Friday, December 16, 2011


It seems to be the nature of humans to take ideas, core beliefs, and basic philosophies and condense their essence down to mottos and sayings, abbreviations and acronyms. The athlete says, “No pain without gain,” and the die-hard Bluegrass traditionalists say, “If it ain’t got a banjo, it ain’t Bluegrass!” A family returning home from a long trip may look around at the shabby surroundings and say sincerely, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” I’m not terribly fond of apples, but I believe there is truth in the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and so I find ways to crunch down on a Honeycrisp or Pink Lady every day or so.

Some time back I learned the difference between an abbreviation and an acronym. An abbreviation can be the initials of the main subject, such as I.R.S., the government organization we love to hate. Yesterday I read a little story about a father who used an abbreviation of words as a saying for his young son. Whenever the son was in a situation where he might lose his composure, become upset, or use bad judgment due to peer pressure, he should say the secret code word to himself: “Essie.” Essie would help the growing boy to cope with difficult situations and difficult people. Years later the boy realized that Essie was the way his father packaged the advice of “SC,” or self-control.

Acronyms are fun. They are when you take the first letters of the main object or saying and put them together to make a pronounceable word. Some acronyms started out as abbreviations and have actually become real words. Think of snafu and radar. “Situation normal; all f*ouled* up,” and “Radio detecting and ranging.” Some years ago when I was dieting, I wanted a saying or acronym to put it all together and inspire me. With much tortuous wordsmithing I came up with S.E.P.T.I.C, “Special eating plan to improve cuteness.”

Our family has developed various sayings over the years. When we say them, we don’t have to try to come up with the words to convey just the right meaning of what we are thinking; the saying does that. We all know what you mean when you say “When you work, WORK. When you play, PLAY!” When you are fixing the fence or stacking the firewood then put all your attention there. Work hard and steady, and get it done! And then, when you kick back with your musical instrument or get your horse ready for a ride, don’t worry about whether your stack was straight or keep taking breaks to go back to tighten the fencing.

One set of sayings that is particularly important to me is “Could’a, would’a, should’a,” and “What’s done’s done.” I have a bad habit of second-guessing myself and regretting what I should or shouldn’t have done.” Saying these to myself helps to put a bookend on that row of worry and second thoughts falling off the shelf of my mind.

When different members of the family were moving around, going to school, still trying to get settled, my sister gave this saying, “Where family is, that’s where home is.” My mother used to say, “Every unpleasant experience you have, if it doesn’t kill you, helps you learn something.” I loved how the exception for death was inserted!

The most profound statement in our family is also the most enigmatic. I can’t remember whether I introduced it to my mom after I read it somewhere, or if she told it to me after hearing about it. It is short, only three words. I was moved enough by this saying to put it in counted cross-stitch and frame it, one of only two cross-stitch projects I ever made. My mom hung it by her front door. It said, “It Doesn’t Matter.” When someone worried excessively over an insignificant problem, you could say, “It doesn’t matter,” and you didn’t have to explain your advice further. The saying wasn’t just words; it was a philosophy. Don’t fret and worry over the things that aren’t important in the scope of life, because they just don’t matter that much. Eventually we quit saying it; we just pointed up to it and smiled.

Years ago, the framed saying would go crooked, probably when someone shut the front door too hard. Picture straighteners can’t stand that state, so someone would jump up to slide the string on the back of the frame along the nail to make it level again. But one time I stopped my mother who had stepped over to fix it. “Mom,” I said solemnly, “Really, It Doesn’t Matter.” She stopped, laughed, and stepped back.

It hangs crooked to this day.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friends, Family, Food

Ruby Tequila's in Amarillo Texas, coming back from our road trip to Oklahoma for the National Cavalry competition. October 2011.

Good food and drink multiplies the pleasure that friends have when they get together!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New Goals

New Goals

Do you clean, trim, and cut your vegetables all up before you begin making the Ratatouille? Do you read your instruction manual before you will even turn on your new digital camera? Do you do your homework before you read your book, clean out the fridge before you watch that DVD, get groceries before you sit down with a cup of tea and a cookie? Do you clean the living room before you play your banjo?

If you cannot identify with the examples I listed above, then I’m not talking to you. In fact, you can’t even understand what I’m talking about. And that probably includes anyone under 18 years of age. Delayed Gratification to them probably means having to wait another 2 weeks until their birthday.

If you can see yourself in my examples, then we share some personality characteristics. I can’t take a whole lot of credit for trying to get things done, be on time, be ready and prepared; they aren’t virtues, they’re really just more a part of what makes me feel good and be comfortable with what is going on with me. I like things to be tidy and uncluttered around me; I feel less distracted and more at ease. I become very disappointed in myself when things under my control don’t go just right.

These traits can serve a person well. One can become successful with a career, manage money prudently, keep on track with repairs around the house, save time by not running around at the last minute to pick up some essential groceries. A person can end up not being embarrassed over the state of the living room carpet when unexpected company comes by.

But often, and maybe even usually, the system breaks down. The groceries are in the clean fridge, the cat hair is off the couch, that medical issue was researched, dinner was ready on time, the clothes are ironed, the bills are paid, the special project—cleaning out the closet—is accomplished, and now it’s 10:00pm and I’m beat. The banjo is dusty, the new book is still unread, the sketchbook is still white and unmarked.

And tomorrow looks to be the same.

But it doesn’t have to be. I’ve always been a big proponent of periodically re-evaluating life and writing out what I want to see in mine, using a template of short, medium and long-range goals. (I’m a big fan of lists.) I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to persuade other people to enjoy life, to make time for the things they love doing; that’s what makes life worthwhile!

Now it’s become important for me to follow my own advice. Time is a precious element. It can’t be created, it can’t be destroyed; it just is, and there is only so much of it in existence in each person’s life. It’s time for me to let go of some things, change some things, add some things to my days and I’m looking forward to that.

I hope I'll be writing more, reading more, sketching more, and running more. I’ll be looking at my lists and my time and trying to do what makes life satisfying and worthwhile to me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kids Are Picky Eaters

Kids are picky eaters.

You may ask how I can make such a bold, confident statement. I have two impeccable qualifications: I was a kid, and I have four kids.

When I was a kid, I didn’t feel like I was an especially picky eater. It seemed that my few requirements wouldn’t be hard to meet. Number 1: No cooked carrots. Raw was fine; cooked was absolutely out of the question. Number 2: No cooked squash. I’m sure it would have been no raw squash either if I’d had an inkling something like that was actually consumed. We are talking about the zucchini type. I don’t think my mom ever graced the table with winter squash. Number 3: No food on the plate was ever allowed to touch another food that happened to be on the same plate. If that ever happened, then the contaminated ring of food was left alone, leaving my plate looking like a tropical sea with coral atolls surrounding melamine lagoons.

I still remember a rare test of wills at the table when I was probably 7 yrs old. My mom had placed a serving of cooked carrots on my plate and insisted that I eat at least some. I stood there looking at those carrots (for some reason I remember standing…) for a good half hour, knowing there was no way on God’s Green Earth I could eat even one piece. She did not harangue me; it wasn’t her way, but eventually let me go.

Ironically, I now really enjoy cooked carrots and barely tolerate raw ones.

When I was little, I loved Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and could actually tolerate a “mess of greens.” But squash was absolutely out of the question. No, never, no way. My very favorite vegetable was fried okra, only we called it “okrey.” We would cut it off the stalk, Mom would slice it, roll it in Albers yellow cornmeal, and fry it in a cast iron skillet with Crisco. It would end up as crunchy green/black morsels flecked with cornmeal and glistening with grease. I adored fried okrey! Coming to the dinner table one evening, I was met by a strange platter of food in the middle. Some vegetable had been sliced long-ways into quarter-inch thick pieces, dredged in flour, fried, and laid out on a paper towel on the platter. It had green edges and a cream colored center. Mom always cut squash cross-ways, so I knew it couldn’t be that.

“What is this?” I asked, suspiciously.
“Fried okrey,” Mom said, calmly.

I cannot explain why I believed that, but I must have, because I ate it. And I liked it. I still didn’t like “squash” for another fifteen years, but now it shows up in my cooking almost every day during the season; steamed, stir-fried, casseroled, raw, etc.

