Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kudzu Inspired

One of the several delightful people I have met through this blog is a lady who calls herself Kudzu when she comments here. Pat Fusco doesn't write a blog; she is a writer for the Pacific Sun newspaper, one of those talented journalists whose prose I admire and wish I could emulate, and her regular columns are full of information for local food lovers.

The other day, while I was trying to think up something fun to do with the crisp, tubular stems of my Egyptian Walking Onion, she happened to leave a comment saying she remembered them from her girlhood in Georgia.

I had been thinking to stuff them, as they are hollow inside, with brown rice and something tasty but the ideas had not really jelled as yet . When I thought of Kudzu and walking onions together, I had my inspiration.

Kudzu is from the South as are grits, and I just happened to have a big bag of water ground grits in my cupboard. Plus, her last name is Italian, so I used Italian sausage, chopped walking onion and creamy grits as filling for my green "cannelloni." I added a generous amount of Parmesan cheese and bits of (precooked) Italian sausage to the grits once they were cooked, stuffed the mixture into the onion tubes using a plastic bag with the corner snipped off like a pastry bag, and topping the stuffed onion with provolone cheese before sliding them into a 325 degree oven for long enough to heat them through and to melt the cheese.

It was a very nice combination, rather like Kudzu, of sweet and creamy grits, salty sausage and savory cheese wrapped in onion that is mild to the nose but has a surprisingly spirited bite.

It was good but I have to admit I'd make a change next time. I'd blanch or parboil the walking onion stems before stuffing next time. They are sturdy and crisp, as you might expect from an onion top that stands two or three feet tall: starting with raw stems made them just a tad too chewy for our taste.

Still, I think it's a fitting tribute to a food writer from Georgia who married an Italian-American guy. She's an inspiration in more ways than one.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chop, Chop!

When I think of lamb chops, three things come to mind. First, of course, is how wonderful they taste and how pleased I was with this week's take on lamb chop marination. The juice of one lemon, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a clove of crushed garlic and about three sprigs of minced rosemary marinating for half a day lends wonderful ruffles and flourishes to one of my favorite meats. Grill just until it's deeply pink and you have a heavenly meal.

But there are a couple of other mental associations I make with lamb chops. One such was the wonderful '60s puppet, Lamb Chop who always made me laugh. I don't think there's a more talented ventriloquist than Shari Lewis was. Her routine with the Baby still cracks me up.

Perhaps my favorite memory involving a lamb chop happened back in the '70s and it's a favorite because it's dramatic but it has a happy ending.

One of the most wonderful people I have ever known was a lovely woman named Bobbie Davenport. Small and slender, but with a vavavoom sort of figure, she wore 4" heels and a mink coat when she was dressed to go out on the town but was just as comfortable in jodhpurs and boots, or a pair of baggy shorts and a bra on a hot summer day.

Although she was of my parents' generation, she insisted on being called "Bobbie," rather than "Mrs. Davenport." She was Butchie's wife and a wonderful woman in her own right. Not only did she produce four marvelous kids, she also rode horses, rescued all sorts of wildlife, raised many generations of kittens that all found good homes or never left, recorded books on tape for people with limited sight, volunteered in the library at her kids' school, cooked like a dream although she didn't really like to eat, and grew flowers and vegetables like a pro despite the depredations of several determined generations of woodchucks. She had an ongoing war with the woodchucks, muttering darkly when they raided her garden and threatening to get out her shotgun and send them to hell. Of course, she'd never have done such a thing - she loved all wildlife - so we always laughed out loud at her threats.

She was forthright, tough as nails, fair-minded and loving. She listened to Beethoven, Cole Porter and Petula Clark with equal appreciation, enjoyed a spirited political discussion and smoked a rhinestone-sprinkled pipe when she ran out of cigarettes. Bobbie opened her home to all kinds of strays and waifs, be they animal or human, including me on numerous occasions. If I didn't already have a terrific mother, I'd have been tempted to trade mine in for Bobbie. I loved her dearly for all these reasons and many more. I felt an immediate bond with her because we were both animal lovers and neither of us has ever fit into any pigeonhole.

One afternoon, Bobbie had used the oven and, when she was finished, cracked the door open to let the oven cool off. One of her many Burmese cats used that opportunity to climb inside where it was toasty warm to have a nap. That evening, lamb chops were on the menu; Bobbie closed the door and turned on the broiler in preparation, not knowing the cat was in the oven. Here's the happy ending - Bobbie heard the cat's wails, threw open the door and out flew the cat, only slightly singed in the fur department. The almost-broiled cat was fine and, ever after, we called her Lamb Chop.

When I grill lamb chops, all sorts of associations add to the pleasure of the meal. If Bobbie is up in heaven having a cocktail with Butchie, Shari Lewis and my parents at the end of a celestial day, I hope they are having marinated lamb chops for dinner.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Walk Like An Egyptian

Meeting Cassie, the owner and creator of Garden Girl Farm here in Point Richmond, has both widened and narrowed my horizons.

Narrowed, because now I don't have to go far afield for fresh eggs any more and widened, because when I was there last time, she pulled up and offered to me an Egyptian Walking Onion to try.

I had never heard of an Egyptian Walking Onion before so, natch, I accepted with alacrity, always fun to try something new.

It's a strange, almost weird, sort of onion, growing huge tops as much as three feet high that sprout little purple onionettes at the top which are clearly designed by Ma Nature to break off and colonize new landscapes, hence the name. Cassie's bed started with just a few but it's getting crowded now; lots of subdivision happening there.

