Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

At this time of year, I'm always writing thank you notes for parties, for presents and for experiences shared with friends and family. Although I resisted it mightily when I was a kid, it's a little duty that I enjoy now that I'm grown up and realize how much fun others add to my life.

I usually write them by hand with a real fountain pen on fine note cards but I can't reach most of you that way, so I'll resort to sending you a pretty picture and thanking you for your interest in my blog, your comments and suggestions, and for another year of sharing a small part of my life with you.

Happy New Year and All The Best in 2011. It's gonna be a Dusie!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sister Act

My sister Nancy, who is normally shy and somewhat retiring, really bloomed this Christmas. She decided on the spur of the moment to come here for Christmas, packed her little dog and her pillow into her Honda Civic and drove all the way here from North Carolina in six days flat. She has always wanted to drive across country, she said, so she can check that one off her bucket list.

I enjoy silly things but I have to admit I was surprised when she donned a snowflake headdress right along with me and wore it at most of the social functions we enjoyed while she was here.

Shoulda got one for her little dog, too, shouldn't I?

She's firmly convinced that fish and house guests stink after three days, so she packed the car again the day after Christmas and started back across country despite my most persuasive arguments for staying a bit longer. Since she has no cell phone, I won't hear from her until she is home again. I'm less concerned now than I was - she seems to have gotten a second wind in her middle age so I'm pretty sure she'll get home just fine.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sustaining The Myth

When children are small, grownups will go to great lengths to keep the myth of Santa Claus alive. This year, I was witness to truly heroic efforts.

You've heard, no doubt, of leaving out cookies and milk for Santa but did you know the reindeer need sustenance, too? Our granddaughter, who has reached the ripe old age of nearly four, put out a carrot and a raw sweet potato for the reindeer, next to the cookies and milk.

To enhance the idea that Santa had actually been there, the cookies were consumed and half the milk drunk. We even ate the carrot, leaving just the stem end on the plate. For true realism, however, it was determined that a few bites must be taken out of the sweet potato to convince Mia that the reindeer had enjoyed it. It was dutifully passed from grownup to grownup.

The things we will do for our children! Ho, ho, ho!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And That We Were Together

This is my favorite picture of my Dad - I have it framed on the windowsill of my kitchen. He was older in this picture and a little scarred by cancer but his essential warmth and kindness show in this picture.

I was reminded when we had Christmas dinner with our dear friends the Van Horns of the grace that he would say on special occasions around this time in his life . He learned this grace from friends of his and loved it for its message and because it rhymes. He always did like rhymes - Dr. Seuss and Madeline were the books he read to us as children. This grace replaced our former family favorite - "Rub-a-dub-dub, Thanks for the grub, Y-a-a-a-a-y God!" I guess you can tell we weren't overly religious, but we were grateful for all we had. I thought you might find an occasion, however you define "God," to use it during the holidays.

First, you link hands around the table over steaming plates of whatever wonders the kitchen has produced.

"We thank you God for happy hearts,
For rain, and sunny weather,
We thank you God for this our food,
And that we are together."

It was particularly meaningful to me this year because my sister decided on the spur of the moment to join us for Christmas. She lives in North Carolina, clear across this very wide country. She packed up her Honda Civic with her little dog and simply headed out, arriving the day before Christmas Eve. She made the trip in six days, all by herself with no cell phone and no GPS, just maps and a Triptik from AAA. Her brothers and I worried the whole time she was on the road but we needn't have - she was fine and so was the weather.

I am particularly grateful, now that she's on the road back home, to have been together.


Monday, December 27, 2010

The Whole Empanada

Ya gotta love a product that takes all the work and worry out of trying new dishes. Star Dough has been like that for me, a godsend. The buttery, flaky ease of the pie dough makes trying new dishes a pleasure. Get some: I have spoken.

My latest attempt was an empanada. Now, keep in mind that I have never actually eaten an empanada before in my life. I have heard that they are rather like a Cornish pasty, only not really, and Mexican. So, I invented this out of the wild scramble that is my brain and the contents of my fridge - it may not resemble in the slightest what you think of as an authentic empanada.

I used mostly veggies, plus some shredded pork and pork stock left over from a couple of spareribs that I grilled on the barbecue back when we could remember what sunshine looked like. They were not a huge success - just not something very grillable unless you have cooked them thoroughly before grilling, which I had not done. So, we nibbled at them but quickly decided that they'd make better stock than dinner. They were a huge success, however, at making smoky, porkylicious broth and I shredded the meat into the stock before freezing.

I started the empanada by chopping a whole bunch of veggies into small cubes - onion, garlic, carrot, two small Yukon gold potatoes, some mushrooms (sliced), a handful of green beans and a couple of leaves of a Napa cabbage. The frozen corn kernels didn't need chopping.

I fished out the pork (about half a cup) from the stock and browned it and the mushrooms in a wide skillet in a little oil/butter combo, then began sautéing the veggies, starting with the densest ones and going to the quickest-cooking ones, until all were colorful and still had some structural integrity. As the mixture dried out, I'd splash in a little of that pork stock for flavor and moisture. At the end, I sprinkled on a generous dash of Hop'n Jalapeño sauce and mixed it in.

When all the veggies were perfect, I took the pan off the heat and set it aside to cool slightly. While it was cooling, I unrolled a round of the wonderful Star Dough and set it on a sheet of parchment paper on a sheet pan, then stuck it back in the fridge to stay cold until baking.

