Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Real Women Make Quiche

We had all been eating pretty high on the hog since Naomi and Sam arrived. They wanted to thank us for our hospitality by cooking lavishly for us (and doing dishes, by the way) and we wanted to show them the bounty of their new home. The result was that all four of us lovebirds needed a lighter meal for a change.

Naomi headed into the kitchen - she no longer needs direction about where to find things - and got busy. The result was a good, fresh salad and a savory quiche of tomatoes, anchovies, onions and black olives, dusted with Parmesan and lovingly encased in a tender crust.

Now, lest you be thinking, "Eww, anchovies!" let me assure you that there was no fishy taste in this quiche. The anchovies deepened all the other flavors without making their presence strongly felt. They were rather like the salt in a dish, enhancing the flavor of the other ingredients in a subtle way. All my tongue registered was "Tender! Delicious! Tomato! Quiche!"

Now that Naomi and Sam have found an apartment and a job for him, they will be leaving us. I will miss Sam's little hum of approval - he gives it when he tastes something he likes, and when he hugs. I will miss Naomi's gentle ways and sweet smile coupled with her wizard brain and trenchant observations. I'll miss having their laughter in the house and their clever conversation. Cora will miss the extra snacks and attention. It has been a fun couple of weeks that went by fast. Happily, they won't be living very far away so we'll see them from time to time.

Naomi's Tomato and Anchovy Quiche, adapted from Julia Child's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Pastry:
3/4 stick butter
8 heaped Tablespoons flour (Naomi uses the large table spoon, not a measuring spoon - this works out to about 1.5 cups flour)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten
Cold water, if necessary

Filling:
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
5 medium flavorful tomatoes
1 egg
2 egg yolks
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 can anchovies, chopped into small pieces
1/3 cup half-and-half cream
pinch cayenne pepper
black pepper to taste

Topping:
1/4 Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup black olives, halved (approximate)

Mix butter, flour and parmesan until crumbly, then add egg and m ix into a ball (add more flour or some water if necessary). Cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Chop onion and tomato, mince garlic. Heat some olive oil in a medium pan and add onion. When onion has softened, add tomato and garlic and cook, uncovered, at low-medium heat for five minutes. Then add tomato paste, stir and cook for another 20 minutes.

Set oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out dough on floured board and line pie dish. Prick all over with a fork and put in oven. Blind bake for about 20 minutes, until just beginning to brown. Remove the pie dish and decrease oven temperature to 350 degrees F when done.

Beat together 1 egg, 2 egg yolks, half & half, anchovies, Parmesan, cayenne and pepper in a medium bowl or large measuring cup. Add onion and tomato mixture and stir.

Pour mixture into pie base. Arrange olive halves on top and sprinkle with more grated Parmesan. Bake in 350 degree F oven for about 30 minutes, until firm and browning.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Final Exam

Eons ago, My Beloved's daughters gave us a gift certificate to use at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. We were thrilled, as I had never been there before and My Beloved only once or twice. Still, we had never found just the right occasion to use it until now.

When Sam and Naomi discovered the perfect apartment in which to spend the next couple of years while she finishes her studies and he builds his resume, there was some question about whether or not they would make acceptable tenants. They had to fill out paperwork describing their financial and educational status, prospects, habits, blood type, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, hair and eye color (I may be exaggerating a bit here) and even meet in person with their landladies. My Beloved and I wondered what in heaven's name the landladies might find to object to in these two but, needs must, so they dressed in their best, donned their helmets, and cycled off to meet the skeptical landladies.

They came back triumphant, having passed both written and oral exams. It seemed like a good excuse for another celebration so I stuffed our gift certificate into my purse and these two leggy youngsters into our car and off we went. First, we toured their new neighborhood, pointing out our recommendations for restaurants and shops close to the apartment. Then, we wound our way up the hill to the huge, pristine white frame building on the hill.

The Claremont is a marvelous place - kind of a throwback to an earlier time with wide porches, a splendid lobby and a balcony/bar with sweeping views across Oakland to San Francisco. The fog had melted back to the coast, framing San Francisco in soft light. The cars on the Bay Bridge sparkled in the setting sun, a necklace of light linking the two cities. Some day, perhaps for an important anniversary, I'd love to stay there and enjoy all the luxuries; as it was, we toasted each other with fancy cocktails and enjoyed some snacks along with the fairytale view.

My Beloved ordered lobster sliders, Sam and Naomi shared ahi tartar served with a tasty sauce in large, recurved taro chips, and I fell for the description of Dirty Potato Chips. What arrived was nothing like I imagined from the description but it was tangy and savory. It was also approximately three times the size of the other "snacks," so we shared that one around.

The potato chips were the crinkled kind, freshly fried and salted, then topped with chunky blue cheese dressing, crisp bacon lardons coated with a surprisingly spicy heat, and small chunks of well cooked chicken livers. A sprinkle of green onion for color and you have a substantial snack for four.

We drank our colorful cocktails and enjoyed our surroundings. I had a pleasant little buzz on by the time we left, strolling down the hill to our car in the warm evening air. Not only did Naomi and Sam pass muster, so did the Claremont.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Adam and Eve

Naomi, Sam, My Beloved and I were walking home from a sumptuous brunch down in the village when we stopped to pick wild blackberries along the roadside. The berries are prolific this year - I suppose they enjoyed our very wet winter. Naomi had offered to make dessert for that evening's meal and, when she saw the blackberries, it was clear that she had an idea in mind.

