Monday, September 30, 2013


Having our grandchildren living close to us now has brought back a lot of family memories from my own childhood, especially dinner table memories. Remember being reminded to sit up straight at the table? And not to chew with your mouth open? Or talk with your mouth full? Remember being given foods you didn't care for and being urged to clean your plate? Remember negotiating for dessert before dinner had even been served?

This last, I remember particularly well. Eating dinner was often dependent on whether or not I'd be getting dessert - I was a better eater if there was a threat of no dessert hanging over my head. Even now in a restaurant, I will often read the dessert menu before making my dinner choice; if the dessert choices are tempting, better to leave room!

Having been given so few choices in my eating when I was growing up, I am determined not to repeat that with these two. I figure it's a grandparent's privilege to relax the rules a little bit. So, when they asked for an ice cream treat after dinner, My Beloved and The Pushover (that would be me) agreed.

Did you know that they make blue ice cream now?  Not only that, but it tastes blue, too! Truly vile, but you wouldn't know that by his enthusiastic response. He ate the whole scoop, and what he didn't eat, he got through capillary action from the part smeared on his face. We didn't even bother to wash his hands, just popped him in the bathtub as soon as we got him home.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Tale Of Two Counties

Two little girls, about the same age and living less than fifteen minutes' drive from one another.

I encountered the first little girl, a beautiful little African American child of about seven years of age, in the morning at the Contra Costa County charter school where I tutor. The children were lining up after Phys Ed to go back into the classroom as I was leaving, having had fine tutoring sessions with two other students. I noticed her among all the bright, happy faces because she was so sad that I felt compelled to ask her what was wrong.

"I'm so hungry" was her reply, her tears spilling shiny tracks down her soft brown cheeks. I took her hand and we consulted her teacher who sent us to the kitchen to see what was left over from the breakfast they serve every morning so the children who don't get breakfast at home will have fuel for the day. My little charge had been late to school, so had missed the breakfast. We rummaged around in the school fridge and found a string cheese, the kind that comes individually wrapped in plastic, and a handful of baby carrots to hold her over until lunchtime. Happy ending. She gave me a shy smile and bounced back to class, good spirits restored. I felt happy that I had noticed her plight and found a way to help.

We observed the second little girl later the same day, as we were enjoying dinner out at a restaurant that caters to families in affluent Marin County.

She was a beautiful little white girl with dark hair and blue eyes, about the same age as the child of the morning. Presented with the children's menu, she chose her dinner by pointing to her choice. The waiter offered her the milk or juice that went with her selection; she chose juice, but her parents intervened and suggested a glass of milk. 

In the blink of an eye, a pout replaced her smile. "I want juice," she insisted. The parents gently explained that the milk was better for her. "But I really, really want juice," she whined, in the kind of cajoling voice that makes parents everywhere (and anyone sitting nearby) cringe. Again, she was gently reminded of the virtues of milk, and offered either that or water. She exploded into angry tears, rejecting her parents' advice and stiffening her whole body into the act of refusal, crossing her arms across her chest and shouting, "No! I want juice! I want juice!" 

The first child was grateful for a string cheese and a small handful of baby carrots while the other pitched a fit over having milk to drink with her expensive restaurant meal. It was a tiny vignette; I might not have noticed at all had these two events not happened on the same day and to these two particular children, so close in age and so distant in circumstance. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bad Granny

When our grandchildren moved here from Boston, we knew our lives would change for the busier - and we were right!  About once a week, we get a chance to do something fun with our grands and, because they are very active and hungry, it often includes a meal.

As you may know, I am a novice at this child care thing. When my little brother was born, I was eight, so in theory I know a bit about kids but never having had any of my own, my skills are not only rusty, they are about 50 years out of date. When I stopped needing to know about parenting, spanking was still the rule.  Happily, these days, things are a lot more kid-friendly.

We have been given car seats for the children - who ever heard of car seats when we were young?  We didn't even use seat belts until my little brother was about six!  We just all piled in and fought to get next to the window, then squabbled about who was taking up more than her/his allotted space in the back seat until our parents would roar at us from the front seat.

We also have been trained about what foods we are to avoid when we keep the children. Feeding kids was simpler in my day - they just ate whatever the parents ate, foods that we now know were not particularly good for them. Did you know that juice weakens the enamel on those little teeth? These days, even mac and cheese from a box is organic.