When My Beloved got home from a successful sales trip to exotic Modesto, I turned on the oven to 475 degrees, piled the contents of the skillet onto half of the pastry, folded over the other half to make a half-circle and crimped the edges with a fork. Into that hot oven it went for 15 minutes and out it came, steaming and crisp and golden brown. Because I may have overdone the Hop'n Jalapeño just a tad, I served it with a little crême fraîche on the side to cut the heat.

My Beloved was in the middle of a story about his day when he took the first bite - it stopped him in mid-sentence to compliment the dish. Nothing pleases me more than that look of surprised pleasure on his face. It was spicy, no doubt about that, but also really tasty with that porky, smoky goodness wound in and amongst all the ingredients.

We ate the whole empanada.





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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cornish Pastrami

I was mulling over the idea of stuffing the Cornish hen for our dinner the other evening, but had no bread or crumbs or anything that seemed like a good idea at the time and I mulled for quite some little while, too, without being struck by a good solution.

Then I remembered that, of all things, I had a few slices of pastrami in the fridge, left over from sandwiches a few days before. Pastrami stuffing? Who ever heard of such a thing? I decided to do it anyway.

Given the diminutive nature of Cornish hens, I chopped the mushrooms finely and minced onion and garlic. Sautéed them all in a little butter, then added minced pastrami - just two slices were plenty. Just as I went to stuff all that into the cavity, I thought instead to slide it under the skin before roasting. That just seemed like the good idea I had been seeking - sometimes, you just have to wing it.

The hardest part was working my fingers under the skin of the body without breaking it but I managed to do that, then spooned the "stuffing" under the skin a teaspoon at a time, working it around until it coated evenly the breast meat. Roasted that little bird in the oven at 350 degrees for 50 minutes (mysteriously, they take nearly as much time to roast as a full-size chicken), whacked it in half with my Hawaii brother's giant knife and we had as tasty a dinner as I've prepared in a month of Sundays.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas

I'm really more of a heathen than a Christian but I never miss a chance to get presents so I celebrate the heck out of Christmas. I love the way the house smells with a Douglas fir in the corner of the living room and there is nothing more fun than stockings full of creative little gifties and packages under the tree full of delightful mysteries.

I put up a wreath and buy a poinsettia each year. Sometimes, I even hang little lights on the railing of the front porch. We love the carolers who come around a few evenings before Christmas and we have several CDs of Christmas music. I like the wrappings, the ribbons, the decorations and the shine.

This hasn't been an untroubled Christmas season for us what with serious illness touching My Beloved's family, concern over my sister who has taken it into her head to drive from North Carolina to California for Christmas all by herself with her little dog and no cell phone *, and the news that a much-admired elderly relative is on her way to heaven, but on the plus side, we got to spend extra time with our baby grandson and to provide a little support to My Beloved's daughters while they comforted their mother in the hospital.

The sun gets higher in the sky each day now as we turn toward the new year and we are encouraged by recovery from illness, by hope that my wacky sister will be okay in the wilds of nowhere and the knowledge that our elderly cousin is calm and ready to go.

I hope your Christmas is peaceful, that all your relatives arrive safely and that the sun shines brightly on you in the coming year. Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth.

*She made it, safe and sound!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pie Star

This is one of the few vegetarian recipes that My Beloved brought to our marriage. He's a pretty dedicated carnivore. However, he showed me how to make this veggie pie using two frozen pie shells, one for the top and one for the bottom, and I've been making it that way ever since.

In this case, however, I made it using my new best discovery, Star Dough. You can see from the photo how tender and flaky it was and I can report that the flavor was sufficiently buttery even for me who adores all things butter. An enormous improvement over the frozen pie shells, I promise you.

Star Dough comes rolled up in packages of two - all you do is thaw, spread and bake. It's a concept I can get behind; I do make good pie dough, but not nearly this easily. I'm sold.

Anyway, I filled it as I always do with whatever veggies I have on hand, slid it into a hot oven (475 degrees) and 20 minutes later, we had dinner. What with chopping the veggies and sautéing them, the whole thing took perhaps 35 minutes. Even on a work night, Star Dough makes this easy.

Veggie Pie

There is no real recipe for this - I use whatever I have on hand, but here's what I did last night, just to give you a starting place:

1 large onion, chopped
6-8 fresh mushrooms, cut in chunks
3 cloves garlic, sliced into slivers
1/3 head of cauliflower, separated into bite-size florets
1 small head broccoli, separated into bite-size florets
4 fingerling potatoes, cut diagonally into 1/4" slices
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons dill weed (it wasn't enough)
1 package Star Dough, thawed

Unroll the thawed Star Dough package, snip off the sealed ends of the plastic wrap, unroll and remove one side of the plastic. Fit the dough into a deep dish pie plate, uncovered side down, then carefully remove the second plastic. Keep the pie plate and the second dough circle refrigerated until ready to add the filling.

Sauté the mushrooms in the oil/butter combo until browned, then add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and a little browned (but don't burn the garlic). Add the other veggies and sauté (you might want to add a tad more butter/oil at this point) until the broccoli has turned bright green and the spuds have softened a little. Add the seasonings (I'd use my favorite Herbes de Provence next time - the dill was too mild) and toss all together.

