Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spooky Stuff

I'm having fun decorating for Hallowe'en this year. We have grandchildren in town, and that tends to add *spirit* to the holiday, so to speak. I bought some truly spooky lichen-covered spiders for the table, added black and orange candles now that it's dark around dinner time, and used my midnight blue placemats with black and orange napkins. I get a little smile every time I see the table.

And, following on with the Hallowe'en theme, when I found half a small head of purple cabbage, a great big carrot, and a mild onion in the fridge, I thought it would be fun to make a vegetable melange that would speak to the season.

I sliced the cabbage thinly, cut the carrots into matchsticks, and sliced the onion into rings then into quarters. Softening the onions in a couple of teaspoons of bacon fat didn't take long, then I piled on the other veggies and tossed them briefly to coat them with the bacony flavor as they quickly sautéed.  

We had been to Oakland for My Beloved's semi-annual checkup, so we treated ourselves to huge hamburgers from Marin Sun Farms in Market Hall. The burgers were flavored with their own house-made bacon, too, so it was a rich meal. We have been watching our portions lately, but any day that starts with something as hair-raising as trip to the urologist is a day when we throw the diet out the window.

This would make a great dinner for Hallowe'en night, when you have to eat fast and be ready for the ghoulies and ghosties who are bound to show up looking for treats.

Monday, October 28, 2013

New Way Across The Bay

When the new section of the Bay Bridge opened last month, people flocked to see what their taxpayer dollars had wrought. Traffic was tied up for weeks as people rubbernecked their way across the new span from both directions. Needless to say, My Beloved and I avoided that craziness, although we were very curious to see the finished bridge that we had watched go up ever so slowly.

We watched from afar as the span grew, and even sailed under it a couple of years ago, marveling at the graceful curve we could already see taking shape. We had lived through so many years of planning, changing, building, glitches, problems, naysaying and nonsense that we were eager to see what all the fuss was about.

Last week, My Beloved decided to risk it. We had dinner in Sausalito, drove across San Francisco's other iconic bridge, the Golden Gate, worked our way through the city, and came out onto the suspension section of the bridge as usual.  But when we exited the newly brightened tunnel under Yerba Buena Island, the feeling of openness and lightness was palpable, as if we could fly away into space.  Nothing blocked out the night sky and the graceful strands of the cables sliced through the dark.  The soaring white tower speared up into the fog, which also served to blur and soften the lights so they trailed gossamer wisps, as if they were moving through the night with us.

The taillights of the cars ahead divided the night dramatically into red, white and black. All we could think to say was "Wooooow," and "Cool!" and "Beautiful!"  Based on first impressions as a taxpayer, this costly structure was worth every penny of my money that they spent. The Bay area has another beautiful addition to what is already a glorious place.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Guess who got a new camera!  

My Beloved gave it to me as an early Christmas present because my old and much-loved camera was doing crazy things, like shooting three or five shots in a row when I asked for only one, and refusing to turn off the flash.

My friend Sunny, who is a very serious and accomplished photographer, suggested this camera to me. She knows I'm not going to tote around a full set of lenses as she does, so she mentioned this one as being basic but good, all-around camera.

It's a Canon G16, still a point-and-shoot but with a little higher quality sensor and a little more sophisticated settings than my beloved Elphs.  We are getting along okay, but I have to admit this camera came with some mysteriously complex software that I'm still learning the ins and outs of. After five years with my Elph, I was very comfortable - it's the newness of things that buffaloes me. I may even have to read the manual - gasp!

Having said that, I really like the pictures this camera can take. It has such good resolution that I could photograph the eyelashes on a gnat, and it keeps the image on the screen for a long period of time so I can check to see if I got the shot.  After five years of shooting food before it gets cold, I'm pretty good at framing quickly, but it's nice to be reassured.

