Thursday, December 31, 2009

Deconstructing Poultry



Did this young girl know that she was practicing for a close working relationship with fowl when her mother plopped a chicken carcass in front of her and said, "It's time you learned how to cut up a chicken!"? At least the innards, some of them, were in a nice paper package, conveniently stuffed up in the cavity to be pulled out, and the feathers were already plucked.

Until I officially learned how to cut up a chicken in Home Economics, it was all a big mystery to me. Bones and joints and skin just seemed like tough obstacles to work with to get some pieces loose. I'd plucked plenty of chickens as a kid, but cutting them up was always someone else's job.

What a revelation when I learned the pattern of aiming for certain joints to make the official chicken pieces! Now, I can't stand to buy a precut chicken because they just go through and whack them off in the general vicinity of the section, leaving little bone slivers here and there, and not cutting the breast in the the pieces I like best.

It was fun teaching my kids how to do this. It sort of reminded me when my dad walked me through changing a tire when I started to drive. Seeing this picture from years ago reminds me of something. I have one more child at home. A son. And I really think he needs to learn how to cut up a chicken.

Popcorn


My mother LOVED popcorn. If it were a horserace, I’m not sure if cookies or popcorn would have won, but in any case, popcorn held an exalted position in our snack cupboard.

Back in those days, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as microwave popcorn. There were no such things as microwaves, at least for the masses. She would just shake up a big bowl of popcorn in a cast iron skillet. Those were the days of the miracle grease, otherwise known as Crisco. We kids didn’t know anything about vegetable oil. If the grease needed to be liquid, we melted Crisco. Put the 9 inch cast iron on the coil, turn the heat on medium-high, toss a hunk of Crisco in and when it melted, drop a half dozen sentinel grains in. When they began to pop, scatter corn, yellow corn always, until it almost covered the bottom in a nubbly layer. Slap on a glass lid and shake and slide like mad until the popping stopped. Pour it into a bowl before the popped grains could scorch on the hot skillet. At this point my mom would always drop a couple pats of butter on top of the quickly cooling corn, which never quite melted. I’m sure if she had thought about it ahead of time, she would have melted a little bit of butter to drizzle over. But popping corn always seemed like such a spontaneous activity.

“Hey! Let’s have popcorn!” while turning the electric burner on with one hand and pulling the skillet out with the other. The popped corn was ready before the commercial was even over.

Popcorn’s holiday persona was popcorn balls. Mom would cook up a batch of honeyed syrup, pour it over the popcorn, and with buttered hands mash it into warm sticky baseball-sized treats. Back in the days when people didn’t worry about such things, we gave out popcorn balls for Halloween treats. However, as tasty as they were, I always had the feeling that after I took a bite and looked down, I might see one of my teeth keeping company with the other white kernels.

That’s where Cracker Jack comes in. All the yummy caramel flavor, but crispy. And a prize in every box! Do you remember any of those prizes? My favorites were the magnifying glass and the little book of jokes. The boxes were sort of skimpy though, and when we discovered Laura Scudders Big Gigantic Tub of Caramel Corn, we dropped Cracker Jack.

In the meantime, I got my mom an electric popcorn popper for Christmas one year, which pretty well eliminated the burnt kernels. And in an unusual turnabout, a machine was put into the hands of the people before its main purpose was created: microwave popcorn. Always perfectly oily and salty.
The air popper came along, but we didn’t prefer it, since corn cooked in grease is tastier and more tender. Plus, the salt sticks better. I did discover a great use for air popped corn though—making my own caramel corn. I had discovered the way to have crispy instead of sticky caramel corn is to bake it for an hour with the syrup coating it.

I had pretty well let popcorn out of my cupboard and my life. But when my daughter, Melinda started raving about loving it, I decided to give popcorn another chance. And it’s not bad! Sure, I’d rather have cookies, but a deadline is looming. And the name of that deadline is “New Year’s Resolutions.” Since my resolution is going to seriously curb my pleasure eating, I’m going to get creative on the popcorn. I got an air popper so the corn is virgin to begin with. This morning I drizzled olive oil, popcorn salt, and butter buds on a big bowl of the white fluffiness. While it lacked a certain something, at least it handled my snacking urge. For now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mystery Food

Mystery Food

Have you ever gone to take a bite out of a piece of food, expecting one thing and then been totally surprised because it is not, I mean WAY not what you’d expected? Well I have.
I can think of three examples right now, two that I personally experienced, and one in which I truly wish I’d been there to see the expressions on the tasters’ faces.
It was many years ago, perhaps 27, seven months before I married my husband. It was April, specifically, April 1st, otherwise known as “April Fool’s Day.” I’d only known my husband’s mother a few months, not long enough to know what a prankster she was, and not long enough to know that she NEVER made brownies. She made and decorated cakes, she made cookies and fudge and brittle, but never brownies. Little seemed amiss when I walked into their dining room and admired the blue china plate of brownies. They were nice generous squares liberally frosted with fudgy icing and topped with a sprinkle of chopped walnuts. The family, all either sitting around visiting or engaged in light tasks were congenial and attentive.
“Help yourself!”
“Have one; they’re there for anyone.”
“Gee, thanks!” I naively responded, and selected a nice fat one. It was surprisingly light. Probably sort of cake-like brownies, I thought, and took a big bite.
Boinnnggg! My teeth went down but not through, and then back up again. I saw the tell-tale blue color through the frosting. She’d cut up sponges and frosted them! It’s nice to be able to laugh at yourself so you can join in the common activity in cases like that.
Several years ago, my mom Mildred married Sam Criswell, my Pop, at a lovely ceremony at the Lemoore Senior Center. I’d been busy with the decorations, making and setting up the wedding cake, taking pictures, dressing up, helping my mom with her hair, and just generally being the daughter-of-the-bride, helping to make sure everything went smoothly. Finally, I was sitting with my husband in the chairs, trying to relax before the big moment. He was holding a nice tall insulated paper cup with a sipping cap on top. It was a coffee cup, and he was sipping out of it. Oh my goodness, how lovely a sip of hot coffee would taste! He looked at me kindly, lovingly, and whispered, “Would you like some?”
I nodded, mutely, and tipped it up. Waaaugh! It wasn’t hot coffee, it was cold beer! Aieeee!
My Pop, Sam, must restrict his sugar intake. But when it’s your birthday, you get a birthday cake. That is some sort of cosmic rule, and if you don’t get one, then something is seriously wrong in your quadrant of the universe and you should investigate. One birthday, when they were trying particularly hard to follow the sugar rules, Mom had a novel idea and made him a birthday cake with a twist. They packed up the “cake” with them that evening as they headed off to a friend’s house to have a Bluegrass Pickin’ Birthday Party.
The cake was gorgeous. It was round and covered with the fluffiest, pinkest frosting you ever saw and topped with birthday candles. They sang, of course, and then cut the cake, revealing a rich, chocolaty colored crumb inside. Though I wasn’t there, I heard that at least one was mightily surprised when, after a bite, the “chocolate cake” turned out to be meatloaf frosted in beet-juice tinged mashed potatoes!
A person could get tight over that. “I wanted cake, Darn it! You let my sweet tooth down!” Or she could say, “I wasn’t expecting this, but it’s sure fantastic meatloaf!”
The unexpected can be scary or disappointing. Turkey instead of Prime Rib. Your 16 year old nephew driving instead of Uncle John. Yes, it can be a shock getting a classical CD for Christmas, or a romance novel instead of a western for your birthday, but get over it! Try it! Be open and good-humored about what comes your way, and you are a long way towards a living a life of peace and contentment. And although I’ve never developed a taste for sponge brownies, after awhile, I did appreciate sharing that drink!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sausages...Umm!




I've been experimenting with sausages.


Yeah, I know I can make the patties and then cook them or freeze them for later, but what's the whole fun of sausages if they aren't in those little casings?


I didn't want to invest in a nice new sausage stuffer, so I've been keeping an eye out in the thrift stores for something that would work. I already knew that my KitchenAid meat grinder, though it grinds meat and more, is a mess to try to run already ground meat through it for stuffing sausages. My goal is to make sausage that is lower salt, lower grease, no strange ingredients, and usually chicken.


I finally ran across this at the Goodwill in Colorado.




It had a smaller funnel, but I found a larger one later that fit. It works just like a caulking gun. I do have to refill it several times for a batch of about 3 pounds sausage, but it isn't a big trouble. I picked up a package of natural hog casings at the Bass Pro Shop. You soak them first to get the salt out. They then resemble tough snotty strings that work hard to tie themselves in knots.
It was pretty easy; I greased the nozzle, pushed the casing on it, tied the end off and started caulking, er, stuffing. every few inches, I gave things a couple twists to make the links, and then tied it off again at the end.

I'm still working on my recipe. This one turned out pretty good, mostly using fennel, poultry seasoning, black pepper, kosher salt, and a little garlic. I also added a little red pepper flakes. I broiled these; I think they would be prettier and maybe tastier on the outside if I fried them, but this was SO easy! An instant read thermometer told me when they were done, at about 180.
What should I try for the next batch?