Last week, as our son-in-law was beginning his first week at his new California-based job and his wife was back east turning over her position to her replacement, we were called upon to pick up the kiddos from school, give them dinner, let them play for a while, then give them baths, put them in their PJs, and tuck them into bed. 

The first question was, "What do we feed them?"

Happily, my older sister had children, one of her own and several foster children, so she is my go-to guide when I need kid advice. I called her and her suggestion for both playing and eating was one-stop shopping - McDonald's!  

Now, I know that Mickey D's is probably not on the Parental List of Approved Dining, but I also remembered our granddaughter telling me that they both love McDonald's, so I knew that we weren't breaking long-established norms by taking them there. Both children knew exactly what they wanted. Both children ate their entire meals, and Owen ate Mia's apple slices as well as his own and half of my fries.

We learned that Owen (he's three) likes catsup. Lots of catsup. In fact, he dipped his entire meal in catsup - chicken nuggets, fries, and - get this! - even his apple slices. He was a glorious, red mess by the end of the meal, but he had a fine time.

The rest of the evening went well - playing was safe, bathing was fun, and there was little struggle with the PJs. I may be Bad Granny for taking them to McDonald's but when he got home from work the Dad was grateful nonetheless.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Strazzberry Scones

I usually make scones with only one kind of filling - currants or berries, whatever I have on hand - but this time I had just a few raspberries and just a few strawberries, plus a Meyer lemon, so they all went into the scones. I'm calling them strazzberry scones.

I used Molly Wizenberg's excellent recipe, as I always do, keeping things in the family so to speak, adding the lemon zest during the mixing stage and berries at the very end of the kneading stage.  I quartered the strawberries but left the raspberries whole. They all got a little squished during those last few kneads, but it didn't diminish their flavor at all. And the lemon zest added a subtle little kick that was only noticed after the sassier berries had had their say. 

The tops were crusty and a little sweet, as I sprinkled a tiny bit of coarse sugar on each one after glazing and before popping them into the oven. The insides were moist and chock a block with berries. 

Probably my best scones yet. Strazzberry. I can dig it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Smokin' Seafood

My Beloved is very fond of scallops, but he mostly has to eat them when we are out in restaurants, because although I loved them as a child, that love waned to downright aversion as I grew older. Not sure why - maybe I OD'ed on them as a kid?  Anyway, we found some really beautiful big plump ones the other day and I agreed to plank them for him alongside some salmon for myself.

I haven't done nearly as much planking this summer as I usually do - the weather, frankly, has not been very cooperative. And my new grill doesn't get as hot as the old one did, so the planks don't smoke as much as they used to, giving a fainter taste of smoky goodness. 

Having said that, he virtually inhaled these scallops, humming with pleasure the whole time. 

If you haven't tried planking yet, then I haven't been doing a good enough job as a proselytizer!  All you need is some untreated cedar shingles, of which you can buy a lifetime supply very cheaply at a lumber yard. Be sure they are untreated as you don't want fire retardant in your smoke. You can also ask for any sample pieces they have in case you don't want a whole bundle - sometimes they will give them to you for free. 

Place a plank big enough to hold your food on the grates over a hot fire until the thin end begins to blacken and smoke. Then lay your scallops (or salmon, chicken, other fish, whatever, skin side down) on the plank, close the lid of the grill, and let 'er rip for about 12-15 minutes. When the juices congeal and the fat along the skin side of fish is sizzling, it is done.  If you've cooked scallops, just pluck them off the plank with tongs; if it's fish, run a spatula between the skin and the fish, lifting it cleanly away and leaving the skin stuck to the plank.  Don't bother to save the plank - just throw it away. Easy peasy.

Smoky and sweet, the scallops were all he had hoped for and my salmon was moist, tender, smokin' and delicious, too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Peach Of A Cake

If you love peaches as much as I love peaches, this post is for you!  We had scored some really beautiful, big peaches at the market this week and my friend Carla told me about a peach cake she read about in the June issue of Food and Wine magazine. The cake was made with olive oil as the shortening and that piqued my interest for all sorts of healthy reasons, as well as just plain curiosity.

