Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going Home

We are on vacation, house sitting for my brother in Hawaii. I will be taking care of their cat, guinea pig, parrot, and chicken. That part should take about ten minutes per day. 

After that, we are free to hit the beach, go for a hike, drive up to the North Shore for lunch and a shave ice, or just plain goof off. I always love returning to Hawaii - it is my heart's home.

So, while we are gone, I have linked for you to some amazing Hawaiian music videos that I think you will enjoy. My friend Meredith, who is a kama'aina (native born) in Hawaii, sent them to me, so they have some true Hawaiian chops.  Enjoy!  Here's the first one:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Black And White Chili

Chilebrown has noted that I have trouble following directions. Being half Canadian, that bugs him; generally speaking, Canadians play by the rules. At first, I discounted his observations but, with this last chili adventure, I have to admit he is right. I rarely do anything "by the book," including chili.

First, when I got the box of mix for Carroll Shelby's White Chicken Chili, I failed to note that it called for, uh, chicken. Instead, I bought ground turkey. I wasn't about to run back to the store for chicken even though I recognized my mistake before I started cooking, so I just went ahead with the turkey.

Second, when it came to beans, I had one can of the called-for white beans, but the only other can I had contained black beans - black and white chili, anyone?  I figured it was more an aesthetic and textural choice than a truly taste-based difference.

Third, one of the package suggestions was to serve it over tortilla chips. Now, I can read, but you might doubt it because my brain registered "Fritos" when I read "Tortilla chips." We adore Fritos but rarely allow ourselves the indulgence, so we have no apologies for this mistake.

Fourth, and last (I think), the package asked for two pounds of meat, and I only used one. So sue me!

Okay, so now that we have determined that I can't/don't/won't follow directions, how was the chili?

It was good, really good. I guess you can't really say it was Shelby chili, but we loved each beany, turkey-flavored bite. It was milder than the red Shelby chili, even though we added the whole dried jalapeño pepper packet and more than half of the cayenne pepper packet - next time, I'd throw caution to the winds and add the whole thing. As usual, I added the onions and beans that the package calls for. We even liked it better than the red chili mix. The lighter meat made it less of a bomb to the tummy and we liked the flavor combinations better.

Still, I'll probably just skip trying to follow directions next time and hatch my own white chili recipe. I mean, what's the point of a mix if you can't/won't/don't follow directions?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hen Party

Quiche and I are old friends. We are aging well together. I suppose some people would call us both hopelessly outdated, but I'm still having fun trying new fillings and making delicious meals. With a little spinach and avocado salad on the side, they make the perfect lunch.

For my "hen party" - another old fashioned concept, and one we should bring back because they are fun - I set the table with pretty floral placemats and actual napkin rings, and put some hydrangea blossoms from my garden in a crystal pitcher. I used my mother's wedding present china, luncheon size. Does anyone else remember that distinction? I used my grandmother's pressed glass water goblets because they ring so pleasingly when tapped lightly together.

And I made a quiche.  This time, I used Jacques Pépin's recipe for leek quiche rather than Quiche Lorraine, not knowing if one of my guests was a vegetarian. It is a little more work since he makes his own crust and partially blind-bakes it, but it was worth the extra effort - quite delicious. Also, I could make it the day ahead and just reheat it in the oven when I was ready to serve. I always count that as a bonus, since it means I don't have all the work to do on the day of the party.

The girlie party was a bigger success than I had imagined - my guests arrived at noon and didn't leave until four. And, even then, they were still telling stories on the way out. Quiche is fuel for a fine hen party.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

James, Michael, Jacques and Me

James Sartain gave me the sourdough starter.

Michael Pollan gave me the inspiration to start making homemade bread again.

Jacques Pépin gave me the general recipe I used.

Is it any wonder I like men?

After reading Michael Pollan's latest book, "Cooked," I was intrigued to try making bread with natural yeasts from the air.  I took the shortcut of asking Jim Sartain for some of his sourdough starter, rather than start from scratch. Then, I consulted Jacques Pépin's "Essential Pépin" for technique in making what he calls Small Light Country Loaves.

