Friday, February 28, 2014


A few days ago, I asked my readers (I love you guys!) what to do with some leftover kabocha squash that I had in the fridge. I got several good suggestions but the one that fired my imagination was Kudzu's idea of making a pie.

Now, My Beloved and I are not huge squash pie fans, and there really wasn't enough squash for a full-on pie, but she got me thinking along the custard line and that made timbales come to mind. Timbales are a great way to use up leftover ingredients - a way to enrobe those goodies in a savory custard. Once I had the idea, I was off and running.

I got a general recipe for the custard part from my trusty copy of the Joy of Cooking, then riffed from there. I sautéed finely chopped mushrooms until the water evaporated (it's important to have cooked ingredients because they otherwise release water, which makes for a runny custard), then added minced garlic, the leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme, and about a 2" stub of leftover pork sausage that I crumbled and reheated with the mushroom mixture.

Into four buttered custard cups (you can buy purpose-made timbale molds, but any 6-ounce ramekin or custard cup will work equally well) went equal measures of the sausage gmish. I made the custard by putting two eggs, 3/4 cup of half and half, and one cup of the roasted squash in my blender and blending on low speed until it was well mixed. Poured that evenly into each of the custard cups, placed them in a roasting pan and added water halfway up their sides, and slid them into a 350 degree oven for about 30-40 minutes. They are done when a thin-bladed knife comes out clean from the centers.

Reversed onto lettuce leaves and garnished simply with avocado and tomato slices (only Roma tomatoes seem to keep some vestige of flavor into the winter), they made an excellent light lunch. The texture was a bit grainier and looser than a classic custard due to the addition of the kabocha squash, but the squash leant a lightly sweet flavor that played well with the savory thyme. If you wanted a smoother custard, I'm sure if you passed it through a fine strainer, you'd get the desired texture. The flavors of mushroom and sausage were little surprises here and there in the custard. 

All in all, My Beloved and I enjoyed the experiment, as did our lunch guest. If you are feeling experimental, I can recommend playing around with timbales.

Kabocha Squash Timbales

10-12 crimini mushrooms, finely chopped (Or more. Or try using duxelles)
1 good sized-garlic clove, minced
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, using only the leaves (about 1/2 teaspoon)
2" crumbled pork sausage, pre-cooked (Or more, to taste)
1 cup roasted kabocha squash
2 eggs
3/4 cup half-and-half

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 

In a very little butter in a wide pan, sauté mushrooms until the water evaporates and they begin to brown. Add the crumbled sausage meat so it warms. Add the garlic toward the end, watching carefully so it cooks but doesn't burn. Add the thyme and cook until it is fragrant. Set aside.

Butter 4 six-ounce custard cups or ramekins. Divide the sausage mixture between the custard cups. In a blender, whiz the eggs, squash and half-and-half on low speed until well combined. (Strain through a fine sieve if you want a smoother texture - optional) 

Pour evenly into the custard cups and place the cups in a deep baking pan. Add water halfway up the sides of the cups and slide into the preheated oven.

Bake for about 30-40 minutes. When a thin-bladed knife comes out clean, they are ready. Remove from the water and cool on a rack until cool enough to handle. Run the thin blade of a knife around the edges of the cups to release the custard, then reverse it onto plates to serve.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fizzy Magic

Okay, say you've popped the cork on a bottle of your favorite champagne, and you and your Beloved have had a glass or two to celebrate your 67th birthday but, being older than dirt now, you know you can't finish the bottle. It's a sad reflection on aging, but aging is, after all, better than the alternative.

So, you decide to save the rest of the champagne for later. "Once it's opened, you know it won't keep!" I hear you exclaim. That's where this little trick comes in, learned from My Beloved's mother, who was a wonderful woman and a fount of worldly wisdom. 

