Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas...

Crazy time! I'm stocking the wagon train in preparation for the trek up North to the cabin for the holidays. Full house again this year with all my children, grand kids, and daughter-in-law's parents. And let's not forget four dogs! My daughter of the four Standard Poodle household has been limited to a one dog quota this year - I get to bring mine and her brother's each have a dog.

Not quite sure when I decided that the "Super-Mom" role no-longer provided me with jollies! Anyway, some time ago I learned that the word "delegate" means a lot more fun and a lot less stress. So the delegation is underway with each family unit responsible for some particular dish and then everyone picks up on appetizers, lunch stuff, desserts.  I'm responsible for The Christmas Dinner - drum roll. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and probably my new favorite treatment for Brussels Sprouts - tossed with bacon and chestnuts for a holiday version. At the request of the 13 year old grandson - I have to take up everything for him to make his all-time favorite dish - Fettuccine Alfredo.

My middle son went to school in Santa Fe and became enamored of New Mexico cooking. He's had the job of creating a New Mexico style feast for Christmas Eve - the past two years he's been in Africa so we have missed out on his amazing sopapillas - he's promised us a Turkey Mole this year.  His wife, Annie, has been busy making cookies with three-year old Maxine - she's wary of sharing - apparently one of Maxine's methods of spreading frosting is to lick it!  One thing we can be sure of - no matter how cold it is - Maxine will be wearing a tutu.  Chris and Jim - Annie's parents are the masters of amazing appetizers and the all-time hit Omelet  in a Bag.   My daughter, Lisa, is a baking wizard - she turns out professional looking (and better tasting) tortes, tarts and cakes effortlessly.  The youngest of my tribe makes a really mean turkey chili so I know that will feature sometime during the week. 

Family and friends - that's what the gathering is all about. We're non of us religious - but we do celebrate our blessings, freely discuss the setbacks (and there have been some) of the year, and are generous in our support of one another.  As for gifts - a few months ago, one member of my small tribe suffered an enormous emotional blow - the siblings rallied round, the support palpable. I expressed my gratitude to them for their out-pouring of love - "Mom", said one"Why would it be any other way. It's how you raised us."  That and a slobbery kiss from the newest member , eleven month old Finn, is all I need or want.

Happy holidays to you all. May you be generous in your love for one another and in your giving to those in need.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Over the Hill to G'Ma's House

Recently had a friend moaning to me that her four adult children made life so complicated that it was exhausting trying to deal with them. She opted out of accepting any Thanksgiving invitations this year and took herself off to a spa in Sedona for the holiday weekend. "Now non of them will talk to me but I really don't care". Ouch, that's not the way it should be.

I have a mercifully united trio of children who delight in one another's company albeit loudly and competitively. When they were younger the attempts were to out gross one another - not sure much has changed!  Past two years we've been without the middle one - he and his family have been living in Africa. Newly returned to the US they let us know that the drive down from the Bay Area with two little ones and dog was just too much for the weekend.  About 11 a.m. Thursday morning as I wrestled the turkey into the oven I received a phone call from Ben begging for help with a pie crust gone wrong.  "I've e mailed you a photo , Mom. Please look at it." Really, I thought, I don't have time but obligingly went into my study to check e mail.   The photo was not of pie-crust! At first I couldn't get my head around it and then realised that they were at the corner of my street next to the porta potty (long story - suffice to say over a year of roadworks has made this bright red intrusion on a the landscape seem like a permanent fixture). So they had made the drive from Oakland after all. The lure of spending time with family, friends and siblings overcame any hesitation. What fun. Three year old Maxine bounded up my steps waving a bunch of flowers and shouting "Surprise. We came to your house."

