Thursday, December 27, 2012

God Rest Ye

After decorating the front door for the holidays, an enjoyable chore but tiring with lots of trips up and down a ladder, I lay down for a nap. Truth be told, I have a nap almost every day now that I'm retired, and I highly recommend them. Just 20 or 30 minutes is enough to give me energy for the rest of the day and evening. Cultures that encourage siesta are cultures we Americans need to embrace. Rather than check our email one more time, we should lie down, toes covered with a blanket, and zone off for a nice nap.

When I opened my eyes, however, it was to the memory that I had not taken anything out of the freezer for dinner. Oh, s**t!  After I finished saying dirty words, I lay there thinking about whether to call for Chinese food or a pizza (again), but then I remembered that I had four rashers of bacon in the fridge. Surely I could make dinner with that!  The longer I lay there, the more ingredients I thought of, and this pasta dish is the result.

We love the wide pappardelle noodles, so I started them to boiling while the bacon cooked. I didn't fry it to crispness, just to golden brown. In a wide frying pan, I then gently sautéed a clove or two of crushed garlic in a little butter before adding frozen peas with pearl onions until they were bright green. A tin of Dungeness crab followed, just heated through, before dumping in the pappardelle to stir with the juices in the bottom of the pan and the bacon, chopped into bits.

Served with ParmReg at the table and green beans on the plate, it was one of those quick, amazing preparations that sometimes occur to you when you are refreshed from a good nap.  

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, and Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

This Christmas, we were just not feeling the traditional thing. Neither of our families was going to be in town, and we've had a pretty tough year of serious illnesses and deaths among our family and friends, so we were a little low on Christmas spirit. It's easy to feel joyful when you're anticipating visits from grandchildren or spending the holiday with family - it's less compelling when they are all far away.

However, when the party invitations began rolling in, things started to look up. Neighbors were getting together to raise a glass or sing a carol. Cousins were inviting us to exchange ornaments and fill up stockings. Friends were calling us to come and see the model train that they set up around their tree each year. We even planned a trip to the city just to admire the lights and store windows. Slowly, we began to feel pretty darn good about this holiday.

Still, selecting and decorating a tree just seemed like too much trouble and, because we are hosting a big holiday party for my Masters swim team, we needed to conserve space in our house for the guests. I had an idea for decorating the front door rather than the inside of the house, and it tickled me so much that I actually found the energy to gather the requisite parts.

Because we have a purple front door, traditional red and green doesn't please my former-florist's eye. I wanted to go with green and white so we found a couple of white poinsettias, a rope of noble fir, a string of white lights, and several starfish to complete the design in my mind.

I'm pleased with the result. My neighbors will enjoy it as they walk by and it will be welcoming to our guests when they come for the party or for Christmas dinner. To me, it speaks of the return of the light to the world, too, which to my mind is as much a reason for celebration as the birth of a good guy more than 2000 years ago or the miracle of lamp oil lasting far longer than it should.

I hope your holidays are happy, your traditions are sustaining, and your New Year is the best one yet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Balls

During the holidays, when My Beloved and I were looking for those few last presents and a rope of Noble fir to decorate the front door, he treated me to lunch at a new-to-us restaurant over in Marin county. He had read about this place many moons ago and was intrigued by the idea of a restaurant with a bocce court and a fire pit. I have to admit, I thought the combination was rather gimmicky and that the activities would overshadow the food.

Just goes to show you how very wrong I can be.  

Bar Bocce is a delightful place to while away an hour or two on a sunny day. We ate outside to enjoy the light but it was a tad chilly, so we were grateful for the warming lights above and the isinglass curtains to tame the breeze.  

The server brought a tall, cold bottle of water and two glasses, so we could drink our fill. I love that way of serving water - no waiting until they notice that your glass is empty. 

The bay is right at your feet with nothing between the view and you except the bocce court, ready for a quick game while you wait for your meal to arrive.

