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Monday, January 26, 2009

THE BOOK CLUB

A few years ago we were in the midst of the paperwork for our move to Santa Barbara which necessitated a trip there. After taking care of housing details, we stopped in at a Peets coffee shop for a caffeine renewal before we had to get back on the freeway for the 100 mile drive home southward through LA. We were sitting back discussing the day and enjoying the good coffee and the break, when we noticed a young woman sitiing nearby reading a book we had both recently finished. The book was The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus which was subsequently made into a fascinating movie. We had enjoyed the book and since in both our opinions it was the sort of story that elicited a lot of emotions in the reader, we were curious to see what she thought of it. She responded by telling us that she had just started it so hadn’t quite formed opinions about it yet. The book was “assigned” reading for that month with her book club. We chatted a little longer, with us telling her a little about the plot without giving it away, and she told us a little about herself. Her name was Jessica and she lived in Santa Barbara, close to the location to which we were moving. She worked at D'Angelo Bakery near the harbor area of the city, which in addition to the working harbor is a big tourist area because of the proximity to the beach and number of hotels there. Since as visitors we had stayed in that area frequently, we were very familiar with the bakery and had often breakfasted there. The quality and selection of the bread and rolls was so delightful that we often also stopped to buy some to take home with us We then told her why we were there that day and she gave me her name and phone number and said when we moved into town I should contact her and perhaps I would be interested in joining her book club.

I had never been a member of a book club but it seemed like a pleasant way to fill time in my new place. What better way to meet people, I reasoned. Having other people select books also had some appeal because I figured that I would have exposure to books I might not read otherwise. It was a few months before we were settled into our new house but shortly after that I contacted Jessica about getting together, which we did. She told me all about the book club; it was comprised of about 12 women who met once a month in the evening at different host houses. The host would provide dinner and refreshments and would choose the book for the next time. She told me what the current book they were reading was The Thirteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga and invited me to the next gathering to see how I liked it, and presumably, if they liked me.

I found the book at the library and when I read it found it to be intriguing, and something I probably would have overlooked if not for the book club. After finishing it I then looked for more by the same author because I had enjoyed it so much. So now I was prepared for the book club meeting the following month which would be hosted by my new friend, Jessica.

It took me only a few minutes to get to Jessica’s house from mine. Being single, she shared with a couple of roommates, male and female. The house was casual, not particularly decorated but just comfortable. Two sofas were placed around a large low square table which is where put our wine glasses and when we got our dinner, that as well. There was light conversation as members arrived, and I was introduced to each one, promptly forgetting each name of course. However a nice glass of wine and a congenial atmosphere will go a long way towards making anyone relaxed so in no time I was comfortable entering into the conversation as best I could.

The age range was 30 to 60 roughly, with most in the younger edge of the category. Professions ranged from writers to waitresses to therapists to students. All seemed very attractive, fit and interesting and interested. Some were married, some not. Some had children small or grown, some not. The core group had been meeting for a few years so knew a lot of each others history, and it showed in their conversation and ease with each other. Dinner came and was, fortuitously, vegetarian lasagna served with bread so it wasn’t necessary for me to tell anyone I did not eat meat.
After our meal we got to the book club part. It was pretty open-ended with each person giving their opinion of the book in no particular format. With one person it might be a character and another might focus on a particular detail or the setting. As I said, no real format. I found out later that there was a list or agenda of possible discussion topics that was followed by some though obviously not by all. Still it was fun and I got to know some new people so it was successful as far as I was concerned.

I went to more meetings in the next months, all following the same pattern. I got to know more of the women and hear stories about boyfriends, babies, and personal successes. We had a mini-scandal and loss when one of them, Lisa, in my opinion one of the most lovely and accomplished of the group, found that out her husband was sleeping with her best friend. Lisa was a free-lance writer and almost overnight packed up her child and moved to the Bay area where her mother lived, leaving her faithless husband in the lurch.