I began with a little trepidation, because I didn't have faith that my starter would actually be strong enough to leaven bread - despite it's actively bubbly, almost effervescent evidence to the contrary. Jim told me to feed it daily; I did, and it rewarded me by rising to the top of the jar with a frothy topping of snow white bubbles like a funny, curly toupee. I nearly chickened out and added store bought yeast, but then I thought, "What the heck - the worst that can happen is I throw away a lump of dough - or make a doorstop."

The only ingredients were 1 cup of sourdough starter, 4 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1-1/2 half cups of water. This is different from Jacques' recipe - he used an envelope (2-1/4 teaspoons) of instant yeast and two cups of water. I figured that I'd sub in a cup of the liquidy starter for 1/2 cup of the water. It made a very sticky, wet dough (as Jacques said it would - I was glad I had taken off my rings) that I raised and punched down two times, once for 3-1/2 hours, the second rise for 2 hours, and the last rise (with no punching that time) for 45 minutes after dividing the dough in four more or less equal parts. Yes, it pretty much takes all day, but the active handling time is really minimal.

Baked on parchment paper on a hot pizza stone in a 425 degree F oven that I sprayed twice with water to create steam, the loaves were golden brown with a crisp crust in about  35 minutes. I had set a timer but I didn't really need it - the heavenly scent of baking bread told me the loaves were ready about five minutes before the timer quacked (my timer makes sounds like a duck).

With smells like that emanating from the oven, I was tempted to break open one of the loaves immediately, but I resisted for  a full 10 minutes - talk about self control!  I finally sliced off one end and spread it with a little unsalted butter.

The crumb was tighter than I expected - should have left it to rise just a little longer, I think - but the flavor!  Oh, my heavens, the flavor is wonderful, richly yeasty and moist, but with a crackling, chewy crust. The tang of sourdough is evident and welcome, giving a white bread with some serious character and pizzazz.

These guys know bread. With James, Jacques and Michael in my corner, I can't go wrong.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cherries Jubilant

All of a sudden, cherries are everywhere. In the supermarkets in perforated plastic bags. At the farmer's markets in paper bags. At roadside stands in little green papier maché baskets. If you made a cornucopia at this time of year, it would be filled to overflowing with cherries. A jubilation of cherries.

Enough to eat straight off their stems, when they make a little popping sound as you pull them off. Enough to put into pies. Or, if you're feeling a little lazy because the weather is suddenly hot, enough to cover up with batter for clafouti. I love the word "clafouti." It sounds downright playful and, as such, it's the perfect name for the dessert, which is a little playful and silly itself.

It's hard to take yourself seriously when you have purple juice under your fingernails from pitting the cherries and your tongue is purple because a few of the cherries didn't make it into the dish. Or, maybe you have an actual cherry pitter in your gadget drawer and you don't need to slice them in half and use your thumbnail to lift out the pit, as I do. In any case, one simply has to smile at dark, glistening cherries all plump and crying out to be clafoutied.

I found a really small vintage Pyrex pie plate at a garage sale recently, one about 1/3 the size of a normal pie plate, and picked it up for a song. I was making this clafouti for a luncheon party for a couple of friends who live locally but whom I rarely see with enough time to catch up, so I thought the smaller plate would be plenty for the three of us. I did the math (I'm a fractions idiot) three times over to be sure, then whipped up this diminutive dish. I almost burned it, too, as I forgot to adjust the oven time by 1/3, too, but the scent drew me back to the kitchen just in time to save it from incineration.

I used Julia Child's recipe, for the most part, but made a small but significant change. Instead of all vanilla extract for flavoring, I used half vanilla and half almond extracts. Good move. The finished dessert was only lightly sweet, redolent of almond and vanilla, and studded liberally with so many cherries that if they had been stepping stones in a river, you wouldn't have even got your sneakers wet. 

Quick!  While the markets are still overflowing with cherries, grab some and let yourself feel jubilant.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Father Knows (the) Best (Burgers)

On Father's Day, we had a sumptuous lunch at Bistro Liaison in Berkeley, compliments of My Beloved's two daughters.  They also showered him with a funny greeting card, a new aloha shirt, and a pair of jams with fish swimming over them for our upcoming Hawaiian vacation, so he was feeling very loved and appreciated by the time dinner rolled around. 

