Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kudos And Thanks

One of my favorite blogs is The Hungry Dog. The Hungry Dog lives in my area, eats very well, and writes entertainingly about her life. When she posted about Strawberry Almond Crunch Cake, the photo alone was enough to make my mouth water. Her description sealed the deal. 

I don't bake much and I almost never bake cakes. Of course, I love them, but I'm not talented in that department - my cakes are usually flattish.  Hmm.  

Baking cakes brings back the memory of the first scratch cake I ever baked, back when our family lived in Argentia, Newfoundland. Stop me if you've heard this already. 

I was twelve when my best friend, Ginna Morgan, and I decided to bake a cake. We asked her mother for direction, which she happily gave, but then went off to do something, leaving us in charge. We sifted the flour as she taught us and found the Crisco on top of the fridge and happily scooped it into the batter (I have since learned that anything made with butter tastes better), poured the batter into the cake pans and slid it into the oven.

It was a yellow cake, so we weren't surprised at the color of the resulting layers. We iced it with dark chocolate icing and served the first piece to Mrs. Morgan as thanks for her assistance. We watched eagerly as she took the first bite.

She, quite literally, spat it out. And scraped her tongue with the fork. And said, "Good heavens! What have you done to this cake???"  Crestfallen, we walked her through all the steps, including the sifting of the flour and the adding of the Crisco. When we reached for the Crisco can on top of the fridge, she said, "Oh, no, not that Crisco!  I use that to fry fish!" She was a good, frugal Catholic wife who fried fish on Fridays, straining and reusing the oil, which she kept in a Crisco can, each week. 

With that as my background, I approached the Strawberry Almond Crunch Cake with trepidation, but years of reasonable (if flattish) cakes had made me brave. The recipe just sounded so darn good that I threw aside my fears and dove in.

I had to do some substituting, as I didn't have all the ingredients - what else is new? The story of my life. I subbed in a cup of plain yogurt for the buttermilk in the recipe, and that worked just fine. I didn't have cake flour, but sifted regular flour will do. I also didn't have sliced almonds, so I used my food processor to slice some. It didn't make them pretty, but it didn't seem to matter - the result was lovely, anyway.

I'm so glad I tried it - this is easily the best cake I have ever made. Moist and light, with crunchy almonds and topping, and pockets of fresh, gooey strawberries, it's not as sweet as an iced cake, but it does have a nice, sort of toffee-ness under the layer of almonds. The crunch comes both from the almonds, which toast on top of the cake as it bakes, and the topping, which crystallizes in the oven. 

My strawberries mostly sank to the bottom, so next time I will chop them finer and hope they suspend throughout the cake, but that's just nitpicking. While strawberries are still in season, don't hesitate to make this cake. You, too, will be giving Kudos and Thanks to The Hungry Dog.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pasta With Peas

So, maybe you wondered what I did with those lovely fresh peas? Because Chilebrown warned me to use them up quickly, that they are at their best when freshly picked, I decided to use them in a pasta dish that very night.

A little research on the interwebs brought me this recipe from, my go-to site when I don't have an idea for dinner. I typed "peas and ham" into the search window, as I had a ham steak in the fridge, and up popped what sounded like a great recipe for pasta.

It turned out to be magically easy and the perfect use for fresh peas. All you use is onion, pasta, ham, peas, Parmesan cheese and an artery-clogging amount of butter and heavy cream. My heart quailed while reading the recipe, so I subbed in half-and-half for the cream, reduced the butter a bit, but otherwise followed the recipe closely. 

It makes an amazing little sauce for the pasta, almost without effort. All you do is melt some butter, sautĂ© some onion, add a dab of water and the peas to cook for just a few minutes before adding the ham and the cream, more butter and Parm. If I was making it again, I'd likely add mushrooms somewhere in the mix, I'd probably use a dry-cured Italian ham for more pizzazz (Virginia ham would be wonderful in small amounts), and I'd definitely raise the goodies-to-pasta ratio in favor of more goodies, but it was really delicious, plus easy, quick and simple. 