Each meeting was its own experience since besides different books each was held at a different house each of which, reflecting its owner, had its own individual sense of thought-out style and comfort.. Each one featured that host’s preferred menu which varied from soup to multiple appetizers to pasta, but always a glass of wine. High on the list of my favorite things is wine, bread and books, not necessarily in that order so it was an enjoyable interlude in my life.

The Christmas gathering was held at Diane’s in her small cozy house located down a winding lane near the Santa Barbara foothills. In addition to the more usual Christmas trimming, she and her daughter had decorated with dozens of candles of all types and sizes lit throughout the house, giving the rooms a magical glow. The book we discussed for that particular meeting has faded into memory but I do distinctly remember the meal we had. It was simple and colorful and amazingly delicious, consisting of tureens of bright red chunky, slightly spicy tomato soup, served alongside platters of grilled cheese sandwiches. These were not your Kraft slices on Weber’s bread from your childhood sandwiches. Nope, these were made with fabulous cheeses such as nutty gruyere, smoky provolone and tangy goat cheese, grilled on fresh chunky artisanal country bread. Scattered on the dining table were small bowls of olives of various colors and flavors. It was such a simple but elegant holiday meal that I thought about it for weeks after. I wanted to serve that sometime to my guests and have them enjoy the great flavors and contrast provided with that simplicity. I knew I could do the grilled cheese; there I was only limited by my imagination and availability of good breads and cheeses. What I couldn’t figure out was the tomato soup. What made it so good, so memorable? I asked my hostess for the recipe and with some hesitation she sent it to me via e-mail saying “this is how I made the soup for book club, I think”.

So here is the Book Club Tomato Soup, unabridged the way I make it at least once during the year, ideally during cooler weather. It makes a great winter’s night dinner, accompanied by crusty hot grilled cheese sandwiches to dip into the soup, and a flavorful glass of wine.

No one is ever disappointed by this meal.

Book Club Tomato Soup

1 yellow or sweet onion, chopped fine
1 minced garlic clove
1 tomato, chopped
6 basil leaves, torn
1 28 oz can chopped tomatoes
1 jar marinara sauce – 16 oz.
2 cups vegetable broth
½ tsp marjoram or oregano
½ cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

Caramelize (or slowly cook) the onion approximately 20 minutes then add the minced garlic and sauté another minute or so
Add remaining ingredients except for fresh tomato and cook approximately 45 minutes on med heat adding a little cold water if soup seems too thick
5 minutes before serving, add fresh tomatoes, basil and salt and pepper to taste

6 -8 servings

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fusilli with Artichokes

I was lucky enough at one point in my life to live in Santa Barbara, a city sometimes referred to as the American Riviera. We spent two years in that idyllic spot before moving back to the hustle and bustle that comprises Orange County, or as it has recently been referred to, “the OC”. While I am happy to be back, I hasten to say Santa Barbara is a place that totally lives up to its reputation. Placed on the Central California coast between the busyness of Southern California and the commerce and fashion of Northern California, it seems to incorporate the best of the two worlds, having fabulous vistas, interesting places to hike and beautiful beaches; as well as museums,several symphony groups, theatres and a world-class botanic garden just to name a few charms. There is also a multiplicity of terrific restaurants since many of the visitors and the locals are well-enough off and sophisticated enough to be able to afford and appreciate them.

While living there we had a restaurant named Ca'Dario that we loved but stopped going to at a certain point. Kind of like the comment, “It’s so popular no one goes there any more”, that kind of place. It was an Italian restaurant and we first knew about it because it was featured in one of those lovely food magazines that abound in all bookstores. They couldn't say enough nice things about it. The food was great, innovative and farmer’s market fresh. It had a lovely and reasonably priced wine list. The space was charming and close-in.