There's never shortage of food, conversation and laughter, and although I occasionally long for one of those picture perfect Thanksgiving dinners where the mess in the kitchen doesn't exist, where everything is hot, where nothing gets spilled - who cares. I wouldn't trade the joyful chaos of being surrounded by my children for anything.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Let's Talk Turkey

The good, the bad and the ugly of the season are upon us. First the good - astoundingly good customer service, public relations move on the part of a manager at my local Trader Joe's. I was eying the turkeys, really  not convinced I was going to buy one. A  manager asked if she could help me pick one out. "Nope", I said, "a couple of negative experiences with TJ's meat in the past and two years ago, friends cooked  a Trader Joe turkey at the cabin for Thanksgiving and it was so dry and stringy we couldn't eat it."
I finished my shopping and then thought of having to brave the crowds at some other grocery store to purchase a turkey and my knees grew weak at the very idea of one more shopping trip. Muttering to myself that I'd just push my luck, I went back and selected an 18-20 llb turkey.  "Well I see you are giving us a second chance", the manager I'd interacted with earlier called out to me. She came over to the check out line - said something to the cashier and left. When my order was totaled I told the cashier something was wrong - should be about $45 more by my head calculations. "Turkey is on us" she said. My manager said to thank you for giving us another chance". Wow! I was floored, and also delighted because of the unexpected gift, I could double my donation to the local homeless shelter. My loyalty in general to Trader Joe's is high level, love so many of the products and friendly service.

Now for the ugly. As a customer I think I present pretty well - clean, tidy, not pushy, fairly normal in fact.  I was a hunt for a jello mold (and more about that in a minute). I went into one of those huge name boutique kitchen/home stores - OK , it was Crate and Barrel  - and after a fruitless search I asked an assistant if they had any jello molds. She literally looked at me as though I had asked for worm poop and said scathingly, "you need to try somewhere downscale for that kind of item, we certainly don't carry them". Well whoopedydoo lady, I guess you put me in my place!

And guess what? no stores upscale, downscale and in the middle, in this town carries something as simple and utilitarian as a jello mold. Am I sensing a business opportunity here?  I'd have settled for a frog, VWBug, crescent moon shape - anything.  Finally a young guy at Bed Bath and Beyond came up with a simple, brilliant suggestion - use a silicon bundt pan mold. Didn't want anything that large for the cranberry grappa jello I'm planning to go with turkey so settled on silicon mini cup cake molds. That was another good.

The really ugly was reserved for a foray into Target still on the jello mold quest. A well dressed woman, definitely over 50, screaming at an attendant that her one discount coupon entitled her to a discount on all five of the boxed toys she had in her cart.  Meanwhile the 3 or 4 year old she had sitting in the cart began to cry , sobbing, "Don't be rude Nana, don't shout." What a wonderful example to set a child.

And the really, really good - this holiday. It's been my favorite since I got off the boat. I love the sharing, the food, the gathering of family and friends.  My house again this year and if the weather gods cooperate we'll eat outside as usual. It really is easy - no ego involved, no competition, just friends and family sharing in the cooking and prep of a bountiful meal.  We're pretty fluid on tradition - hence the cranberry grappa jello!
Wishing you all a joyful, stress free time with those you love.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Just Stuff It! - or Real Men Eat Pumpkin

I had an NPR driveway moment recently - sat and listened to the end of a story about a recipe for stuffing pumpkin. By coincidence I was on my way home to cook having  invited a male friend over for dinner - phone rang - "OK", he asked, "what wine shall I bring." On impulse I tossed off -"Oh, something to go with pumpkin."
"You're joking" - it was a statement that held both a plea and a hope.
"Nope" - the devil in me rose to the surface. "Definitely something to go with pumpkin."
And then on my part after he hung up  - "oh shoot - I said pumpkin",  and I hoisted my shopping bag with the lovingly selected salmon fillets into the house.

No one has ever accused me of being a timid cook! I put the salmon in the fridge aware that if the idea stirring in my brain was a total disaster the fillet could be on the grill in minutes.

Farmers' Market downtown on Wednesday I had bought two beautiful little sugar pumpkins. I had cooked farro grain leftover from the night before. A deep rummage into the fridge produced a very good Fontina cheese, bacon ( a rarity in my house but the grand kids will be over for breakfast Sunday) green onions, half and half. My herb pots were resplendent with thyme and I had nutmeg in the spice drawer.  Andiamo! Let's go.

