Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Limping Along

Did I tell you that my cooktop died?

For all the nearly 17 years that we have lived in this house, I have complained about the kitchen. Not only is it exceedingly ugly with plaid vinyl floor, Stygian cabinets, and mottled mustard-and-brown tile counters, it also has a single oven and only two burners to complement the Jennair grill. I'm sure it was state of the art in 1979 when the house was built but it's more than dated now. I'll bet you haven't seen an analog microwave oven in 20 years; well, we have one.

For all my griping and complaining, it has been a pretty functional kitchen until recently. All the original appliances worked (except for the fridge, which we replaced a few years ago), and that's saying something in this time of planned obsolescence. Last year, however, two major failures happened; one of the oven coils decided not to heat any more and the cooktop decided never to turn off again.  The former, we can deal with - it just takes a long time to heat up the oven. The latter was a real problem. Not turning on is a minor problem; refusing to turn off is a biggie.  

With visions of raging burners in our heads, we went down to the breaker box, worried that we'd have to disable the entire kitchen electricity. Thankfully, it was on its own breaker switch, so we could turn off the juice to just the stove.  Whew!

The next day, I went out and purchased a small, two-burner countertop stove, figuring that was 'way cheaper than calling a repair person to fix a cooktop we would be replacing in just a month or two anyway. So, that's what I'm using for the foreseeable future. It in no way replaces a real stove, but it will do as a stopgap measure.

The kitchen remodel can't start soon enough to please me. Now, if I can just get the architect off the dime to give us plans to work from!

In case you are curious, that's Nueske's corned beef hash in the frying pan. My Beloved ordered it as a Christmas treat. We like it, with reservations. We found it a bit too salty and the texture is very fine, not as chunky as we like. So, we added our own chopped, softened onion and sautéed mushrooms, which rendered it very delicious indeed. Nueske will ship right to your door in a styrofoam cooler, making life easier than ever. And, no, I don't get paid to say nice things about Nueske.

So cooking is happening in our kitchen, even if we are limping along.

Monday, January 27, 2014


I had peanut butter toast for breakfast this morning. "So what?" you ask. So, it always reminds me of Butchie Davenport, one of my father's best friends, who introduced me to peanut butter toast one summer morning in Michigan. It was a staple breakfast for him and he was surprised I didn't know about it.  I never make it without thinking of him.

I wrote about this a few years ago and, when I went back to re-read, I found that I had said it all in that post. So, if you want to read it, go here and learn about one of the best guys ever to walk the planet.

If not, see you next time! But, you are missing a treat even more delicious than peanut butter toast.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Since My Beloved and I began cutting down on portion sizes, I have started ordering lunch from the appetizer menu when we go out, rather than from the entrée section. It's a good strategy. It doesn't always work because I don't always want the kinds of rich foods that tend to live on that part of the menu, but I give it a glance anyway, just in case.

A case in point: lunch at The Baltic in Point Richmond. My Beloved wanted to stroll down to the village for lunch, taking Cora with us. It was a glorious day, almost 70 degrees and brightly sunny. There are only two restaurants in our town that welcome dogs on their back decks, and the Baltic is one of those. The Baltic specializes in German food, not always a favorite, but any reason to sit outdoors was going to win on this lovely day.

We decided to split an order of garlic shrimp served over mashed potatoes as our appetizer - if only because we had never heard of such a combination. And I ordered mac and cheese from the appetizer menu, as well.

Either of these plates would have made a full meal, and it would take a serious trencherman to have polished either one of them off and then gone on to an entree! I'd hate to see what the entree portion of mac and cheese would have looked like - it must have been gigantic!

When you get the hungries, we can recommend the Baltic.  The shrimp dish was absolutely delicious with a strongly garlicky, creamy sauce that might have been too rich if it hadn't been sprinkled with capers, which cut through the richness and tickled the tongue with a touch of sour. There were six jumbo shrimp, too, no skimping on the expensive part of the dish. And the spuds underneath were soft and a little lumpy - just the way we like them.