You put a silver spoon into the neck of the bottle until the bowl of the spoon comes to rest on the neck. Stash it in the fridge and, magically, the bubbles stay in. I have never found an explanation for why this works, I just know that it does. Nor do I know why it must be a sterling silver spoon, because stainless spoons don't work. There is lots of evidence, pro and con, on the interwebs, but neither side prevails. I say it's magic, and you just have to believe.

I have always wondered if a gold spoon, being an even more precious metal, would be even better, but my budget and my taste don't run to gold spoons to test out my theory. All I know is that we went away on a weekend celebration and when we returned three days later, there was still enough pizazz in that bottle to make excellent mimosas to fight the head cold I picked up from my tutoring students. 

(And, yes, I can heartily recommend mimosas for head colds. They don't fix the problem, but they encourage you not to care.)

So, from my advanced age, I raise my glass to My Beloved's dear mother and pass along her magical wisdom to you. 

You're welcome.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Just Ducky

My friend Cricket has been a friend for life, literally. We shared a playpen - that should give you an idea of how long we've been pals. We rode horses together in our early teens. We polished off the dregs of some liquor bottles together after her parents'  cocktail party and  so, were sick as dogs together in our later teens. We cruised Detroit's Woodward Avenue together in her Dad's Corvette flirting with boys. In short, it's one of those friendships that survive long absences as if we had never been apart. She is one of the storied Davenport clan that I frequently write about. It's a long, warm, family friendship.

Anyway, Cricket knows that I like duckies. For several years, I collected rubber duckies and had found over 100 different ones when I decided to donate most of the collection to our annual sale that supports Point Richmond's tiny live theater troupe. I still have a few, mostly ones that were gifts from friends during my Duckie Phase.

A few weeks ago, in the mail came a small package from Cricket. Intrigued and puzzled, I opened it to find this wonderful little tea ball. Under the duckie who floats in your cup hangs a fine mesh strainer for the tea leaves. 

I have caught cold this week from my tutoring students, all of whom were hacking and sneezing as we read together last week.(However, they are all making progress - yay!) Feeling like crap and searching through the kitchen cupboards for a cup of tea, I found my little yellow duckie, just waiting to be called to action. I filled the strainer with some of the wonderful Mariage Frères tea I bought in Paris last time, boiled a mug of water, and put him to work. If having this silly duck floating in your mug doesn't cheer you up, you are more seriously ill than you thought. Call your doctor, although not Cricket, as she recently retired.

The second genius part of this little cutie is that, once your tea is brewed, you pluck him out to sit in his own blue cup that is scalloped at the top like wavelets and that catches the drips.

After a couple of cups of tea augmented by the cheerful little duck, I was feeling well enough to research where to buy them for certain favorite people I know.  Just Google "duckie tea infuser" and you'll see lots of choices. Don't forget to order one for yourself, too. Especially if you feel a cold coming on.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Ever since I joined their family 17 years ago, My Beloved's daughters have collaborated on presents for me. They are often very creative gifts, ones that no one else would think of. Like my birthday picnic basket delivered by Katie halfway through a busy (for her) day. Inside was a whole birthday dinner, complete with hors d'oeuvres of olives and cheeses; makings for a butter lettuce salad with burrata; main course of bavette steak and asparagus; and dessert of a dark chocolate bar with crisped rice inside. (There were also two lovely sausages included, which we froze for later). And a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, my all-time favorite.

I'm not sure which one of them dreamed up the idea, but this year they included My Beloved in the fun - he cooked and served the whole dinner, a challenge on our little two-burner countertop stove. 

I got to open the champagne - our tradition with champagne openings is to go out on the deck and shoot the cork out as far as it will go down the hill. I love the idea that the next owner will find champagne corks all over the bottom garden. This bottle holds the house record - a personal best - it reached clear to the street and rebounded off the pavement!