Adam and Eve.

Intrigued by the quirky biblical reference, I asked her about it. Another dessert that Naomi's Mom taught her, this one combines apples and just about any other fruit under a layer of sponge cake. Sound good to you? It sounded like heaven to me.

And tasted pretty heavenly, too. The wild berries are very seedy but also very, very flavorful and the Gravenstein apple added its own taste and texture. The cake was light and finely spongy and just lightly sweet, more of a suggestion of sweet than an active presence. The top was golden brown and a little crisp, while the underlayer was moist and tender. One can easily see why Adam was tempted if Eve made desserts like this out of that apple.

Adam and Eve

The ingredients in this recipe are approximate - you could vary it with all apples, or more apples and fewer berries, or all berries, or whatever fresh fruit you have in mind (although you can't really call it Adam and Eve if you don't use apples). I'm already planning to use the few peaches my little tree is producing this year, along with some blackberries.

For the filling:

1 Gravenstein apple (or other baking apple), peeled and coarsely chopped, cooked for about 5-10 minutes with a little water, just to soften slightly
2 small baskets of blackberries - about two cups?
A sprinkle of sugar

For the cake batter:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 oz butter, slightly melted (1 stick)
4 oz sugar (about 1/2 cup)
Vanilla essence to taste, just a couple of drops
2 eggs, beaten with a fork

Mix all ingredients with a spoon until thoroughly combined. Butter an 8" deep casserole dish, place the fruit in the bottom and sprinkle lightly with sugar - not too much. Pour the cake batter over the fruit and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, until the batter is golden brown and has risen. Test with a toothpick or cake tester; if it comes out clean, it is ready.

Serve in bowls, scooping deeply so that each portion contains some cake and some fruit. Your teeth may turn purple but you won't care.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pasta Is For Lovers

Sam and Naomi, our charming young house guests, are just barely off their honeymoon. They were married in England just about a month ago so they bring along with them that happy glow that comes with the first wonder at being man and wife. It's lovely to witness.

It's also lovely to taste the enthusiasm they put into their cooking. They seem thrilled to have a well-stocked and furnished kitchen in which to let their culinary imaginations hold sway. I brought home garlic sausages from the Marin Sun Farms' store in Market Hall and Sam made them into a very special dinner.

His sauce was composed of browned sausage meat in a creamy, tomato-y sauce lovingly combined with penne pasta cooked just al dente. Sam tastes as he cooks, adding a little of this and a dab of that until his tongue tells him the dish is ready. The entire meal took only about half an hour to compose, too, a bonus if you happen to be working. Richly flavorful and artfully presented in pasta bowls, it disappeared in record time. Marvelously satisfying.

He had trouble remembering the steps of creation but we sat down together and stepped through what he did, coming up with a pretty good approximation. You don't really need the exact ingredients as I'm sure he would make it differently next time; that gives you the freedom to mess about with your own joyous, off-the-cuff version to serve to your own lover.

Sam's Sauce

1 small onion, chopped
4 garlic sausages
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup dry sherry
14 ounce can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with the juice from the can
2 bay leaves
1-1/2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup heavy cream
Cracked black pepper
Basil leaf for garnish
Penne pasta

Into a mixture of olive oil and butter over medium-high heat in a wide pan, sauté the chopped onion, then squeeze out the contents of the garlic sausages in little bits and brown them in the same pan. Pour off the extra fat. Add the garlic and lightly cook. Add the sherry and cook until reduced to almost nothing. Add the tomatoes and juice, breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon, then the bay leaves, and cook for about 10 minutes.

While the sauce bubbles away, cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain.

When the sauce is nicely cooked, reduce the heat, add the cream, then the parsley, and simmer for perhaps 5-10 more minutes until it thickens. Add cracked pepper and the pasta, stirring until all the pasta is coated with sauce. Serve immediately, garnished with a sprig of something green.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Celebrate! Celebrate!

How many times in one's life does one leave the house in the morning to make networking calls and come home that afternoon with a job? Not too often, I suspect, but that's what happened to Sam yesterday!

He had come to California with his new wife, loaded with credentials but without a job, hoping to find one in the next few weeks or months. The TV news these days is full of stories about unemployment, so he was being realistic rather than optimistic about his chances.

But, dutifully, he dressed in his best blazer and headed out in search of employment. Halfway through the day, I read his post on Facebook that he had landed a job!

So, of course, we needed to celebrate. My Beloved trotted down the hill to purchase a bottle of champagne and I prepped a hearty victory meal of Black Dragon Tri-tip from Baron's Meats in Alameda. We toasted and tasted and hugged and laughed, giddy with relief and champagne.

Ain't life grand?

Burrito Brunch

I'm not much of a breakfast person. Shameful admission, I know. For one who loves food so much, why would I give up one entire meal a day?

It's not that I don't enjoy breakfast foods. I'm a big fan of waffles and pancakes. I enjoy eggs and bacon, granola, yogurt and, of course, all kinds of fruit. Breakfast foods are some of the best in the world, just not at breakfast time.

Even though I'm an early riser, and always have been, I don't have an early appetite. It takes a while for my stomach to wake up and food can even seem sickening to me if offered too early in the morning.

But, brunch? Now you're talking!

All those delicious choices, starting around 10am - oh, yeah, baby! The other (late) morning, for example, when My Beloved was out making money for us, I made myself a sort of mild breakfast burrito, wrapping gently scrambled eggs with small dice of Canadian bacon in a flour tortilla. Simple, easy. I could have added a dash of Cholula but, people, it was still morning. I was lucky to be facing breakfast, much less hot sauce.