Friday, December 4, 2009

#3 Review -- Cisco's Taqueria

This is one Mexican restaurant that I really wanted to like. It is ultra-convenient, being downtown Marysville, within a couple blocks of the post office, the library, Cal Trans office, The Brick, etc. But…

Cisco’s is a tiny corner taqueria where attention has been paid to décor, seating, layout, and getting as much useable space as humanly possible in a small space. It is cute, streetside, and charming inside. Most seats are close enough to the window to see what’s passing by outside. Here’s the lowdown:

Scale 1-5, 5 being highest praise.
It is called a “taqueria” but is really more of a sit-down restaurant, as the waitress takes your order and delivers the food, providing the service.

Service 3. Adequate, but because there weren’t many in the place while we were getting our food, I would have expected a little more prompt attention in taking our order and delivering our food. It took almost 15 minutes to get our plates. Nice, when I asked for more salsa, she offered more chips too, and she topped off my ice tea when filling my husband’s. He didn’t wait for his drink to go down very far before he asked for tea.

Stove-Hot 2. The plate was warm, not hot, and the food was just hot enough for me not to send it back to be reheated. I think our plates sat on the counter for long enough to cool down.

Chips 2. The chips were crispy, salty, and not greasy. Also, I’m fairly confident they came out of a bag. Needless to say, they weren’t warm.

Salsa 4. Very fresh tomato salsa. Nice flavor, a little slow warmth.

Burrito 2. Ok, so it wasn’t that bad at the time. But I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I would have liked. They didn’t have shredded beef, or stewed chunked beef, like Betty’s. The closest I could get was little pieces of steak. The burrito was big, but that’s because it was mostly taken up by refries and rice. Because I already had refries and rice on my plate, it felt redundant. I only ate half, saving the rest for my dinner. The plate was pretty; it had a little salad garnish thingy.

Beans, Rice 4. The flavor of the refries was good, the rice was alright.

Clean 4. It looked clean enough, though I noticed some sticky spots on the wall by my table. We noticed that the local health inspector was eating there, so that may say a lot. Didn’t check out the restroom, so can’t say on that.

Value 3. That day was a special on the burrito plate, which ended up meaning the tea was free. About $7.50 a plate. Not a cheap lunch, but plenty of food.

Soooo…. I may go there if it is the convenient thing to do, but I probably won’t go there on purpose to get my Mexican food fix.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pomegranate--The Holy Grail of Juices




Pomegranate juice is probably one of the most difficult fruits to try to figure out how to extract the delicious, healthful juice. With the numerous, seemingly random clumps of ruby seeds inside the membranes and pith, they seem a little mysterious. Most people remember the Greek myth of Persephone who had to stay in the underworld for 7 months each year, one for each pomegranate seed she had eaten while down there. When I was a kid, we periodically made pomegranate jelly from the wild pomegranate trees growing around our house. On one memorable juice-making process, I remember most the roasting pans and potato mashers and splatters.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I got several boxes of huge ripe pomegranates from my father-in-law with the intention of making juice and freezing it. The one part of my previous experience I didn’t want to bring back was the potato masher. After calling around and not being able to locate a pomegranate juicer I stirred up the creative juices to see what I could come up with. I needed something to crush the seeds and then extract the juice.

After building about a half-dozen devices in my mind, I thought I’d start with my Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment for my mixer. I’d been concerned that it would crush the little white seeds inside, but on a test run, I had no problems, using the coarse grind blade. The seeds were crushed so thoroughly, it didn’t take much work at all to strain out the juice from the pulp. Hooray! Now I could start in earnest.





To begin with, I rinsed the fruits in bleach water in the sink. I didn't want bacteria from the rinds making their way into the juice.






Split the fruit open from the north to the south pole. That makes the seed clumps easier to get at. Do not just cut it open! Too many seeds would be cup up. Score the rind all the way around and break it open. If you need to, slide the edge of a butter knife into the gash and twist it to pry the halves apart.






After the seeds have been gently worked out of the fruit and dropped in a pan, fill the pan with water. The seeds will sink and the bits of membrane will float. Skim them out.






Strain out the pomegranate seeds from the water and put them in a bowl.





This is the coarse plate for my Kitchen Aid food grinder. The holes are about 1/4 inch in diameter. The majority of the white seed pits pass right through without being crushed.






After dealing with spatters running my first batch through, I tore a small hole in the bottom of a plastic sack, fed it through the exit end of the grinder and then screwed the front disc holder back on. That kept all the juice where it belonged. I ladled the seeds slowly into the hopper with a strainer and let the crush fall into a sieve over a bowl.






Most of the juice strained right through into the bowl. I dumped the pulp into a colander lined with a cloth and pressed the rest of the juice out. The pomace was quite dry. In fact, most of the juice just drained out naturally. I think I may skip squeezing the pulp in the future. That will help avoid the sediments, which are hard to remove.






This is NOT one straight pitcher of juice. After I poured off three pitchers of juice into freezer jars, stopping when I got to the sediment layer, I combined the pitchers of sediment layers into one. The next day, the juice had settled further. I poured that off and then strained the sediment layer through cloth. The clear juice tastes best, so it is good to separate it out. I'll see with my next batch how much less the sediments are when I don't squeeze the pulp.






As is proper, Voodoo Bunny got an offering of the first press of my fresh pomegranate juice. He didn't drink much, and didn't seem to mind when I finished it off for him.

After I filled one shelf in my freezer with jars, I realized I wouldn't have room to deal with all the juice this way, so now I am using Ziploc 1 qt freezer bags with 2 cups of juice in each one.

POSTSCRIPT
With the latest batch, I kept the squeezings separate from the main press. I think there is a little more sediment, but more clear juice came out than I had thought would. So I'll definitely squeeze, but maybe into a different container until I decant them all.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Am I Cooking This?


Homemade Sugar Cookies- Bethie





Homemade. Made from scratch. Made by hand. When food goes through your mother’s or your grandmother’s kitchen, taking its own sweet time, being chopped, basted, fried, toasted, and then set on a hand-crocheted hot pad on the sunny country-kitchen table, you have a warm, cared-for satisfied feeling. I’m sure that is why many manufacturers use those “Home-Baked” terms on their packaged dinners. They want their product to leap into your basket as you try to make a grocery shopping trip work its way somehow into those lazy Sunday afternoon dinners.Why would anyone make anything from scratch these days? It’s not always cheaper; in fact, it often costs a lot more to make a dish yourself instead of buying it. When you can buy a whole fried chicken at Winco for $6, why would you buy a whole raw chicken for $6, take it home, tear it out of the package, rinse it, cut it up, make all those mysterious, bloody things inside go away, dredge it in flour, prepare the skillet, and spend the next 45 minutes babysitting it, dodging hot grease splatters and cleaning up the toxic waste of raw drippings? And it doesn’t always taste better. Admit it, those companies have access to all those top-secret “natural flavorings” (that actually do share a molecule or two with something natural), and they use lots more of that tasty salt. And grease. Yum!I’ve been thinking of three examples lately. One of them is pie. I love to make pie, fruit pies especially. I am a good pie-maker. In fact, I won a pie contest several years ago. The prize was a decorated pie pan, and every time I look at it, I feel warm and fuzzy. But truthfully, Sarah Lee is also a pretty good pie maker. She has gotten much better over the years, and to think that I can buy a pretty good cherry pie during the holidays for $2.98 makes it almost painful to make my own from scratch. So what if I can’t pronounce all the ingredients? The best scratch pie dough is made from Crisco, the modern miracle grease.And have you ever made lasagna from the ground up? It’s like building a house! Each layer is prepared in a separate bowl from multiple ingredients, some requiring shredding. Noodles are boiled, pans are prepared, ingredients are sautéed, eggs are cracked, and while the layers are being applied, you hope they all come out even. Why do we put ourselves through this? When I was a kid, lasagna came from boxes marked “Hamburger Helper.” In the frozen section, they have these nice compact boxes of lasagna. Easy and yummy. Why make it at home?I expect most people have an old ice-cream maker in their garage somewhere. Hand-crank is the best, but electric works too. Remember the rock salt, the bags of ice, the tub to set it in? Sometimes the mixture had to be cooked up ahead of time and chilled before freezing. As a kid, I especially remember the excruciating one-hour wait until it ripened. Making ice-cream is a good picnic sort of thing to do, but would you really go through all of that just to have ice-cream, when Dreyers is on sale right now for 2 (almost) half-gallons for $5? When you buy Dreyers, you know exactly what you are going to get. Homemade things sometimes go wrong, terribly wrong.Some time back, for a happy family summer backyard picnic, we made vanilla ice cream. The kids and I turned and turned and turned. But wasn’t getting firm enough. I finally pulled the top off to look at it. It looked sort of done, but a little grainy. I put a finger in to taste it. Aarrgh! Salt! Lots of saltiness! The can had developed a split in the seam. If it had been Dreyers, I could at least have taken it back. And maybe sued. It was at least as traumatic as finding something with legs in it.But we do continue to make things by hand. Not all of us, and not all the time. But there is something richly rewarding about taking base ingredients and creating a work that is nourishing, tasty, filling, attractive, timely. It is personal. It is a sharing opportunity. It has value.Why do I make my own music? I have available to me any time, anywhere just about any tune or song that I can imagine. Where phonograph records were the early boxed mixes, i-tunes are the pizza delivery service. And unlike my pies competing with Sarah Lee, Rhonda Vincent wins, hands down; there is no competition. In the old days, if you wanted music, you made it. It didn’t matter as much that somewhere, someone else did it the best. People sang, people whistled and hummed. I worry sometimes that ordinary people nowadays who have music in them are able to calm that drive by sticking headphones on. We need to make our own music the same way our children need to draw their own pictures from their own hearts, the same way we need to create and share a homemade plate of cookies. It may not sound as perfect or finished as the professional music-bakers, but to the parking lot players who are sharing their musical souls with each other, it is more nourishing and fulfilling than anything you can buy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

#2 Mexican Restaurant Review: Casa Lupe

I didn't expect to visit another Mexican restaurant so soon, but my husband wanted to join the experiment, so we went to Casa Lupe in Yuba City on Saturday for lunch.