Somehow, in the last 40 years, I have abandoned my “food no touch” rule. In fact, my favorite way to eat a meal is in a shallow bowl, where I can enjoy each serving as it mingles with the one next to it.

You’d think I’d be more tolerant of my own kids’ peculiar food notions. And maybe I was, a little. But one daughter has a story about where I made her eat carrots even though she pleaded she would throw up, which she remembers doing. We did make spaghetti accommodations for the other daughter by not mixing the sauce with the noodles so she could just have the noodles and parmesan cheese.

I don’t know the perfect way to handle a kid’s likes and dislikes, but my best guess would be a regular habit of offering, but not forcing, offering again, not forcing all through the growing up years. My son, the most picky eater of the bunch is now 18 years old. He used to enjoy about seven things: white bread (wheat bread had “shards” in it), peanut butter (but not on the bread—on a spoon), Tillamook medium cheddar cheese, broccoli (well-cooked), milk, dill pickles, and Spoon-sized Frosted Mini-Wheats, eaten dry. Over time, and without pressure, he has added many things to his preferred diet: bloody-rare steak, coffee, dried cranberries, Chinese Hot and Sour soup, tomatoes, Garlic Chicken pizza, and Honey Bunches of Oats, still eaten dry.

There are many things that we, the parents, thoroughly enjoy and believe our kids ought to also. Along with good food, we want them to like good music; Bluegrass, Mozart, The Chieftans, Old Time. We want them to consider choosing an occupation that pleases us. We want to share tastes in art, in cars.

But I think we should continue to follow the “food” model. Face it, have you ever really been able to make your kid eat anything? It is a battle that will always be won by the kid. And really, it would be a horrible thing to press your kids to join in a career that they didn’t like and only did to please the folks. I believe it is a real gift to give your kids the feeling that they are free to explore, enjoy and be what they want to be.

If you do want to encourage a preference, be patient; offer, don’t force. In time, you might be surprised at how the kids will come around to enjoying horseradish and Cezanne. And the kid who had no use for his parent’s music while young just might change his mind as time goes by.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Last weekend I spent as “Cooky” to a very special group of people, the members of CHAS, the California Historical Artillery Society. CHAS sponsors and puts on an American Civil War reenactment and Living History event about the middle of July each year in Duncan’s Mills, about 30 minutes west of Santa Rosa along the Russian River.

Because this is our own event, and we are the hosts, not the guests of the other reenacting clubs, our turnout is high, though we are spread k tent. Somehow I had to satisfy an average of 40 hungry soldiers from Friday night through Sunday afternoon with food, beverage and snacks. Friday night I made the usual spaghetti dinner, cleaned up, set the cook tent in order and laid down to sleep in my nearby canvas A-tent, my alarm set for 5am. I knew that I would have to be on top of every step in the morning because it was crucial to be absolutely punctual for the meal-time. Officers Call was at 8, and breakfast was at 7:30am. And the worst was that my usual helper was handling the front gate. I was on my own!

I love the first half hour of the breakfast preparation. I crawl out of my sleeping bag while it is still a little dark and pull on my wool trousers, brogans, cotton shirt and shell jacket. I smooth down my wild hair with my wool forage cap. The sight that greets me outside the door of my tent is the lone horse watch sitting in front of the fire that has been kept going all night. Sometimes the horse watch is dozing with the cape of his greatcoat pulled over his head, sometimes he greets me with an offer of help.

The first task I must do is to make a big pot of coffee. I fill the 2 gallon pot with water from the water can and set it on to boil on the 3 burner propane stove we have hidden inside the cook tent. Two oil lamps light the well-stocked tent with a homey glow, and the burner heats up the chilly interior comfortably. Once the coffee is out and set on the campfire grate to keep warm, I can begin putting the breakfast together.

Today I am serving ham; sometimes I have sausages, sometimes I cook bacon. I have already cooked 2 ham halves at home and sliced them up. Now I fill up a Dutch oven with the slices and set them over the fire with coals heaped on top. In a cooler part of the fire, I set a Dutch oven filled with tortillas to slowly warm up. I have learned that a big pot of oatmeal will stay warm for a long time, so I like to get that cooked and out of the way early. After it is boiled up, I wrap the pot in a wool blanket and set it out on the planks we use as a serving board.

I try to have 2 kinds of fruit to set out; grapes are always popular, so I have brought a few pounds of those, and I rope a volunteer to cut up a pineapple that I have brought. Someone has donated a watermelon, so I get someone to cut that up also and put the pieces in a bowl.

I’m getting more volunteers for help now, and that’s a good thing because of the other breakfast tasks looming. Two large wash tubs have to be filled and set on the fire; one with wash water and one with rinse water, for everyone washes their own tin plates and utensils after they eat. The drinking water dispenser has to be filled so everyone can fill their canteens, and the hand washing station needs to be topped off with warm water and soap. In between, people are trying to give me their weekend chow bill payment so they won’t have to worry about it later.

Condiments and toppings, all poured and transferred into period correct containers, are being flung onto the serving board by me and by my volunteers. Milk and juice are set out in metal pitchers. The hot Dutch ovens are hefted up on the boards. The last 10 minutes before breakfast call are reserved for the eggs. It takes 10 minutes to scramble them to perfection, and when they are done, I’ll not have my eggs wait! Because of the crowd, I’ve decided to add another dozen and a half eggs to the usual flat of 5 dozen I cook. The big skillet is full of eggs with a half stick of butter to cook them in.

The eggs come out at 7:30 sharp and I ring the triangle. Right on time! For the moment I sit behind the boards in my chair drinking a cup of coffee, taking pleasure in the sight of folks filling their plates and enjoying their meal around the fire and in small clusters near tents and on sitting on “cracker boxes.”

It doesn’t take long for the food to disappear, and guys begin to head off to where they need to be, rolling rounds, Officers Call, the “sinks,” training session for the new drivers. So then I eat a little breakfast too and take a few minutes to relax before it is time to clean up. It won’t be long until I have to start getting the place ready for lunch, and I’m already thinking about how soon 11:30am will be here!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fish and Chips at the Coast

Nothing says “The Coast” like seafood.

The Pismo and Morro Bay area is my favorite section of the California Coast. I’ll admit that could be because I haven’t been to any of the more southern beaches, but until then, I’ll pick the San Luis Obispo area.

We went to Pismo Beach or thereabouts about once a year when I was a kid. I can still see and smell and taste the evening there. We would be sitting around a low campfire, quietly talking, listing to stories from my dad. Mom would be in the camper, or over the Coleman stove getting dinner ready. Soon our plates were ready, with fresh boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce, a wedge of iceberg lettuce and a lemon slice, and maybe some cottage cheese.

For lunch the next day, we usually went by a fish and chips place. We didn’t have a favorite one; we liked to try different places. Clam chowder, fish and chips, steamer clams, those were the usual fare. We would always take a turn through Giovanni’s Fish Market and see the live crabs and rows of fresh fish behind the glass.

A couple weekends ago, I went to Pismo with 2 of my daughters. Even though I’d kept the tradition with my sisters and our kids, Melinda and Loreleigh hadn’t been since they were little. We had a nice little tent spot on the far edge of Pismo North Beach campground where we struck our three tents.

We made easy dinner, out of cans mostly, but did try to enjoy a little campfire. I’d brought some wood and kindling from home, but just couldn’t get it going! It smoked and sputtered all evening. I thought I had brought wood that was too green, but when the same wood burned brightly the next night, I realized that the misty fog was keeping the humidity too high for a good burn.

Morro Bay is a great place for a seafood lunch. We loaded up Bingo and Melinda’s puppy Tess and drove up there, just skating in before the lunch rush. One of the best things about Morro Bay is that the parking is free! We got a spot in the lot right across from the heart of the strip.

A digression: have you ever seen a ruder parking situation as the black pickup who takes up 4 (four!) parking spaces by covering the “four corners?” And it’s not like it was a new pristine paint job either!

Rose’s Landing seemed like a good place for lunch. The dog-friendly patio was perfect, with a great view of the bay, glass fronted to protect from the wind, and great service. The service surprised me, since it had been so bad the last time we were there. Obviously something had changed. The fish and chips were battered. I usually prefer a more breaded texture, but these were so hot and crisp and obviously seconds out of the fryer that they were very nice. The girls order clams and chips. Sometimes fried clam strips can be like rubber bands, but these were tender and flavorful. A little pricey, but a lovely lunch.

