After a rainy day or two, we had bright, clear skies, abundant sunshine and almost no wind - my definition of heaven. My Beloved, feeling that I needed a break from soggy cushions, ill sisters and fall chores, decided to give me a treat. His idea of a treat usually involves a car trip somewhere, and this was no exception.
We went to the Zoo.
At this time of year, the San Francisco Zoo throws a party called "Boo at the Zoo," where families with little children are invited to come in costume. My Beloved knows that I get a huge kick out of little kids in Hallowe'en costume, so he took me to enjoy all the princesses, fairies, Spidermen, mummies, ghosts and ladybugs. My favorites are the toddlers who are so young that they don't understand why they are being dressed as Scooby Doo or a bumble bee but they are delighted with the change of identity. They are also thrilled and mystified by the gifts of treats.
As we walked through the crowds near the brilliant flamingoes, I remembered the train. The "Little Puffer" steam train! Built in 1905, it had a long, complicated, and sometimes sad career before coming to the Zoo. In 1998 it was restored and converted from coal burning to natural gas and installed permanently at the Zoo. It's a little beauty now.
We were first in line.
The engineer himself stopped to chat with us while the other cars loaded with excited kids and their grownups. A toot from the whistle and we were off. It took a few seconds for the Little Puffer to get up to speed, but then it sailed along at an amazing clip, flying through a tunnel and over railroad crossings, speeding along by the tiger pits and past a pond where the emus live, with little ghouls and mermaids waving at us all along the route.
For sheer, undiluted joy, the Little Puffer is right up there with a carousel ride. The best $4 you can spend on a sunny day when you're being treated like a queen, even if you aren't dressed as one.
When I first moved to Northern California, I thought of it as having no seasons. Compared to Rochester, NY the weather was so even, winter to summer, that it was almost uncanny. Over the years, however, I have learned the subtleties of weather in NOCA and I realize that, in fact, we do have at least two seasons - the dry and the wet.
In preparation for the rains each year, my annual ritual is to go out with my new roll of white duct tape and renew the strip around the window seat that faces the winter storms. This window takes the brunt of storms that sweep in off the Pacific, so hard that they make the glass in our sliding doors flex in the wind. The wind is so strong that it actually forces rain water underneath the glass and into the window seat. The duct tape seals the window securely against leaks. When the dry season arrives again, I strip off the spent duct tape and prepare to replace it.
This year's wet arrived a tad early. Normally, we don't get rain from April to November - the first winter rains arrive shortly after Hallowe'en. When the rain came this year in mid-October, my duct tape was not in place.
All the cushions in the window seat got soaked and, of course, this happened while our friend Jeanne was visiting from LA (where they truly don't have seasons), so she was treated to the sight of cushion covers drying on ladders and chair backs all over the living room. We also had the deck chair cushions gracing the living room, as those needed to be brought in out of the wet, as well. I suppose there are more depressing sights than soggy cushions but right now I can't imagine them.
Plus, when I tried to pull out the feather pillows stuffing those cushions, the pillow covers within shredded in my hand spilling feathers all over the living room. Apparently the years in the sunlit window seat had rotted the fabric inside the covers. So, Jeanne got to go to the fabric store with us while I purchased yards and yards of pillow ticking to make new wrappers for the feathers.
My Beloved hurried off to the hardware store for more duct tape and the three of us sealed the window just before the next bout of rain hit.
What has all this to do with food? Nothing, except we cracked open the bottle of wine that Jeanne brought along as a hostess gift, made guacamole from the Fuerte avocados she grew in her yard, and put our feet up to watch the third presidential debate in a room where we couldn't see the sad, soggy pillows.
Everyone has dreams as a child that become more sophisticated with age. Dreams of becoming a cowboy have a way of morphing to becoming a writer or a teacher, a firefighter or an architect. What charms us as a child often is a little boring in adulthood.
And so it was with Cheese Dreams. When I was a little kid, I liked nothing more than a lunch of mild cheddar cheese slices melted on toast and topped with bacon left over from breakfast. My mother called these Cheese Dreams. I'm not sure where she found the "recipe," perhaps in some mid-forties edition of The Joy of Cooking. That was her go-to cookbook - maybe it's in there.
This is still a winner, mind you. There is nothing wrong with good mild cheddar, but recently I didn't have that in the fridge when I was dying for Cheese Dreams. All had was some manchego that was starting to mold.