Are you a breakfast lover? What do you like for the first meal of the day? And when?

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Change Of Seasons

Although I wouldn't say we've actually had a summer this year, it seems that we are already headed for fall. Our foggy weather has darkened each morning for weeks and kept our temperatures down roughly ten degrees below normal.

Here in the West, we don't have the brilliant red and burgundy leaves of the eastern fall, but we get our share of yellows and oranges and, as brighter cultivars are developed and planted, we are even seeing a sprinkling of those colors, too.

I was surprised, when walking home from Sunday breakfast in the village, to find leaves already turning to fall colors as we walked along. Normally, our color waits for very late September or early October to begin showing up.

I know we still have some long, warm days ahead because our warmest weather comes in September and October, and the bright fruits and veggies in the markets will cheer us for a good while yet, but here's the first little hint of short days to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Happy Meal

My gold standard for breakfast sandwiches, when I worked in San Francisco, was always the wonderfully gooey, hot-off-the-grill sandwich that is served at Em's Place on McAllister, right next to my former place of employ, Hastings College of the Law.

It was a wonderful start to the work day, a pleasure I reserved for those few mornings (I loved my job) when I didn't really want to be at work, a little treat to make getting to work something to look forward to.

When I retired a couple of years ago, I did manage to get in to the city from time to time and, whenever it was around breakfast time, I'd stop at Em's to say hello to the lovely Chinese couple who run the place and to treat myself again to their breakfast sandwich.

As the years have gone on, however, I have gone less and less to the city and I missed having a good breakfast sandwich now and then. .

But, guess what! Eureka! I have discovered a really good substitute right here in town. At Little Louie's, they make a really solid sandwich of any combination you want - my favorite is whole wheat toast, scrambled egg, Swiss cheese and, of course, bacon. Breakfast Sandwich Heaven.

It's so hearty that I only buy one when My Beloved accompanies Cora and me on our morning walk - it's really too big for one person. We greet which ever family member is working there that day, help ourselves to a cup of coffee, then order the sandwich. While it's being freshly made, we chat with each other, or greet neighbors who happen in, or just sit in comfortable silence, anticipating the feast to come.

We always save a bite containing bacon for Cora - she waits patiently outside, tied within sight to a convenient tree. Then we stroll home, sipping our coffee and stopping frequently to let Cora sniff, comfortably full of well cooked breakfast and all of us content.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Naomi's Masterpiece

While Sam was whipping up his salmon and corn chowder, Naomi spent the hour making and baking a pie for dessert.

The first thing Naomi learned how to make as a child was pie dough - her mother taught her. Her mother must be a wonderful woman, as Naomi's piecrust is, hands down, the best I've ever tasted. It is very short and buttery with a little hint of sweetness, tender as a love poem and flaky as a teenager.

Into the pie shell, she put blackberries and golden raspberries, gently suspended in a delicate custard. If there is a better berry for pie than blackberries, you'd have to convince me of it, and the golden raspberries added a bright note of color to the wonderful flavor of ripe, jammy berries.

Naomi has shared her recipe with me and given me permission to share it with you. Make your own masterpiece while the wild berries are still ripe on the canes around here. And don't forget to thank Naomi's Mom.

Naomi's Berry Pie

Pastry:
8 Tablespoons all-purpose flour* (*Note: Naomi uses a regular table spoon, rather than a measuring spoon, also heaping the spoon, so it works out to about 1.5 cups flour)
3/4-1 stick unsalted cold butter, cut into pieces (use the rest to butter the pie dish)
A sprinkling of brown (or white) granulated sugar (hers was "hippie sugar," the coarse kind)
1 egg

Measure the flour and sugar in a bowl. Add the butter and work it quickly with your fingers until it looks like crumbs. Whisk the egg and add it with few strokes to the butter/sugar/flour mixture. After mixing, wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for 30 minutes or freezer for 10 minutes. Roll out to line a pie plate. Blind bake by pricking the bottom of the crust with a fork in several places and bake for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees F. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees.

Filling:
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
Sugar (the amount depends on the sweetness/tartness of the berries, roughly 2 teaspoons over the fruit and 1 Tablespoon in the custard mixture. Less for strawberries or sweeter fruit)
Cinnamon to taste
Lemon zest

Fill pie base with berries (blackberries and raspberries, or other combos as you wish). Mix custard mixture and pour over and around fruit.

Bake at 375 degrees F until it smells ready and pie crust is browning, about 25-30 minutes more. Remove from oven and let rest for a few minutes until the custard is well set. Serve warm, or at room temperature. It's swoony-delicious either way. I speak from experience.


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Monday, August 22, 2011

Personal Chefs

No kidding. We have our own personal chefs these days. A delightful and talented twosome, Naomi (put the emphasis on the first syllable) and Sam, newlyweds who are staying with us while they hunt for a suitable apartment, having been married in the UK (her home) before moving to Berkeley to pursue doctoral studies (she) and a job (he).

They seem to think they need to pay back our hospitality with home cooking. I can't decide whether to confess to them that we just love having youngsters in the house and that they are a treat all by themselves, thereby giving up our personal chefs, or just let them keep cooking for us. They are very good cooks; so far, we have remained mute.

