Monday, April 20, 2015

Hot Spring Dinner

One of the quirks of weather in northern California is that our hottest days come in the spring and the fall, rather than in the summer. In summer, the fog rolls in from the ocean, cooling and cleaning the air so we have overcast mornings that give way to bright afternoons, but the temperature doesn't have time to climb.

In the spring and fall, however, the fog retreats out to sea and we have sunshine from morning until night, raising the temperatures to the point where those who have lived here a long time start to complain of the heat. We like to call them "Dangerous UV Ray Days" to hide the fact that we love all that light. Of course, people from Hawaii or the East coast would not call this hot - 75-80 degrees F doesn't qualify as hot to most folks. But we Bay area wimps are used to very even temperatures winter to summer, so we suffer when the thermometer goes above 75.

As it did last week. The pasta dinner I had in mind was jettisoned in favor of something cooler, namely shrimp tacos. This is my new favorite dinner.

I warmed the tortillas (we use a half corn/half flour tortilla that has good flavor), chopped cherry tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, and green onion and put them on a pretty Mexican pottery platter that I got in Arizona when visiting my pals Annie and Jim. All that was left to do was take the frozen shrimp from the freezer (I used peeled and deveined), sauté it in a little butter and Mexican blend seasoning until the water from the shrimp evaporated and the butter caused the spices to stick to the shrimp, pile all that onto the tortillas and pass the Cholula hot sauce. Oh, and I put some creme fraiche on mine but My Beloved doesn't care for crema or creme fraiche or sour cream on his.

You can see the beautiful evening light slanting across those colorful tacos. Just the perfect thing for a hot spring dinner.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Harvey The Hero Dog

When I was growing up, Pheasant Under Glass was considered the highest of elegant dining. I have no idea what Pheasant Under Glass was, but whenever anyone spoke of the highest cuisine, it was mentioned. So, on my latest trip to visit my dear friends in Michigan, you can imagine I was pretty impressed to be offered some pheasant to take home. "It's a lot like chicken," our hosts assured me, "just be careful when you chew it, as there may be bird shot in the meat."


Undaunted, when I got home, I opened one of the packages and went looking on the interwebs for recipes I might be able to make. The first night, I made a risotto with mushrooms, roast asparagus, and pheasant. It was good but not great - that one needs some work and I'd rather wait and tell you about it when it's wonderful than now when it's just sort of "meh." What went wrong?  Well, it wasn't the pheasant, which was tender, moist, and mild - it was the rest of the recipe. First, I'd use bacon fat in lieu of the butter next time, and lemon juice instead of wine for the astringent part - both would have offered more flavor and enhanced the delicate meat. I'd also use brown rather than button mushrooms for a more woodsy flavor. Stand by for that recipe one of these days.

The next day, I used the rest of the package to make a salad for lunch, slicing the cold, sautéed breasts as the protein in a kitchen-sink salad. Delish! And, by the way, there was no bird shot in this particular package, although I reminded My Beloved before each meal to chew with caution.

And what was the source of all this elegant poultry?  It was Harvey, the Wonder Dog. Harvey is our friends' shiny black lab, a complete couch potato (that's him in his favorite chair) until the guns come out. When Ray puts on his hunting clothes and pulls out the shotguns, Harvey becomes a whole other dog, eager and excited and rarin' to go.  The day the guys went out to hunt, Harvey flushed up at least 60 pheasants for the men to shoot (they came home with about 40 - not bad!). Harvey caught four or five of them himself! The pheasant who thinks it will avoid the guns by running along the ground doesn't understand that Harvey will simply chase it down, give it a quick shake to kill it instantly, and bring it back to place it gently in Ray's hand. Harvey was the hero of the day.

Pip, the rat terrier, stayed home snuggled in his blanket. 

Meanwhile, the ladies had a lovely wedding shower for my Fairy Goddaughter that was planned jointly by her mother and her sister. We had lunch and oohed and aahed over her shower gifts, played a few silly games, and had a fine time catching up with her Michigan friends. 

On my last day in Michigan, I was blessed with a late spring snow, the kind of quiet snow that falls with no wind whatsoever, so it sticks beautifully to every tree and surface in a silent blanket of white. The maple tree outside the window has raised red buds, ready at any moment to open with maple flowers, so the snow made a lovely contrast against the swelling buds. While I can't say I miss winter in the midwest, I was thrilled by the beauty of the snowfall.

