Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hallowe'en Whimsy

One of the best aspects of life in California is the relish with which Californians embrace Hallowe'en. Having spent 20 years in a part of the country where the approach to this holiday is more dutiful than joyous (and, in their defense, it's hard to get excited about dressing up in costume when you will likely have to cover it up with a down jacket to survive the late October frost), I have found delight in the childlike pleasure Californians bring to it.

I always look forward to seeing the costumes. I've had whole families (Mom, Dad, two young children, a baby and the family black lab) dressed as superheroes; adorable little girls in pink fluff lisping that they are dressed as "pwincesses;"a 10 year old FBI G-man with snap brim hat, trench coat and brief case who reached into his breast pocket, flipped open his wallet to show his ID, then demanded, completely straight-faced, "Ma'am, I'm investigating a report that you've been giving candy to minors; is that true, ma'am?" Taken aback, I stammered, "Well, yes..." to which he replied, still unsmiling, "In that case, ma'am, Trick or Treat," and opened his briefcase for me to drop some candy in. Even our teenagers get into the spirit. I can't wait to see the ghoulies and ghosties who show up this year!

I found these candles and holders in a gift shop in Virginia but they have the whimsical California spirit written all over them. We've enjoyed them for the past week and if you know where I can get some replacement candles as goofy and funny as these, I'd appreciate a tip.

Happy Hallowe'en!


Friday, October 30, 2009

Southern Tradition

At a vastly more upscale restaurant, Bistro in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was introduced to a low country tradition, shrimp and grits. It was nearly enough, all by itself, to have me thinking about spending part of the year in the South.

The closest recipe I can find on is this one, but I know there was more to it than this. The Bistro version of shrimp and grits paired mildly spicy, tomato-based sauce and sweet shrimp with richly cheesy grits with fresh corn mixed in. There were fresh herbs in the grits as well and the red sauce was deeply flavored, as if it had been cooked for a long time or started with a special stock, even though the shrimp were not over done. The fresh corn gave a lightness and a sweetness to the grits, which were themselves more textured than what I think of as the plain white, grainy "breakfast grits."

I bought a bag of water mill stone ground white grits to bring home in my suitcase - they seem to have the coarser texture I enjoyed in the shrimp and grits dish. I have some 'sperimenting to do in the next few weeks to come up with a dish as delish as the one at Bistro.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009


Having been raised by a good home cook who was slightly snobby, I had never been exposed before I left home to such plebeian food as KFC and corn dogs. She basically turned up her nose at all foods that were served in a plastic basket. Her children were something of a trial to her as we all loved TV dinners, gooshy white bread, iceberg lettuce and bologna from a plastic package.

My Beloved was astonished when he learned that I had never been to KFC; he took me there shortly after I moved to California. I haven't been back but I like that my experience has been broadened.

On my recent trip to the East coast, my sister and I stopped at a restaurant in North Carolina which shall remain anonymous and I found on the menu at last a chance to sample a corn dog. It came with French fries and a very sour pickle, a tube steak wrapped in a sort of cornbread blanket, impaled on a stick and deep fried. You may recall that I'm a big fan of hot dogs, so I enjoyed my corn dog very much. This is not "gourmet" food but it's good food, hot and sweet from the cornbread and salty from the hot dog. The fries were done the way I like them, crispy on the outside, creamy in the middle with just a hint of salt. It was served in a plastic basket lined with greaseproof paper and brought to the table by a waitress who called me "Sweetie." Southern hospitality has my vote.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Green Ribbons

Continuing with my exploration of the world of greens, I bought collard greens yesterday and brought them home to try. Neither My Beloved nor I had ever had collards, to our knowledge.

I consulted online sources only to discover that most recipes for this green take long hours of cooking, usually with a ham hock or other pig part to give flavor. The problem was that I had no ham, hock or otherwise, in the house. So, I decided, although they are more leathery than either Swiss chard or kale, that I would try a quick sauté in a drizzle of canola oil and about a tablespoon of bacon fat, as close to a pig part as I had on hand.