Bring out the bottom of the pie from the fridge and dump the veggie mixture into it. Unroll the second pastry circle, remove one side of the plastic wrap and fit it to the top of the pie, crimping the edges after removing the second plastic.

Slide it into a 475 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown - I let this one go a little too long. Cut generous wedges and serve. Voilà! You're now a pie star.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Starring

I read about this product in the Chron a couple of weeks ago and was pleased to note that, for us, it's über-local. It's actually made right here in our little Hidden City and sold, hallelujah!, in our little corner market.

Star Dough is pie dough, rather than puff pastry. It is designed to be flaky and crisp for quiches, fruit pies, empanadas, etc. My Beloved found it in the freezer case after I had looked but missed it. He's my hero, because this stuff totally rocks!

It's as good as the frozen puff pastry, DuFour, only fashioned for a different kind of baking. It really does cook up flaky and buttery - quite delicious! The link above will show you where it is sold locally - if you are further afield, ask your grocer to stock it. It was great to have on hand when I was trying to cook for the caregivers and I made a veggie pie starring Star Dough for our dinner last night that I will tell you about tomorrow.


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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lasagna Lite

What could be more comforting than a big pan of lasagna? Nothing, that's what. But lasagna can also be rather heavy and the caregivers I was cooking for lean much more to the light side. Searching my memory for a recipe that would be comforting but not anchoring, I remembered a veggie lasagna recipe that I've been making for years.

Back in my salad days, I worked for a couple of years as the manager of a dormitory on the Stanford University campus, Mirrielees House, while my first husband worked on his MBA. It is a big building, modern in style but keeping that Stanford look of cream walls and terra cotta tile roofs, filled with small one-bedroom apartments for unmarried students.

My job was not taxing - in fact, after a couple of weeks of virtual boredom, I felt compelled to confess to my boss's boss that I was wasting the university's money. He reassured me that my presence was important despite the long hours of doing nothing and urged me to bring books or knitting to while away the time. I got a lot of reading done during those two years. One of the ideas I came up with to kill time was to compile and print a cookbook of recipes from each apartment.

I put a notice in each mailbox and asked the students to contribute recipes they enjoyed. In those benighted pre-computer and pre-copier days, I typed out the recipes, drew little illustrations, ran off the copies on the ditto machine (which broke down frequently), collated and stapled the book. It even had beverage suggestions, a place for cooking notes and serving suggestions. It is called "The Pocket Gourmet" and includes this recipe for veggie lasagna that I have made ever since. I took two copies of the book for myself, and still have both. One is stained and dog-eared, the other pristine. All these years later, I am still very proud of conceiving and producing that funny little paperback book from start to finish.

As I worked on the lasagna, I was remembering the good times at Stanford - my wonderful African American boss who taught me so much about race relations and about patience with students, the fun of the Spouse Quarter Courses I took and learned that I was smarter than I thought, the apartment in Escondido Village (on-campus married student housing) that my first husband and I shared as newlyweds - it had radiant heating, something I have dreamed of having ever since. All that good karma went into the lasagna.

The dish was a hit with the caregivers and, since one of them is Molly Wizenberg, I feel particularly flattered and pleased. But now I'm just braggin'; here's the recipe:

Vegetable Lasagna, from the Pocket Gourmet, 1973

The best part about a recipe like this is that it's an outline - you can change it up and spiff it up any way you like, subbing in different veggies and using interesting cheeses. I also top this with mozzarella cheese before baking, although the original recipe didn't call for that.

Sauce
16 oz can tomato sauce
10-12 mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 chopped onion
Green pepper (I always leave this out as green peppers don't like me)
Any other vegetable, chopped (I used carrots, scallions, garlic this time but I vary it with whatever I have on hand - zucchini, summer squash, winter squash, whatever)
Herbs to your taste - I usually use thyme, basil and sometimes a bay leaf, which I remove after cooking.

Filling
8 ounces ricotta cheese
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese (I have gotten fancy in my old age and now use ParmReg, freshly grated
1 package frozen spinach, thawed and water squeezed out

Noodles
8 ounces lasagna noodles, boiled to al dente in salted water

Chop the veggies. Brown the mushrooms in olive oil or butter, or both, add the tomato sauce and the rest of your veggies and simmer for about 45 minutes. Make filling by mixing the filling ingredients together and prepare the noodles according to package directions while the sauce is simmering.

Lay a layer of noodles into the bottom of a large baking dish or lasagna pan. Spread about 1/3 of the filling over the noodles and ladle about 1/3 of the sauce over that. Another two layers of noodles, filling and sauce. Top with slices of mozzarella cheese and bake for half an hour at 350 degrees.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lambasted

I'll bet you think that looks like a big mess of bacon, don't you? You'd be right, except the rashers are small and slender - it's lamb bacon.

I had never heard of such a thing before taking a pleasure trip out to Point Reyes Station and stopping at Marin Sun Farms for a dozen of their amazing eggs. One of the meats they had on display was the lamb bacon. Irresistible!

We crisped it as you would regular bacon and served it alongside half a bagel and a couple of those sunny yellow eggs. You can tell how nearly orange the yolks were before scrambling by the color they retain after. They look like I touched them up on Photoshop but, uh, no. We basted the bottom of the pan with a little of the lamb fat rendered from the bacon for a little extra flavor before we poured in the eggs.