And, speaking of the food - well, baby, it was excellent. I had the roasted chicken salad and not since the storied Green Goddess salad at Poggio have I enjoyed such a perfectly fresh, well dressed, and generous salad. The young butter lettuce was almost crunchy, it was so crisp. The chicken really had been roasted before shredding. There was avocado for smoothness and toasted almonds for texture. The dressing enhanced without overpowering. Holy cats, that was a great salad! I ate every single bite and was sorely tempted to lick the plate.

My Beloved chose the meatball sliders and he shared a bite of his three with me. They were tender, well seasoned, and topped with a little cheese for extra richness. He loved them, and even ate the arugula salad that accompanied them, something he's inclined to leave if it's not well prepared. 

We shared the cupcake dessert, one chocolate and one lemon. They were very rich and the lemon one was a tad too sweet, but when you are eating just half of each, it's fine. We ordered coffee with dessert and was delighted to see that each of us was presented with an individual French press pot to brew to our liking. The milk had been steamed, too, so it didn't cool the coffee, a nice little touch.

We sat sipping our cafe au lait and enjoying the play of waterbirds, paddle surfers, kayakers and sailors on the water, a peaceful little respite in the holiday madness. While it's not inexpensive, we felt that our lunch at Bar Bocce was well worth the price, and we'd gladly return, bringing friends to introduce them to a unique and well-conceived restaurant.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Break

All of my professional life, I worked in colleges as a career counselor. Around this time of year, there was always a holiday break in the class schedule. After I graduated, I no longer got the break - we worked up until Christmas Eve, but often the workload was lighter as the students were off to spend the holidays with their families. Who needs career advice during the holidays?  Very few.

So, we'd schedule our holiday parties for that time of year and visit with other departments that we rarely saw, eat too many goodies, and relax a little before starting to plan for the new semester. It is a nice time on college campuses, quiet and friendly and relaxed. The library is open but most of the faculty are gone.

Anyway, in the spirit of Christmas break, I've decided to take a vacation from blogging, too. I haven't cooked anything original in a while and I'm not feeling inspired to share whatever else is going on around here, so it must be time to have a little rest.  I may pop back in if something notable happens; otherwise, I will likely see you back here after the New Year.

I hope your holidays are merry and filled with friends and fun. We plan to go into the city to see the holiday decorations and store windows, we have several holiday parties lined up already, including one that we are hosting, and there's some serious caroling to do. It's always a good time to connect with neighbors and family and friends, so we're going to focus on that.  We may drive down to SOCA to see the Rose Parade in person on New Year's Day, or we may just hunker in at home and watch it on TV. In either case, My Beloved, Cora and I will be together enjoying long walks and some "down time." Hope you get some relaxation time as well.

Happy Holidays!  Happy New Year! And on to 2013!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Wrap Rap

Growing up in a peripatetic Navy family, we not only moved every two years or so, we also rarely lived near our families, so we saw little of the people from whom our parents had sprung. Grandparents were occasional visitors, and aunts, uncles, and cousins were people we knew mostly from photographs on Christmas cards.

I knew Aunt Sally Hyland because she always sent me frilly, girly presents - nightgowns that were confections of lace and gossamer, a delight to a little tomboy who usually wore flannel and denim. Aunt Sally Baylis could be counted on for mad money once we were old enough to enjoy that. Uncle Ed Whiting was more likely to send a Christmas card than a present, roughly signed in his bold hand. Aunt Virginia Peel's beloved fruitcake arrived in packages reeking of brandy every year at Christmas (happily, they still do!). And Uncle Sam Silber, who wasn't really an uncle at all but a dear family friend, always sent us Seven Layer Cake from his Baltimore bakery for all important occasions.