This is a pretty popular place. Some friends of mine have declared it their favorite restaurant, but I have never been. It is locally owned, and is fairly nice, sort of like a Marie Callender's a la Mexico might be. Scores: 1-5, 5 being highest

4) atmosphere. nice, Mexican music over the speakers. But again, motor noises in the background were a little loud.

4) Service. This was full service, and even though it was pretty crowded (right at noon) we were seated right away. The wait staff were prompt with menus and drinks. The food took 14 minutes to arrive, not bad, but could be better, for a lunch. She offered more salsa and chips when we went low.

5) Stove hot, yes, quite nicely.

4) Chips, hot and crisp, not greasy, but thick. OK, so some people probably like them thick. But they tear up my mouth when they are too thick. I like them on the thin side. And they could have been a little saltier.

3) Salsa. This is a hard one, but even though the flavor was nice and the ingredients were fresh and crisp, it was more like gazpacho. The juice was so thin, it was hard to scoop it with chips. When my husband asked, they did bring out some of the hotter salsa, which was very good and HOT, but I wonder that they didn't offer it at first?

3) Shredded beef burrito. This was almost a 4. The beef was shredded, no chunks, and some onions were cooked in there too. Nice flavor, but a little mild for me. It was moist at first, but then seemed like it could have used more juice. But I think that is the way shredded beef does. They had melted cheese on top, which at first seemed nice, but truthfully, it didn't add much flavor and just made it harder to cut it to eat. The little lettuce and tomato garnish did make the plate more attractive.

2) refries. They were an odd pink color and bland. Not bad, but could have been better with some judicious seasoning.

3) rice. again, a little bland. They benefitted from dumping salsa in.

4) clean. The restaurant was very clean and attractive. Pastel "Mexican" color walls and artwork, but the bathroom was obviously not redone when the restaurant was. Sort of shabby and worn at the edges. The locks in the steel stall doors were gone and I almost cut my finger sticking it through to try to open up the door.

4) value. For this meal, I paid $8.50. $3 more than Betty's, but more food, which I really didn't need and shouldn't have eaten.

Up near the front they had a cute little tortilla maker. She would put in a wad of dough and it would fall down into the glass case; little turners would flip it as the trays rotated the tortilla down to the bottom and then up a conveyer belt to a basket. It made me want one!

Upshot is... it's a perfectly nice place to eat, but not that "special" restaurant you'd want to show off how great it is.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

# 1 Review: Betty's Authentic Mexican Restaurant

Betty's, in Yuba City, wasn't even on my list, since it isn't in the Yellow Pages. Maybe the place is new and the book is old. I was heading for another place on my list to see if it was a dive or a likely prospect but by the time I got my gps out, "Kathleen" said I had passed it by. Then I remembered seeing this one nearby in the little plaza by the Harvest Bread Co. and zipped over there.

With the unlikely name of Betty's Authentic Mexican Restaurant, as opposed to Los Charros, Los Mexicanos, Taqueria Guadalahara, I wasn't sure what to expect. It looked sort of "lunchy" from the front, so it surprised me to fined out that the waitress came around to take care of things instead of the order counter. I was very happy with the joint. Let's score on a 1-5 scale, 5 being the highest.

Atmosphere: 4. Pretty yellow walls, tasteful decor, Mex music playing, but not too loudly. 2 booths and the rest tables. Kitchen visible, which is nice to see, as it is clean and orderly, but a little noisy with the hood vent.

Cleanliness: 5. Must be brand new, as it is the cleanest place I've been to in this town. Even the bathroom was spotless and new looking.

Chips: 3. They were warm and crunchy, but quite thick. Lots of them.

Salsa: 2.5 Not bad, not especially good. Perfectly adequate, but forgettable. Medium hot.

Stove hot: 5. The plate was hot, the food was hot, too hot to eat right away in fact.

Beef Burrito Platter: 4. Couldn't think of much to improve on here. The rice was seasoned well and was soft and moist, the beans were, well, beans with a little white cheese on top. The burrito was delicious. I'm only giving it a 4 because one has to have some place to go if something turns up better. It was pretty plain, but that was fine, since the flavor was very nice with a thin seasoned chili sauce and chunks of lean, tender, seasoned beef. I guess if you want the foo foo fillings, you'll order the supreme type one.

Service: 5. The girl came around quickly, gave the menu and chips, came back in about 3 or 4 minutes for the order, and I got my plate 5 minutes later. She filled my tea once without me having to ask, and then checked on me once later.

Value: 5. Lots and lots of chips, extra salsa when I asked, $5.50 for the beef burrito platter, and full service too. Hard to beat that.

This is definitely going on my A list.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Los Vaqueros Mex Restaurant in Livermore

Just at the cusp of my Mexican Restaurant Experimentation, I ended up eating at a Los Vaqueros Mexican Restaurant in Livermore yesterday. And all I can say is that it is worth driving out of your way to go eat there.

We were discussing thin chips. These were paper thin and CRISPY, not greasy. The waitress brought TWO little bowls of salsa so neither my companion nor I had to worry about a double-dipper. The salsa was a little more like cocktail sauce, in that it was a little sweet and tangy, but acceptable.

All the menu items seemed like uniquely crafted ensembles of Mexican food with great creativity. The special was some sort of duck taco with pomegranite and other unusual items. We ordered the appetizer of some cheese shrimp things. Imagine a shrimp split and stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, just a splash of batter, and deep-fried with a drizzle of spicy cheese-sauce. About 8 of these beauties surrounded a bed of dressed, shredded lettuce topped with guacamole.

We both ordered the Carnitas Tintas Tacos. Instead of the standard rice 'n beans, one could choose amongst such sides as spinach salad with apples and bleu cheese, lightly cooked zuccini in a spiced tomato sauce, some kind of seasoned fries, drunken beans, spanish rice, and I forget what else. I had the spinach salad and the zuccini.

The plate was beautiful and appetizing. The 3 small tacos were opened up and full of the saucy meat and shredded lettuce and pickled onion slices. They were topped with Mexican queso. All the flavors in my order were robust and complementary.

On our way out, we peeked into the bar. At another time, with another group of people, I would have really enjoyed trying that out. While the color scheme in the restaurant was gold, yellow, orange, the bar was cool blue; roomy and cozy at the same time.

Alas! I cannot choose this restaurant to be my favorite because it is totally out of my area, and I'll be lucky to be able to swing by there a couple times a year. But it's nice to have a standard to weigh against!

On 580 going West, take the exit for North Vasco Road in Livermore. It is only about an eighth of a mile off the freeway, just past the Der Weinerschnitzel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking for a Favorite Mexican Restaurant

Now that I have my favorite Chinese Restaurant, and favorite Italian Restaurant, it's about time I am able to determine a favorite Mexican Restaurant in the Yuba Sutter area. I've had sort of enjoyable experiences and some experiences that were so-so. But I have been thinking that it is time to go about it in a scientific way.

I am going to make a list of the Mexican restaurants in the area, dine at them, at using a list of criteria, judge them. Here are my criteria:

Flavor, quality of ingredients.

Service. This includes timely refills of water and ice tea.

Hot from the stove. Less than piping hot, almost dangerously hot Mexican food is inexcusable!

Quantity of serving/Value/Price. These are all related.

Atmosphere.

And I think I may add cleanliness, but only if it is not clean, since that should be a given.

I will pick the same common item from each restaurant, going at a slightly off peak hour.
Can you think of any other criteria to use? I'll try to do a new one each week. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Marcello's Marsala

Yesterday was our 26th wedding anniversary. I’m not sure why special events are celebrated by going out to eat in a nice restaurant, but as you may have guessed by now, that sort of thing is dear to my heart. Our minor celebrations, such as having a good day, knowing a tidbit worth sharing, having a fat wallet, getting letter in the mail, are handled quite nicely by dining at the Schezwan House Restaurant in Marysville. But for a wedding anniversary, we went a step up and drove over to Marcello’s Italian Restaurant in Yuba City.





I think we would have gone there anyway, but coincidentally the food section in the Appeal-Democrat featured Marcello’s and their signature item, Marsala Chicken. We have eaten there several times, but I’d never had the Marsala Chicken.

I always like to try different things, but it is hard to remember what I have had before in a restaurant. At Schezwan House, I will decide that I must start at the top of the menu and work my way down, making a check mark by each and then making sure I pick up the same menu next time. But when I see the Basil Chicken, I get weak and just order that because I know it is so good. All I remember when I pick up a Marcello’s menu is that last time I had something with red sauce and it was very good.