If you are working, you can have this dinner on the table in the time it takes to boil the pasta.Once the water is boiling, you are about 12 minutes from dinner.You can use fresh peas, or frozen ones, and any kind of ham that you have on hand would work.

I only used about half the peas that Chilebrown gifted to me. I will have fun deciding what to do with the remainder of that lovely stash.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Moving Day

Remember that little Love Story I told you back on April 26th? 

Well, here are the lovebirds on moving day, the day when they took up residence together. They were tired and frazzled from renting their two homes, deciding what to store and what to share in the new house, packing up all their stuff, and directing movers, but they look pretty happy, don't they?

They look like they won the lottery. They did.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Swap Meet

Every now and then, when the stars are aligned just right and things are perking along as they should be, I get a call from Chilebrown and he says he has some treat for me from his kitchen or his garden. We usually rendezvous at Catahoula Coffee Company in Richmond. Like a couple of spies or drug dealers, we exchange goodies surreptitiously, hoping not to arouse the curiosity of others. Sometimes, we risk a cup of coffee, but other times we just swap the goods and move back into the shadows.

This time, as My Beloved and I pulled up behind Chilebrown's silver pickup truck with the proud Oakland Raiders stickers on the back, we were coming for fresh peas.  Chilebrown had called that morning with a glut of English peas from his garden - we set up the switch for ten hundred hours and synchronized our watches.

We brought him a basket of the world's sweetest strawberries, fresh from our farmer's market, plus four limes a neighbor had shared with us, so ripe they were yellow rather than green. We organized them in a cardboard drink tray for the drive over to Catahoula.

Chilebrown was in disguise - a full beard and no brown uniform, just a tee shirt and jeans.

We stood in a biting, foggy, atmospheric wind to make the switch - all that was missing was the trench coats. (and, actually, trench coats would have been very welcome on that chilly, gusty morning). Chilebrown had me taste the goods to make sure it was prime stuff. I popped open a pod and we all tasted a few peas. So sweet, they were like green candy, highly addictive; he joked that he had given us only the starchy ones.

The deal was made, strawberries and limes switched for fresh pea pods. We jumped back into our cars and roared away to the next assignment, should we decide to accept it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bird Dog

As far as I know, she has no genes for bird hunting.  Our vet thinks she's a mixture of German shepherd and Border collie, but no one knows because she was found running around free in Hayward three plus years ago with no collar and no microchip; she was on death row when Smiley Dog Rescue took her out of the shelter and gave her to us. I suspect there's a little Lab in there, as she LOVES to paddle in the bay and she will chase absolutely anything with wings, from swans to houseflies. This is her "poultry point," which shows up whenever I roast a bird.

Cora would never be so rude as to snatch food from the counter, unlike our neighbor's goofy and very tall dog who will, but she can dream and yearn, can't she? She patiently awaits her turn.

When dinner is served, Cora lies down politely under the table, occasionally giving a quick lick to someone's bare toes when she feels they need a little attention but otherwise being nicely quiet while the meal is under way. No drooling on one's knee, no imploring eyes. She knows that when dinner is over, she gets her turn to lick the plates before they go into the dishwasher.

Whatever kind of dog she is, we feel lucky to have her with us. 

*Update: she got skunked this morning for the second time this year. She's not always so angelic...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Iron Hand

I think I'd eat rocks if they were flavored with garlic. Especially green garlic.

I can't think of another plant that gives so much flavor to just about any dish, even our usual Sunday roasted chicken. My neighbor had been down to Monterey for a trade show and, on the way back, she stopped at a vegetable stand to buy fresh produce. The entire area around Monterey is one giant garden of veggie delights. She brought us a punnet of strawberries, four tiny zucchinis no bigger than hot dogs, and a wonderfully pungent bulb of green garlic with all the leaves still attached. She had wrapped the garlic bulb in a plastic bag to try to contain the scent, but it sneaked out to perfume the whole house.

I chopped it up that evening and stuck some of it under the skin over the breast of our chicken, and tucked the rest into the cavity along with a whole lemon that I first squeezed over the skin. As it roasted, the raw allium scent was replaced by the indescribably appetizing smell of the mingled flavors of heady garlic and juicy chicken.