When I got it home, I had to divide it into several pieces in order to get it into a plastic bag for storage. While cutting it, there were no tears; it has a mild onion smell. The little bulb looks like a mini red onion and I have plans involving pork chops for that part. The sturdy stems are hollow and crisp like a green pepper - I'm planning to stuff those with something involving brown rice, but I'm still mulling over the possibilities. Suggestions are welcome.

Don't you love meeting new people and opening new horizons?

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Squashed Sandwich

Years ago, I remember watching Julia Child and Jacques Pépin construct a marvelous big round sandwich using an entire cottage loaf of French bread. I love watching them work together - their teasing yet respectful comradery has always tickled me. Called a pan bagnat, the sandwich called for brie cheese, shallots, tomatoes, olives, anchovies and vinaigrette, then was pressed under a heavy weight until the juices all soaked in to the bread and was divided between all the eaters. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

Well, I had only a vague memory of what goes in but decided I wanted to make a similar sandwich without looking it up on YouTube, so I got out a bunch of ingredients and went to work.

I used Acme's wonderful herb slab bread, cutting off a piece about the right size, then slicing it in half through the middle so there was crust on both sides. Drizzled some EVOO on the bottom and balsamic vinaigrette on the top, then layered cheese, slices of cooked spicy Italian sausage and marinated artichoke hearts inside. I wished for some minced shallot that I didn't have and a few leaves of soft lettuce would have been nice, too. Oh, well. I wrapped the sandwich in plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge for half a day, weighed down by a quart of orange juice laid on its side on top of the sandwich.

The combination of the herbal bread, the tangy vinaigrette and the savory ingredients made for a lovely sammie, even though it wasn't authentic to Julia and Jacques. I checked out Pan Bagnat on the interwebs while I waited for mine to chill and compress, and that gave me all kinds of ideas for next time.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a really nice warm weather meal, this sandwich or one like it is a great option. It's cool from hours in the fridge, flavorful from whichever ingredients you select and filling. If you used a whole loaf, you could feed an army or feed yourself for a week, but there's no need to make more than you can eat today.

Bon Appetit, as Julia would say. Happy Cooking from Jacques.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Such A Clod!

When our local farmer's market started carrying organic Paradise Valley Beef, locally raised, certified grassfed and, by the way, delicious, My Beloved and I were thrilled. Apparently, they are doing a good business, too, because they have returned each week while some of our other producers have dropped out.

They will bring specific cuts with them if you call ahead but, being the woman I am, I can rarely get my act together for that. I was looking for a tri-tip (again) but they had run out by the time I got to the market; instead, the young man behind the counter suggested I get a clod.

Okay, that's what I thought, too - "Is this guy being insulting?"

No, it turns out that a clod is not a hard nut of baked earth suitable for beaning one's enemies, it's a cut from the chuck region of the animal (he showed me a map which didn't make me much wiser, frankly, and that's probably just as well). He assured me it would be well marbled and not too chewy despite being a part of the cow's locomotion system, if only I didn't overcook it. Since My Beloved likes his beef still to have a blood pressure and I like medium rare, that seemed doable. It also looked like a good size for a few meals for the two of us, so I pulled out my money and took home the clod, frozen and nicely vacuum sealed for the freezer.

When I thawed it about a week later, I marinated it in the fridge in that marvelous Sartain's Marinade for half a day before grilling over lump charcoal. I remembered that another piece of beef had gotten very tough from, according to that know-it-all Chilebrown, cooking it on too hot a fire. So, this time I lit my coals and let them get very ashy before placing the meat on the grates. I turned it frequently, say every three-four minutes, until the finger poke test said "perfect." We didn't even let the poor thing rest, just carved slices and fell on it like a couple of wolves.

From now on "clod" is going to be a term of endearment for me; the beef was wonderful! It tasted much like a tri-tip but was smaller, so better for just the two of us or for a small dinner party, and had a lovely, tender texture that was lightly marbled but had no big slabs of fat. The Sartain's marinade gave just a little heat to the outer layer and a whole bunch of flavor. The clod is my new go-to cut for a perfect summer barbecue.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Balance

When I was working, I prided myself on being able to balance work and personal life. Yes, I gave extra hours, usually in the early morning before the boss got in (not a good strategy, by the way, if the boss can't see you). All in all, I did a good job of giving a professional effort but retaining my real life, too.

Now that I'm retired, it's the same game. I like being a volunteer tutor but have gently declined to give my whole week to it. I enjoy blogging but I try to keep it to a fascination rather than an obsession. I enjoy cooking, but I'm happy sometimes to call for pizza. I love my Masters swimming but only want to do it three times per week. I love my dog but don't want to walk her more than our routine of 2X daily. I read about two potboilers to even out one of the weightier tomes.

Balance is what makes for great potato salad, too. You can't add mayo without balancing it with something tart. It's fatal to have too many pickles or too little celery. If you overdo the eggs, the spuds get lost. The salt-to-pepper ratio matters vs. the amount of fresh herbs. Even the size of the chopped ingredients matters: too big and the spuds aren't dressed enough; too small and it's more like cold mashed potatoes than potato salad. You get my drift.

The problem is finding that perfect balance where it all sings in concert on the tongue but all the elements get a chance to solo as well. Lois' potato salad was like that. I tried making it a few weeks ago but mine didn't have that beautiful equilibrium between flavors and textures that hers did, so I keep trying. I got darn close this time but I'm open to suggestion, which is just another kind of balance, isn't it?

How do you balance your life? Or just your potato salad.