The bacon tasted smoky and salty at first, as one expects from bacon, but after a couple of chews, here came that distinctive, dark lamb flavor almost as an aftertaste. There was no sweetness, which I liked given the strong flavor of the lamb. My Beloved wolfed down his portion and looked so longingly at mine that I took pity on him and gave him a couple of strips. I think he would tell you he loved having his innards lambasted.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Caring For The Caregivers

While My Beloved's first wife is in hospital, she is being offered in her weakened state perhaps the worst food the Bay area has to offer - hospital food. Second only to airplane food, it's terrible. Why would anyone who is ill be offered highly salted or sugared food out of cans? It makes no sense. So, her sister, her daughters, her niece, her neighbors, her friends and I are working to keep her supplied with real food, food that will actually enhance the healing process until she's sprung from that place.

To wit, roasted kabocha squash and d'Anjou pear soup that I made to deliver over to the caregivers. They are spending all day, every day at the hospital so they are exposed to crappy food, too. I had a couple of the cutest little organic kabocha squashes you've ever seen rolling around on my counter, so I put them to good use. In fact, all the ingredients I used were organic - doesn't that make sense for helping someone to heal?

Not all the soup I made fit into the container I was using so I poured the extra into a bowl and tasted it myself. Mellow as sunshine with a little herbal twist and a hint of sweetness from the onion and pears, the soup had texture thanks to the slight graininess of the pears. No wonder soup is the traditional food for invalids - it goes down easily, it's packed with vitamins and it is so pretty to even a jaded eye. Lovely. Life-giving. Delicious. To your health!

Caregivers Kabocha Soup

1 Tablespoon butter or olive oil
2 small or 1 medium kabocha squash, seeded, halved and roasted cut side down at 350 degrees on an oiled pan until easily pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes.
1 large onion, chopped
Fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the woody stems
2 d'Anjou pears, peeled and cored
16 ounces chicken stock

Roast squash in a 350 degree oven for about half an hour, until a sharp knife inserts easily into the squash. Set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a large pot, melt the butter and soften the onions with the thyme leaves. When the squash has cooled enough to handle, scoop out the squash flesh with a spoon and add it to the pot with the pears and the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 30-45 minutes.

Let cool, then purée in a blender. When reheating, do so slowly in a heavy bottomed pan, or in the microwave. Top with crême fraiche or chopped chives. You might want to add salt and pepper, too, as I used none.


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Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'm Babysitting

This is what a fond grandmother looks like to a 3 year old. I know that because our granddaughter Mia took this picture of me when I was back east visiting her and her new baby brother.

The baby brother, Owen, "the O-Man" as we call him, is in town now with his Mom - sadly, not for a good reason. My Beloved's first wife, a tiny but feisty lady, is in the hospital and their older daughter flew in to help, bringing 10-week old Owen with her. (He earned his wings on the flight over). Mia and her Daddy will follow in a few days - they will all be reunited by Christmas.

All this as prelude to telling you that My Beloved and I are babysitting the O-Man this week, helping out while daughter Sarah is keeping her Mom company in the hospital. Because of that, I may be posting a good deal less than normal.

There is some good news sandwiched in here - Owen lets me hold him without crying, a rarity among infants who generally hate me until they grow older and more discerning, and he likes my standard lullaby, "Anchors Aweigh."

So, in case I don't see you, have a Happy Christmas and keep your fingers crossed for that small, feisty lady. She could use some positive energy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Boulette's Bingo

Recently, I ventured into the city to have lunch with a friend of mine, Lisa Blatt, a talented young photographer who was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute when I worked there. We have kept in touch over the years and I have admired her work forever but we haven't seen each other much in the past little while.

Emerging from the BART station, I walked across the Embarcadero to find that the Tuesday farmer's market was in full swing despite spitting rain. As I was surveying the booths, an elderly gentleman trundling a milk crate on wheels tipped his crate over, spilling the contents all over the sidewalk so, of course, I stooped down to help him collect his stuff. Surprise! It was actually a ruse - Dockers were doing a "Chivalry is not dead" promotion and people who stopped to help were rewarded with a free pair of Dockers pants. Now My Beloved has a nice pair of gray pants coming in 7-10 days and the detour didn't even make me late for lunch. Cool!

My friend and I ate at Boulette's Larder on the recommendation of another friend of mine who works inside the Ferry Building at a small shop where I stopped to say hello on my way in. Boulette's Larder is a quirky little place with a communal table inside next to the open kitchen and a growing line of tables outside in the hall as a testament to its popularity. They use local, organic ingredients in all they make and can you ever tell the difference!

We sat down at the farthest table and caught up over lunch. Lisa had a smooth-as-silk parsnip and butternut squash soup with a squiggle of crême fraîche and a hint of curry that she let me sample. Delicious! I had poached eggs on black beans with chorizo, also good, but the bingo in this meal was a darkly flavorful slice of ginger cake sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a puff of whipped cream, a few candied pecans and the most amazing sweet-tart slices of sugar-preserved kumquats I have ever tasted. That swirl of honey-colored citrus goozle on the plate must have been what the kumquats were steeped in - it tasted like clear, liquid kumquats. The cake was fairly dense and clearly made with fresh ginger - no powdered nonsense at Boulette's!