Marsala Chicken does not have red sauce. It has a creamy brown sauce with lots of sliced mushrooms in it. My husband ordered filet mignon and scampi, the special for Thursdays and I chose the Marsala Chicken.

Marcello’s is a roomy, attractive, comfortable place that brings up feelings of Italy and the Mediterranean, with its décor and Italian music playing in the background. Bottles of wine are stacked in niches and on the long sideboard. We order Chianti. We ask the waiter to light our candle so we can gaze romantically at each other over the red glowing glass. After delicious garlic bread and salad our orders arrived in good time.

My chicken was very, very good. Flattened chicken breast, seasoned and tender, smothered in savory sauce that had beautiful tangy notes, with the meaty flavor of mushrooms sautéed in butter. I couldn’t bear to have any of the sauce go away with the plate, so I spent the last 5 minutes mopping it up with the last of the extra bread the attentive waiter had brought. Oh we were stuffed! No thought of dessert.

The owner stopped by our table and asked how we had enjoyed our dinner. After enthusiastic regards to the chef, I batted my eyes at my husband, tilted my head and coyly remarked, “It’s our anniversary.”

“Ah, perhaps you will like a nice anniversary dessert as a compliment from us.” Well! I’m never so full that I wouldn’t enjoy a nice complimentary anniversary dessert!

He brought out a chocolate mousse, topped with whipped cream and fresh raspberries, drizzled with Grand Marnier and topped with a lit candle. Oh Heaven! I managed to poke a few mouthfuls down my very full husband’s throat and handled the rest of it myself.

We waddled out to the truck, moaning happily. I know what’s going to be on next week’s shopping list. I’ll definitely be trying this at home!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Maybe I'll Cook French for Awhile!

I like the food section in the daily newspaper. In our paper, the Appeal-Democrat, Wednesday’s food section has a wine column, a *Cooking With Your Neighbors* feature, and various recipes. I like these recipes because of their spontaneous nature. They may be about anything. One time I learned from a walnut grower’s wife that you can leach the bitterness out of shelled walnuts by blanching and then drying them. She also went on to give a recipe for gluten-free cookies, using ground walnut meats.

The other day I clipped a recipe for Beef Bourguignon. I’ve made this in the distant past, but this recipe looked more hearty, more rooted in France. I stuck the clipping (actually it was not a clipping, it was a tearing, since I never take the time to get scissors, I just rip it) to the refrigerator until I could get the ingredients and make the time. Yesterday, I made the dish.

It was supposed to bake in the oven for 2 hours, and I was late getting started, so I’ll admit that I got a little anxious and hurried at times. That usually means an incredibly messy aftermath, but hopefully, no major mistakes. Cooking the bacon to get the grease and flavor is always the aromatically enjoyable part. To enjoy it even more, I read down the ingredient list. One half bottle of full-bodied red wine. Good! One for me, one for you! I poured a glass of my favorite cheap Cab, Foxhorn, and rendered a nice pan of grease.

While browning the pieces of beef, I prepared the carrots and onions. Then came a major speed bump. One head of garlic. One HEAD of garlic? As in, all the cloves within the clump? Yes. And it was a big head, all its aromatic halitosis bundled up in little paper-covered ovals. I began stripping the papers. It called for dicing up the stinking rose, but I preferred to not be aware of the actual moment I was eating a piece, so I used my wonderful garlic press. One after another, I squished those suckers in the pan until I finally lost my nerve and stopped about 4 cloves shy of the whole thing. Mmmm! Ack Ack! The kitchen was definitely smelling French!

Next step, pour in the half bottle of wine. Good, there was still a half bottle left! After I tipped it in, the contents of the pan were a terrible sight. Purple, with bits of brown and orange and white. And it smelled like a nasty Halloween punch. Luckily, I am experienced enough to know that it would all change by the time it was done.

I have a friend who had heard that red wine was good in beef stew. He told me that he had poured some in a stew once, but was so horrified by the look, smell and taste that he poured all the broth off and started again.

I accidentally added the mushrooms and then had to fish them out because they weren’t to be added until the dish was done, and first sautéed by themselves in butter. Now I had to add Herbs de Provence. I couldn’t find the blend at my grocery and had figured I’d look up what they were in my cookbook at home. No luck! Next try, The Internet: dial-up, loading, loading, error, re-loading, not what I wanted, loading, (the high point of my anxiety to get this in the oven!) until finally it compared the French herb blend to Italian Seasoning. Good enough for me! The seasonings: Herbs, fresh ground pepper, and kosher salt to taste. I took a guess with the herbs and pepper and figured I’d salt at the end.
For 2 hours the house was filled with the heady aromas of cooking garlic, red wine and onions (OK, so it reeked). I just figured that if we were all going to eat it, we wouldn’t notice the breath. And let tomorrow take care of itself.

I served it over egg noodles. The dish was beautiful, a lovely roasted brown with a bubbling sauce. The flavor was rich and meaty, dark, but with delicate notes. The flavor of the wine had held up, but had been transformed into a food taste instead of a beverage.

Whenever I complain about the taste of a food or drink, it is usually due to a mono-taste. From the lips down to the stomach, the flavor remains the same. I like to eat and drink complex items, I want to experience a multitude of changing flavors in one beer, wine or food. This Beef Bourguignon fulfilled that. I had to take my time, savoring each small bite. I had to get a little more, *for my mouth.* But best of all, my husband told me to put it in my book because it was a *keeper.*

½ pound bacon
2 pounds beef, in 1 inch cubes
½ bottle full bodied red wine
1 cup tomato sauce
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 pound carrots, sliced thin
1 head garlic, minced
Herbs de Provence, black pepper, kosher salt, to taste
½ pound sliced mushrooms
4 ounces butter

Fry up bacon, remove bacon, crumble and set aside. Brown beef pieces in bacon grease. Pour in wine and tomato sauce. Add onion, garlic, carrots, crumbled bacon and seasonings. Cover and bake 350 degrees for 2 hours. Sautee mushrooms in butter; stir into the casserole. Serve over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Biscuits 'n Gravy

Nola prepares to divy up.


Nothing is more comforting, savory, tasty and satisfying to eat for breakfast than biscuits and gravy.

Objectively, it’s just a pile of grease, starch and milk. But subjectively, ahh. That’s different!

I’ve had the combination of biscuits and gravy from friends, restaurants and family, and one conclusion I have come to is that it must be easier to make good gravy than good biscuits. The gravy is almost always ok, and sometimes quite excellent.

Just recently, while visiting my sister in Woodland Park, Colorado, we shared a plate of biscuits and gravy at the Donut Mill, a little bakery there. In preparing this dish, sometimes the cook breaks the biscuits up, sometimes they’re left whole. This place was a “slightly break ‘em up” method. The gravy was beautiful, covering the biscuits from all edges of the plate – perfect tannish-white liberally speckled with large flakes of black pepper. Small pieces of sausage hid in the creamy blanket, contributing to just the right amount of saltiness. The biscuit was only so-so. If I had eaten the biscuit separately from the gravy, I would have been disappointed in it. My gold standard in biscuits are my mother’s and my own. They should be tender and moist inside with a hard-to-describe chewy-crusty outside, which comes from being coated with butter or bacon grease and baked at a high temperature.

But this plate of biscuits and gravy, together, were just fine; we enjoyed them very much.
I began thinking about how simple and nice the combination was. One could add an egg; that would be a tasty addition. A few sausages would match well. You could even lay some fried apples at the edge of the plate and enjoy it. But by adding an extra ingredient, something is lost from the perfect pairing of the original biscuits and gravy.

I think of that perfect pairing when I consider an Old-Time banjo and fiddle combination. Together, playing the old tunes, they create such a sweet, primitive music, almost achingly nostalgic. Sometimes either the fiddle or banjo is just “ok,” but together, they are beautiful. Often, folks will add a guitar to the duet, a bass, or maybe a mandolin. And just like a pretty little sunny-side up egg keeping the biscuits and gravy company, it sounds nice, sometimes making the tune a little richer, fuller. But if you appreciate true Old-Time music, you might be one to recognize that the perfect simplicity of the original duet is no longer there.

So go ahead and enjoy a full course of instruments at an Old-Time music jam. It can be loud, fun, and make you want to dance. But then, step aside, notice the two guys in the corner and take time to appreciate and understand the beauty of just the fiddle and the banjo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Etc. -- Picture Challenge, Snow Day

Today starts in just the right way, at the Donut Mill, the best little bakery in Woodland Park, Colorado.

The best way to face a snow day.



A Typical Pikes Peak area Commuter Vehicle :)
(Notice snowplow)




A Good Shopping Day!



No Garden of the Gods Horseback Riding Today!



It's so beautiful, I could eat it.



Self-Portrait: I was there!