Afterwards we drove out to the Rock, climbed up on the “Do Not Enter” area to look down at the wild sea, which wasn’t particularly wild that day. Sometimes you can see the spray flying up over the top of the rocks, but not today. We parked at the lot looking up at the Strand to watch the windsurfers and a cute little “wind buggy” madly tearing up and down the beach.

Back at the campground, we gathered up beach blankets and books and took the dogs out to enjoy the sunset over the sea. It was hard to get settled for very long, since the tide was coming in, and Tess became a digging maniac.
She reminded me of “The Diggingest Dog,” a kid’s book that I hated but my children loved, so I had to read it over, and over, and over…

Later, back at the now merrily burning campfire, I opened a bottle of Rosa D’Oro Muscat Canelli for after-dinner glasses. A fruity sweet-tart wine, nice for a not-too-heavy dessert.

If I was allowed just one indulgence, I think I would spend it on cinnamon rolls, those big, yeasty spicy specialty bakery ones, with frosting and nuts. There is a shop in Pismo that sells those. We walked up the beach to town on our last morning for our cinnamon rolls from “Old West Cinnamon Rolls” bakery. Warm, nutty, cinnamony, but not cloyingly sweet. It’s a good thing I don’t live near this place!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Avoid These!

Summer weekends, holidays, gathering of friends, travel… Sounds like an upcoming event? You bet! It’s the Father’s Day Bluegrass Music Festival at Grass Valley California! And, as far as I’m concerned, one of the top items, the important category to plan for, is the FOOD you will be enjoying while you’re there. (I’m rubbing my hands together just thinking about it!)
You’ll be bringing out all your diet-cheaters for this week. (Don’t lie!) Chips and dip. Thick marbled steaks for the barby. Homemade ice cream (You know who you are!). Salami, cookies, and all your favorite booze. And then, for your “cooking” day off, you’ll tour the strip and pick up a caramel mocha, Lazy Dog ice cream, and a big paper plate of biscuits and gravy. Yum!
But do consider, there is a dark side to some foods that make them either inappropriate or contraindicated for festival feasting. And that is where I, Dear Reader, hope to share with you from some of my experiences.

Foods to avoid at the Father’s Day Festival:

1. Oh, this one will be hard, I know. But really folks, try to avoid roasted garlic heads. Roasted or barbequed garlic heads are among my family’s favorite appetizers. You take a head of garlic, rub off some of the paper, slice off the top half-inch, drizzle olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt and either bake in a garlic roasting dish or throw on the slow side of the barbeque. When they are done, the tender little cloves are slightly caramelized and will pop right out of their paper wrappings. You can spread them like butter on toast or crackers, or you can just eat them plain. Wow! Food ecstasy. But it comes with a price. And as soon as the essential aromas hit your bloodstream, you’ll know it. And everyone around you will too. And everyone who follows you into the necessary room will too--for 24 hours. So all of your friends, at least the ones who didn’t share your garlics out of self-defense, will probably try to avoid the garlic bubble you have created around yourself. And that’s not fun, at a Bluegrass Music Festival. (Unless, of course, you are willing to put up with that in exchange for plenty of elbow room in the audience area.)

2. Candy. Oh, not ALL candy, just those little candies that come, each and every one of them, in their own special individual crackly paper, cellophane and foil wrappings. When my kids were young, Halloween was always a cause of despair for me. All four of them would fill their paper lunch bags with individually wrapped Halloween candy and then stash them. For about 5 days following, I was constantly picking up the papers, nagging and threatening. Finally, I got smart. I said, “For each candy paper I find not in the trash, I get to pick one candy from each of your bags.” Try it Parents; it works.
At a festival, I really enjoy a clean campsite. There is nothing that will destroy that quicker that a carpet of fluttering multicolor candy wrappers. Get a big bag of M&Ms or Skittles instead.

3. This tip is for Fair Food Row. You like deep fry? C’mon! You know you do, yeah! Those funnel cakes? Yesss! You knew that was what I was talking about. Well, do yourself a favor and buy the one funnel cake you have allotted yourself on the first day of the festival while the grease is fresh. I’ve had one on both ends, and believe me, the one on the front end is better.

4. I hesitate to mention this one, because you’ll bring it; everyone does. But there is a hazard to cooking it. The food is bacon, and the hazard is that everyone within smelling distance will show up. You can’t disguise that smoky, porky aroma. So if you do risk bringing some, just make sure you bring more.

So load up your ice chests with a few healthful vegetables (pre-washed) to ease the guilt and lots of your favorite foods and treats, put some cash in your pocket for a teriyaki plate and a cold one at Verne’s and you’ll have a great time!

Monday, June 6, 2011

ECO; aka "Edible Cake-like Object

I made an ECO for my daughter's birthday cake.

We've been trying a new way of eating around here. From what I understand it is some kind of Paleolithic-Primitive-Primal-Carnivore diet. In other words, no grains. Vegetables, yes. Grains, those things that man has modified from the wild seed, cultivated, harvested, threshed and ground to flour are out. This is sort of an experiment. We are seeing what it does for weight, health, and, ahem, bodily functions.

For a disclaimer, I have no qualms about doing up cakes and pies and breads and stuff for other people. In fact, I just made 2 graduation cakes for my kids' graduation party. And I even had a small piece. Yum!

But for Bethany's birthday cake (today) I was just feeling really creative. And she is not all that fond of regular cake anyway. So I decided to create an edible cake-like object for her special cake.

I decided to start with a cheese ball recipe. If there is one thing we are all mad about in this house, it's cheese. I tweaked it a bit and came up with these ingredients: shredded 3-cheese blend, shredded medium cheddar, low-fat cream cheese (neufchatel), bacon bits, green onion, garlic powder, mayonaise and dried onion flakes.

I lined a round dish with plastic wrap and pressed the cheese mixture into it, refrigerating it overnight. About an hour before serving, I turned it out onto a cake plate. I frosted it with more cream cheese and decorated it with... OK, I hate to admit that I actually bought some of this stuff. It is seductive and cute and tasty. It's... EASY CHEESE! It comes out of a spray can, like whipped cream, and the tip makes the product cute and curly. And we had the choice of two colors: Orange, and Bright Orange.

It was great fun. I had to resist the urge to hold it up, aim it at my mouth and let go at the trigger. At first we made fun of it, but we all had more respect for the stuff when Loreleigh read the ingredient list, and the first one listed was "cheddar cheese."

I made a little pastry bag and squirted some Easy Cheese into it so I could write the words with a fine line. Then, with a dash of inspiration, I accented the ECO with dried tomato "flowers" and fresh rosemary.

We served the ECO in thin wedges with Pink Lady apple slices and hot tea. A good time was had by all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Under the Pressure Cooker

About a week ago I bought my first pressure cooker.

I remember my mom using one every now and then. I didn't know enough to be scared of them back then, but as I began to realize how they worked, I was able to imagine the intense atmospheric pressure building inside a metal pot and how it could go off like a bomb, scattering shrapnel every which way, after it first took off your head.

Since their main advantage is that they cook things fast, I figured I had enough time to be safe and cook things slow.

But I am the curious sort when it comes to cooking tools and gadgets. So when I saw this 6 liter T Fal pressure cooker in great shape at the thrift store, I thought I'd give it a whirl.

The first thing I had to do was to figure out how to use it. God Bless the Internet! I found 2 important, nay, essential items there. One was the complete owners manual with 8 recipes. The other thing I found out from Miss Vickie's official pressure cooking site was that T Fal cookers are considered "overpriced and under-pressured." The overpriced part I didn't worry about, since mine was definitely not overpriced (about $10), but the under-pressured part meant that I wouldn't be able to use regular pressure cooker recipes without a little time conversion on my part. T Fal operates at 13 psi, while the standard is 15 psi. I finally found the fine print on that, which was to add about 20 percent more cooking time.

Since I sort of figured my main goal was to see if I would even like to own one of these things, I could put up with the lower pressure while I checked out the process. And there is also that secret satisfaction you get when you land an "overpriced" item on the cheap!