Stuffed Baked Pumpkin

Two main course servings, four side servings. Prep time 30 minutes maximum. Cook time 1hour 20 minutes.

  • Pumpkin weighing ~ 1.8 pounds
  • 3/4 C cooked grains - rice, barley, farro
  • 2 oz. good Fontina cheese - in 1/2 inch chunks
  • 1 clove garlic - coarsely chopped
  • 4 small scallions - discard most of the stalk - coarsely chop white through pale green part
  • 4 strips nice bacon - I used an applewood smoked thick slice - cooked until crisp, drained, chopped into 1/2 inch chunks
  • 2 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 1/4 Cup half and half
  • Maldon Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly ground nutmeg
Pre-heat oven to 350F.
Cut a cap at the stem end off the pumpkin, scrape out the seeds*  and stringy bits
Fold the onion, garlic, cheese, thyme and bacon into the grains.  Add a grind of pepper, and check before adding salt - if the bacon is very salty you need to go easy on the salt.
Spoon the mixture into the pumpkin - pressing down so that you have a compact stuffing. Pour the half and half over the top and sprinkle with nutmeg. Put the cap on top and bake on a baking sheet for 1 hour 20 minutes.

Slice to serve. I had wilted spinach as a side and a crisp apple, fennel salad. 

All I can say is that my dinner guest practically purred his way through dinner - eyed the remaining pumpkin and asked "How long would it take for you to bake another one. Is this something I could make?" And for the record the rich 2006 Oregon Pinot Gris he brought was perfect!

I'm already planning my next version - will be with rice, crispy pancetta, sweated leeks and nuggets of Spanish chorizo.

*STOP! Don't throw out the pumpkin seeds. Rub them in a clean cloth to remove fibre. Dry. Spread on a baking sheet , sprinkle with a little chili powder. bake at 300 for 40 minutes. Cool and store in a jar.  Tremendous nutritional content.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Anything but Sleepless in Seattle

I've been in Seattle the past few days - a combination of business and pleasure.  Definitely more pleasure! I always enjoy visiting and never fail to entertain thoughts about moving here. Saturday morning the sun shone brightly, the Olympics, dusted with snow broke through a wreath of cloud, and the water in the sound was blue - great day.

It's not just the beauty of the physical setting of Seattle that I love - there is a genuine niceness and warmth about the people here. My yardstick for measuring a city is partially based on how comfortable I am as a single woman of certain age dining alone. Seattle always comes out on top.

Two old favorites revisited for dinner this visit and each one lived up to past memories. The Dahlia Lounge - unpretentious, always superb food. Far from being shuffled to a table for one next to the restrooms I was squarely in the middle of the action, able to people watch and enjoy  steamed clams spiked with spicy sausage nuggets, infused with a sun-dried tomato broth.  Steelhead Diner on Pine - great table with a view of the Sound - again people watching central, so much fun and the roasted  halibut only added to the pleasure of the evening. 

Tried a new place on Thursday - Boka Cafe . Definitely more hip than I qualify for but even though gray heads were few and far between, the young staff were welcoming and kind. I got in on the tail end of Restaurant Week at Boka and had a three course dinner for $25.00.  Moved out of my comfort zone and tried "pork cheeks" - give me more!

When I visit a city where civility appears to be the norm I'm somewhat saddened by the fact that civility, something that should be at the center of our interactions with one another, is so rare a quality these days that when it is experienced it is remarkable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

And Visions of Butternut Squash Dance Through My Head

We have it so bad here - still hitting 80plusF during the day and dropping to the mid sixties at night and I'm craving cold, fall, crisp air, winter's chill.  I want soup weather!

I came back from the farmers' market Sunday with  Hatch Chile Ristras, local apples and butternut squash - soup definitely on my mind so heat or not, I made a very simple, very flavorful soup to lull me into thinking leaves will soon fall, the duvet can come out of storage and I can wear sweaters.  Did not go so far as to put the AC on to create a chill but I did open all the doors and windows to let the cooler evening air in.

