Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Summer Pizza

I owe a lot of people for the excellence of this pizza. First, My Beloved, who bought me the pizza stone and pizza peel that I use to make homemade pizza, not to mention his willingness to run down the hill to our little market for a box of corn meal. Not only do I use the corn meal to make the pizza slide easily off the peel onto the stone, but also for that toasted cornmeal flavor, which I think is essential to a good pie.

Second, to Luisa of The Wednesday Chef, who contributed the recipe she found while visiting her mother's house in Italy. Like so much of the best Italian food, it is simple, made with few ingredients, and bursting with flavor. She called it a focaccia, so I assume she made it a little thicker than we did. But the combination of those four flavors is amazing. I wouldn't have thought of using pan-wilted Swiss chard on a pizza, nor anchovies, but My Beloved sheepishly admitted that he actually likes anchovies (and was willing to make yet another run down to the market for said), so I thought, "What the heck, let's do it!"  

Third, to the grocery worker in our local Andronico's Market who, when he saw me hesitating over which tomatoes to buy for the pizza, whispered to me like some guy selling pornographic postcards, "Psst!  Hey, lady!  Try these - they are so very good!" And, man, was he ever right!  I used both cherry tomatoes (as the recipe calls for) and the very slightly larger ones the grocery clerk had recommended, and his were head and shoulders better than the cherries.

Fourth, to the second cheerful Andronico's worker who steered us to the frozen pizza dough that I would have missed. We were looking for the fresh dough they used to sell but no longer carry. She pointed us to little bags of frozen stuff that turned out to be truly excellent. Thawed in the fridge, then rolled out to our desired thinness, it was tasty all by itself and it browned beautifully. Perfect size for two and, because you roll it out after thawing, it takes up very little freezer space. 

Rolled, topped, and baked, we sat down to the freshest, loveliest pizza I have ever made. I found that, for my taste, it was best to give all the anchovies to My Beloved, as just the hint they leave behind after baking was plenty of savory fishiness for me, and he was delighted to have 2X the number of anchovies to enjoy. The fresh mozzarella complements perfectly the sweet, sweet summer tomatoes and the slightly astringent chard. In fact, if you wanted a truly vegetarian pizza, you could leave off the anchovies and it would still be the best pizza you will eat all season. No need for any sauce at all - it was perfect just the way it came, summer pizza straight from God.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Our Challenge

Recently, I had my "well baby checkup" with my handsome young doctor, complete with blood work (gasp!) and weigh-in (ugh). That is never good news. So, we have a renewed challenge to curtail our portion sizes and to lower our cholesterol. Actually, my "bad" cholesterol is just fine; it's the "good" stuff that needs work.

As you can see, we eat well. We strive for balance, for more veggies on the plate than meats, and we are moderate with desserts. Still, we struggle with our weight despite daily walks up and down our hilly town and sessions in the pool. The combination of famine-proof metabolisms and love of eating is hard to overcome.

When I found a nice piece of halibut to accompany our fresh vegetables, it was a natural for our new regime. 

Halibut is a lovely fish, especially when gently poached. Unfishy, and bland, it's a blank canvas; the soft purple of the shallots, the rich browns of the mushrooms, and the bright green of the parsley are my palette this time. I minced a shallot, a small handful of the parsley leaves, and about six brown mushrooms, using olive oil to sauté them, first the mushrooms, then the shallot, and finally the parsley. 

While those were cooking in a separate pan, I poached the fish in gently bubbling water, starting with the skin side down and flipping it halfway through. When you do it this way, it is easy to turn and the skin comes off easily after a few minutes of cooking. When it is done to perfection, you can delicately lift the fillets with a slotted spatula, drain briefly, and plate.

The corn was simmering on a third burner while the broccoli steamed on the fourth. In one of those nearly miraculous bits of timing, they all were ready at the same instant. Whisked onto plates and topped with the mushroom mixture, the halibut was a treat. I won't call it a masterpiece as it was a little too simple for that, but My Beloved remarked with pleasure about how good it was, savory, rich with mushroom umami, and fresh. Given that it was a pretty small portion, I decided that was a compliment worth having.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pig In A Pickle, Barbecue!

Last Wednesday, My Beloved and I wandered across the bridge to Marin county to get the best strawberries on earth from the farmer's market in Corte Madera. Rodriguez Farms, if you are over that way. Killer. Absolutely killer. 

Ooops, I really came here to write about barbecue. We had planned to stop at World Wrapps for our favorite (Samurai Salmon) but as we walked by our noses were tickled by the scent of smoked meats emanating from the door of Pig in a Pickle. Abrupt change of lunch plans.

P in a P is a new restaurant to us, competition for The Best L'il Porkhouse, which also has a branch in Corte Madera. According to the menu, P in a P has won the "Best in Marin" designation for 2015. I'm not familiar with that prize - don't know if it's a popularity contest, or decided from reviews by knowledgeable food folks, but I'm sure P in a P is proud of it.

My Beloved ordered their hot link with a side of jalapeño cornbread while I went the whole hog with a plate of dry rubbed baby back ribs and smoked chicken tossed in Alabama White Sauce, and sides of collards, cole slaw, and white cheddar mac and cheese. We decided those would give us plenty to share bites.

I guess I'm not a big fan of collards, but they would have been better if they had drained the water in which they were cooked a bit. I liked the chunks of ham I found in the cup, but the greens were swimming and that seemed to dilute the flavor for me. Plus, they are hard to eat without getting green water down your shirtfront.

My Beloved's hot link truly was HOT!  Perhaps even a little too spicy for us wimps - he didn't finish it. He also wished the bun had been toasted. It's a little thing, but you can tell when every little thing has been considered.