I removed the rather tough central rib and rolled the leaves into a sort of log shape, then cut them into very fine ribbons, perhaps 1/4 or 1/8 inch across, ending up with thin, grayish green ribbons. The quick heat of the wide sauté pan, however, brightened up that green immediately - in the blink of an eye, it turned to emerald. Snuggled up next to our roast chicken, shallots and kabocha squash, it made a very pretty fall plate.

My Beloved didn't care for the slight bitterness of this green nor the chewy texture - he only ate half of his -
he's like that about Brussels sprouts, too, another member of the same botanical family. I actually liked it; I'll probably make this again when he's away on a sales trip and I'm in the mood for a hearty, muscular, bright green veggie.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spooky Stuff

To get myself in the mood for Hallowe'en, I decided to clean out my refrigerator. There's more scary stuff in there than in all of Transylvania.

I discovered the molasses, for example, that I was searching for back in September when I made the pear cake - I knew it was in the house somewhere but I never thought to check the fridge.

I rather expected to find the ancient tub of crême fraiche would be growing greenish-gray spots (and it was) and I wasn't surprised to find a different sort of fungus growing on the little bit of homemade peach jam I had left too long, but who knew that straight lemon juice would grow the most dramatic mold of all, proving beyond a doubt that life can exist in every milieu, no matter how harsh? I expect they will find mold growing on Mars once we get there.

The worst of the scary finds was surely the six big shrimp that I tucked away in the fridge back when I was making the shrimp soup - not so very long ago, really - figuring I'd save them from overcooking by adding new ones when I reheated the soup - only, they got pushed back behind something else and forgotten. Luckily, they were well wrapped or I'd have gagged getting them out to the garbage can.

Do you recall the episode of the TV show "Dinosaurs" called "When Good Food Goes Bad?" The contents of their fridge come alive and kidnap the baby dinosaur while the teenage dinos are babysitting. It comes vividly to mind whenever I clean out my fridge.

Happy Hallowe'en!

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Family Visits

This is my Aunt Virginia, my Dad's younger sister, she of the killer fruitcakes. She's a pistol. She was my matron of honor in our wedding. She recently turned 90, still drinks a martini every evening before dinner, volunteers several half days per week at her local library, and drives herself and her friends all over Robin Hood's barn. I've always said that I want to be Aunt Virginia when I grow up.

I'm leaving today to go visit her, my own sister, my older brother and his wife, my sister's son and his two daughters, and my brother's daughter and her husband and year-old son. Whew! I'll be gone about 10 days and when I return My Beloved's brother and his wife and, possibly, his son and main squeeze will be here for a visit.

So, while I'm visiting family, I don't think I'll be blogging much. You can check back from time to time if you want and I'll check on all of you as often as I can, but it's going to be a busy two weeks.

I'll give your regards to Aunt Virginia.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Recreating Memories

I'd better slip this one in before I forget how I made it. I find my memory is not what it used to be - and it was never all that hot to begin with. Ah, well, senior moments can be fun, too.

Like many seniors, I find I can sometimes remember things from my childhood with greater clarity than where in the damn house I put the book I am currently reading. One of my childhood memories is coming home from school to find the house suffused with the scent of my mother's oven barbecued spareribs.

Oddly, I also associate this scent with migraine headaches. As a child and young adult, I suffered greatly from "sick headaches" that would begin in the afternoon, rise rapidly to a pounding crescendo and ebb quickly once I had tossed my cookies. For some reason, the spareribs often showed up on a headache day - one of those little injustices of life. But, when I was healthy, they were my very favorite dinner.