I found the recipe online and dutifully copied it down, but when I read the comments, they seemed to suggest that the cake was very heavy on olive oil, so I decided to cut that down. When I was assembling the ingredients, too, I thought the recipe recommended too much sugar, so I reduced that as well. Lastly, it was suggested that it be served with vanilla Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream and I had neither of those in the house, so decided to add a little vanilla to the batter instead.

Oh, and Carla recommended four peaches instead of three, so I took her advice on that one, too.

The cake is made as a sheet cake and, honestly, it's just as good as a morning coffee cake as it is for dessert, maybe even better. It has a distinct flavor of olive oil when served warm, as its creator suggests, but that disappeared once the cake cooled and I think I preferred the simple taste of the peaches rather than the oil.  I drizzled a little crème fraiche on mine and, man, that was good!  The crème fraiche did a sort of yin-yang thing with the fresh peaches for a flavor bonus.

Made with our modifications, it's only lightly sweet and chock full of peach slices so it stays wonderfully moist even a day or two later.  The peach skins melt into the cake - no need to peel them. It made a huge amount for just the two of us, so I ended up taking some on the Tiburon sunset cruise with our cousins and giving some away to the neighbors as well. And we still had half a pan full. Next time, I will likely figure out how to halve three eggs and the recipe, as well.

Here's the final recipe I used. I think you'll enjoy it - it was quite simple to make, tastes wonderfully of fresh peaches, and it really is a peach of a cake.

Sweet Peach Olive Oil Cake (modified)

4 ripe peaches, pitted but left unpeeled, and thinly sliced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt (I didn't have the kosher salt the recipe called for, so I reduced the amount of table salt)
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purposed unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream (optional)
I used a driz of crème fraiche and that was delicious.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 x 13" baking pan with parchment paper and coat with vegetable oil spray. In a bowl, toss the peaches with 1/4 cup of the olive oil, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Let stand until juicy, about 15 minutes.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs, the remaining sugar and olive oil. In another bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Whisk the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Fold in the peaches and juices.

Scrape the batter into the pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, until golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool slightly, then serve with Greek yogurt if you like.  

I liked it even better at room temperature - less oily in flavor.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Same Soup

Same tomato soup, different garnish. 

Crème fraiche and scallions this time. 

Just as tasty as the one with corn salad and we liked the tang of the crème fraiche.  

Just as cooling for the third day of our little heat wave.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Still Gifting

I had never heard of Bajan (rhymes with Cajun) seasoning before our friends Dave and Annette brought us a packet of it as a hostess gift. Intrigued, but unsure how to use it, I visited the Savory Spice Shop website for ideas and came away with the notion of adding a little oil and lemon juice to the dry spice mix to make a paste with which to marinate a steak. 

I smeared on the paste in the morning, then returned the steak in a plastic bag to the fridge. It steeped all day in the spice blend before grilling with charcoal outdoors. It didn't take long as the steak was fairly thin. Before we knew it, the thin end was done to my order and the thick end was still super rare for My Beloved.  Sliced across the grain, it was a very juicy steak even though it was quite lean.

The Bajan seasoning was not strong - I got hints of curry and a tad of heat as well as a pronounced parsley flavor. When I read the list on ingredients, I could see where the little bit of heat and curry came from: salt, onion, thyme, garlic, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, parsley, marjoram, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, anise, allspice, habañero, Kaffir lime, cinnamon, mustard, mace, and cardamom. I have to admit that I couldn't detect all those flavors (not even sure I know what all those flavors are!) but I suppose it's like a symphony - you don't necessarily concentrate on each instrument, rather you just enjoy the music.

My takeaway is that it's grassy character would be even better on grilled chicken, so that's what I plan to try next. In the meantime, we have leftover steak to use in our lunch salad or, almost inevitably, wrapped in a tortilla. Their gift is still giving two weeks after they returned to Florida.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hot Or Cold?

What feelings does the word "soup" arouse in you?  Mostly, I think of warm soup on a cold day, the hot liquid sliding down to warm my whole being from the stomach outward. My mother was not so limited in her views of soup - she loved cold soups, too, especially during a heat wave such as we had here last weekend.

Vichyssoise was her favorite. She made it as smooth as fine silk and served it in elegant little bowls as a first course. She also made a rather strange gazpacho, which I only learned to love when I had a more authentic version years later. But, when I describe my favorite of her cold soups, normally I get a shiver of disgust from my listeners. Jellied chicken soup isn't for everyone.