I, too, like to spoil him just a little on days like this - after all, he is Cora's "father," in a way. But, having had such a big lunch, it didn't seem like a good idea to overeat twice in the same day, so I decided to make turkey burgers for dinner, without the bun.

Had I said to him "turkey burgers" before serving them, I'd have gotten a less-than-enthusiastic little moue of disappointment - he's more of a red meat kind of guy. But, I waited until he had taken his first bite to tell him, and he was agreeably surprised. These, to him, constituted a celebration dinner.

The secret is incorporating a rasher of crisped, chopped bacon and a mince of sautéed mushrooms into the half pound of ground turkey, forming patties, and frying them on low-medium heat just until the meat lost its pink, perhaps 8-10 minutes in all. When they came out of the pan, I added a tablespoon or two of water to swirl around in the pan, gathering the residual flavors into a sort of "au jus" that I poured over the burgers to add a little more moisture.

The burgers were juicy and rich tasting with only a minor amount of bacon in each one - he was actually surprised when I told him they were turkey burgers. A little steamed broccoli finished the plate and fulfilled my mother's stricture always to have something green.

Not only did My Beloved have a happy Father's Day dinner, his girl Cora loved the jus left on the plates.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Best. Ever.

My Beloved goes on business trips from time to time. Usually they are short - a day or three - but sometimes they are longer. We catch up by phone while he is away and I have learned over the years to expect little presents to arrive sometimes, as well. Occasionally, a florist truck will arrive with a bunch of cut flowers for me to arrange - I worked for several years as a floral designer and he knows I like to keep my hand in.  

Other times, I will find that he has left some little goodie or a sweet note around the house, or has recorded a loving voice message on the answering machine. This time, one day after he left, I received a mysteriously heavy big cardboard box packed with a styrofoam cooler inside of which was a whole lot of ice packs and two entire pounds of Nueske's bacon! 

Best. Bacon. Ever.

I squirreled it away in the freezer to save for his return, when we will bust out one of the packages and have a feast. And, when I'm feeling a little lonely, I just go look in the freezer to get a warm, fuzzy glow. Almost as good as hearing his voice on the phone.

Best. Husband. Ever.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Happy Washerwoman

Each year about this time, friends begin remarking on my tan. They'll say, "Wow, you must have been sunbathing!" or "Looks like you're enjoying your retirement!" or "Have you been to Hawaii recently?" They don't believe me when I tell them it's all from hanging out the wash.

It's true that my face and hands are darker in good weather than they are all winter long. I do hang out my wash when possible in the rainy months, too, but it's far more frequent in the summer and fall when nearly every Monday is sunny and breezy.

It's what I call a "farmer's tan," confined almost entirely to face and hands, and ending in wormy white skin just under collar and cuffs. Still, it makes me happy to hang out the wash and I'm far too lazy to smear on sunscreen before I go out, so I figure that those few minutes per day once a week won't kill me.

This next statement may cause you to shake your head in disbelief, but I love hanging out the wash. It's not really about being green, although that is a side benefit. It's also not about saving time, although I do save a lot of time over waiting for the endlessly churning dryer to be ready for the next load. 

It's really about being outside on a pretty day with sweet-smelling fabrics of so many different colors. The repetitive actions of stretching and pinning are almost  meditative. Choosing another garment from the basket, grabbing a handful of clothespins, reaching up, tilting my face to the sun. My mind wanders from the enjoyable task to all kinds of random thoughts from observing that the neighbor's house needs painting to contemplating the universe. 

The whole experience reminds me how lucky I am to have plenty of clothes to hang, so many colors to enjoy.  How fortunate I am to live where the sun shines so predictably, how blessed I am to have so much to be grateful for.  

Taking down the fragrant, scratchy fabrics ends the day on a high note, too. The towels are stiff and the fabrics are all wrinkly - it doesn't matter. Just reminds me that I'm also lucky to have given up ironing for life. I don't think my tutoring students care if my clothes have wrinkles; they just enjoy reading with me.  I know My Beloved likes the sweet smell of his sun-dried shirts. And I actually enjoy the delicious scratchiness of towels dried outdoors.