My Tribute-to-Lois' Potato Salad (so far)

*About 1 pound of yellow potatoes, boiled in their skins, cooled and peeled. Chop to about 1/2" dice.
*2 hard cooked eggs, preferably fresh local, organic, free range, brought to a boil and cooked for just 12 minutes, plunged into cold water to stop the cooking, then peeled (or more likely scooped out of the shells with a spoon as most really fresh eggs won't peel) and chopped into 1/4" dice.
*4 small (2-3" long) sweet pickles, chopped into 1/4" dice
*1 medium sized rib of celery, chopped into 1/4" dice
*1/2 white onion, chopped into 1/4" dice
*3 Tablespoons mayo (I like Hellman's/Best Foods)
*The juice of one big lemon, no seeds allowed
*freshly ground black pepper, perhaps 1/4 teaspoon
*1/8 teaspoon (approximately) sea salt

Chop the first five ingredients into a medium-sized bowl. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix the mayo with the lemon juice and add the salt and pepper, mixing all together. Pour the mixture over the chopped ingredients and mix with a rubber spatula until all are sauced.

I meant to add fresh dill this time but forgot to buy any. I'm balancing a trip to the store with a wish to save gas. Ha!




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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sailors' Rations

Besides the Duck Tape printed with hot rod flames, there was another part of My Beloved's Father's Day surprise, a sail on the bay aboard USA76, a former America's Cup challenger.

There are lots of reasons why that is a great gift for My Beloved. First, he comes from a sailing family - he's the black sheep car lover in a flock of sailors. He grew up sailing on Long Island Sound and, when you've sailed as a kid, the fascination never really leaves, even years later when you're a California car guy.

His parents were both excellent sailors, his mother, sister and sister-in-law all Adams Cup challengers, and his father sailed with some of the biggest names in racing back in the day, completing the Bermuda race among others. After his parents retired, they sailed their boat back and forth to the Caribbean 18 winters in a row and lived aboard for months on end. My Beloved's brother has always sailed and skippered boats, and recently purchased another boat, this one large enough to enjoy cruising down to the Bahamas once he retires. His sister worked in a sail loft for several years and has been instrumental in teaching sailing to generations of youngsters. His parents were members of the New York Yacht Club where for many glorious years the America's Cup resided in its own little purpose-built round room so the hideously ugly cup could be admired from all sides.

If that wasn't enough, San Francisco is hosting the next America's Cup challenge, the replica of the original yacht "America" is here in the bay and they are offering rides on USA76. It was a must.

We had a simply splendid day on the bay. It was warm and windy, cloudless and gorgeous. USA76 is a dream of a sailboat - 85 feet of sleek black hull, fast, smooth and beautiful. She cuts through the wave chop like the proverbial hot knife through butter, rides the swells like the thoroughbred she is and when the wind catches her high-tech sails she simply flies over the water. No wonder the rich cats got hooked on this kind of boating! I found myself wishing for the kind of moolah that would allow me to have such a craft.

My Beloved and I each got a chance to stand at the helm with all that sail power under our hands and he took an active part in crewing the boat, using the "coffee grinder" to trim the sails and talking shop with the nice young skipper while I took a boatload of pictures. The crew was businesslike and friendly at the same time, offering us their expertise (one of them was on the all-woman America's Cup challenge team a few years ago) and enjoying the day with us. There were only six passengers (they will soon start sailing with 20 passengers, so if you want to go, go now to avoid the crowds) and an equal number of crew members. We rode out to USA76 on a zodiac and climbed aboard in heaving swells that zinged both the ride and the boarding with excitement. We had a lovely zig-zagging run past the city, out next to Alcatraz, down past the ball park and under the Bay bridge.

When we got home, a little sunburned and very tired, dinner had to be quick and easy but filling as we were hungry as wolves. I made this pasta dish in a flash, simply sizzling minced garlic in olive oil, adding slices of pre-cooked (very) spicy Italian sausage and a sprinkle of Herbes de Provence, then broccoli florets and coarsely chopped fennel, finishing off with green onion at the end. I added a small ladle of the pasta water, stirring it around in the pan to create a sauce, then added the drained penne to the pan to toss, and grated ParmReg at the table.

We inhaled it and went back for seconds before falling into bed to dream of skimming like sea birds over the rolling green waters of the bay. It was quick and delicious, like a ride on an America's Cup contender.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Father's Day Treat

I can hear you now - "Well, duh!" you'll say, or "You didn't know that?" with a voice of incredulity. And you'll shake your head over the fact that a woman can live as long as I have without ever trying raspberry waffles.

Father's Day was a good excuse for a knockout breakfast. We had a family emergency going on - a very, very sick infant grandson - so My Beloved's daughter Katie red-eyed to Boston to help her sister Sarah cope with the anxiety and with our four year old granddaughter. She called My Beloved on the eve of her departure to apologize for missing Father's Day this year and to set a date for a future father-daughter celebration when she returns.

When Father's Day dawned, he had no daughters in town, so I decided to try to fill the gap. I found the perfect Father's Day present - Duck Tape printed with hot rod flames - and made him waffles for breakfast. We had some raspberries in the fridge so I asked if he might like that idea. Got a big thumbs-up, so I dropped a few berries onto the waffle iron before pouring the batter and the scent of hot raspberries that wafted immediately up was a revelation in itself.

We have decided that there is nothing in this world so tasty as waffles with pockets of instant jam made by sizzling raspberries for a few steamy minutes in waffle batter. We slathered on the butter and ladled over the pure maple syrup - we are maximalists - and enjoyed every over-the-top bite.

I know, I know, it's so simple and I'm sure you have tried it eons ago while I was still thinking that the height of waffle pleasure was sour cream in the batter. But maybe you forgot how good it was and this can serve as your reminder. Father's Day may be over for another year but you can still have a treat.

