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Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays

It’s that time of the year; the annual blessing/chore of gifts. One of the things I have given out to friends and neighbors for many years are home baked goodies. And, like so many gifts, there is a lot of meaning and sentiment tied up in the package. So I agonize each year, trying to come up with something different and really,really wonderful. Of course I usually wait until December to do this so am in the midst of wonderful choices like boat parade parties, Holiday concerts, family dinners along with regular routines like volunteer shifts at Crystal Cove and the library bookstore. And when you add to that all the other preparations and pressures that the holidays bring something must give.

I wanted to do a Wensley cake this year but never got around to trying out the recipe for myself, never mind inflicting it upon unsuspecting recipients. Now it’s December 21st, Solstice, just to add a little more pressure, and I went to fall-back position and baked the oh so familiar and easy Wine Cakes. And, darn it, they are good! My in-house tester, Steve, proclaimed it so. So, that’s it for this year. I'm tempted to say that I took the easy route because I can say I have, ahem, brain holes. But actually, I usually do go the easy route, whenever possible.
This recipe makes 5 mini-loaf pans or two regular size loaf pans, making it ideal for small gifts.

Wine Cakes

1. box yellow cake mix
1 (3¾-ounce) box vanilla instant pudding mix
4 eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup sherry
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Powdered sugar
• Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except powdered sugar and beat for five minutes. Bake for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar and cool in pan about 15 minutes before turning them out onto a rack to finish cooling before wrapping in foil for giving.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My birthday

I had a birthday a week or so ago. I try not to think about the age associated with my birthdays, telling myself, as others also say, diplomatically, “it’s just a number” which sounds good but really, who are we kidding? It is more than just a number, it represents, better or worse, a whole lot of living.
One of the few good things about getting older is that you do start putting things, life, into some sort of perspective. I suspect the perspective is different for everyone or maybe the perspective is the same but the particulars are different. It comes down to what each of us gets enjoyment from and how we value it. After my life-changing health scare this last June I definitely think that it’s better to have a birthday than not. Getting older beats the alternative as they say.

The day started out sadly by going to a funeral for an good friend, not someone old but someone we have known for years. It’s a startling thing to have to do. We feel too young to have reached the age when your contemporaries die. Those sorts of rituals always make me reflect on life. Even more so after this last year.

The day ended up happier than it started; with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants - Sage

Sage has two locations, the original which is tucked away at a strip mall in Corona Del Mar, and this one which is Sage on the Coast located at Crystal Cove shopping center, at where else, the coast. Crystal Cove is a gorgeous 3 ½ mile stretch of state beach located between Newport and Laguna. It’s also 3miles from our house so that adds to the appeal.
The appeal is not just about the proximity though. It’s about the food which is always fresh, seasonal, interesting and delicious. And the setting is inviting and comfortable. Even though they are located at a coastal bluff they are set back enough so that there really is no ocean view as might be expected. However they have compensated by having a glorious patio that is open to a created garden and also has a large firplace for the mood. During the summer the garden is the attraction but this time of year the fireplace adds a level of coziness that is needed. During Christmas holidays it is enhanced by the traditional décor such as sparkling lights and trees, and greens and candles on the mantle. It feels very festive.

The setting could be enough to make it a good experience but then there are great appetizers and “small plates” which allow me to have a nice variety of things to eat without feeling like I’ve overdone it.

That night, for starters, Steve and I had a pear and gorgonzola pizza. They seem to know how to do pizza crust just right and the contrast of the flatbread style crust with the fruit and cheese and caramelized onions was perfect. We both had the same things so were able to admire it all and not be jealous of what the other one had.
Then we shared a granny smith and gorgonzola salad, if you like gorgonzola you can’t have too much! After that we each had a small plate with seared scallops and a shared plate of roasted cauliflower. It was a large hunk of cauliflower, maybe a half, roasted with some sort of chili. I roast cauliflower but I first cut it into florets and spread it out with red chili flakes and olive oil and sometimes dry mustard and capers. This was definitely a new way and I will try it sometime since we do love cauliflower.


Then to the grand finale. As an adult there usually is not a birthday cake as when you were a child, which is good because I think most adults aren’t crazy about cake, but that’s just my opinion. Anyway, these days when you make a big point of mentioning it is your birthday at a restaurant there is inevitably a small celebration dessert with a lighted candle. This one was a brioche bread pudding. Fabulous. It was all so perfect the dinner might well have been custom made for me.


A few days after my birthday was the 6 month anniversary of my brain anuerysm which happened on June 7, and susequent recovery. It was a rebirth of sorts so I felt a need to mark it in some way. Since the first responders are at the fire station in our neighborhood and it is close to Christmas, it seemed right to take them some home baked goodies to show my appreciation for their speed and skill in their part in saving my life. I baked 5 dozen cookies and wrapped them gaily for giving along with a written explanation of who I was and my outcome and dropped them off that day. The firefighter who answered the door seemed delighted to know the follow-up to my story. And, looked pretty happy about receiving the cookies too, so it felt satisfying to me. Along with the fact that baking on a cold rainy day is not a bad way to spend time.

I wish I could take credit for this recipe but everyone knows Nestles owns it. I have been making these cookies for years and everyone always loved them. There are other interesting holiday cookies you can make but no one doesn't like chocolate chip cookies!



Toll House Cookies



Level: Easy
• Prep: 15 min
• Cooking: 9 min
• Cooling time: 15 min cooling
• Yields: 60
Ingredients
• 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
• 3/4 cup granulated sugar
• 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 large eggs
• 2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) NESTLé® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
• 1 cup chopped nuts


Directions
PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cooking for Friends - In Memorium

It’s the middle of the week and I get a phone call from Robin. Robin is a friend of 20-something years. We first met when we both briefly worked together and instantly connected. We have remained good friends over the years and the changes time brings. I love being around her; she is the type of person who has a great enthusiasm for life that attracts friends easily. Robin says it looks like the weather will be good and wants to know if she and Bill, her husband can come “down” to visit one day this weekend. They live on LA’s west side which is more than an hour’s drive away on a good day; don’t even ask on a bad day, so it does require a little planning. They will bring their bikes and we will ride along the nearby beach bike path. After we decide on a date and I offer dinner “Chez Jelnick” as she so charmingly puts it, we hang up, happy in anticipation of the upcoming visit.

We like to cook for our friends, Steve and I, and Robin and Bill in particular. They are appreciative guests being “foodies” by virtue of being well-traveled and also by living in an area that has all things great food, including farmers markets, restaurants, bakeries, and cheese and wine shops. We listen to their vacation stories enviously as they recount tales of their exploits when renting villas in France and in Italy. But what that means to us is that we are able to be a little more adventurous when we cook for them than for some other friends or for either of our families.
We once had a couple to dinner for whom we prepared what we thought to be an unobjectionable pasta dish. Penne pasta in a chunky marinara type of sauce, melty havarti cheese some oregano and basil, garnished with kalamata olives and baked. A sort of more interesting version of Mac and cheese. The dinner went off well, appetizers and salad followed by the meatless main course, all accompanied by liberal amounts of wine and good bread and seasoned with agreeable conversation. As we finished up courses the used dishes were removed to the kitchen, where they piled up out of sight until the end of the evening when the guests had gone. It was only then we noticed that Ted’s dinner plate was scraped clean except for a small pile of olives that he had pushed to the side of the plate. What grown man picks out the olives from his dinner, we asked each other, amazed? But that experience has made us more sensitive about our ingredients and now we don’t take for granted that anyone will like things like say, beets, mushrooms, interesting cheeses or, even olives.
But Robin and Bill are a joy. We can cook anything for them and they are always eloquently appreciative. They are the best sort of guests.
So we discuss the menu for our friends with that in mind. If I am in charge of main course I try to dazzle with something that is not the usual. Perhaps a fresh vegetable galette.
Since we plan to be out for the afternoon, whatever is planned needs to be able to be prepared quickly when we come in. or at least be able to be completed while we are enjoying appetizers and wine. This particular dish qualifies, and has the added fun of not being “serious” food but more like picnic food.
They arrive at the time planned and we get on bikes and go off to enjoy the pleasure of a pleasant day, good company and the fun of people watching. We return a few hours later ready to take full advantage of the awaiting food and drink.
I have opted for a casual meal consisting of stilton cheese set out so it’s soft and spready; put out with chunks of bread and some grapes, and along with a large roasted vegetable tart. As we come in from our ride we clean up, pour wine and start setting out the food, which has the advantage of being the sort that can be eaten (and enjoyed) at room temperature. The tart is pre-sliced and it along with the other food goes outside with plates, silverware and napkins for a casual meal where everyone can just help themselves. Each food item is received with much appreciation and many questions about what went into the making of it. More wine is poured and we toast each other and before we know it, another day, and visit, has gone by.


Roasted Vegetable Galette
INGREDIENTS
1. One 9-ounce sheet of puff pastry, chilled (I use galette dough)
2. 4 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
3. Salt and freshly ground pepper
4. 2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5. 3 leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
6. Six 1-ounce fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
7. 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme
8. 8 oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped

DIRECTIONS
1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry 1/16 inch thick. Cut out a 12-inch round and transfer it to the cookie sheet. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
2. Arrange the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and bake for 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
4. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes are done, slide them to 1 side of the baking sheet and scatter the potatoes on the other. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and golden and the tomatoes are lightly browned. Let cool.
5. Turn the oven up to 400°. Spread the leeks on the puff pastry round to within 1 inch of the edge. Top with the tomatoes, potatoes and thyme. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edge is puffed and golden. Scatter the olives over the galette, cut into wedges and serve.
6. MAKE AHEAD
7. The recipe can be prepared ahead through Step 4; refrigerate the pastry and toppings overnight. Bring the toppings to room temperature before assembling and baking.