Knife Edges




The Most Beautiful City Park in the United States

Wind vs. Snow

My daughter, who lives near me, posted a blog on the wind they have been having. Since I am in Woodland Park/Colorado Springs, Colorado I have not had to endure that. Instead, we are having winter snowstorms and the like. But just to show that, even far away from home, I can still be affected, I offer this photograph of my truck, Truquita, which has been at my husband's disposal for ferrying my son around. He was driving in town and a limb blew off a tree and smashed the windshield. As you can see, it nearly punched a hole in the center of the windshield.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More etc. 2-- Bunny

Melinda knitted me a bunny for my birthday. This is no ordinary bunny. She charmed it somehow so that everyone who sees it has a spell put on them and they all repeat the following procedure:

"Aaawwwww!!!" (repeat in higher pitched voice)
Arms reach out, grasp Bunny.
"Ohhhh, I LOVE it!" (giggle)
"Oh, it's ADORABLE (or CUTE)"
"I LOVE it!" (said while clasping voodoo bunny to breast)
"How did she DO it?"

So far that has happened to everyone who has been near it.
Even though the reaction is not as visible in men, believe it, they are suffering the same effects.


My sister, with the voodoo bunny.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Horseback Riding in Garden of the Gods


Here is the "etc" part of Food Adventures Etc.
Yesterday I took my first horseback ride, in Garden of the Gods in Colorado.

Here I will slightly digress. When I was a kid, my two sisters were horsie girls. They loved horses. our family went through three horses with them. (I'm counting Misty, the little shetland pony) I just totally wasn't interested. The only aspect of the whole thing that I enjoyed was my older sister's plastic horse collection. And that was because the Barbies could ride them. I will give her credit though, she tried to convert me. I was intrigued by her book "The Black Stallion." She wouldn't let me read it until she had given me a couple lessons on horse tack and the parts of the horse. I still know what withers and chestnuts are. And somehow, I ended up on the horse going down the drive once or twice. But it is fuzzy and I'm sure wasn't under my control.

I'm visiting my sister in Woodland Park, near Colorado Springs which is a short drive to Garden of the Gods. We set up a one hour ride Saturday with the Academy Riding Stables there at the park. I made darn sure they knew I hadn't ridden before so they would give me the easiest beast there. The picture they took was in front of Rattlesnake Rock. This big fella's name is Justin and he is a Morgan. Yes, my legs felt a little rubbery when I got off, but recovered nicely. It's funny that today, Tuesday, is when I am feeling a lot of pull in my thighs! (As in, hard to get up off the sofa)

That same day, we toured the Molly Kathleen Mine in Cripple Creek, Colorado. The shaft goes down 1,000 feet. Here is the apparatus that takes the little cage down.


Only my sister and I were on that tour. They only use real miners for guides, so this guy knew his stuff and could answer every question.



I didn't have any claustrophobic moments, but as I looked through the mesh floor of the cage as it dropped and saw the 40 feet of water that lay below the bottom level where we were to get off, I mentioned to the guide that this encompassed 2 of my fears: of deep water and heights.

It snowed that night. Many people might say, "So what?" But to me and those of us from the Central Valley in California, snow is something you drive up to the mountains to see, and then drive back home again. But this was happening... right outside THE FRONT DOOR!


Last night we drove over to Pueblo, Colorado for the state finals high school marching band competition. My niece plays clarinet in the Woodland Park band, which was in the competition. My sister and I drove over, her dad came over from work, and her grandparents drove down to see her compete. So I got a great family picture for them!



It must have been youth and adrenaline that enabled the various color guard flag twirlers to function in their wispy, sleeveless little outfits. It was cold! I kept expecting ice to crunch under my feet, but the mud was soft. I could have sworn it was about 29 degrees, but the thermometer stubbornly insisted it was above freezing all day and evening.

Stay tuned! More to come in the next few days!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meals Gone Wrong

Yes, I guess I’m a pretty darn good cook. Maybe not always gourmet, but I have my ways.

I started at a young age with mudpies and graduated to kitchen cupboard ingredients. My first real cooking project was a cocoa devil’s food cake from an old Gold Medal Flour cookbook at the age of about 8 or 9. It turned out great, even though I had to use Nestles Quik instead of real cocoa, since at our house we didn’t even know what real cocoa was like. Experience and Mrs. Diaz’s homemaking class have been the best teachers in my life. But I’ve had my share of meals gone wrong. Let’s explore three of them, shall we?

The Shish Kebob:
We’d only been married a year or so. For some ungodly reason I had allowed myself to agree to a dinner invitation at my house for my husband’s co-workers and boss. I decided something elegant would be shish kebob, like my mother-in-law made sometimes. I fixed the little creatures up on bamboo sticks, not knowing you are supposed to soak them first. I had my little portable barbeque on the deck, while the crowd was in the house, socializing. The briquettes were ready. I laid them on the fire. Drip drip. Flare flare. FLARE! FLARE! FLAME! Yikes!! Moving them around didn’t do any good, the bbq was too small. Things were getting sooty. I thought I had heard that people would spritz the coals with water to cool them down. I had some drinking water. All I could think of was to put out the flame; not that splashing water on it would put out the coals. Oops. Well, some of the coals were still hottish. Dinner was already late. Bad news, the meat was still pretty undone. Good news, everything was black enough, you couldn’t tell. So I pronounced that dinner was served. I don’t think they noticed.

The Ham Dinner:
Ham has always been my favorite meat. We would usually have a nice big ham half for holiday dinners. A nice fatty rind that would baste the meat as it slow-cooked, its pink smokiness tenderly yielding to the carving knife. I had this vision in mind when I was asked to plan a dinner for my husband’s and his family’s Masonic lodge. I put the order in to the local meat shop for enough ham for about 50 to 60 people. I remember that I had powdered mashed potatoes planned and that I was going to make gravy from the ham drippings – don’t ask me what I was thinking, remember, I didn’t have that much experience yet. It sounded like a good idea. The afternoon came and I was down at the hall waiting for the person who was bringing me the ham. She handed me the white paper-wrapped packages and I opened them I saw… ham lunchmeat. That’s what it looked like to me. Shaped and formed rectangles of sliced ham tied with string into three inch thick packages with heating instructions. No juicy drippings, no tenderness, just thin flat pink squares. There was nothing much I could do about it. I heated them up and served them. I ran to the store and bought enough envelopes of instant gravy mix to go on the potatoes. What a boring meal! I was mortified.

The Cornish Game Hens:
For approximately 10 years following when I served 2 cute little Cornish game hens for dinner one night, but husband would not let me utter the words “Cornish game hens” in his presence. You must know, I understood and practiced good sanitation in the kitchen, especially with raw poultry. I didn’t cross-contaminate, I washed everything properly, I cooked the hens till they were thoroughly done. But I guess in the real world, anything could happen. And, while I remained perfectly healthy, my husband didn’t. In a very noisy way. All night. You might can imagine. Then again, maybe not. I guess that Liquid Smoke flavoring I basted them with began to pall after a few hours. Anyway, after he was properly recovered, he whispered, “Don’t even say C…ish G… H…ns ever again.” After all this time, I can now say it, but I still can’t cook them for him.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm SAD, you're SAD, we're all SAD, Hee hee Hah ha Aaaaaaayeee!

By now, I expect most people have heard of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. When I first read about it, I had an “Ah Ha!” moment. I had been confused as to why the dark days of winter seemed to cause lethargy and a certain “down” feeling. The reduction in light entering the brain from the shortening of days, the overcast skies, fog and rain causes chemical changes in the brain. So now I don’t have to slink around guiltily while turning on lights; it’s my mental health prescription! I have lamps strategically placed in every dark corner. If something seems too dim, I yank out the 60 watt and replace it with 100 watts. My faves are the 200 watts.

At first I was all in favor of the new twirly energy saving bulbs. My reason was that now I could have a virtual 100 watts in outlets only rated for 60. But gradually, the wicked truth of these bulbs emerged. When it’s cold and dark, the time when you really need that blast of light, they have to warm up. I stagger into the kitchen at 6 AM and turn on the spots over the sink. Two anemic little eyes glow balefully back at me as I stare at them hatefully. Over the course of about 5 minutes, they come to something near their official lumens. When my husband comes into the bathroom he never fails to make the comment, “Time to light the torches!” as he flicks on the light bar over the counter. So I just leave them on most of the time. I have a fear that someday I’ll look for some nice warm incandescents and they just won’t be in the stores. So I’m starting to hoard them when I find them cheap.

Another curious prescription for this malady is food. Yes, food. But not just any food. You need foods that are all those things you don’t normally eat when you are trying to lose weight, to eat healthily, to exhibit self-control, etc. And this brings me to the day before yesterday…

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was a dark and stormy day. The first big fall storm here in California, remnants of a typhoon somewhere else on the globe. It hit with a blast, but I was prepared with good plans. I was going to roll my coin stash while watching an action video. I had every light on the house on. I gave myself permission to open my husband’s big bag of M&Ms and filch a little cup of them. I had a couple of good books scattered around for later. Then, disaster. The power went off at 11:30 AM. And stayed off. It was dark and windy outside. It was dark and gloomy inside.

When I went to pick up my son at school, I suggested we pick up something for dinner, since the range is electric. He didn’t hesitate: Winco fried chicken. Deep fried. And potato wedges, seasoned and deep fried. I felt like an addict relapsing as I threw things in the cart. A replacement bag of M&Ms, since the other one was almost gone by now, and the worst of all, I kid you not, a box of Ho Ho’s. What was I thinking? I was not thinking, I was medicating.