Now, back to the recipes, those 8 recipes. T Fal is made in France or some European place where they don't use sensible measurements like cups and teaspoons and such. They use grams and liters and some strange thing called "dessertspoonfulls." Ok, I didn't flunk math, and I'm pretty good on common sense estimating, so I can get through that metric stuff. But you'd think more of the recipes would be practical and enticing. Here they are:

Vegetable Soup: 4 potatoes, 2 leeks, 5 carrots, 2 turnips, 1.5 l (2 1/2 pt) of water, salt and pepper, 3 dessertspoonfuls of fresh cream (optional).

Basically, you cut them up, put them in the pot, pressure cook it, then stir in the cream. But really, turnips and leeks? Actually, I like leeks, but in America, you'd expect to pull an onion out and use it.

Citrus Cod Parcels: 4 cod fillet steaks each weighing 150 g, 1 grapefruit, 1 orange, the juice of 1 lime, 2 tomatoes, 1 onion, 2 chopped shallots, 60 g (2 oz) butter, 1 glass of dry white wine
(125 ml/4 1/2 fl oz), a few leaves of fresh tarragon, salt and pepper.

Here, they want you to use 4 sheets of aluminum foil to make 4 packets of these ingredients and then cook them in the optional steamer basket. (which I don't have) And aren't shallots basically another type of onion?

Roast Pork: 1 kg (2 1/4 lb) of boned pork rib roast or loin (keep the bones), 2 carrots cut into thick slices, 3 cloves of garlic, 2 onions (chopped), 1 sprig of thyme and 1 bayleaf, 3 tablespoon oil, 2 glasses of white wine (250 ml/9 fl oz), 1 dessertspoonful of sugar,salt and pepper.

I do like the frequent references to white wine, but there is a confusing part here. In the directions, they have you "Brown the roast and the crushed bones in the oil in the pressure cooker." Crushed bones? Do I take a meat mallet and crush them myself? Do I wrap them in brown paper and put them behind my rear tire and run over them a couple times? (remind me to explain how I dispatched a crippled baby rabbit sometime).

Chef's special boiled beef and vegetables: 1.2 kg of beef (silverside or brisket), 800 g (1 3/4 lb) of old potatoes, 1/2 a lemon, 1 onion spiked with 3 cloves,3 carrots, 3 leeks, 3 turnips, 1 stick of celery, 1/2 a celeriac, 1 clove of garlic, 1 bunch of fresh mixed herbs, 4 dessertspoonfuls of Port gherkins, cooking salt, salt and pepper.

First off, Americans do not refer to "boiled beef" in a menu selection. It sounds bland, tough, and entirely too British. But, it is the "Chef's Special," so it might be appetizing.

And next, what the heck is a "silverside?" Obviously something that European cows have evolved separately.

"Old potatoes." Too late; I threw them out. They were starting to leak and stink.

Leeks and turnips again, but this time we'll add something called celeriac, which I don't even know how to pronounce. But I think I've seen it in the produce section. Or was that a fennel bulb?

And now the biggest mystery: Port Gherkins. I know what Port is. I know what Gherkins are, little dill pickles. So I'd guess that means pickles brined with Port. But how do you get a desserspoonfull of them?

Ratatouille: 5 courgettes cut into slices, 4 aubergines cut into cubes, 4 large tomatoes (peeled and
cut into segments), 2 diced red peppers, 1 green pepper cut into strips, 2 large chopped onions, 3 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed, 1 sprig of fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf,1 sprig of rosemary, 1 small bunch of fresh basil, 1/2 a bundle of fresh coriander, 6 dessertspoonfuls of olive oil, salt and pepper.

Thanks to the movie, we all know how to say "Ratatouille," even if we still don't know how to spell it.

OK, I know what aubergines are, but what the heck are courgettes? For this, I have to go to wikipedia, and I find out they are... zucchini! Although I enjoy the word zucchini, I think courgette has a ring to it and I may adopt it for awhile and see who I can impress.

Caramelised three apple compote: 4 Braeburn apples, 4 Granny Smith apples, 4 Coxes Orange apples, 100 g (4 oz) of pine nuts, 60 g (2 oz) of butter, 100 g (4 oz) of brown sugar, 2 pinches of ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence, 1 pinch of ground ginger.

I have 2 questions here. What are Coxes Orange apples? Back to wikipedia, where I find, " Cox's Orange Pippin accounts for over 50% of the UK acreage of dessert apples."
Since there aren't any in America, we substitute with what we imagine them to taste like.
The other thing I worry about is that the directions explicitly say to use at least "250 ml (1/2 pint)" of liquid while pressure cooking. I don't see any water or other liquid in this one.

Mini Caramel custards: 250 ml (9 fl oz) of milk, 1/2 a vanilla pod cut in two, 3 egg yolks, 100 g (4 oz) of caster sugar, a few drops of vinegar.

I find out that caster sugar is what we call "superfine sugar."

Basque chicken: 1 whole chicken weighing 1.5 kg (3 1/4 lb), cut into pieces by your butcher or
4 chicken portions, 1 x 400g tin of peeled whole tomatoes, 1 x 400g tin of red peppers, 1 x 400g tin of green peppers, 3 chopped cloves of garlic, 3 sliced onions, 1 bunch of fresh mixed herbs, 2 glasses of white wine (250 ml/9 fl oz), 4 dessertspoonfuls of olive oil, salt and pepper.

And another thing, sometimes I use a REALLY big spoon for dessert. Especially if it's a rootbeer float.

This one sort of offends me. Maybe European women don't cut up their own chickens, but they American girls cut up their own chickens, by golly!

More white wine. OK, maybe this one will work.

So, what did I choose to inaugurate my cooker with? White rice.

The Cooking Times list showed that it should take 7 minutes. I put it all together, sealed it up and turned on the heat. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I should have a riot shield up in front of my face and torso. But I needn't have worried. I had done something wrong with the gasket and steam didn't come out the hole it was supposed to; it came out everywhere else.

I discovered that the gasket had crescents in it that had to match up with a pin. So I just salvaged the rice as well as I could.

quote at the table "Hey, this rice is nice and sticky, it is easy to eat with the chopsticks! Uh, is it supposed to be like this?"

Next try, the Three Apple caramel compote thingy. Same problem with the steam. This time I found out there is a small pin that has to go in a little hole in the gasket. Sheesh! Salvage the Three Apple Compote by stewing it.

But the next try was... SUCCESS! Yes, I cooked what could not possibly go wrong. I cooked some water. About a liter of the stuff. The little red pressure indicator popped up, although it was hard to see behind the cookie sheet I was using to shield my face and torso, the little steam dial gadget shot steam out like it was supposed to, and then I used to quick cool method of running cold water over the lid to get the pressure down and open the pot.

Voila! Hot cooked water!

Friday, May 6, 2011

When All Hell Breaks Loose

What will you do when all Hell breaks loose? Will you freak? Will you cry for your mommy? Will you follow the lemmings off the cliff? Or will you hunker down and eat whatever you have to, to survive?
I have a pretty strong survival instinct. I am good at imagining disastrous scenarios and the kits that should be prepared to experience them. I am also pretty good at improvising.

For example:
You have taken a drive out in the mountains. It's lovely, and you are thoroughly enjoying the scenery. Suddenly you realize how badly you want a cup of coffee! In fact, it becomes all you can think of, and you are even getting a little sleepy and wish you had the caffeine. No problem! Because you Are Prepared, you have stashed a few Starbucks Via packets in your console kit. Of course you have 4 stainless steel bottles of water in the back seat because you never go anywhere without a day's supply. You have a couple Sierra Cups also tucked away under the seat. Oops! No heat. No problem! Because you are also prepared to fight germs, you have a bottle of Purell in the console. You squirt a pile of Purell in one cup and light it off (you DO have matches or a lighter, right?), make up your coffee in the the other cup, and then you hold your coffee cup above the blue flame until it's hot enough.

Well, if you are the type of person who really can imagine this happening, then have I got a book for you. When All Hell Breaks Loose, by Cody Lundin.

It is totally packed full of the best ideas and practical solutions for surviving during a catastrophe. I love it how he doesn't squirm around and pretty up the words needed to get his advice across. He's not vulgar, just plain spoken in a way you can't misunderstand what he's talking about, from making emergency toilets to eating rodents. And that's where Food Adventures enters in!

Mice are Nice
(and here, I quote)
Mice can be put directly onto the coals of a fire whole... The heat from the coals will singe off the fur, but it will take some rubbing with a stick... to get off all the hair. Singed hair would make a T-bone taste awful so do a good job. If after the singeing process you think skinning is easier, be my guest. The skin will peel right off after precooking in the coals.

