Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Learning To Ride

My Dad taught me to ride a bike. I had been on a tricycle, then a bike with training wheels for some time, but he thought it was time to ditch the safe way and fly. I can’t count the number of times he puffed along beside the hand-me-down bike I got when my older sister grew out of it, steadying the seat with one hand and the handlebars with another, calling encouragement as I wobbled along the sidewalk shrieking with a combination of heady exhilaration and sheer terror.  Then, on the next exciting try, I felt an extra push from behind to get me up to cruising speed and I AM DOING IT, DADDY!  I’M RIDING! I’M RIDING!

Of course, I fell off trying to stop, but he picked me up and brushed me off, commiserated over my scrapes and put me right back on. That time, I remembered that one pedaled  backwards to stop the bike. The seat still bumped me in the back when I slowed enough to hop down, but that was minor compared to the flush of achievement and pride. I was officially a big kid.

It was like that all through my childhood and adolescence. My Dad was always urging me to do things I was afraid to try, gently but insistently showing me the way. When I was about eight and all the other kids were jumping or diving off the high board at the pool, I was only comfortable with the low board. Somehow, he knew that I had a secret longing to be brave like the other kids, so he made a deal with me. “I’ll catch you when you jump,” he promised. “I’ll be there to make sure you’re okay.”

And that dear man treaded water underneath the high board for at least forty-five minutes, shouting encouragement up to me as I stood shivering with my toes curled over the end of the board and my heart in my throat. He even had to take a rest for a minute on the side of the pool and he warned, “I may not be able to do this much longer!” Finally, looking down - ‘way down! - into his warm, brown eyes, I screwed up my courage and HUGE, RIPPING SPLASH! I surfaced to his wide grin - “You did it!

Actually, he did it. All through boyfriends and algebra and hairdos and college applications and first jobs, his encouragement and gentle prodding were what spurred me to achievements I might not otherwise have even tried. So much easier to wail, “Daddy, I can’t” than to put some honest effort into learning something new.

He wasn’t always successful - my hairdos were never very stylish (they still aren’t) and I never did get the point or the practice of algebra - but he always assured me “Of course you can!” and didn’t let me off the hook. 

Life keeps handing me challenges - finishing college and grad school, learning a whole new set of job skills, finding my way through a divorce when everyone in the family was opposed, establishing myself in a new locale with new friends and challenging financial concerns - and each time another one pops up, I’m back on that bike with Dad’s wisdom and strength behind me, still learning to ride.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Winter For Soups

This has been a winter for soups. Nearly every week, I have made broth from a roast chicken and devised some new take on an old theme - and each pot of soup has improved over the last one as I learned the tricks of the soup maker's trade.

The first and most important trick is, of course, the stock. No, you don't have to make it from scratch if you are short of time but, if you do, let it simmer long and low, hours and hours, to extract all the goodness from the bones. Really good chicken stock will actually jell when you refrigerate it to remove the extra fat that congeals on the top and is easily scooped off and discarded. (That's the second trick, by the way).

The third trick is that soup, like stew, always tastes better the second day, when the ingredients have swum around together in the broth and rubbed shoulders for a time. Like a high school dance, they need time to get to know each other and to become a real "thing."

Another bit of advice is to add fresh stuff to the soup as you serve it. Fresh things add texture and interest to what might otherwise be nursing home food. When I make chicken soup with a Mexican bent, I add cubes of avocado, fresh chopped tomato, slivers of lemon or lime, chopped cilantro, and tortilla chips in little bowls for people to add what they like. When I make "American style" chicken soup, I add frozen peas to the bowls and ladle the hot soup over them - just a few minutes in the soup is enough to thaw the peas and they add a wonderfully fresh touch.

My final hint is to add ingredients that are unexpected - you never know what kind of serendipity you might stir up. A good example is the coffee I added to the pot of Portuguese Bean Soup I made on the last day of winter. 

Coffee?? In soup?

Sure, why not!

It added such a nice, deep "belly" to the soup. I'm sure it would have been delicious even without the coffee, but I had just been watching my hero, Jacques Pépin, on TV and he told us that he never wastes anything so, when I was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast and had about two cups of coffee that we didn't drink, I opened the lid of my soup pot and poured it in.

Now, I wouldn't suggest that for chicken soup, but it worked like a champ with the spicy sausage in my bean soup. So, think about some interesting ingredients that you might add to your next potage. There's nothing like a big pot of soup to warm the cockles, to share with the neighbors, and even to freeze for the inevitable day when spring turns back into a winter for soups.

Portuguese Bean Soup, inspired by the soup we had at the Punahou Carnival in Hawaii one year.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 box of chicken stock, 32 ounces (or homemade if you have it)
8 ounces tomato sauce
salt, pepper
1 can black beans (or any beans, really)
2 andouille sausages, diced (fully cooked, smoked sausages)
1-2 cups black coffee (optional)
1/4 head green cabbage, coarsely chopped

Hot sauce to taste (optional)

In a large pot, sauté the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil until the onion is clear. Pour in the chicken stock and the tomato sauce, add salt and pepper to taste. Add the beans, the sausage, and the coffee. (Andouille sausages are rather spicy - if you don't have spicy sausages to use, you may want to add some hot sauce to give a little zing to the broth)

Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for an hour or more. Let cool and refrigerate over night. To reheat, bring back to a boil, add the cabbage, lower the heat, and simmer until the cabbage is just transparent but still has some texture.