Mom made jellied chicken soup by cooking the bejaysus out of a chicken carcass along with some aromatic veggies such as carrot and onion. It simmered for hours on the stove, until the gelatin in the bones seeped into the soup. She strained the soup carefully, added back in the shreds of chicken meat picked from the bones, and chilled it until the fat rose to the top and could be scraped off and discarded. Served cold, it made loose, silky mounds of soup similar in texture to crême caramel or very soft tofu, dotted with chicken pieces throughout. With each slurpy spoonful, the heat of the day seemed to dissipate by a couple of degrees. It wasn't pretty, but it was Essence of Chicken and very welcome on a hot day. I can hear you shuddering now; all I can say is don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Having a surfeit of tomatoes in the garden (yaay!) and a hot weekend on tap, when I saw this recipe for roasted tomato and garlic soup from David Lebovitz, I was intrigued. It looked perfect for a hot late summer day and I already had corn salad in the fridge. I did a few things differently, such as adding a quarter of an onion to the tomatoes and garlic while they roasted and serving it cold, but otherwise my soup was the same. 

I roasted the tomatoes, garlic and onion early in the day, while it was still cool, then simmered the soup for about 20 minutes before letting it cool, blending it with my stick blender, and stashing it in the fridge to chill completely.

My corn salad was from Roli Roti, who sells chickens at our farmer's market with little paper tubs of corn salad if you like - and we usually do!  The corn salad is vaguely Mexican in flavor with a little mild jalapeño amongst the corn, red onion, cilantro, and avocado, and I thought it would be perfect in the soup, so I added a hefty spoonful to each bowl before serving it out on the deck where we might catch a breeze.

It got enthusiastic approval from My Beloved - he was nodding and smiling as he spooned up his soup. We admired its beauty as well as its interesting textures. The corn was still a little crisp and the soup was velvety. The colors are deep and lovely. And the flavors of garden-ripe tomatoes and garlic were made for each other. 

If I don't have enough tomatoes from my own plant, I'm going to purchase extras at the farmer's market to make more of this soup for the freezer. I think it would be as lovely served hot on a chilly winter day as it was served cold during our brief heat wave.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rosy Outlook

I'm back to swimming. I was sick for a full month with a horrible cough that finally yielded to antibiotics and rest, but now I can swim again. I dreaded that first plunge into the water, thinking that I would have lost muscle (and willpower) after a full month off, but I was wrong. From the first strokes, my body fell back into the rhythm and reminded me how good it feels to be active and moving again. We are lucky to have a marvelous swimming pool in our community - the largest indoor pool in California. It is heated with solar power, cleaned with saline rather than chlorine, and blessed with the hottest, most delightful showers on earth.

After swimming, I usually stop in to our favorite local coffee shop for a reward - a half caff, half cream cup of coffee. We have a Starbucks in town but the coffee here is better and the family that runs Little Louie's couldn't be nicer. They know me by name and always have a smile.  They also always have fresh fruit and fresh flowers on the counter. Today's bouquet was clearly from someone's garden rather than purchased from a florist - roses of two different colors and rose hips.

Not sure why I felt the need to share this photo except to celebrate my return to wellness and the fact that there are roses in the world. Win-win.

Friday, September 6, 2013

School Days

When I retired five years ago, friends warned me that I'd be bored, that I wouldn't find enough activities to fill my days. I figured that I could return to work part time if that happened, so I went ahead and retired despite their dire warnings.

As it turns out, there was no need to go back to work. Between blogging, dog walking, swimming,  napping, and tutoring, my days are happily filled. School has begun again, so I am back to tutoring after a lazy summer of goofing off. Over the summer, I had actually forgotten how fulfilling, delightful, and just plain fun it can be.

I tutor second graders in reading. I don't give a lot of time - just half an hour once a week to four different children - but it makes a difference in their lives and it makes a huge difference in mine. I look forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays, my tutoring days. My school is a charter school with a great vibe, very upbeat and happy, despite limited resources.

My motivation for doing this work is that I was a slow reader - reading didn't really connect with me until fourth grade. I was able to read before then, but it wasn't fun, it was hard work. Then, with a single book, "Skippy's Family," it lit a fire in me that has never burned out. Ever since, I have always had a book that I am reading. So, I have sympathy for kids whose reading is behind the rest of the class, the ones like me.