It was true, the food was great. Each time we went we agreed to that. We took visiting friends and family. All agreed, the food was great. But try as we might, we could not get past a couple of things that are our least favorite things in restaurants. For one thing the tables were very small and very close together. The place was popular and noisy, and while that might have been congenial for a bar, it was not a very relaxing way to dine. And then there was attitude. What I called attitude was a lack of desire to accommodate a guest in ways that I know other restaurants will with regard to, for example, time of reservations and seating arrangements. Now, I realize that attitude is probably something like art; you know it when you see it and not everyone sees it the same way. Nonetheless, both my husband and I saw it the same way and that was enough for us. We reluctantly stayed away from the restaurant that had a lovely menu and featured several dishes that we would often crave.
Then we moved away and as we couldn't be there with any regularity anyway, the issue went away.
Still, we loved and remembered the food. So, as any enterprising cook might do, we “hijacked” a couple of their recipes. One of the first appetizers we had tried there was asparagus, wrapped in prosciutto and grilled, served with flaked Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Steve practiced it on us until he had the recipe just right. Eating the practice,less-than-perfect ones was not a great burden, I have to say. Now, each time he prepares it for us or guests, it provokes mouth-watering anticipation because the prosciutto is sort of like bacon and smelling bacon cooking somehow always appeals, even if you’re not a meat eater!
The other dish, and my favorite recipe from there, is a pasta which not only have I not seen in any other restaurant’s menu, I also have not seen the exact recipe in any cookbook. So, taking the listed ingredients, I made up my own version. It’s easy to make, as delicious as the original and as a bonus, I don’t have to listen to any loud stories from the next table.


Fusilli w/artichokes/leeks/shitake mushrooms

1 lb fusilli (curly short pasta)
1 pkg frozen Artichoke hearts, halved (8 oz)
3 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced lengthwise
½ lb shitake mushrooms, halved
3 tbsp truffle oil
½ cup shaved parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
-thaw the artichoke hearts per package directions, set aside
-start water boiling for the pasta
-heat olive oil in a medium sized skillet over medium low heat. Add leeks
and sauté until leeks are very tender, about 10 minutes, then remove leeks
from pan and set aside,
-cut the artichokes in half and sauté until browned, about 10 minutes
-add the mushrooms and sauté until fragrant, about 5 minutes
-put the leeks back into the pan, mix gently with the mushrooms and artichokes,
set aside and keep warm
-cook fusilli according to package directions, drain, then add the mushroom, leek and artichoke mixture, sprinkle with the truffle oil and toss gently to mix

Serve topped with shaved parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper

Serves 4-6 as a main course

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Weather
January has weather. I live in Southern California so when I say weather, I mean bad weather. Good weather, what we usually have, needs no explanation. It’s just a pleasant backdrop to normal activities. So weather, in this case means fog, or rain, or just plain cold. Or, worse yet, a combination of all.
But I have learned to adapt, at least for the short term. Luckily, I like to read, which I consider nature’s natural indoor activity. And, as I get older I find myself giving in more easily to the instinct to hunker down and relax with a book, letting the weather outside do what it will.
Some books are more warming than others. Books about food, cooking or domestic stuff seem to fall within this category. Right now I am in the process of rereading Laurie Colwin’s book, More Home Cooking- a Writer Returns to the Kitchen. There is a prior volume of course, logically called Home Cooking, but I picked this one up at my used book store and it’s not like it’s a sequel or anything. I read them both some years ago but really, they never age. Not familiar with Colwin’s work, why not? She was a novelist first, with several excellent books, and then went on to compile two books made up of columns that she wrote for Gourmet Magazine about her other interest, which was food, friends and family. Sound familiar? Yes, I feel me and Laurie would have had a lot in common. She surpassed me in talent of course; and I’m not being overly modest when I say that. I speak of her in past tense because, unfortunately, she died suddenly in 1992 at the young age of 48. But by then she had already made her mark.
For those of you with more ambitions than just relaxing and enjoying the words, recipes are also included in the compilations. The one I am reading has an intriguing looking recipe for something called Wensley Cake. Those of you who like movies in addition to reading may remember one from a few years ago called Wallace and Gromit-Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Wallace is a character who loves cheese, Gromit is his erstwhile companion and Wensleydale cheese was prominently mentioned. It was my understanding that when the movie came out, the small cheese artisan in England who produces it was overwhelmed with the interest, but in a good way, presumably. So the name attracted me and I have been known to make a recipe just because I was taken by the name. Who knows, maybe Wensley cake may be next years’ holiday gift.
There are other writers of this sort that I have found inspiring or just plain fun to read. Ruth Reichl’s biographies, particularly, Tender at the Bone, and Comfort Me With Apples have a sense of place and time that is fun to visit whether you lived through that period or not. Again, the stories are about the big three F’s(food, family,friends). Ruth apparently was part of the group in the San Francisco bay area that included the now renowned Alice Waters. And of course she is well-known as the editor of Gourmet Magazine.
I devour these and other books like them in the same way I do food. There is beauty in the words they contain, the pictures they paint are a satisfying way to spend time and give me sustenance, and I am filled with a vision of the possible.
The writing inspires me and humbles me. Still, I think each of us has a unique perspective to share. And that’s what you are getting here – mine.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January