I set out to re-create them recently and failed almost entirely. However, what I did make was tasty, even though it was not what I remembered. For one thing, I realized when I took the first bite of these country spareribs that my mother used pork, not beef ribs. Although the ingredients I used were roughly the same as her ribs, they were in a very different proportion. Hers used more catsup and less of the rest of the ingredients. I'll have to keep tweaking the recipe but here's what I made this week. My Beloved, never having had my mother's version, said they were pretty darn good.

Oven Barbecued Beef Spareribs

3 large country beef ribs with bones sliced (by the butcher) roughly every 3"
1 cup tomato catsup
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup orange juice + juice of one fresh orange
juice of one fresh lemon
2-3 Tbs. soy sauce
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
1-2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. Penzey's Northwoods Fire seasoning (it's mainly chipotle peppers, black pepper and paprika with a little rosemary, thyme and cayenne).

I mixed all these together, poured a bit in the bottom of a roasting pan, added the ribs, then poured the rest over the top, making sure it got into all the crevices in the meat. Roasted it under foil for about an hour, then turned the ribs in the sauce and removed the foil for the second hour.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guinea Pigs

When pal Sari calls, we always know whatever she proposes will be fun. This time, she asked us to be guinea pigs for her budding cooking talents. We said an enthusiastic "YES" and offered to bring dessert.

My Beloved had heard about an ice cream store that is getting rave reviews both in the newspaper and from friends, so we ankled on over there to see what they might have.

Ici is a tiny storefront in the Elmwood district of Berkeley on College Avenue. The line extending out the door and 15 feet down the sidewalk was testament to the excellence and trendiness within. When we got to the counter, we each ordered a cone to go as well as this dessert, crunchy peanut and chocolate bombe, to take to Sari for dessert. The coffee cone (they make their own cones daily and each one has a bite of chocolate in the bottom to plug the hole and provide a last-minute pleasure) has a hint of chili heat. My cone was liberally laced with chewy chunks of gingersnap cookies in a rich vanilla ice cream.

There were other unusual flavors of ice cream and sorbet - rose, lemon, Concord grape, pistachio - and different combinations, too. Many are made only seasonally using ingredients of that time of year but they always have chocolate and vanilla. Not to mention the handmade candies, mint marshmallows, pecan cinnamon brittle, etc.

The bombe was "da bomb," a big hit with the hostess after we enjoyed her lamb roast stuffed with goat cheese, basil and sun-dried tomatoes. Under the delicate chocolate tracery on the outside of the vanilla dome, we found peanut butter ice cream, small crispy bits of peanut brittle (?) and a thick chocolate brownie bottom. We waddled back to our car, replete with good food and a lovely dessert, waving goodbye and offering to be Sari's guinea pigs at any time in the future.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Mid-Morning Snack

My Beloved works part of the time out of a home office; the rest of the time, he's an on-the-road sales guy. When he's home, we sometimes enjoy a mid-morning snack, usually a cookie or a muffin we have picked up on our morning walk with Cora and brought home. It makes a nice break for him while he's working and I only get hungry for breakfast around 10am, so it works well for us.

This time, we had Beckmann's Lemon Current Scones. Beckmann's sends a rep up from Santa Cruz each Wednesday to attend our local farmer's market so we stopped by their booth for a treat. I must learn how to make these for myself once the farmer's market closes at the end of October - these are just too good to have only in the summer. Lovely and local, they are made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. They freeze well, too, as I learned this morning when I busted out a couple to heat up for our mid-morning snack.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pseudo Greek

I've never been to Greece; the closest I've come is watching "Zorba the Greek" when it was the coolest movie around. I have heard friends extol the beauties of Greece the wonder of its cuisine but, so far, I haven't experienced it first hand.

My father, mother, sister and brother went once briefly - they came back amazed by the blue skies and ancient culture but rolling their eyes and groaning at Dad's joke: He would point to the street and shop signs in Athens and say, "See all those signs? It's all Greek to me."