The mac and cheese was really spaetzle and cheese, homemade, quirky, uneven noodles cloaked in a very cheesy sauce and studded with rounds of bratwurst. I loved that it wasn't bright orange - clearly, they used undyed cheddar cheese and plenty of it. It was easily a portion big enough for a dinner, much less a lunch appetizer, and it was made more interesting by the uneven shapes of the handmade spaetzle. Another bonus.

We are blessed in our little town with lots of restaurants and with so much competition the poor Baltic has been through many hands in the years we have lived here, but I think this time they have come up with a winning recipe for success.  

But those are NOT appetizers, they are full meals.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Worth Every Penny

My Beloved and I stopped at Belcampo Meats in Larkspur Landing the other day on our way home from lunch with some old friends of his. We were driving by and I remembered that I had not taken anything out of the freezer for dinner, so suggested we detour past their butcher shop.

We bought a pound of their bacon hamburger at a whopping $14 simoleans per pound. I am morally certain that it is the most expensive hamburger I have ever purchased, bar none. I even gasped a little when I saw the price but the longing look on My Beloved's face was enough to convince me to try it. I know, I know, I'm a sucker for that guy. So sue me.

I divided it into quarter pound burgers (roughly $3.50 per burger) and seared them simply in a dry frying pan. They caramelized beautifully, even My Beloved's, who likes his hamburgers still mooing so they don't get much skillet time.

The bacon was smoked but not overly salted, and I think they partially cooked the bacon before adding it to the beef. The hamburger was richly red and ground from grass-fed beef. I can state without any qualification that this was the single best hamburger of my nearly 67 years of life. I had an internal struggle with my gluttonous side not to immediately cook up another. I can't wait to try the other half pound on the barbecue, and I will be buying my bacon hamburger from Belcampo ever after.

If you don't live near enough to Belcampo to try this, you have my sympathy. It was worth every penny.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Spoils of War

I'm not a betting woman.  I once put a quarter in a slot machine and immediately knew that the trilling excitement I felt while the wheels were spinning was dangerously addictive. I never did it again. Oh, I have bought the occasional lottery ticket (and even won $35 once), but I am generally as leery of gambling as I am of drugs, recreational or otherwise. There are just some things I know I couldn't control. I have to admit, however, that I get a kick out of other people's bets.

You may have heard that the mayor of San Francisco and the mayor of Seattle had a bet on about the football game today. My Beloved had a bet with a friend, too, his buddy Tom from Green Bay last week.  If the 49ers lost, My Beloved owed Tom Ghirardelli chocolate. Because San Francisco won and because Tom lives in Wisconsin, we have a nice selection of goodies to enjoy with today's game.

The meats are from Nueske's. That alone would have made this a welcome gift, but there are cheeses and crackers with a hot, sweet mustard as well. 

Thanks, Tom! 

And, Go, Niners!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Freezer Burn Is Not All Bad

I posted about these gougères 'way back around Thanksgiving of 2012 when I made them for my family celebration and froze the extra ones for another day. In my manic emptying of pantry and freezer prior to the start of destruction/construction in the kitchen, I found these and decided I'd better use them up - after all, they were probably well past their use-by date in any case and may even have been a little freezer-burned.

So, I popped them, still frozen, onto a baking sheet and baked them for dinner. Hard to believe, but they actually improved in the freezer. The cheesy taste of the fontina was much more pronounced and they stood up higher and lighter in the oven than my first batch. They also browned better, the tops getting all crisp and crackly while the interiors were like popovers, soft and stretchy.

So, here's the recipe link again but, if you make them, freeze the whole batch first and wait a long time before enjoying them. It makes all the difference.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Weird Winter Fare

It's not the fare that's weird, it's the winter.