Last evening's meal is a case in point. Salmon and corn chowder from epicurious.com. About an hour before we were ready to eat, Sam and Naomi disappeared into our kitchen, popping their heads out from time to time to ask, "Where do you keep your...?" or "Do you have...?" while My Beloved and I sat at our leisure in the living room, snacking on crackers and cheese.

In that short time, they produced the chowder and a marvelous blackberry pie (more on that tomorrow). The chowder was hearty with sweet corn and potatoes, and fragrant with salmon and dill. Sam even sneaked a little smoked paprika in there toward the end, lending both color and another savory layer of flavor. It was one of the very best chowders I have ever tasted and here's the kicker - they had never made the recipe before. They just winged it and hit a home run on the first try. Ah, the cocky courage of youth!

So, you can see our dilemma. Come clean and lose the chefs, or continue shamelessly to use their sweet guilt? Any opinions?

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nacho Aficianado

I count myself as a bit of a nacho expert. I love nachos and I have eaten more plates of them than the average person. There's something about all that melty cheese, beans and guacamole over crisp corn chips - I think it's brilliant.

Cousin Jan and I took a day off from swimming last Friday and decided to go window shopping and out for lunch. The day was foggy and chilly and the sun didn't even shine until around 2pm and even then only briefly before dodging back behind the incoming fog bank. The idea of stripping off and jumping into a pool just wasn't appealing, so... we didn't!

Instead, after poking through a bunch of shops in the Rockridge area of Oakland, we sat down to fish tacos and nachos at the Cactus Taqueria. It was noisy and bustling, clearly a family sort of place. We ordered from menus on the wall and were called some time later to pick up our meals.

My nachos were pretty darn good. In addition to the required ingredients (beans, cheese, chips), this plate had chopped tomato (actually nicely ripe!), fresh guacamole, and slices of puckery green olive and fiery jalapeño. There was also a sort of salsa bar where one could choose one's own favorite toppings. The plate was generous, too - Jan and I worked our way from opposite sides and still couldn't finish it all.

While not perhaps the very pinnacle of nacho creation, it was a solidly good plate at a very reasonable price ($5.50 at this writing). This aficianado would happily return.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

¡Viva Coca!

Anyone who grew up in my generation in America knows the shape of this pale green glass bottle with a waist and a long neck, but rarely sees it any more. Once upon a time, every soft drink machine sold Coke in glass bottles and there was always a wooden, sectioned tray with handles next to the machine for the empties.

The bottles were taken away and washed and refilled with soda. Sometime in the crazy '60s, we forgot about recycling glass and went to aluminum cans instead. These days, what was once a ubiquitous feature of life has become something usually found at laughably high prices in "antique" shops, empty.

My mother was very fond of Coca-Cola and purchased it routinely for herself but it was forbidden to us kids. She said it was expensive so she only treated herself occasionally. Knowing her, I think she also wanted to keep us from too many sweets and she probably knew it contained caffeine - heaven knows, she didn't need children with even more energy. She did allow us small sips of her Coke but we got the forbidding frown if we drank too much of the precious stuff from her glass.

When I was fifteen, my parents parked me in a French boarding school. On the rare occasions when we were allowed to go out, fully chaperoned by one or the other of the school's maiden lady teachers, a special treat for us was to stop at a café and pay an exorbitant price for a reminder of home - Coca-Cola. Usually, if we had enough allowance left, we'd get a burger to go with it.

They do still sell Coca-Cola in glass bottles in Mexico, and you can buy it for similarly high prices at restaurants here in the U.S. It has the remembered shape but the big red-and-white label has been added - in the olden days, the bottle was just green with the name of the soda impressed into the glass.

I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so purchased a "real" Coke to drink with lunch. I thought I knew what Coke tastes like but it had been many years since I drank one with the full sugar hit, so it came as a bit of surprise.

I filled my cup with ice and poured in the cola - today's bottle is much larger - I couldn't finish the whole thing. I guess even in Mexico they have embraced "supersizing." It wasn't nearly as sweet as I expected. It was bubbly and brown but I guess Mexican tastes are for less sweet cola. I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Don't ask me why I bought a beverage I expected to dislike - nostalgia is not always logical.





Friday, August 19, 2011

Pure Comfort

I'm not sure why someone like me, one of the lucky and privileged few, should need comfort, but every now and then I do.

Sometimes, I'm missing my Dad, even 15 years after his death. Sometimes, I'm wishing for a visit from a dear friend. Other times, although I adore our lovely dog, I wish I had a cat, for that special kind of quiet love only a purring cat can provide. When I feel like that, I make mac and cheese. From scratch, using really good ingredients.

Sure, I could get mac and cheese, much faster, out of a box, but it wouldn't be the same, not even the organic versions. I could also use other noodles than elbows, but that wouldn't fit my mental picture of mac and cheese. There's something comforting, not only in the eating of mac and cheese but also in the making of it. It's simple, straightforward and nearly mistake proof.

I'm careful to cook the macaroni just to al dente stage, not letting it get mushy. I also add chopped onion, sautéeing the onion in butter before adding the flour. I make the white sauce with real butter, all purpose flour and fresh milk (or, sometimes, half-and-half), letting the flour cook to a toasty flavor before adding the milk. This time, I had on hand three kinds of cheese, a smoky gouda, a small block of cheddar and a hunk of taleggio. None of them was, or should be, orange. I cut them into smallish pieces before adding them to the white sauce and stirring over low heat until they all meld together, then pour in the cooked and drained elbow macaroni and mix until every little curl is well coated with cheesy, oniony goodness.