I'm not afraid of a little mold - I just slice off the moldy parts and enjoy the rest. And this was a lovely surprise, much deeper, earthier and more complex than simple cheddar. The sharp nuttiness of the cheese was a perfect foil for the smoky bacon. The dark bits on the bacon were crisp while the rest was chewy - even the textures were more interesting than I had remembered.
If you have some childhood favorites, I can recommend updating their basic rightness with ingredients that appeal to an adult palate. You might surprise yourself with a whole new tradition.
We love mussels. When we were in Belgium years ago, we were in mussel heaven. The national dish of Belgium isn't waffles or chocolates or beer, even though those deserve honorable mention - it's mussels and frîtes, a celestial combination where the tender, gamey mussels are complemented perfectly by the twice-fried potatoes dipped in lemon mayo. Oh.My.God.
For some reason, however, I had never tried cooking mussels at home. Odd, because we love them so and because they are reputed to be quick and easy. So, the other day when I saw mussels in the market, I decided to give them a whirl.
At home, I had some solidly stale sourdough baguette left over from an earlier meal. I thought I could make some toasts from that to soak up the juices in the bottom of a bowl of mussels, so I sliced the bread, which was so dry that it broadcast crumbs all over the counter, drizzled it with olive oil and topped it with minced shallot and garlic before popping it into a 300 degree oven for about 20 minutes.
My Beloved asked me what I was making for dinner. I replied, "Well, I'm not really sure," having only a vague idea of what I wanted to end up with. He rubbed his hands together and said, "Great! Some of your best meals come when you are playing."
While the toasts were in the oven, I sautéed on medium heat in generous butter some more of the minced alliums until they were soft, then added a splash of white wine, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a dozen mussels. I covered the pan and let it steam the mussels open. Once the mussels were opened and I was sure they were all good, I laid a single fillet of local petrale sole over the shells and replaced the lid. As the fish cooked (which took a very few minutes) and released its essence to mingle with the wine and mussel juices, I steamed some asparagus to accompany.
To serve, I arranged two or three of the toasts from the oven in the bottom of each bowl, broke up the fish into chunks and laid it over the toast, divvied up the mussels and the asparagus, and poured the pan juices over the whole schmear. As we ate the upper layers, the juices gently softened the toasts at the bottom, all except the crusts, which remained a bit chewy. The combination of fin and shell fishes was heavenly, the sole pristine while the mussels lent an earthiness to the whole dish - if seafood can ever be described as earthy.
My Beloved dug into his bowl with gusto and pronounced it one of the best meals I have made all year. Next time, I'd either add sliced fennel to the alliums and/or some tarragon to the broth, but overall I thought it was a great first attempt.
When my sister was taken ill and I flew from Boston, where we were visiting our grandchildren and their parents, down to North Carolina, My Beloved continued on our original vacation trajectory, visiting my Aunt Virginia in Rome, NY to glean family stories for the genealogy he is compiling and attending his best friend's wedding in Southport, CT. He arrived home nearly a week before I did. Even though he had Cora for company, I think he missed me.
How do I know? Well, consider that, in addition to the lobster rolls he served for my first dinner home, he roasted a chicken on Day Two. He is checked out in chicken roasting and justifiably proud of his expertise in this area. He fills the cavity with lemon quarters and onions, drizzles olive oil on the skin, then roasts the chicken at 400 degrees F for about an hour. Alongside, he puts potatoes and more onions, so they brown and caramelize in the chicken juices. Add some bright green asparagus to the plate and you've got a feast to behold.
His sweetness brought tears to my eyes - his way of welcoming one home is so dear. Feeds the heart as well as the stomach.
I have always loved centerpieces. Perhaps it's because of my seven years working as a florist. Maybe it's just because I enjoy fresh flowers, an extravagance in Rochester, NY where the flowers are mostly imported and expensive - they are much more affordable here in California. Whatever the reason, I relish when I'm having company and can justify to myself the extra elegance of fresh flowers on the table.
Centerpieces don't have to be flowers, of course. Sometimes, I use a bowl of fruit or candles or seasonal things like mini pumpkins or Christmas ornaments or even small sculptures to decorate the table, but to my mind nothing beats a bowl full of blooms.
My sister sent these yellow sweetheart roses as a thank you for all I did for her while I was back east. I really didn't do that much, mainly helped her to make her escape from the hospital and drove her around to appointments and restaurants, but she was grateful and her gratitude took my favorite form. She knows I love yellow roses and that sweethearts last better than the larger hothouse roses.