The chicken didn't look so hot, what with lumpy green stuff under the beautifully browned skin but the flavor was deeply, richly garlicky. Green garlic, in many ways, imparts even more of its essence to the cooked food than does mature garlic, and it's sweeter, gentler. You've heard of the iron hand in the velvet glove? That's green garlic.

My Beloved's first bite stopped him short, closing his eyes to savor. He opened them and breathed a reverent, "Wow." Now, that's what I call Sunday dinner.

Friday, May 18, 2012

More Proof

WTH? Salmon with bacon?  Who ever heard of such a combo?  Certainly, not me, until this week when I had a single rasher of cooked bacon left from a previous meal. Not enough for a BLT. Hardly worth putting into scrambled eggs. Insufficient for bacon bits on a salad, or for sprinkling on a baked potato. But entirely too precious to waste.

As I got the salmon for our dinner out of the fridge, I spied that lone piece of bacon and thought, "Well, now, that might be interesting. What the hell!"

So, I put a little water, just a few tablespoons, into a heavy-bottomed pan, added the chopped bacon to render a little of its flavor into the water, then topped the bacon pieces with the salmon, skin side down, and covered it to bacon-steam for a few minutes. I have found that after a few minutes in the water, I can flip the salmon and easily remove the skin and the dark flesh with a spatula.

After a few more minutes, the fish was separating easily along the muscle lines but still slightly pink-orange inside - time to remove to plates and let it finish cooking with the residual heat in the fillet. While it rested, I turned up the heat under the pan to reduce the salmon-bacon water to a light sauce, then poured that and the bacon bits over the salmon. 

We inhaled that salmon. It was lightly smoky and salty from the bacon, but still wonderfully salmony as well, not overpowered by the small amount of bacon in the pan and sauce. We looked at each other and said, "More proof that everything is better with bacon."

Cora agreed as she licked the plates.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blithe Tomato

I found this book, of all places, at the San Francisco Historical Society when My Beloved and I went into the city a couple of months ago to see the exhibit in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. The exhibit was very interesting and some of the artwork and photographs are really lovely. And, in the gift shop area was this quirky title. I picked it up on a whim.

I'm so glad I did! Blithe Tomato is one of the more delightful books I have read in the past year, the gentle musings of a farmer who brings his crops to the farmer's market. Along with flowers, fruits and vegetables, he brings his own world view, which I found to be fascinating. In a way, he's like a Flower Child who never gave up. His mixture of wry humor and gentle philosophy is the product of many years of farming after trying four other careers first.

That is one of the things that resonated with me, the search for meaningful occupation. I had three other jobs before I found the long-lasting joy of helping college students sort out their career options. Mike Madison found his happiness growing flowers and trapping gophers out in the central valley. Both of our paths led us to an amused appreciation of individual quirkiness. Many of his stories are about people he has met at the farmer's market, or fellow farmers of many different stripes. Mike Madison is not an idealogue; in this day and age, I appreciate that, too.

The writing is wonderful. He has a laid-back but very descriptive style that tickles me. The book is written in a series of short essays, unrelated but for the farming theme. He thinks through ideas while writing about his farm and his friends, or his fellow farmers and his customers. His observation of the natural and human world around him are true, but kind.

It's an easy read, despite the philosophy and the deep subjects - I'm a slow reader but I whipped through it in two days. I liked it so much that I'm mailing my copy to a friend up in Washington state, hoping he will love it, too. It's in paperback now and I suppose you could find it for your e-reader, too, or check it out of the library - it's not a new publication. The important part is to find it and read it - I'm sure you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sewing Memories

I haven't used a sewing machine in probably thirty years and this particular sewing machine hasn't seen the light of day in at least forty. I used to make most of my clothes, relishing patterns and fabrics, choosing from the spectrum of threads and the delight of notions. Lace bindings used to give me a little thrill of pleasure, just knowing that if my hem flipped up, someone might notice that little touch. It seems frivolous, looking back, but it's who I was back then.