However, despite my lack of Greek experience, by a series of happenstances I ended up with a fridge full of Greek-style ingredients - a couple of lamb shoulder chops, some leftover brown rice, purple onion, garlic, tart black olives, fresh marjoram from the garden, a lemon, green onions, a zucchini and a summer squash, and some feta cheese.

I slapped the chops on the grill while I chopped and sliced all the other ingredients including cutting little cubes of the firm feta and stripping the leaves off the marjoram stems. I cut the zucchini and the summer squash in chunks and laid them alongside the chops on the grill to get striped. Reheated the rice and plated that while the red onion and garlic sautéed in a wide pan, then added the olives, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and marjoram leaves to the pan to heat briefly together after the striping was accomplished. At the last minute, I added the green onion and squeezed a lemon's worth of juice over the veggies to sparkle the flavors. The chop went on top of the rice, alongside all those colorful veggies and I laid a line of feta cubes between the two for accent.

Okay, here's the lesson: the word pseudo is from the Greek, meaning "false" or "lying" but I'm not lying when I tell you this was the best meal I've made in weeks and weeks. When do we leave for Greece?

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sweet Savory Spuds

A new-to-me twist on roast potatoes, thanks to Katie over at Thyme for Cooking. She suggested using sweet potatoes rather than regular potatoes and tossing them in a mixture of Herbes de Provence, salt and oil before baking.

So, off I went to my local market to find sweet potatoes, only to also find that what I thought were sweet potatoes were, in fact, yams. You Southern cooks out there are probably shaking your heads at my ignorance right now. When the kind man in the produce department pointed out the real thing, I chose a hefty specimen and brought it home.

Cut into chunks it looked a lot like regular potatoes - firm and white. I did the requisite chunking, dressing and baking in a 400 degree oven for about half an hour and was really quite pleased with the result. The flesh was soft, the outsides were crispy and browned, and it turns out sweet potatoes are well named - the taste was subtly sweet but also made savory by the herbs and the roasting. I might be more slapdash with the herbs next time, sprinkling them with a more liberal hand, but I was happy to tumble them on to the plate alongside our barbecued chicken and a nice big artichoke.

Thanks to Katie for a happy new twist on spuds.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Bummer Chicken

Well, phooey! I'm still bummed about my broken glass plate and have been boycotting the kitchen since that disaster. I did venture out to the barbecue and grill this demure little butterflied chicken, but mostly I've just been pouting.

I cooked the chicken using indirect heat, heaping the coals to one side of the trusty Weber and placing the chicken on the other side until the last turn, when I wanted to crisp and brown it a bit. It was basted once or twice with some bottled balsamic vinaigrette dressing to which I added a splash more vinegar and a big pinch of dried mixed herbs. The method worked well - the chicken was moist and flavorful - but it took quite a bit longer than the more direct heat. I'd recommend it if I was wasn't still pouting.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strong Guts

My Beloved and I have strong guts. We ate slices of this Bartlett pear croustade.

I made the croustade because we had invited our next door neighbor over for dinner out of pity for his bachelor state - his wife was away on a girlie weekend with her best friend.

I used the last of the pears that Cranky gave me and I've been hoarding in the fridge. I didn't even peel them, just cored and sliced them lengthwise, tossed them with a minimal amount of sugar and allspice, piled them in a paté brisée crust, dotted them with butter and folded the crust up around them before sliding it into a 350 degree oven for about 40-50 minutes. It came out leaking the most beautiful bubbly brown pear juice you've ever seen escaping a buttery crust and looking adorably rustic. It perfumed the whole house.

So, I slid it, still warm, onto my beautiful, handmade glass plate, the one with the wreath of greens and flowers around the edge melted into the design, the biggest plate I own, the one I excitedly bought 20 years ago in Rochester, NY direct from the artist who made it. I loved that plate. I discovered it was made of non-tempered glass when it cracked dramatically into three pieces underneath my cooling croustade.