I have often thought that if I were to lose all my money, I could make my living by taking in the wash from other families who are too busy to hang out the wash. I hope that never happens but, if it did, I'd call my business "The Happy Washerwoman."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Usually, when we plan a picnic, I do it the hard way, making hardboiled eggs and oven-roasting chicken at home, baking cookies or packing sandwiches. But, last week, when we headed up to the beautiful and expansive Tilden Park, we didn't plan to have a picnic until we were on our way. So, we stopped at the local grocery store to pick up provisions. Honestly, why did I ever go to so much trouble?

We chose containers of Brussels sprout salad, broccoli slaw with dried cranberries, and flank steak strips cut into steak bites by the obliging deli workers. I got sprouts and My Beloved didn't have to. He got rare steak, and so did I - Cora got the end pieces that were more well done. We all sat on the grass under a shady tree - we didn't even need a blanket - and watched the little children at the next shady tree having a birthday party, complete with gaily wrapped packages, colorful balloons, off-key singing of the birthday song, and a tire swing the parents had brought along.

Our tree was across the street from the steam trains, so we were treated to musical whistles as we ate, and the kids streaming back from rides on the trains were wild with excitement, straining to be first to describe their experiences.  Next time, we are going to ride, too. Even Cora is welcome to ride. The young operator told me that one guy comes every Friday with his Alaskan malamute, just the two of them for a ride.

While we were away eating and exploring the steam trains, a very industrious, tiny spider spun a web across the rear view mirror on our car. It spanned from edge to edge and was beautifully constructed - all in an hour or so!  If you enlarge this photo many times, you can see the strands of her web and, in front of my fanned fingers, Charlotte herself.
Impromptu is one of my favorite words, both for its sound and its meaning. It was that kind of day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Breakfast F-Bomb

If you haven't already found Thug Kitchen, you have a treat coming, but be prepared. The style and the language are tough, rather like a punch in the face. I am so very tired of hearing/seeing "F**K" used as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, and a verb that you'd think I'd hate any blog that uses all of those, and more. And, the recipes are healthy/vegetarian/verging on vegan - not my usual kind of eating. But, somehow, the surprising juxtaposition of the tone, the cursing, the in-your-face design and fonts with serious vegetarian recipes comes together in a wonderfully irreverent, clever way that tickles me. Now one of my very favorite blogs.

I don't even know if the Thug is a male or a female - the voice could be either and the blog offers little in the way of info about the writer.

The other day, the Thug posted about an improvement to My Beloved's breakfast. Toasted steel-cut oatmeal with quinoa. See what I mean? Oatmeal? Quinoa? Not a beer with a raw egg cracked into it, the kind of thing one might expect a thug to have for breakfast. 

My Beloved actually likes oatmeal. It may be his only flaw. Gag me with a spoon; I literally shudder at the mere thought of oatmeal. But, he does like it and it's good for him, so we make it and he happily eats it roughly 5 mornings out of 7. It fuels his day and scrubs his arteries and his innards, so we are happy. 

But, when I read about quinoa added to oatmeal that had been lightly toasted in minimal olive oil before adding the water, well, I just had to try it. The recipe is easy to make, taking very little more time and attention that our old method, and it really does make a big difference in the flavor of the oatmeal. When he heats his daily portion in the microwave, the scent that fills the kitchen is more reminiscent of whole wheat toast than of oatmeal.  I gingerly tasted a spoonful in the interest of science, ready to spit it out immediately if it was gross, and found that I actually liked it! Hey, Mikey!

My Beloved topped his portion with a just a splash (maybe a tablespoon) of half-and-half and some fresh strawberries, and happily gobbled it all down. The Thug has some other suggestions for toppings, all of which sounded pretty great.

The recipe makes a boatload of breakfast cereal so, unless you have a big family or a seriously big eater at your house, don't double the recipe the first time, as I did. I ended up freezing 2/3 of it so My Beloved won't get tired of it before it's gone. 