My mother started me and my sister on a "clothing allowance" when we turned sixteen; it was enough to cover our needs, as long as we made some of our clothes. My sister figured out how to shop the sales and be super thrifty, rather than learn to sew. I resisted learning for several years, too, but it was a nice sense of accomplishment when I finally learned how and made my own finished garments. 

It's actually cheaper to buy clothes these days than to make them. And once I was working full time, there never seemed to be enough time. So, little by little, I stopped sewing.

Last weekend, I bought a couple of nice feather pillows at a garage sale. The covers were stained, so I thought to replace them with good, old fashioned pillow ticking. I went to the fabric store and was promptly swamped with memories of all the time I have spent in similar stores. These days, it's a kinder, gentler place, as the sizing that used to sting my eyes has been eliminated. It's still a kaleidoscope of color and pattern, stripe and dot. It's still an amazing place to experience textures, from the softest velvets and airiest laces to slinky satins and sturdy cottons. I found my pillow ticking behind the farthest shelf and brought it to the measuring counter in triumph. 

Back at home, I wondered belatedly if my mother's sewing machine even worked after all the idle years. I had taken it after she and my Dad passed away, not really needing a sewing machine but unable to leave it when it was so closely associated with her.  She taught me the rudiments of sewing on that machine and my friend Sue Evans took over when Mom threw up her hands in frustration. I was not an easy pupil.

I took the machine out of its sturdy wooden box with the shredding faux leather covering and set it up on the dining room table. I rummaged around for an extension cord, plugged it in and, with trepidation, flipped the little switch to turn on the light. Bright yellow flooded the work surface - it still worked!  

So, I threaded it, the exact path of the thread returning to memory as if I had done it just yesterday rather than thirty years ago. Across from the spool to the little hook, down around the tension adjuster, up and through the stitch threader, down again and around behind, then through the needle (that's harder these days - I had to adjust my glasses), and pull it free. I checked the bobbin, my fingers automatically pulling out the tiny handle to clip it back in. Dip the needle down once to catch the bobbin thread and position the fabric, lower the presser foot to hold it in place.

The treadle has a single button just the size of my big toe. I have always sewn barefooted (I learned in Hawaii), and my toe found the button like a homing pigeon. Pushed down experimentally and, lo and behold, the needle plunged down to pierce the fabric!  No oiling, no adjusting, no fuss - just neat and willing little stitches lining up one by one across the fabric.  It may be silly, but I got a little verklempt at this sweet little machine.

My Beloved and I stepped outside to transfer the feathers carefully from the old cover to the sturdy new one, a good precaution as we lost a few. Maybe some bird will weave them into its nest; I was feeling so nostalgic that that seemed like the perfect use for the fugitives.

My guest room now has two soft new pillows to complement the firm, polyester fiber-filled ones. My guests can choose firm or soft, hypoallergenic fuzz or cosy feathers. I have a little glow of accomplishment and renewed memories of sewing with my Mom and my good friend Sue. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Market Season

Huzzah and hallelujah, it's market season again in Point Richmond! Our little farmer's market opened last Wednesday and will be open until mid-October. I was dog tired that afternoon and was reluctant to go down, but the need to support the market was greater than my sloth, so I dragged down the hill with my market basket and was swept into the fun.

Our farmer's market is as much a community get-together as it is a chance to get ripe fruit and fresh vegetables. They block off one of the three main streets in town and rig the booths down either side, leaving the middle free for neighbor-greeting, baby-admiring and chatting. It was a lovely day and everyone was there making the most of it, from our handsome Irish neighbor with the lilting Dublin accent to our local retired politician and his charming wife.  Little kids ran through the crowd, buskers laid cheerful tunes on the air, and hot food vendors sent perfume wafting past our noses.

My strawberry guy is back. He sells the best strawberries in the entire world, sweet and fragrant and lusciously red. He was so glad to see me (I'm easily his best customer and his best advertising, too) that he gave me a big hug before filling my basket with the best of his fruit. 

We now have two cheese vendors, up from one last year, and the hot food vendors have added tables and chairs so we can eat on the spot and listen to the music. My organic produce guy is back, too. He barely speaks English so we speak Veggie, pointing and smiling and raising thumbs up.  