It was Aunt Mary Hyland, my Dad's older sister, whose presents were always my favorites. I can say this now because, except for Aunt Virginia, the rest are safely in heaven and Aunt Virginia doesn't read my blog. I loved those lacy nightgowns and the Seven Layer Cake - in fact, I loved the marvel of presents from people who barely knew me at all. But, Aunt Mary's gifts were special because they always came beautifully wrapped with matching cards. It know it sounds like a little thing but, to a girl raised by a practical mother with four children on a junior officer's salary, I was more likely to get presents wrapped in the Sunday funnies than wrapped with elegance and attention to detail.

I used to untie carefully the ribbons and ease open the tape on Aunt Mary's presents, trying to preserve the pristine paper and intricate bows. What came inside was almost secondary in my mind to those beautiful wrappings.  To this day, I try to make every present I wrap a small homage to Aunt Mary.

When we lived in Japan, I learned that the Japanese are like me in their reverence for a beautifully wrapped package. They showed us a new and wonderful way to give a gift, wrapped in a furoshiki. A furoshiki is a simple, usually square, cloth with bound edges that the Japanese use to wrap presents, or to transport things. It can be any color and have any design. There are lovely ways to wrap a gift using a furoshiki, ways that amaze me with their beauty and inventiveness. Being an impatient person, I usually just use the basic wrap, but the Japanese are masters of this art.

The best thing about a furoshiki is that, in addition to being beautiful and practical - since it also serves as a handle - it is reusable. You can give your furoshiki as part of the gift, or collect it once the gift is given to use again. I have three and they all came from my mother, who so loved Japan that she embraced many of their customs. I must admit that, when I use these three, I ask for them back - they are a small memento of my Mom. 

But, when I use other ones, they become part of the gift. If you and your friends and family start using them, you'll always have a few on hand, since you'll always be getting new ones with gifts.

You can use any square piece of fabric, even a scarf, a bright bandanna, a handkerchief or neckerchief. Imagine giving a small, special gift wrapped in one of those beautiful, embroidered hankies your grandmother used to carry in her purse. If you sew, you can hem your own with pieces of fabric. You can use just about any fabric - nylon, cotton, or even silk for a very special gift.

As you wrap your gifts for the holidays, think about using a furoshiki instead of disposable wrapping paper and ribbon, or some of each. Both are beautiful and a delight to the recipient, and both speak of your love and regard for the person, but a furoshiki keeps on giving.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Spice Of Life

My Beloved subscribes to the adage, "Variety is the spice of life." He loves the mixed grills, the seafood platters, the cioppinos on menus when we dine out. He likes having something different for dinner each evening, rather than the same thing twice in a row. I'd happily make a big batch of something and eat it all week, but he's disappointed (although he's very good at politely hiding it) if I present the same meal two days running. I can pretty much predict which things he will order off a menu - look for the item that gives a variety of tastes and textures.

One of the easiest ways I know to add variety to our dinners at home is to make risotto. It's easy (for me) and I can add just about any old combination of goodies to the rice for variety (for him). 

This time, it was garlic, onions, shrimp, broccoli and mushrooms. A time-honored combination, whether you eat them as Chinese chow, serve them over pasta, or put them into a risotto. The only slightly tricky part is getting all the goodies to be cooked exactly right.

For this dish, I sautéed the pressed garlic and chopped onion gently in butter, then added the sliced mushrooms for a few minutes before dumping in one cup of arborio rice and stirring it into the garlicky, oniony, mushroomy butter until it turned opaque, about five minutes total. Then in went a half cup of white wine, stirred until it absorbed. I had pre-heated the two cups and a half of chicken stock so it absorbed, ladleful by ladleful, fairly quickly, as I stirred between each addition. Only at the very end did I add the broccoli florets and the shelled shrimp, stirring them under to cook evenly and quickly. When the shrimp was pink and the broccoli bright green, I added about half a cup of shredded ParmReg and folded that in. 

You can use pepper at this point, but it's a good idea to wait to add salt, as both the shrimp and the ParmReg are salty and they may be enough. I like to serve the ParmReg on a separate plate with a grater, so each can add their favored amount.