I wrote this some time ago before I started blogging. I have included it now in remembrance and and as a small tribute to my dear friend Robin, who died of lung cancer last Sunday night. Her loving genuine-ness and grand style were uniquely her. She will not be soon forgotten and she will be sorely missed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Work and Fun

Recently, I took another small step forward in regaining my life after the brain aneurism and its aftereffects.

I returned to my volunteer position at the Crystal Cove visitor center. Information at crystalcovebeachcottages.org/ This basically entails showing up for a four hour shift and sitting at a desk most of the time. Visitors stop in from time to time and occasionally have questions. Most of the questions are about the cottages; Crystal Cove is an area between Newport and Laguna Beach where people had started "camping" back in the twenties. The camping became more and more permanent and eventually they built makeshift cottages on the sites and coming back every year, and some even took up permanent residence. Rent was paid to the Irvine Company who owned the property. The state of California bought the 3 1/2 miles of beachfront, along with the cottages in 1979. Several of the cottages have been restored thus far and are available as overnight rentals. They are charming to see and are located at a very atttractive stretch of beachfront at very reasonable rates so the interest in them is high. That's not the only reason for the visitor center of course. We try to encourage people to know the history of the area and appreciate that and then perhaps they will also contribute in some way for the restoration of the remaining cottages. Resoration is not cheap. There is also an oceanfront restaurant named the Beachcomber located in the historic district that is very popular, as you might imagine.

So. That is my entry back into the living world, or my old routine world. Routines have taken on a new luster a after spending a month in the hospital, dependent on others. And, also we recently joined friends for a Duffy boat cruise in Newport Harbor. Dear Tracy had acquired three hours of Duffy through a charity silent auction bid. She invited us and three others along.. Since Tracy provided the venue, the rest of us brought food. My instinct is to try for something delicious and charming, sort of like you might see in Sunset Magazine or Coastal Living, when they show people boating. Then reality took over. Duffys are small boats, and we would be moving so balancing food that could get messy is not a good idea. I thought, some form of sandwich. and remembered my all-time favorite which I first tasted at Pearl Bakery in Portland. gorgonzola cheese and pears in walnut bread - amazing. I could make up little bite size sandwiches, I thought. Happily, I found a good walnut bread at the nearby farmers market which turned out to be just the thing. Then I thought about dessert, chocolate chip cookies seemed appropriate, the Toll House recipe is still on the package, I found. I made up a large batch and froze them a few days ahead. That was the extent of my cooking unfortunately. I purchased some “rollers” rolled sandwiches and a quiche from nearby Bristol Farms. I sliced the quiche ahead of time so it would be in bite-size portions for the cruise.

The cruise was grand. The weather was very warm and being out on a boat in Newport Harbor was an ideal place to be. Everyone brought either champagne or prosecco. So we cruised around the harbor, checking out how the other half lives. Pretty well, we all agreed. The houses are grand and the boats docked in front add to the grandeur. Three hours sped by easily. Lots of fun and silliness by all.

When will I learn that it’s not necessarily about the food? We had too much food although the cookies seemed to be the most popular thing, along with the champagne and prosecco. Dinner parties are about getting people together and enjoying the company. The food is incidental sometimes. I think this one could have been okay with just the walnut bread sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. I need to learn to let go. Okay, well, maybe quiche too, after all, we were on a boat, what if we got stranded somwhwere?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rustic Tomato Tart

Getting back into good health is its own journey. I walk every day. Those first days out of the hospital were slow and short walks, more of a shuffle than a walk, difficult for someone who is used to striding. Still, it’s a walk, outside in beautiful summer weather, an independent action; something I have learned to value after those weeks of hospitalization and dependency.

Right now I am doing the minimum and basics. Getting well and back to where I was before is the priority. So I do short and longer walks, take naps and concentrate on building my health. That said, I consider it a forward and exciting step when I take another small move back into my old life. That would include going out to dinner with friends and then occasionally having someone over for dinner. The summer has been lost so far for summer entertaining. In late spring we got prepared for it by putting out the patio furniture and tidying up in anticipation of warm evenings and dinners with friends outside. Entertaining is aptly named; it’s sort of like putting on a production when you have guests. There is an effort necessary.

Back then, I thought that since the olive tree in the back planter is now large enough I could string a couple of strands of fairy lights around the base so I did so thinking of how charming that would look when we entertained. Because of my illness we lost June and July so there went a lot of the time when we would be enjoying the outside.

So, now its the dead of summer and hot weather and tomato season is at its peak. At the farmer’s markets everyone has them and they are cheap. That’s the sign for me. Even the heirloom tomatoes are more readily available and cheaper than usual. How best to use them? I have just the recipe; a tomato rustic tart or galette.. Because it’s so different and fresh it always feels like a cross between picnic and party food – special. Inspired I actually got up for the idea of making the effort. I decided to make that happen for a Saturday evening dinner which I felt signaled a change for the better in my health. Not just the physical part but also emotionally. And then I went one step further by deciding that as long as I was cooking something special for us why not invite friend Larry to share it. We made sure that he knew that this was my “coming out” so he wouldn’t expect a perfectly executed evening or meal.

He’s enough of a friend to be able to say that to and to understand the sentiment. And, in reality, possibly no caveat was needed. The tart and the evening went well. It was mild enough that we were able to sit outside and finally use the patio! A big step in making us feel that we were returning to our accustomed life. Obviously a highly desirable goal.

It was a simple meal with Steve providing the appetizer; asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and roasted, which went well with the tomato tart and some good bread. After dinner I begged off early since that much unaccustomed effort tired me out, but that was okay too since it gave the two guys time to talk, just the two of them.

But the tart is not that difficult to make and is very wonderful to eat. So here it is, while tomato season is still with us.


Rustic Tomato Tart with Parmesan Crust
Serves 4
Galette Dough
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted cold butter, cut into 6 pieces
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
¼ cup ice water

Filling
1 ½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 tablespoons each
Fresh basil, fresh thyme and Italian parsley, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 -8 ripe Roma tomatoes (about 1 ¼ lb.) cut into
¼ inch thick slices
1 tablespoon olive oil

To prepare pastry; in food processor fitted with metal blade combine flour, butter, salt and parmesan cheese. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal, 10 - 15 seconds. With motor running, pour cold water through feeder tube in steady stream. Process for 10 -15 seconds or until dough begins to bind. Remove dough and shape into a 12 inch disk.
The dough can be used immediately or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. When ready to use, remove dough from refrigerator and let soften at room temperature, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
On lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, paint pastry with mustard, leaving 1 – 1 ½ inch border all around. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese evenly over the mustard.
In a small bowl, combine basil, thyme, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Arrange half the tomato slices over mustard coated pastry and sprinkle herb mixture over tomatoes. Cover with remaining tomatoes, overlapping slices if necessary.
Fold pastry border over tomatoes to enclose sides of tart, gently draping pastry over tomatoes and folding into soft pleats over few inches. Pinch any cracks to seal pastry and prevent tomato juices from running out during the baking. Drizzle olive oil over tomatoes.
Bake for 20 -25 minutes or until dough is golden. Remove tart from oven and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Slice and serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Machengo Stuffed Pears with Prosciutto

Illness takes its toll in unexpected ways. There are the obvious things of course, depending on the specific illness. But what was a surprise for me after getting better from my surgery and getting home was the loss of muscle tone for one thing, along with weight loss. I am amazed at how quickly my muscle tone and strength deteriorated after a month in the hospital. And, despite my resolve to eat right and recuperate, loss of appetite along with a feeling of changed "taste buds" is a major issue. I have found that appetite is important not just as the desire to eat something and carry out that action. For cooking and meal preparation, appetite is necessary to propel you into seeing a recipe’s appeal enough to want to select the ingredients and go through the trouble of shopping, cooking it and then finally, doing justice to the effort expended. Visualization is the major part of the eating process.

Right now I find it much easier when I see something in the store that looks and sounds appealing and is already cooked and ready to eat. Instant gratification seems to work much better appetite-wise. Thank heavens for stores that have lovely deli case type displays –then all that is required is to heat up and dish it up, what you see is what you get – right away.

I did do a little cooking over the weekend. Our neighbors Paula and Tim gave me a gift of a box of Harry and David pears. The fruit is beautiful to look at and tastes great just as it is so requires no effort to enjoy. As it happened we have a recipe for using pears like this as an appetizer that one of us tore out of a magazine recently. I discovered it among all our loose recipes that remain unfiled until we try them and declare them worthy of going through that effort. Anyway this recipe called to me with just enough ingredients to be interesting, as a worthy way to use the pears and it sounded delicious and simple to make

The recipe calls for seckel pears which are miniature pears and while I am able to obtain them, the fact was I had pears already available to use. And, mostly the larger version is what is mostly available, so I adapted the recipe
For my use. The firmer pears such as I had, would seem to be easier for this use, rather than the yellow Bartlett, which seems to me too soft to work with. If you use the seckels they just need to be cut in half and cored as noted.
Machengo is a Spanish cheese that has a sort of a nutty, buttery flavor. My alternate choice would be gorgonzola which goes fabulous with pears but unfortunately melts much faster than the machengo, not allowing the pears time to roast quite as well I suspect. Oh well, I may have to try that next time. The prosciutto saltiness does contrast wonderfully with the cheese and the pears.