He had leeks and green garlic this week, stiff spears with creamy white bulbs on the end. I immediately made a nice pasta dish with the garlic, a spicy Italian sausage, and broccoli as the headliners, with oregano and tomato playing supporting roles. Ladled over green and white linguine and topped with a drift of Parmesano Reggiano, it was a simple celebration of the return of market season to our little burg.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Baba Collins' Brownies

The funny part is that I have no idea who Baba Collins is or was. My mother always made her brownies, and always gave credit where it was due. We never ate just brownies; we only ate Baba Collins' Brownies, using the whole name. I suspect she was a friend of Mom's but that detail is lost. We have been making them since before I had memory.

Baba made a hell of a brownie, however, and her fame lives on. I don't make them often, for all sorts of sensible reasons, but every now and then the urge comes upon me for a rich, decadent dessert. When I do make them, my recipe card warns me, "205 calories per brownie," - some helpful member of my family no doubt did the math and I made the mistake of writing it on the recipe card. Because they are sadly as rich in calories as they are in flavor, I usually take some of each batch over to a neighbor to spread the calories around.

What I love most about these brownies is the variety of textures. The tops get slightly crisp, cracking like lava as it cools. The middle says stubbornly chewy, and the nuts add their own brand of munch. They are richly chocolate, but not so much that they give me a headache, even if I have more than one. Which is entirely probable.

I used my Christmas present to make these and it made short work of beating the eggs to yellow fluffiness, but you can use a hand mixer just as well. That step is important, however, so no shirking is allowed. After that, the recipe is as easy as lust, and the finished brownies will inspire that deadly sin, I promise.

Baba Collins' Brownies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
3 heaping Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Hershey's)
Pinch salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (use the good stuff)
1/2 cup oil (I used canola) or 1/2 cup melted butter
smitch of baking powder

1 cup nuts (I like pecans, but walnuts are good, too)

Beat eggs until fluffy, add the rest of the ingredients and stir until well incorporated. Add the nuts and stir again. Pour/scrape into a square 9" baking pan, buttered unless you have a non-stick pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes; a toothpick poked into the middle should come out with a just little brownie stuck to it.

Cool in the pan, cut into squares. Yield 12 large or 16 small brownies.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Treat And A Half

A few nights ago, I cooked spare ribs in the crock pot all day. I had important errands to do that day, like chauffeuring cousin Jan home from a minor surgical procedure, so I knew I wouldn't have much time for dinner. I quickly browned some meaty beef spare ribs, deglazed the pan with red wine, and dumped it all into the crock pot with a coarsely chopped onion, a few mashed cloves of garlic, and a frozen chunk of lamb goozle from a previous meal. S & P, sprinkle of dried thyme, yadda, yadda. Set it on high, said a little prayer that the goozle would thaw, and raced out the door.

When I arrived back home, the house was full of amazing scents and the dog was nearly delirious with anticipation. So was My Beloved, who came home in the meantime to find me gone and nothing in the oven that could account for all that tantalizing odor. When I whisked the lid off the crock pot, I felt like a magician successfully pulling that rabbit out of her tall, black top hat.

We had a lovely meal of spare ribs on noodles that night, he loving the dinner and me basking in his pleasure, but the best part came the next day when I reheated the pot, fished out the last two spareribs, removed the bones and fat, toasted good Semifreddi sandwich buns on the grill, poured the goozle into bowls for dipping, and assembled sandwiches for lunch.

The beef was similar in texture to pulled pork, soft and falling apart. This is the kind of sandwich that is so tall, I can't get my mouth around it. I had to squeeze it together, so hard that the seeds dripped out of my tomato and fell with a plop on the plate. Dipping a corner into the goozle not only softened the bun, it flooded the sandwich with amazing flavor.

Next time we have crock pot spare ribs, I'm deliberately making enough to stretch to lunch the next day. It was a treat and a half. 

