Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas, The Most Delicious Time of the Year!

Holidays are always good for spending a few extra hours in the kitchen, and spending them cheerfully to create those wonderful, special dishes that we cannot justify the costs of, the calories in, or the time spent in creating and eating them during the rest of the year. Nay! You’ll be a Scrooge if you turn down that second piece of pumpkin cheesecake that comes around; you’ll be a Grinch if you don’t set out something warming for the frost-nipped guests. And besides, isn’t that what New Year’s Resolutions are for, to try to mitigate Christmas Feasts?

I thought it would be fun to go through some popular Christmas songs that mention feast foods and find out more about these treats. I was quite surprised at how few turned up, but doing the research on the songs that did specify a feast food got me all fired up to do some experimenting and some sampling. Let’s start…

Egg Nog
I’m sort of fond of egg nog. That is, I do like custard, and I do enjoy rum in appropriate circumstances. It just always seems a little too… well, too sweet, or too thick, or too rummy, or not rummy enough. I think if I had just the right recipe, it might work for me. The song that validates egg nog’s place in my list is that beloved hymn “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”

“She’d been drinkin’ too much egg nog
And we’d begged her not to go
But she’d left her medication
So she stumbled out the door into the snow.”

Two different stories tell how “egg nog” was named; that the small carved wooden mug used to serve alcohol, a “noggin,” lent its name to the drink; and that it was derived from “egg and grog,” a common Colonial term for the drink, eventually shortened to “egg’n’grog,” then “eggnog.” The ingredients were expensive in England; without refrigeration, milk was a rare drink, and those who could get milk and eggs to make egg nog mixed it with brandy, Madeira, or sherry. Then egg nog came to the English colonies during the 18th century, and that’s where the rum came in. Brandy and wine were heavily taxed, and rum from the Caribbean was a cost-effective substitute. Later, domestic whiskey, and bourbon in particular became a popular addition.

Now, for some of us, the icky part about traditional egg nog is not the milk, sugar or spices, and definitely not the spirits, but the raw eggs. Thankfully, the FDA, in its benevolent concern for our health has come to the rescue and changed the official definition of egg nog so that it no longer needs have any egg in it at all. In fact it needn’t have any milk in it either. Perhaps we should all just have a glass of spiced rum and call it “egg nog.”

Pumpkin Pie
From “Sleigh Ride”

‘There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie”

In my opinion, there are a lot of two-syllable pie species that can make me happier than pump-kin. Such as cher-ry, ap-ple, chok-lit, and pe-ach. It’s a vegetable, and I respect it for its carotene, but truthfully, it goes down easier with a big dollop of whipped cream. But lots of people find bliss there, so I guess we should ask, how long has it been around? Quite awhile. It was around in Colonial America, though baked in its own shell instead of in a pastry crust. In 1796 the first cookbook that developed recipes for foods native to America, by Amelia Simmons, was published. Her pumpkin pies were baked in a crust similar to present day pies. I like her brevity.

“Pompkin Pudding No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pumpkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.”

I can just imagine what she’s thinking; If you can’t take it from here, then you don’t deserve to wear an apron!

Figgy Pudding
Christmas puddings are just strange to Americans. It is hard for me to imagine why one would stir up a bowl of crumbs, animal fat, dried fruit, booze, and treacle (def: molasses, esp. that which is drained from the vats used in sugar refining. Gak! The dregs!), tie it up in a tea towel, boil or steam it for half a day, and call it a holiday treat. But nonetheless, we are admonished in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to:

“Bring us some figgy pudding…
We won’t go until we get some…
So bring it RIGHT NOW!”

According to Wikipedia, figgy pudding resembles something like a white Christmas pudding containing figs and blended with a custard. Along with treacle, one of the main ingredients is suet. Suet is a form of fat found near an animal’s kidneys. Anyone who would eat steak and kidney pie would also probably eat Figgy Pudding. Many traditional figgy pudding recipes also call for liqueurs such as cognac or rum. Since we are already having rum, also known as “egg nog,” then I vote for cognac. And let’s just call it good there.

Roasted Chestnuts.
Ooooh, they sound so good! I love nuts!

“Chestnuts roasting by the open fire…”

Of all the covers of “The Christmas Song,” I think Nat King Cole does it best.

So one Christmas, I decided my kids should experience chestnuts roasted by the open fire for part of their general education. I bought a little sack of them at the grocery store, and we slit little x’s on the top, so they would not go “Pop Pop Pop!” like another Christmas song. We did everything just like the instructions said and then, with great anticipation to see what the fuss was all about, peeled them and tried them. I was underwhelmed, and then finally my young daughter put a name to it.

“They taste like beans.” She was right.

So, if someone wants to prove it to me that they are worth trying again, feel free to offer me a small sample and I’ll try to be objective.

Sugar Plums
Technically, I couldn’t find a song with sugar plums, but since “The Night Before Christmas” (aka A Visit From St. Nicholas) has visions of them dancing in the little tyke’s heads, and “The Nutcracker Suite” features the Sugar Plum Fairy, every little budding ballerina’s dream role, I thought I could slip them in.

According to Wikipedia, sugar plums are dragees, a form of candy that can be used for decorative or symbolic purposes in addition to consumption. “Plum” doesn’t mean they had plums in them; at one time “plum” was used to denote any dried fruit.

Combine chopped, dried fruit, chopped almonds, honey and aromatic spices, such as anise, fennel, caraway and cardamom. Roll into balls and coat with sugar or coconut. And just because that seems a little strange to us, it doesn’t give you permission to buy plum-flavored, plum-shaped candies made by candy manufacturers marketed as “sugar plum candy.”

Now this one sounds quite capital! When I was a kid, we learned the English song “Here We Come a’Caroling” in choir. Later I found out it is really called “Here We Come a’Wassailing.”

“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green;
“Here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen…”

Wassail can be a salutation or toast to someone’s health or as an expression of goodwill at a festivity; it can be the drink used in such toasting, commonly spiced ale or wine; it can be a festivity characterized by much drinking. In Merry Old England, wassail made the holidays all the more festive, but many could simply not afford the cost of the ingredients. Apparently, carolers soon found out that if they went door to door singing, they were often invited in for a cup of hot wassail. So simply singing for its own reward gradually changed to “wassailing,” singing in anticipation of a nice shot.

Frankly, I’ve never been offered a cup of wassail for participating in a caroling session, but maybe those folks benefitting from our melodious chimes just didn’t know the rules. In any case, I’ve found a likely recipe I’m going to try, just in case some ambitious wassailers make it out this way.

And if they don’t, ah well, it’ll be a lovely cold winter’s night for me!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A New Brew in Yuba City!

There’s a new brew in town, boys and girls, and I’m proud to say that I enjoyed a pint of the very first day’s offering.

Sutter Buttes Brewing Company in Yuba City, CA had what they called a “soft opening” today. I’ve had my eye on the place ever since I heard that a new brewpub in Yuba City was actually getting ready to open. Getting a handcrafted ale from a local brewer is the best way to enjoy beer. But the Yuba-Sutter area has had, up till now, nothing to offer like that.

So I picked my daughter up from school and spirited her over the bridge to Center Street, just off Plumas to the attractive little storefront with the big street view windows and marked with the logo sign of Sutter Buttes Brewing. No one familiar with the area could miss the iconic Yuba City water tower highlighting the sign artwork. Standing just inside the door, a young woman in black greeted us. “Welcome!”

About ten wooden four-seater tables were arranged in the floor space, and a long bar filled with customers faced the gleaming stainless steel tanks along the wall. Several other black-clad staff were moving around behind the bar taking orders, figuring out the cash register, drawing beer and trying to answer questions.

On tap today was a bold Irish Red ale, the first Sutter Buttes-made beverage for sale. I inquired about any other beers available, and found a taster of pale ale in front of me on the copper-clad section of the low bar where I chose to sit. I found out that, to ensure more visitors could find something to their liking, they were carrying another brewery’s pale ale, “Bent Knife,” and a hard cider. But I was here to taste the local, so my daughter and I asked for a pint each of the red.

I was hoping enough to like it that I knew I would be very forgiving if it wasn’t quite up to my usual standards. But with great pleasure, I found that I didn’t have to make any excuses for this beer. It was excellent! Deep red, the flavor was as rich as the color, but hopped up enough to please any IPA fan. It had a good medium body, thirst quenching, but not thin. I also liked the level of carbonation. Nice and sparkly without being gassy. I took a long time over this pint; we ordered a plate of the fries to enjoy with the last half of the glass.
The final test for me is always in the last inch. As the ale warms and goes flat, does the flavor go flat also? That’s important to me, since I always linger over my drink. This one didn’t disappoint, I’m happy to say. If anything, the complexity of the brew became more pronounced and interesting as it warmed.

I’m looking forward to see what’s new as this business gets going into full swing. The fries were great, and if the rest of the food is like them, I’m sure I’ll be eating some meals there too. They serve lunch and dinner. The brewer told me they expect their growler program to be up and running in about a month and a half.