Pears with Machengo and Prosciutto
8 slices of thinly slice prosciutto
2 pears cut into quarters lengthwise if using regular size pears*
Machengo cheese- approx 2-4 oz.
Olive oil


Preheat oven to 350, scoop out cores of pears with a melon baller, leave stems intact
*If using seckel pears, cut in half and core

Brush cut sides with olive oil
Place a cube of cheese in core of each pear slice, wrap each with 1 – 1 ½” wide strip of prosciutto
Place pears, cut side up on baking sheet, keeping seam under pear,
Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes until cheese begins to melt. Serve warm




I made this as an appetizer to have with a small glass of reisling while we were sitting out in the patio on the warm summer afternoon. The main course was take-out pizza since I didn’t want to push myself too much and Steve had been away at a ball game all day long.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Chocolate
I was a dedicated chocolate lover years and years ago. Not so much of late. In adulthood I got away from that sort of self-indulgence.
This was even in spite of all the surveys and analysis that noted the health benefits of (good) chocolate. and red wine.I limited my eating to...oh, mostly bread and white wine, with the occasional chocolate croissant thrown in.

But when you start looking around for nutritional benefits contained in the foods you like, it can be easy to become convinced that there are compounds in chocolate that promote alertness, lessen pain and promote well-being. The research will tell you, for example, the stimulants theobromine, caffeine, tyramine and phenylethylamine (PEA) provide a lift. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, lessens anxiety by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin; endorphins, the body's natural opiates, reduce sensitivity to pain.(


So Chocolate gives you an energy lift,less anxiety, a reduction in pain-who wouldn't recommend something that did all that? Well, a nutritionist or biochemist could argue that chocolate doesn't contain much of these ingredients. But a chocolate lover can be easily convinced of all the good benefits without any real proof other than placing one nice rich morsel upon your tongue.

In my post-hospitalization life which includes a need to take short walks to keep the muscles moving but without making a big push which could result in over-stress, which is counter-productive. I am enjoying walks which give me a specific purpose. Fortunately where I live there are enough things around which can be the point of the walk. I have a post office within 4 blocks and a library a couple of blocks beyond that. Interestingly five blocks away is a Mrs. Sees candy shop. Mrs. Sees has a great quality of chocolate which is sort of legendary. When you walk into the crisp white and black checked atmosphere of their stores you are immediately surrounded by the delicious smell of chocoalate. The display case holds everything from truffles to fudge to bridge mix.. It is wonderfully tempting to see all the good stuff and it is possible to select one or two pieces of anything which you can't resist.. And, they usually hand out a sample of their featured chocolate – bonus goodies – I love that. So I started making sure I have some money on me for some of my exercise walks, just in case I feel like stopping in at Mrs. Sees. One piece of something that rich and chocolaty is usually enough for me. How nice it’s so convenient.

All the factual "information" aside about how good this stuff is for you, my feeling about it is based onthe good taste and therefore how good that makes you feel. It's another one of those wonderful things like a warm sunny day or a misty morning when step outside and you can smell all the plants around, sort of herbal-y. Simple gifts; I am a woman who has learned to appreciate and not take for granted the those small things like the ability to take a few independent steps.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Food as Fuel
Those of you who know me or have been reading this blog for any amount of time will no doubt be surprised to read that headline. I typically have not regarded food as fuel. To enjoy, yes, to appreciate for its beauty, fabulous fragrance, composition, yes, all that. Strictly as fuel, no.
A recent health event caused me to understand that sometimes it is necessary to approach the consumption of food as something we must do in order to heal or build strength for fighting disease.

Here’s what happened to me- a brain aneurism. If you have no reason to know what those 2 words mean I say to you that’s extremely lucky. The name sometimes most commonly known for this is stroke. Not good.

Hospital food (like airplane food) is frequently the subject of some derision. I found the food to be good and appetizing enough. With the illness, I discovered this other approach to eating. Nutritional thinking. it is necessary to eat in a way to become or stay healthy. As a non-red meat eater, the idea that I must eat a lot of protein will change my approach to food, like it or not.
I know this is not revolutionary thinking. But, when you are in a hospital bed to long period of time, all your concentration is focused on what will take to get better and go home. Eating right seemed like small positive move in that direction. And continuing onward, I think in terms of what actions I can take that will help me that way.
Life’s lessons: Things that you learn along the way that you probably already know but just take for granted.
Eating well is one of those things.
I have more things to recommend. Life can change in an instant. I think it’s important to always let your loved ones know how much you care. Value those small moments each day that you enjoy. Do not take anything for granted. If I am lucky enough to regain my health I am convinced I will try my best not to take it for grnted.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apricot Love

It’s apricot season once again. It seems to me it came early this year but I’m not complaining. I saw them for the first time last week at the farmers market and restrained myself from buying, since when fruit like that is first available it isn’t always the best. I try to wait at least another week to confirm that the availability is not an aberration but in fact signals the onset of the season.

I do so love apricots when they are in season. They are beautiful in color, sexy in form and deliciously and naturally sweet. For me they are also full of memories, reminding me as they do of my mother and the apricot tree in her backyard. I wrote this poem some years ago; her presence is always with me but especially at these times.


My Mothers Apricots


Lately I had time to ponder life and everything
I ask what it all means and then suppose
maybe it all comes down to my mothers apricots
Sometime in June, on my weekly visit she would say to me
The apricots are ripe, come look at the tree
So out the kitchen door in back we’d go
All the way to the corner of the dusty yard
Where the apricot tree lived and we’d walk around it
Admiring the large, overgrown, heavy branches
Drooping with apricots so ripe some had already hit the ground
With some smashed or laid open and bees buzzing around
I could ignore those, there were so many others
Mom batted at the low branches, all she could reach
I’d try for the topmost ones kissed by the sun
Sometimes climbing up ladders or leafy dark branches
In search of elusive perfect apricots
That soft, round honey-fragrant beautiful orange happiness
Which I would take home at the end of the day
Some to have now and some to have later

A week or two would go by and another visit
And another trip to the tree but this time no apricots
Their bright and abundant cycle already concluded
depriving me of that joy and flavor

Time passed, life changed and now
apricots come every spring to my farmers market
Easily obtained, no tree climbing needed
They are orange in color and softly rounded
and frequently fragrant and often beautiful,
Ever optimistic I dig into my wallet to buy a few
My heart ready to receive that essence and joy
living in memory, only to be again reminded
that these are not my mother’s apricots



My mother’s apricots were of the Blenheim or Royal variety. Alas, they’re hard to find these days since they are not as hardy as some of the newer varieties. Once in a while it’s possible to find them, but not usually. The Blenheim are The Royalty of apricots so if you find them, buy them –they are the most flavorful. That said, all the rest are pretty darn good and I don’t hold back because they’re not the Blenheim. And there are more uses to them than providing memories. Another perfect way to enjoy them (other than just splitting and eating of course) is this galette.

A galette is a free form tart with all the elements of a pie like pastry and sugar but less structured and more casual feeling. I think it’s perfect for warm weather and the fleeting season of ripe apricots. I know it’s possible to purchase apricots flown in from afar practically year round, but they will never measure up to the ones picked yesterday that you find in your local farmer’s market or farm stand. Or if you’re lucky, from your mother’s tree. I make this luscious dessert at least once during the season. It epitomizes summer to me.


Apricot Galette

Galette dough
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugan
¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 /12 sticks)
Unsalted butter, chilled, cut
7 tablespoons ice water

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut tablespoons of the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender , mixing until the dough resembles coarse cornmeal. Cut in the remaining 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of butter with the pastry blender, just until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of large peas – or a little larger. (These bigger pieces of butter in the dough make it flaky).
Dribble the ice water into the flour mixture in several stages, tossing and mixing between additions until the dough just holds together. Keep tossing the mixture until it starts to pull together; it will look rather ropy with some dry patches. Add a little more water if there are more dry patches than ropy parts tossing the mixture until it comes together.
(I have worked out my own shortcut to this by combining all of the ingredients except for the water into a food processor, pulsing until it resembles the coarse cornmeal, and adding the cold water through the top opening until the dough starts pulling away from the sides.
I use a spatula to make sure all the ingredients are combining properly.)
Then continue with the processes.
Divide the dough in half, firmly press each half into a ball and wrap tightly in plastic wrap, pressing down to flatten each ball into a disk. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. (The dough will keep in the freezer for a few weeks. You can use one and keep one for later.)
When you are ready to roll out the dough take one disk from the refrigerator at a time. Let it soften slightly so it is malleable but still cold. Unwrap the dough and press the edges of the disk so there are no cracks. On a lightly floured surface roll out the the disc into a 14” circle about 1/8” thick. Brush off the excess flour from both sides and transfer the dough to a parchment lined baking sheet and refrigerate at least ½ hour before using.

Makes 20 ounces of dough or enough for 2 open galettes or tarts or one covered tart.