And the good news is that our grandson, we call him the O-man, is doing much, much better. Fingers crossed that he goes home from the hospital this week.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Social Drinker

I started drinking martinis at age 15.

My parents always had their "cocktail hour" when Dad got home from work, a short time when they relaxed together and reviewed their days over a stiff drink. When we were young children, we were sent to play in our rooms during this adult time but, as we grew older, we were allowed to sit in and, in our mid teens, to join in.

My parents thought it was a good idea for us to try alcoholic drinks at home so we'd know how much we could tolerate when we were out on dates or at parties. They offered us the contents of their liquor cabinet, which is the '60s was extensive, as long as we drank it with them at home. It was a wise move, too, because by the time my friends were getting all excited about high school beer blasts, that seemed like a snore to me. Ho hum, how boring is 3.2 beer when you can have a "belt" at home.

Paradoxically, growing up in the Navy and experiencing a society in which drinking alcohol was the daily norm has made me somewhat leery about it. When my Dad had too much to drink, a rare occurrence, he just got silly and liked tinkly music. My mother was a different story - she was more likely to become argumentative or to berate herself for being a lousy mom. Having witnessed a friend's mother out of control and abusive and noting how nutso people can be at cocktail parties gave me pause. A couple of people close to me became alcoholics. And seeing how insidiously alcohol takes a person over - one day you are in control and the next day, the drink has you by the throat - I have become very cautious over the years. My Dad used to laugh at me when I refused a drink before dinner, urging me with a twinkle, "Honey, you aren't protecting yourself from the forces of evil." I remained adamant.

Still, I do like a drink now and then. I'm not a member of the WCTU and I'm not a teetotaler. I love a tart gin-and-tonic with lots of lime on a hot summer evening, especially when I could have it sitting on the lanai with my parents in Hawaii. When I visit my older brother, he fixes an Old Fashioned worth drinking on a Sunday afternoon. I love a margarita when I'm having Mexican food and I've been known to enjoy a Mai Tai while sitting on the lanai of my younger brother's yacht club. I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner sometimes, usually when we go out to a restaurant where it seems more like a special occasion. We serve wine at home when we have guests or when I have prepared a dinner that just begs for it. Celebrations, in my view, simply aren't celebratory without champagne or prosecco. And I do sometimes like an aperitif.

Having read about Aperol recently somewhere on the interwebs, I decided to try it when we had dinner out with pal Sari the other evening. It came straight up in a wine glass, beautifully reddish-orange and clear. Aperol has less alcoholic content than either Lillet or Dubonnet, my usual aperitifs, somewhat calming my fears.

It was a compete surprise. It tasted like thin, cherry cough syrup going down, with an aftertaste surprisingly bitter, and tingled alarmingly on my tongue for minutes after each sip. If Dubonnet or Lillet shake my taste buds gently by the shoulder and say "Wake up, sweetie, it's time for dinner," Aperol is a little brass band of an aperitif that blows a quick "Reveille! Reveille!" for the appetite and gets it standing at attention. But, as I sipped my way through it, I found that I got used to the medicinal-bitter-tingly procession and, by the bottom of the glass, was actually looking forward to the parade of sensations.

I'm still pretty careful about my alcohol consumption and I suppose I always will be but it's nice to know there's an energizing little wakeup call for the tastebuds out there when I've a notion.


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Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Good Egg

When I was in high school in Arlington, Virginia my Dad was working at the dreaded Pentagon, his least favorite duty station. While he knew his work there was important, it didn't contain any of the activities he joined the Navy for, such as flying airplanes or sailing in ships, and it was heavy with bureaucratic bullshit. We both used to go off to our days back then with leaden tread, as my opinion of high school was about the same as his of Pentagon duty.

There was a bright spot to most days, however. Breakfast. By that time, my mother had given up making breakfast for either of us, figuring we were independent enough to pour our own cereal or cook the occasional egg. She stayed comfortably in bed while we munched away in companionable early morning silence, he reading the front and sports pages of The Washington Post while I read the comics.

When I was moved to make poached eggs, his favorite, I'd make some for him, as well. There was something intimate and domestic about cooking for someone else, especially my Dad, who was so appreciative; perhaps that's where my love of cooking emerged? The pan steamed, the toast popped, the butter spread and it was ready. I did it often enough that today I can boast I make great poached eggs, perfectly cooked and presented using only one pan, one spatula, one plate, and one knife and fork.

Every morning that I cooked eggs, Dad and I would do this nonsensical little routine. I'd start it by asking with a twinkle, as I cooked:

"Dad, how do you like your eggs?"

and he'd reply, also twinkling,

"I like my eggs"

and I'd say,

"No, no, I mean - how do you like 'em cooked?"

and he'd say,

"Oh, I like 'em cooked!"

Made us chuckle every time. Dad and daughter bonding. Goofy stuff. I'd give anything to be able to go over our routine with him again.

Happy Father's Day to all you fathers out there. Don't worry that you're not doing enough for your kids - it's the little things they will remember. They know you're a good egg.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two Dads

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a great Dad. I was lucky; I had two.

My first Dad, I have talked about before, here and here and here. My other Dad came to my mind this morning when I made peanut butter toast for breakfast. Butchie, as we called him, introduced me to peanut butter toast as a breakfast option and I've been a fan ever since.

Butchie was the father of our oldest friends, the Davenport clan, a family of four children roughly our ages whom we met when I was in a crib. My Dad and Butchie were Navy test pilots together back in the late '40s and retained a lifelong friendship, close as brothers. Their respect for each other was profound and their senses of humor meshed delightfully. I have wonderful photos of the two of them together, deep in conversation or laughing out loud with heads thrown back.