Not having children of my own, I was initially uncertain about whether or not I could relate to little kids. I needn't have worried - they are a delight at this age. They are bright and articulate, full of fun and full of energy, but also still very naive and sweet. Very little sass in second grade.

Yesterday, as I was chatting with one of the new teachers on the playground before tutoring, a teacher I had worked with last year came up and greeted us, telling the new teacher that I was a great tutor and that I had worked miracles with her lowest students last year. Now, I can assure you, I'm not a great tutor, but the children respond to any attention from a grownup, and they flower under that benign interest. 

They read with me but they also tell me about their lives and their hopes. At my school, their lives are very different from the privileged world I grew up in, and that helps me, too, to be more understanding and compassionate. When I hear about a seven year old whose mother has been deported, or who lives where they are doing donuts in the street outside her house, I realize just how lucky I was to be raised by both parents in a safe neighborhood. I am learning and growing, too, right along with my students.

If you have some extra time to spare, you might inquire about tutoring at your local school.  It won't take much time (you can set your own hours), but it will add so much to your enjoyment of life. And you get summers off.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Diamond In The Chandelier

As I mentioned before, we had a busy and fun August, first traveling to Michigan, then welcoming two sets of house guests on successive weekends. That pretty much used up August. Both house guests brought wonderful gifts - Jeanne brought us a jar of her sweet-tart pomegranate jelly, sublime in taste and color. She even brought goodies for Cora, dog lover that she is.

Our second set of house guests, Annette and Dave, brought us a pair of flavorings from a company that is new to me.  Two envelopes of seasonings, Italian Black Truffle Sea Salt and Bajan (rhymes with Cajun) Seasoning from the West Indian Island of Barbados.  The company is called Savory Spice Shop from Colorado.

While Dave and Annette were with us, we had several meals flavored with the truffle salt and, folks, I have to tell you that stuff is magic. Pure magic. It was great on lamb, subtle but powerful. We sprinkled it on corn on the cob and it mixed with the butter to add the most amazing flavor-heightener! We ended up sprinkling it on almost everything and loved the way it enhances each taste. It smells like truffles even when the bag is closed, but it doesn't overpower any food with its truffliness - it just enhances their own particular flavors. If you've never tried truffle salt, you are missing a treat. I found myself thinking, "Baby, where have you been all my life?"

We haven't yet tried the Bajun Seasoning, but we have high hopes for it, too. If you visit the Savory Spice Shop website, you can read the story of this uniquely Barbadian rub/paste.

What I particularly liked about this company is that you can order as little as a one-ounce packet, not only to try new flavors without making a lifetime commitment, but also so you can keep your spices fresh and fully flavorful by buying smaller amounts more frequently. I have an entire drawer full of spice bottles that I bought to try once and never have used again. I don't throw them away because, well, you never know and they were expensive, but I'd love to have been able to just purchase enough for one go-around and then decide if we were going to be friends.

The diamond in the chandelier here is Truffle Salt. Get thee some today. You can thank me later.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

East-West Tacos

Seems like you, dear readers, will have to let me know when you have seen enough iterations of Food Rolled Up in Tortillas. My Beloved and I never seem to get tired of them.

Remember that okay-but-uninspired Pad Thai I wrote about last time, the one that was so boring that it didn't even rate a single comment?  Well, I looked at the mess of it that we had left over (did you know that rice noodles clump together the next day like mats in a cat's fur?) and was tempted to pitch the whole thing out. There is little so unappealing as congealed, cold rice noodles and limp scallions.

My cheapskate side, however, couldn't bear to throw away expensive shrimp, so I fished around in the nest of noodles, extracted all the shrimp, and repurposed them into lunch. Our shrimp tacos had fresh corn, thinly sliced onion, lettuce, our own ripe tomatoes (yes, the volunteer plant is still producing! Huzzah!), cilantro, and Cholula hot sauce. Three or four shrimp down the middle of our favorite tortillas makes a sumptuous lunch and, when they have previously been bathed in fish sauce and tamarind paste, they have a special extra tang that shifts the geography from Del Norte America to the Far East at first bite.

The moral of the story: You can use up anything (and love doing it) if you have tortillas on hand.