For one apricot galette
Makes one 12 inch tart.
Serves 8

1 ½ lbs of ripe apricots
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
10 ounces of galette dough, rolled into a 14-inch circle and chilled
Remove the prerolled dough from the refrigerator or freezer and place on a buttered or parchment lined baking sheet. Cut the apricots in half (or quarters if they are large) removing the pits. Arrange the fruit, skin side down in concentric circles on the dough, making a single layer of snugly touching apricot pieces and leaving the border bare. Evenly sprinkle ¼ cup sugar over the fruit.
While rotating the tart, fold the border of exposed dough up and over itself at regular intervals, crimping and pushing it up against the outer circle of fruit, creating a containing rim that resembles a length of rope. Pinch off any excess dough. This rim must act as a dam, preventing juices from escaping while cooking, so make sure there are no folds or wrinkles that permit such a breach. Brush the border gently with melted butter and sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake in the lower third of the over for 45 – 50 minutes until the crust is well browned and its edges are slightly caramelized. As soon as the galette is out of the oven, use a large metal spatula to slide it off the baking sheet or parchment paper and onto a cooling rack. This keeps it from steaming and getting soggy. Let cool for 20 minutes.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream if you like, although I never do since the tart in itself is so spectacular and delicious.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I like Bread

Last weekend we went north to celebrate Nicole’s graduation from Mills College in Oakland. She now has a Masters degree in Public Policy and I have no doubt she will be one of the new “masters” of the universe. She's an exceptional young woman with a bright future ahead. We’re very proud of her.

Of course, as always, visiting an area is an opportunity to either revisit favorite bakeries, in this case Arizmendi’s, or try/discover new places. We had a lovely celebratory dinner out at Flora, a cool new place in downtown Oakland chosen by Bonnie, Jeff and Nicole. The atmosphere was fun and the food was great. But I have to save my accolades for the breakfast place we went to on Sunday morning before leaving town. The Brown Sugar Kitchen, also in Oakland kind of tucked away in an industrial part of town. Who knew? Well, the locals know of course.

There are many things to like about the place but I can only concentrate on one major thing because, well, I like bread. The bread/bakery products were amazing and any descriptions I give here will not do justice to them. I will single out the ones I either personally ordered or shared. Beignets. I have had them before and they tend to be round and deep-fried. In the best instances they are light and airy and very wonderful. These were wonderful and nothing like what I had previously enjoyed. They were plainer and lighter and flatter. Served with what seemed like homemade berry jam, they were perfect and combined with a good cappuccino or latte would have been enough for me. But there was more! Buttermilk biscuits, flaky and flavorful and though the one I had was the plain one I saw they also had a bacon/cheddar version.. Steve had a waffle that was the most light waffle I have ever seen which they managed to achieve while still making it full of flavor. There were other really good things of course (cheesy grits, sweet potato pie) but for me the bread type products were the best and most amazing because they’re always my favorites. If I lived there I would probably pop in regularly and take some of those bakery items to go because I like bread.

When I think back it seems like my first exposure to food was through bakeries. Oh yeah, of course I had other food contact before then, but not like that, not with any real awareness. I think I found out how much good stuff was out there through bakeries. Do I have to explain? If so, you may not be a bakery lover. Anyway, ever since that childhood revelation - no surprise – bakeries are top on my list as good places to visit. I say visit because sometimes it’s enough to just wander through them and enjoy the sights and smells. A good bakery should smell like something, buttery pastry, cinnamon, chocolate, or something savory like a baguette. Otherwise, how can you trust it?

I take away (sometimes literally) something from every bakery I have been in. my first exposure to croissants, for example, was at the Renaissance Bakery in Laguna Beach. This must have been in the 70’s and croissants were not common here in Orange County, or maybe in most of the US. Now of course, you can get them at Albertsons and in bulk at Costco. The Renaissance was a coffee house way pre-Starbucks but what I believe they and other chains have been modeled after. A place with comfortable seating, a cozy feel, people sitting around enjoying espresso, tea or pastries while reading the newspaper or talking intently with friends. Sadly, Laguna no longer has the Renaissance, but it does have a couple of Starbucks, wouldn’t you know?

There’s a place in Santa Barbara that has apricot bars the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else. And Lord knows I’ve tried a few. I’ve looked at some recipe versions and they are nothing like these which are lighter and less sweet than the typical ones around. I recently decided that I am going to request their recipe next time I’m in town. The bakery is Our Daily Bread, in case anyone is listening. They also have something called a spicy roll which is a round sourdough type roll filled with spicy tomato and cheese. Steve requires at least one to take home or even eat in the car on the way home every time we pass through Santa Barbara.

Years ago Belmont Shore’s Naples Peninsula had a little spot called Café con Leche. The folks that owned it tried different food selections but always had some sort of lovely pastries to offer, to have with your café con leche (coffee with milk) or other coffees or, if you chose, Mexican hot chocolate. Their search for the right combination of pastries and food was doomed from the start, alas. Not because of the quality, which was excellent, but because of the location which was way down almost at the foot of the peninsula, tucked away off the beaten track. I personally loved that about it, but no place can survive with only a few local fans, no matter how dedicated. Before their demise though, Lionel, one of the owners, invented a recipe for a three-berry scone. Not an original concept, I know. The secret though is in the details. This particular version combines an oatmeal cookie-like buttery texture with lots of juicy berries in the center. Tastes great and I even convince myself that it’s good for me, what with the oatmeal and all. Eventually they gave up on the location but by then the scones had developed a following and Lionel was delivering them to a handful of small coffee places in Long Beach. I loved those scones. Well, imagine my surprise and delight to come across Lionel some years later at a Famers Market, selling not only those scones, but granola and cookies under the name of The Scone Age. I don’t know how far-flung the empire is but I wouldn’t be surprised if you find a vendor at your local FM. If you do, try a scone, you’ll be hooked.

Bakeries come and go but one that has stayed in business for the last 30 odd years, fortunately for me is a place named C’est Si Bon. And it is, good that is. C’est Si Bon is located in Newport Beach just off west Coast Highway, so not an immediately obvious location. I don’t remember how I found them but after I did I became a daily customer. They were right on my way so my habit was to pick up a cappuccino and pastry or muffin and take it into the office every morning. The guys that started the place were so committed to the French concept that all the counter employees spoke French. Not were French, just spoke it being, I assumed, students who liked polishing the language. That added to the fun of being there but really wasn’t the main act. The best thing is they were one of the few places that had, and still have, a daily supply of brioche, along with some of the best croissants outside of France. Now, years later, they no longer all speak French, but the good stuff remains. They still have brioches and croissants, along with fantastic scones,desserts and some of the best sandwiches around.

It’s probably obvious I could go on and on but instead of waxing eloquent on each and every place I will give a quick list titled

Bakeries I Have Loved.

Provence Boulangerie in Belmont Shore, Ca. I have to admit initially it was primarily for Olivier, the then-owner who epitomized the Gallic style. He had a large noble nose, long flowing hair, a beautiful French accent and the lovely style to match- he was gorgeous! Okay, the croissants and pastries were great too. Around 1989 he introduced us to what was still a new concept to us and in general – Panini-style sandwiches. His were made with a chunk of fresh baguette, some good cheese like Brie, prosciutto, fresh farmer’s market tomatoes and basil. I can almost taste it now. Stopping at the Boulangerie on my way to work for a double cap was my daily ritual for several years.

The French Corner Bakery in Cambria, Ca. for their really good bread of all kinds. One time they had great bollilos – a Mexican version of baguette – but theirs were a bit sweeter and so good with a little butter and a good cappuccino, which they also had. Both surprised and gratified me since the area, for the most part, seems to be popular with tourists that like barbecue.

D’Angelos Bakery in Santa Barbara, Ca. also has great bread (sage and onion) along with marvelous pastries like raisin rolls and lovely desserts. They also serve a very nice breakfast and have a good patio.

Arizmendi's Bakery in Emeryville, Ca which is related to The Cheese Board in Berkeley. Don’t be fooled by the name, they have some of the most original pastries around but my favorite at both spots are the brioche knots for which I might consider relocating. Fortunately since my daughter lives in the area I can get my fix by visiting from time to time.

Pearl Bakery, Portland, Or
I’ve been to Portland only once and during those 4 days observed that it has a lot to offer. The Pearl Bakery is only one of those things of course but it was enough for me. I particularly remember their – again! – brioche. They had really good chunky cookies and a sandwich that set the sandwich standard for me. It consisted of rich multi-grain walnut bread which held sliced pears, gorgonzola and arugula. Wow! That was years ago and I’m sure that they have added other equally good things but for me that would be enough.

And last but not least, my neighborhood Pain du Monde which has three locations within my immediate area in Newport Beach. They have really great strong coffee and pastries too numerous to list but I will mention the berry scones and raisin/walnut buns which I particularly like. Fortunately for me one of their locations is only blocks from my house so I can easily incorporate them into my morning routine. Like all the places I have mentioned, it is locally owned, which I prefer. The young women who work there are cheery, personable and friendly, something that is always desirable with your morning coffee.

I continue to check out great bakeries wherever I go, and always, always try something. Some people explore wine, or museums, or great monuments, I like bread.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In and out of the Kitchen

There are lots of things going on these days, politically, economically and sociologically. Many things are changing, and we will find out soon enough if it’s for better or for worse, I suppose. All points of view are available in various media and I have nothing to add to that.
I do have an opinion on a recent phenomenon that can’t change fast enough for me. The “bigger is better” concept. Not just the super-sized fast food and drinks, which are written about and discussed extensively, but a lot of other things too. For instance, in the US, the average home size was 2,330 square feet in 2004, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970. What do we do with so much space? Well, one of the things I have noticed particularly are the luxury kitchens. Never mind that no one seems to stay home and cook in them since at any given moment restaurants are always full. At least it seems that way at the ones I go to, bad economy and all. Nonetheless, these new kitchens are loaded with the latest in kitchen design and technology; beautiful cabinets and islands, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and oversized beautiful stoves that rival their restaurant cousins.