After those rather nitpicking comments, let me say that the rest of the meal was really quite good. The thigh and drumstick of the chicken were downright luscious, the two dry-rubbed ribs were delicious once I added one of the several sauces at the table, the corn bread was tender and sweet, the mac and cheese was some of the best and cheesiest I've eaten without being impossibly heavy, and the cole slaw was the very best I've eaten anywhere, bar none.

I keep thinking about that cole slaw!  It was colorful, with both kinds of cabbage plus carrots, and the sauce was a delightful medium between too much mayo and too much vinegar. It had a creamy feel but a nice kick of pickle, too, that complemented the rich meats very well. Might have liked some celery seed, but that's just my personal preference.

The restaurant has a sort of "country" vibe, as you might expect, with bare, picnic-style tables, serve-yourself flatware and napkins, and music (mercifully, not loud) with a country twang. 

Overall, we'd happily go again when we are over that way looking for the world's best strawberries.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Grape Jokes

My readers of a certain age will recall grape jokes - silly little riddles of my teen years that were riffs on the word "grape." 

"What has a Queen and Beatles?" "Grape Britain."


"What is purple and conquered the world?"  "Alexander the Grape."

I know, major groans!  But they were fun, they didn't belittle anyone, and they made us smile. 

Here's something else that made me smile last week - grilled grapes. And this is no joke. My friend Bonbon brought to lunch a bag of grapes as a hostess gift. I like grapes as a snack but I knew we'd never eat all those before they went bad if I didn't also use some for cooking. When the idea of grilled grapes popped into my mind, I went looking on the interwebs to see what to do. There wasn't a single "recipe" that used grilled grapes on my favorite site, nor could a quick search turn up any others. So, I decided to wing it.

I pulled several grapes off the stems and put them into this grill pan that I bought at a garage sale but never before used. It was perfect as the holes allowed the smoke from the barbecue to pass through but kept the grapes from dropping into the fire. Less than a minute over a pretty hot fire charred the grapes on one side, then I rolled them around and replaced them over the flame to get the other side colored, as well.

We ate them as garnish for a pork tenderloin that I cooked over the same fire with grilled corn - a summer feast and I didn't have to heat up the kitchen. The outside of the pork was dark and smoky while the inside was pale pink perfection. The fire turned the grapes into little nuggets of intense sweetness, softened the skins so the warm insides popped out in a liquid rush, and left a whisper of smoke behind the sweetness. Oh, baby! A terrific accompaniment to pork.

Grape jokes have gone out of fashion - I haven't heard one in years! - but this idea of serving pork with grapes is a classic, worth repeating even if it gets a sigh of pleasure rather than a chuckle.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Young Friends, Old Friends

Just the technology for presenting this photograph illustrates just how much time has passed since it was taken, likely with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera on black and white silver halide film. It was developed and placed into an album using those little black or white adhesive corners and closed away for fifty-six years except, perhaps, for the occasional viewing. It was brought out into the light a few weeks ago and photocopied for me. I took a digital picture of it to post here on my blog. So many advances in photography in those years!

The photograph shows three young girls about to leave for school on the first day of their seventh grade year. Fall of 1959. We were twelve years old. We three all lived on the same street, Albany Avenue in Alexandria, Virginia, for a couple of years. Susie Stringham is in the middle - Susie was the only child of civilian parents and greatly envied for all the stuff her parents showered on her. My envy made me downright bitchy about Susie sometimes.

My best friend, Bette Sturr, is on the right.  Bette and I played jacks by the hour, pricked our fingers to mingle our blood so we would always be "blood sisters," and hoped against hope that her older sister and my older brother would marry so we could truly be sisters. Bette and I were inseparable for those years, playing and quarreling and making up together. Bette and I were both Navy juniors - and I would be in three schools that year: Alexandria, Virginia; Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada; and Norfolk, Virginia. When my Dad got orders to Newfoundland, we were devastated to lose each other. We wrote letters to each other but eventually gave up and made new friends in our new duty stations.

When Facebook appeared in my life so many years later, I searched for old friends, including Bette, but didn't find either her or Susie. There were plenty of Susan Stringhams, but not the right one, and no Bette Sturrs at all.

Fast forward to a month ago, when we received an email from - bless my soul! - Bette Sturr!  She was now Bette Nelson. She had found us on Ancestry.com where you can search for people by name. My Beloved has an extensive family tree on Ancestry, which included my father for whom she was searching - and me!

Turns out, she lives less than an hour's drive from our house - what are the chances?  We were excited to have a reunion so, after a couple of weeks of juggling calendars and activities, we met at her place, where she gave me the copy of this photograph.

Meeting a friend after 56 years is an extraordinary experience. The first moment, I thought she had changed a good deal (and I'm certain she was stunned at seeing me, too!) but then I began to remember so many little things about her - the shape of her hands as she scooped up a double handful of jacks; the way her wavy hair, now grayed, curled against her neck; the curve of her lips and her manner of speaking; and the twinkle in her eyes. We talked and talked for hours, catching up on the ups and downs of each other's lives. 

We have each traveled interesting paths since seventh grade - life has handed us both joys and tragedies. We have each experienced divorce, but ended up happier afterwards. She had a long career as a teacher, and that is exactly consistent with the diligent student I recall from so long ago. I bounced from job to job until I settled into my last and most satisfying one as a career counselor. She has two beautiful daughters and five grandchildren. I had no children but lucked into my three grands thanks to My Beloved and his two daughters. We shared photographs of our grands, hers in frames in her living room, mine on my iPhone. And she gave me the copy of this photograph from so long ago, an amazing artifact of our young friendship. 

I wish we had thought to take a picture while we were together, but we can do that next time we meet. And, who knows, maybe we'll eventually find Susie Stringham, too.