We are officially having the driest winter on record in our neck of the California woods. Day after day of clear skies and bright sunshine has also made the weather warmer than normal. Last fall, Cora was shedding like crazy, huge handfuls of fur when I brushed her every other day. Her coat has never been this thin, even in summer. She's a very hairy dog but, even so, I began to worry that something was wrong despite her shiny coat, bright eyes and wet nose. Turns out, she somehow knew that she wouldn't need all that fuzzy stuff this winter, so she just offed it early on. 

I'm having a tough time following her lead. I still want cold weather foods - stews and braises rather than salads - even though they are all wrong for the weather. It seems my appetite still lives in Rochester, NY where it's cold and snowy at this time of year.

The other day, I was in the mood for lamb stew and the market had lamb on sale. It seemed like kismet.

I built the stew like a house - each part got its own treatment. I browned the meat in bacon fat in my Dutch oven, then removed it to a plate while I browned whole mushrooms and small whole onions in the same pan. Removed them when they were browned but still firm. Then added red wine to deglaze the pot, about two teaspoons of thyme, a small tub of lamb goozle from a previous stew that I found in the freezer, the browned lamb chunks, and enough beef stock to cover the meat, then slid it into a 300 degree F oven for about four hours. When the meat was as tender as possible, I added back in the browned veggies and some small Yukon Gold potatoes, and cooked them all together for about an hour to blend the flavors and soften the spuds. 

With the windows open and our short sleeved tee shirts on, we sat down to a perfect winter stew. Cora was under the table panting in the weird winter warmth.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reducing In The New Year

No, I'm not talking about losing weight - it's more about reducing inventory. As a matter of fact, I actually lost a couple of pounds over this holiday, having missed most of the parties and sin food due to My Beloved's bout with flu.

Continuing with my efforts to empty my full-to-spilling-out pantry, I found a third of a package of pappardelle pasta - this brand comes in a box, so it doesn't take up any less space when you use part of the box. An excellent candidate for reducing the clutter in the pantry.

Rummaging around in the freezer, I found a couple of small lamb Merguez sausages and from the fridge some meaty crimini mushrooms and a big plume of Swiss chard, and that seemed like the makings of a slam-dunk dinner.

After I started the water boiling for the pasta, I sautéed in a little olive oil the sausage meat that I pushed out of its casing, then added the sliced mushrooms and three cloves of minced garlic. A little pepper, but no salt, as I planned to serve it with grated Parmesan cheese, which adds plenty of salt for us.

While the sausage mixture was cooking, I removed the ribs and coarsely chopped the Swiss chard. Once the meat was ready, I added a small ladle full of the pasta water and mounded the chard on top, covering the pan to steam the chard and make a pan sauce for the pasta.

Once the chard began to wilt, it made room for me to turn and toss all the ingredients together, allowing them all to contact the bottom of the pan so the chard cooked evenly and was coated with the sausage mixture. After I drained the pasta, it and a bit more of its water was added and the whole thing tossed again.

Divided amongst our plates and sprinkled with cheese, it was a hearty winter meal. The slightly bitter chard was a good counterpoint to the richness of the sausage and the garlic. 

And the bonus was another box recycled and more room in the pantry.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Oh, My Darlin'

When my darlin' was ill this past week, I made the most of being homebound by looking for ways to use up stuff in my pantry in anticipation of the kitchen remodel, which is supposed to start (please, God!) in a month or so.  I rummaged around in there and found all kinds of things that were probably well past their "sell by" date, but still good and in need of being used up.  Half packages of pasta. Cans of tuna. Several kinds of sugar. Multiple salts. I could go on.

But, the best thing I made all week, bar none, was this cake. It is made with whole clementine tangerines that are boiled, then buzzed up in the food processor with some eggs, almond flour (that's what I found in the pantry - why did I buy almond flour, I wonder?), and sugar. It is light and moist and not very sweet despite using up a surprising amount of sugar. I was tempted to cut back on the sugar but decided to follow Nigella Lawson's recipe the first time, and I'm glad I did. It was perfect as written.