It could be that I’m just jealous. I have always been a bit partial to great stoves. Stove culture – kinda like car culture that guys have, only domesticated. I know, I know – saying that just perpetuates gender stereotypes. But I have to admit I do love the power and possibility encased in all that metal and chrome that is a stove, even if it can’t physically take me anywhere. Viking stoves, Wolf Stoves, Aga, so much food and history!

I haven’t always felt this way about stoves. It’s possible my romance with stoves started when we, Steve and I, acquired a free one some years ago. Not just any old stove, but what I consider a classic, once the crème de la crème of stoves, an O’Keefe and Merritt.

The day we acquired the stove started typically enough. It was a warm summer Saturday and Steve and I were on our way to the beach. The duplex we were living in at the time was about 6 blocks away from our favorite beach spot, which was beside the bay in Belmont Shore. We rode our bikes there in order to be able to carry our beach chairs, towels and snacks more easily.
As we rode down our neighborhood streets we looked around, as always to see what was going on. At one particular corner there was a lot of activity and apparently what was going on there was remodeling because there was a stove, just sitting at the curb. Even from a distance it looked pretty interesting so we stopped to check it out. It was the old style traditional white with 4 burners and a griddle in the middle, one baking and one broiling/grilling oven with something called a "Grill-a-vator". As we explored it we also noted it had a neat bifold top that converted to a shelf, salt and pepper shakers and a clock with timer.

This was a fabulous piece of furniture, more than a mere stove! We wondered aloud why it was out there and if it was a discard. As we were standing there the homeowner came out and we chatted a bit and found out they were in fact remodeling their kitchen. They were going for all new and nifty, no room for the old stuff including said stove. Well, we loved the stove. And, we did have an old 1920’s style kitchen that it would look great in. So Steve asked what they wanted for it, assuming they just wanted to get rid of it, which did turn out to be the case. The guys struck a deal, one case of (good) beer and, we had to haul it away.

They shook on it and off we continued to the beach. As we lay in the sun we discussed how we would get it home. Our duplex unit was upstairs in a Spanish style building with an outside staircase. Since we lived just blocks from where the stove was it seemed wasteful, given our limited financial resources, to rent a trailer to pick it up. And those stoves are really heavy, so lifting it into a truck bed, should be able to borrow one, would be really tricky. We had a couple of hours of sun time and then left the beach for home. After dropping off our bikes and other gear, we went back to the stove, hoping to come up with a logical answer on how to transport it by staring at it. The ex-owner came up with a unique idea, he would lend us a large dolly to put under the stove, and cable to tie around it, and we could pull it home. Since we lived only a few blocks from there it seemed like a good solution. After securing it as much as was possible, off we went, Steve yoked at the front, providing the strength and pulling it, and I at the back, holding onto the stove, making sure it didn’t slide off the dolly and sort of steering it.

Belmont Shore is a small community of narrow neighborhood streets and so negotiating our way slowly down the street wasn’t as big a problem as it might be in a busier place. All went well for several blocks with any cars that we encountered making their way around us gingerly, but graciously. What we had forgotten until we got there was that one of the streets we needed to cross was a major business thoroughfare, Second Street. But we were already on our way and there was no getting around it so we just pulled and pushed onward. When we got to the street we looked both ways and started out, I taking the lead and holding out up my hand like a traffic cop while Steve pulled his awkward load across.

It must have been quite a sight; a guy dressed in shorts and flip-flops pulling a rope with a bulky white appliance on wheels at the end of it. We got a lot of surprised looks from motorists, along with a few friendly waves, horn honks and some words of encouragement.

After that adventure, once we got it home, the question of how to get it up the stairs paled by comparison; all that took was good neighbor Jim to help provide the muscle. And when the stove was in place, it was well worth it, it looked great - And surprisingly, worked great. This was the stove that Steve learned to cook pasta on, and that we both sharpened our culinary interests with. It comes as no surprise to me twenty years later that those forties-era stoves are considered classics and are highly prized. I wouldn’t mind having one again myself, although as splendid as it was at the time,I think now I would be more likely to obtain one in a more conventional way.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Witness

If it’s true, as has been noted, that we marry in order to have someone bear witness to our lives, what Steve and I have witnessed is a whole lot of food, to say nothing of food talk, between ourselves and our friends.

It should have been apparent from the beginning that we would be about food. We met on the beach in an area of Long Beach called Belmont Shore which is a city neighborhood but has a small town feel. It was within two years after my divorce and shortly after his. We were both sunbathing that April day, enjoying the onset of warm days. Our beach towels were in close proximity so we got into the kind of aimless conversation typical to relaxed situations such as that. Since I had moved there from out of the area and he was more familiar with it, having grown up there, we spent some time discussing the differences between the more suburban area I had come from and the city in which I was now living.

In the process of comparing Orange County, where I grew up, and Long Beach, it seemed natural that amenities such as restaurants would come up in the conversation. Steve then took it to the next level and mentioned a knowing a great restaurant, a Mexican place he regularly visited, to which I responded, that I knew one that had to be much, much better. Being of Mexican descent I felt I would be the more qualified to judge something like that, and said so. We decided to put it to the test; I would treat him to mine, out in the “suburban wasteland” that was Orange County, and he would take me to his in the urban core of Long Beach. Oh sure, it was a ploy on his part, but it worked. One date led to another, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the record, neither one of us was particularly impressed by the others’ restaurant choice. He felt mine was too trendy and unauthentic, since it was in Laguna Beach and because my favorite thing to have there was Nachos. And I felt his was too ordinary and unauthentic, being a typical “Americanized” style characterized by too much red sauce and cheese. However, even with that large philosophical disparity, we somehow managed to strike an accord on how we approach food. I’m just guessing here but I suspect it really wasn’t about the restaurants at all.

We met at a time in our lives when raising children (mine) and consuming business travel (his) were, for the most part, behind us. That put us in the position of being ready to settle into a comfortable place in life and as it turned out, to have someone to share it with. We both had demanding jobs that kept us engaged and required long hours. For me, it meant not having a lot of energy left for anything else on a daily basis. Steve was still doing some traveling and also doing work that sometimes required long days and/or weekend work.

Early on we realized we liked to have dinner out since it was one way to relax and not make one person be responsible for food preparation. With two decent incomes, it was possible to go out regularly and, since the eating out was as much for entertainment as it was for sustenance, we sought out interesting restaurants.

I don’t think we have ever, then or now, looked for restaurants that were fancy or glamorous. That said, both those things are desirable, under the right circumstance, for example, like an anniversary or post-theatre dinner. But for the most part, good food in nice settings was all we looked for. Small places and personalized service was and still is, highly desirable. This type of attitudes sometimes collides with some realities. The first Mexican restaurant he took me to was good in those two things. Unfortunately, the food was not. Strike that one. The restaurant I touted had a beautiful location going for it, it’s hard to fault Laguna Beach, but that was all. Admittedly it was a great date destination, but sooner or later, even when starry-eyed, you crave real food. Both of us gained weight in the first months of the relationship I theorize, because when you’re newly in love everything looks wonderful, tastes wonderful, and you don’t think beyond the moment. Living in the moment may be a lovely philosophy for life in general but really plays havoc with your weight and probably your health too. Fortunately we were still young enough where that was not yet an issue. And after a while we did get over the novelty.

At some point we realized that a lot of the dishes we enjoyed out consisted of fresh ingredients prepared inventively. We became intrigued by what we saw and tasted. We would enjoy something at a restaurant and come home and look for the recipe. As a lot of what we liked was Italian, specifically pasta dishes, we started exploring that type of cooking. A good thing since it is more easily mastered than, say, a crown roast. In those pre-internet days, you had to buy cookbooks and cooking magazines to find recipes. So buy them we did. I discovered that reading cookbooks in bed was a great way to relax. The pictures are beautiful and when I fall asleep beautiful photos of food are the last images I see.

It turned out there is a negative side to all this culinary appreciation. We found that many exceptional recipes we so enjoyed and were able to do at home were not available at restaurants. This was especially true of many of the pasta dishes, since if you have access to a store that carries good pasta, they are fairly easy and gratifying to make.

It is something of a loss but these days we seldom go to Italian restaurants, choosing instead to cook those types of things ourselves. I lean towards chunky vegetables types of recipes with ingredients like roasted eggplants or cauliflower, and Steve prefers the smoother sauces and has become something of an expert at risotto. We seldom venture too far into one-another’s specialty space but occasionally have been known to wrangle over who saw that appealing-looking recipe in the newspaper first. Some things just look too good to pass up but whoever “loses” of course really doesn’t since we get to eat the finished dish.

This pasta recipe falls into that category, having a creamy cheesy sort of sauce that Steve typically prefers. But, I called it first, made it and it is delicious. And easy. I know my limits. I invariably go for easy.

Ricotta Orzo

Ingredients:

½ lb orzo
1 cup fresh ricotta
4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 tbs olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped leeks, rinsed well
½ cup fresh or frozen peas
½ tsp salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
½ cup whole milk, warmed
1/3 cup grated parmesan
1 tbs chopped fresh dill or other fresh herb
like chervil, chives, parsley



Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the pasta. Cook according to package directions. Drain and rinse well. Set aside.
While the pasta is cooking heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the leeks. Cook until leeks are tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, salt, and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the orzo, ricotta, and bacon and toss well over medium heat until warm, about 3 minutes. Add the milk, Parmesan, and dill/herbs and cook for 1 more minute. Serve hot.