I've been dreaming of ginger cake ever since - I'm mightily tempted to ride BART back into the city just to sit down and savor another slice of that amazing cake - and those killer kumquats.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Rice Chix

I was tempted to title this blog post "Chicken Little." While we were out in West Marin the other day, we stopped at Marin Sun Farms to buy eggs and I came away with a nice little chicken, too. It was slightly larger than a poussin, but a very young yardbird, indeed.

Today, I turned it into dinner.

I had been thinking about not roasting another chicken; have I finally gotten my fill? For the moment, it would seem so.

I had made some chicken stock from the bones of the last chicken I roasted and got busy doing something else so it cooked a long, long time before I strained out the bones and chilled it to remove the fat. It was so concentrated that it jelled in the fridge - future chicken goodness.

I had four leeks in the fridge that were crying out to be made into something. It's one of the good things about leeks - they will keep in the fridge for quite some time, until your creative juices have the leisure to come up with a good idea for dinner.

And because I had a hankering for some of that sublime Massa brown rice, I was mulling over ideas to incorporate those ingredients in some sort of skillet dinner. If I may say so, I succeeded big time.

First, I cut up the chicken into serving-size pieces. Did you know that if you cut up your own chickens, you save a significant amount of moolah over buying already-pieced chickens? It's not difficult and takes just a few more minutes with a good sharp knife.

Anyway, I browned the pieces, skin side down, in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they took on a golden hue, removed them from the pan and dumped in the rice, which I tossed to coat with the butter/oil/chicken drippings in the pan, cooking it for a few minutes until some of the grains turned opaque, then added the chicken broth and a heaping tablespoon each of two kinds of Dijon mustard, the brown one with whole mustard seeds and the smooth yellow one.

Once the mustards were swirled into the chicken stock and rice mixture, I added the sliced leeks and eased the chicken pieces down into this mustardy hot tub, clapped on the lid and lowered the flame to simmer.

Massa rice takes almost an hour to cook so we decorated our Christmas tree to keep ourselves busy while that pan of chicken sent out the most tantalizing smells. We hung the ornaments one by one, remembering the source of each one, awash in memories while the chicken steeped in mustardy broth. The little black and yellow bee with spun glass wings that we found in Antwerp when we were in Belgium for Christmas. The ratty old glass balls that came out of my parents' attic when they passed away. The funny star My Beloved's girls made for us when we shared a Christmas in Hawaii. The Santa lovingly hand-painted by my nephew when he was a little boy about the age of his daughters now. The clothespin toy soldiers my first mother-in-law made during her crafty stage. The beautifully handmade ornament my brother's wife bought for us in Vienna. Each one has a memory attached.

We plugged in the colorful lights, plated our killer dinner and enjoyed the tree while we sampled our Rice Chix. The rice had absorbed all the flavors of the pot while lending its own nutty goodness. The chicken and the leeks had relaxed like guests at a friendly Christmas party. It was so good, we were tempted to have seconds, although we are trying not to add to our avoirdupois over the holidays. We restrained ourselves, just barely. My Beloved suggested that next time I should add some mushrooms and I think he's right, but it was deeply satisfying just as it was.

Rice Chix

1 small organic, pastured chicken, cut into serving size pieces
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
1 cup organic brown rice, preferably Massa rice
2 cups chicken broth
1 heaping Tablespoon brown Dijon mustard with whole mustard seeds
1 heaping Tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
4 leeks, washed and chopped
* 1 dozen mushrooms, rinsed, patted dry and cut into quarters

In a wide, shallow skillet, brown the chicken pieces thoroughly in the butter and oil mixture over a medium flame. Remove chicken to a plate while you scatter the rice into the chicken goozle in the pan. Cook until about half the rice grains have turned opaque.

Add the chicken stock and the two mustards, mixing until well incorporated. Add the chopped leeks. Nestle the chicken pieces back into the pan, cover and reduce the heat to simmer for about an hour. It will be a little soupier than risotto. Plate with the rice underneath the golden brown chicken pieces - it would look great served on a big, deep platter at a family dinner, allowing everyone to serve themselves.

*If you use the mushrooms, I'd brown them before the chicken, then set them aside while you brown the chicken in the same pan, then set that aside and so on.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Great Food, Prickly Service

This past weekend, we treated ourselves and our young friend Naomi to a trip out to Point Reyes Station to poke through the shops and to have brunch at the Pine Cone Diner . Their motto is "Great Food, Prickly Service."

Naomi was tired of studying and teaching (she's a doctoral student), we were tired of holiday traffic, we were all ready for a break from the Christmas rush and hungry, to boot. We like the Pine Cone - it's a little self-consciously diner-like and the prices can make you gasp, but the food is good and we enjoy the silly ambiance.

I had the fried oyster sandwich, which came with a bowl of soup. The soup was fresh tomato soup (not cream of) and was savory with herbs and a little acidic, playing well off the rich sandwich. The sandwich had four or five plump, oysters, crisp with batter and lusciously sea-scented inside, folded inside an uninspired hot dog shaped bun and topped with a helping of cole slaw and a gush of Russian dressing. It was pretty messy to eat - to avoid a sartorial accident, I finally resorted to simply opening the bun and eating the contents with a fork. I love well-made fried oysters and the cole slaw was a nice complement, so I enjoyed the sandwich very much.