Of course, the hard part was coming home and telling my husband that we has gone and checked the place out without him. But I'm sure I’ll be bringing him with me when they get their IPA ready!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Candy Day

I’ve been thinking a lot about candy lately, more than I have in the last 11 months. I mean really, how can I not? I was at Wal-Mart this afternoon, and while hiking back and forth between the “food” section and the “other” section each time I remembered something I had forgotten to pick up, I noticed how the Halloween candy aisles were duplicated in both sections. The shelves were full of orange cardboard bins, each full of clear cellophane bags of individually wrapped candies. They were so beautiful! Shiny foil, colorful little boxes, pastel tablets, many with their familiar colors so you could tell just what kind they were from down the aisle. I had a lot of good times with candy when I was little. My grandma used to babysit us in the summer, and we would take our pennies and nickels across the road to Andy Goats store, a little hole-in-the-wall with a fully-stocked candy wall and buy pixie stix and root beer barrels. Halloween was very exciting because we got more candy at one time than ever before. We’d go up the country road near our house, knocking on doors, and then return with about half a lunch sack filled. Of course we’d dump them out and compare. The treasures were all the little mini chocolate bars. The boring ones were the peanut butter taffy wrapped in orange and black waxed paper.I’ve taken my kids trick or treating each year until, one by one, they aged out. The last year it came up, I just promised my kids I would buy them a bag of candy if they agreed to opt out. I expect a good part of the Halloween candy for sale is actually purchased to be set out in trick or treat bowls or for party dishes, but I will bet that most of it is bought for the family candy dish to snack on for the months leading up to that celebration of candy, Halloween night. My family has held off so far, but I do plan on setting us up with a few lovely bags for Halloween Weekend. In honor of the favorite candies in this household, I have looked up their origins and share them here. Since Peanut M&Ms are my husband’s favorite, I’ll start there.The founder of the Mars Company, Forrest Mars, got the idea in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War when he saw soldiers eating chocolate pellets with a hard shell of tempered chocolate surrounding the inside, preventing the candies from melting. Mars received a patent for his own process on March 3, 1941. One M was for Forrest E. Mars Sr., and one for William F. R. Murrie. Murrie was involved because he was the president of Hershey’s, who had control of the rationed chocolate. The first colors were red, yellow, brown, green, and violet. In 1950, a black "M" was imprinted on the candies, later changed to white. Peanut M&M's were introduced in 1954. The most interesting information on M&Ms has to do with the different colors they used over the years. Because when you get down to it, it’s just chocolate, a peanut, and a pretty coating.Snickers is also made by the Mars family, invented in 1930. It was named after their favorite horse, “Snickers.” (snicker snicker!) What’s interesting is that in the UK and Ireland it originally sold under the name Marathon. When they standardized the global brand and named it Snickers, the bar moved from being 9th most popular to 3rd most popular. In 2005 the Food and Drink Federation in the UK got all involved with trying to make the candy industry more health conscious and “encouraged” (ha ha) Mars to do away with their King-Sized bar. So now it doesn’t say King-Sized, but “shareable” and is in two pieces.I remember the very first time I had a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I was about 11 years old and riding with some neighbors. They stopped at Boa’s Minnow Farm and let us pick out a soda or candy. I got a Reese’s and was stunned at how tasty it was. I found out they were invented by Harry Reese in 1928, much longer ago than I’d thought, but after he died in 1963, Hershey’s bought the company. So that’s probably about the time I started seeing them advertised.I was quite surprised to find out about Pixy Stix. In fact, this is a two-for-oner. It used to be a drink mix in the late 30’s called Frutola, but when the owner found that kids were eating the powder straight, he changed the name to Fruzola and added a spoon. It was also packaged with a candy dipstick and called Lik-M-Aid (We used to wander the halls in high school dipping and licking those little sticks.) When parents complained about the grainy, sticky powder, the company came up with a compressed tablet form called… SweeTarts!Did you ever wonder why a 3 Musketeers bar is called that? Created in 1932, it originally had 3 pieces in one package, strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. Chocolate was the most popular, so they phased out the other flavors.Tootsie Rolls have been manufactured since 1896! It was the first penny candy to be individually wrapped. The founder named them after his daughter’s nickname, Clara "Tootsie" Hirshfield. The Tootsie Pop was invented in 1931. Tootsie Roll industries is one of the largest candy manufacturers in the world, and as of December 2009, Tootsies became certified Kosher.I’m really not sure what my very favorite candy is. My tastes have changed a little over the years, so I may have to start doing some taste-testing. And I’m thinking that the last week in October just might be the perfect time! What is your favorite? What is so special about it? Why is it better than all the rest out there? And Happy Candy Day to you!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pike's Peak, part 3

After our delicious breakfast of the special pancakes prepared by the staff of Barr Camp, we had a couple of hours free to look around the area before we needed to head back down the mountain.

We took off on a 1 mile side hike to a boulder outcropping that was supposed to give a terrific view. It was an easy, pretty hike. The weather had turned chilly over the night, spitting out pellets of snow, and we wore our cold-weather gear. The fork leading to the outcropping was clearly marked by a big arrow on the ground made of white quartz rocks.
There was quite a bit of the quartz. In areas, you could see that the rounded side of the mountain was all white quartz, thinly covered with a layer of dirt. The scattered white rocks and the mounds where dirt was washed away looked like half-melted snow on the ground.

At first it looked like our trail just disappeared into the pile of boulders. But once we started climbing on them, we could see each logical place to climb to next.
And when we reached the top, the view was glorious! I felt like I could see to the east clear to Kansas.

To the west, the mountain loomed. I think we were too close to see the actual peak from here, but what we could see was clearly above timberline and decorated with traces of snow.

Coming to this spot was important to me. We had not climbed to the top of the Peak, but we did climb to the peak of something, and we got the pleasure of looking down and out at the beautiful expanse below.

At 11AM we were ready to hike back down the trail. I was very curious to see how much faster we could go down than we had come up. I was anxious to get going and ended up attaching a few too many things on carabineers to the back of my pack, and they quickly slid down to the bottom. With each step, swing, slap! swing, slap! My camp shoes and empty Nalgene bottles slapped me on the rear until I couldn’t stand it any more and tried to readjust things. My little black ditty bag I had hooked above my shoulder kept snagging the material of my silk underwear top with the Velcroed flap. I couldn’t find a handy place to put my camera and still be able to grab it when I needed it. But I got a lot of ideas for making my pack-out better for next time and for customizing my backpack with more pockets and loops!

We practically ran down the trail. I could feel my feet sliding down towards the toes of my shoes. I tried to keep my body flexing as I moved down the trail instead of lumbering stiffly. There were a couple of spots on the trail where it was possible to take a wrong turn and go off on an abandoned spur. We were near one of those places and were being careful to stay on track when we had the shock of coming across a dead tree blocking the trail! Our first thought was that we had strayed, and we walked back up a little ways to check that possibility out. But then we saw the freshly broken aspen and the raw hole in the earth where the rotten trunk had broken off below ground. The wind the previous night had blown it over. We had to climb over the tree. It was very exciting.

We stopped at No Name creek again to have a cup of coffee and a half hour rest. Climbing down is hard in a totally different way than climbing up. The last mile and a half was fairly brutal, and I would say that using my walking stick saved my knees from a lot of wear and tear. We reached the trail head at 3:11PM that afternoon, called for our ride and sat on the rock wall by the Cog Rail station while we waited.

It felt like we’d been gone longer than we had. But I’m sure that was because we had done so much. Perhaps that is the secret to living a life that feels long and full. To put challenges and adventures in it, to do things unusual and interesting, to test yourself, to step out of ordinary life once in a while.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pike's Peak part 2

Walking into Barr Camp was like being in one of those quest fantasy novels.

“Our two heroines had been stealthily making their way across the wild forest all day, knapsacks on their backs, avoiding the king’s men who were disguised as joggers, and taking such sustenance as their waybread could give. Their unease grew as the shadows began to lengthen and the looming face of Old Man Mountain grew nearer, nearer. Would they have to bivouac off the trail, lighting a forbidden fire to keep the wild animals at bay? Carolingian leaned heavy on her stick, and her brow creased in worry as she wondered whether she could hold out until they reached that homely inn, Barre Campe. But she had to; her companion Nolangia was younger and less experienced. Nolangia would take her cues from Carolingian.
“I’m sure we’re near. Dost thou see yonder glow of candlelight?” Carolingian murmured, wanting to believe it was true.”

I kept looking for the promised sign we were near, the rail fence. And right there where it was supposed to be, it was. The perfect touch was crossing the creek on a rustic wooden footbridge to reach the cabin.
The cabin was old and solid, made with thick timbers and chinking. Light came from pressurized gas lights, and the running water came from the creek, purified. The outhouse was out back, men’s and women’s in a structure a short walk from the back door.

The outhouse was worth inspecting, in more ways than one. It was a composting toilet, of which I had read about but never seen. The 2 throne rooms were ultra clean, well-constructed, had locking doors, were roomy, and had absolutely no odor. The seat itself resembled those perched above vault toilets. On the wall was a sign reminding visitors that nothing, absolutely nothing except “waste, toilet paper, and wood chips” should be thrown down the hole. And if the visitor didn’t happen to be the sort who followed rules just because, the sign writer appealed to a speck of human sympathy that might be felt. “If anything else is thrown in, the staff has to dig it out by hand.”