Serves 2 as a main course and can easily be doubled for more.
Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Favorite Foods

Steve has a story he likes to tell about his birthdays when he was a kid. He grew up in the 1950’s when, in his opinion, kids weren’t coddled and catered-to as they now are, he says. And as the oldest in a family with five kids, in those pre-credit card years he knew money was carefully allocated for necessities. So on his birthday, there weren’t parties or dinners out. Instead his mother would prepare his favorite dinner in his honor. At this point in the story someone will usually ask “and that was?” to which Steve replies, “I don’t know”. But mom knew, and that’s what she prepared for him.

I always enjoy this story for a couple of reasons. One is that in the 50’s Father Knows Best timeframe, in this case mother knew best. But mainly I like it because I enjoy thinking of Steve as a little kid with a favorite food, though it apparently changed from year to year. But if his adult choices are any indication, probably included were those 50’s staples, macaroni and cheese, and meatloaf.

This made me reflect on the fact that I have no favorite foods, other than bread perhaps. Did most people have favorite foods, or have them now, as adults, I wondered? I decided to question some friends and family about that, if they had any and what they were. In thinking about possible responses, I had my own bias, thinking that women seem to obsess far more about weight and looks than men seem to so therefore they (we) weren’t as food-centered as guys.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The only thing my admittedly unscientific sampling revealed was – surprise – most people like what we have come to know as comfort foods. Pizza, man n’cheese, soup, and yes, meatloaf. Sensuous foods like avocados and artichokes also were mentioned, as well as custards, puddings and ice cream. Some surprises to me were French fries and also fresh tomatoes, although come to think of it what’s not to like about French fries. The fresh tomatoes mentioned were described by their admirer in such ardent detail that I immediately had a craving for them.
This is not to say that everyone eats their favorites all the time. In fact, I suspect many things may have become favorites because of the lack of them, coupled with a bit of nostalgia for what we used to be.
Notable by their absence as anyone’s favorites were things like grilled vegetables, tofu products, and nouvelle cousine, even though the strong presence of these things in many stores and restaurants would indicate otherwise. Perhaps the children of today will someday see them as their childhood food, or, having been exposed to so much more than the previous generations, will have a more global approach to, and acceptance of, various types of fare.

These days Steve determines his choices and so knows what his favorite foods are, and yes, meatloaf is one of them. If I cooked meat I might be able to provide a good recipe. But you may just have to get by as he does, which is to have it when we go out, or alternatively, get it from Trader Joe’s. He says their turkey meat loaf makes great sandwiches and who am I to argue?

But my favorite result of this musing has to do with the tomatoes. We are just starting to come into the season when flavorful tomatoes become available, if not in our back yards, at least at the farmers markets. So we will all be able to enjoy them at their best, and perhaps get as much pleasure as my friend Alice does. This is how she describes them.

Alice’s Passionate Tomatoes

Home grown summer tomatoes, so juicy and delicious you can pull them off the plant warm from the sun and eat them standing in the garden (provided no pesticides have been applied!)
Or, slice them and have them with a little salt, or put thin slices on bread for a sandwich so drippy you have to stand over the kitchen sink to eat it.

Alice’s all-time favorite pasta recipe
Diced summer tomatoes in olive oil, garlic, fresh basil and red pepper flakes.
Marinate at room temp overnight
Toss with hot pasta and grated Fontina cheese
Enjoy!

Thanks Alice.

Monday, March 23, 2009

MY YEAR OF PROUST

What most people know of Proust, if they know anything at all, probably has do with his now much-publicized reference to that wonderful rich cake-like cookie called a Madeleine. Proust is Marcel Proust of course, a French literary figure of the early 20th century who is known for writing autobiographical novels about his youth and his observations of the aristocratic life in Belle Epoch France. A key scene in one of the stories is when, as an adult, he is served a Madeleine, the taste of which allows him to remember and vividly portray to his readers the circumstances in which he had enjoyed the delectable cakes in his childhood. He describes how just one taste made him so happy and how he recalled details about visits to his aunt and her house, the room and garden where he last experienced the taste of a Madeleine cake.


I came to Proust a little differently, and with no knowledge or experience with madeleines. I came to him by way of an Adult Education course catalog listing which said “Reading Proust”. The course description included the name of the book that was currently being read, the fact that the reading was aloud, and that there was discussion on the reading. What a luxurious idea! I had never read Proust, but it seemed to me that to read him would be the ultimate in basic and cultural literacy. As an English Literature major I was familiar with the works of Shakespeare, and Chaucer but it had occurred to me that my education was not completely rounded out. That I could do with some other influences. Spanish or French writers for example.So I signed up and showed up, ready to learn at the appointed time and location. The city of Santa Barbara has adult ed. classes in various locations throughout the city. This one was at a beautiful little Spanish style center which had its start as an elementary school but was probably deemed to be too small to be effective for that purpose now. The campus had nice lawns and large stately pepper and olive trees. A gorgeous setting and an auspicious beginning for a new literary adventure, I thought.

Finding my classroom I walked in and saw a collection of interesting and distinctive looking individuals, most over 60 years of age None fit any particular mold or look, particularly if I had a stereotyped image of older people. They all looked comfortable with themselves, and in particular did not appear to be of the“beautiful people” style that many associate with a place like Santa Barbara. The dress style was casual and in some cases carried to sloppiness. But then there were the casual elegant women who wore scarves and shawls and interesting hats. The teacher had all the markings of an ex-hippie from the 6o’s, longish hair, camouflage shirt worn over an emblem t-shirt and Birkenstocks worn over socks on his feet. I later learned that he was, in fact, much older than I thought, but of the type just the same. Amazingly, this particular class had been going for 35 years and quite a few of the people in the class had been there for most of it, coming and going over the various seasons. Apparently the reading was on-going, one book giving way to the next, in the way Proust had written them. I learned that even though there are several separate books, Remembrance of Things Past, In search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way, The Germantes Way, and others, they are essentially like one continuous story.

I came in, gave my name, signed the roll sheet and took a seat, making sure to not be too close to the front, lest I be called upon. After the formalities of the new season and roll-taking, the teacher started right in, assuming, rightly in most cases, that the attendees were up to speed with the current story, and familiar with Proust in general.

It seemed that only I was not. The teacher himself started in reading. The stories had to do with our main character in the book which, I was to learn, was Proust himself in literary disguise.. From time to time the teacher would stop reading to explain or comment on something just read. After a while, he would pass the task of reading to a volunteer, who would also pause to comment from time to time. Proust’s stories, like all good literature, did not exist or stand alone, but reflected the society at the time. History, politics and especially social mores were all revealed in his words.

The class was two hours long, with a short break in-between hours. The time flew.The readers pronounced the French impeccably and in their added commentary frequently gave more detail than was apparent, or even called for. They knew that stuff inside and out. Many recalled their own visits to France over the years and the places mentioned in the book. They drew parallels between the past as depicted in the story, and the present that they themselves had observed. I felt, looking at some of them and their ages, they might well have visited or inhabited Paris in the authors’ time so listening to them was magical transport from the everyday.

Ultimately, I am unsure what was more compelling for me; the stories in the book or the other “students”. The stories were, in my opinion, stilted flights of fancy. I found Proust’s character to be somewhat tiresome but of course greater intellects than mine would energetically disagree. Nonetheless, I came away from there feeling that I had had a very unique experience because of the others in the class and my exposure to their perspective. If the purpose of a school is to educate, I did get an education, just not the expected one.

These days it’s easy to indulge in those tasty little cakes that evoked such poignant memories and so inspired Proust without going all the way to France. They are as close as your local Starbucks or Trader Joe’s, available in tidy cello packages. But for those purists who would have the real thing, this version of the recipe is rumored to be the closest to Proust’s “squat, plump little cakes”. You can make your own and your own memories.


Madeleines
Makes about 20

2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon lemon peel
pinch of salt
1 cup all purpose flour
10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375. generously butter and flour pan for large (3 X 1 ¼”). madeleines
(A metal mold with scallop-shaped indentations)
Using electric mixer, beat eggs and 2/3 cup sugar in a large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, lemon peel and salt. Add flour; beat until just blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.

Spoon 1 tablespoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 16 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pan. Repeat process, buttering and flouring pan before each batch. (Can be made 1 day ahead.)

Dust cookies with powdered sugar

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Simple Gifts

I have a recipe for memories. At least for my memories. You probably have one for yours. Mine is one I found a while back that seemed close to something I remember my mother making, though not from any recipe. She just called it fideo and this recipe calls it fideo soup. Fideo is a thin noodle and calling it soup sounded different, but the preparation seemed similar so I made a copy of the recipe, intending to try it someday.

Well, the someday came unexpectedly. We had been away on an overnight “getaway” to Coronado Island, which is an hour and a half’s drive away from us so easy to get to. I say getaway but observe to myself that we really have nothing that must be gotten away from. Nonetheless, we did. Coronado is a small island linked to the city of San Diego by a large bridge but has a separate and distinct identity. The town area is small and walkable, with all the necessary amenities for a nice visit. For me that includes a place to have coffee, a nice glass of wine or cocktail, a bookstore, appealing restaurants and a few clever shops for browsing. Coronado has all of that in spades. The place to have a nice drink is the bar at the venerable Hotel Del Coronado, a place we do not stay at, not being inclined to want to part with the amount of money they require for those historic lodgings. But we can have entrée to the feeling of being there for the price of a drink, and be there to watch the sun set, since the bar is perfectly sited for that.

But no matter how entertaining it is to go away, it’s always nice to return and slip into the comfort zone that is home. And with that, the enjoyment of other things like simple food, frequently the opposite of what was enjoyed while away. Not having cooked or even thought of cooking while we were gone, now it sounded like a nice idea. And I happened to have what seemed like the ultimate comfort food recipe, one like mom used to make. I was set. After checking to be sure I had the ingredients required, I started cooking. I was pretty confident I could do it because after all I had seen my mother make this a million times. That’s all I really needed to know. Or so I thought.