I also am learning the software - this shot was cropped. I removed some background clutter that didn't add to the story. It's nice to have some simple ways to correct when I made a mistake with an otherwise useful photo. I haven't done much of this in the past, relying on my quick framing and some easy lighting tricks, so it's a whole new world out there. Photoshop, it ain't, but it can do some nice tricks, like taking out red-eye and straightening frames.

It's all new. Pretty soon, it will be all good.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Comfort Food

I'm not even going to show you the dish that came out of this pot. It's just brown rice and chicken, so it won't look pretty on the plate and even a side of tiny green beans isn't going to rescue the picture. Instead, let me just tell you about it.

The day started with a trip to the dentist. For a temporary crown. Expensive, somewhat painful, and I have to go back in two weeks for the permanent crown. With the threat of a possible root canal if all this angst doesn't save that 'way, 'way back molar.  I have a tiny mouth, so I spent an uncomfortable hour trying to open wide enough for two people's hands and various dental tools, and hearing over and over that it would be easier if my mouth was bigger.  Sorry, Doc, what can I say?

And, there was a BART strike on, so the traffic was fraught. Really fraught. So fraught that I had to detour around the worst of it to get to the dentist on time. To get that expensive, somewhat painful, temporary crown.

So, you know that when I got home I needed comfort food in the worst way.

I had taken a chicken breast, an enormous one that we bought all seasoned, from the freezer, so decided to use that. The seasoning was a mix of paprika and other spices - we were told it was "not too spicy" but we have learned to be wary of that. 

I didn't want to fuss much as I was feeling pretty darned sorry for myself by then, so I just softened some onion and browned some mushrooms in a little butter in my enameled cast iron pot, added a cup of brown rice, and stirred over medium heat until the grains turned opaque, sprinkled a generous shaking of herbes de Provence and a little garlic salt, then added two cups of hot chicken broth to the Dutch oven before placing that giant chicken breast atop the rice and sliding it all into a 350 degree oven for about 90 minutes.

While it was cooking, I took a couple of ibuprofen, laid down with a good book and goofed off.  When the house started to smell like the essence of comfort, I took Cora for a walk before coming home to serve dinner.

It was good, deep down good. And very comforting to a tender tooth and a stretched-out mouth. When comfort is needed, chicken and rice are the winning ticket.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Beany, Baby

I've been reading "Mastering the Art of French Eating" by Ann Mah, the story of the year she spent alone in Paris while her diplomat husband was posted to Iraq on an unaccompanied mission. It's a fun read for a couple of reasons, and her chapter about cassoulet got me thinking about using more beans now that fall has arrived. Our nutritionist recommends them as well.

So, I got busy inventing a bean dish. Of course, it's impossible to invent a dish - everything has been done before - but it was new to me so I think of it as my own idea. I was inspired by tagines I had in Paris in a tiny little North African restaurant where the owner was the chef and the server, too. He would likely have used chick peas rather than beans, but My Beloved has a deep, abiding loathing for chick peas, and beans are more French anyway, so I used beans. Our North African host poured mint tea into tiny cups from on high, at least a foot above the cups, and never spilled a drop. Indelible memories, that's what Paris makes. 

We had purchased some spicy lamb merguez sausages from Bel Campo meats in Larkspur Landing and they seemed like the perfect foundation for a beany sort of a dish, since the beans would help to calm the spice. I browned them in olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole, then added spears of onion, rough chop of garlic, thick chunks of zucchini, two cans of cannellini beans, (one drained and one with its liquid), and a generous drift of herbes de Provence. 

Into a 300 degree F oven for about 90 minutes. After 60 of those minutes, I raised the oven temperature to 350, since things did not seem to be progressing as fast as I might like. 

It needed salt at the table, but it was otherwise just as I had hoped. The zucchini all but melts and its dark skin gives a tiny bite of bitterness to the dish. The herbes de Provence lend that deeply funky herbal quality that I love. The onions and garlic sweeten as they soften. The merguez bites were nicely spicy, not painful, but they got your attention. And those creamy beans framed all the other ingredients in velvet.