We had arranged our trip just after the main season, and as a result, there were only 2 other people sharing camp, along with the 2 staff members. The other folks were a man and his son, from Georgia, who were climbing to the summit the next day and spending the following night at Barr Camp again.

Since we had chosen to cook our own dinner instead of signing up for the spaghetti dinner, we took our cooking things out to one of the picnic tables outside. I say “we” generously. I had offered to do the cooking, and therefore had the gear. Nola’s job was to take pictures.

A couple months before the Pike’s Peak hike, Melinda, Bethany and I took a “gear test” short hike to a county park. It was there I learned many things, like “pack light, pack tight,” don’t bring too much junk you aren’t SURE you’ll need, and keep the menu simple. I made a dish there that I duplicated that evening at Barr Camp. I began by trying to call it “Trail Tuna Hot Pot,” but I ended up just calling it “Tuna Glop.”

The recipe is as follows: Boil a couple cups of water. Dump in enough vermicelli or angel hair pasta (cooks in 3 minutes) until it is about halfway up the water level. When it is done, stir in a tablespoon or two of dry milk and enough “cheeze” powder (from the bulk section in Winco) until it looks right. Lumps are ok. Open a foil packet of tuna and dump in. Stir. Eat. Yum Yum! Finish up with a granola bar and a cup of instant coffee for dessert. I’m sure that being hungry had a lot to do with how enjoyable the dish was, but truly, it’s hard to go wrong with salt, starch and fake cheese flavor!

The bunk room was not quite what I had expected. I had been thinking more like the dormitories I had stayed in at Scicon, church camp, and 4-H camp. These beds were all laid out in a cheek to cheek intimate fashion that made me very glad the guest number was so low.
Georgia and his son took two beds on one end, and the two of us took two at the other end. We realized that if the place was full, like it is during the summer, not only would we get real chummy with our bed partners, but we wouldn’t have the room to sprawl out our packs and gear. They would have to stay packed up on the floor directly at the head/tail of the mattress.

But then there was option number two—the dog houses, or “lean-to’s” as they are called.
Since they don’t really lean on anything, it’s hard to call them that, but they are a cute, outdoorsy choice. I think that wind doesn’t blow UP the side of a mountain, and if so, the openings should be protected enough to make it comfortable inside. There are two of these, one close to the outhouse, and one further away, which sets up higher off the ground so you have to use a stump to climb up into it. I think three people could fit inside one. But it also reminded me uncomfortably of a bear box, the sturdy type of container that is ubiquitous in National Parks that you put your food in to keep it safe from bears –except this bear box didn’t have a lid…

After it got dark, we retired to the common area around the wood stove for contemplation and pleasant conversation. It was just a little chilly, and I looked longingly through the glass fronted stove door to the paper and kindling laid inside. But after the pressurized gas lamp was lit, it warmed up the little room just right. Books—popular novels, classics and nature books filled the built-in bookcase above the sofa. Propped up on the wood stove were books for identifying Colorado trees, birds, mountains, and funguses. I’m crazy about identifying things, and my prizes were a limber pine, a mountain chickadee, a gray jay, a red-breasted nuthatch, and a mushroom that is red with white polka-dots.

It was pretty easy to get to sleep. I was warm and cozy, and the mattress was cushy. But I didn’t stay asleep. When I came back to bed at 2AM after visiting the outhouse, I couldn’t get back to sleep. At first, as time went on, I got anxious, but then I decided that I had enough sleep saved up that I could afford to just lie there and enjoy, well, just BEING. Soft breathing sounds from the sleepers on either side of me were peaceful. I was warm and comfortable. My new sleeping bag was silky against my skin and slithered around easily as I moved positions. A small glow came from one corner of the room, and the six-paned window showed the dim night outside. My glasses were off—I could see nothing else. I could hear the wind picking up.

The sound of the wind sighing through pine needles is unlike any other sound. I remember the first time I was aware of that sound. I was a kid, and our family was camping somewhere in the mountains. I was sitting outside at a picnic table playing with my new tape recorder when I felt that noise above me, all around me, that wind blowing though the pine trees like a lonesome song.

Branches were moving in the wind; I could hear them rubbing against each other, whipping around, the wind growing more intense. It was all very delicious, lying there listening to the weather, warm in my bag, my head full of good thoughts about my trip, my hike, my life.

Two hours later, I fell asleep for 45 minutes, then woke again. I had dreamed that I had overslept by 20 minutes, and I was too late to get a plate of the special pancakes that they made for breakfast. Happily, I wasn’t late, and we feasted on flat brown cakes made of whole grains, cornmeal, applesauce, chopped apples, nuts, and who knows what else. Georgia and his son were loading up packs for the hike to the summit. I was glad that we were going down today, and yet… I still envied them.

It took us longer to pack up than we anticipated; I could feel myself just start chucking things in the pack and hooking odds and ends on the back strings with a multi-assortment of carabineers. On our way out the door, I took the host up on the offer of a slice of the garlic bread left over from the night before. I’d been coveting a piece, but because I had not ordered the meal last night, I had too much integrity to filch a piece of the bread. Oh Man! It was good! Little brown crumbs of garlic and coarse salt decorated the top crusts. Nola and I both crammed an extra piece in our mouths and a couple in each hand, to go.

(Notice bread in our hands)

We set off down the trail at 11AM, curious to see how much less time it would take to go down that mountain than up, and how much easier it might be.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pike's Peak --Barr Trail, pt. 1

View of Pike's Peak from Nola's place, Woodland Park, CO

Of all the advice I got for my planned backpacking hike up Pike’s Peak, the one I heard most often was “travel light.” Oh, and also, "Take your time and enjoy it." With such simple advice, how could I not consider doing it?

I can’t remember exactly when the idea to climb the mountain first came up between my sister Nola and I. I think she brought it up several years ago, maybe the first time I went out to Colorado to visit and we rode the cog railway up to the summit of Pike’s Peak.

It probably went like this:

Nola: There’s a hiking trail that goes up Pike’s Peak. We should take backpacks and climb it.

Me: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!!!!!

Every year the topic resurfaced and seemed to sound less crazy, until I knew we were going to do it. Finally we put a date on the adventure. October 7-8, 2010. Nola made the arrangements with Barr Camp to spend the night in the cabin there halfway up the summit. The plan was to strike out in the early morning, have all day for hiking up, sleep in the cabin bunks and then head back down the mountain mid-morning. I had 2 months to prepare.

The funnest part of preparation is acquiring equipment. Each piece comes with its own fantasy of use. The Miox pen I borrowed made scenes in my mind of a pristine mountain brook, babbling its way over the rocks and into my Nalgene bottle, an endless supply of freshly sanitized water to quench my well-earned thirst. My new black silk underwear top, keeping me at a perfect temperature –not too hot, not too cold. My darling little butane backpacking stove, helping me whip up gourmet meals on the trail, the single reason why we weren’t doing the sensible thing of eating the spaghetti dinner at Barr Camp instead of carrying the extra weight of the stove, fuel and food. My backpack… ah yes. My 30 year old thrift store backpack. I took it in to REI (after all, it is REI brand!) to see if they saw anything obviously wrong with it before I started counting on it. The first thing I heard as I brought it in was the accusation, “What are you doing with that external frame backpack!!!” Obviously fashion has caught up to and passed me, and internal packs are all the rage now. After I defended it by saying that I liked it and found it comfortable, the clerk admitted that his wife used one just like it. It passed muster, so I began practicing packing it out.

Now the main worry needed to be dealt with. Could I cut the mustard? Would I poop out 3/5 of a mile up the trail while Nola bounded like a gazelle up the slope? She did have an advantage over me. She lives at 8,000 feet while I live at basically sea level. It would be bad, but not AS bad if we both ran out of steam partway up, but it would be a real blow to my self-esteem for me to be the limiting factor. I had already started running up and down the driveway to get fit, but what I needed was an incline.

I picked out a treadmill that elevated and started working out like the hounds were at my heel.

I had followed my list meticulously when packing. Everything written down had gotten stuffed into one of my duffel bags. Except –the thing that I had forgotten to write down. My Leki collapsible hiking pole. Good Grief! Luckily I found a fantastic solution. Instead of having my family packing it up in a mailing tube and sending it to me, I bought a set of short ski poles at the Woodland Park Goodwill, and Nola and I both used one as a walking stick.

Finally, after several days of training hikes, the day came when we began loading the packs. I had 3 cute little dry stuff sacks for my clothes, food and personal items. I had a new sleeping bag that rolled up nice and small. I had a little black ditty bag for first aid, chap stick, map and sunscreen that dangled on a clip right behind my right upper arm. (That cursed little black kit, a little too far back to grab easily, that had a square of Velcro that kept snagging my silk undershirt, that was so cheap it began ripping out one of the sections before I was even halfway up, and the highest insult, it read “AARP” in big white letters across the flap.)