The recipe tells you to break up the fideo into small pieces. I recall seeing her do that in one or two easy steps. So I started breaking up the little pasta “nests”. They don’t break tidely, I found. I had fideo scattered all over the stove, counter and floor of the kitchen. Then once it was broken, I had to sauté it in olive oil. No problem. I had seen her do that too. I did not reckon with the sheer volume of pasta, however. There was a lot! All confined in a small space - which was actually a pretty good sized pot. It was a lot trickier than I thought, getting it all browned but not burnt – as cautioned.

The rest went pretty smoothly. The tomatoes, garlic, onions made a nice sauce. The recipe calls for pureeing all the sauce but I recalled that mom did not puree her tomatoes but instead chopped them roughly before adding them to her pasta, so I reserved about a two tomatoes worth of chopped tomatoes rather than puree them all with the sauce, then added them to the mix with the pasta. I thought it made a more textured soup.

When all was done and the flavors melded, as the recipe states, I was transported back to my mother’s kitchen. This was not her exact recipe, I know. But close enough. It is comfort food of the best kind. Not just what it is, but all the wonderful feelings that came with it, both the making and the eating.

I may just have to rename this recipe Mom’s Fideo Soup.

Fideo Soup
Serves 4

Ingredients:
1/2 c Olive oil or 8 tablespoons
-unsalted butter
12 oz Fideo, vermicelli or angel
-hair pasta, broken into
-1-inch pieces
4 Dried or canned Morita or
-Chipotle chiles;
2 lbs Italian Roma tomatoes
8 Garlic cloves,; peeled
1 lg Onion,; roughly chopped
1/2 c Water
2 tbs Salt
6 cups Chicken or vegetable stock
1 bunch Cilantro, leaves only,
-chopped for garnish

In large saucepan or stockpot heat 1 tblsp oil, add onion and sauté 5 -10 minutes,add garlic, saute lightly and set aside. Add remainder of oil to the pan, add pasta and saute until golden, stirring frequently and being careful not to burn. Stir in chilis and cook for 2 minutes longer.
Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, garlic, onion, water and salt in a blender. puree until smooth. add tomato puree and stock to browned pasta. Cook over medium-low heat until the noodles soften and the flavors meld, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with cilantro as garnish.


Notes: This made a thick hearty soup or a soupy pasta, depending on how you look at it. I did not see fideo at my local Bristol Farms so bought angel hair pasta instead. Apparently the reason for sautéing the pasta has to do with keeping it from swelling up as much as it does for its more standard use so make sure it is all browned as noted. I think I did not brown mine enough and so it sort of grew. I suspect that it would be possible to make enough of this for the recipe with 8 ounces of the pasta which is actually a more typical packaging amount than the 12 ounces suggested here. I may try that next time.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Life, the Universe and so on

Life has a way of slapping you every so often. I was going to say slapping you down but that’s not really true, in most cases. It’s more like “attention must be paid.” It can be relationships problems, family issues, money, car problems or any other type of thing that gets in the way of living the life that you think you should. In my case, right now, it’s health. Good health is one of those things I have been blessed with, for the most part, other than the usual stuff. But I have made the amazing discovery that when you get past a "certain age” which I suppose varies per person, health issues increase.

I have done my share of whining about this state of affairs with those who might care. After a while I get tired of the subject and hearing myself and move on. My mother’s mantra was “adelante” or “go forward” and that’s what I always strive for, and mostly succeed.

And, I have happy news to share; I have discovered the secret of life. I won’t keep you waiting, the secret is, drumroll please – upbeat music and cooking. What, you expected something more complicated or mystical? But that’s good news people, it can be that simple. I emphasize “can be” because I am fully aware that for some it won’t be.

But, here it is. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon. (It is California after all.) I am listening to an old Joe Jackson Body and Soul CD turned on loudly because I am the only one around. I am roasting potatoes and parsnips I just bought this morning at the Farmers Market. Roasting vegetables always smell wonderful, in my opinion, and I sample as I go, dancing in between tastes and tasks.

I am happy.

The process is the fun part but I am also anticipating the eating part which comes later – with a nice Pinot Gris. Yum yum.

I don’t guarantee results but I know happy music, dancing and cooking nice food go a long way towards making almost anyone feel good. Even more so when there’s no one watching, you can let it all out.

So go find music that makes you want to sing or dance along. I’ll provide the recipe.

See, that simple.

Roasted Vegetable Galette

Ingredients
One 9-ounce sheet of puff pastry, chilled *
6 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
Six 1-ounce fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme
8 oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry 1/16 inch thick. Cut out a 12-inch round and transfer it to the cookie sheet. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Arrange the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and bake for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes are done, slide them to 1 side of the baking sheet and scatter the potatoes on the other. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and golden and the tomatoes are lightly browned. Let cool.
Turn the oven up to 400°. Spread the leeks on the puff pastry round to within 1 inch of the edge. Top with the tomatoes, potatoes and thyme. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edge is puffed and golden. Scatter the olives over the galette, cut into wedges and serve.


make ahead
The recipe can be prepared ahead through roasting the toppings stage. Refrigerate the pastry and toppings overnight. Bring the toppings to room temperature before assembling and baking.
* I use a 10-oz. regular galette dough for this recipe. I frequently have one in the freezer since when I make them my recipe makes two.

ps. The recipe doesn't call for parsnips but since I like them and found them at the FM today I added 2, cut in rougly 2" cubes and roasted with the potatoes. You could probably do this with turnips too if you like.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Just Good Food

Well, Valentine’s Day has passed and also our celebration. Funny how we all feel compelled to note the date somehow. A few years ago Steve and I started including Steve’s mom and sister along on our VD dinners out. We have many opportunities for just the two of us and, if the occasion is about people you love, it seemed appropriate to share it with his mom, who is widowed and elderly, and single sis Therese.

The first year we did that we went to a restaurant associated with a then new hotel in Laguna Beach called The Montage. The hotel is located on an oceanfront bluff and the restaurant, named Studio, is sited so it takes full advantage of the fabulous view. We went for lunch since there seemed no point in going for the view at dinnertime in February when it’s already dark. The food was a prix fixe menu, not my favorite thing, but it was a special time and place so we bought into it. The food was I admit pretty special and with portions just enough without being too much. But, really, it doesn’t matter how the food was, what made that lunch spectacularly memorable was the company. I like to tell people I had lunch with Pierce Brosnan there. Okay, he was seated at the next table having lunch and yes, his wife was there with him, but still-Pierce Brosnan! It made all of our day, or at least the women’s’. I suspect Steve wasn’t quite as elated as we were since he is of the opinion that Pierce was miscast as James Bond. And don’t even get him started on the subject of Pierce’s singing in Mamma Mia – a movie he was dragged to against his will.

This year there were no celebrities. We went to a place called Savannah in Costa Mesa which features sort of a California version of southern style cooking- think buttermilk fried chicken and the like. Given the state of the economy, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it empty but it was pretty busy, even with a 5:30 p.m. reservation which we do when taking mom out since her hearing isn’t what it used to be. Unfortunately, even though they advertised a regular menu it was not. Yes, some of the selections were there from the regular menu, but not all- deceptive, I thought. Nonetheless we managed to have a really good meal, once we got past the disappointment of having limited choices. And, then there were the brilliant desserts, two of which we selected to share. Chocolate soufflé and crème brulee rate high on the happiness meter with just about everyone.

But, if any compensation was needed I received it the next evening. We stayed home and Steve made one of his specialties, Baked Penne. There is a longer name for it but we always just call it baked penne for obvious reasons. This is one of those dishes that always surprises just a little bit, it’s so good. And, like so many good recipes, it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. And all its parts are excellent, in my opinion. Even though some years ago one of our dinner guests meticulously picked out all the Kalmata olives and pushed them to one side of his plate, which we discovered when we cleaned up later. I mean, what adult man picks out all the olives from his pasta?

This is a dish I love. It’s rich and not so rich. It’s a satisfying sort of Mac n' Cheese, but more special. I highly recommend it. And, I’m not saying that just because it’s something that I don’t have to make.

Paired with a nice glass of Pinot Noir, what can I say but “Mamma Mia!”

Baked Penne with Tomatoes, Olives and Two Cheeses
Serves 4-generously.
Ingredients
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
• 1 teaspoon minced garlic
• 3 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained
• 2 teaspoons dried basil
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
• 2 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
• 1 pound penne or pennette
• 2 1/2 cups packed grated Havarti cheese (16 oz)
• 1/3 cup sliced pitted Kalamata olives
• 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

Preparation
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Mix in tomatoes, dried basil and crushed red pepper. Add broth & bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer, breaking up tomatoes with back of spoon. Thicken mixture to chunky sauce and is reduced to 6 cups, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 10 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper.
(Can be made up to 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm over low heat before continuing.)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite. Drain well. Return pasta to same pot. Toss with 3 tablespoons oil. Pour sauce over and toss to blend. Mix in Havarti cheese. Transfer pasta to 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish.* Sprinkle with olives, then Parmesan.
Bake until pasta is heated through, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with basil.