I'd make this again and again. Love those beanies, Baby!

Merguez Zucchini Stew, serves four

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Olive oil
3 slender merguez sausages, perhaps 1/2 pound
1 yellow onion, cut into wedges through the root end so they stay together
2 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cans cannellini beans, one drained and one undrained
4 small zucchinis, cut in chunks ( cut them in about 1" triangles)
About 1 Tablespoon of herbes de Provence

In a large Dutch oven or heavy ovenproof casserole, brown sausages in a little olive oil. If they render too much fat, pour out some, but keep at least a slick of that flavorful fat to add richness to the dish. Lower the heat, and add onion and cook until it colors from the sausages and softens a little. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, being careful not to let it burn. Add the beans, the zucchini chunks and the herbes de Provence, cover, and slide into the oven for about 90 minutes.

With a big spoon, dig down until you get some sausage, some veggies and some beans for each serving.

Friday, October 18, 2013

October Sky

My Beloved loves nothing more than showing off his city to anyone who has never experienced it before. Give him half a chance, and he'll drive them all over San Francisco, up and down the breathtakingly steep hills, past the cold black Banker's Heart in the financial district, skirting the Palace of Fine Arts, through China Town, past the Cable Car barn, around Grace Cathedral, up to Coit Tower, down to Fort Point, along the Marina green to Crissy Field, and down the Crookedest Street (although it's not really the crookedest), and, of course, over the Golden Gate Bridge, telling stories and anecdotes the whole way. He has lived in the bay area for most of his life, so he has a boatload of tidbits to share.

The tour is different every time - I've been with him on at least five of these without hearing much repeating of stories. When he took my Dad and his sister, Aunt Virginia, on this tour they both pronounced it the best thing they did in San Francisco - their tour included a drink at the Top of the Mark, theatre tickets, and dinner at a slick restaurant.

He gave a truncated tour this week when my old pal Jeff was in town with his lovely young daughter, Carolyn. Carolyn had never been to San Francisco before and it was a stunning October day, so we started with lunch at Bar Bocce in Sausalito where the bay laps up against the bocce court and the food is quite, quite delicious (I can recommend the mushroom white pizza with copious wild mushrooms and thin, thin crust), then drove over the bridge, snapping photos out the windows and the sunroof as we whizzed across.

He didn't give Carolyn the full tour, since it was getting late, the Marin Headlands were closed due to the government shutdown, and our dessert of enhanced affogato (vanilla ice cream, Heath bar crunchies, and espresso) was making us a little sleepy, but we're pretty sure she was enchanted anyway.  

The bridge did us proud - even snapped out of a moving car and capturing only a fraction of one of the towers, it was still a sight to behold.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Falling For California

It took me a couple of years to fall in love with California. Oh, I liked it well enough and, heaven knows! it was milder than Rochester, New York from where I had moved, but it didn't feel like home.  I was reminded of all the times in my younger life when my Navy family upped stakes and moved every couple of years. It always took some time to figure out my new surroundings, get used to the local quirks, and find a bunch of like-minded people as friends.

That first summer, while I was hunting for a job, I'd do my housework and my job searching in the mornings while the fog was in, trying to ignore the fact that it wasn't very sunny. When one moves to California, one expects sunny. It's part of the mystique. Foggy mornings just aren't depicted on the travel posters. When I called my New York friends for a pick-me-up, I was always aware of the lack of local pals.

Happily, all those gray mornings paid off with a great job and, along with that came the friends - a whole office full of people I learned to love and who loved me back. It was a magical few years, and those folks are still some of my best California buds. That fall, as I boarded the BART train each morning in the brilliant sunshine, I felt as if the promise of California had come true.

