Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tea For Two

In this week when we are all thinking about what we are thankful for, my cousin Jan is right at the top of my list of good things I am grateful for. I didn't know her well as a child because our two Navy families kept us moving, for the most part, in different spheres, but when she retired and settled just forty minutes north, we became great pals.

We share a family bond but also a love of thrift shops, animals, books, and word games, to name just a few. So, when Jan invited me to drive up to use her coupon for afternoon tea at a tea shop in Santa Rosa, I couldn't wait. By the way, we also share a love of eating.

The Tudor Rose Tea Room is charming. From the front "gate," painted white with flowers growing up the trellis, to the mismatched flowery china, to the gracious English lady who owns it, to the server in long, black dress and crisp white apron, the Tudor Rose whisks you back to Merrie Olde Englande. There are sofas by the fire and charming tables scattered through the room. There are hats hanging on the walls which one may borrow if one feels the urge to dress up for tea. Next time, I may have to wear a pair of perfectly white gloves.

The menu features several kinds of black, red, and green teas, and all sorts of delectable things to eat, as well. Jan had Earl Grey and I chose Irish Breakfast, served with sugar and milk in a pitcher decorated with roses. We shared a tiered plate of finger sandwiches and a scone apiece for dessert. Everything is made and baked fresh on the premises. The sandwiches were fun and filling but, people, I really need to rave about the scones!  The Tudor Rose serves the best scone I have ever tasted, bar none!  

Now, you have heard me wax lyrical about the scones at Tal-y-Tara - and they really are exceptionally good, light and delicious - but at the Tudor Rose, the scones are even lighter and they have added an elusive spice to the batter that I can't identify, but I suspect it should be a controlled substance, as it is seriously addictive. I don't think it's cinnamon - maybe allspice?  Anyway, it's a wonderful addition to a cranberry-orange scone. They were so good, we bought two extra to take home to My Beloved and they were just as good the next day, gently warmed and slathered with the clotted cream they serve at Tudor Rose.

As I drove home, full of tea and good will, with my extra scones tucked safely into the backseat, I reflected on all the fun Jan and I and My Beloved have shared over the years, feeling very fortunate indeed. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Lessons From A Friend

My friend Carla showed up on our doorstep yesterday with a heavy head cold, a nasal twang to her normally clear voice, and a brown paper bag of persimmons. Her daughter's tree is loaded with fruit this year and Carla is helping her daughter recover from a replaced ACL by caring for her two lively young children, ages roughly 7 and 4. You can tell just from that description that Carla is an angel.

But she's also a community organizer, the first in our neighborhood to see the need for Neighborhood Watch and to get the ball rolling. She also spearheaded the training of block captains to be volunteer coordinators in case of a big earthquake. 

Carla taught biology to high schools students and swimming to beginners of all ages; Carla is Capable, with a capital C. 

She's also as pretty as a picture, delightfully scatterbrained, and an animal lover from 'way back. We swam together in the RPM group (Richmond Plunge Masters) for a couple of years until a shoulder injury got her out of the pool, but she continues to enjoy kayaking and walking her two big dogs for exercise.

How did I get to the ripe old age of 67 without ever tasting a persimmon? Another of life's little mysteries, I guess. Anyway, I had first tried them at 4 to 9, our delightful local wine bar/restaurant in a killer appetizer that My Beloved and I shared, a combination of persimmons, prosciutto, and very mild goat cheese. So, when Carla gave me that bag of fruit, handing it over gingerly and trying not to transfer any cold germs along with it, I was delighted.

I immediately went to to scan the recipes, thinking that I'd make persimmon bread, but my eye fell on a recipe for lamb chops with fresh persimmon chutney and stopped right there.

What you see in the photo above is the chutney. My Beloved and I would call it a salsa rather than chutney, the term chutney to us meaning something cooked and sweet and somewhat heavy. This topping was a delightfully light mix of persimmons, sweet onion (I used red onion), jalapeño pepper, grated ginger, and lime juice, as pretty and festive as confetti at New Year's and full of well-matched and balanced flavors.

Making it was as easy as finely chopping the onion, persimmons, and jalapeño, and mixing them in a bowl with the ginger and lime juice. It was deeply savory and sweet with a mild gingery bite, a hum of heat from the jalapeño, and a refreshing zing from the lime juice. (I, being a spice wimp, used half as much jalapeño as the recipe called for, but next time I'd go for broke with the whole pepper). It complemented our lamb beautifully, and I will save the leftovers to try with pork, as I'm sure it would be marvelous with that, too. Or even chicken.

Next time a friend gifts you with persimmons, or you see nice ones in the store, grab 'em and go! At this time of year, when citrus is only just beginning locally and apples are the only other fruit, persimmons are a treat to be relished. 