Monday, March 14, 2016

There's Still Time!

Last Friday, My Beloved and I made our annual trek to Costco to cash in his rebate check from his Costco credit card. It's always a fun trip (despite being there on a Friday when even the pouring rain and howling winds didn't discourage anyone from going - the place was packed!), where we marvel at the sizes of things and wonder how anyone could ever use up a gallon of mayo or two dozen bunches of asparagus before the darn things spoil!  We always check out the veggie department and consider the fancy meats (and lately they have had organic options in both those departments!), but we usually don't buy much due to lack of freezer space and the fact that we are only two. Big eaters, I will concede, but really just two.

We do get a cube each of TP and paper towels, and sometimes another cube of facial tissues or a block of a dozen bars of soap, but those things actually can last us the better part of a year, so we have to think carefully about garage space before making such purchases. The prices are always tempting but our storage space is always limited.

This time, it was the weekend just before St. Patrick's Day. Being half Irish in blood and wholly Irish in attitude, I always celebrate the saint's day with gusto. When I happened upon the display of vacuum-sealed corned beef, my heart leapt in my breast and I was drawn over, dodging giant grocery carts steered either by children who weren't paying attention or little old ladies who weren't paying attention, to the huge boxes filled to overflowing with corned beef briskets and rounds spilling out as from a cornucopia.

Once again, most of the offerings were 'way too much for two people to eat unless they were determined to finish it off even if it took a week. Since My Beloved doesn't really like to eat the same thing seven days in a row (nor do I, if truth be told), I was disappointed until I spied one very small package and pounced upon it with a glad cry.

It was corned beef alright, but a small one of about two pounds. Perfect!  Enough for St. Patrick'd Day dinner and a day or two of sandwiches, but no more. What's more, the label stated that this was American Kobe beef round from Snake River Farms in Idaho. I know nothing about SRFs, but I had heard from meat-loving friends that American Kobe beef is really good, so I was psyched.

I had read on the interwebs about champ, too, an Irish dish that combines finely chopped green onions and parsley into boiled potatoes that have been mashed with butter and cream. My Irish heart sang as I read that recipe. I left the skin on my potato (just one is enough for us both) and mashed it right in, which was a very good choice. And, as if that wasn't enough, I had a quarter of a head of cabbage to slice thinly and sauté until limp and sweet and just a little browned. I can't think of a more Irish meal than corned beef and cabbage with champ.

I was so eager to try it that I didn't even wait for St. Patrick's Day - I cooked it three days ahead and you will be glad I did because there is still time for you to rush right over to Costco and snag your own!  

So, drum roll, please...

This was easily the best corned beef I have ever or will ever eat. It cooked in half the time of a big roast, either brisket or round, and the only word to describe the meltingly tender slices that emerged from the scented water is "succulent." 

Oh. My. Heavens. 

We both did that little, muted moaning thing that people do when what hits their tongues is too good to describe, shaking our heads in disbelief at the pleasure. I'm sure the texture and flavor have a lot to do with the amount of fat marbled into the meat but my ancestral genes recognize and respond with alacrity.

My only question now is - if I brave Costco again tomorrow, will I be able to score another one?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fall Color

We began our 11-week See America tour in the fall, departing in early October. Here in California, there is some fall color, but it's mainly the occasional glorious tree, rather than the blaze of color that other places get as the trees prepare themselves for winter.

Our first really spectacular color came from the aspens in Colorado, where the liquid gold of the trees is hard to capture in photographs. The yellow of the sun through aspen leaves has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Even when they fall, their confetti is gorgeous.

We dashed across Kansas, where the fall color was mostly from the pale gold of ripening fields of wheat, the stubble fields of harvested corn striped tan and brown, and vast stretches of maroon sorghum. But all other colors in Kansas are dwarfed by a sky so high and wide that it dominates all the other features. I understand now why people could enjoy living in Kansas, so far from the drama of ocean and mountain. It's that awe-inspiring sky that adds the spirit to that landscape.

Up through Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio, it was still a late-summer landscape, but almost as soon as we drove into western New York, the fall claimed the land again. 

Everyone told us fall was late that year; I like to think it waited for us. New York state was on fire with color from Buffalo until we crossed the border at Albany into Massachusetts, where the Berkshires took over with their own splendid colors.

The area around Boston was simply amazing. The Harvard campus with its red maples and colorful chairs in the quad, the trees lining every street, even the cemeteries were joyful with brilliant colors.

We don't think of New York City as a place for fall color with its looming skyscrapers and hurrying crowds, but even there we found touches of color. The startling blue of a crisp autumn sky glimpsed between the buildings, 

the heavy heads of goldenrod along the High Line, 

and even bright trees on a penthouse terrace, complete with (I imagined) a tycoon making deals on his cell phone.

In Connecticut, most of the leaves were already down, but they made for delightful sounds as we scuffed along through the colorful confetti.

We turned south and lost the colors through New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Only the produce in the farmer's markets spoke of fall as we dropped down through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In the South, I think the fall-blooming camellias are the spectacular color of autumn.

Our whole trip was a visual feast, and maybe I will find the words to describe some of the other pleasures, visions of colorful rock formations and dramatic desert plants. For now, however, I'm still enjoying the memory of all that autumn glory.