I couldn’t bear to leave any of my 3 Nalgene bottles behind, even though I was using a Camelbak water bladder tucking into my backpack. What if the stream that was supposed to be halfway up to Barr Camp was dried up? What if it was hotter that I expected and I drank up all my water? Hydrating well is supposed to ward off altitude sickness. What if I didn’t hydrate well enough? In spite of my daughter’s advice that I wouldn’t need that much, I filled my Camelbak, 2 of the 1-liter bottles and sadly left behind the 3rd one.

We weighed our packs. They said mine was 30 pounds. Yikes!

OK, so it was heavy. But I think her scale was off. Or maybe water is heavier than I optimistically wanted to think. On the way down to the trailhead at Manitou Springs, we did a side trip to Wal-Mart to pick up extra sunscreen and chap stick, and then I saw just what I needed. Crunch 'n Munch. From now on Crunch 'n Munch will go on my backpacking list. It is tasty and very lightweight. I had a hard time figuring out how to hook it on to my pack and finally just tied the silver Mylar bag to my waistband with my pink bandanna.

When our ride, Brian and Tim, dropped us off at the trailhead, I did some serious evaluation with a reality check and poured out half the water in my Nalgene bottles. NOW I was ready to hike!

The very first part of the trail is the toughest; it climbs relentlessly up sets of stair-like sections, it’s all in the sun with no shade, and the view is rather plain. We had gotten a late enough start (10AM) that people were already coming back down the trail. They were usually running, and perhaps were some of those crazy people who had hiked up “The Incline” and then, to maintain the same level of physical discomfort, preferred to run instead of walking down. I felt like a loaded pickup truck laboring in first gear up a steep mountain road. I mentally reviewed the rules of the road, which state that uphill traffic has the right of way on one-lane roads, and I took it. Those we met did stand aside, either because they recognized our right of way, or because they looked at the two of us and didn’t want to be responsible for making us lose our momentum.

(Notice silver bag of Crunch 'n Munch tied to the rear)

Since we had plenty of time, we took it slow and steady, stopping to enjoy the view and take pictures often.

It was amazing how quickly we seemed to gain altitude.

It was a relief to reach the shade of the conifers. I needed to pull off my leggings and put on my shorts. I also unzipped the sleeves of my shirt. I was still wearing my long silk underwear. It might have looked hot, but wasn’t. Sweat evaporated, cooling me down through them, they kept the sun off my arms and legs, and they kept me from getting chilled higher up in the shade.

One of the crazy sights on Pikes Peak is “The Incline.”

Apparently, years ago there used to be a funicular railroad that went partway up the side of the mountain for tourists to take the view. After that went away, the rails were removed and the route became off-limits. But the extreme hikers went after it anyway; effort was made to pile necessary additional timbers to fill in the bare spots, and it was opened up for hiking. The top of The Incline feeds onto a loop of Barr Trail several miles up.

In just about perfect timing for a lunch break, we reached “No Name Creek.” We stepped across it, took off our shoes and kicked back for an hour’s rest and food. The creek was not very deep, but I did find some clear water to put through the purifying process and fill my bottle.

It’s funny how squeamish I felt about drinking “wild water,” even treated with the Miox solution. When I was a kid, we had a get-away cabin by a creek. That first year, we drank the creek water straight from the bucket. We used to drink irrigation water occasionally from the nearby orange grove. But I guess after you read about giardia and all the other invisible germs that water can carry, you just get a little paranoid. But this water was what I had been planning on to drink, so I went through all the fun little operations with the Miox pen and started the germ-killing process on a liter of water.

The trail went steadily up. We weren’t meeting as many other hikers how. The mixed oak and conifer vegetation had given way to stands of aspens and pine trees. As we gained altitude, the aspens lost their brilliant yellow leaves, and we could see magnificent granite formations through the bare white trunks of the aspens.

We’d been on the trail for about 6 hours and had reached the final half-mile of the hike. this part was supposed to be pretty tough, and it was sort of like walking upstream in a dry creek bed with football-sized rocks making like stairs. We really appreciated our sticks for this part! Finally, Barr Camp!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Little Surprises

How far would you go to make your host or hostess feel comfortable, that is, not embarrassed, by a his or her culinary lapse or anomaly?

Let’s say you are having dinner with your sweet mother, or your dear auntie, and she has served your favorite—meatloaf topped with barbeque sauce and caramelized onions. You slide some mashed potatoes over to join the beef and take a big bite. It’s then that you feel the unmistakable sensation of a hair in your mouth. What do you do? Do you abruptly stop chewing, squint your eyes, stick your thumb and index finger into your mouth and grope around until you find it, pulling it out and then holding it up for inspection? “Oh look! I found a hair in my food!” Or do you discretely spit the bite out into a napkin, not saying a word?

Maybe it’s not a foreign object in the dish, but the dish itself. It tastes weird, not to your liking at all. In fact, you would rather not even try to choke it down.

Perhaps you are eating over at your buddy’s house, or maybe your in-laws. You didn’t know until you took a bite that the chicken was baked with a curry powder crust on it. And the soup tastes sort of swampy. What do you do? Do you say, “I can’t eat this. Do you have any peanut butter so I can make a sandwich?” Or do you politely pick at it and then stop by In and Out Burger on the way home?

When I was a kid, we used to go visit the relatives in another state. One aunt invited all her family over to join us in a dinner, using the “good china” in the top cupboard. As luck would have it, I got the top plate. Which was dusty. The pattern hid it, but when I sat down to my food, I could see the layer. It wasn’t that appetizing, but I did feel very noble about not embarrassing my aunt.

The best story I heard was from my sister. She was visiting her husband’s family and was served pheasant. The host was very proud of his presentation. She was served her section. Crunch! He had forgotten to remove the craw! She ate around it, not wanting to embarrass him by pointing it out. Yikes!

I knew one man who was so terrified and disgusted about the mere idea of a hair in his food that he required his wife and daughters to have very short hair. Does a hair do it for you? Or is it bugs? Grit?

Would you be discreet? Or do you feel like all the participants need to know what you found, or how you think the food tastes?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish

Actually it is One fish, Ten fish, Black fish, Gray fish.

Last week my husband went deep sea fishing up the Northern California coast. I’ve always thought it would be great fun to have a whole pile of fish to play around with, and I got my wish. Alas, no salmon! But he did catch his limit (10) of these plain-looking, tasty blackish-grayish fish. He brought home 8 of them already filleted, but left 2 of them whole, for barbequing.

It is sort of amazing how much of a fish is its head. And you can’t cheat and cut a little higher on the neck to add a little more meat on the carcass. There’s a bony thing right behind the gills that you have to go past to cut. You can angle it up a little, but not much. So there is this great big fish head with a little wad of meat still on it right behind the brain. The thrifty part of me was screaming “Fish soup!” But the practical part of me was looking at all the fish meat I had on the counter and, thankfully, beat that idea down.

I stashed the bag of fillets in the ‘fridge and concentrated on the carcasses. I got the briquettes started and then sliced the bodies in thick steaks. I ended up with 5 pieces, and coated them with lemon pepper. I decided that now would be a good time to try out those split apple wood pieces that have been drying, so I laid a couple on the coals for smoke.

After a few minutes on the hot part of the coals, I moved them off to the side to cook more slowly and indirectly. I guess they took about a half hour. Very successful! They were tender, moist, smoky and delicious. The apple wood makes a nice mild smoke flavor.

My next try was breaded and fried for breakfast the next morning. They were very good too, moist and flavorful. The only issue was that we have become unused to breaded and fried things, so there was a lot of *burp!* excuse me!

That evening (you are witnessing fish-immersion here) I tried some fillets out in my Camerons stove top smoker. It did so well with some salmon previously, but these ended up dry to my tastes. Could be because I left them in too long, or because the salmon had more fat… But the family thought they were fine.

The last 3 fillets went back out to the barbeque the next evening. To keep them from falling apart, I laid them on a bed of sliced bacon. So you know they will be good! I thought my husband might be getting weary of fish by now, so I grilled up some lamb steaks for him. And what the heck? I laid bacon over them too! (Bacon is very good in the barbeque!)

This morning I had the last of the fish leftovers for breakfast.
I guess I’ve had enough of fish for now, but I’ll be looking at recipes for the next time!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More Smokin'

I’ve been having fun with my new kitchen toy, a stovetop smoker.

What I love about thrift stores is that you never know what you’re going to come across. The strategy I use is to have a short list in my head of things that I’m keeping an eye out for, but be open to something totally unexpected. At Goodwill, a few days ago, I found a Camerons Stovetop Smoker still in the box unused, with all the cups of wood chips and instruction manual still there. I got it for $8. List price is $50.

At first I’d been thinking it would replace a smoker like those Little Chief smokers, but then I realized it’s more of a cooker that makes your food nice and smoky. It is nice heavy-duty stainless steel and very easy to use for all types of food.