There are so many possibilities of ingredients for risotto that even my variety lover has never gotten bored with it. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Choice Beef

When it came time to grill the Belcampo Ranch tri-tip, it was raining and raining. And windy as all get out. Did I mention it was raining?  

I so wanted to grill that beautiful and expensive cut of meat outdoors but Ma Nature was having none of that. Well, at least She power washed my windows for me.

Luckily, we have an indoor grill, too. It's electric so there's none of the charcoal flavor that we love so much but, quite literally this time, any port in a storm.  I salted and peppered the meat lightly and rubbed it every so sparingly with Aloha Spice Company's seasoning called "Pele's Smokey Coffee Rub" that I picked up last time we were in the Islands.

Twenty minutes later, we had dinner.  This may look a little to rare to you but My Beloved likes his beef to still be mooing, and the thinner end of the cut was just right for me. Plus, when you make sandwiches the next day, they are perfect when cooked just this much and sliced very, very thinly.

Belcampo beef has an amazing flavor, deeply, almost darkly beefy. One can imagine prehistoric hunters grunting around the fire while tearing off chucks with their teeth. This isn't sissy beef, raised in close confinement, fed beer and massaged daily. This is manly beef that spent some serious time galloping around pastures before being humanely killed and hung in a cooler for many days before we bought it. This is chest-thumping, dark red beef, the kind real cowboys would eat if it weren't so expensive.

So, next time you want to get your inner caveman on, stomp on over to Belcampo Meats and have a good time.

Monday, December 3, 2012


My Beloved and I were driving over to Marin for Thanksgiving dinner, when we passed the Larkspur Landing shopping center across from the ferry pier. We noted a big orange wall with a giant B painted on it, something new in our path.  We wondered what new business had moved in there until we saw in Sunset magazine a whole spread on Belcampo Ranch, a ranch up in Siskiyou County that raises a variety of meats humanely and sustainably. In the article was that same bold B, so we had our first clue.

On another trip across the Richmond Bridge, we decided to stop there and check it out. We thought it would be just a butcher shop, but it turns out they serve breakfast and lunch, too, so we decided to stay for lunch.

The restaurant is very stylish, with clean, hard surfaces and an open kitchen. Light and bright, it features a round window into the meat locker, where you can see the future steaks and chops hanging on the hoof, so to speak, awaiting a hungry customer. The silverware is presented in a bin on the tables, along with rolled up, red-striped cotton napkins large enough to serve as dishtowels. You order at the desk, take a number, and they bring out your items. Even the butcher aprons in this place seem specially designed with a single strap over the shoulder to hold them up.  

I have a little advice for you. If you love Brussels sprouts as I do, don't order them in a butcher shop. Fried Brussels sprouts were not, in my opinion, a success. Mea culpa, as I should have known better than to order them in a meat palace.

Having got that out of the way, let me move on to the parts of Belcampo that really were good  In addition to the aforementioned and very sad sprouts, I also ordered beef tallow fries. Nothing too special, except that they were cooked much as fries used to be, deep fried in beef tallow rather than vegetable oil. Yes, they were good - but then, fries that are properly fried to a rich golden brown in just about any fat really are good. Simply served in a enameled tin cup with the Belcampo logo and nestled next to a small dish of ketchup and mustard, it was a generous serving - plenty to share with My Beloved - and clearly they were freshly made just for us.

My Beloved ordered their spicy lamb meatballs and those were truly the hit of our lunch. Mildly spicy with a fresh, light tomato sauce and sprinkled with fresh parsley, the four handball-sized meatballs were tender to the fork and very tasty. I'd order them again in a heartbeat.

On our way out, we stopped at the butcher counter to purchase a pound of "steak burger" and a small trip tip steak. We had the burger the following day for dinner and it was, in a word, extraordinary. Made from the trimmings of their various steaks, rather than the usual chuck, the meat was dark maroon with aging and deeply, beefily flavorful. My Beloved actually moaned with pleasure.