*Note:
When making this for two of us, Steve uses two 8" X 8" X 2" glass pans. One to have and one to freeze for later use. The freezer one should not be baked until ready for use.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentines Day
Valentine’s Day invariably brings out thoughts of romance and love. These ideas of romance and love are sometimes associated with luscious foods, like chocolate which is thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities. Oysters are sometimes mentioned too, but less so and I suspect the reason is that most people don’t find them as attractive in concept. Local restaurants will suddenly develop a “special menu” which is double the cost and double the amount of food that you normally would have there. Granted, the menus are sometimes inspired and very appealing. But I personally always feel like I would be a sucker for falling for such an obvious marketing tool.

For me, the most romantic dinner in recent memory did not occur at Valentine’s Day at all but was admittedly, a part of a romantic getaway. Steve and I had never been as far south as Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, in spite of living in Southern California, but had heard about it through friends and through advertising. As a warm place a short plane ride away from home it seemed just right for a three day weekend.

The plane ride was easy but when we got to our destination airport we found that from there we still had to take a shuttle for another 1 ½ hours before arriving to our hotel. The roads were narrow and in some places precariously placed on mountain sides so it made for a longer-feeling ride than it probably was. We could see new and beautifully landscaped condominiums and hotels along the way, fronting onto drop-dead water views; all very large and glitzy looking. We finally arrived at our hotel, which was similarly placed, and also large and imposing. After getting settled in, we went out to explore.

We are walkers, feeling that walking is the best way to get familiar with a new place, and so we set out on foot. It was an inauspicious beginning for what we had anticipated being a relaxed and lovely vacation. Most of the streets were not paved, and were dry and dusty. Other than at the hotels, for the most part there were not the plants and landscaping that is so ubiquitous in private and public places we were used to up north.
But we continued on, determined to see what there was to see. The little town consisted of just a few blocks which we covered quickly. There was a main street that had some restaurants, the most prominent of which were American in origin and had a “chain” feel to them. There were also some local places that looked a little too “native” for our comfort level, being a little dustier and more cluttered. Additionally, there were small jewelry and craft stores with some very beautiful and reasonably priced objects and art. With the warm weather, we felt a need for a light snack and on a street corner found just the perfect thing. Fresh fruit in juicy and colorful piles, either juiced to your order, or cut up and put into small take-away paper cone container. Mango, papaya, pineapple, melon and berries, all fresh, sweet and prepared when ordered. The flavors were grand and I have never encountered anything quite like that anywhere else.

After spending time finding our way around and being a little disappointed at the dreariness of our surroundings, we went back to the hotel to recoup. The hotel was placed to take full advantage of the view of the sea, and had two luxurious swimming pools facing that way as well. The weather was warm, so hanging out by the pool was an easy way to spend time.

That evening, we cleaned up and prepared to go off on a walk on the beachfront by our hotel, where we had spotted what looked like a couple of casual restaurants. We stepped down onto the sand from the patio of the hotel and commenced to walk in the direction that seemed to have the most activity.

There were in fact several places along the way, some associated with our or other hotels. The one that caught our fancy though, had nothing of the formality of the hotels.

It was placed right on the sand, and was loosely constructed with palm fronds overhanging the roof, reminiscent of Hawaii. The first area we entered held a small bar and some tables and from there it was possible to see a patio beyond which extended almost to the water’s edge. We looked at the menu, agreed it had promise and were seated.. We noticed a bit of bustling around, and had seen some men in costume which we took to be a group of Mariachis. We asked our waiter what was going on. He was very conversational and informed us that that night was the owner’s birthday and there was going to be a party for him. We were welcome to stay but it might be quite noisy and not what we might have expected. We thought it sounded fun, so we stayed.

It turned out to be a good decision. The wine they served was a local Baja wine, quite acceptable even to our California palates. We had a glass or two and listened to the musicians playing for the party. In time we ordered our meal, which was not clichéd Mexican food. It was, as might be expected in a waterfront town, seafood. In this case, freshly caught lobster and shrimp, grilled in butter to perfection, and served simply with rice and accompanied by fresh tomato salsa. The servings were generous but the food so delicious we were unable to exercise any portion control. We just ate and ate and drank the lovely wine. And as if we had ordered it especially, the background sound consisted of the gentle lapping of the nearby surf with the music offering the counterpoint.
When the birthday party began winding down, the musicians, who had apparently been booked for the evening, came to us and asked if we had any musical requests. We were able to come up with a couple of Spanish language songs we were familiar with like Cielito Lindo and Paloma, which they knew and were able to play with style and enthusiasm.

As the guests left, the host, who was the owner and the birthday person, came by our table and we wished him a happy birthday. He was obviously in an expansive mood, stopping to chat; he treated us to a couple of after-dinner brandies, which he was also having. He seemed gratified that we would know some words in Spanish although his slightly accented English was flawless.

After that we pretty much had the place to ourselves and finished off our after-dinner drinks while basking the glow of the evening, the amazing food and the serene surf sounds. The evening ended with an easy walk along the beach back to our hotel just a short distance away. The restaurant, the evening and the food were all so memorable that I would hesitate to attempt to recreate the event. Some things should be regarded as once in a lifetime experiences.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fueling Philosophy
The other day I read in my local paper about an enterprising woman who has started a cottage industry with bottled water. Knowing that huge corporations pretty much have that market segment sewed up you wouldn’t think anyone would venture into it on a small scale but apparently this isn’t actually just water - this is inspiration!The idea is that inspiring words like joy, peace and harmony are part of the name on the water bottle. Presumably then when you drink it you feel joyful, peaceful or harmonious.
Is it that easy? Is consuming things with pretty names the way to The Way?
By this example it would appear to be the case. Consumers of the water swore by it, saying they felt more...whatever the message on the bottle called for.

A few months ago on a visit to daughter Bonnie I had a related experience, only with food. This is nothing new of course. Over the years Bonnie has frequently introduced me to new places which include new food experiences. A few years ago, Graduate school took her to Berkeley, home of famous chef Alice Waters, who has gained fame for her fresh, local-food approach to cooking. The area in Berkeley in which Waters’ much-lauded Chez Panisse restaurant is located is known as the “gourmet ghetto”. This locale is several blocks long and is dotted with wonderful places to eat in and/or take out: pizza which sets a benchmark to which the likes of even upscale California Pizza Kitchen could never aspire; cheeses from small local cheese makers and dairies; bakeries with breads and pastries unique, beautiful and tasty. Great coffee, or tea. All the multi-cultural and just plain great food experiences available are too vast to list. Suffice it to say, whatever you may want or are looking for, it will be available there.So many great places and people in the Bay area seem to take them for granted. It’s only we visitors who gawk in wonder and delight. However even someone like me who is interested in such experiences can, at times, be dumbfounded by the occurence. On that visit, Bonnie thought that our group, which consisted of partner Jeff, daughter Nicole and me, should visit the latest food phenomenon to arrive at the gourmet ghetto. So after a lovely lunch of goat cheese/wild mushroom crostinis and soup, from a place whimsically spelled SOOP, we walked on down the street for some dessert.

The destination was a restaurant named Café Gratitude. Their self-declared intention is, and I quote. “We invite you to step inside and enjoy being someone who chooses; loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful everyday, and experiencing being provided for.” Call me judgmental but right away I knew this was not a place for the Claim Jumper crowd.

I am - Befuddled. The whole concept behind the food at Café Gratitude is that of “live food” that is to say, it is uncooked, or only heated to 115 degrees, and is organic and vegan.
I am - Uneducated. How do you have food, beyond the obvious like salads, uncooked? Ingeniously though, they did have a menu that covered a spectrum including pizzas, burgers and Mexican and other ethnic dishes, to name only a few.
I am - Amused. But as if the vegan, “live” food concept wasn’t enough departure from the usual café experience, the folks at Café Gratitude took it just a step further. Every menu selection has its own name, each one starting with “I Am”, as in I Am Accepting - stir-fry consisting of steamed Bhutanese red rice tossed with marinated raw vegetables, shitake mushrooms, pine nuts, teriyaki almonds and scallions. Or, I Am Cheerful - live sun burger which was sprouted pumpkin seed and walnut burger served on a buckwheat-sunflower flatbread with sliced tomato, onion, smoky tomato sauce, cucumber pickles and sprouts. Our group found it impossible not to make fun, although we may have been the only people in there who didn’t take it seriously.
I am - Under whelmed. We decided on and ordered three desserts by their description, only to have the server call out the order by each one's given name, to our great amusement. What was described as a mudslide pie (raw chocolate crust filled with a creamy raw chocolate and almond butter filling, rippled with cashew whipped cream, was named “I am Heavenly” as in “oh you want, I am Heavenly”. A cheesecake style concoction was called I Am Cherished and a layered cake which was described as strawberry shortcake was called I Am Rapture. Rapture, by the way, was two layers of some substance that looked and felt more like a pumpkin pie, but unfortunately didn’t taste like it. It was layered with yes, sliced live strawberries, or what are more commonly known as fresh strawberries. I don’t know why but I still, against all odds, had expected to see my “live” strawberries intersected with spongy white cake and whipped cream.
To say these desserts were not up to expectation would truly be an understatement. I believe the folks at Café Gratitude have failed to grasp the concept of dessert. Dessert is supposed to be rich, succulent, appetizing and even beautiful to behold. The one thing it is not intended to be is good for you. That’s why we call it dessert and not, say, broccoli.
That said,
I am - Fortunate. I am living this life that has given me such singular experiences with the capacity to enjoy them and the ability to depict them in writing. As a Chinese philosopher once observed, “when you write things down you live them twice”.
While the concept of a live food restaurant has no real relevance in my life, I understand that is not true for some others. Therefore, I am grateful – again. Café Gratitude, with its interestingly named dishes, karma, philosophies, and approach is worth revisiting, at least anecdotally.
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