Needless to say, I couldn't serve it to our neighbor (he's a nice guy) with glass slivers in it. I sorrowfully consigned my much-loved plate to the recycling bin double-wrapped in paper bags, slid the ruined croustade back onto the baking sheet to cool completely, and rushed down to the local market to pick up some small cookies and coffee ice cream to make an emergency dessert of ice cream sandwiches.

The next day, I kept thinking, "I gotta just throw this croustade away!" But the pears were so beautiful and the crust was just right and the plate broke cleanly (except for a few small slivers of glass on my counter) and, well, I just couldn't do it. So, for lunch today I cut myself a healthy wedge, heated it gently in the oven and ever so gingerly took a bite. It was everything I had hoped it would be - buttery, fruity and spicy. When My Beloved got home, he did the same. So far, no glass. And, even if we do encounter some, we have strong guts when it comes to pear croustades.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Rendez-vous in Albany

I went with the photo of the daube, since it turned out the best in the low lighting at Rendez-Vous Cafe-Bistro, our newest favorite restaurant in Albany, CA, but all four of the dishes we tasted this time were outstanding. If you live in the greater Bay area, you gotta try this place!

We ordered the French-style deviled eggs (four halves to a plate), rich with green onion and garlic, for our shared appetizer; I don't know how they made them but if there was mayo in there, it was very, very minimal. They were served on a curving leaf of Boston lettuce with Niçoise olives and cherry tomato wedges on the plate. If you have a more ladylike appetite than I, the eggs alone would make a nice meal.

My Beloved chose the daube, a killer slow-cooked beef stew, topped with crispy onions and mashed potatoes. I ordered the lamb stew, equally deep in flavors; fork-tender lamb mixed with big chunks of hearty fall veggies in an unctuous sauce. My bowl of stew was so generous that I brought home half. Pal Sari had a Croque Monsieur slathered in béchamel sauce. We all tasted all four dishes and they all were pleasure groan-producing, table-pounding, eye-rolling delicious.

Dessert was also wonderful. My Beloved enjoyed his apple crepes with caramel sauce and Sari ordered profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and butterscotch sauce. All three of us sampled these, too, and pronounced them fit for a king and two queens. Add prompt and responsive service by a personable and charming wait staff and reasonable prices, and you have a treat of the first magnitude.

I might also mention that the owner is a tall, handsome, charming Frenchman with a smile capable of making this old gal's heart flutter a bit, a small but distinct bonus. Even Sari, who is more dignified than I in the presence of gorgeous guys, had a rather starstruck look on her face after he visited our table.

After dinner, we strolled up Solano Avenue, settling our dinners before settling in to our seats at the Albany Twin Cinema next door to Rendez-Vous for a showing of "Paris," the new Juliette Binoche movie, which is a feast of a different sort.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pie In The Sky

You may remember that about a month ago we had a pizza party at our house. It was fun, despite having to call to the local pizza parlor for emergency dough due to a minor domestic disaster with the homemade kind.

I kept the disaster dough and added cup after cup of flour to it until it finally took on a doughlike form, as opposed to its souplike state. Whereupon I was so tired of thinking about pizza that I froze it all in boules of about one large pizza's worth and forgot all about it.

Yesterday, while rummaging through the freezer in search of dinner makings - voilà! Thawed it on the counter all day, which allowed it to rise a little, too, then rolled it out, flapped it onto a pizza peel spread with corn meal, and topped it with a light brushing of olive oil, thin slices of fresh yellow and Paul Robeson tomatoes, thinly sliced mushrooms, finely shredded mozzarella/cheddar mix from a package I had purchased for the party, tiny sprinklings of crisp bacon (I only had about 1 rasher's worth on hand) and fresh basil chiffonade.