As the hair is being singed, the mouse will start to bloat up from the heat. Take this opportunity to scrape lightly at its abdominal cavity with something or gently tear it open with your fingers. At this time, most of the guts should begin to pop out of the opening you created. Near the end of the intestines, you will clearly see mouse t*rds headng toward the an*s. Get rid of all this stuff, but the heart, lungs, and almost everything else up near the head and middle of the body is good eating.

Once the mouse has been gutted and the hair singed, it's time to cook it on the coals. I like to cook them until they're between crispy and chewy, turning as necessary. Don't under cook them, but don't turn them into a piece of charcoal either form over cooking.

There are three bites to a mouse, the middle and rear being the best (in my opinion)... The head isn't bad, but eat it hot, as mouse brains suck when they're cold.

And I unquote.

If you read this book, you might be tempted to give up during the first 60 pages. That's where he's putting forth his philosophies on being prepared. Of course YOU don't need this; you already have that point of view, otherwise why would you be reading it? Just skim this part and you'll be rewarded with the rest of this fascinating and very practical book on being prepared for just about anything!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pt. Reyes Backpacking, Pt.2

We took our morning coffee on the beach.

We watched the mouth of the stream collapsing the banks of sand that it had carved. I felt like I couldn’t take enough pictures to record the beauty that I saw.

After breakfasting on Grape-nuts mixed with trail mix and powdered milk watered up, we hit the trail. This was to be our first long day of hiking.

I couldn’t believe the wildflowers! I sketched many of them, took pictures of a few, and tried to memorize the rest. I had not spared the weight for any nature guides, but hoped to identify what I could. The best find I had was a low charming fuzzy little flower with a unique looking three petal arrangement. 'Elegant cat’s ears' was what I found out it was called. The lupine was everywhere. And ordinary mallow sported extra-lovely pink blooms.

We decided to take what beach access trails we had the time for and turned off down Sculptured Beach Trail. Not long into the decent, we met a couple with a dog who asked us breathlessly if we had a cell phone. Yes, but our phones had not had service since we arrived at Pt Reyes peninsula. A man had fallen from the cliff and was badly hurt down below! We agreed that they would continue up the trail to the ranger station and we would go down and see what help we could offer.

Erin had had rescue training, and besides that had the best bedside manner of the three of us, so she slipped down the little rock ledge to the crescent beach where he had drug himself the night before to gain shelter from the tides.

Melinda and I tossed down water bottles and food as she requested. We had some brownies left over from the night before, and she reported back that he said it “was like heaven” when she gave one to him. At first we were concerned about giving him food, but when we found out he was a trauma surgeon, we figured he knew what he was about.

When his buddies showed up, and when the rescue helicopters flew in, we knew our part was over, so we slipped away back up the trail.

We took the opportunity to check out other beach accesses along the trail, all of them lovely and satisfying, with waterfalls, cliffs, iron-stained rock, and crashing waves.

We were very excited to see our next campsite, Wildcat, laid out before us near the end of the day. We’d heard that our site, #7, was “The best one,” and I believe that was true. It was slightly protected from the sea breeze, close to the beach trail, and felt private.

The wild mustard was blooming insanely over the whole camp area. When I think back to the camp, all I can see in my mind’s eye is yellow, radioactive yellow.

We set up our tents and checked out the beach trail.

Part of the trail was covered in a trickling stream. I took a big deep step in a sticky mud bog walking down. But that wasn’t too bad because after that, I didn’t have to be careful anymore!

We took our dinner, which was chicken tortilla soup, down to the beach to eat. Thankfully, the wind was nothing like it had been the evening before.

We sat in the sand and sipped our steaming hot soup, drinking in the sunset over the water.

More hot cocoa and good conversation back at the camp and then off to bed. Again, I stayed warm!

Though I’m sure the Nalgene bottle of hot water in my sleeping bag didn’t hurt.

We took our morning coffee down at the beach again, admiring the waves, trying to decide if the tide was coming in our going out.

This day of hiking took us through some very interesting territory. At some points I felt like I was in a rain forest jungle. Then, all of a sudden, we entered a dark, sunless, pine tree shaded cave-like trail section.

Some sections took us along the precarious cliff overlook, some took us inland through the shrubs and wildflowers. And everywhere, there was poison oak, newly green and shiny red. The whole shape of Drake’s Bay was laid out before us as we stood at the cliff’s edge. I could see the Farallon Islands at the sea’s horizon.

We were nearing Palomarin Trailhead, the end of our trail the last section took us through eucalyptus groves, and I thought about what had brought these Australian trees halfway across the world to the California Coastline so many years before. I could smell the fragrant eucalyptus aroma as my feet crushed the pods scattered over the trail.

And then, all of a sudden, we came to the staircase and the end of our trail.

We shrugged off our packs and fell into the seat of Melinda’s truck, digging out ibuprofen to stave off muscle soreness later on.

We drove back to the hostel to my truck and divided up our stuff. Erin and Melinda took off for home, but I still felt like exploring. I drove on down Limantour Road to see what Limantour Beach was like.

Limantour Beach was only a mile or so away. Parking was available for horse trailers, so I knew it was probably a nice beach to take a horse ride, if a person had the patience to work their way across the peninsula to get to that point! The place was practically deserted, probably because it was 4pm on a Monday.

Crossing the marsh in front of the beach was easy and scenic with the nice bridge.

I loved the feeling of being on such a wide and long sandy beach, deserted, alone. The waves were quite high, the breeze was lightly blowing. The sun was coming across at a late spring afternoon angle, blue and clear, with only a slightly hazy horizon. Up the beach, to the north, I walked and walked. I would have walked as long as there was sand to walk on, but my practical nature took over and I made plans to turn around and walk back. Right then, I saw a post, solid set, alone right there on the beach. I set my camera on it, put it on automatic, and took a picture of myself.

What is it about the sea that is so glorious?

Now it was time to go home, so I waded through the sand of the beach trail, back to the parking lot and into Truckita, dialing up “Home” on Kathleen (GPS). Now that I had missed the major commuter hours, my trip home was pleasant and uneventful. A nice time to go over in my mind our trip, and to think about the next one!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pt. Reyes Backpacking, Pt. 1

I’d been looking forward to this backpacking trip for a long time. Perhaps too long. Sometimes I think it would be better to wake up in the morning and have someone tell me, “Hey! Tomorrow morning we head off on a 3 day backpacking trip. Get ready!” Then I kick into high gear and tear around like crazy putting it all together, and then we leave.

But instead, what happens is this: I putter around for weeks, months even getting every little thing ready, getting more anxious as the time approaches, anxious that I might have forgotten something to put on my list that I can’t actually pack until closer to the last minute. But will it all fit? And what will it weigh? So several trial pack-outs ensue. And then FINALLY it’s for real.

Saturday April 9, I drove out of Marysville at 6:30 am, headed for the Bay Area. Lovely drive, NO TRAFFIC! A lovely byproduct of a Saturday morning. Pt Reyes is a really confusing area when trying to figure out a route with all the roads winding around there. I never realized that it even existed before, this whole peninsula full of beaches and trails and wildlife. I set Kathleen (my GPS) to take me to Bolinas, since she didn’t seem to recognize any of the other locations I typed in. From Bolinas I could follow the written directions.

Highway 1 is the most incredible stretch of road! I traveled a piece of that working my way northwest to my destination. I had been on it about 40 minutes traveling north, when all of a sudden I had the awful thought that I should have been traveling south on it! I got all shaky and pulled over as soon as there was a wide spot and pulled out my map, disoriented as to where I even was. I was going the right direction, and almost to Bolinas, so I got on my way again. But it took about a half hour to lose the quiver in my gut!

We were to meet at the Palomarin trailhead at 10am. I arrived at 9:50am. Melinda and Erin showed up a few minutes after 10. This kind of timing was pretty amazing, since neither of us had been over there before and were giving it our best guess for driving time! We left Melinda’s truck parked there and piled into my truck for the long haul to the Bear Valley Visitor Center to take care of the paperwork. There are some nice picnic areas and a wildlife interpretive center there. At the little store, you can buy any kind of nature guide you can think of.