When I was a kid, Ho Ho’s were my absolute favorite of the snack cakes. I loved how convoluted and complicated they were. Ding Dongs came out at the same time, but I disdained them. Simple little slugs of chocolate cake with a splat of crème and dipped in chocolate coating. But Ho Ho’s, they were thin little square cake-lettes spread with crème and then artfully rolled up and dipped in chocolate coating. You could dismantle them with your fingers and mouth, eating the component parts. The flavor was rich and chocolaty and sweet.

It had been a long, long time. After my son and I watched a DVD on my laptop plugged into my travel trailer, ate the fried meal, came back into the dark house and lit candles and oil lanterns, we dived into the box of Ho Ho’s. Contents: 12 rolls. 6 apiece. Would it be enough? But a funny thing happened. They didn’t taste as good as I remembered. They were sort of bland. It wasn’t as fun to unroll them and lick the crème off. Where was the rich chocolaty taste? Where were the good feeling tones? I should have gotten Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t know how many I ate, but I gave the last two to my son.

So the good and the bad. There’s one less medication to help me on the dark days of winter. But, I won’t be tempted when I push the cart past the tower of Ho Ho’s that has been next to the eggs for the past 3 weeks. Now I’m wondering though. Would this be the same case for those wonderful little cupcakes with the white swirly across the top? And the Twinkies? Should I mess with memory and see if they are still good, or use this chance to find out they are not and remove the temptation?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cooking for the 3rd (Warning! Probably Tedious)

Unless you know me, Civil War Reenacting, and our unit cooking, you are highly likely to find this post tedious. But just in case certain people are interested, and just in case I forget how it all went and need to go back and look, I am going to spell out the weekend’s worth of cooking for the 3rd US Artillery at Kearny Park Fresno Reenactment.

This was the last of my 3 major cooking episodes for this event year for the California Historical Artillery Society. My roster showed that I had about 17 for dinner on Friday, and anywhere from 25 to 30 for the remainder of the meals. It turned out that there were only about 13 on Friday and 28 to 32 for the rest of the meals.

Friday night:
We arrived around 4pm. Good Ol’ M.J., J.B., and William had just set up the cook tent and were contemplating the next step- the fly, when we drove up with the forge and my huge pile of stuff. I was HAPPY the tent was up, as that isn’t always the case. I had planned on Chili Beans, salad (a constant at the meals) apple pie (already made) and cornbread in a dutch oven.
The beans: I don’t care as much for chili powder as I do paste made from whole chilis, (pasillas) so I had made up a jar of that. I opened cans of pintos and kidney beans, added canned crushed tomatoes, lots and lots of ground beef (ground from cross rib roasts on sale. I can’t stand to use the pre-ground stuff) and cumin, garlic, oregano, lemon juice. They were good.
The cornbread: Didn’t happen. Of course no one built a fire until way too late for that. I had to use the French bread for the following night instead.
The pie: I have to admit, it was about the best I’ve made. Braeburns and Golden Delicious, about 2 to 1. A pinch of cloves, lots of cinnamon. A big splash of orange juice, mostly brown sugar, some white.
Notes to self: Never ever plan on cooking anything over the fire the first night. Start the food before you think you should. I had to hustle to get the beans done in time. It’s not nice to still be cooking after dark!

Saturday breakfast:
The horror of this was that the First Sgt called for breakfast to be a 7 am! That was actually reveille! But officer’s call was at 8 am. Food was done just after 7:30, and they still made officers call.
The bacon: Oh it was lovely! Thick and meaty. I pointed to the stack of bacon in the meat case I wanted, but when my back was turned, the clerk started pulling it from the back where it was more fatty. I noticed and politely reminded her that I wanted the other. I got 6 pounds. As I cooked it over the propane, I kept it warm in a dutch oven over the fire.
The eggs: One flat. One flat just exactly fits in the big cast iron skillet along with a huge lake of bacon grease. Yum!
The fruit: Cantaloupe and grapes. The melon was the sweetest I’d ever tasted.
The oatmeal: I cooked it an hour ahead and it stayed hot until time to eat, giving me more time for the other stuff. It amazes me how many people like oatmeal! Served with sides of raw washed sugar, raisins and pecans.
Other stuff: Although burrito sized tortillas would hold everything better, I bought the soft taco size. They are MUCH cheaper, and people don’t want that much bread anyway. I surreptitiously watched the captain try to roll up his portion in it until he finally gave up and used a fork. Cheese and salsas to dress it all.
Notes to self: When making a huge batch of oatmeal, add extra water or it is too too thick, and stop cooking it just this side of mushy, since it gets more mushy.

Saturday Noon:
The battle times were strange, so lunch wasn’t until about 2pm. So I set out apples and donated cookies and spice cake for snacks. Also, there are ALWAYS goobers available!
The lunchmeat: I had wonderful quality smoked turkey and Italian roast beef. Tillamook cheddar and swiss cheese.
The Bread: A disappointment. The little sandwich buns were a little too small and dried out quick. They only looked big in the store because of my new glasses, I realize now. But I did get two packages of whole grain little sandwich flatbreads which were very popular. If they had had more on the shelf, I would have gotten them. I also put in the leftover tortillas into the bread basket.
The salad: (yawn) iceberg mix.
More fruit: sliced peaches. apples.
The Macaroni salad: Made at home the day before. Yes, I followed directions for the portions, but made far too much. But noodles are cheap, so I didn’t mind. I had to flavor it up with lemon juice, as it always gets bland after is sets awhile.
The Cookies: Today’s cookies were the molasses crinkles. Hugely popular. What works very well is to make them (2 batches), cook them, and then freeze them in Ziploc freezer bags until the event.
The Special Beverage: I had brought a 2 liter bottle of my homemade ginger ale. While the troops were finishing their lunch, I wrapped a towel around the plastic bottle, hung a bunch of blue willow cups on my fingers, and walked it around, offering samples. I strained it through a little sieve. The best compliment was from one of the guys who said, “This ginger ale kicks @ss!”
Notes to self: Walmart has the best little sandwich buns. Food Maxx has the best produce and fruit. Winco has the best price/quality lunchmeat and cheese.

Saturday Night
The stew: Blanded up on me! Not bad, but not wonderful either. So that irritates me. I’d made it at home. I notice how many people pour off the juice to get the meat. I may quit with the homemade stew…
The cornbread: So it was cornbread instead of French bread, since I used that for the chili beans. It turned out very nice, only a little over done on some of the bottom. I made 2 big dutch ovens of it. The hard part was cooking it over wood coals instead of briquettes. Makes it more magic than science getting it right. It was very popular.
The rice: Which I forgot to cook, so we didn’t have any.
Salad: (yawn)
The dessert: Ahhh… I had made my old favorite. Lemon pound cake. It is a wonderful, rich cake. I made raspberry sauce and whipped cream to spoon over it.
Notes to self: I’m tempted to make the cornbread up ahead and just heat it up, but it is SO good, fresh out of the dutch oven.

Sunday morning:
The Ham: This is definitely the way to go. Bacon on Saturday, ham on Sunday. A real ham, not those wimpy deli things, or the dry spiral ones. Baked ahead of time, sliced, foil wrapped, and heated in a dutch oven over the fire.
Everything else: The same as Saturday. Except variations in the fruit, like honeydew melon.
The pineapple upside down cake: Didn’t happen. There was the other pound cake that didn’t get cut into, so I served that with the raspberry sauce I still had lots of.
Notes to self: The ham takes longer than you’d think to heat, so get it in early! You should know by now!

Sunday lunch:
Same as Saturday, but with the addition of potato chips
The cookies: Sugar cookies this time, the “One Half” recipe. I call it that because almost all the ingredients are one half of something.

Other stuff:
Coffee. The previous cook handed down his method, which works like a charm and you don’t end up with the over-cooked sludge in the bottom. Boil water in big coffee pot. Measure out grounds in tin dough riser. Pour boiling water over them. Wait 6 minutes. Set coffee strainer in sieve and place in pot. Pour coffee through them until the grounds start to come out. Keep warm on edge of fire.
Lemonade. I just can’t bring myself to use CountryTime. But we had to on Sunday because I ran out.