I have lived here long enough, now, that it does feel like home. The warm, sunny fall days no longer surprise me. Fall is always my favorite time of year here. The fog retreats but the sun has lost some of its strength. There are the occasional searing hot days to make me grateful for the ones with a little tang in the air and the sky is brilliantly blue for days on end. Days when a stroll around the square in Sonoma might show you a guy hanging his bare feet out of the car window while he has a nap inside. Days when hanging out the wash is a pleasure. Days when walking Cora the three blocks downhill to get a cup of coffee (and panting the three blocks back up) can be done in shirt sleeves. Days when reading a good book outside in the shade is the finest thing one could do of an afternoon.

Our son-in-law just moved here from Boston. I know just how he is feeling as he alternately marvels at the beauty of northern California and shakes his head in mystification at some of the quirks of Californians. I can remember thinking Californians were wimps when they complained if the temperature dropped below 65 in the daytime; Jim clearly thinks that of me now. I can remember being surprised by the laid back attitudes here and the insistence on a quality lifestyle; Jim is learning about that. I'm pretty confident that he will fall for California, too, as I have - after all, if he was back in Boston, he'd be raking leaves in a heavy jacket and gloves right now.

And fall in California has a way of seducing the toughest heart with its golden hills and warming sun - not to mention the lovely people. I'm a sucker for California in the fall.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Oysters And Images

I thought life was moving fast before, but now it seems to have shifted into warp speed and I expect Captain Kirk to teleport in to my kitchen at any moment. If he does, I'll take him out to Inverness for oyster stew.

I have two old and dear friends from my boarding school days in France, Bonnie and Sunny. The three of us are roughly the same age and have somewhat the same backgrounds, all being daughters of naval aviators and who grew up in that peripatetic Navy life.  We have all settled in northern California within a 90 minute drive of each other, too, so we have become good buddies again, fifty-odd years after we met in that long-ago école. 

We are all interested in photography, too, so we met out in west Marin county last week to photograph the beauties and oddities of Point Reyes.  We arranged to spend a night there so we could have two days of photo safari together.  As we wandered through the woods, beaches, and state parks (Point Reyes National Seashore was closed due to the government shutdown - grrrr!) we were amazed at how we each saw the same things differently. 

Sunny is the most experienced and professional of the three of us, with a very expensive camera and lenses, and lots of hours in the saddle. Bonnie is learning from Sunny, and she totes an impressive array of camera equipment, too.  I am far less invested in both my equipment and my time than they, but I'm proud to say that my funny little Canon point-and-shoot camera gets some excellent shots, too.  

After a long day of hiking around to beauty spots, we were more than ready for dinner. Our first choice was closed since it was midweek and the tourist season out there is winding down, so we drove into Point Reyes Station to have dinner at the Station House.  

We eased into a booth, each a little weary from the long day, and checked out the menu while our very nice waiter outlined the specials. Sunny and I both chose the oyster stew, since Point Reyes is a great place to enjoy fresh, local oysters.  We also ordered an appetizer of pork terrine and that was a mistake.  Not because it wasn't delicious - it was. Because it was hefty, and so was the amazing oyster stew that arrived steaming hot at our table a few minutes later.

I hope you'll forgive another dark, unappealing photograph.  It doesn't begin to do justice to the stew, but it does show you the essentials. Unlike oyster stew I have had in the past, this one was almost spicy with tarragon, chunky with tender potatoes and plump oysters, and inspired with the addition of a hefty chiffonade of Swiss chard, which had been added at the last minute, so it retained a little crunch. Each spoonful was a happy partnership of creamy broth, tender and briny oyster, and textured chard to cut through the richness. Absolutely the best oyster stew of my long life.

I tucked myself into my B&B room that evening, pleasantly tired from the day and very full of oyster stew and images. I didn't have the energy to call up the images from my camera, so I just sorted through them in my mind as I drifted off to sleep.  My life may be traveling faster and faster these days, but it is crammed with interests, activity, friendship, and images. Kind of like my own little Star Trek episode.

*If you'd like to see some of the images I took on this safari, clickie here:

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Rare Treat

Given our roundness, you'd never know that My Beloved and I are not big dessert hounds. Oh, we like dessert and we often have it when we are out, but I rarely make any. If we need something to round out a meal, we have a favorite brand of low-cal, low fat ice cream bars that we turn to.