We sat down to candlelight and champagne in the beautiful flutes he gave me several years ago and savored a wonderful dinner collaboration. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Special Gift

For Christmas, My Beloved's daughters gave us a gift certificate to a very special dinner. For my birthday, My Beloved added a little dinero to their gift and took me to Chez Panisse - downstairs.

Upstairs at Chez Panisse is a lovely bistro with well-cooked, beautiful food. I happily accept all invitations to upstairs. Downstairs at Chez Panisse, however, is a whole other experience. Downstairs, there is only one choice on the menu (although they do let you preview the menu and either change your reservation or change any part of the menu that doesn't work for you) and each course is the best those ingredients could possibly deliver. Downstairs at Chez Panisse is a revelation.

The food is simple, you'd say. For example, after the world's freshest little salad, we started with a fish course of a small square of rockfish surrounded by four tiny manila clams and swimming in a pool of fish broth sprinkled with just a few coral-colored steelhead roe. The broth was deceptively mild but carried a punch of fresh ocean, highlighted by leeks, anise and green garlic in the soup. It retained such a bright, mint green color that I knew at a glance how fresh it would taste. The rockfish was absolutely perfectly cooked. The tiny clams were earthy (or would that be oceany?) and rich.  The roe popped gently in the mouth, flooding it with rich flavor. No foam, no sous-vide, no bullshit. I all but licked the plate.

The whole meal was like that - a leisurely parade of perfect flavors with small surprises to delight the tongue. Such as the creamy gratin that was served with our grilled rib eye steak - it looked like scalloped potatoes but was actually made with black truffles and turnips. Turnips! I took a bite thinking I knew what to expect and loved being subtly surprised.

I could go on and on, waxing lyrical about one of the best meals of my life. Instead, I'd just recommend that you save up your shekels for an admittedly pricey splurge and go find out how the very best local restaurant can surprise you. That is their special gift.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Then It Was

First, it was a sort of smooth carbonara sauce for pasta.  

Then, it was puréed and morphed into a sauce for chicken curry served over jasmine rice with lots of little goodies sprinkled on top. 

Then, it was a silky soup puréed with apples, onions and chicken broth. 

Then it became a side dish just mashed with butter and a little milk, salt and pepper.

I still have a little of the roasted kabocha squash left. What do you think I should do with it?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cookie Memories

Like most kids, I have a few warm cookie memories. My mother didn't make cookies often but when she did, they were memorable. She collected recipes from people whose cookies she enjoyed but, oddly, once she had them, she refused to share them with others, guarding them jealously as if she had invented them herself. It was one of her quirks.

In all the places we lived in our Navy life, we had Navy friends, but often we made civilian friends, too, friends who lived in the same house for decades on end and enjoyed a more settled life. In the early 1950s, my Dad was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, DC and we lived in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. Our next door neighbor was a lovely older lady named Mrs. Brombacher. I was only about seven years old, so I had a little trouble with her long name, and I just called her Mrs. Brom.  She didn't mind; in fact, I think she liked the nickname.

Mrs. Brom was a talented tole painter - I still have two small, cookie-sized trays that she painted. I found them many years later in my parents' house when we were clearing it out after my Dad died. Seeing the black trays with her distinctive monogram on the backs brought back powerful memories of her, and of her oatmeal cookies.

I found the trays again this week when I made her cookies and wanted to show you a picture - how perfect to stage the photo with one of her little trays.  When I turned them over, looking for her signature, I even found a typed card glued to the back of one with my Mom's name on it. That reminded me that Mrs. Brom didn't paint to order - she painted when the mood struck her, so sometimes you had to express an interest and then await the result. I'm sure my Mom asked for these two trays and Mrs. Brom pasted the card on the back as they dried to remind her of whom she had made them for.

Her monogram also has the year '54 inside it, so I know just when she made these for my Mom, as we were leaving to be transferred to Pearl Harbor for Dad's next tour of duty.