(And I saved the goozle again. It just keeps getting better.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Californian Breakfast

Ever since I moved to California fifteen years ago, I have been relishing strawberries. Instead of two brief weeks in mid-June, strawberry season in northern California stretches from April (if we are lucky, it starts in late March) until October, and the berries are simply delicious all that time. Different varieties come on the market in a sweet parade through the spring and summer months. In a good year, I can still buy really ripe, local strawberries in late October.

As if that wasn't enough, there are also avocados. Avocados are a literally a gift from heaven, as rich as butter and better for you. Around this time of year, I get my first breakfast that features strawberries and avocados, both at the peak of flavor.

If you've never spread avocado on toast like butter, I'm here to tell you that you are missing a major treat. My Beloved introduced me to the practice, one morning after one of *those* (ahem!) nights, and that first bite was a revelation. Having been an avocado-belongs-in-salads person for the first forty-something years of my life, I was initially skeptical, but he urged me to take a bite and, frankly, I was so deeply in crush with him I think I'd have tasted live snails on his recommendation. I'm still pretty nuts about the guy and now I'm in love with avocado toast, too.

If you don't live in California, bookmark this post for mid-June when you can get really ripe, fragrant, local strawberries. Then hele on down to your local market for an avocado you can ripen on your windowsill until it just gives to a light finger press. Toast up some good wheat bread (my fave is Honey Wheatberry), spread on your ripe avocado, snuggle it up to a few perfect strawberries and prepare to have one of *those* breakfasts.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Funk Cure

Never underestimate the value of cheese sauce. You might be tempted to think of it as a plain jane condiment but I'm here to tell you that good, homemade cheese sauce can save your life. Or your day. Or, at least, your dinner.

Last week, I was in a dinner funk. I had good ingredients but little or no enthusiasm. I can't tell you why but the whole thing just seemed kind of absurd, this 3X daily need to stoke the furnace and the 3X daily need to prepare something with which to stoke it. I found myself wishing for some futuristic tube of food-like stuff that could be just squeezed out and sucked up with no more effort than unscrewing a cap.

Then I realized that, sadly, that already exists in the world in several formats. They are all tasteless and ultimately bad for you, so I gave myself a mental shake and an imaginary slap across both cheeks, and headed for the kitchen to see what I could find.

In the crisper drawer, a head of broccoli and a few spuds. In the cheese bin, a nice, nutty, tangy Gruyere. It was the work of a moment to slick the spuds with olive oil and set them to bake in a moderate oven. Then peeled the stems and cut up the broccoli into florets for a brief steaming. And cheese sauce from the Gruyere to top the veggies and turn them from mundane to killer in a single, long, luscious pour.

I usually use cheddar for a cheese sauce - cheddar is my go-to cheese for most things - but now that I have discovered Gruyere sauce, I'm sold. It's less homey than cheddar, a Gallic wink and shrug of a cheese sauce, a little sassy and unexpected.

Even My Beloved, who is a dedicated carnivore, will occasionally relish a dinner without meat; he smiled at my concoction. We shared stories about our day while we swiped brilliant green florets and crisped potatoes through the pale, creamy sauce. It's a good way to end a funky sort of day.

Simple, Easy, Classic, Killer Cheese Sauce

1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
Shredded cheese to taste (Gruyere is great, cheddar is delish, but you could use just about any firm cheese that melts well)

Over medium heat, melt the butter. When the butter foams, sprinkle in the flour and cook, whisking, until it is smooth and has cooked in the butter for a minute or two without browning. (The cooking step is important - otherwise, your sauce will taste floury and flat). 

Add the milk a little at a time, stirring like crazy, as the sauce will thicken very quickly. Whisk until all lumps are gone, then add a little more milk and whisk like crazy again and again until all the milk is smoothly incorporated into the sauce. 

Add the grated cheese, as much as you like, tasting frequently (be careful not to burn your tongue!), until you reach what tastes perfect to you. I don't measure the cheese, just keep adding until it tastes rich and cheesy - depends a lot on which cheese you use.

You can do this ahead and reheat the sauce gently, stirring frequently, until it is molten again. Mysteriously, that increases the flavor, too.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Chief Banks' Stroganoff

When my Dad achieved the rank of rear admiral, the Navy immediately sent him to Argentia, Newfoundland to shrink his ego back down to manageable size. Argentia was considered a hardship post but we have rarely had such a happy family situation as we did there.