We were invited to have dinner with the Newlyweds, who are now back from their honeymoon and starting to feel social again.  Of course, they were still very moony-eyed and lovey, but they were able to tear their gazes away from each other long enough to cook a fabulous meal for us. Jeff is actually the cook in that family - and he's a wonderful one.  He had had a marvelous pork tenderloin dish at Deetjen's on their Big Sur honeymoon that he reproduced for us in his own kitchen.

Wishing to contribute to the feast, I asked what I could bring and Sari allowed as how a dessert would be welcome. So, looking at what I had on hand, I decided that apple turnovers would be good with a little ice cream. 

I made them with Molly Wizenberg's recipe, but since I had not quite enough apples (and none of the types she recommended) and one ripe nectarine, I decided to use those in a sort of summer-into-fall combination. I use DuFour puff pastry for things like this - it's made with real butter and it's easy to use, keeps for a long time in the freezer and always bakes up light and flaky. 

We had a splendid evening of laughter, wedding stories, wedding pictures, honeymoon anecdotes, hugs, kisses, and dogs under the table. The apple-nectarine turnovers were a hit but, honestly, I think anything would have tasted great with four friends in such a good mood. A rare treat, indeed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Add A Cube Of Lemon

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you will undoubtedly remember that I'm always improvising because I frequently don't have all the ingredients I need for a certain dish and I'm too impatient to wait until the next day to tidily assemble everything I need. 

But no more!

At least, not when it comes to lemons. When a recipe calls for fresh lemon juice, as this one for a filling for apple turnovers did, I'm ready!  I just popped a cube into the other ingredients as they were cooking, and it melted quickly to join the fruit juices in the pan.

A little while ago, I bought a whole bunch of lemons, juiced them, and froze the juice in ice cube trays. Each little cube is about one tablespoon of the acid I use most in recipes. Even when vinegar is called for, I often substitute lemon juice - I like the light, tangy, fresh tartness of lemon.

Heloise, I'm not. But I am inordinately proud of this little kitchen tip. So, when your recipe calls for lemon juice, add a cube and congratulate yourself on not having to run out to the store.

Monday, October 7, 2013

My Boyfriend's Back!

My boyfriend's back!  We had broken up a few months ago. I was tired of his unwillingness to take out the ashes and he just didn't light my fire any more. So, I threw the bum out, dusted off my hands, and found a new love.

The new guy was bold and big. That Big Boy generated a lot of heat. 

But, I found myself wistfully thinking of my first love. His soft, round green cover. His stainless steel table. His deep charcoal storage bin. Those cute little hooks that hold my tongs. His ash cleaner, so easy and so tidy!  His economy.

And we were comfortable together. Maybe it wasn't so exciting as with the Big Boy, lacking that spice of danger and novelty, but it was peaceful.  Predictable.  I know that sounds boring but, when you're talking charcoal grills, it's really sweet.

I ran into my pal Dr. Biggles in the hardware store and, as we stood talking, I remembered that he had taken in my first love and given him succor after our breakup.  Biggles had cleaned him up and fixed his ash catcher. He even got the vent closers to work again.  And it was Biggles who had introduced me to my current boyfriend, praising him to the skies.  Biggles had expressed envy when I brought the Big Boy home.

Maybe, just maybe, he'd be willing to swap!

His face lit up when I suggested it.

And that's what we did. Biggles brought my boyfriend back to me in the back of his big white pickup truck and we hefted the Big Boy into its place. Biggles drove off with a jaunty wave and I went out to the deck to welcome my boyfriend home. 

Biggles cooked on the Big Boy that night and pronounced himself deeply happy.  I roasted a chicken with my boyfriend the next day and rejoiced.  Win-win!  I guess I'm just a stainless steel kind of gal, rather than cast iron.

