawaii brother gave us and discovered that the chicken's head, which had been cunningly hidden behind the body, was also still there, accusing eyes and all! Double eeeek!

I did it. I did do it. I never want to do it again. From you more seasoned readers, will I ever get leathery and come to a place where I merrily whack away at recognizable parts? Or is this the way vegetarians get started, by being chicken?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Fresh Touch

My Beloved has two daughters from whom, over the years, I have learned a great deal. Some things have been huge - like how important clear communication is and how fond one can become of people who are not one's own children. Other things have been relatively small and unimportant, but they have still enriched my life bit by bit.

Here's a good example: last week was MB's birthday and his daughter K and her squeeze A invited us over for a birthday dinner of grilled lamb, ratatouille and peach pie. Everything was delicious, right down to the cucumber slice in the water glass.

Perhaps this isn't an innovation for you but it was new to me. I've had lemon or lime slices in my water before, and even rose petals, but never the fresh, light scent of cucumber. K used Persian cucumbers, a new name to me, and I've stolen her idea, even using regular cucumbers with good success.

So, even though I didn't learn one of life's critically important lessons this time, I gleaned this little tip and was reminded of how significant it is to sit down to a lovely meal with a child who has grown into accomplished young hostess over the years I have been privileged to know her.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Recently, we had a birthday party for My Beloved and two friends whose birthdays come somewhat close together. It was one of those delightful parties where the guests come prepared to have a great time and to make it fun - they succeeded.

To this party, our friend the Evil Empress brought some truly spectacular nibbles. The Fra'Mani Dry Salami and Toscano Salame were to die for when paired with nuts, cheeses and Greek olives.

Sliced paper thin, the Toscono wrapped itself around a piece of Old World Portuguese from Spring Hill, a wonderful marriage between the two flavors. The dry salami was perfect all by itself but I did see some guests slathering it like a cracker with Laura Chenel garlic goat cheese and popping it whole into a smiling mouth.

We should perhaps have stopped with the nibbles - they were almost the best part of the lunch - but we managed to nibble our way through a whole lot of other food as well!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Ben's Wisdom

Tea's post over at Tea and Cookies has got me thinking about beer, although not as lyrically as she does. Like Tea, while beer has been on the periphery of my consciousness nearly all my life, I've never been a huge fan.

Our dear family friend, Bobbie D, used to tell a story about the first time she met me, when she was a young Navy wife and I was an infant. She found me in my playpen drinking from a dark brown beer bottle with rubber nipple attached - seems I was inclined to toss my bottle away when I finished it and, in those benighted times, baby bottles were made of glass. My mother had figured out that beer bottles were made of heavier glass that would withstand my pitcher's arm so she fitted it with a nipple and I got my milk in that somewhat startling container.

My Dad loved beer. He would come home from tennis, dripping with sweat and thirsty for a cold brew. He'd pour it into his favorite glass, a large stemmed goblet, where it would bubble gently with an inch of suds on the top. He always gave me the first sip from his glass - I never liked the taste but I loved the grownup feeling and being favored with the first sip.

In my youth, beer parties were all the rage among my junior year and senior year high school classmates. Getting trashed on 3.2 beer seems to have been a rite of passage in the '60s, as I suspect it still is today. Unfortunately or fortunately, I found it pretty boring since my parents had allowed us to have table wine or drinks with them since the tender age of 15. They hoped that if we tried alcohol at home, we'd know how much we could drink without becoming impaired. It's pretty dull stuff to be offered a beer when my parents would supply a martini if I wanted one. I had to find other ways to express my teenage rebellion.

Three years ago, My Beloved and I spent two delightful weeks in Belgium at cousin J-Yah's house and nearly every day for the first week, I'd try another of the many delightful Belgian beers with lunch or dinner, the first beer I have ever really enjoyed. I wondered why the jet lag kept giving me morning headaches until I realized I wasn't jet lagged, I was hung over! Belgian beer goes down as easily as Belgian chocolate but, man, does it ever pack a wallop!

It's a truly rare day when I order a beer now but when I do all these memories come flooding back as the first tangy sip rolls down into my unconscious.

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
~ Benjamin Franklin

Friday, October 5, 2007

Locavores Beware!

Having had my consciousness raised by Michael Pollan and several of my favorite food blogs, I am trying to eat local produce whenever I can. I'm not as committed as some - I do sometimes stray from the dogma - but I figured that olive oil is one easy local item that I can certainly find in Northern California.


We are just a stone's throw from the Napa Valley, where olive trees here are as common as dirt but when I actually read the labels of several bottles of olive oil in my local store, only one had actually been made from California olives. Most were imported from Italy or Spain and a few were mixed with California oil, but none of the blended ones told what percentage was local. Huh!

So, locavores beware - even when the bottle is labeled "California," you really have to read the fine print!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Barbecue @ Soluna

This is the half of my lunch that I couldn't finish.

Because I had been having a busy week and the idea of even a two-block hike to one of my favorite less expensive hangouts seemed too long, I allowed myself to be seduced from my rule of $5 lunches into the relative luxury of Soluna.