We missed the prickly service, however. The wait staff prides itself on being surly and abrupt but our waitress was actually pretty nice and very patient with our gentle dithering over the menu.

After brunch, we stuck our heads into a few of the shops, stopped at Marin Sun Farms on the way home for fresh eggs, and drove through some of the prettiest countryside this area has to offer. We'd all go again in a heartbeat.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sweet Moments

This cookie comes from my first husband's mother. Most women hate their mothers-in-law but I was lucky - both of mine were awfully nice. The first, Elna, was an amazing woman in lots of ways but what really won me over were her Melting Moments.

These dainty little cookies are as simple as it's possible to be, but they are also extraordinary in their texture and flavor. Two buttery, pinkie-sized cookies glued together with a little colored, vanilla-scented icing shouldn't pack the rich wallop that they do but, baby, do they ever!

The best part is the texture, which quite literally melts. You may have had cookies before that were called Melting Moments, but they are frauds - these are the only ones I have found that live up to their billing. Both cookie and icing soften and dissolve in the first instant, flowing across the tongue with sweet surprise. When I had a tea party for a couple of charming children in my neighborhood, the girls helped me to make Melting Moments. When I packed a tin of cookies for them to take home, the older girl asked very politely for more Melting Moments than any other kind. The kid has good taste.

Next time you are having a tea party, or just want a sweet bite of your own, Melting Moments are the ticket. All by themselves, they are a reason to adore one's mother-in-law. If you happen to be a mother-in-law, now you know what to do.

Melting Moments from Mom T

Use a cold oven. If you are making several kinds of cookies, start with these as they go into a cold oven.

1 cup butter
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar
2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar. Mix in flour with a spoon. Drop by 1/2 teaspoon onto cookie sheets, close together. Put into a cold oven. Turn on the oven to 300 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes, or until very, very lightly browned on the bottom - don't let them darken. Stick two cooled cookies together with colored icing between.

Icing

2 Tablespoons soft butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat with a beater until smooth. Divide into two portions and, stirring in a tiny drop of food coloring, make green and pink icing (I've tried blue and yellow - not pretty!)


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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Brownie Bites

I found the recipe for these dark little beauties many moons ago in Sunset magazine. I can always tell when I've cut out a recipe from Sunset, as the type face (this was 'way before "font" entered the general lexicon) is distinctive. As soon as I tried them, I added them to my Christmas cookie repertoire for the brownie lovers in the crowd.

These are very small, easy to finish in two bites. They are made not in cupcake papers but in candy cups, perhaps 1" across. That's fun, as candy cups come in bright colors, or even silver or gold foil, which sets off the deep brown of the cookies very prettily.

Those of you who prefer no-nut brownies (are you nuts?) will be glad to know that the nuts are just placed on top, not mixed in, so they are easy to delete.

Brownie Bites, from Sunset magazine, who got it from Jan Macauley of Spring Valley, CA

1/2 cup (1/4 lb.) butter (the recipe is so old that it actually allowed margarine as an alternative to butter but I know you would never commit so egregious a sin)
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
About 40 walnut halves (they do look prettier with the nut halves, but I couldn't find any this year so I made do with chopped nuts. I have also used pecan halves and they are cool, too)

In a 2 or 3 quart pan, stir butter and chocolate over lowest heat until melted (don't get impatient and burn the chocolate by raising the heat). Remove pan from heat and stir in sugar and vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour.

On a baking sheet, place about 40 of the candy cups. Spoon batter into paper-lined tiny (1.5 inch diameter) cups, filling cups almost to the top. Place a walnut half on top of batter in each cup.

Bake in a 325 degree oven until the tops look dry and feel firm when lightly touched, about 20 minutes.

Let brownies cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool. To store, let cool completely, then package air tight and hold at room temperature up to four days. (They freeze well, too). Makes about 40.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Crisp Clouds

The colors in this photo remind me of the kind of weather we've been having for the past week or so - leaden gray with touches of white. Our mud is a darker brown than this, but you get the idea. Ugh.

Walking the dog in the rain is a pain in the gazocks. Wiping her paws, toweling her off (hopefully before she shakes water all over the entry), standing under an umbrella waiting for her to do what we are out there for - but for the danger, one would be tempted to ignore the leash laws and just let her roam on her own.

The bright spot in a week of rain is baking little cookies to go with the hot tea that this kind of weather demands. I make cookies only very rarely and usually only at Christmas. I make pretty big batches, then freeze them and bring them out fresh for parties or for gifts to neighbors. These little raggedy-cloud cookies are my favorites of all. They are tiny - meant to be eaten in a single bite as they are crumbly and messy with powdered sugar. Just pop one in and lick your fingers. The taste is almost entirely toasted almonds, with only a little flour and butter to stick them together. I'd advise you to make some so you have them on hand for the next rainy day.

Nut Crisp Cookies

2 sticks of butter (8 ounces)
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1-1/2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch salt
2 cups slivered, toasted almonds

Cream butter and sugar. Add flour, vanilla and salt. Combine well. Stir in 2 cups almonds. Drop cookies in bite size onto a buttered cookie sheet (not necessary if using non-stick or parchment paper) about 1/2" apart. Form the rest in like manner. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Let them cool completely on a rack, then sift confectioner's sugar over them. Store in airtight tins or freeze.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inventing Words As We Go

We don't eat chicken livers very often - we know they are bad, bad, bad. Too much cholesterol. Too much fat. Too rich for aging digestions. But, oooh, the flavor.