Friday, October 4, 2013

BaCoCa Weekend

Have you ever rented a big house for a weekend, big enough to accommodate your whole family? We never had, until this past weekend. We had rented apartments before when we went to Paris a few years ago, so we were familiar with renting other people's spaces, but this house was easily the largest.  The one we rented out in Inverness, in west Marin county, was huge - five bedrooms and five baths, plus a shower room, with spacious shared spaces and wonderful outdoor areas, too. It welcomed us all in, all eight of us.  There was even a little contemplation garden outside the kitchen door, complete with a Buddha.

You'd have drooled over the amazing kitchen with its six-burner gas stove, dual silent dishwashers, and a big French door fridge. It was stocked with lots of china, glassware and silver, and had every appliance known to man, right down to a little battery-powered doohickey that foamed the milk if you wanted to make a latte.

The weekend started as a celebration for three family birthdays that happen to fall close together, but we expanded it to include all four of our "boys" so none would be left out. We hung out the floating carp that Japanese families use to celebrate Boys Day, one for each male in our clan, and I made My Beloved his favorite birthday cake, Pineapple Upside Down cake, decorated with little race cars since he is such a racing fan.  It was originally heart-shaped as a tribute to my mother who always made me heart-shaped birthday cakes but, as you can see, I didn't get the camera out before the cake was half-devoured.

I used crushed pineapple and a yellow cake mix to make the cake, and eliminated those strange red cherries as well as half the sugar in the recipe, and it was still really good and quite sweet enough. We all pitched in to watch the children and share the cooking, the guys did some paddle boarding, the girls did some hiking, and we took the children down to the beach to play in the sand.  

We enjoyed the house for its amenities but also because we were all out of our normal spaces and off our turf, had no chores to attend to other than to make the next meal or tend to the children, and had leisure and privacy for good conversations and sharing.  We would rent this house again in a heartbeat, but we are also thinking about other locations we might share in the years to come.  Because the girls are My Beloved's daughters but not mine, it is a wonderful way for us to get to know each other in a deeper way, to build memories together, and to appreciate each other.

We made up a name for our shared weekends - BaCoCa, combining the first letters of our last names.  I hope there will be lots more of these.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Last weekend, My Beloved and I attended the wedding of our dear friend Sari and our newer pal Jeff. At our ages, it's unusual these days to attend weddings that aren't for the children of our friends, but Sari and Jeff are considerably younger than we. Even though we are nearly old enough to be their parents, they treat us like buddies rather than like elders, which we love.

We have known Sari for about 15 years and we count her amongst our dearest friends. She met Jeff through the most amazing sequence of events, a blind date set up by someone who used to work in our law school career office but hadn't in perhaps five years!  She just thought they might get along. 

Their courtship was careful, both being so tentative that all her friends were impatient for progress. Jeff had been married before, so was understandably cautious. Sari had never been married but she could be incredibly shy in a dating situation. Still, we were all itching for that first kiss.

It happened about four months after they started dating. Four months!  Sheesh! Happily, My Beloved and I were witness to it, as it happened on New Year's Eve at an intimate dinner we held for just the four of us. As the fireworks went off at midnight across the bay, the pyrotechnics started between these two, as well.  She was dreamy-eyed after that kiss - he must be a great kisser!

Things moved on nicely after that kiss and, a while ago, they moved in together. They are very affectionate now, so much so that they are frequently advised by their friends to "Get a room!" They constantly call each other "Babe;" it's so much a part of them that they actually worked it into the marriage ceremony, and Sari's brother used it in his funny reception speech. 

Sari's dress was like whipped cream, so beautiful with her pale skin, as she circled her beau seven times. Jeff looked every inch the handsome bridegroom in his spiffy tux - we are used to seeing him in shorts!  You'll have to excuse this grainy cell phone picture, taken as the sun was setting - it's not clear, but I think their joy is.

As the Best Man said in his graceful little speech, "Let the romance that has brought you together become a love that keeps you together. And may you always ask for help from those who love you most."  

Mazel Tov!