The final step is the hardest part - postponing the satisfaction. You must wait until the mixture cools and rests for at least an hour, and preferably overnight. When you're hungry for comfort, it's difficult to do.

But then, when you reheat gently, everything has combined and strengthened into a deeply cheesy, unctuous whole, as if all the flavors had regrouped during the rest, found reinforcements, and come barreling back. At this point, you could add garlic crumbs to the top and bake but often, by then, I don't want to wait any longer; I get a fork and dive in.

Pure comfort.


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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fuel For Dancing

Zydeco! One of my favorite kinds of music. Pals Janie and Jack know that, so they invited us to meet them last Sunday afternoon out at Rancho Nicasio for an afternoon of Zydeco and Cajun music with two of the best bands I've ever heard.

Tom Rigney led off the afternoon of toe-tapping fun with his amazingly vigorous playing - he makes his violin howl, quite literally. No one could hold still while Tom is playing, and his backup band, Flambeau, is marvelous, too. Many in the audience began to dance as soon as he sounded the first notes on his fiddle, and even the seated people were moving to the music.

We could hardly believe he was the "warm up" act - he's a star in his own right.

However, when BeauSoleil tuned up, we could almost believe it.

BeauSoleil, while much less showy, is the real Cajun deal, with sounds and rhythms unlike any others. The leader of BeauSoleil, Michael Doucet, has earned two Grammys and several cultural awards for collecting the authentic music of the bayou and preserving it for future generations. His music is filled with the sad soul of the Cajuns and the Acadian experience, mixed with the joyous music of love and life. His last number, one I suspect that he wrote himself, was so haunting and touching that it almost brought tears.

If either of these groups comes within hailing distance, you really should go. I'm not usually a groupie but I admit that I asked for autographs on their CDs.

All afternoon at Rancho Nicasio, they serve food and drinks. The menu is limited but it's all cooked outdoors and it's all pretty good. I chose the Cajun Shrimp option, a special that day to enhance the Zydeco theme. The rice was more like "dirty rice" than "red beans and rice," as advertised; the cole slaw was the mayonaisy kind that I have to admit I do like, Philistine that I am; the cornbread was dense and sweet; and the shrimp on a skewer with Cajun spices was tender and tasty. I had my first gin and tonic of the summer as we sat in the sun under big hats and enjoyed a perfectly lovely day.

One of my favorite parts about Rancho Nicasio is the variety of people there - all ages of bikers and bicyclists, blue collars and bluebloods, aging hippies and entitled youngsters are out there dancing up a storm. One couple had all the moves, but hardly moved at all in their precise little middle-aged dance while another couple seemed to need the whole dance floor for their swinging, energetic style. Kids danced with parents, friends danced together, and some folks even danced all by themselves without seeming the least bit lonely. Even My Beloved and I took a turn on the floor, a creaking deck that squeaks in time to the beat.

It's a friendly spot. There are chairs but lots of people bring blankets and sit on the grass. Umbrellas are closed when the show begins and only a few die-hards insisted on dancing in front of the bands, blocking peoples' view of the players - and even they finally went to the dance floor as requested. Strangers on adjacent blankets swap stories and everyone moves their feet politely as others pick their way through the crowd. We have been to Rancho Nicasio several times and always enjoy the open air fun, but especially when there is a Zydeco band on stage.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Tomatoes

Round and red - or green, or yellow, or brown - it really doesn't matter. Summer tomatoes are the best things on earth, even when they come shaped like the head of a puffin.

Slice into them and they are red all the way through - or green, or yellow, or brown. Or sometimes blushed with other colors. No underripe shoulders. No cardboard textures. Just rich, sweet flavor all the way through.

My favorite way to eat them, at least the small, palm-sized ones, is to bite into one of the sections, sip out the seeds and juice, then move on to the next section, continuing around until all the chambers are empty, then nibble all the rest until nothing is left but the little dry belly button. There is no need for embellishment - the tomato is food and drink all in the same tidy package.

If I was a poet, I would write an ode to summer tomatoes. Since I'm not, I'm just gonna eat them until I burst or they are finished for the year, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wacky Idea

My Beloved loves mushrooms. The more, the better. Smother a stone with mushrooms and I swear he'd eat gobble it down. He's a dedicated fungophile.

I happened to have saved a few of my reconstituted mushrooms from the risorta, and thought they'd be great with our chuck roast but, when I pulled them out of the fridge, there weren't enough for both of us.

Some self-sacrificing wives would have cooked them up just for the hubby, but I don't fall into that category - my challenge was to figure out how to make them stretch.

Diving into the fridge, I came upon a package of Canadian bacon, that smoky kind from Niman Ranch that I just love and often have on hand. Seized with a wacky idea, I chopped up a slice into small dice and added it to the pan with the mushrooms. Not only did it swell the volume, it added a rich layer of smoked flavor to the mushroomy concoction. Tumbled out onto the sliced beef, it got an enthusiastic thumbs up from My mushroom loving Beloved.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Team Effort

These days, cooking in my kitchen is a team effort, even when I'm all by myself. I get so many ideas from the interwebs that I feel like I have several sous chefs working with me.

In this case, I used KatieZ's marinade for our chuck roast and Chilebrown's technique for indirect grilling.

It marinated for several days in Katie's flavorful bath - I only meant to marinate for an afternoon but fun stuff kept coming up and it kept getting shoved back in the fridge for another day. The marinade penetrated deep into the meat and made it wonderfully tender and tasty.