I have to admit the prepping them is not the most fun - sorting through, slicing off the connecting bits, and they do rather slither when you're cutting them into bite-size pieces. Prepping a roughly equal amount of mushrooms is far more enjoyable - just a quick rinse and pat dry before cutting in halves or quarters.

The cooking part is easy and quick. Toast a slice of bread, the better to soak up the future juice. Heat a wide frying pan and brown the mushrooms in about a gallon of butter (just kidding! but don't stint on the butter). Remove the mushrooms to a plate when they are nicely brown and add to the same pan a minced clove of garlic and half a finely chopped onion. Toss them around in the butter-and-mushroom juice until they are soft, then turn up the heat and quickly sear the chicken livers until they are nicely caramelized on the outside but still lightly pink inside. Add back the mushrooms and toss together. If you want to add herbs or a sprinkling of wine, those make the dish even better, but it's lovely even without.

Plate your toast and top with the livers, then pour just a driz of the goozle from the pan over the bibbits and serve.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Antsy Season

I can tell it is December even without a calendar; December is when the ants arrive every year in my kitchen.

They start with just a trickle, a few scouts to see if they like the environs; apparently they do, as the flood is close behind.

I can't tell what they come for - they rarely invade even sugar left out on the counter, or stray bread crumbs, or any of the things you might expect would attract ants. Some say they just come in to get out of the rain. Whatever; come they do, every year like clockwork, just around the holidays, the better to embarrass me in front of family and friends.

I hate using pesticides, so I have opted instead for discouraging them with scented powders across their entry points. A long-term resident of the Point, the warm and charming Bob Peckham, reassured me that it isn't just me, that everyone in the Point has ants at this time of year, and taught me that sprinkling baby powder or cinnamon at their entry points would turn them away, so I've done that for the past ten years or so and it works amazingly well. A few of the little stinkers slip through but they just serve these days to remind me of Bob, who is in heaven now charming the saints.

I get antsy every December now; it's a holiday tradition, like putting up the wreath on the door and buying a poinsettia.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Gnarly, Prickly Pleasure

My Beloved is a traveling salesman - he normally drives about 600 miles per week, all over Northern California and Northern Nevada (he even has responsibilities in Hawaii - I go with him on those trips!). He represents upwards of a dozen different factories so he's on the road quite a bit. If you ask him what he does for a living, he will say with a twinkle, "I drive around and talk to people."

It's the perfect job for a car guy who has never met a stranger. It's also the perfect job for bringing back edibles from all over our area.

When he goes to Fresno, he comes home with fresh nuts from the Valley, big bags of pistachios or mixed nuts. When he goes to Sacramento, sometimes he stops in Davis to get olive oil from the university. Carson City in Northern Nevada has a wonderful butcher. When he goes down to Monterey, he has a standing order from me to stop at Pezzini Farms for artichokes.

This week, we are eating Pezzini's best, the frost-nipped artichokes. Bob Peckham, our grocer for the first several years that I lived here, taught us that frost-nipped artichokes are the best. They look gnarly like this, with a haze of white over the fresh green leaves and they are prickly little suckers, but they taste like they have been blessed by the patron saint of artichokes. They are sweeter than a normal artichoke, something that apparently the frost brings out. Pezzini knows this, too, and they charge a little extra for the frost damage. That always makes me smile - only in America.

When we get these wonderful ones, we don't gussy them up, we just steam them for about 20 minutes, sometimes in water with wine vinegar added, and serve them with a little dish of lemon butter, then savor them leaf by meaty leaf until we reach the heart. Dipped in the lemon butter and popped in the mouth, the heart of a frost-nipped artichoke is as close to heaven as a vegetable can be.

My fourth and final career, and my most satisfying one, was as a career counselor; I loved my work for more than 20 years. It's no wonder, then, that I am content knowing that My Beloved is in the perfect job for him. Especially when he's been foraging and bringing home treats.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Currying Favor

I owe this curry to Peter Barrett, who gave me the idea to use my leftover kabocha squash soup as a base for curry. I would never have thought of that but it makes so much sense!

When I pulled my pot of soup out of the fridge and My Beloved raised the lid, the expression on his face told me he was not, and I do mean, not looking forward to another go-around with that soup. While he is normally fine with leftovers and he did enjoy the first serving of the soup, he's also a variety guy and loves a mix of tastes and flavors.

Providence smiled upon me when that same day I read that Peter had concocted curry from soup himself. Being the cheerful plagiarist that I am, I immediately stole his idea.

I sautéed a chopped onion in butter, then added some chunked carrot and fingerling potatoes for a Thai-style curry with vegetables. I even dumped in the very last serving of those colorful roasted veggies I made for Thanksgiving. I whisked curry powder into the soup, then poured both into the pot with the veggies, stirred and simmered for about 15 minutes. While the curry was cooking, I crisped a few rashers of bacon to crumble and set out (Peter's) little dishes of peanuts, green onion, raisins, chutney and minced white onion. I think of the toppings as more typical of Indian curry but we love the crunch and mix of flavors so I added them to the Thai-style as well. For the last few minutes, I stirred in about a cup of chicken picked from the roast one I made that week, just to heat it through before serving over jasmine rice.