Mrs. Brom's oatmeal cookies are not like the ones you find today, which resemble a whole meal more than a small treat. Hers are not heavy with flour, they are lacy and thin, the kind of cookies you'd imagine a '50s housewife would serve to her friends at a tea party. 

I remember them being so crisp that they crumbled down the front of my shirt, but the ones I made this week were chewy, even days after they were made. I think the oil I used (canola instead of the Wesson oil called for in the original recipe) made the difference - next time, I plan to find some Wesson to confirm this observation. Or, it may have been the wet weather we are (finally) having.

In any case, dotted liberally with raisins and walnut pieces, they are my definition of the perfect oatmeal cookie. They are sweet, so the chunks of walnut help to tame the sweetness, and the pockets of moist raisins give a textural change of pace that rocks the cookie. Bumpy and homely, they are still my favorite cookie of all time.

When we moved to Hawaii that time, I was a Brownie scout for a while. Back then, we had a little song that we sang in rounds, "Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold."  That's how I feel about our civilian friends like Mrs. Brom. I never saw her again after we moved, but we kept in touch by mail, and I will always have the memory of her warm smile, her artistic talent, and her oatmeal cookies.

Mrs. Brombacher's Oatmeal Cookies

2 eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
2-1/2 cups quick oats
1 cup Wesson oil (I used canola)
1 teaspoon salt
1 scant teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup each (or more) nuts and raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 

Beat eggs with oil until well mixed. Add vanilla and mix. Add dry ingredients and stir until evenly mixed (I use an electric beater for this first part, and only begin mixing with a spoon when I add the oats at the end, which make the dough too stiff for an electric mixer). Add raisins and nuts and stir until well incorporated. 

Drop by Tablespoonful onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper, about two inches apart, as they will spread. Bake for 10-15 minutes until cookies are a deep golden brown.

Let rest on cookie sheets for about 5 minutes so they harden a little, then remove with a spatula and cool on racks. Makes about 3 dozen.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hoarder's Casserole

My friend and neighbor, Doreen, and I had a fine time this past fall. We stopped in frequently to the hoarder's house. For all the years that I've lived here, we have known that the little guy around the corner and down the hill a bit was a hoarder. He had a camper outside his home that was stuffed so full of just stuff that he couldn't have gotten into it, much less driven it. It sat unmoving on its flat tires outside his equally filled home, literally for years.

Then, one day he just moved away, leaving the house untouched and filled to the brim. The story is that he gave the house to a friend, lock, stock, and barrel. There are various rumors about where he went, but the upshot is that his house was sold to a contractor who plans to flip it, but the contractor refused to empty it of the contents, which were literally stacked floor to ceiling inside and in the back garden.

So, the sellers had weeks and weeks of yard sales to empty the house. They kept a bunch of the most expensive items for sale on e-Bay, but we were free to roam around the rest of the house and garden at our own considerable risk, buying for a song whatever we found to tickle our fancies.

Doreen and I gleefully went down there several times, and each time we came back with some filthy treasure or other. We got so we recognized the "regulars" and eagerly examined their finds, as well as showing off our own. It was like the weirdest imaginable block party. The garden was amazing - like an archaeological dig where we unearthed (literally) all kinds of things from ceramic turtles to a pedal boat. The story is that the hoarder actually lived for five years in that back yard, as he could no longer get into his house.

Back there, I discovered a painted porcelain monkey about 18" tall that I found completely buried in a pile of leaves but for the round top of his head. Also, a spirit house for my garden, a white oval plate shaped like a fried egg complete with raised yellow yolk, a blue glass vase for my cousin Jan, a 2-foot plastic chocolate Easter bunny, a classic bentwood side chair, and various other sundries. I think I spent a grand total of about $30.

Everything I bought from that house came home to a thorough washing and a dousing with bleach - the house was in unbelievably nasty shape.  Of course, the long-suffering neighbors were delighted to see it all go, and they can't wait for the contractor to begin work.