Turns out, you can learn something important and new even at my advanced age. Thank you, Carla!

Friday, November 21, 2014

First Go

When my Hawaii brother was visiting a month or so ago, we went to the Ferry building in San Francisco where we purchased what had to be the best pork chop of my entire life. It was thick and juicy, brined and beautiful. I wanted more of that.

So, last week, I had the idea to brine my first-ever pork chops. I had found some nice, 1" thick ones with large tenderloins and they just seemed to cry out for special treatment. So, I went looking on the interwebs and adapted some recipes that sounded pretty good. I did make a few alterations, of course - that just seems to be my nature.

I mixed it up, dumped it and the pork chops into a zippered plastic bag, and popped them into the fridge to wallow in the brine from 9am to 6pm, turning it once or twice during that time to make sure it all got a chance to shine.

Jacques Pépin's method for cooking pork chops always works for me, so I browned one side thoroughly, then flipped the chops and stuck the browning pan into a preheated 350F oven for about 5 minutes to finish cooking through.

Imagine our surprise when the first bites tasted like ham rather than pork!  The sugar in the brine was enough to fool the tongue into thinking we were eating ham and, let me tell you, that was a big disappointment to both of us. We like ham well enough but not when we had our taste buds all set for pork.

As we continued to eat, the hamminess diminished as we cut further into the chop - only the edges were truly hammish. Nonetheless, next time, I will omit the sugar and tweak the recipe toward the other ingredients. If you really love ham, this could be a great recipe for someone who doesn't want to buy a whole ham, or even a ham slice, but if you're a pork lover, beware!

Hammish Brined Pork Chops

2 nice bone-in pork chops, about 1/2 pound
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
10 juniper berries
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved or quartered
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 cup water

Bring the water to a boil, then add sugar, salt, garlic, lemon pepper, thyme, and juniper berries. Cook, stirring, until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Cool with 2 cups of ice cubes.

Pour brine into a water tight baggie or a bowl. Add pork chops and seal or cover. Refrigerate and marinate for 6-9 hours. Brown chops well in a wide pan slicked with a little butter, then flip and place the pan into a preheated 350F oven for about 5-8 minutes, depending upon thickness of the chops. You want the meat to be juicy and ever-so-slightly pink when served.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stuff And Nonsense

We all know that the expression, "Stuff and Nonsense" just means "that's silly!" or words to that effect. A certain lovely couple that I know, however, uses it as a little ritual they do every now and then. One of them says "Stuff" and the other replies with "Nonsense." Then, they grin like idiots and are likely to kiss one another, right in front of the children.

I have no idea how that got started - it's private to them; when I asked, they just giggled and blushed. 

I think they are in love.

That anecdote came to mind as I was stuffing our pork tenderloin for dinner - all kinds of weird little things float through my mind at times like that.  Anyway, my internet friend Katie from Thyme for Cooking, whose life in France I follow by reading her blog, often stuffs pork tenderloins, so I thought I'd follow suit (that being an expression derived from the card game of Bridge).

Since My Beloved is a fan of anything cooked with mushrooms and I'm equally fond of shallots, those seemed like the perfect things to stuff into a pork tenderloin. I sautéed them first in a tad of butter and added fresh thyme to the mix before slitting the tenderloin nearly in half with a sharp knife and piling in the stuffing. A final tying with string in four places mostly secured the stuffing inside, but I will admit that there was a lamentable tendency for it to tumble out. Seems I overdid the proportions of stuffing to roast. Oh, well.

I heated the pan into which I was about to place the tenderloin in the oven (350F) for a few minutes before setting the meat, seam side down, into the pan and shoving the pan back into the hot oven; that sears the meat on the "presentation side" and makes it prettier. About 20 minutes later, out came the tenderloin, perfectly pale, pale pink and redolent of mushrooms, thyme, and shallots.

I made a small amount of "sauce" by adding about 2 Tablespoons of white wine to the roasting pan and swirled it around with a rubber spatula until it soaked up all the lovely brown spots from the roast and turned them into magic, which I drizzled over the pork slices. It's hard to describe just how down-home good that was. 

Some people might worry about the pinkness of the meat, fearing trichinosis, but to those doubters I simply say, "Stuff and Nonsense!"

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Reveal

I was waiting for the final, final finishing touches to the kitchen before showing you what all the fuss and feathers has been about for the past six plus months, but when Nancy (of the interesting art blog called "Namaste Nancy") asked to see it, I decided it was time! 

So, TAH-DAH!  

The counters are an engineered quartz stone in almost-black with tiny flecks of the same golden tan as the cabinets, plus some gentle little sparkles. No grout!  Easy to clean and easy on the eyes. There is now under-cabinet lighting as well as overheads and a light in the hood over the stove. Our somewhat obsessive electrician did us proud.