One of the nicer restaurants in the Tenderloin/Civic Center area of San Francisco is Soluna on McAllister Street. The cushy bench seat was the first comfort, the attentive server was the second, and the warm pork barbecue sandwich restored my faith in humankind.

It was mellow and rich but with a following kick of heat that left my lips tingling for an hour afterwards. Topped with melted sharp cheddar cheese and served on a homemade bun, it was a meal for two. The fries were good, too, crisp and garlicky, and the little green salad was a sop to my conscience.

'Way too much to eat, sadly, so I had to leave half of it there but I left the stress of the busy week there, too, so it was worth tripling my $5 lunch rule.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Turkey's Farewell Appearance

I was about ten years old when our peripatetic family spent a month at the Connecticut seashore with my mother's sister and her family. Growing up in the Navy, we usually lived far from our extended families and our cousins and grandparents were rare visitors, so it was a summer filled with discovery. We swam and learned to water ski, sailed and searched the tide pools, and generally got to know our cousins much, much better.

I helped our grandmother capture her honey bee swarm back into the hive.
I watched in anxious awe to watch my Big Cousin (he was 14, you know) row their pram out into an approaching thunderstorm to secure a light on their wave-tossed motor boat. We heard stories of our mother's youth from her closest sibling, blackmail-worthy stories that we relished gleefully.

My mother gathered shining black mussels from the rocks and steamed them to deliciousness
in white wine, much to the cousins' surprise - their mother is deathly allergic to all seafood, so they never knew that mussels could be a treat. I gathered a big, fat live clam from the beach and kept it in an old coffee can beside my bed until its putrid exhalations drove me in the middle of the night to creep out of the house and down to the shore to return Mr. Clam to Long Island Sound where he clearly belonged. We visited the memorable Maple Shade, an ice cream stand that served satisfyingly towering ice cream cones to which we were treated by Aunt Sally, who really knew the way into our hearts.

Aunt Sally was a casual hostess, a wonderful change of pace from her exacting sister who would never have dreamed of simply setting out two kinds of bread, the jars of condiments, and the makings for sandwiches with paper plates and napkins - I loved making my own exactly as I liked and never guessed that it was a much easier way for the hostess to feed seven hungry kids and four adults, as well.

It was that summer that
I was introduced to the king of sandwiches, the BLT. Cousin Ted was astonished that I had never before had a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Being a few months younger than I, it was important to his budding manhood to have something to lord over me and this sophisticated sandwich knowledge was enough. I never lived it down.

But I have loved ever since a good BLT, and even embellished it with the addition of the last of our Diestel turkey, lightly toasted sourdough bread, and a few rashers of the Range Brothers bacon. The swan song of the turkey brought back childhood memories that still make me smell the salt air and smile 50 years later.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Solar Energy At Its Best

Like Alberto Gonzalez, I sometimes have trouble recalling. For instance, I can't remember where or when I learned the minor miracle that water, tea bags and sunlight can perform, turning plain water into a lovely, refreshing glass of iced tea. I know my mother made sun tea, so perhaps I learned it as a child.

Whenever I discovered it, I have continued to take advantage of sunny days ever since. Another in the small ways we can let the sun do wonders for us, sun tea is delicious with mint, or lemon and not one speck of coal or particle of nuclear energy was used to create this pitcher of tea.

In case you've never tried it, all you do is immerse four or so teabags in a big pitcher of water, set it in the sun and let it get as dark as you like your tea. Mixed half and half with lemonade, we love an "Arnold Palmer." Served plain or sugared to your liking, it's one of nature's little bonuses. Now that's an easy recipe to recall, isn't it, Mr. G?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ratatouille for the Faint Hearted

Not being overly fond of eggplant, nonetheless I love the rest of the ingredients in ratatouille. So, one summer when I was awash in zucchinis and summer squash, I invented this colorful twist on that vegetable stew. I've always called it barbouille but I don't know why - when I Googled the name, I got a recipe for chicken. A puzzle.

Anyway, it's simplicity itself to make and really delicious as a side dish or as an entree.

Here's all you do:

4-5 small zucchinis (or one giant one that got away from you and turned into a baseball bat overnight), ends trimmed and cut into 1" chunks.
3-4 small yellow summer squashes, ends trimmed and cut into 1" chunks
1 large cooking onion, peeled and slice lengthwise to keep the layers attached to the root end
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or crushed
2 big shallots, peeled and sliced lengthwise like the onion
1 large red sweet pepper, cut into strips
1 small can tomato sauce
1 large or 3 small ripe tomatoes, skins removed
a generous splash of your favorite white wine, preferably dry
fresh or dried thyme and rosemary to taste, or fines herbes seasoning, or Herbes de Provence
olive oil

Soften the onion, garlic, pepper strips and shallot in a nice dollop of olive oil in a wide skillet. Set aside. In the same skillet, add a little more oil and saute' the squashes until they start to soften. Add back the onion mixture and add the rest of the ingredients and cook until the sauce is thickened to your liking and the flavors have melded, perhaps an hour - or less if you like firmer veggies. It's best if you serve it the next day but who can wait?