Their wives also formed a strong friendship, babysitting each other's kids, helping each other out during dinner parties, having on-going arguments about the proper way to do things, taking vacations together and sharing stories about the trouble their progeny got into.

We grew up together although our family stayed in the Navy and the Davenports left it to settle in Michigan. When we lived somewhere interesting, they would come and experience it with us in the summer. When we lived in less fascinating places, we'd go to Michigan and wallow in the wonderful sameness of living in one place. In many ways, their house was the only real home base I knew during my childhood, the only place that was constant and unchanging in the wide array of places where we hung our hats.

And one of the very best things about being in Michigan was Butchie. When we were little children, he'd pile five or six of us into a big bed and sit on the edge, singing us to sleep with lullabys such as "On Top of Old Smokey," his signature song. He bored us silly with his lectures at the dinner table but chuckled with self-deprecating glee when he caught us making faces during his endless speeches.

He liked to pretend he was hard up for cash, always giving us a pained expression as eloquent as Jack Benny when he doled out money for ice cream, or lipstick, or a movie. He gave all us girls a standing offer - he promised bus tickets to the honeymoon destination and a transistor radio if only we'd elope; he even offered to hold the ladder for our swains. It was a continuing sorrow to him that none of us took him up on the offer.

As I grew up, he taught me all kinds of things - to swing a hammer, to grill chicken livers on a barbecue, to appreciate smoked oysters and sardines from a can, to keep a promise and to be careful of others' feelings. He taught me the value of hard work - he always arose before dawn and went in to his office before the workers at his small manufacturing plant arrived. I learned the simple warmth of a casual arm thrown around my shoulders and the art of power napping - he was so good at it that nothing woke him except easing his shoes off and tickling his toes.

Butchie maintained his pilot's license long after he left the Navy and, later, I learned that he had been a fighter ace in WWII. He didn't tell me; I just happened to read a book about his squadron, the Jolly Rogers, that had his name in it. Once or twice, he flew in to pick me up and take me to Michigan for visits with his family. At that time, he owned a Piper Comanche, tail number 6216PAPA, a piece of trivia I have never forgotten. First, Butchie would go carefully around his plane, inspecting all the outward systems and checking the fuel tanks. Then, he'd carefully do the pre-flight check in the cockpit, making sure all was safe. When we took off, I never felt any fear - I knew I was flying with the best. Flying in a small aircraft is completely different than commercial jets - the light lift as you leave the ground, the little dips and sways that remind you that you are truly airborne, and the excitement of watching for other nearby aircraft made me feel that I was truly a part of the crew.

Nothing I can write now will describe the warmth in my heart when I think about Butchie. In a time when we hear increasingly about the horrors that grown men impose on helpless children, I look back with gratitude on a second Dad who wouldn't have dreamed of doing such things and would have taken a horsewhip to anyone who tried.

Butchie died many years ago - I saw him last in the hospital where he made light of his illness and reminded me instead of how important I and my family were in his life. My last memory of Butchie is of him coaxing his three year old granddaughter up onto his hospital bed for a little hug; stinging tears still come whenever I remember how gentle he was with a child who was very uncertain about what was going on. Even then, it wasn't all about him.

So now you know why peanut butter toast is a favorite with me. I don't need honey on mine - it comes with a load of sweet memories.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Elna's Pie

Making this pie reminds me of First Husband's mother, a cute little bantam hen of a lady who first introduced me to strawberry pie. My first thought was, "Jeez, won't it just taste like jam?" I was not enthusiastic.

I can still recall my delighted surprise when I found that the fruit is not cooked, just gently enrobed in a flavorful glaze that holds the fruit together in the crisp, buttery crust. Since there is simply no way to improve on fresh, ripe strawberries, she had me from the first bite.

I hadn't made one of these in years, so I was a little shaky on the method but I had lovely strawberries and fresh raspberries just begging to be made into dessert, so I dove in. Elna would not have approved of deviating from her all-strawberry theme and she'd have served it with whipped cream; I opted to delete the cream, to reduce the sugar substantially and to experiment with different berries. I think she also used food coloring to enhance her glaze - mine was lightly pink while my memory of hers is deeply red.

The result was a great pie for a warm day, one that highlighted the fresh flavors of berries at their peak. It's not a quick pie to make, requiring separate baking and cooling of the shell, lengthy maceration of the berries, separate cooking of the glaze, and chilling of the finished creation but none of the steps is really difficult and the taste is well worth the effort. I simplified the recipe by using Star dough for the crust, baking and cooling it according to the package directions. The rest I did pretty much by Elna's directions; no need to mess with a winner.

Strawberry-Raspberry Glaze Pie, adapted from Elna's recipe

6-8 cups stemmed strawberries and raspberries
3/4 cup sugar + 2 Tablespoons
1 Tablespoon corn starch
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
A baked, cooled pastry shell

Leave small strawberries whole or cut up larger ones. It's prettier if you leave all the berries whole and arrange them in the crust, pointy side up. In a bowl, sprinkle the strawberries with the 3/4 cup of sugar and let stand for one hour, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar as the juice forms. Drain and reserve the juice. Set the berries aside.

To the juice, add water to make 1-1/2 cups. In a small, heavy bottomed pot, mix corn starch with remaining sugar. Add juice mixture and boil, whisking, until the glaze turns clear and thickens. Off the heat, stir in the lemon juice and let it get cold.

Drain strawberries again so berries only go into the crust and add the raspberries now (they are so fragile that it's best not to macerate them), then pour the glaze over. You may not need all the glaze - just stop when you feel the pie will hold together. Chill well.

Serve with whipped cream, if you like.