So, when my old pal Jeff Jaques visited for a couple of days this week, I had a beautiful centerpiece for my table. I don't know if he noticed but I loved it.
What's your favorite centerpiece?
Even though my sister is okay and I'm home again, I'm finding I still need comforting. Nearly losing a sibling is as close to true fear and sorrow as I have come since my parents' deaths, and I'm still tired and a little weepy at times. Comfort food is called for at times like this, so I made lamb shanks.
It's hard to imagine anything more comforting than richly browned and slowly stewed shanks served over mashed potatoes. My half-Irish soul is soothed by both. Because I had some goozle in the freezer from previous stewings, too, it was easy to add the depth and richness that makes this meal perfect.
Browning the shanks is a bit of a chore, since my frying pans aren't really large enough to accommodate the length, but with frequent shuffling around, I managed to get a good sear on them. Into the crock pot with some onion and carrots for flavor. I used the same pan to brown some mushrooms and a sliced onion, then added those to the mix. I deglazed the frying pan with a little red wine, dumping all the goodies from scraping up the browned bits into the crock pot along with about 1/2 cup of my frozen goozle.
At this point, you can add garlic and/or rosemary and a bay leaf - really, any flavors you think goes with lamb. I wasn't feeling very experimental, so I stuck with the garlic and rosemary theme.
Setting the crock pot on high was the work of a minute and, by the time I had cleaned up the browning spatters, it was starting to bubble and simmer. I left it on for the best part of the day, until the lamb fell apart into its natural separations and relaxed off the bones. Even shanks are somewhat fatty, so after lifting out the meat, I skimmed the resulting gravy, leaving only the flavor behind.
Deep down good. Filling and satisfying. Reassuring, in a funny way. Just sitting down to a plate like this brings a stress-relieving sigh.
Lessons In Love
I am happy to be home. While I enjoyed my ten days with my sister once I was pretty sure she wasn't about to kick the bucket, I was glad to drive back to her son's house, surrender the car and GPS he loaned me, and board the plane for home. While I was staying overnight with him, we talked a lot about my sister and her care, the Meaning of Life, and other assorted topics that served to settle us both down after the crisis. We stayed up too late talking, but it was good for us both. Sighs of relief. Lessons about life and love.
And, tucked in amongst the important topics was a photography lesson. My nephew is an award-winning amateur photographer and, while we were talking about this blog, he taught me a new technique for taking photos of my favorite subject, food on a plate. His advice was, rather than using the closeup setting on my little point-and-shoot camera, to extend the zoom as far as it would go and move myself around to focus the shot. That way, the background can be blurred and the part you want in focus can be sharp.
Before picking me up at the airport, My Beloved had taken the time to drive down to our favorite lobster shack and had purchased for our dinner lobster rolls so I wouldn't have to cook on my first day home. He warmed the rolls, filled them with chunks of fresh lobster, and prepared our plates, then called me to come to the table and to bring my camera. Talk about lessons in love!
So, here is the first picture I have taken using Rob's photography advice: My Beloved's way of showing his love. It's hard to tell if the background is suitably blurry since it's such a closeup, but his technique of zooming did work and I was pretty pleased with my first attempt. And very pleased to be home again.
The concept of Heaven is a comforting one. The idea that we will be reunited after death with our loved ones, friends and, at least in my view of Heaven, the pets who went before us is wonderful. The nuns taught me that in Heaven we will all be happy all the time, know everything, and meet God - what a deal! In fact, that idea kept me from many sins I might have committed as a child and a youth. Not all, mind you, but quite a few. I was determined to get there. Sadly, logic and intellect butted in around age 12 and, little by little, I stopped believing in Heaven.
However, when you are three days into a five day visit with your grandchildren in Boston and you get a call saying your sister is in the hospital in North Carolina having suffered a stroke, as you fly down to visit her, you find yourself hoping that, if she departs this earth, you will find her again some day in Heaven.
The good news is that the stroke was mild and served as a serious wake-up call to my sister. No residual damage to speech or motor skills were detected and her sky-high blood pressure was diagnosed and treated. We had a good ten-day visit, tidied up a whole lot of nagging little errands, and made some arrangements for the future. I was just grateful that she actually has a future.