Forty-five minutes on the grill with baskets of live coals on either side and a drip pan underneath: Chilebrown maintains that even cheap cuts of meat become tender with this treatment. If you don't already know it, Chilebrown is a genius at the barbecue. He was exactly right - it takes a little longer to cook but the tender succulence is worth the patience.

I thank my team for their ideas and for a terrific dinner.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Feeling Crabby

Well, phooey! I'm feeling crabby. We live on the edge of the San Francisco bay and that's usually a bonus - except this summer when the fabled fog has blanketed our town most days from early morning 'til noon and sometimes beyond. And the conditions that make for fog make it windy, too - too windy to even enjoy our sheltered deck on the lee side of the house without taking a blanket along. Makes our daytime temperatures a lot more like a chilly spring than a sunny summer.

Just so you understand, I moved here from Rochester, New York. Now, I liked Rochester - it's a fine place full of hardworking, worthy people - but it's the second cloudiest city in the U.S., second only to Seattle. I got more than my share of cloudy days when I lived there. The first year I lived there, out of 365 possibles, we had 65 sunny days. So, I moved here at least partly for the predictable sunshine. I guess one crummy summer in fifteen shouldn't be a cause for kvetching but, when you come from Rochester, it just is.

Crab salad, however, is ample compensation. When you eat crab salad on a ship of sweet summer melon with ripe strawberries snugged alongside like tugboats hugging the hull of an ocean liner, you can forget that it's chilly outside and just enjoy the summery tastes.

The crab isn't local - it came from Washington state in a little plastic tub - but it is Dungeness and it really was lovely, sweet and briny. I just added some minced celery, sliced green onion, a dab of Dijon, a small spoonful of mayo and the juice of half a lemon, all mixed together. I was tempted to go herbal but then decided that when ingredients are as fresh and perfect as this, they don't need primping.

Who needs drugs when you have mood enhancers like this, a lunch guaranteed to make you feel both more and less crabby.

*Of course, I wrote this a few days ago and today the fog is gone! Go figure.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

French Week

This seems to be my week for things French. First, my trip to the city to see the Stein family exhibit of (mostly) French artists at SFMOMA. Then a friend recommended and I purchased a copy of "The Paris Wife." Yesterday, when My Beloved came home to find that we had a power outage, he suggested going to see "Midnight in Paris." And, right next door the the Albany Twin theatres, where the movie is playing, is Rendez-Vous, one of our favorite French restaurants.

You'd like Rendez-Vous. It serves French bistro cooking, as opposed to haute cuisine. Bistro cooking is peasant food that has migrated to the city - paté de campagne rather than paté de fois gras. Lots of stews and soups. It's homey food, for the most part, a little hearty and almost always served with wine, usually the house red or white, rather than vintage wines. It's not fancy, but the food is solidly good. And when the #%*!ing fog won't go away for weeks on end, it's very welcome.

It's often less expensive food, as well, and Rendez-Vous embraces that tradition. My daube, their signature dish, was $17, as are the rack of lamb, the steak frites, the mussels and frites, and several other entrées. I don't think anything is over $20. The daube, and My Beloved's chicken with mushrooms, came with mashed potatoes. The stew also had tender carrots and little crisped onions. The house red was fruit-forward and smooth - it goes down easily.

While we were at dinner, My Beloved suggested that we go to Paris to celebrate my 65th birthday next year. I think it's time I brushed up on my French, but I do know how to say "Oui! Oui!"

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Who Was She?

I know that she is, or was, French Canadian and that she liked to cook. I learned that much from the person who was running the estate sale. I don't know if she passed away, or simply moved away, but I assume the former since she left her favorite cooking utensils.

I'd have known she liked to cook without even being told - she had almost no books other than cookbooks on her shelves. I know some of these things were favorites because they are well used.

The gratin dish on the left is enameled over metal and just the right size for two people. It is a little battered by years of use - that is part of its charm. The twin pepper mills were made in France - she'd have liked that because of her heritage. They were used all the time - their tidy little basket was full of pepper dust and the mills themselves were almost sticky; I imagine her grabbing one or the other with messy fingers as she cooked. Both were loaded with peppercorns, ready to roll.

The linen tea towel is a map of Canada - even when she moved to California, she kept reminders her homeland. I wondered what brought her here - did she shiver in one too many Quebec winters? Was her husband sent here for a job? Did she come following her children, who migrated out to California looking for adventure? Was San Francisco the only sufficiently food-obsessed American city she could live in? I figure she bought the '50s barbecuing book once she got here. We share a love of Charles Kuralt - his book was one of the few non-cookbooks on her shelves.

The strainer is the finest I've ever owned, perfect for straining soups or sauces. And she had two copies of the Joy of Cooking, one older and one newer than my own, both liberally spattered. I bought both and noted with interest where she placed her many bookmarks in both copies. Maybe I will make some of those recipes in her honor.

There was also a wonderful nutmeg grater, several glass storage jars (the frugal French!) and a single miniature tart pan that she had never used - the price tag is still pristine on the bottom. I wondered if she bought that after her husband died, thinking that she'd treat herself to a little dessert from time to time, but never had the heart to when she was just cooking for herself.