Yes, the weather sucked big time but our quarters on the naval station were large enough that my sister and I no longer had to share a bedroom, a cause for mutual celebration. 

 The house was furnished; we didn't have to take our furniture along. The living room furniture was truly luxurious, nearly every stick of it covered in slippery damask in a rainbow of pastel colors, so funky it almost seemed like the decorator had a sense of humor. 

Dad had a den upholstered entirely in red - as I recall even the walls were red - we'd gather in there in the evening to watch the news and, once a week, the Huckleberry Hound show was on the snowy, fuzzy single black and white TV station. We never missed it - my usually gregarious family would even refuse social invitations on Huckleberry Hound night or invite others to join us to laugh at the antics of Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo and Huck.

We all learned how to bowl, as it was a sport that could be enjoyed indoors, and we spent many happy family hours at the bowling alley. There was a terrific and active teen club on base where my sister and I learned to dance and flirt.  

Best of all, Dad finally rated a steward.

Stewards, in those days, did everything from keeping Dad's uniforms in great shape to cleaning house and preparing meals. They are the ultimate perq, in my mother's estimation, although she still insisted that her children clean their own rooms and do their own laundry.

Our first-ever steward was a young, 
gentle, African American man named Benjamin Banks. Just typing his name fills my eyes with fond tears. He was more than heaven-sent household help - in four separate duty stations, he was a member of our family. In some ways, he was as much of a male role model to myself and my younger brother as our Dad was in those days. He dried my adolescent tears when I lost my first love and danced at my wedding when I finally started to live again. He vetted all my boyfriends and let me know which ones he considered to be keepers. He even re-enlisted in the Navy in order to stay with our family until Dad retired, attaining the rank of Chief early in his career.

Chief Banks and his wife Elizabeth had a true love match. 'Way back in Argentia, he showed me the love poem he wrote to her and had printed on a little blue card to carry with him always. I had never heard of anything so romantic in my life - I still haven't. When we were stationed in Japan, he and Elizabeth adopted a little girl from Korea, Kwan, who rapidly wrapped us all around her tiny fingers.

Chief Banks was a wonderful cook. He made me "smashed eggs" most mornings - scrambled eggs with real bacon bits mixed in. He invented a wonderful cold curried rice salad with lobster, pineapple, raisins and celery. He even prepared his signature beef stroganoff for me to serve at an early dinner for my soon-to-be-fiancé and let me pretend I made it; needless to say, it was a successful dinner.
Talk about bait and switch!

I still make this dish to his recipe, even though the ingredients are a little rich for modern cooking and quite expensive. But, every now and then, I like to sit down to a plate of Chief Banks' stroganoff and remember all the lovely things he was to me and my family.

Chief Banks' Beef Stroganoff

2 lbs. filet of beef, cut into 1/2" thick bite-size strips
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove minced garlic
2 cups beef bouillon
1-1/2 cups sour cream
1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. dill weed (I use more)
2 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. flour
1/4 cup dry red wine
salt, pepper to taste

Heat 2 Tbs butter in a frying pan, add just enough beef strips at a time to cover the skillet bottom. Don't crowd them or they won't brown properly. Sear quickly on all sides, removing beef as it browns. It should be rare on the inside, brown on the outside. In the remaining hot butter, saute' onions, garlic and mushrooms about 5 minutes (I do the mushrooms separately first, then add the onions and garlic). Remove from heat, add flour, salt and pepper, stirring until smooth. Back on the heat, cook the flour mixture briefly before gradually adding the beef stock, bring to a boil and keep stirring as the sauce thickens. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.

Over low heat, add 1/4 cup dry red wine, dill weed, bay leaves and simmer for a few minutes. To this point, it can be made ahead and will wait for the finishing touches, covered. Then, add sour cream and stir until incorporated - don't boil! When you are ready to serve, add the beef and heat just until the sauce and beef are hot. Serve over rice or flat noodles.

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