Here’s how it works: The pan is set up in layers. In the bottom of the pan you make a small pile of the wood chips, then set the drip pan down there. The rack goes on the drip pan, the food on the rack, and then the cover slides across the top. You set the stove burner to medium, and presently the chips begin to smolder, the pan heats up inside, and the food cooks. Any stray wisps of smoke go up the hood vent turned on low.

So far, I have done a pan of thick sliced potatoes, salmon fillets, and homemade chicken sausage. The salmon turned out the best. It was moist and smoky-flavored. Cold, it makes an EXCELLENT addition to a salad. The potatoes were nice, but next time I’ll slice them a little thinner and maybe add some liquid to the drip pan to add moisture. The sausages taste lovely and smoky, but I needed to leave them in long enough to get maximum smoke flavor which left them a little drier than I would have preferred. But a ground patty would take in the smoke in fast order, so maybe I’ll try that next time.

One fun part of this kit is the 4 little cups of chips. I knew I liked hickory, but didn’t know about the rest of the varieties. I’ve used alder and oak so far, and am anxious to try the cherry.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Desserts I have known and loved... Baby Cakes!

Maybe because I am in a low calorie eating frame of mind lately that my thoughts have turned to… Dessert!

I’ve been thinking over past desserts, enjoying their experience from a distance, and seeing them pop back into my life once in a while in the future. So I thought I’d ruminate on a few more memorable ones and post them here. I want to start with a Baby Cake.

A few years ago, we traveled to Arizona for a conference my husband wanted to attend. It was in Phoenix. There happens to be a nice art museum in Phoenix, which was lovely, as I enjoy art museums. My son was a nice companion, and we had a jolly time.

When meal time came, I did something uncharacteristic. Instead of being thrifty and looking for a cheap place to eat off-site, we dined in the elegant dining room of the museum. The food was excellent. And then I did something even more uncharacteristic—I ordered a dessert.

It was called a Baby Cake, a Tuxedo Baby Cake, and it was SO cute! It had one layer of vanilla and one layer of chocolate cake, filled with a cream. It was covered with white and brown chocolate coating and was decorated with little flags of chocolate. A drizzle of chocolate syrup finished up the presentation. We split it, and it was delectable. Good things come in small packages.

The experience reminded me of how we fix good times and new, fun experiences in our minds. Saturate it with all the sensory stimulus you can; sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing. These are the keys to remembering and enjoying those times again, even after they have long past.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I haven’t been posting for a little while because I have been busy with my other blog that Melinda and I have been setting up, Project Newbery Award. Our goal is to read and review all the Newbery Award books and some of the Honor books.

So, being of a rather bookish frame of mind, I decided to scan my books and see if one made a particular food pop into my mind. One did. When I saw “Two Against the North,” by Farley Mowat, I instantly thought of Pemmican.

Pg. 108 and 109: “…wizened little berries,…partly dried. The drying process was completed over the fire so the berries would not ferment later on. … mixed them with ground-up deermeat (that they had pulverized between two stones) and with boiling hot deer fat. This rather sickening-looking mixture was then poured out to cool in slabs, and the slabs carefully wrapped...”

It didn’t matter, the word “sickening-looking.” I just skimmed right over that. It sounded COOL! The perfect trail food. In my mind, it was not a greasy, mouth-coating, fibrous hunk peppered with sour bits. It was a cross between…

Have you ever had a “peanut patty?” It is an old-fashion candy that is shaped into a round, flat little pat. The sweet matrix is a soft, translucent, pink material that holds shelled peanuts in a nubby suspension. I was never all that fond of them, but they were sure cute, and I could appreciate their novel make up.

What was much better was a Cadbury “Fruit and Nut Bar.” As far as I knew, they only came family-size, which was good because we always got one as a family. The big milk chocolate slab was scored into small squares for breaking off individual pieces. Nuts and raisins were embedded in the chocolate. With one nice bite, you got the sweet chocolate, the tangy-sweet raisins, and the rich, crunchy nuts.

So I just couldn’t shake the feeling that pemmican was a cross between a Peanut Patty and a Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar. And what is strange is that even now, I have a hard time imagining that pemmican isn’t a tasty treat. Maybe it’s partly the name. Pemmican. When you say it, it makes you sound like an insider. Like an experienced wilderness adventurer. Maybe it should be called “Rancid Lard and Protein Slabs.”

To keep my fantasy intact, I shall have to come up with my own pemmican recipe. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Six Things I could not, would not eat...

(Scorpion Soup- not currently on my list because this dish had never occured to me before, therefore wasn't lurking in my mind. I ran across this most revolting photograph on the web)

OK, Who really knows what one could manage to choke down if one were starving? I’ve never been starving. I’ve never even been really hungry, I mean really hungry. So if ever I were in that position, I suppose I may have to eat my words. But gladly. I think I could even eat crow before I could eat, well, lets just have the list now, shall we?

Before I begin, I must admit that there are some awful things that people around the world eat that I wouldn’t even know about unless I started digging around for “weird, unusual things people eat.” (try the Google search yourself!) But I’m not counting it unless it was something I already knew about and had already put on my bad boy list.

6) Termites. We could just expand this to include all bugs. In fact, I could happily expand it outward to include all insects, spiders, ticks, caterpillars—in short, things with an indecent number of legs. But it is termites I can’t get out of my head. Years ago, I saw a National Geographic article on termites that had a big color picture of village folks frying up a mess of winged termites over cook fires. Crispy brown with wings sticking up all over in a big black frying pan. No thanks.

5) Shark Fin Soup. I’d never heard of it before I found a recipe in a Chinese cookbook I’d gotten as a gift. Two whole pages were devoted to the preparation of the fin. The picture of the finished dish showed a big white bowl with a single meaty lump wallowing in a clear yellow broth. Yawn. Later, when I read accounts of how sharks were “finned” to obtain the necessary ingredient, I was repulsed. Never!

4) Brains. My dad would sometimes hanker for exotic things to eat. Various organ meats showed up at disturbing intervals, coincidentally when we kids happened to not be very hungry. Brains were the hardest item to wrap my mind around eating. One day, I couldn’t get out of it and allowed a small portion of scrambled Brains ‘n Eggs on my plate. Okaaaay… it was edible. But… Thankfully, with Mad Cow disease, I don’t have to come up with a polite way of saying, “No thank you, really!”

3) Dog Food. Wait! you say. I thought we were talking about regular people food! Yes, we are, but this one is allowed because I used to eat it when I was a kid. Yum! Just opening a can and smelling it brings my childhood back. Because it was cheap, we used to buy Skippy brand canned dog food for our dog. When we opened each end and pushed the food through, we’d slice off a half inch with a butter knife and nibble on it. Sometimes we’d get lectured because we weren’t leaving enough for the dog. I can still hear our shrill little voices, “Mama! Your meatloaf is good! It tastes like dog food!” Gag.

2) Yak Butter Tea. Yes, I know it is highly unlikely that I will ever be put in the position of having to drink this particular poison, but when you have read the National Geographic as long as I have, anything seems possible in this world. For some reason I can really imagine how this must taste—salty tea with rancid yak butter blobs floating around in it. Congealing even as we speak.

1) Corn Smuts. Yes, smut. Have you ever seen a corn smut? Some years ago when I was raising a few rows of sweet corn, I pulled back the husks to find the invasion of the body snatchers. Instead of rows of demure pale yellow kernels grew huge grotesque gray-purple tumors, wallowing all over the end of the ear. I couldn’t throw it fast or far enough. I didn’t know what it was until I watched a TV show featuring a man traveling around in Mexico, eating various indigenous food items. One strange item was called huitlacoche, which turned out to be young corn smuts stir-fried and served up in a tortilla. Supposedly, it is a delicacy, and folks have been trying to bring this fungus to American and European diets, but with little success. You can see why, if you look on Wikipedia and see the pictures. I don’t know which is ickier, the life-size or the microscopic view.

What is your list like? What makes a thing hard to eat; the taste, texture, or is it just the thought of it? Does your conscience play a role? What intriguing things do you eat that others would put on their lists?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Jaunt in Sutter Creek; subtitle: They did WHAT to the Bread?

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of driving down to Sutter Creek in the Mother Lode Country to see a concert by Old Time Musician Bruce Molsky. I was to meet up with my daughter there and enjoy dinner together before the show. Always keeping in mind the possibility of new material for my blog!

My daughter was running late, so I took advantage of my time to visit a little wine tasting shop that carried wines for three local wineries. One nice thing about these little places is that the tasting is free, so you don’t have to worry about which ones to try or how much it will cost (thinking of Napa Valley 5 or 6 tastes for $25). I know what I like, so I went for the Chardonnay, the Zinfandel and the Cabernet Sauvignon, in that order. I ended up purchasing a very nicely complex and oaky Chardonnay and a fairly intense Zinfandel. While I was there, a younger woman and her mother came in. I knew they were in over their heads when they asked for something “sweet.” The first pour, a blush, was too “sour,” and the next, a chenin blanc was also too sour. They should head straight for the supermarket and pick up some Boone Hill or Wild Vines Peach.