All these questions about a neighbor I never met. She lived just three streets away; I happened by her house while out walking the dog and noticed the estate sale sign. I have imagined a whole story about her and her life - I have even given her a name. Janine. I'm going to enjoy using Janine's things in my kitchen. I'll think of her with a kind of wondering fondness when I do; I'm not sure how one becomes attached to an imagined woman, but I have. Bon appetit, Janine, et merci.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Risorta

We love musical theatre. We started going when we were just kids with our respective parents, all of whom loved a good Broadway show. From my earliest memories, getting dressed in our best clothes and going to the theatre has been a huge pleasure. I've seen wonderful productions on stage - The Pajama Game to Damn Yankees to South Pacific to My Fair Lady to A Chorus Line to The Phantom of the Opera to Mamma Mia - and always look forward to the next. This time, it was Billy Elliott.

Cousin Jan suggested that we all go and she did the legwork months ago to score excellent tickets. This past weekend, five of us piled into our little station wagon and headed for the city.

It was all wonderful - the dancing teacher played to a faretheewell by Faith Prince, a veteran actress who knows how to put it across; the violence of the confrontations between police and strikers rendered into music - marvelous! And, for unforgettable musical theatre moments, the scene of young, skinny Billy dancing side by side with his potential self, fully developed to pure male power and beauty, will stay with me all my life. Thrilled me literally to tears.

Lovely fantasies for the ride home - but real life always intrudes. We were hungry. On my way out the door, I had thrown a big handful of dried mushrooms (shiitake, woodear, porcini, bolete, oyster) into a bowl of water, thinking I'd make something to go with a nice steak afterwards. Unfortunately, I forgot to thaw the steak. A quick search of fridge bins and pantry revealed the makings for a sort of risotto/pilaf kind of thing, and not much else. It was far more than the coal miners' families in the show had, they often went hungry during the strike.

While the chicken broth was coming up to temperature on a medium burner, I sautéed in a knob of butter a chopped onion and rice until the grains turned opaque, then squeezed in about two lemons worth of juice, Added about one third of the chicken broth and coarsely chopped the reconstituted mushrooms, plus three fresh ones, and added them to the pot to simmer, stirring in the other two thirds of the broth in dollops as the rice absorbed them. I hummed a little of "We were born to boogie!" as a goodly hill of grated ParmReg went in and I put the cheese block and a grater on the table for easy additions of more cheese. At the very end, I added broccoli florets, green onions and a couple of ladles full of the now richly brown water in which the mushrooms had soaked all day.

Because I used half white rice and half brown, the brown was still a little chewy at serving time but I actually liked that textural difference. The rich mushroom flavor was leavened by the lemon juice and the very slightly bitter crunch of the broccoli. And who doesn't love ParmReg? It all made for a marvelous matinée and a dance to dinner.


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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Embellishment

Chunks of chicken - check.
Chunks of cantaloupe - check.
Onions, in this case scallions - check
Dijon mustard - check
Mayo - check

I was making Cookiecrumb's chicken salad with cantaloupe and salivating, just thinking about that dinner.

Then, when I was assembling the salad, I went off the rails a bit.

I got to thinking about what a wonderful funk curry would add to the sweet melon and onion shtick, so I went there, too. I tossed all this stuff together in a bowl and spooned out onto lettuce leaves the best chicken salad I've ever made.

Then, I got to thinking about those goat cheese curds that I had in the fridge and couldn't resist crumbling just a few on each portion, to point up the sweet melon with a lively bite of pure goatness.

Cookiecrumb's salad was a lily that didn't need gilding, but I did it anyway and we literally inhaled it. Either way, you gotta try chicken cantaloupe salad before the melons are just a sweet memory.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stellar

When we were invited to join pal Sari's birthday lunch at Stellina, we accepted with enthusiasm. We always jump at a chance to fête Sari and when the venue is Stellina - well, we know a good thing when we taste it.

Point Reyes Station has become a lively little burg these days, filled with fun shops, a Saturday farmer's market, a feed store that has reinvented itself as a gift shop and coffee house, and three good restaurants.

We enjoy the garden and the shakes at the Station House. The Pine Cone Diner's "Good Food. Prickly Service" always makes us laugh. And, when we want a truly amazing meal, one to make me wish that special occasions happened every day, we go to Stellina.

Yes, we embarrassed Sari by giving her tacky silk flower leis and presents, and by singing "Happy Birthday" off-key. All that is de rigueur on birthdays. We also toasted her with a lovely glass of prosecco, then settled down to make the tough choices about what not to eat for lunch - it's painful to eliminate any of the offerings at Stellina.

The seafood stew won out for me. Mussels in iridescent shells, dainty quarter-sized clams and a great big shrimp gently simmered in the most wonderfully flavorful broth with garlic and morsels of a spicy housemade sausage. It was a serving to please Goldilocks - not too big, not too small, just right. I spooned up the broth once the shells were emptied, then soaked up the last drops with bread - it was too good to waste even a smidgen.

Dessert was a rich, decadent Affogato with whipped cream, espresso and ice cream. Richer but not as sweet as the Café Liègeois that we enjoyed in Belgium, it was still a vivid reminder of that unforgettable pleasure.

All six of us had a wonderful meal at Stellina. For your next special occasion, you have six endorsements for a special time in Point Reyes Station.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

The Alley Rats

On the weekend we moved into our house, one of the neighborhood children was having her third birthday party. Dressed like a little princesses in tulle and sparkles, she and her pals were riding ponies up and down the street. It was my first taste of how quirky and delightful life on the Alley would be. That little girl, and two other youngsters from our street, are going off to college in September.