So, helly on over to Thug Kitchen  - WTF, it will be fun!

Saturday, June 8, 2013


My Beloved is not generally that fond of chili, but I love it. If I make it from scratch with lots of beef, he does enjoy it, but I don't have it on frequent rotation because he's not a big a fan. However, he is a huge automobile racing fan and can be tempted to purchase just about anything having to do with cars that have unmuffled engines and slick tires. So, when I read that Carroll Shelby invented a line of chili kits, I knew he'd be intrigued. So I raced on down to the store mentioned on the chili kit website to purchase both the beef and the white chili kits. 

It was a revelation to me just to plunge willy-nilly into the center part of an unfamiliar modern supermarket - I usually do all my food shopping around the outer edges where the fresh stuff is kept. I don't think I knew there were so many prepared foods in the world as I found on the shelves of that market. For a fan of Michael Pollan, it was eye-opening and a little frightening - all those "food-like substances" packaged to keep forever. Ulp. Aware that I was probably supporting the evil Monsanto with at least one of my kits, I felt traitorous and oddly guilty.

First, we tried the beef chili with black beans, garlic and onion added to the browning phase. The kit had four envelopes inside, a large one with rust-red powder, and three smaller ones with other flavorings. I left out the masa, salt ,and cayenne pepper packets because the chili was thick enough, we don't like a lot of salt, and we are spice wimps. I made the chili one day and served it the next, as dishes like chili are often better the second day and, being a mix, I wanted to give it every chance to be good.

When I lifted the lid after re-heating, the rich aroma of chiles was so strong that I poured us each a glass of milk, just in case. It was plenty spicy for us; I can only imagine what it would have been like had I added the cayenne packet.

For the same meal, I indulged in a corn bread mix, too. What the heck, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, right? I forget the brand, and I have thrown away the package; it probably doesn't matter which industrial mix I used. I added some green onion tops to the mix for color and a little more taste, melted a lot of butter in a hot, black iron skillet, poured the mix into the middle of the sizzling butter, and set the pan into a hot oven for about 15 minutes.

For stuff out of a box with very few improvements on my part, it was a surprisingly good dinner. The chili was hearty as all get out, spicy enough to make us glad of our glasses of milk, deeply flavorful and filling. I'd trust that racy Texan to make good chili again.

The corn bread was not as hearty and didn't fool us into thinking it was in any way authentic, but it was good, lightly sweet-savory with onion scent, and a nice accompaniment to the chili.

I can't call this meal Mexicali - it's just too fake for that - but Mixicali turned out to be quite surprisingly good, too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

You Oughto Try Botto

Funny old Richmond is getting lots of new restaurants lately - and some of them aren't half bad. My Beloved and I have been trying them out, one by one.  The latest to us is Botto, a casual sort of a place in a small strip mall next to a dry cleaners and a CVS pharmacy. If you drove by, you wouldn't stop, but My Beloved does water aerobics with a guy who had tried it and liked it, so we made a point of going in on "fish day," Wednesdays, to give it a whirl.

It's Italian. In fact, it's so Italian that the chef has a little trouble with English. I don't hold that against him, as the man can cook!  When you go in, you give your order at a counter, pay up front, and carry your dishes to your table where you find silverware wrapped in paper napkins waiting for you. No tablecloths, no placemats, just a silently running TV showing soccer matches. If you are hoping for fancy, this is not the right place. But if you are looking for good, reasonable Italian food, have a seat!

The only seafood entrée on our Wednesday night was fettuccine with a small whole lobster tail and shrimps in a very buttery sauce with fresh herbs. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the herbs lent a freshness to an otherwise very rich plate. I have to admit that it was saltier than I care for and a little too rich, but My Beloved inhaled his portion and mopped up the rest of the butter on the plate with his bread. Both were man-sized portions, so I had to leave part of mine - although I didn't leave any of the shrimps or the lobster!

We have eaten there three times now, on fish night and on other nights, and enjoyed each occasion. This is good food, perhaps not great food. However, the combination of reasonable price and pretty darn good cooking will see us back there from time to time when we are in a casual sort of a mood - or when we have dry cleaning to pick up or need something from the drugstore.