With my daughter’s arrival, I stashed my bag in the truck and we walked the block to the restaurant. I had chosen “Susan’s Place.” It was totally charming. We ate in the patio, though I’m not sure if you can call it a patio, since it was at the front of the restaurant itself. All was rustic with lots of greenery and checked tablecloths and patio lights. Green market umbrellas hung from the translucent roof panels instead of sticking up on poles. At this point, the review will be divided—the food and the service.

The dinner entrees were cleverly designed. You chose the entrée itself, the sauce, and the side that the entrée would be arranged on top of. I chose an eggplant portabella entree, Mediterranean sauce, and a side of polenta slices. It was excellent. The sauce was garlicky and tangy pesto-ish and the polenta was browned on the outside and creamy on the inside. I ate every crumb. A Greek salad came with it. The dressing was another pesto-ish creation. I made a note to myself to copy it at home. Pesto, lemon juice, some sort of garlic seasoning, olive oil, white wine vinegar perhaps. As you would expect in a nice little place like this, a platter of bread and garlic butter was served while we were waiting for our food. More on the bread later…

When we went in at 6:15, the place was about half full. We were seated promptly and cheerfully by the greeter. And then waited. And waited. Now I have been in places that you are legitimately afraid that they don’t notice you, or that you have been placed to make you conveniently unnoticeable. But this wasn’t the case. It was like being at a garden party with the wait staff walking by you every time they have to do something. After about 5 minutes she came by and said she could take our orders in about 2 minutes. She forgot to add a zero, because that was how long it took. In the meantime, she served food to 2 different tables. I kept thinking, if she would just take our orders (obviously we knew what we wanted, as our menus were folded beside us) then the kitchen could get started on our meals!

She came by, with an apology for the delay, and took our orders. About 10 minutes later, the bread came. More on the bread later… With pleasant efficiency, the salad followed and then the entrée arrived. While we were eating, the most astonishing thing happened. My daughter and I were in deep discussion over a topic of personal interest, when the waitress, who had overheard a fragment of the conversation, injected herself into our talk with a mistaken impression of what we were talking about! I was speechless. My daughter managed to stammer out something like, “That’s not what we were talking about.” And then we just waited for her to leave. Now you would think that a new 17 year old waitress might make this mistake, but she was about 45. Hmm.

This particular trait of customer service-type folks to insert themselves into your purchases and your conversations really annoys me. I just had that experience at the Goodwill when a young clerk had a good look-over at the movies I was buying as she rang them up. “Oh, I saw that one, it was good.” “I haven’t seen that one yet, what’s it about?” I thought, what would she say if one of them was a sex movie? And the time I was buying a sack of groceries and the young bagger wouldn’t let up on trying to discuss all my items with me. Maybe some people like this, but I think it is unprofessional.

Anyway, back to the bread…

It was warm. It was microwaved! How do I know? Of course I know! It was chewy, darn it! Rubbery chewy, as you’d know if you ever microwaved sourdough bread! Now that is a crime, when it doesn’t take that much to pop the loaf into an oven!

So out of 5 stars, I’d give Susan’s Place a 4 in food, a 2 in service and a 1 in bread.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lowly Onions

Coconut, peppermint and hot dogs. Squash, cooked carrots and horseradish. And onions.

There is a list somewhere that contains the things that most little kids don’t like to eat. These were my top players on that list. I still remember staying at the table overtime while my mom waited to see if I really could eat those cooked carrots. Once, I was fooled by being told that fried zucchini was really fried okra, which I loved. I still can’t believe that I bought that one.

Over time, I’ve learned to enjoy most of the foods that I used to hate. But onions stayed on my ambivalent list. Raw, they were a little overwhelming unless chopped very fine and used sparingly. Boiled in soup, they were limp and strangely textured.

While looking at recipes some time back, I started to notice some directions to “caramelize onions.” I worked around with that method, and –My! What a difference! The onions acquired a soft, buttery texture and a sweet, rich flavor along with a soft caramel brown color. I started piling these onions on top of steak and mixing them with fried potatoes and peppers. I also learned that a fried egg perched in a nest of these onions is a nice meal.

Onions are a wonderful little food to enjoy. They are usually pretty inexpensive, keep for awhile and are nutritious. Here is just a sample of what we have learned about onions:

Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables have been associated with a variety of health benefits. Research shows that onions may help guard against many chronic diseases. That's probably because onions contain generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin. Other sources are tea and apples, but research shows that absorption of quercetin from onions is twice that from tea and more than three times that from apples. Studies have shown that quercetin protects against cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
In addition, onions contain a variety of other naturally occurring chemicals known as organosulfur compounds that have been linked to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

These compounds will cause crying when you cut them up, so here’s a tip to avoid that. Take your big cutting board and lay it on the top of your range. Turn the hood exhaust on high and cut away!

I have two favorite recipes where these caramelized onion star. They are simple, lowly recipes that you wouldn’t think could be so nice. But they are. And I am going to tell you how to make them. I use yellow onions.

French Onion Soup

Thinly slice 2 or 3 onions and then cross-cut once or twice. Saute them in a little olive or canola oil at a low to medium heat. Stir frequently. It will take about 10 minutes to caramelize the onions. If they start to get too dark too soon, turn the heat down. Cook them until they are soft and an even light caramel color. I like to turn up the heat at the end of this process and get just a little browning on some of the onions.

Add beef broth until you have the proportion of onions to liquid that you want. (I use “Better than Bullion” soup base paste in hot water.)

Now pour in a little white wine. I also like to squirt in a little lemon juice to add a fresh tang. Salt to taste, if you need that.

The next thing I do is not in the recipe book, but it makes the soup easier to eat. Make a little cornstarch slurry and stir it in to the simmering soup until it thickens slightly.

And the finishing touch--in the individual oven-proof bowl, lay a thick slice of crusty bread on the surface of the soup. Generously sprinkle whatever cheeses you happen to have on hand over the bread and soup. Stick under the broiler until everything is toasty and bubbly. Eat!

Onions and Tofu with Cheese

Thinly slice 2 or 3 onions. Caramelize them in a skillet. Use oil sparingly, but as needed. Meanwhile slice firm tofu into bite-size pieces. Press some of the water out with paper towels or clean cloth. Add the tofu to the onions and see if you can get a little browning on it while you finish up the onions. Add soy sauce with a generous hand and then a little sherry. ( I had Marsala wine, so I used that) Turn off the heat and spread cheese over the top to melt into the onions. You'll be amazed at the tasty vegetarian meal! With a slice of whole grain bread it covers all the food groups.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Big Kahuna

Have you ever been invited to the perfect dinner party?

Imagine: your dinner companions are delightful company, the setting is beautiful –a grassy green park shaded by graceful trees, the repast is delicious and varied, the wine is generous, and your hosts are so pleased to enjoy your presence that toasts are offered up to you and your visiting troop. And it is the perfect time of day, that lovely hour or so before dusk when the temperature moderates and the air is softer.

But wait! That’s not all! Just when you think you are impressed enough, you approach the table of the main entrée and see…

But let’s back up a little bit.

One of my hobbies is Civil War reenacting. One year ago this month, I volunteered for the temporary-soon-to-be-permanent job of Camp Cook. Our unit is the 3rd US Artillery, a mounted artillery unit which participates in Civil War reenactments and Living History demonstrations up and down the state of California. In many of the military units, the soldiers cook for themselves or create small “messes” to share the job of meal preparation. But because so many of our members are busy caring for and tacking up the horses during an event, the 3rd US is one of the units to provide a provisioner, or cook, for the benefit of our group.

After I had agreed to cook for the upcoming reenactment at Gibson Ranch Civil War Days 2009 in Sacramento, I discovered that our captain had invited the James River Squadron from the Confederate camp to dine with us. So instead of 25, I was to prepare for 50. Eeek! I knew our Captain was counting on me to make him proud of us, so I took extra care in considering the menu and the details. Everything went very well. (For an example of a cooking weekend for me, see Cooking for the Third.) At that time the James River reciprocated and invited us to dine with them at Gibson Ranch 2010.

Our captain was very happy with the success of our “dinner party.” He and I both wondered, what will the James River cook up for us? Will it be like ours? I wondered if it would be more elegant, more elaborate. I was already considering 2011, when I would likely be planning their return engagement to the Union Camp. What new delicacies could I call up when it was my turn?

Saturday evening rolled around, and we all gussied up for the long trek to Confederate camp. We combed our hair, straightened our caps and pulled on our navy blue shell jackets. As a group, heel plates clicking on the paved road, we marched (ok, so the artillery doesn’t really “march” well; remember most of us prefer to let the horse march while carrying the soldier), let’s say we strode into Confederateville, finding protection from the slurs and barbs of the lounging Rebels by the very size of our troop.

Our captain greets one of our lovely hostesses.

The James River Squadron greeted us with genuine friendship and affection. The ladies were dressed in their hoop-skirted finery and the men in their naval uniforms. ( I would use the word “charming” to describe the uniforms, but dare not.) Cloth table linen, candles, bottles of wine decorating the table, dutch ovens that held warm peach cobbler, refreshing salads, women standing ready to wash our dishes –all were bracketed with white canvas tents and green lawn. The setting sun sent beams of light on the pastoral party.