And that’s it. I’ve been asked to be provisioner for next year, and have accepted. But I want more free time, so I’ll be compromising with canned things and pre-made things more than I did this year. But I’ll make up for it with the molasses cookies!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Calling Up a Bluegrass Festival

Kiwis, orange sherbet, and Earl Grey Tea, what do these have in common? When I was a couple months pregnant with my son, I had the usual malady—morning sickness. It’s the kind of icky sensation where you feel like there would be some sort of flavor, some kind of tang, some type of tart food that would make it all better. I’m positive that is where the “pregnant women craving pickles” idea came from. Along with kiwis, orange sherbet, and Early Gray Tea, I tried pickled cauliflower mix, pickled wax peppers, lemonade, and Sprite. The pitiful thing is, none of it really works. The one thing that did come out of it was that I cannot eat kiwis, orange sherbet, or Early Grey Tea without feeling a little queasiness. Science knows that aromas (and flavors are mostly aromas) bypass the common sense part of your brain, hitting the expressway straight to the emotions. That’s why a particular perfume can jerk you back to an old romance, a pungent cooking smell to a childhood experience. We let this happen to us by accident all the time. Pumpkin pie just usually happens to be baked at the holidays. A whiff of it baking can make us feel the warm glow of Thanksgiving or Christmas. Smell some wood chips burning and you may instantly be transported to camping trips. Just a taste of Jolly Rancher Watermelon Stix and I’m back in high school hanging out with my friends.Last week, while getting ready for the Bluegrass Festival at Plymouth, CA, I was thinking on the feeling tones of aroma and flavor. What a great thing it would be to purposefully introduce a food that I could associate with a Bluegrass Festival later on! This unknown food item would unlock all those great feelings of being around friends, jamming all night, meeting new people, hearing great music. All I had to do was come up with just the right food.The biggest considerations: it couldn’t be something I already made on a frequent basis, it couldn’t be connected with something else, and it had to be really good.To understand my first attempt at this, you have to understand how much I love cinnamon rolls. I love the big fluffy yeast ones, with dripping cinnamon sauce and drizzled white glaze. I love the crispy-edged ones my mother used to make from sweet biscuit dough on Sunday mornings. I even like the canned ones, but have rarely made them. So I assigned canned cinnamon rolls to be my festival psyco-food. No oven? No problem! Even better, since cooking them in an oven is common, would be to fry them in butter. My daughter was my accomplice. This is the same daughter who, in our desperation for a dessert at the Old Time Campout, helped me create the birdseed-trail mix- applesauce late-night goody. We both like to eat healthfully, so we carefully avoided reading the list of ingredients on the tube of cinnamon rolls. At least butter has only one ingredient—butter. I heated up a cast iron skillet and melted a pool of butter. I peeled off each poof of spiced dough and dropped it in. As they sizzled and browned, I knew I’d made a mistake. They were so thick, they would take awhile to cook, but the dough was so sweet and light, they were browning out of control. For the next 10 minutes, I kept trying to turn down the flame, lift the skillet up and down as a sort of thermostat, turn the rolls from side to side and edge to edge to edge so they would be a uniform shade of black, all the while dropping pats of butter in the pan to keep them from marrying the bottom of the skillet. Melinda was my tester, since I was too busy juggling with both hands. Finally she pronounced them “not too doughy.” We each had 4 apiece, dunking them in the little plastic cup of glaze included in the tube. Surprisingly, they weren’t too bad. That is, until we had each eaten all 4 of our portion. The most common sentence heard in our camp for the next 2 hours was, “I’m REALLY full!” So now I fear that a tube of cinnamon rolls is going to be something that reminds me of buttery gluttony instead of a Bluegrass Festival. But I have another chance. Hobbs Grove Bluegrass Festival is going on this weekend, and I am anxious to see how my next experiment works with Calling Up a Bluegrass Festival.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Secret Snacks (or Dog Food Eaters Anonymous)

“Hello, my name is Carolyn, and I used to eat dogfood.”

How many others of us are out there? I think we’ll never know because of the stigma, the horrible adult realization of what you were actually eating when popping kibbles. Sometimes it just makes us want to forget.

We all had our preferences. I tended towards the canned, my older sister always had a pocket full of dry nuggets. Personally, I found those to be too gritty and dry. We always had dogs around the place, and I don’t remember specific brand loyalty when buying the dogfood. Knowing us, it was probably the cheapest. The only brand of canned I recall is Skippy. Such a cute name! Skippy; if I’d have thought about it, I would have tried to name one of our dogs Skippy. The whole process of preparing the food is a three-dimensional memory. I can feel the weight of the can as I twist and twist the little can opener until the lid is free. The lovely meaty aroma begins to escape. Then I turn it over carefully, holding the loose lid in place with my finger and open the other end too. Turning it over the dog dish, I then get to do the fun part. Kkshuuush! I push on one lid and the can-shaped mass slides out intact into the bowl, like a cylindrical Jello mold. Only brown. Little white dots speckled the creamy “meat,” and I could never figure out what they were, but now I tell myself that it was probably rice.

Some of the kids snuck big slabs to munch on, but I contented myself with a bit here and there. After all, it was the dog’s rightful meal!

I still remember giving my mother the best complement I could think of on her cooking. “This meatloaf is great! It’s almost as good as dogfood!”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You Say “Keen-Wah”

At least, that’s what my niece told me when she introduced me to quinoa. It is a charming little grain that hails from South America, and it was brand-new to me. It is intriguing and worth trying because it has more high-quality protein in it than the rest of the grains. And it looks so innocent! Little white round beads that pour like silk into the jar.

I didn’t have a real recipe, so I treated it like rice, except used less water, 1 part quinoa to 1 ½ parts water.

Now if you try this, the first thing you are going to notice while it is cooking is the smell. Not nice. Not even sort of grainy. Just sort of “ugh.” Perhaps that is because it isn’t a “true” grain, but more closely related to beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. It reminded me, just a little, of the other thing I have cooked that made a bad smell. And I mean a REALLY bad smell. And that is … tripe.

I made menudo from scratch some years ago. We usually bought the canned stuff, but I figured I could do a better job. So I found a likely recipe and assembled the ingredients. Hominy, chili powder, oregano, lemon juice, some other stuff, and the biggie, tripe. Otherwise known as calf stomachs. In blissful innocence I cut up the tripe and put it on to boil. Warning, it may taste good in the end, but don’t plan on having people over who you are trying to impress on the day you cook it.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take hours to cook quinoa, only about 10 minutes. There was still water in the pan, so I took off the lid and cooked it a few more minutes to evaporate it. The off-putting smell is gone by then. But, to the uninitiated, there is one more disturbing detail about the grain. Have you ever seen frog eggs?

When I think of frog eggs, I think back on when I was a kid along with my 2 sisters and brother. We lived in the country, and were “babysat” by the neighbor up the road who had a boy 4 years older than my oldest sister. He was sort of like Tom Sawyer, and I think he was tickled about having 4 little kids as accomplices in his adventures. This particular time was a very wet spring. Their cow pasture was flooded at least a foot deep. “Tom” took an old gate-type door and made a raft out of it. All day he poled us around the strange new swamp, collecting buckets of frog eggs. I can see him, arms buried to the elbows in stringy frog eggs as he lifted and stirred the mass that was in the conveniently located outdoor sink his mother used to wash her garden vegetables. (He got in trouble for that too.)

The quinoa in the pot now looks like albino frog eggs, but without the slime. The starchy part has become translucent, and the germ shows a little curled thing wrapping up the side of the grain. Ideally, you have cooked it just enough to not be crunchy, but not be mushy.

Quinoa is very flexible. I scooped out some and made a salad. I added some fire roasted red pepper (from a jar), some kalamata olives, marinated mozzarella, oregano, lemon juice, and olive oil. Very tasty! I may do a stir fry with the rest, or even try it with cinnamon and honey for breakfast.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Tasting in Napa

Oh how quickly the lowly have risen! I, who was once content with a bottle of $2.95 Foxbrook Cabernet, am now elevated to appreciating Fine Wines enough to not flinch when forking out the money to get a bottle. I am not sure if that is a good thing.

I had a system. Open the bottle while cooking. Pour a glass to sip on. Splash a little in the food. Pour another half glass to drink with the meal. Next day or so, pour a goodly amount in the beef roast or beef stew, have a short glass. Some days later, mix what is left with 2 parts orange juice blend over ice for a pleasant beverage. But with the $34.95 bottle of Fenestra Cab, we savored every sip. I even saved the last inch and a half to share with my daughter the next day. But I wasn't sure I saw that all happening again.

Last weekend, we visited with my sister and brother-in-law who live in Napa, California. And I don't think it takes a highly intelligent person to know where you go for a field trip in Napa. Wine Tasting! G. and V., being members of these wineries and on first name basis with many of the folks behind the counters, were escorted to the special room. Trying to act nonchalant, my husband and I trailed along with them.

The whites were great; the reds were fantastic. The other three in our party had driving to do and places to go, so they were utilizing the artsy clay jugs at each side to tip out the rest of the taste. Me? I wasn't going to be operating any heavy machinery or try to impress anyone, so I just enjoyed it all. I did find myself wondering what kind of a house wine the clay jugs contained at the end of the day.

There were several "Wow!" reds that I didn't bother to remember the names of, because even though I'd been softened up by drinking a bottle of $34.95 wine, that didn't extend to $80 a bottle wines. The most amazing taste at the first winery, Pine Brook, was the last. Rich, smooth and buttery, with all those flavor descriptions people learn how to do after they get more of a wine education. Of course, it was a cabernet savignon. $140 a bottle. It's a good thing I was getting a little relaxed, or I would have been calculating the cost of each sip.

We did end up buying a bottle of 2005 Cabernet from Rutherford Hill Winery. I remember at the end of the tasting, my husband putting 2 glasses in front of me: "This, or this?" I was like being at the optometrist where they spin the lens dial in front of your eyes while you are looking at the chart. "Is this better? Or this?" And they are so close, you can't really tell, so you keep having him repeat the operation. So I said something like, "Well, this one is more mellow and this one is more exciting." And he made some sort of decision based on that, apparently, because we ended up carrying out a wine bag.