From the visitor center, we then drove over to The Hostel, which is about a mile inland from Limantour Beach. That is where the Coast Trail begins at the Laguna trailhead. We ate our lunches and then got our packs ready to go. Even with my new pack, Melinda found a lot of humor at my expense concerning the gear I had lashed and dangling on the back. Old habits die hard! My pack weighed too much, I’m sure. It was about 34 pounds without water. Yikes!

Only a short distance into the hike, we had our first obstacle. A lake of water across the trail. There was a scrubby little trail that crawled up the hill beside the trail, obviously someone looking for a path around. But did they make it all the way up, around and down? Erin and I gladly sent Melinda to do that while we discussed how we were going to wade it. Melinda kept calling out encouraging words like, “I don’t think you guys can do this,” while we rolled up our pants, and took off our hiking boots and slipped on our sandals and crocs. It never got up past the calves, thank goodness! We met up again and went on our merry way.

This first day we only had a couple miles scheduled for hiking. We had so much driving and staging, and then shaking down the pack-out that it seemed for the best. Those miles were fairly level and pleasant as we approached the ocean and our first camp.

Coast Camp is at a small grassy valley a short distance away from the beach. A drinking water tap and clean vault toilets are at the main camp area, and around the bend seven campsites are tucked along a short trail. Each of these campsites has fairly decent privacy, as opposed to the ones in the little valley. What looked like a Boy Scout troop was camped in the main area. It was sweet to see them with all their little tents and such, but still, I was glad they were there, and we were over here!

The wind was really blowing, but we got our tents pitched and went down to see the beach. Every beach we went down to was just gorgeous. The waves were rolling, curling and breaking close to the sand, like it does on these steeper-sloped northern beaches. The wind was blowing sand grains against my ankles as Erin and I trudged south along the wet sand. We were headed downwind, and I knew that when we turned around to head back, we’d have to pay the piper and lean into the blowing wind. We came upon a swift-flowing stream that was cutting across the beach and into the ocean. It was rocky there and could have had interesting tide pools in it, but it didn’t look safe enough to go hopping around on it. Every time a particularly big wave crashed over the rocks, the gulls would hop up a few feet into the air, hovering until the wave washed back out again.

Each camp was supplied with a locking food box to keep the supplies out of the hands of raccoons and other critters. We had gotten a beach fire permit (driftwood being the allowable fuel), but it was so windy there was no question of us wanting to do that! The camps also had barbeque grills, if one was so inclined to pack in briquettes. Now when the rules were read to us, an emphasis was made on the fuel. Wood—beach. Briquettes—barbeques.

Close to sundown, a ranger came to check on permits, food box usage and… fires. We passed inspection. Meandering up the campground trail, we happened to view one of the campsites also under inspection by the ranger. He was lecturing a group on the use of the barbeques under the steaming veil of wet smoke that was emanating from the drenched log on the grill. I heard him say, “…next time I’ll issue a citation,” and it made me glad I hadn’t been tempted to throw a log on the BBQ and light it off!

We reconstituted the Burgundy Beef Stew I had made up and fixed up a couple packets of loaded mashed potatoes. We had brownies for dessert and hot cocoa on top of that. What was going through my head was that the more calories I could consume, the warmer I would stay during the night.

When I was younger I NEVER stayed warm enough when camping. No matter how many clothes I layer on, how thick a sleeping bag, I always had to worry about being cold. I don’t know if it was the calories or if it just wasn’t that cold, but I had a very comfortable night.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is the True Meaning of Peeps?

All around the world we human beings anticipate the approach of our traditional holidays. Families, friends and social and religious groups meet to celebrate the rituals and feasts and curious habits of each holiday. If you live in America, thanks to the retailers and advertisers, you can’t NOT know the trademarks of each major holiday, which are conveniently spaced throughout the year to provide maximum shelf time for all the props and edibles.

Pondering the commercialization of our American and Christian holidays, I’ve wondered about two things: One, why haven’t the retailers managed to insert a few clever holidays in some of the ‘blank’ months, like September? Two, will they ever manage to completely ruin Thanksgiving with chocolate turkeys and Thanksgiving trees?

If I were to answer my own questions, I guess I’d say that for the first, the retailers rely on ‘bleed-over,’ that is, sticking with what works best, which is Christmas. Why invent a new holiday when you can just bring Christmas a little closer? And handily enough, this also answers the second question. Leftover packages of turkey paper plates and pilgrim-themed centerpieces don’t bring in the bargain-hunters the day after the fact like day-old Christmas candy and decorations do!

One thing that fascinates me is the symbolism of certain foods that show up at all major holidays. There are shaped foods, which are cute, fun, and obvious as to their message, such as candy or cake hearts for the holiday of love, Valentine’s Day, cookies shaped like Shamrocks or four-leafed clovers for luck that abound on St. Patrick’s Day, and Candy Canes that are said to represent a shepherd’s crook for Christmas, bringing to mind the first visitors of the infant Jesus. And for the holiday upon us, Easter, nothing is more iconic than the chocolate Easter Bunny.

But I wanted to look just a little deeper at the symbolism of holiday food at this time of the year, and these are some of the things I have found out.

Easter Eggs. Love’em or hate’em, Easter Eggs are embedded in the holiday and will never be dislodged. Chocolate, marshmallow, decorated sugar, Whopper, jelly, hard-boiled or plastic with candy inside, there’s a kind for every taste. But why eggs?

Eggs are traditionally connected with rebirth, rejuvenation and immortality. This is why they are often associated with Easter. Eggs were colored, blessed, exchanged and eaten as part of the rites of spring long before Christian times. Ancient peoples thought of the sun's return from darkness as an annual miracle and regarded the egg as a natural wonder and a proof of the renewal of life. As Christianity spread, the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ's Resurrection from the tomb. On a more practical level, in the early Christian calendar eggs were forbidden during Lent. This made them bountiful and exciting forty days later.

Breads. As bread is the staple in the diets of many cultures, it is also full of symbolism in religious ceremonies and holiday banquets. As Christ shared the bread with his disciples at the Last Supper before the crucifixion and resurrection, Christians repeat that ritual with a bit of unleavened bread as a remembrance.

In a pagan note, the word ‘Easter’ comes from the name for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre, and special dishes were cooked in her honor so that the year would be endowed with fertility. Most important of these dishes was a small spiced bun. The Egyptians offered small round cakes to the goddess of the moon, each marked with a representation of the horns of an ox, which were her symbol. In ancient Greece, a similar small, sacred bread containing the finest sifted flour and honey, had the name bous meaning ‘ox’ and from which the word ‘bun’ is said to have originated. The Christianized form and the ritual of baking ‘hot cross buns’ became standard practice of the Easter celebration in English society. ‘One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.’

Meat. Probably the most symbolic main dish to grace the Easter or Passover table is lamb. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade editor in chief [MacMillan:New York] 1987, volume 5 (p. 558):
‘Among Easter foods the most significant is the Easter lamb, which is in many places the main dish of the Easter Sunday meal. Corresponding to the Passover lamb and to Christ, the Lamb of God, this dish has become a central symbol of Easter. Also popular among European and Americans on Easter is ham, because the pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian Europe.’

I tend to think that ham is popular because it is easy to cook, everyone likes it, it is much cheaper than lamb, and all the stores carry it. Just try to find a leg of lamb at a Walmart SuperCenter!

I find the ritual and symbolic aspect of the Jewish Passover Seder most interesting. Some of the traditional foods are:
Matzoh (sort of a cracker): Three unleavened matzohs are placed within the folds of a napkin as a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, leaving no time for dough to rise. Two are consumed during the service, and one (the Aftkomen), is spirited away and hidden during the ceremony to be later found as a prize.
Maror: bitter herbs, usually horseradish or romaine lettuce, used to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
Charoses: a mixture of apples, nuts, wine, and cinnamon, as a reminder of the mortar used by the Jews in the construction of buildings as slaves.
Beitzah: a roasted egg, as a symbol of life and the perpetuation of existence. (Here’s that egg again!)
Karpas: a vegetable, preferably parsley or celery, representing hope and redemption; served with a bowl of salted water to represent the tears shed.
Zeroah: traditionally a piece of roasted lamb shankbone, symbolizing the paschal sacrificial offering
Wine: four glasses of wine are consumed during the service to represent the four-fold promise of redemption, with a special glass left for Elijah the prophet.