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Monday, June 13, 2011

Garlic Heaven

We all know that potatoes and garlic were sent by the gods to make us happy, just because they love us.

Along with my trinity chicken, they sent roasted yellow potatoes that I sprinkled with fresh rosemary and schmeared with roasted fresh garlic.

The garlic was from the farmer's market, young garlic but no longer green. There was a purple-striped papery outer layer already, but the cloves had not fully formed. I sliced the heads across, revealing the burgeoning cloves, and added just a driz of olive oil before popping them into the roasting pan with my behemoth of a chicken and the yellow fleshed potatoes to bake for an hour.

The garlic emerged with a crisp and golden outside and, inside, the cloves had melted into a soft, savory paste. Squeezing the papery layer, the garlicky paste covered the rosemaried spuds with a heavenly ooze. You have to love garlic to love these pototatoes, but who doesn't? The oven softened the garlic's bite and enhanced its softer, sweeter side. No butter was necessary or even missed.

Quick while the spring garlic is still in the markets, do yourself a favor and let the gods have their way with your taste buds.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Trinity

Rosemary. Lemon. Garlic. The holy trinity of chicken roasting.

I had this five pound behemoth of a free-range, organic chicken sold as a fryer - if this is a fryer, William Perry was a ballet dancer - and wanted to roast it. Luckily, I had lemons in the house, and fresh garlic, and my neighbor has a healthy rosemary bush from which she has offered me snips.

The chicken was dressed with all three - lemon squeezed over the skin and tucked inside, garlic sliced in half across to expose the cloves and popped in next to the lemon, rosemary leaves sprinkled over the outside and the woody stems added to the collection inside. I sliced a couple of extra heads of garlic, too, to roast along with the chicken (more about that tomorrow). 375 degrees F, one hour. Perfect.

On the way to perfection, the trinity filled the house with delirious scents. Even the white meat was juicy as the memory of a ripe peach from childhood and the skin was crisp and golden as parchment. The garlic turned mild and sweet in oven, the lemon gave off its perfumed essence and the rosemary added its almost piney tang to one of the best chicken dinners I can recall. Eating it was almost a religious experience.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mood Enhancers

Have you ever had one of those days when everything goes wrong? When your supposedly helpful electronic devices all gang up on you at once?

You have an important early appointment with a big client an hour's drive away, but you forget your (indispensable) cell phone and only remember it when you are a third of the way there, so you have to backtrack. Then, you get back in the car only to have the GPS tell you that you missed the slender traffic-free window and now must slog all the way there, arriving even later.

That's the kind of morning My Beloved had this week, a perfect illustration of Murphy's First Law, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." To put it mildly, he was not in a good mood. He was halfway down the hill and on his way the second time when he simply stopped, took a deep breath and called the client to reschedule, deciding to have a home office day instead.

*Whew*

Instant calm. Immediate lessening of stress.

Then, being the thoughtful guy I'm nuts about, he turned his car toward our favorite neighborhood restaurant and bought two cups of coffee, one for me and one for him, and a pastry for each of us as well. To this little feast, I added some fresh strawberries and we sat down to decompress for a few minutes before he took the rest of his coffee downstairs to his home office.

When he's in the office, I can hear his phone calls, not enough to understand the words but his mood comes through. I can tell by the tone of his voice if he's teaching someone how to use the complicated software that accompanies the locks he sells for his biggest factory, pitching to a new customer, solving (another) problem for a customer, or chatting with an industry pal. His voice plays like background music to my day as I'm writing blog posts, catching up on email or cooking in the kitchen.

The coffee, the morning bun, the strawberries and his voice are all mood enhancers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cross Over The Bridge

Eggs. Pastured eggs. Organic eggs. Colorful pastel eggs. Eggs of several sizes and types. Even duck and turkey eggs. All right here in Point Richmond, up a little dead end street at the Garden Girl Farm. Who knew?

I've been crossing over the bridge for a long time, buying expensive, free range, organic eggs from the Woodlands Market whenever some other errand took me to Marin. They are worth the extra trouble and expense because I have the happy knowledge that the hens lead a more normal life and the eggs are simply delicious. Still, whenever the price of eggs is discussed I try to change the subject, somewhat shamefaced to be so spendthrifty and snooty about my eggs.

Then, last week at the Alley Cats monthly lunch (a gathering of the women on our little street), my neighbor announced that she had met the Garden Girl a few weeks ago and learned that we can purchase fresh eggs right here in Point Richmond. She gave me the contact info and I called right away.

The Garden Girl is the business name for Cassie Dingwall, the proprietor of Garden Girl Farm. She is a dead ringer for a young Mary Travers with super-straight blond hair, killer cheekbones and an athletic, slender frame; her vibe is energetic enthusiasm. Dressed in camo pants, a tee shirt and a baseball cap, she chatters freely about her organic farm and her dedication to it. She says that she and her husband, Scott, haven't gone anywhere in seven years because it's not easy to find someone to care for the rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys.

The front yard is a well tended vegetable garden, decorated with a somewhat macabre statue of a vulture, where a flock of baby chicks peck and her cats slink in and out as we get to know each other over egg selection. The back yard contains the bulk of the farm, an area I didn't have time to tour on my first visit, but I will be back.

I selected my dozen eggs from a picturesque basket of multi-hued offerings that were laid that very day by the flock of perhaps 30 hens she keeps on the farm. Blue, green, cream, brown in all sizes from slightly larger than a walnut to jumbo duck eggs perfect for baking. I love the variety of colors and sizes - they don't affect the flavor but the visual surprise every time I open the carton is a simple pleasure.