And then, remember I promised you more. And there it was. The Big Kahuna, the Top Dog, the Coup d’état, the Big Pig.

It was absolutely Glorious. It was big, very big. And golden and crispy. Steaming and tender cuts were carved from the Beast and laid on our plates. The server cut a nice piece of crackling skin with it to keep the meat company.

We ate until we groaned. The dessert was served; cobbler with whipped cream and cookies. We ate some more. And then a jug of homemade applejack was passed up and down the table. We found common ground and shared geography with our tablemates and chatted through the evening. Their commander stood on a chair and offered a toast to the friendship between our units. Hear! Hear! Our captain stood and offered a toast back.

I was one of the last to take my leave. As the captain and I left, shaking hands and reiterating our pleasure at being able to host the James River next year, their man looked at me and said sincerely, “Keep it simple.”

I had been thinking, “What can I possibly do to match this? A whole pig, for goodness sakes!” Pondering the evening on the walk back to camp, I came to this conclusion. As stunning as the Pig was, as delectable as the cobbler was, as well-laid as the table was, it was not the food that made the evening so delightful. It was the welcome, the hospitality and the friendship that made the evening special. This is no competition between cooks, this is the pleasure of hosting friends and breaking bread together.

So I’m not planning my dinner next year yet. I’ll wait and see what comes to me. And I hope it is good. But I’m not stressing over it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bullwinkle and Waffles

Who taught you to cook? Was it your mom or dad, or some other family member? Did you read a lot of cookbooks or maybe figure it out from trial and error? Or were you in school when there were lots of homemaking classes available to teach you? Maybe you were lucky like me and learned from all three.

My mom is a great cook. I was fascinated to watch how she made cornbread. Scoop in some flour and yellow cornmeal with a pinch of salt, a pinch of baking soda. An egg, some oil or grease or something. Tip in some buttermilk. Stir it up, dump it in a pan. When it looks done, it is. How could someone just “know” how much of everything to put in, what temperature, and how long to cook it?

Being a novice, I plugged away with cookbooks and directions. After awhile, I started to realize that years of measuring ingredients would give me the magical touch of proportions and estimations of ingredients and eventually I would be able to cook like my mom.

Title 9. I didn’t understand its significance much at the time. I wasn’t interested in high school woodshop class or boy’s sports. But with this new law, now girls were no longer excluded from classes or sports just because of their gender, and boys could make a claim to classes that historically belonged to girls. In my sophomore year, the biggest impact I felt was the first day of homemaking class when four boys showed up in the middle of a room full of girls. No soft milquetoast fellows could have pulled it off. These were jocks. Popular guys who played football AND basketball. They stuck together, probably for protection, and the four got their own “kitchen” to themselves.

In general, it was hugely entertaining. They flirted, we flirted. They cracked jokes and made funny mistakes; we felt smug at times. But we couldn’t feel too superior because most of their stuff turned out fine. And they never burned out the disposal by leaving it running all night, or set a dishtowel on fire like one of the girls did. It was rumored during the “brownies” lesson that they had put pot leaves in theirs, but I never did find out if it was true.

My husband never took homemaking classes. When I married him, he knew how to fry eggs, sort of. But that was fine, because I was prepared and experienced enough for the both of us. And eventually, I was full-time cook to the six of us. But somewhere around kid #4, I could feel the reserves draining away. It was tough to cook dinner seven nights a week, and it was even tougher to THINK of what to cook seven nights a week.

Even though my husband couldn’t cook, he was very agreeable. When baby #4 was born, I felt like I just couldn’t manage the dishes all the time anymore. (just to keep from maligning him, my husband was studying engineering full time at UC Davis and supporting us with 3 different part time jobs) So I made him the offer: He and my 8 year old could now take responsibility for the dinner dishes, or… he could buy me a dishwasher. The next day we were at the appliance store with a credit card.

So I repeated the process.

“I am not going to cook on Sunday nights anymore. From now on, you are responsible for what we have on that night.”

He got the deer-in-the-headlights look.

Taking pity, I told him, “However you want to do it; order something, have the kids make something, cook something…Only, I don’t want to have to think it up myself.”

He started getting a better expression on his face, but it wasn’t because he could foist it off on someone else. No, it was because he apparently started to feel his creative ability surge up within him.

The first Sunday night started off optimistically. “We’re having waffles,” he announced. I left the kitchen to enjoy my new freedom and so that I wouldn’t be tempted to jump up and interfere. The kids went in to keep him company. “The directions are on the box,” I called out. But men are apparently more likely to discover and follow directions if they are encrypted by a secret society and buried in a vault at the Vatican than if they are printed on the box under the title “Directions.”

He used the whole box.

“Well, I stirred up some batter, but it didn’t look stiff enough, so I put some more mix in, but it didn’t look like it would make enough, so I added some more milk and an egg but then it seemed thin, so I added more mix, and it’s a little doughy, but it makes the waffles nice and thick?” He had all three of my waffle irons going at once, trying to get them all cooked in time for dinner. At least no one went hungry.

The next Sunday rolled around. Obviously, he was most comfortable with “breakfast food.”

“I’m going to start with hash browns and then add some stuff.” As before, I ducked out. This one took a little longer. He shredded the potatoes, lots of them, and fried/steamed/ browned them in the cast iron skillet. Then he took out one of my pint jars of home canned beef and stirred it in to cook with it. There was some reaction to his ingredients that made everything have a sort of blackish cast to it. It didn’t taste that bad, but it LOOKED terrible. The kids managed, mostly, to get past the appearance and eat some. We asked him, “What is it, what do you call it?”

He said, with an unsmiling face, “ I call it “Bullwinkle.” We let it rest.

After that, we discovered Papa Murphy’s You Bake pizza and became one of their steady customers. Nowadays, my husband has become pretty serviceable with spaghetti. I sit at the counter with a glass of wine and watch him make it. Except for his heavy hand with the garlic, I can’t complain. It’s hugely entertaining. He flirts, I flirt. Sometimes I feel smug. And I try not to feel superior because most of his stuff turns out quite well. But mostly I am very grateful and appreciative of his good humor and willingness to do this very nice thing for me.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Trip Down Cookie Lane

While growing up, cookies were the other food group. If there weren’t cookies in the house, it was either because we had already eaten the last ones up, or we hadn’t bought or made the next ones yet. My mother liked cookies, so that made it very nice for the rest of us, since she couldn’t eat a whole bag herself, or at least until we had all had a go at it.

Although I make most all the cookies we eat today, back then, we seemed to buy more than we made from scratch. Since Mom’s favorites were all crunchy ones, that’s what we always had around. Which was perfectly fine with me!

When I think nostalgically about cookies of bygone era (bygone because I will never again be able to eat cookies with the impunity I did as an active, normal-weight kid) I think first of the bag of odd little cookies called Hey-Days. They were based on a crispy wafer and had caramel, coconut and chocolate coating drizzled over them. Sort of a candy/cookie. Since I haven’t seen them for decades, I’d guess they are gone-gone.

When we would stop by the market to pick up snacks for working in the bee yard, we would usually grab a package of cookies. Even then, I craved variety. I especially liked the “Mother’s” assortment that had five types in the tray. Not because I was crazy about any of them, but it was because they were all different. We often got Nilla Wafers, vanilla or lemon sandwich crèmes, those hard, flat oatmeal cookies, Lorna Doon shortbreads, Vienna Fingers, Windmill cookies, and Fig Newtons, the only soft cookie available.

Once in a great while, just to be nice to us, Mom would buy those pink and white coated animal cookies with the sprinkles. Not that you could tell what animal it used to be before they encased it in that strange waxy mixture, but it was fun guessing.

We had our home-made favorites too. Toll House recipe chocolate chip, Quaker’s oatmeal cookies, Nola’s No-Bake cookies, pineapple squares from the old Blue Ribbon cookbook, and peanut butter cookies, though we never stayed consistent on the recipe for that.

My kids are going to have their nostalgic cookies too. The recipes I have used most often have now been transferred to them, and have become a standby in another generation. We like Molasses Crinkles, from an old 1950’s Gold Medal flour cookbook, and Sugar Cookies, fondly called “One-Half Sugar Cookies,” due to the peculiar measurements of one-half this and one-half that. For special occasions, we make my grandmother’s special persimmon cookies.

I am interested in seeing what cookie recipes my kids all come up with that are true keepers. Let them experiment away, trying out the oddly flavored and textured ones until that true gem appears. And please, let me in on some of the experiments!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mystery of the Lost Rider

This post is in honor of Shar, who compliments me by enjoying my blog, even though she finds food boring.

The Old-Timer patted the dusty, sweaty neck of Tucker and leaned forward, wearily, almost whispering into his horse’s ear, “There, Old Fella, that flat grassy space. Just a little further, and then we’ll rest awhile.”

Tucker’s ear swiveled back, and almost as if he understood what the man said, the little Arab quickened his pace as if to reach the small, verdant glen sooner than his previous plodding would have done. Old-Timer winced. Tucker wasn’t limping any more, but the man wanted his horse to take it as easy as possible, just in case the old stone bruise wasn’t completely healed up.