Probably my most useful find in the hoarder's house was a small, old Pyrex glass casserole dish, just about 6" oval, the perfect size for the two of us. When I had a lamb London broil roast one day last week, I used the casserole to hold a kind of shepherd's pie that I made with the leftover lamb. The filling isn't the part I want to tell you about, it's the topping.

I had purchased a small kabocha squash that week and had the idea to roast the squash along with the lamb, just to be efficient with my oven. When I went to assemble the shepherd's pie, I wondered how it would be with a mashed squash topping rather than the usual potato. So, I treated the squash much like I would mashed potatoes (a little milk and butter, salt and pepper, all mashed together, then whipped with a fork) and topped the casserole before sliding it into the oven.

The squash browned in little peaks and the bright yellow color was a bonus. My Beloved approved heartily, saying that he loved the lighter, tastier squash on top and, despite my Irish ancestors, I have to agree.

I wish the hoarder well - he has provided his neighbors with several weeks of entertainment and amazement. Who knows, wherever he is, maybe he's busy filling up another house with more dubious treasures.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reluctant Vegan

I'm a reluctant vegan. In fact, I'm even a reluctant vegetarian. I have heard all the arguments for the benefits of vegetarian living, and I understand why vegans refuse to exploit animals, but let me tell you a little story that may illustrate where I'm coming from.

Each year, despite no longer practicing the Catholicism I was raised with, I do something for Lent. Give up coffee, or Diet Coke. Resolve to do a good deed per day. That kind of idea. It's my version of a New Year's resolution, except I only have to follow it for 40 days. After all, there's only so much goodness and fortitude you can expect from a fallen-away sinner like me. 

Anyway, one year, my Lenten fast was to give up meat for the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  I did fine for the first couple of weeks, and even enjoyed cooking up vegetarian options. I felt smugly happy that I wasn't having anything with a face killed on my behalf. By the time Lent was over, however, I was literally having dreams about pork chops. On Easter Sunday that year, I think all I ate was meat in one form or another. And I resolved never, ever to give up meat for Lent again. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

All this as prelude to the other day when My Beloved and I made another foray into the city to meet with our kitchen architect and went out for lunch together afterward. Being in the mood for Mexican food and being in the part of the city that has a plethora of Mexican restaurants, we used his smart phone to locate a restaurant in the Mission that just seemed a little more thoughtful about its menu than the others, Gracias Madre.

Seated in the restaurant and reading the menu in detail, it dawned on me that this was a vegan restaurant and I confirmed that with our server, a very nice young woman with multiple earrings, a boyish haircut, and a small tattoo. 

Now, had you said to me, "I know this great little vegan place in the Mission - wanna go?" I have to admit, I'd have refused for all the reasons outlined above. The only other vegan place I have eaten was still trying to fool you into thinking there was meat on the menu by adding textured soy to many of its dishes and, frankly, I wasn't fooled.

At Gracias Madre, however, they make no pretense to be anything but vegan, with the exception small sins like calling their white sauce made from cashews "crema" and making quesadillas that contain no actual cheese. Never mind, the food was simply splendid.  We shared the guacamole appetizer, which came with warm corn tortillas rather than chips. The tortillas were delicious all by themselves - I don't know how they were made, but I'd happily have made a meal of them alone.

For our main course, we each ordered the quesadillas de calabaza stuffed with a combination of chunky butternut squash mash and caramelized onions, and topped with a mildly tangy green sauce, striped with the "crema" and garnished with toasted seeds and fresh cilantro. The filling was surprisingly spicy, but not unpleasantly so, and the whole dish just sang of freshness and comfort and thoughtfulness.