Oh, perhaps I could have dusted the top with powdered sugar - and, believe me, I was tempted since I have too much of that in the pantry, too - but otherwise, it was lovely just plain. I had bought some vanilla ice cream to go with it but, actually, it didn't need it. Gilding the lily. All by itself, this cake is redolent of the clementines and almost as juicy.

The only taxing part about this recipe is the two hours of boiling the tangerines before you dump them in the food processor with the rest of the ingredients to make a batter.  I added water once and probably should have twice, as mine nearly ran out of water toward the end of the two hours. Otherwise, the recipe is literally and figuratively a piece of cake.

Oh, My Darlin' Clementine Cake, from Nigella Lawson

13 ounces clementine tangerines (she used 3. I used Cuties, which are small so I used 5)

6 large eggs
1-1/4 cup granulated sugar
2-1/4 cups almond meal (almond flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder

Put the clementines in a pan with cold water, bring to a boil and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove any seeds.  

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Prepare an 8" spring form cake pan by buttering the bottom and sides and lining the bottom with buttered parchment paper.

Dump the clementines - skin, pith, fruit and all) into the food processor with the metal blade in place and whizz them up. 

Nigella says you can add all the rest of the ingredients to the food processor at this point, but I added the eggs one at a time and blitzed them for a few seconds before adding the sugar, flour and baking powder. The result is a very fine, most crumb, either way.

Pour the batter into the cake pan (I set mine on a cookie sheet as my springform pan always leaks a little) and bake for an hour, or until a toothpick poked into the middle comes out clean. After about 40 minutes, cover the top with foil to keep it from burning.

Remove from the oven and cool in the cake pan, on a rack. When cold, remove from the pan. Nigella said it's better the second day, but we were impatient to try it, so we ate a slice the first day and found little difference the second day.

Nigella also says you can make it with an equal weight of oranges or lemons, but you need to increase the sugar to 2-1/2 cups if you use lemons. I might try it with Meyer lemons next time, leaving the sugar at the lower amount since they are so sweet.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New York, New York

I have a long history with New York city, beginning with my mother who was born there. Even as a young child, we often went back to New York to visit relatives or just to play in the city. My parents both loved New York and leaped at any chance to revisit. Of course, they met there, so I suppose it was special to them for that reason, but also because they both loved musical theatre and New York was the center of that universe. Still is. 

Even as children, we were treated to dinner at Sardi's and a musical as far back as I can remember - always magical evenings when my Dad would stand us to anything on the menu, even shrimp cocktail, which represented the height of indulgence in my young life. Mom would dress up in her most sophisticated clothes, put on her grandmother's jewelry and some heady perfume, and we'd have an unforgettable experience. Sitting in the dark in my best clothes, surrounded by Mom's scent and Dad's rumble of laughter, caught up by the music, dancing, acting and sets on the stage - truly a heady mixture.

When I was 15, my Dad had orders to the Mediterranean, so we sailed by ocean liner from New York to Europe. Our New York family and our best friends from Michigan came to the city to see us off, and we had a lovely few days before the sailing, sharing the delights of the Big Apple. We drank champagne with them in our cabin before the steward came down the corridors ringing a small xylophone and calling, "All ashore that's going ashore!" The guests filed down the gangway to the dock, and we threw colorful paper streamers to them, linking the ship and the land for a few minutes, until the tugboats moved the ship out into the channel, breaking the last fragile links as we waved and waved and waved.

A few years later, I went to college in New York state. That was the year my Dad was sent on emergency orders to take over the Seventh Fleet during the Viet Nam war. Mom went with him, leaving me behind in my first year of college to spend Christmas in Westchester with relatives. 

My favorite cousin took me to New York on several occasions - to see "Funny Girl" with Barbara Streisand; to McSorley's famed bar where I managed to choose the wrong door and ended up in the Men's Room by mistake; to the Bowery to see the bums, an experience that still lives with me in tears; to a Horn&Hardart, my first automat experience; and to Times Square for New Year's Eve in the cold, cold winter night. I wore my brand new off-white coat, navy blue kid gloves, and new gold earrings that my cousin had given me. I believed I was the very picture of sophistication. We nearly froze to death, but we had a splendid time, ducking into a coffee shop to warm up after midnight.