I'm not giving up my Foxbrook, or the wine-in-a-box yet. There will never come a day when I'll splash a little of these goods in my cook pot, and not every wine glass is a worthy celebration. But I do enjoy having this in the cupboard waiting for that special time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fine Wine is Better than Cheap Wine

Really, it is. And I know that by experience now.

I have been accused of being cheap. But I prefer the word "thrifty." Though I try not to sacrifice quality, I see no reason to pay more than I have to. I'm not very knowledgeable about wines, but I do know a little bit.
Cheap Sauvignon Blanc is undrinkable.
Cheap White Zinfandel is either too sweet or too sour.
There is not a whole lot of difference between cheap Merlot and less cheap Merlot.
You can get a well-made cheap Cabernet S. that tastes about the same as a lot of less cheap Cabs.
If you don't want to pay a lot, you can't afford to be snooty about screw-off lids.
Inexpensive wine-in-a-box is usually decent, but never surprisingly good.
Less cheap Chardonnay is always better than cheap Chardonnay.
If you ever get stuck with undrinkable white, you can always make wine coolers.
If you ever get stuck with undrinkable red, you can always make Sangria or beef stew.

A few weeks ago we went wine-tasting with some friends at Fenestra winery in Livermore. We must have sampled two dozen wines, white, red, and dessert. It was fun to compare them and decide which ones seemed better. Then... I tried a Cabernet that left me speechless. It was dark, rich, smoky, smooooth, complex, interesting from start to finish. I made the mistake of raving about it before I checked the price. $34.95 a bottle. Gulp. My husband would not obey me and went over and bought me a bottle.

Did I mention that I've never spent over $10 for a bottle of wine? My rate schedule is Cheap- $2 to $5, Less Cheap- $5 to $7. Expensive- $10.

I took it home and saved it for something special.

Something special came up when it came time for my daughter to move to the university where she was transferring. It didn't really matter whether we were celebrating her brave new adventure or the fact that now I could finally have my own office/sewing room. (you guess) So I bought things for a special celebratory meal for my husband and I; lamb chops, spring salad mix, Gouda cheese wheel, and rice pilaf. I set out the special wine with 2 thin crystal wine goblets. I was secretly afraid that I had misrembered the incredible flavor of the wine, but I need not have worried. It was excellent. It was gorgeous.

I divided $35 by $3 (the current price of Foxbrook, my favorite Cheap Cabernet) to get 11 and a half. I think that it is possible that I could consider not buying 11 and a half bottles of Foxbrook, holding out for one bottle of very good wine.

I think I will have to add that to my list of known facts about wine.

"Fine Wine really is better than Ceap Wine."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oatmeal

We had oatmeal for breakfast this morning. My husband is more into the “egg wrap burrito” type thing, but this morning he asked for oatmeal.
I keep the oatmeal, dispensed from the bulk food bin at the grocers, in a large glass pickle jar. To my dismay, there were only traces of rolled oats left. Apparently, while I was away for the weekend, my son and husband had eaten up the easy food, i.e. leftovers and oatmeal, both of them being easily whipped up in the microwave. This shortage left me no choice; I had to go for the big guns now. I reached to the back of the grains ‘n stuff drawer and pulled out –the Steel Cut Oats. This was a job for the Stove Burner. So I measured them into a pot, set it to simmering and got busy waiting for them to get done. Since that takes at least ten minutes, I got to thinking about oats.

I’ve done a little research on various foods. Being a Civil War reenactor, I wouldn’t want to present to the public eating the wrong thing. Cold breakfast cereals were way later than 1863, so that leaves the porridges. “Farina” was common (think Cream of Wheat) but seemed to make its way to the invalid room often. Oatmeal was regarded as food for children. Personally, it all came down to which was easier to clean up from a cook pot without a sink and hot running water. Oats won, but barely. Gummy and sticky, yes, but at least not gritty.

It’s ironic that, as a child my son wouldn’t touch oatmeal. Now that he’s 16, he likes it. We have a rule that everyone cleans out the gummy and sticky in their bowl before they put it in the dishwasher, since no one has been able to formulate a detergent to dissolve it completely.

We didn’t eat oatmeal as kids (unless you counted Quakers Original Oatmeal Cookies); we ate Wheat Hearts, with honey and raisins. The first time I was face to face with a bowl of oatmeal was in the 6th grade Science and Conservation Camp.

There were about 7 of us campers plus one counselor at each table. Campers took turns bringing the platters and bowls of food to their tables. Bacon, eggs, potatoes, milk. All those nice kid-friendly breakfast foods. But always there was the big white ceramic bowl full of oatmeal. It was stiff, and mounded in peaks. Its lumpy texture had a purplish-gray cast to it. The handle of a big steel serving spoon rose up from the middle. No one ever had any. That is, except the counselor. He made encouraging noises about it that you might expect from the wicked queen trying to talk Snow White into taking the apple.

If you don’t cook steel cut oats long enough, they are quite hard and crunchy. (see previous post about cooking birdseed) The best ones I ever had were at a friend’s slumber party (yes, grown women still have slumber parties!). She had put them in a crock pot with a little milk and let them cook all night long. Creamy! She had the right idea for dealing with gummy and sticky, she used a crock pot liner.

Finally, these oats are done. I like mine this way: Stir in raisins when they are just done. Sprinkle chopped toasted almonds evenly. Pour some cold milk over the top. Spoon it up so that each spoonful gets some of the cold milk and some of the hot oats. My husband likes a dollop of honey and a slab of butter. He says it helps grease them on the way down. I guess he is dealing with gummy and sticky in his own way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Brilliant Idea

At the time, it seemed like a brilliant idea. I was packing up for the Golden Old Time Jam and Campout in Boonville, and I was filling up my food tub. If I didn’t bring any goodies, if I didn’t even bring sugar or honey to make up something, then no matter how tempted I was, I wouldn’t eat those things that make one fat. Smugly, I packed cans of beans and olives, tuna fish, corn tortillas and olive oil, and two kinds of cheese. I brought milk and Grape-Nuts and walnuts. Mayonnaise and beer. Seasoned quinoa grains. And a mystery can from the scratch-and-dent cart that I thought might be mandarin oranges.

I arrived Friday at noon, after a long drive. Any time I felt hungry, I just heated up the griddle, threw a tortilla on it and arranged different ingredients from the ice chest on it. Everything was lovely. The fairgrounds filled up with Volkswagon vans, pop-up canopies, tents, and Priuses. As soon as people arrived, they got right down to business- the business of playing Old-Time music. It seemed the only thing that suspended the playing momentarily was when friends would put out the spread and have potluck. I had a few offers, but I was really enjoying my tortillas.

Saturday morning, my daughter Melinda arrived. Like-minded, in both food and music, we enjoyed the day together in perfect harmony. We had a lovely little jam, tucked back behind my truck, until my fingers started to give out and it grew a little chilly. Melinda and I kicked back then, enjoying the night, listening to the music. A few minutes passed. Then I had to say it.

“I want something sweet.”
“So do I,” she said. “Did you bring anything?”
“No.”
“Neither did I.”

We pondered this calamity in silence for a few minutes. We already knew it was no use walking to the little store uptown—we’d tried that for ice earlier and they’d already closed.

“What have you got?” I asked.
“I have some trail mix. It has a few chocolate chips in it.”

Well, that was good news. Chocolate is always good news.

“Is that it?”
“I have some cinnamon too. We could make oatmeal and sprinkle the cinnamon and trail mix over.”

Then I remembered a half jar of home-made applesauce I’d thrown in the ice chest. All together, this sounded like it might work. Desperation can make many solutions sound rational.

“Oh Oh! I have some millet! Let’s use that instead of oatmeal!”
Now, I didn’t really know what millet was; I’d never eaten it. We were unsure of how long to cook it, so we hovered over the little bubbling pot, periodically testing the little round seeds. The first few grains I tasted brought a memory rushing back. I was a little kid again, playing in one of my grandfather’s big parakeet cages. He raised them to sell. We loved to play in the ones that had been emptied to clean because the seeds on the floor came up past our ankles, and we could dig around in them looking for lost parakeet eggs. I loved that grainy aroma. And now I realized it—I was eating bird seed.

Bird seed apparently takes a long time to cook. 10 minutes went by, and my standards were lowering by the second. Finally, although the seeds were still a little hard, we decided they were done enough and made our desserts. Melinda stirred in the cinnamon, we spooned it into Dixie cups and topped it with trail mix and applesauce. We crunched without speaking for a few minutes.

“With the applesauce, it’s sort of like apple pie,” she bravely said.
“Mmm. Sort of. I guess.”

Each of the 3 chocolate chips in my portion was a bright star in the middle of my harvest cup. It looked like something a schoolchild would make for a “Christmas Present for the Birds.” I ate until all that was left in the cup was millet. At least I didn’t crave anything sweet anymore.

Next morning, buying ice at the little market, we noticed the fudge display. We stopped. In an out-of-body experience, I heard myself ordering a quarter pound of chocolate praline fudge. I decided it was fate when the clerk misunderstood and boxed us up a half pound. It was delicious and probably the only thing that could have settled the bird seed.