I know that people today have their traditional family favorites they bring to the holiday table. And if you showed up without it, your relatives would scream, ‘What! You didn’t bring the Cranberry Walnut Jello Salad?’ But what would be fun and thought-provoking is if we could assign each part of these newer traditional foods special symbolism for the group that is partaking.

Now wouldn’t that be more meaningful than another Easter basket full of Peeps and jelly beans nestled on pink plastic Easter grass?

(BTW, what is the true meaning of Peeps?)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jane Eyre Party

Hmm, don’t know how to insert much into the Jane Eyre Party Story that hasn’t been covered by “Redgirl’s Quick ‘n Snarky Notes” on the festivities. I’d always been a big fan of George C. Scott (and not just because we had the same birthdays) and felt that he was a terrific Rochester. He was everything right; ugly, tortured, explosive, masculine, and with a huge presence that made him entirely believable. I wasn’t that fond of Susanna York as Jane, however. She seemed a bit too old and too pretty to be that young teenager, Jane. The first time I watched the William Hurt version, I decided that it would be my new favorite, mostly because of Charlotte Gainsborg’s Jane. She was young, somewhat plain, and uber cool and collected as she sparred with Rochester. But watching the two side-by-side, I claimed the first version again for favorite. Hurt isn’t bad, but seems more tortured and moody than imposing, and I appreciated York’s acting ability more than I had previously. The third version, with Orson Wells as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane, I had not remembered fondly, but it held up better with this viewing. (Though that could have been due to the Robert Mondavi Cab that we were well into) I recently saw the movie Rebecca, and Fontaine starred as the “nameless I,” a character very similar to her Jane. Sort of passive and eager to please. And very beautiful. Orson Wells was ok, but it really bugged me how he spoke most of his lines without opening his mouth and moving his lips. Melinda was always right on cue with her line: "THIS wasn’t in the book!" Which made me want to go through the book again. So I’m skimming through it and making notes for a project. What sort of project? It’s a surprise…

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lemon Curd

You may have heard that Melinda has just been accepted into UC Davis Veterinary School for this fall. More than a couple of corks were popped, but as long as there is inspiration, there is celebration. She was going to be up here this last weekend and wanted to share a customized celebration with Bethany, Tristan and me. After a few hours of brain-wracking, we both had a eureka moment at about 10pm that night---A Jane Eyre party!

We are all fond of the book Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, and I am especially fond of seeking out all the movie versions that have been of that gothic novel. Melinda just finished listening to the Librovox audio version and was enthusiastic about the theme party. Her offering was a bottle of Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cab. The time was set for Saturday, 9am. That seemed a bit early for wine, but figured I could easily work it in as the party progressed.

Tea. If you are going to have a book or movie party based on the work of a famous dead English novelist, you must be prepared to go through a fair amount of hot tea. It must be served from a silver-plated or china teapot into teacups WITH saucers. And even though Americans drink it black, milk and sugar must be available in little serving pieces with little spoons. If you have ever watched the very long and complete BBC version of Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton, you will know that every time an emotional or taxing moment occurs (and there are many), someone, usually Mrs. Fairfax, hauls the tea tray out and offers it around. Of course, only a sip is taken, or the lips are wetted before the tea does its job and everyone feels restored. When we had watched it a few years ago, we were not so reticent, and kept the tea coming, ensuring plenty of “Loo Breaks.”

Scones. No question, scones were required. Americans leave out the egg and call it a biscuit, but if you call it a scone, it is very English and is just right for this type of party. Lately, I’ve been trying very hard to eliminate simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, white rice, white flour, etc from my pantry. I knew I had enough whole wheat flour, but decided to stop by the grocery on my way home and get a small bag of white flour to make the scones.

At the very last moment, I turned the wheel the other way, and I committed to whole wheat. With enough butter and tender care in making them, they surely would be good enough for the party! I added lemon extract to the scone dough, and baked them at 400 so they would bake fast and have a nice toasty crust. I made a glaze of powdered sugar and lemon juice to drizzle over the top. A small shake of salt in the glaze seems to make the cornstarch flavor less noticeable. I was very pleased with the end result; crusty, tender inside, lightly sweetened and a tangy lemon finish.

(Just in case you want to try it…)
Whole Wheat Scones
1 ¾ cups whole wheat flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut in pieces
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
½ teaspoon lemon extract

Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Use your fingers to rub the very cold butter into the flour mixture until the butter is in lumps the size of flattened corn kernels. Mix together egg, milk and extract. Stir into the flour mixture, adding a tad more liquid or flour as needed. Dump onto flour-dusted waxed paper and lightly knead a half-dozen times. Pat out into a rectangle and cut into triangles. Bake on greased or parchment-covered cookie sheet at 400 degrees till done.

At the appointed time, I set out the tea and the hot scones on a side-board near the TV. And then, from the ‘fridge, I brought out the point of this post—Lemon Curd.

“Lemon Curd” sounds weird, sort of like “curdled,” along with a sour word, which makes you think of spoiled milk. But I knew, after a friend had served me some, imported from England, that it is more like a thick lemon custard that you spread on scones and crumpets.

I couldn’t find a recipe in any of my books, so I turned to the Internet. After scanning the recipe for a reality check, I did the next step on the checklist, reading all the reviews. The reviews can be really funny. It’s too runny, it’s just right, it’s too sweet, it’s too buttery, it’s perfect, it’s just like Lemon Curd from home (from an Englishman), it’s too sour, it has too many eggs, it’s fabulous.

Judging by the comments and my own reality check, I decided to cut the amount of butter in half. I also cut down the amount of zest and added a shake of salt since I use unsalted butter.

Lemon Curd
5 egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (1-2 large lemons)
zest of one lemon (avoid the bitter white pith)
¼ cup butter, chilled and cut into pats
pinch of salt

If you don’t have a double boiler (I don’t) then use a metal bowl that fits over the top of a medium saucepan without touching the inch or so of boiling water in the pan.
Combine yolks and sugar in medium sized metal bowl and whisk until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in fresh lemon juice and zest until smooth. Place bowl over simmering water in saucepan. Whisk until thickened, about 8 minutes, or until thickened. Remove promptly from heat and stir in butter, one piece at a time, allowing each to melt before adding another. (At this point, I decided to run the mixture through a sieve). Remove to a clean jar and lay a piece of plastic wrap across the surface. Keep refrigerated up to 2 weeks.

WOW! It turned out, and was absolutely delicious. It was almost too thick, though, so I might back off on the time I cooked it (I left it on the heat for 9 or 10 minutes), or I might use one less egg yolk. But it was wonderful and I would surely make it again the next time I need an English condiment.

See tomorrow for my Jane Eyre reviews!

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Few of my Favorite Things

I enjoy a good list. And I was inspired by Mel’s posting on favorite resources to come up with my own favorite resources. Kitchen tools, that is.

In my life of cooking, I have “made do” more often than I’ve had the best tools and ingredients on hand when making something. And I will brag that it has made me a better person. I’m flexible, adaptable; I don’t panic when I find out when I find out I’m missing a vital part. No baking powder? No problem! A pinch of cream of tartar and baking soda. No rolling pin? Hey, as long as you have a whiskey bottle you’ve got it covered. The oven doesn’t work and you have 4 pies to bake? Fire up the barbeque for some serious indirect cooking!

KitchenAid Stand Mixer
The household I grew up in relied on a handheld portable mixer. We used it for everything. We whipped divinity and 7 minute frosting. We made cakes and beat up frosting (which was difficult. You had to do it quick because the hot air vented straight down into the buttery frosting, which was stiff and hard-going). It was the standard tool for whipping up the foam on our mixture of carpet cleaner.

One day, it died.

It just so happened that I needed to supply a Cake-Walk cake for our elementary school’s Halloween Carnival. My mom wasn’t home, so my grandma was helping me. The recipe called for beaten egg whites. We didn’t have a whisk. (Remember, we used the mixer for EVERYTHING) I have an image etched in my brain of my grandma working a fork over a platter full of egg whites, whipping and beating them into something lighter than the clear viscous pile she started out with.

A dozen years ago I bought my first KitchenAid stand mixer. It is so effortless. I can make pie dough, batter, grind meat, juice pomegranate seeds, shred cheese and cabbage, knead yeast dough and whip eggs like those bad boys have never been whipped before. One trait I especially am fond of is that I can walk away from it. With a portable, once you turn it on, you’re committed for the duration. If you’re going to have a stand mixer, get this one!