We have saved the tri tip for another day, so I'll have to tell you about that another time. In the meantime, if you are over that way, stop on in for breakfast or lunch, and let me know what you think.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

(Grand)mother Love And Apple Pie

I didn't expect to love my grandchildren. 

I guess that's a shocking admission for a woman, but it's the simple truth. My experience with small children, not having had any of my own, was limited and, frankly, not very positive. Before they can talk and tell you what they need, little kids are downright frightening. And once they are verbal, they are exhausting. Not to mention germ-carrying, loud and frequently obnoxious. In fact, if they weren't so cute, no one in their right minds would put up with them for a minute! Oh, there are exceptions, even for me - my Fairy Godchildren, and nieces, nephews, a selected few others - but, all in all, I can take or leave small children. 

And babies - don't even get me started.

My Beloved was married once before, to a lovely woman who gave him two beautiful daughters. When I came into their lives, thankfully, they were both teenagers. They were remarkably accepting of my foibles and we have grown fond of one another over the years. When the elder daughter decided to procreate, however, I have to admit that my thoughts were not very gracious, "Oh, jeez!" I thought,  "I suppose I'll be expected to make a fuss over the baby." Whiny, wasn't I, and not very nice?

I even resented being asked what name I would like the child to call me, stalling for months while the baby grew inside her mother and saying I hadn't thought much about it when asked. Grandma?  Ugh. Granny?  Worse!  Lucky for me, the baby's father came up with the perfect name - Pamma - my own name but subtly suggesting my new role.  

Little did I know that that child would wrap up my heart in a big, red bow. I can't say how that happened - I was half afraid of her when she was an infant (babies are scary) and wary of her as she grew, but one day I just looked at her with love and have never looked back. I guess it doesn't hurt that she is absolutely adorable, smart as a whip, and has a great sense of humor.  And that she runs to greet me with a big hug and a moist kiss whenever she sees me - no prompting from her mother is needed. 

She also likes to eat - my favorite example is the time when we were all eating in an Asian fusion restaurant and she turned to me, aged three, and said, with her best ladylike restaurant manners, "Pamma, may I please have some more tea-smoked duck?" How many three year olds do you know who have ever agreed to taste tea-smoked duck, much less relished it?

She is five, now. She was here over Thanksgiving and we spent some time at her aunt's house. She was a little restless even after our long walk around the block, so My Beloved gave her a little bowl and asked her to pick up all the windfallen lemons under the tree in the back garden. She hurried away, thrilled to have a mission. She brought me all those lemons as a spontaneous gift, with a hug that brought tears to my eyes. Yeah, I'm a sucker for her, no question about it.

So, yesterday, when I decided to bake an apple croustade, I wanted to use one of her lemons. They are really more like limons, half lemon and half lime. I had five Fuji apples and, because they are so sweet, I added some lemon juice and a lemon's worth of zest to jazz them up a little. I added nutmeg and cinnamon, pretty standard stuff, and chunked the apples rather than sliced so they'd retain more texture. I have a big jar of maple sugar, so I used that in place of white sugar, just enough so the result was only mildly sweet but intriguingly maple-y and lemony, too.

The crust was my favorite - Star Dough - that had thawed in the fridge overnight. If you haven't tried Star Dough, you are missing a treat. It's flaky and perfect every time with zero effort. Folded up the sides, pinched any holes closed, sprinkled a little coarse sugar on the top side of the dough, and dotted the filling with butter.  The whole thing took less time to make than my oven took to preheat to 425. About 40 minutes later, we had pie.

I wish my granddaughter had been here to help us eat it - I have an idea she'd have loved that - but perhaps I will make one with her next time she visits. She'd get a big kick out of the preparation and the baking and, most of all, showing off the results. 

And now there is a gorgeous little boy, too. And that's not just a fond grandmother talking - he really is. Really!