As they reached the small glade, Old-Timer slid off Tucker’s back. His legs held him up just long enough to check his horse’s feet, and then, satisfied, slumped down into the long, green grasses, just to set a spell. Tucker pulled up a mouthful of the green stems, and then, his nostrils flaring, found what else he was looking for beneath the trickle on a granite exposure of the hillside.

“So old Tuck’s found himself a water hole.” The man chuckled. He pondered on this latest good luck. “I guess we may as well stay here a day or two. Rest up, see if we can figure a way out of this God-forsaken country.” Old-Timer was used to conversing with Tucker. Sometimes using words, sometimes not. But they always understood each other. Tucker nickered, and then paid some more attention to the water hole.

With a groan, Old-Timer rose to his feet and reached out to his horse, loosening straps and buckles, pulling off the saddle and bridle. He laid them together on a flat, lichen-covered boulder near the water hole. After making sure there was enough water to spare, he pulled a tattered sponge loose from the saddle clip and dipped it into the little runoff culvert and stroked it over the sweaty, dusty shoulders, neck and legs. Only then did he dip his hands into the cool depths and splash his own hot, browned face. He sat down and leaned against the cool, shaded rock face, stretching his legs out in front of him. The man chuckled with real humor as he noticed the most recent rips and shredded areas in his faded black riding tights. He was almost ready to fashion a loincloth from a section of Tucker’s horse blanket. But the thought quickly made his expression serious again as he imagined how he might arrange his clothing and still be comfortable while riding.

The man pulled the small plastic bag from his pack and reverently opened it, unfolding a wrinkled and weather-stained sheet of paper. Forty-nine small tick marks decorated the edge of the crudely drawn map. With the stub of a pencil, Old-Timer put another mark. Now, that’s fifty, he thought. Fifty days, lost in this wilderness, this trail-crazed wilderness, a maze of trails that joined up with other trails, only to peter out, trails that had been made by off-road vehicles, only to dead end into rivers and creeks, game trails, cattle trails, and finally, his own trails, made when he was still frantically chasing his own tail up and down the canyons and hillsides. The only trail he never found was the one he was looking for, the one marked with the blue ribbons.

Now that Tucker had settled himself down to some serious eating, Old-Timer felt that he could finally satisfy his own stomach-growlings. The granola bars were long gone. The Slim Jims were just a greasy patch in the fabric of his pack. He had even licked up the crumbs from the pretzels he’d thrown in his shirt pocket that morning so long ago, back when he was innocent and believed in accurate maps and well-marked trails. He’d learned, after that, to make do for himself.

Pulling a few more threads from the hem of his shortening cotton shirt, he fluffed the material and arranged it carefully in a small, protected rock clef. He gathered small tinder and larger sticks and set them by to feed the fire that he was so adept at making by now. He pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle from his pack and unfolded it, revealing a shaped chunk of rock and a horseshoe. Taking the flint in one hand and the horseshoe in the other, he struck at it with the rock, sending a shower of sparks onto the threads, starting them to glowing. He blew air on the precious coal, carefully, and set bits of dry, splintered wood on it to catch fire.

Once the crackling fire was stable enough to satisfy the man, he turned to the next task—making his dinner. Some time back, probably twenty tick marks ago, he had managed to break his aluminum water bottle in half. Since he already had a couple of plastic bottles for water, and his pressing need was for a soup pot, he’d decided to sacrifice this one. He now filled it up to its ragged edge with water from the little rivulet and set it on three stones within the fire to come to a boil.

When the man had lain down in the grass, he had thought that he’d smelled a familiar odor. Now he went looking for that and found it, a patch of wild onion stems. He smiled, feeling the saliva rise, just from thinking about the flavor of wild onion soup. The soil was moist and gave up its white pearls with just a bit of tugging. He washed and peeled them, and then set them into the simmering water. He rummaged around in his bag again. This time he pulled out a folded white card. The scores dutifully written by the ride vets were now not as important as the treasure folded up within. He opened it flat and tipped out the dried sage leaves he had come across a week or so ago. Old-Timer smiled.

“Ok, Tuck. I need you now for this part.” Old-Timer approached his little horse with a fresh bit of cloth. He dipped it into the stream, and then stroked it over the cleanest part of the brown hide he could find, and then rinsed it in his gray plastic water bottle. After letting the sediments settle, he poured the slightly bitter, salty liquid into the bubbling soup. “Never could stand a soup without salt,” he said. Just before the soup was done, he threw in a handful of nettles to thicken the broth and add some more nutrition.

Finally he settled down with his meal. This wouldn’t do for very long, he knew. Not nearly enough calories. But maybe tomorrow, he’d catch a fish, or maybe scare a buzzard off a kill that was fresh enough to do for a man. The onions were really a find; he’d pull a handful, lay them on a rock to dry out in the hot afternoon sun and pack them for next time.

Old-Timer hadn’t given up hope completely yet. If he did that, he may as well just lay down and die! No, for Tucker’s sake if not his own. He knew that he had lost any chance of winning a prize for finishing, and that disappointed him. But getting out of this labyrinth would at least meet one of his personal goals. He snickered to himself. If he ever got out, he was going to rip off his bumper-sticker that said “To finish is to win,” and replace it with one that said, “To get out alive is to win.”

The tired man tied Tucker’s lead rope to a nearby tree branch and then wrapped himself up in the hairy horse blanket, glad for the warmth, not minding its rank odor. As he drifted off to sleep, he prayed for release from his recurring nightmare, but relief did not come. All night long, in his sleep, callous mountain bike riders were pulling yards of blue trail marker ribbons off and letting them blow away in the breeze.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I always like to create menus. I like to think, What is the perfect meal for this or that occasion? I make, in my mind, each component; I lay it out on the plate, I admire it, I serve it. Once I asked my husband, “What are your favorite foods? What would be your favorite meal?”

In my mind, I had already prepared my favorite: For the meat, Ham. That’s Ham with a capital “H.” The kind that comes with a bone in it and is cooked long and slow and carves loose in big sloppy savory slices. For the bread, sourdough loaves, generously slathered with butter and garlic and baked until it’s a bit crispy at the edges. For the vegetable, corn on the cob, not doubt about it. Buttered until it’s dripping off, and well salted. For my dessert, I chose strawberry shortcake. The whipped cream isn’t all that important, but the good quality vanilla ice-cream is. The shortcake is like my mother always made, a sweet biscuit glazed in sugar, split and served still warm with ice-cream and lots of sugared strawberries inside and on top. In answer to my question, my husband thought a bit and answered, “Roasted lamb, Ham, pork chops, and a great big T-bone steak!”

I think it’s a guy thing.

So recently, I was thinking again about what my favorite menu was. And I came to the conclusion that it was… Potluck! Yes, potluck dinner is my favorite menu. I’ve always thrived on variety, and that’s just what you get. Especially when the instructions are random, like, “Bring what you would want to eat, and we’ll trust that we get a good spread.” Sometimes that works out, but sometimes that means a whole table full of iced lemon cake, brownies, Mrs. Smith’s apple pies, ambrosia, chocolate chip cookies and a lone bucket of fried chicken.

There are some foods that I think were just invented for potlucks. They always show up, but I’m not sure they are real food, since they are never on a regular dinner table. And they taste too good to be real food, sort of like potato chips. I’m thinking of something called “company potatoes.” I ate this at a potluck dinner and could hardly restrain myself. From what I could tell, the main ingredients were grease, starch, and dairy product. Inquiring more closely, I discovered it was composed of frozen hash browns, condensed cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and cheddar cheese. Mmmm….

In a good potluck spread, you’ll see the same beloved friends. Bucket of fried chicken, lasagna, enchilada casserole. Chicken casserole with broccoli and creamy cheese stuff, a crock-pot full of beans. Meatballs. Green salad, potato salad, macaroni salad (at least two versions) and Chinese chicken salad. Rolls and butter. At least one Jello dish. Chips and French onion dip. A veggie tray. For dessert, see above.

Even though a potluck is sort of a chancy thing, you will find a certain predictability. Sometimes a party is held as a potluck. But most of the time, a hostess will want more control over the victuals, and that’s when she plans her own menu. So what would be the perfect menu for a Bluegrass Jam party?

Let’s plan that most of the attendees will be playing and singing. For that reason, I’m going to skip the tortilla chips and nuts. There is nothing worse that trying to sing while little particles of chips and nuts are tickling your throat. Oily finger food is also a no-no. Who wants to get greasy paw-prints on their vintage Gibson Mastertone? Fussy items like soufflés are out. Why would anyone want to spend any more time messing around in the kitchen with something fancy when good music is being enjoyed by other people, and you’re stuck at the oven?

So I think I would put some pulled pork in a crock-pot, a few foil-wrapped sourdough loaves, very lightly buttered and heated, out beside it, accompanied by a veggie tray and a couple of dips. Sodas and beer in a well iced chest, and apple pie at the side.

What’s your perfect menu for your favorite kind of party? Or do you prefer to trust to potluck?