As we watched the ball come down in Times Square this year on television, these memories and more came flooding back. And just after New Year's as I was making Reuben sandwiches for our lunch; if there is any sandwich more closely associated with New York, I don't know what it is. New York, despite all these memories, was never my favorite city - it's too big, too tough, and too crowded for me - but it is the backdrop for some of my best times and I remember it fondly.

Happy New Year, Big Apple!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pizza For The Patient

The good news is that the flu My Beloved caught on Christmas Eve didn't affect his appetite very much. So, while more or less trapped in the house with my favorite sickie, I had fun cooking up a storm. Normally, we eat breakfast and lunch on our separate schedules and I only cook dinner. However, this week, he wasn't feeling up to prepping his own food, so I did more breakfasts and lunches that ever before, as well as dinners.

One of the more delightful discoveries I made is that I don't have to make my own pizza dough if I don't want to. My local market, as well as my local pizza parlor, are happy to sell fresh pizza dough for a small sum. That leaves me free to invent or refine our favorite pizzas. 

I love mushroom pizza. Given the choice, every pizza I eat would be loaded with mushrooms on top of the cheese - and nothing else.  However, I'm happily married to a dedicated carnivore, so we often add meat to the mix. 

This time, after heating my geriatric oven (and did I tell you the cook top died over Christmas? Thank heavens the remodel of the kitchen will happen early in the new year!) as hot as it would go and, rolling out the dough as thinly as I could, I topped this pizza with sautéed crimini mushrooms for maximum mushroom flavor and slices of mild Italian sausage.

Not exactly original, but all the ingredients were fresh and rich with flavor - we gobbled it up! 

Next time, many, many more mushrooms!  I am sure they had therapeutic value for the patient.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Thank You, Aunt Virginia!

I have bragged about my Aunt Virginia here before, but it bears repeating. When you are lucky enough to have such an aunt, you want the world to know it. Aunt Virginia has always been my role model, a loving wife, devoted mother, and skilled homemaker who nonetheless studied for her Masters in Library Science while raising five children, and who had a long career introducing people to the joys contained in a big library full of delicious books.

Even once she retired, she continued to volunteer at her library, as she still does. Aunt Virginia is in her 90s (she wouldn't thank me for saying how far in), but she still goes to Pilates, drives herself and her friends around in her bright red Honda Fit, drinks a martini every day, and loves to dance. She also makes the best fruitcake on the planet, and possibly in the universe.

You have to be a fan of old-fashioned, boozy fruitcake to appreciate her skill - and both of us are.  Her fruitcake is moist and rich and infused with brandy - what's not to like?  I even get a charge from the bright colors of the preserved fruits. A thin slice is plenty for dessert, and we have taken to cutting even the thin slice into "bites," all the better to stretch it out and make it last just a bit longer.  It is always gone by mid-January, even so.

So, this is just my way of saying, "Thanks, Aunt Virginia!" for the heavy package that arrives each year on my doorstep, signaling another joyous Christmas season.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy 2014!

When My Beloved came down with the flu on Christmas Eve day, I didn't really expect it to last 'til New Year's, but here he is on New Year's day, getting ready for lunch on the deck. He's still in his PJs, but at least he feels vigorous enough to sit outdoors and enjoy a shot of vitamin D straight from the source.

It didn't hurt that the weather was in the mid 60s, brightly sunny, and windless. The upside of the drought we've been experiencing is day after day of sunny, calm weather that's unseasonably warm. This is officially the driest calendar year on record. I have to admit that I have loved all the sunny days, even if they mean water restrictions in 2014.

Anyway, here we are, wishing you all the best in 2014 and beyond!  May it be a healthy year for you, as well as a happy one.