It’s a new year, and with that of course, New Year’s resolutions. And always, always, there’s the weight issue. It affects us all. Even when you weren’t overweight on November 1st by the time January rolls around its almost guaranteed that you will need to lose a few pounds. Or think you do, after indulging for the last couple of months.

So we try to leave fudge and cookies, dips and hors d’oevres and other festive gathering food behind and walk on the righteous path of diet and exercise. Some of us will join a gym and actually show up a few times until it conflicts with our real life, which frequently consists of just taking it easy, reading the paper, eating a slow breakfast. We go less and less, the impetus being lost. Or we start jogging or bicycling or some other outdoor activity until one day it rains and darn, that throws the whole routine off.

Bookstores shift from holiday gift books and home for the holiday decoration books to diet and improvement tomes. There’s a book, a diet for everyone, regardless of lifestyle because weight loss is one of those issues that we all seem to agree upon. Unlike politics or religion, it doesn’t involve controversy, or beliefs. It just is. Not obese? That’s no reason not to obsess. In fact most people thinking of diets and/or exercise probably aren’t. It’s just that everyone thinks they could lose five pounds, or ten, saying we want to be more healthy.

As much as I am enchanted by food, I mostly am able to strike a balance between too much and not enough. I attempt to reconcile what I think is a real weight for me, what is my comfort level. It appears to be something between the "ideal" weight and the point where my clothes get uncomfortably tight. My reasoning is a sensible one; I don't want to have to acquire a whole new wardrobe.

Years ago I decided I wanted to lose five pounds from what was a pretty okay weight to begin with, in order to be “underweight”. Then, I reasoned, I could enjoy indulging in beautiful bakery stuff or ordering the fried appetizers plate in restaurants without guilt, But weight loss doesn’t quite work that way, I found. For me anyway. Once I had achieved the desired weight I was filled with missionary zeal. If I could lose those 5 lbs. well, I could continue on and lose 10 pounds thereby being even more in control. It’s about more than numbers and exact weight I suspect.It probably says more about a style and desire for perfection that comes from somewhere but I'm not sure where. Whatever,I don’t have all the answers but I do know that it doesn’t seem anyone is ever content with the weight they’re at. There’s always that feeling that you are at least a few pounds over the right weight. Whatever that might be.

By the way, I never did lose those 10 pounds. While my self-righteous disciplined side argued that since I could lose 5 pounds so easily, I could lose more, my “I love bread” side argued that since I was at this so-called ideal weight or “underweight” I could splurge and eat just a little more of this and that, which was, after all, the point. So I ended up pretty much back where I started; thinking that if I could just lose five more pounds…
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