The floor is wood stained gray, a pre-finished product so we didn't have to suffer through days of stink as it dried. We ran that same flooring throughout the main floor of the house and we love the look, plus the ease of cleaning. When Cora's dog hair tumbleweeds appear, I just get out the big, flat mop with the washable cover and skim around picking it up. And about once a week, a quick sponge mopping does the rest.

The stove (my pride and joy) is a Viking gas stove. It has four, count 'em, FOUR burners. That may not seem like a big deal to you but to me, who has lived for nearly 20 years with only two recalcitrant electric burners, it defines "hog heaven" for me.The oven goes from zero to 400F in seven minutes flat (my old oven took about 25 minutes to heat properly) and I love the slate gray color. There will be a smoked glass backsplash behind the stove - it's here, it's just not installed quite yet.

My fridge is also a wonder to me - "French" doors open and close easily, revealing everything inside at a glance. I have my first-ever ice maker, which I love - no more balky ice trays! - and the freezer is larger by half than the old one. I loved our old fridge, so I was glad it went to one of the workers who made the kitchen so beautiful.

The cabinets are made of alder, a somewhat unusual wood, but we loved the warm color. You can't see the ceiling in these photos, but our ceilings are of natural pine with dark-stained beams, so we needed just the right wood in the cabinets to complement the ceiling. It worked like a charm. We also added a big skylight over the working kitchen, which floods the area with natural light so we don't need to turn on the lights until it's fully dark outside.

Between the new kitchen and the dining area is a fairly large area we are calling the "transition" for lack of a better term. It has storage drawers on either side of the room for my fancy china and glassware on one side and my lesser-used cooking stuff on the other. Separating the working kitchen and this storage/serving area is a slab of granite in reciprocal colors to the quartz - you can see a little bit of that in the second picture. The second and third pictures show you why all my female friends have storage envy. The drawers all roll out smoothly and close gently on soft-close hinges, and they have swallowed up an amazing amount of stuff. We love the mitered corners on all the drawers and cabinets - they play beautifully in the sunlight, highlighting the beautiful, smooth wood. We will use that long top for buffet serving when we have a dinner party.

In the third photo, you can see the other side of the transition and, beyond, the microwave oven and warming drawer, (which face the stove) plus tray storage on either side and more storage cabinets above, with Cora's bowls on the floor.  We love the display cabinets at the top of the "hutch" for showing off some pretty things without having to dust them. We also use the appliance "garages" every day - the far one houses Cora's chow and treats, and the near one hides the coffee pot.

The green door in this picture is right next to the fridge - it goes out into the garage. We used "blackboard" paint on that door so we can make notes to ourselves or shopping lists, or write "Welcome!" when we have friends coming over.

So, there you have it!  My friend Sunny, who is an interior decorator, complimented us on our choices and remarked that the house looks twice as big now as it did before with the smaller, cut up spaces. I think she's right - it all has a wonderfully open feel while still hiding the seamy underbelly of joyous cooking. We couldn't be more pleased.

Was it worth six months of construction noise, dust, and constant worry, not to mention significant expense (we had paid off the mortgage, but now we have one again)? Well, it's rather like the way my friends describe childbirth - no fun when you're going through it, but well worth the effort for the finished product.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hallowe'en Aftermath

I never did get around to carving my Halloween pumpkins. Even though I'm retired and have all the time in the world, these are the kinds of little jobs that just escape my notice until I'm handing out candy to superheroes and princesses and thinking, "Day-um! Where does the time go?"

Then, I read on the interwebs about how one can cut the top out of a pumpkin and, leaving the seeds inside, fill the interior with dirt, and await a new pumpkin vine come spring. What a cool idea!  So, I placed my two pumpkins in my little scrap of garden before I got distracted and forgot to finish the job. 

Again. *sigh*

So, you can imagine my surprise when, this morning, I discovered that the local wild turkey flock had done the job for me!  They seem to like pumpkin flesh, as the seeds were still inside but the onerous task of cutting a hole had been accomplished rather nicely.

Now, all I have to do is remember to fill it with soil. What are the odds that that will happen before the pumpkin turns naturally to mush?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jason's Hidden Away

My Beloved and I sort of got into the habit of eating out frequently while our kitchen and bath construction projects were under way, and that seems to be continuing, even though I do cook most nights in my splendid new kitchen. It's still fun to get out and try something new.

This time, My Beloved wanted to try a restaurant we thought was hidden away - it's on the far side of a commuter parking lot in Greenbrae, convenient to the freeway for bus riders and carpoolers. We expected a small, quiet, intimate place.

Nothing could be further from the reality - the joint was jumping last Friday night! The entire, huge parking lot was full and people were still coming. Inside, it was much larger than we expected with a humming bar area, covered outdoor seating with heat lamps, and a large dining area to boot. We asked for a quiet table away from the bar, and the staff showed us to a very nice spot.