People in California are always a little surprised that I love Michigan so much. Little do they know that the landscape is like home to me, one of the few places in my ever-changing Navy life that was constant, and the friends there are lifelong friends, literally met in the playpen and kept all these years later. One reads a good deal about how tough times are in Michigan right now - and they are - but the midwestern ethic will pull them through and there will always be peaceful snows to gladden the heart and big, goofy black dogs to bring pheasants to the table.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cultural Exchange

I spent the Easter weekend thinking about family traditions, my own and others. Growing up, our Easters began Mass first to celebrate the Resurrection after the long season of Lent, followed by what seemed to me (small heathen that I was) to be the real celebration, my father's Easter basket hunt with rhyming clues and much hilarity. He wrote the most awful doggerel into his clues ("Roses are red, violets are blue, go and look, in Daddy's left shoe") and we loved reading them and running to each new place around the house and garden to find the next folded paper with his distinctive handwriting and whimsical poetry on it. Until, finally, we would find our Easter baskets (when young) at the end or a big box of Whitman's candy for the whole family once we were older. I don't know if our tradition was followed in my Dad's family, or if it was his invention, but I have kept it alive with my Fairy Godchildren and plan to do it for our grandchildren, too.

This year, My Beloved and I were invited to experience our first Passover Seder dinner, complete with traditional foods and prayers. Our hosts provided everything for the dinner so, after consulting with my other best Jewish pal, Janie, about an appropriate gift, we brought flowers for the party.

And what a party it was!  Our hosts explained all the items on the Seder plate, each with its story and meaning, carefully prepared and placed in the center of the table. We opened the Haggadahs that Jeff's mother had brought along with her perky little dog who spent the dinner tucked behind her in the dining chair. The little dog may not have been part of the tradition, but she was a welcome addition. We recited traditional prayers and responses, beautiful words that called for peace, for sympathy with the currently enslaved, and for action to help whenever possible.

During the recitation of the story of the Jews' release from slavery and their wandering in the desert for forty years before finding their promised land, I was struck by the analogy to our two hosts, who each spent the early years of their lives alone before finding a sort of "land of milk and honey" in each other.

We tasted all the different flavors, new to us - the sweet wine, the bitter herbs, the salt water to dip the parsley in, the gefilte fish, the matzo ball soup, the chopped liver, the Charoset made with apples and nuts, the roasted brisket, all the flavors I had heard about but never experienced. Our favorites were the matzo ball soup that Sari made (the matzo balls were light and lovely and the broth rich with chicken flavor), the Charoset of apples and nuts that Mrs. Heyman made, and the brisket that Jeff made, but perhaps the true highlight of the meal were the macaroons Jeff baked from scratch for the dessert. Made with almonds, walnuts, sugar, and eggs, they were a sweet ending to a lovely tradition. We even got to bring some home. Shalom, and thank you, Heyman family!

The next day, Easter Sunday, we were invited to join My Beloved's family for a non-traditional Easter, but very Californian, dinner of ribs lovingly smoked by our s-i-l, André, and the very traditional Easter egg hunt for the children in the back yard. We were pleasantly surprised by a quick visit before dinner from the girls' cousin, Brandon and his daughter June and his Dad, down from Seattle and out from New York city. While the children played, we enjoyed catching up with their doings. So fitting to have far-flung family around on Easter!

I had made hot cross buns for the dinner and granddaughter Mia helped me to decorate them with icing. We got a little creative with the "crosses," so we dubbed them "star buns" or "octopus buns" instead. They were lovely, a Martha Stewart recipe to which I added some allspice, richly spiced, dotted generously with currants, and only lightly sweet. That's a tradition I think we will keep, year after year.

My own Easter tradition is to tell the following riddle in honor of my father who art in heaven. He loved corny jokes, and so do I. This one always rolls out on Easter in my house.

Q. What do you get when you pour steaming water down a rabbit hole?

A. Hot, cross, bunnies! (I know - groan!)

What are your Easter/Passover traditions? Whatever they are, be sure to keep them going - they are the stuff of family joy.