Needless to say, I'm tickled to find the Garden Girl. Not only do I save the $4 bridge toll, I also save $2 on a dozen eggs; Cassie currently charges $5. If you're over this way, I'd encourage you to call her and make arrangements for a pickup. You might even want to bring home a pet rabbit or some chicken or rabbit poo for your garden, both of which she also sells. Or, you can purchase purebred Royal Palm turkeys, if you have a notion to raise your own Thanksgiving dinner or just have a more unusual pet. Not to mention landscaping services. As I said, her vibe is dynamic.

I'm not crossing over the bridge for eggs any more. More and more, I'm finding everything I need right here. Too bad we can't grow coffee beans or pineapples here, or.... can we?

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Is Coming!

Lookee what I found at last week's farmer's market - a sure sign of summer! Zucchini already, despite the cold and the wet and the less-than-springlike weather around here.

While we were whining about the clouds and rain, the stalwart zucchinis just got on with the business of reproduction. Opened up those big golden flowers and said, "Why don't you come up some time and see me? You can be had."

I enjoy the novelty of these eightball zucchinis. They are nearly as big in my hand as a softball and are just asking to be stuffed. I obliged. I made a simple stuffing by sautéing together half a chopped onion, five or six coarsely chopped crimini mushrooms, one chopped spicy Italian sausage (this particular one was fully cooked - Fra'Mani) and fresh snipped thyme and oregano from the garden, plus all the little garlic budettes from one scape. It was just the right amount of stuffing for two of the zucchinis. I cut the tops off about 1/4 of the way down, scooped out the forming seeds and flesh with a spoon, leaving about a 1/4 inch thick shell, and piled in the stuffing.

Into a 350 degree F oven for about an hour or a tad more and they were ready. The bland zucchini tempered the spice of the sausages and the onion and mushrooms did their usual magic. If your zucchinis are big enough, this is easily a whole meal in itself with perhaps a bit of bread alongside, toasted and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic. The best part of the meal, aside from the flavor, is the knowledge that summer really is on the way.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tarte Twist

I went to My Beloved's daughter Katie's wedding shower last weekend, looking forward to some female company and not thinking ahead very much to dinner afterward.

We had lots of girly fun, eating a splendid poached salmon and salads lunch, watching her open her shower gifts, telling eye-rolling stories about our menfolk and sampling killer chocolate chip cookies topped with Maldon salt, baked by none other than Katie's cousin, Molly Wizenberg of Orangette fame. Katie's sister made her the traditional bonnet from all the ribbons on her gifts and hilarity ensued. I know it sounds silly and I guess it was but it's what we women relish when one of our number is preparing the take the marital plunge.

On the way home, however, I remembered that My Beloved hadn't had dinner and he might actually be expecting to eat. What could I whip up in short order that would satisfy the inner caveman?

Because I had made the cherry and cheese tart the day before, I knew I had enough DuFour puff pastry for a savory tart, plus goat cheese left over from the same dessert. I remembered that I had some Niman Ranch Canadian bacon in the fridge and the idea of a bastardized tarte flambée came to mind.

When I got home, I started caramelizing about one and a half sliced onions in a wide frying pan with a tad of butter. While that happened, I rolled out the crust on a floured board with a floured rolling pin, incised a line about one inch in from the edge all the way around the rectangle with a sharp knife and pricked the dough inside the line with a fork. I slid that onto parchment paper on a baking sheet and then into the fridge to cool while I prepared the filling.

The filling was exactly the same as the cheese and cherry tart filling, a half cup of heavy cream whipped to soft peaks, then beaten some more with about four ounces of goat cheese crumbles until it became spreadable. I dropped it by dollops onto the crust and spread it thinly all around before topping with small lardons of the Canadian bacon and, finally, the caramelized onions. Into a 375 degree F oven for about 35-40 minutes, until the unpricked crust rose around the filling and was browned and crisp. Cut into squares and served alongside some frozen peas, it was easily the best tarte flambée I have made to date.

The tangy goat cheese was a perfect foil for the smoky bacon and the sweet, richly browned onions. The crust was a crisp contrast to the soft filling ingredients and was lighter than a normal tarte flambée crust. We sat down to talk over the bridal shower, to show My Beloved the pictures I took and to relish a quick, easy and delicious dinner.

I can imagine all kinds of future toppings for the goat cheese spread - tomatoes/basil/bacon or Swiss chard/chicken/garlic or mixed, blanched veggies. Next time you are in a hurry, I hope you have these simple ingredients in the fridge just waiting to put a new twist on a quick dinner.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Thyme For Dessert

The last few cherries in the bowl were starting to look as if they needed eating - a little wrinkly here, a soft spot there. It was time to get serious about making something from them before they became just so much compost.

I wasn't in the mood for clafoutis, even though the idea of trying it with the pits left in has been a temptation ever since I learned last cherry season that it's traditional. Eggy just wasn't appealing. And I didn't want a cherry pie - too sweet and too much pitting to contemplate on a laid back sort of a day. Fruit and cheese came to mind - and stuck.

I cruised the interwebs without a lot of success. Some recipes had parts that sounded good but other parts that made me shake my head. Finally, I decided it was time to take my courage in both hands and invent.

Here's what I came up with - cherry and goat cheese tart with thyme. I have no idea why that combination sounded appealing but it did and by some minor miracle I had all the ingredients that were bouncing around in my head actually in my house. I rolled out some store bought puff pastry and spread it with a mixture of goat cheese and cream, dotted it with halved, pitted cherries, sprinkled it with fresh thyme from the garden and slid it into a moderate oven.

The result was a really lovely dessert, not very sweet at all - in fact, the cherries seemed to lose sweetness in the baking - but complex and interesting and savory with just a whisper of sweetness. The thyme flavor was unexpected and novel and I liked it - I'd do that again for sure.