Slid it off the peel onto my pizza stone, which had been heating for the time it took to roll out and top the pizza in a 500 degree oven. Less than 10 minutes later, it was all melty and bubbling and smelling like pizza heaven or, in other words, Pie in the Sky.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rollercoaster Soup

I started constructing this soup weeks ago when we had a cooler shift in the temperatures and I thought fall was on the way. I bought shell-on shrimp then, only to have a heat wave, so I prepared the shrimp for a late summer cocktail. Of course, then it got cool again and I was suckered into buying more shrimp. Then I didn't have all the ingredients, having used some of them in subsequent meals.

Finally, finally, I thought I had it all together and the weather was right for soup.

You build this soup layer by layer, almost like building a house. For the foundation I used clam juice in which I simmered the shrimp shells and basil stems (the chowder has potatoes in it so I thought corn was redundant) for about 20 minutes, then strained into the pot where I had crisped the bacon bits and sautéed the chopped onions, garlic, fennel, carrots, just a smidge of red pepper flakes and celery (the recipe called for additional butter to sauté the veggies but I just used the bacon fat left in the pot).

Simmered all that together for a few minutes to mingle, adding fresh chopped ripe tomatoes toward the end, then added the shrimp at the last minute to cook in the residual heat from the broth. Despite the salty clam broth and shrimp, it needed some additional salt and some pepper to make it perfect.

Ladled it into a big bowl, topped with basil chiffonade and bacon bits. The flavors were subtle but distinct, the aromas complex and interesting, and the soup was surprisingly hearty despite the delicate ingredients. I think I'd use fresh corn next time instead of the spuds but that's nitpicking, really.
It was worth the ups and downs and the wait for perfect Rollercoaster Soup weather.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Open Wide

As a child, my younger brother was a picky eater, something that astonished and worried his parents and three older siblings, fine trenchermen one and all. He would spit out any baby food he didn't like and turn his head disdainfully away from spoons aimed at his mouth with the exhortation to "Open wide!"

He refused just about everything except pancakes, waffles, thin asparagus spears, peanut butter and butter sandwiches on thin white bread, and a certain brand of peanut butter cookies.

We tried everything from bribery to force to get him to widen his palate but he steadfastly refused. We even, to our everlasting shame, gave permission to try to a rather bullying neighbor who claimed he had forced his kids to eat. Scooter defeated us all and sent the bully away shaking his head. Finally, around the age of six or seven, he grudgingly added hot dogs, hamburgers and broccoli tops (no stems!) to his repertoire. Today, he's a good eater, although he still resolutely refuses shellfish.

All of which has virtually nothing to do with turkey soup that I found in the freezer, thawed and embellished with fresh veggies except that in order to eat this soup, you load up a spoonful and must "Open wide!"

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Shrimp Stories

Oops, please forgive this badly unfocused picture of a great, quick meal - I was in a hurry making it as well as photographing it.

My Beloved and I had returned home late and we were starving. I made the tactical error of starting some lovely Massa rice as the base for a stir fry, the quickest meal I know how to make. Massa rice is the most delicious rice on earth, but it does take almost twice as long to cook as white rice does. I was shaky with hunger by the time dinner was on the table - you can tell by the blurry photograph.

I never make anything with shrimp without remembering the time at age seven when I, an animal lover from an early age, fed half the cocktail shrimp my mother had prepared for a dinner party to a rangy, shaggy stray dog who showed up at our doorstep in Hawaii and with whom I fell instantly in love. Shrimp was a rare treat in our house (I had sneaked one or two for myself earlier in the day) so I figured the dog might decide to stay if I gave him some. My mother was furious, the dog had a owner, and I was grounded for the rest of my natural life. Despite these little setbacks, I still love shrimp.

I seem to be on a ginger roll, enjoying adding a little fresh grated ginger to everything from Pear-Ginger Upside Down Cake to teriyaki sauce for our grilled tri-tip to this shrimp, carrot, green bean, garlic and onion stir fry. It made an otherwise fairly bland meal into something fresh and special. These days, I get to welcome as many stray dogs as I want but I have to admit I don't feed them shrimp - I keep it all for myself and My Beloved!

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