The result was simply lovely, hearty and yet not heavy, savory and a little spicy without being nuclear, with lots of texture and sweet-salt toppings. I hope my variety guy won't mind - there's enough left over for dinner again tonight.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Superwoman

My sister and I have always thought the sun rose and set on our older brother Jay. He was our hero. When he began dating, we scrutinized each successive girlfriend and had basically decided that there simply could never be a girl good enough for Jay. Charming they might be, but they would never measure up.

Then, he met Ann and his search was over. When we met her, my sister and I conferred and we agreed that our brother, as wonderful as he is, wasn't quite good enough for Ann. We haven't changed our opinion in their 40+ years of marriage.

Ann is everything a woman should be - charming wife, good mother, great friend, successful career woman, caring neighbor, super volunteer. She treats me like the sister she never had. She's even pretty. And slim although she eats like a horse. She's the kind of woman you could really hate, if she weren't so darn nice. Instead, we all adore her.

Did I mention that she's also a gourmet cook? She took her five years of living in France seriously and learned how to cook by inviting her French neighbors and friends over frequently to critique her dishes. (The French love her, too).

Anyway, when Ann serves anything from cassoulet to candy, it's well worth tasting and it's usually heavenly. I have adopted some of her easier recipes and make them frequently. One that I make every year at Christmas is her chocolate truffles. These are tiny, not too sweet and pack a chocolate wallop. I usually serve fruit for dessert when I have a dinner party and then, with the coffee, I put out a few of Ann's chocolate truffles. One or two are plenty - these tiny truffles satisfy even the most devoted chocoholic. I have never found anyone who didn't rave about them.

Because of the butter and egg that enriches the chocolate base, the truffles quite literally melt in the warmth of the mouth, flooding the tongue with silky chocolate liquor. You can add any extra flavor you prefer by changing up the liqueur or extract you use in the recipe. My preference is always for Kahlua; I would eat rocks if they tasted of mocha. However, almond, orange, vanilla - even menthe - each has its own appeal. The recipe makes enough that you could easily divide the chocolate base into more than one pot before adding the flavorings if you wanted variety.

Ann is also generous - she shares her recipes with anyone who asks and enjoys hearing back that they were appreciated widely. So, I'm sure she won't mind that I open up her sphere of influence to the greater food blogging world. Yes, she really is that nice.

Ann's French Chocolate Truffles

6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, cut into chunks (the better the chocolate, the better the result)
2 ounces butter, cut into small pieces (I use unsalted)
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons liqueur of choice or 1/4 teaspoon flavor extract
Unsweetened cocoa powder

In the top of a double boiler, melt chocolate. Add butter and stir until the two are mixed. Add yolks and stir well (I do this part off the heat but still over the hot water). Add liqueur and stir to mix.

Set the top of the double boiler over a bowl of ice and water, so the bottom of the pan is nestled in the cold mixture. Stir the mixture until it holds a definite shape. Drop onto waxed paper in desired size (I use a 1/4 teaspoon measure as a scoop) and let stand until firm enough to shape into uneven balls. Roll balls in cocoa.

Place in candy cups and ripen in a cookie tin for one day. To store more than one day, refrigerate. Serve at room temperature.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beside Myself

Okay, last post about the winter veggie melange, I promise - you're going to get as tired of reading about it as My Beloved is of eating it. Just to let you know that it makes a great side dish as well as a substrate for poached eggs.

I could wax lyrical about the gemlike colors and the way it enhances the lamb loin roast we had that night but, for once, I'll leave it to your imagination.

My Beloved was happier with this application because the lamb was definitely to his liking but, for perhaps only the fifth time in our 13 year association, he didn't clean his plate. I guess he's over the winter veggie melange - ya think?

Myself, I though it made a lovely side.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bargain For Dinner

I am a cheapskate. There's no getting around it, I'm a cheapskate. I love it when I can make a meal out of nothing and have it taste like something special.

Artichokes. I know they are local because a) pretty much nowhere else on earth grows them and b) I learned in my botany class that there are varieties that bud in fall as well as in spring. Plus, you can't get them for 79 cents if they aren't local.

Italian sausage. I've been on an Italian sausage kick recently and had half a sausage left from another dish I made a few days ago - I call that almost free.

Rice. I had to cook more of that for Cora's lamb-and-rice dinner anyway (yes, her tummy is still unsettled), so just sneaked out a little to stuff the artichokes.

Onion. Found it hiding in the very bottom of the vegetable bin in the fridge. Definitely a freebee.

Shallot. Ditto.

Lemon juice. My Beloved's daughter Katie gave us a huge bag of lemons - a bonus!

Herbes de Provence. I always have it on hand and only used a healthy pinch. Can't count that cost.

Olive oil, just a driz for browning the sausage and softening the onion/shallot. Hardly worth mentioning.

But, combine them all together and they make a pretty nice meal.

I cut the top third off the artichokes with a big, sharp knife, hollowed out the centers and removed the chokes with a metal tablespoon, then stuffed the mixture of sausage, onion, shallot, rice, lemon juice (to taste - mine was pretty tart) and Herbes de Provence into the middle. Steamed the whole thing for about 30 minutes, until the bottom of the artichokes was easily pierced with a knife.

Not bad for a budget dinner.

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