As we walked back to our car, I remarked about how I'd likely have avoided Gracias Madre if I had not landed there by accident. Clearly, I need to open up and be more receptive to vegetarian and even vegan options. If they can be as tasty and satisfying as this lunch was, I've been missing a treat by being a reluctant vegan.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Crabbiest Crab Cakes

In my on-going quest to empty my pantry ahead of the kitchen remodel (although I made the same mistake in talking about the kitchen remodel that newly pregnant women make when they announce their delicate condition too soon and thereby make it seem to others like a longer gestation than an elephant's), I found a can of wild-caught Dungeness crab in there that had me dreaming of crab cakes.

You should know that I had never made crab cakes and had no idea how to go about it, I just knew I was jonesing on those delectable little patties.  I have eaten crab cakes on the East coast (blue crab ranks high on my list of life's best things) and here on the West coast (where Dungeness gives blue a serious run for its money), and I can attest that both are heavenly. The only way you can ruin them is to use too much filler and not enough crab.

After a cruise around the interwebs to decide that, no, I didn't want to serve mine with salsa and, no, I didn't want to add egg as a binder, I went all crazy and just winged it. I mixed a little mayo, a little Dijon mustard, some Mexican spice for a touch of heat, some lemon pepper for citrus, some Worcestershire sauce just because, and a chiffonnade of cilantro because My Beloved is very fond of cilantro. Whisked those together before adding a drained can of the crab and gently mixing it around with a little of the water from the can and the juice of half a lime. No salt because the crab is already salty. Oh, and just about 1/4 cup of panko crumbs as a binder.

Into the fridge for 30 minutes to let the panko soak up the crabby juices. I made patties, then squeezed out most of the moisture so they'd hold together better. As you can see from the photo, that didn't work at all.  I formed them as well as I could and placed the patties in a canola-oiled ovenproof skillet and roasted them for about 10 minutes in a searing hot oven (as close to 500 degrees F as my aging oven will go), browning the bottoms. 

I had made a quick salad of whatever was in the fridge and dressed it very lightly with a balsamic vinaigrette, so all that was left was to flip the crab cakes onto the salad, browned side up, and serve. They fell completely apart into chunky, crispy mouthfuls. There are worse fates. They were a little spicy, a little crunchy, a little rich, a lot crabby, and altogether delicious. We ate every bite and chased the crumbs around our plates with our forks.

I think that may be the definition of the best lunches ever - when no scrap is allowed to escape.

Monday, February 3, 2014

International Flavor

If you think the world isn't shrinking, consider the impromptu dinner party we threw for this crew. Our good friends Janie and Jack's daughter Jodie was married at San Francisco's City Hall this past Friday. Her brand new husband is from Spain, so his mother and her artist friend came over for the celebration. A few days later they came to our house and we had a splendid party. Let me introduce our European guests.

First, there's Isma, the groom (the handsome dude in the hat). He grew up and lived in Spain for most of his life, only coming to America recently, lured by Jodie (whom we must admit is a  powerful attraction). Then there is Lali, the mother of the groom (she with the red hair). And Mayte, the artist (seated to My Beloved's left in the picture).

Janie and Jack speak no Spanish but Jodie is fluent, so she can help out when Isma's English fails him. Lali speaks no English, but she is fluent in Spanish and French. Because I spent a year in France as a schoolgirl, I can speak a little rusty French, so Lali and I could converse, but Mayte speaks only Spanish and Lali had to translate for her. Janie has some French, too, so she chimed in, too. My Beloved speaks only English, so he contributed mainly smiles and Jodie translated his stories for the group. Jack's corny jokes actually need no translation; they work in any language.

You'd think this would be a stilted and awkward gathering where no one could really talk to each other, but it was anything but. Everyone talked and gesticulated and laughed and generally had a fine time making themselves understood. There was toasting and eating and  we even did a little dance around the table to a musical duck at one point (you just had to be there - the toasting helps with this kind of thing).

And the world seemed very small and intimate, indeed.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Just For Fun

Just for fun. 

I can't resist things in bright colors so, once again, I have been tempted. These little measuring cups have an additional benefit - they fold flat for storage. 

Is that fun, or what?