Reading that over, it sounds like too tepid a recommendation. We really do think you oughto try Botto. There's nothing wrong with "pretty darn good."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Chicken Liver Love

I've been nosing around again in Jacques Pépin's marvelous tome, "Essential Pépin" and drooling on the pages. It weighs a ton - it would seem that food wisdom is weighty - M. Pépin knows cooking!

My Beloved and I happen to be very fond of chicken livers and M. Pépin, being from Bresse where the famous Poulet de Bresse chickens and, hence, chicken livers, are grown, has a number of recipes in that book designed to tempt a chicken liver lover.

If you can't stand 'em, you have my permission to stop reading right now and to come back tomorrow.

Inspired by one of his recipes, Chicken Livers in Salad, I bought a small tub of chicken livers last time I was at the supermarket and prepared to do battle.  Cleaning chicken livers is not for the faint of heart, but if you don't do a thorough job, neither is the result. It's worth the effort.

Once the livers are prepped and the pan is hot, the whole thing comes together in a flash - so fast, in fact, that I ended up rather too warm from the pressure of the preparation. Again, well worth the effort. The livers are quickly sautéed in oil and butter, set aside while still pink inside, while the salad is prepared.

The green salad, dressed with the pan drippings and balsamic vinegar, is a great counterpoint to the strong garlic and chicken liver flavors. Neither of the flavors fights nor dominates the others, and the crisp texture of the lettuce stands in happy contrast to the meltingly tender livers. 

Not only did we love every bite, Cora happily licked the bowl and pan in which it was made. Turns out we are a whole family of chicken liver lovers.

Chicken LIvers in Salad by Jacques Pépin

M. Pépin serves this as a first course, when it serves 6.  We had it as a main course for two and it was ample.

12 chicken livers (we used 9, but I will give you his whole recipe)
1-1/2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons corn oil (we used olive oil)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 Tablespoon crushed, chopped garlic
3 Tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley (we didn't have this, so omitted)
6 cups of large dice iceberg lettuce (again, we didn't have so we subbed in Romaine, which didn't stay as crisp as iceberg would have. Next time, I'll follow the recipe for the extra texture)
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Separate the chicken livers in to halves, cutting out and discarding the connecting sinews.

Heat butter and oil in a very large saucepan or skillet, until very hot. Add the chicken livers in one layer, sprinkling with half the salt and pepper and sauté over high heat for 1 minute, partially covering the pan if they splatter. Turn and cook the livers on the other side for 1 minute, partially covering the pan again if necessary. The livers should be pink inside.

Add the garlic and parsley and mix well. Transfer the livers and any juices to a bowl, cover, and set aside; reserve the drippings in the pan.

Put the lettuce in a large serving bowl. Add the pan drippings and toss to mix well. Add the remaining salt and pepper and the vinegar and mix again. Divide the salad among the individual plates, top with the livers, and serve.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Wrap It Up

Tortillas are God's gift to the lazy cook. I can't think of any single ingredient that makes life so easy for us. Roll just about any combination of things up in a tortilla, and you have lunch, or dinner. All you need to do is chop a few goodies, shred a few more, and away you go!

In this case, I had some fresh peas gleaned from the farmer's market, so I steamed them in a few tablespoons of water for a few minutes topped with a halibut fillet.  When the peas are nearly done, the skin will lift effortlessly off the fish, which is cooked to sliding-apart perfection. 

While the peas and halibut cook, finely chop some Maui onion (if you can find it - so sweet! - it's worth the price), peeled cucumber, and cilantro. Slice half an avocado and scoop it out of its shell.

We heat whole wheat tortillas over a low burner in a wide, dry frying pan, then pile the peas, flaked fish, and condiments into the warm wrapper, splash on some hot sauce, and roll it all up.  The whole thing takes about ten minutes and makes a delicious and balanced meal.
Well, maybe not perfectly balanced, since those darn peas keep falling out onto the plate and have to be stuffed back in, but you get my drift. Plus, it's just fun to eat with your fingers sometimes.

Next time you don't feel like fussing over dinner, just wrap it up!