Once she got home from the hospital, Nancy was in hostess mode despite her illness (early hospitality training is hard to combat), and she refused to let me cook for her even though she didn't really want to cook, either. So, we ate out a lot, which probably isn't good for her sodium levels but it was good for her soul, which is really more important in the long run.
We had Greek food, Italian food, American food, comfort food (much needed), fast food, deli food and, since she lives in North Carolina, Southern food, too. The most memorable of these meals was pork barbecue at Stamey's, a local legend in Greensboro, North Carolina. Stamey's has been in business for more than 80 years.
I ordered a plate of pork and hushpuppies with cole slaw from the menu of perhaps five things. Stamey's knows what they do best and they limit the menu to those few items. The pork was lightly smoked and chopped, relatively tasteless until one sprinkled on the Stamey's sauce, a thin, mildly spicy and vinegary liquid. The same vinegar was used in the cole slaw - this is not the rich, mayonaise-y kind, but rather thin and tart, made with minced rather than shredded cabbage. This treatment of pork barbecue and cole slaw is traditional to North Carolina. The hushpuppies were dense and crisp but I have to admit I've had better ones; these seemed to have been made earlier in the day and held under a heat lamp.
The meal was good, but not heavenly. The heavenly part was sitting across the booth from my sister, silently rejoicing that I don't have to wait to get to Paradise to talk to her.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
In all the years I have lived in sunny California - going on 17, now - I have never managed to grow good tomatoes. I have a sunny little spot in my garden and I have even planted tomatoes in tubs on rollers so I could move them around to the sun, but I'm lucky if I get a few cherry tomatoes or even one nice big ripe one. It might help if I moved inland about 10 miles - life here close to the cold bay waters is not conducive to fruits that relish the heat of, say, Italy. But this cool climate is conducive to My Beloved, and I couldn't leave the beautiful view, so we stay and mostly buy our tomatoes from the farmer's market.
Earlier this summer, I was again in despair. I planted two tomato plants this year (ever the optimist), one in a pot and one in the ground, but had harvested only one and it was so small it hardly made a single BLT. I was grumbling under my breath and threatening never, ever to do this again. Why doom myself to bitter disappointment year after year?
Then, late in August, the tomato planted in the ground got busy and set some fruit! Imagine my excitement! And, ever so slowly, the tomatoes started to grow, then to actually ripen! Huzzah! I had to tie up the plant to keep the swelling fruit off the ground and, finally, had to put strawberry baskets under the ripening berries to let air get underneath and to keep the slugs at bay.
I picked my first home grown tomato last week. It was a thing of beauty, richly red and firm but a little soft to the touch. It was, in a word, perfect.
I carried it inside and laid it reverently on the counter; I wanted simply to admire it and to revel in my success.
After a single day in a bowl on the counter, my beautiful tomato rotted. Formed a pool of nasty-smelling liquid and sank down to its shoulders in the ooze. I couldn't believe my eyes! I was reminded that heirloom varieties are not selected for long shelf life, as are most store bought tomatoes. One must eat them immediately or suffer the sad, gooey consequences.
I'm wiser now. As the rest of the fruit ripens, I will leave it on the vine until I am ready to use it, then pick it at the peak of flavor and enjoy it right away. But, because Murphy is still in charge, we are leaving next week for a trip back east to visit relatives. My neighbors may be the only ones who get to taste my tomatoes as they should be eaten. I have asked them to tell me about how good they were... *sigh*
Since My Beloved lost the line that kept him stressed and too busy, a delightful new development has happened Chez Zoomie. Sure, we have lots less money to spend but he's often home for lunch! No longer out driving 600 miles per week to help confused customers, now his schedule is far lighter - one might even call him semi-retired, although he still works every day down in his home office and frequently out on the road as his work requires. It's just a lot less crazy.
So, now, at lunch time, I sometimes get a little fancypants and, rather than slap together a sandwich or eat a yogurt standing over the sink, I actually make lunch!
A couple of days ago, it was an open-faced tuna melt. But doesn't it sound so much fancier to say, with a hint of a French accent, Tartine au Thon?
Whole wheat toast mounded with tuna salad made with chopped raw broccoli instead of celery (did you know that broccoli and tuna are BFFs?) and some chopped green onion, then topped with slices of mild cheddar cheese that bubble and ooze under the broiler for two minutes before serving. He came up from his lair sniffing like a bear just out of hibernation and saying, "It smells mighty good up here!"