We had a piece before leaving to walk the dog and it was so good that we had another piece a few hours later for dessert. I took the rest over to my neighbor next door - just to get it out of the house - and then sat around thinking, "Man, I wish I had another piece of that tart!"

Cherry and Goat Cheese Tart with Thyme

About 2 dozen cherries, pitted and halved
1/2 cup whipping cream
3-4 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
Frozen puff pastry, 1/2 package (I use DuFour brand - it's much the best)
1-3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Pit and halve the cherries and set aside. Roll out the puff pastry on a floured board with a floured rolling pin - just a few strokes - the resulting rectangle should measure roughly 8" x 10". Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the pastry on the paper. Trace a line with the tip of a knife one inch in from the edge of the pastry all the way around - don't cut through the pastry, just incise a line. Inside the line you've just incised, prick the pastry all over with a fork. Set aside or, if the pastry is getting too warm, stick it in the fridge to cool down while you prepare the cheese.

In a medium size bowl, beat the cream with an electric beater until it is loosely whipped and holding very soft peaks. Crumble in the goat cheese with the whipped cream and continue beating until the cheese is combined well and the resulting mixture can be spread with a knife - perhaps 30 seconds.

Drop blobs of the cheese mixture evenly onto the pastry, then spread with a knife to coat the whole pastry to about 1/4" thick. Place the cherries cut side down on top of the cheese mixture and sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves.

Bake at 375 degrees F for about 30-40 minutes, until the crust is richly browned and the cherries soften. Slide the parchment paper with the tart aboard onto a wire rack to cool.

I don't know how well it keeps as it didn't last long once we started eating it.

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lois

When our friend Jeff invited us to his backyard barbecue over the Memorial Day weekend, I accepted with alacrity and asked what we could contribute to the feast. He suggested potato salad but I demurred because I didn't have a really good recipe for potato salad.

I've made plenty of attempts, believe me, but never really found one I love, despite being a fundamentalist believer in potato salad and the good it does in the world. I have tried warm ones, cold ones, vinegary ones, German ones - you name it, I've tried it; but I never made one myself that I just loved. Then, all of a sudden came a memory of the best potato salad I have ever eaten - Lois'!

Lois was a dear friend of mine when I lived in Rochester, NY. She had recently moved to Rochester from her native city of Buffalo - that may not sound like a big change but you'd be amazed at the difference between those two cities, just 70 miles apart - and she was lonely. So was I - Rochester is not an easy place to make friends. She and her handsome husband, Crane, had made overtures to some of our other neighbors but had been rebuffed. When First Husband and I moved in next door, newly arrived from California, she and I became fast friends despite a gap in age, sharing all kinds of silly and serious events in our lives. She introduced me to Buffalo; I still have a fondness for that open, friendly city thanks to her. She invited us to her little cabin in the Southern Tier of New York State and we had many fun weekends there.

Lois is a nurse in the finest tradition of nursing; she actually wore white when she worked, not like today's nurses who do a laudable job but look as if they are wearing their PJs to work. When I was deathly ill, she tended me in the hospital, gave me great advice regarding surgery ("Request the head of anesthesiology - s/he is even more important than your surgeon"), and generally treated me like a daughter when my mother couldn't be with me.

On one of those weekends at their cabin, Lois made potato salad for lunch. She claimed it was nothing special but, people, I want to tell you I actually had trouble not finishing the entire bowl, it was so good. Once I remembered that potato salad, I couldn't wait to call Lois and get the recipe. She has moved back to her beloved Buffalo to be closer to her son and daughter now that she and Crane have retired. I haven't seen her since I left Rochester but recently we reconnected through email, letters and phone calls - we talk about once a month or so, giggling and carrying on as if we were never apart.

She laughed when I asked for the recipe and said, "Oh, honey, I haven't made that in years!" but her memory of ingredients and method hadn't faded at all. Redolent of onion and sweetened with gherkin pickles, it is an amazing treat for the taste buds. If you're not a sweet pickle fan, come back tomorrow.

Lois' Potato Salad

White skin potatoes, peeled, boiled and diced fairly finely
Hardboiled eggs, diced finely
Celery, diced finely
Onion, diced finely
Sweet gherkin pickles, diced finely (but don't use pickle relish!)
Hellman's or Best Foods mayo, thinned with a little milk
Salt and Pepper

Obviously, it's the proportions of these ingredients that make the salad wonderful, but you must decide on your own proportions. I used two good-sized potatoes and two eggs, one rib of celery and half an onion, plus four pickles (gherkins are small).

It was delicious with a wonderful interplay between the bland potato and the crisp celery, the savory onion and the sweet pickle, but it wasn't as good as Lois made. I'm sure she didn't withhold any ingredients (would a nurse do that?) - must have been Lois' friendship that added to the flavor.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

For Now

For now, all we are doing is washing them and eating them right out of the colander.

Last week, the cherry stand opened at our farmer's market with these incredible Brooks variety cherries, the earliest on the market and full two weeks ahead of the Bings.

The Brooks cherry was developed at UC Davis and only released to the public in 1987, so it's the new kid in town compared to Rainiers and Bings, but I like it even better than those two for its complex flavor. Yes, it's sweet but also just a little tangy, not as darkly rich as Bings, not as simply sweet as Rainiers.

I may get around to clafoutis, or even to a pie since these are partially freestone but, for now, we are happy just to hold the smooth shiny fruit between our teeth while we pull off the stem, then bite into a burst of juicy cherriness. Next to strawberries, cherries are my favorites - at least for now.

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