The wait staff was prompt and attentive, but we didn't feel rushed at all. 

My Beloved and I split a lobster martini appetizer, big chunks of Maine lobster with avocado and Valencia orange sections, served in a silvery, stemmed martini glass, a nice showy touch. When we said we would share the appetizer and a Caesar salad, both came in separate dishes without our having to ask, a very nice touch.

My Beloved relished every bite of his Fisherman's Stew, a melange of seafood and shellfish in broth with house-made linguine.

I ordered spinach fettucine with shrimps and enjoyed very much the house-made pasta, the fresh ingredients in the sauce of tomatoes and mushrooms in garlic cream sauce studded with smoked bacon bits, and with a dusting of Parmesan grated fresh by the waiter. The shrimp were generous and large and the rich sauce complemented very well. It was such a big portion, too, that I took home lunch for the next day.

Another shared portion - my favorite dessert of affogato - was also cheerfully divided into separate dishes and served with a little biscotti, again in martini glasses.

Jason's was nothing like we expected - and that's a good thing!  I'm sure we will return and bring friends to this special spot.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Steeped In Flavor

What to do with a plain old chicken breast?  

My Beloved and I had been eating a fair amount of red meat lately, what with one house guest or another and our own proclivities, so I wanted to get some good, healthy chicken and veg into us. But...

What to do with a plain old chicken breast?

Then, I remembered that I had saved a little of the herbed butter when I made those killer garlic bread bites - the recipe calls for a LOT of butter and I was glad to note that we didn't need to use it all to make the bites rich and flavorful. All I did was mix some fresh herbs (thyme, oregano) and pressed garlic that had been simmered in a little wine until the wine evaporated, into room temperature butter. It was easy and, a couple of days later when I cooked the chicken, the butter was even more redolent of the ingredients that flavored it.

So, I used part of the flavored butter in which to sauté the chicken breasts, then slicked the top of the finished meat with a tiny tad of the rest, just for shine and visual appeal.

Turns out, this makes a pretty nice chicken breast with minimal extra fat. Try it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bite Me!

A few days ago, I posted about a brunch casserole that My Beloved, our guests, and I all loved. I made it again when daughter Katie brought our adorable new, four-month old grandson, Miles, over for brunch the following weekend. Well, actually, Miles still gets all his sustenance in the form of milk, but the rest of us enjoyed the casserole. The second time I made it, I embellished by adding sliced green onion to the mix, a nice touch.

The first time I made it, My Beloved remarked that he wished it had some crunch to give it a more interesting texture. Since the bread in it gets soaked with egg, I could see his point. So, when I happened across this recipe for garlic bread bites with fresh herbs, I thought they would fill the bill for the mouthiness he was seeking. (Is "mouthiness" a word? I hope so).

I took this picture just before they went back into the oven to melt the flavored butter down into the already-toasted, one-inch cubes of bread; what came out of the oven was promptly devoured. 

Garlicky, herbal, crunchy, buttery - O.M.G. These were crazy-addictive and made the perfect  offering alongside the casserole. What I liked best about the idea (because they are a little fussy to make compared to plain old garlic bread) is that you can have one or two if you are feeling restrained, or several if you throw caution to the winds. Let me tell you, a fair amount of caution was thrown.

I will make these again often, and already I'm thinking they'd be great with the addition of a little Parmesan cheese. 

Okay, so, bite me!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Alice and Jacques

I think it was Alice who suggested laying my pork loin roast on top of thin slices of lemon before roasting. I'm pretty sure it was Jacques who thought garlic and thyme would be great smeared on top. They both suggested salting and peppering well ahead of roasting, even days ahead, but I didn't have that kind of time, so I skipped that part and just salted and peppered before roasting.

When I am in doubt about how to prepare a particular meal, I often use these two go-to sources, Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Cooking" and any one of several books by my hero, Jacques Pepin. Both are well indexed to make finding ideas easy, and both suggest reliably killer preparations. 

It roasted at about 350 degrees F for about 40 minutes, as it was pretty small. I checked with my instant-read thermometer after 25 minutes, and it was nearing perfection. I pulled it from the oven just short of the perfect temperature and let it rest while I prepped and cooked the veggies.

The lemons did their magic with the juices from the roast - that made a lovely, light "jus" to ladle over the slices. The jus is easy to make, you just pour off most of the fat from the roasting pan (there wasn't much from this lean little roast), add a little water to the pan, and stir it around for a few minutes to mix in the caramelized meat juices in the bottom. 

The thyme and garlic were almost crisp after roasting, and their flavors had seeped wonderfully into the roast. 

I can't go wrong when I have mentors like these two to consult.