We have always called these seven kids (eight if you count the boy from the street below) the Alley Rats. Despite a range of ages, they played as a cohesive pack all the years we have lived here. They took drama lessons down the hill at the Masquers Playhouse. They slid down the steep hill in the empty lot on cardboard sheets. They went as a group to swim in the bay. Wherever we saw them, some combination of these kids were together.

This past Sunday, their families threw a block party to celebrate their children; the whole neighborhood, plus the wider world of the kids' friends, filled up our little street with barbecues, picnic tables, ping pong, a bouncy castle and cheerful groups of adults and teenagers. One of the Moms even made chocolate cupcakes in the shape of rats with companion lemon cupcakes of "cheese." (I haven't had the nerve to try them yet). The parents asked the guests to bring a dish to pass and a favorite story about the Alley Rats. My Beloved and I assembled the ingredients for "make your own sundaes," which were an immediate hit - within 10 minutes there wasn't a scrap left.

My favorite story about the Alley Rats happened one summer day when I was driving home from the BART station, with windows open and top down, from a long, grim day at work. As I turned in and drove toward our house, all of the Alley Rats popped out of one of the houses and ran behind the car, waving their arms and shouting, "Welcome Home! Welcome Home! Welcome Home!"

One by one, they have grown up and are moving into adult life. Some have stubbed toes along the way, but they have supportive families, neighbors and friends so we know they will be okay. And there are two younger Alley Rats coming along to charm us so, happily, the fun isn't over yet. By the time the last two are in college, perhaps the first ones will be bringing their own little rug rats to the Alley to play.


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Sunday, August 7, 2011

It Must Be New Year's Somewhere

This week, I shook the dust of the small town from my feet and headed for the big city. San Francisco! The Golden Gate! The shops! The restaurants! The museums! Things that were once a daily experience have become an exciting adventure now that I'm retired.

The BART train was familiar, although now I was carrying my iPad and feeling very high techie as I scrolled through a downloaded book instead of my erstwhile paperbacks. The streets of the city haven't changed - most people still wear black, a conceit I have never understood when there is all that other rainbow of colors to choose from. I guess the people of San Francisco are rainbow enough.

And they certainly are. Living in a small town, one forgets the true meaning of "diversity," but I was joyfully reminded of it as I jaywalked my way toward the SFMOMA to see the Stein family exhibit. I have missed my city by the bay, I was just so content that I didn't realize it until I was there.

It was an interesting art show - if you live locally or are coming for a visit soon, you should go. It's so worth it, for the Matisses alone. That guy knew color with a capital C. Marvelous. The Picassos were interesting, too, but in my view he was a better sculptor than a painter and I think he was just kidding but no one got the joke, so he kept making more and more outlandish art and selling it for increasingly outlandish prices.

After the show, I met my pal Sari for a birthday lunch (hers) at the café in Nordstroms. When I was working, this was a favorite spot for me and My Beloved - very convenient after work, always a pleasantly restful atmosphere and really good food, reasonably priced. I showed Sari the pictures I took at Katie's wedding, she filled me in about her swoony boyfriend and we had lovely lunches. Mine was Hoppin' John, a surprise to me at this time of year, but I figure it's New Year's in some culture around the world, right?

Anyway, New Year's or midsummer, it was really good. You'll laugh, but this is the first honest-to-goodness Hoppin' John I've ever eaten. I have heard about it on the blogs and from my Southern friends. I have made a version myself, but it wasn't like this. This version was similar to risotto - the rice was a little gooey and flavored with Parmesan cheese - and the black-eyed peas studded it like sassy little winks throughout. A few fresh herbs were mixed in and it was topped with a sprinkle of finely grated lemon zest. Topped with crisp, salty lardons that added texture and a hint of richness to the dish. I scooped up every last grain and pea, boosting my good luck for the second half of the year.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Good Problem

Nobody needs a recipe in summer when the berries and the melons coincide. Any combo will do, and do nicely. For breakfast, lunch or dessert, or even for a snack.

The only drawback I can find is that the melon is so sweet, it can make the berries seem downright tangy. It reminded me of the problem I encountered last weekend when the outfit I purchased months ago for Katie's wedding turned out to be 'way too big for me now, thanks to my verging-on-the-sadistic Masters swimming coach. Unfortunately, I found that out on the day of the wedding when I went to get dressed and had to ditch that idea in favor of an older but smaller outfit.

This is a good problem to have, right? Like having melons so sweet that they make perfectly sweet berries seem tart. Hard to drum up any sympathy.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hot Stuff

Well, actually, it was cold stuff, but so good it was hot. And a little spicy. Not Chilebrown spicy, just wimp spicy. But delicious nonetheless.

Burr-ish-tos. Not quite burritos - smaller and less heavy. Flour tortillas found in the freezer - time to use them up. Cold roast chicken, pulled to shreds. Fresh ripe tomato, cut in wedges. Fresh ripe avocado, cut in slices. Some strange package of pre-cooked rice and black beans that I discovered in my pantry but have no memory of buying, heated in a pan. Green flakes of fresh cilantro, for us soapwort lovers. A little medium-hot picante sauce from a jar and a driz of Cholula hot sauce. So far, you're yawning -right? - and wondering why I chose to highlight this somewhat pedestrian meal.

It's all about the cheese. Chunky curds of goat cheese purchased at the farmer's market, made by Achadinha Cheese Company in Petaluma. The goat cheese lent a slightly different flavor than the milder cheese we usually use and, I'd say, it made all the difference. I'm making them this way ever after.

Try it! It's hot stuff.

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