Garlic Press
Garlic is probably the favorite seasoning in my house. If I want the family to swoon with delight when they walk in the house and say, “What’s for dinner? It smells good!” , I just have to toss a pinch of garlic powder in the air. Yes, garlic powder. So easy. So cheap. But… Just not the best choice for garlic. I used to use the minced garlic in the jars, but I drifted back into using the powder. Once in a while I would get ambitious and buy a head of garlic. All those little papery garlic skins! Sticking to your fingers which are covered with fragrant, sticky garlic juice! Chop, chop, chop! Mince, mince, mince! Scrape them up from the cutting board and then scrape them off the knife into the pan!

Then I got wise and bought a NICE garlic press. It is heavy and has a little tool for pushing the bits that are left out of the holes so they don’t dry there. You don’t even have to cut the skins off; you just push the lever and the garlic squirts out.

And for everyone’s comfort, the rule in our house is, if one eats garlic, we all eat garlic!

Lemon Reamer
I love to use fresh lemon in my dishes. I usually have a choice. Either pull out a cuppie of previously juiced and frozen fresh lemon juice ( if I have any), drag out the juicer (like I’m going to do that for ½ of a lemon!) or slice wedges and squeeze the juice out. Yikes! Juice all over your fingers, juice still in the wedge so you end up mashing the thing messily.

I saw a reamer used in a kitchen show once. (You may have seen this many times, but since I don’t get TV reception or cable or dish etc, I hadn’t) It was not only efficient and easy, but also cute. I’ve used it twice now and it was love at first use. I’m much more likely to keep whole lemons on hand now!

Instant Read Meat Thermometer
I would never be without one of these! How can you gamble and guess about whether poultry or pork is done, when the consequences of underdone meat is food poisoning? And how can you gamble and guess whether your beef roast is rare enough when beef is so expensive and is ruined if it is well-done?

I do enjoy my leave-in thermometers to give me a heads up when big roasts are about done. But the instant-read can confirm the doneness in different places, especially in a fowl, and they are useful for burgers, and meat pieces.

Rubber Scraper
Scrape, scrape, scrape! Can you hear the sound of a spoon raking along the sides of a mixing bowl, trying to get out the last of the cake batter? It is impossible! And that goes for any mixture that is on the stiff or thick side. I still remember getting my first rubber scraper when I was a teen. What it could do for folding, stirring and scraping was nothing short of miraculous. I didn’t anticipate the complaints though. Now there was no batter for my batter-eating family to lick up! Heh heh, (evil grin) I didn’t like batter myself and now I could force my preferences on them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ohlone Trail, pt 3

I knew there was a lot of drip drip going on outside my tent. But I was lying there enjoying how much warmer I was than I had been the night before. And the fly was huge enough draped over the tent to ensure that I stayed dry. The heavy mists and fogs had rolled in the previous night and damped everything. I had worn my raincoat playing cards and drinking decaff tea the night before to keep dry. In a smart preparatory move, I had brought a big black garbage bag along, and had pulled it over my pack. When I peeked out, I could tell that most of the moisture had fallen at once last night, but the fog had settled in.

Melinda was also stirring. Self-sacrificing, I offered to fetch the stove and stuff so we could have breakfast in bed. (OK, so I had to get up anyway.) We had coffee and oatmeal while cozied up in our bags at the doors of our tents.

While my 2cnd hand tent is big and sprawling, and droopy-looking with the fly on it, Melinda’s clever little tent is cute and compact. It is truly a thing to envy.

We didn’t hear much from the male-bonding group with their illegal bonfire, or the from the two women and their illegal dog who had been hanging out at our camp when we arrived. (They were enjoying the picnic table when we arrived, but we knew their camp must be one of the other ones because they had no gear with them.) But now I had to face my familiar discombobulation: that of filtering my water from the tap without having the extra Nalgene for the “dirty water.” The night before I had used my small dry-bag to fill with water to pump from. This morning I used Melinda’s little plastic “sink” that was also the bag for her cooking pot. This time I used a stylus in my mind’s eye, “Bring extra Nalgene next time!”

As we began tidying up our things, we both sighed at the prospect of a gray day. The fog was pretty, with the pale sun shining through dim areas overhead, but gray is gray, and we were remembering the yellow glow of the previous afternoon sun that had kept us in good brain health. Then, even as I was watching, it was as if a giant gauze curtain was being swept back. A very light breeze was moving the fog out.

In less than a minute, our invisible surroundings gave way to a view, a sunny view! I had never seen fog clear that fast. But that is probably because I am used to Tule fog that comes in and doesn’t budge for 2 weeks.

We had another creek-crossing to do. This was a place that would have been lovely for a picnic.

When I cross a creek, I always think, Oh Dear, what if I fell in? And then I slap that thought with another one, I CAN’T fall in; it would be a disaster! I try never to forget that I’ve got a big weight on my back that can unbalance me in a second if I am not aware of each step I take.

As we climbed up and down over the grassy pastures and scrub, I saw a lake off in the distance. I still can’t tell what it was but it was pretty.

We’d been following the map and the trail markers with not much difficulty up until now. But we came to a fork in the road that was very ambiguous. We stopped. Looked up the one. Looked down the other. To Melinda’s annoyance I was moved to poetry.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and, sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood, and looked down the one as long as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth.”
“Ha! Enough of that! This is not on the map. Which one should we take?”

We discussed the situation the pros and cons of each one. She thought we should take the upper one because we still needed to gain a little elevation to reach the next signpost. I thought we should take the upper one because the lower one had a small branch laid across it, as if someone had placed it there to say, this isn’t the right one.

The upper trail was brushy and leafy, and we hiked for about 20 minutes before we were sure we’d picked the correct one. And then, with relief, we came upon the next signpost.

As we walked along, we began to meet groups of day-hikers. Civilization was near. Melinda’s favorite topic began to come up more often.

“I sure hope Los Vaqueros is open! It had better be! I’ve been looking forward to going by there for our post-trip meal ever since we started!” Indeed, I was also beginning to fantasize about the stuffed shrimp appetizers at Los Vaqueros. The reward ahead was driving our aching and tired muscles onward.

We met a couple of guys at one of the last gates. They looked admiringly at our backpacks.

“You guys stayed out overnight?”

We nodded. “Two nights. We started at Del Valle.”

“Hey! You look great after that hike!”

We grinned foolishly, flattered. And missed our little turn on the main trail, finding ourselves on the Indian Joe Nature hike with interpretive signs on various formations and vegetation. Just a little detour to pay for getting our heads turned.

Finally, the end of the trail.

It was a Sunday and lots of families were enjoying the sunshine, hiking and picnicking. The parking lot where Melinda’s truck was waiting was a very different sight from the deserted, cold afternoon when we had left it. To complete the experience, we had to sign the check-out sheet.

Yes, I was tired and ready to be done, but there was a part of me that was not worn out yet. I knew that if we had to hike the last leg of the trail, I could do it. Even though the previous two days had been the hardest physical event I had ever put my body through, I still had some left over the next day. I was sort of amazed at how much I was really capable of.

But—Los Vaqueros was waiting!

We still had to drive back and pick up my truck. An hour into our hike, I had remembered that I had left the camper shell windows open and had forgotten to close them before we struck out. I had two brief thoughts; someone would slit the screen, climb in and steal my stuff; and it would rain, wind blowing the moisture into the back and wet all my stuff. I had then put it out of my head. We couldn’t go back, and I did not want to worry about it for 2 days. Happily, I found that all was well with the camper. We zoomed off to Livermore for the best Mexican restaurant in California.

Even though I knew we could never eat it all, we HAD to order the most popular appetizer. Breaded jumbo white tiger shrimp, stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, topped with a chipotle sauce, nestled by greens topped with guacamole. A good choice for 4 people, the two of us made short work of it. I asked for recommendations for exotic flavors and ordered the Thai Fish Taco. Melinda had some kind of burrito. Everything was as excellent as we had remembered!

We had to go back to our regular lives then, but already mentally planning the next backpacking adventure!

And now, I must mention the little backpacking diary Melinda gave me at the start of the trip. Have you ever turned two pages at once accidentally in a blank-page book? I did on this, several times. So I had to go back and fill them with SOMETHING!