I thought about incorporating some of the fresh chile but decided instead to go for the purity of root vegetable flavor, tarted up so to speak with the apple. This colorful, flavor rich, low calorie soup is a snap to make.  If you want to avoid battling a *butternut squash buy the pre-cubed packs from the vegetable section at your grocery store. All amounts are approximate. ** The smoked paprika gives a lovely mellow flavor to the soup but if you don't have any, substitute ground coriander.  If you use already chopped squash, this takes less than 5 minutes to prep.

 Sinfully Rich, No Guilt Butternut Squash Soup
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 1 TBS butter
  • About 1/2 Cup thinly sliced white onion
  • 1 large, crisp, tart apple cored and sliced
  • 1 sweet potato cut into chunks ( a Cup plus)
  • Around 4 Cups of chunked butternut squash *
  • 32 oz. of low sodium organic chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet, smoked paprika**
  • Maldon Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt the butter with the oil in a heavy bottomed stock pan. Saute the onion over low heat until limp and translucent (about  8-10 minutes) Add the paprika and stir into the onions. Add the vegetables and apple, stir to mix. Pour in the stock, bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until the vegatbles are very tender - about 20 minutes.
Use a hand-held immersion blender to pure the soup to a creamy, lump free consistency. Season lightly with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 4 main dish servings and 6 starter servings.

Monday, October 11, 2010

This I know ....

Just unpacking and regrouping after  close to a six thousand mile road trip during which I lived with a self-imposed break from the cyber world but for seeking out pet friendly motels and checking route maps.

           Some truths learned along 
                          the way                    
America is beautiful
Dog makes a great road-trip buddy
It's election season
Farmers' markets make me smile
You can't beat an heirloom apple for taste
Gas is expensive 
Books on tape beat loud-mouth, foaming-hatred, talk show radio hosts 

First leg of my trip was an epic thirteen hour plus drive to Oakland where I stayed long enough to sleep and tickle the grand kids before setting out on route 5 though California, Oregon, Washington to the ferry at Anacortes and a few days re-charging batteries on one of my favorite places in the whole world - Orcas island . Had the delightful experience there of meeting Dr. Rosie Kuhn - a long time contributor to .

Off island again my plan had been to pick up a second ferry to the Port Townsend and from there follow Rt. 101 to California - my timing was off (can't expect a ferry to wait for me!) so instead beetled down Rt. 5 again and cut over before Portland to cross the Columbia and join 101 at Seaside. What a glorious drive down that coast line - I stopped wherever the fancy took me, climbed on rocks, walked on beaches, ate fresh crab, slept soundly. One delightful incident in Oregon is still making me smile.
I had stopped at a remote beach access area , wandered around hard-packed wave-washed sand while dog scampered off to explore. A very large, shaggy dog bounded from behind massive boulders - Hamish chased after him - I heard a shriek. "Oh shoot", my first thought being my hound had scoffed up someone's brie and caramelized onion ciabatta! I rounded the rocks into a secluded cove. A couple, she in front of an easel, he crouched on a bolder - both au naturel - looked at me sheepishly. Easily in their  late sixties I imagined that she announced she was doing a nude portrait of him on the rocks, he had protested, she had convinced him by saying "look, I'll strip and paint in the nude so we'll both be naked"! She gave a grin and a wave - I blew them a kiss, leashed dog and continued not without a twinge of envy for their togetherness and sense of fun.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

There but for .....

Humbling experiences sometimes come by the bucketful and I've had my share of them thus far in life.  The most recent being a brutal portrait of the poor economy and ensuing  hardship not discriminating - people from all walks of life are being hit hard.

I live in the affluent foothills of my town - latest model BMW's, Mercedes, Lexus are a dime a dozen. The high school kids who crowd the local coffee shop on late start day sport designer clothes, artfully arranged hair, ipods, iphones - they dangle  keys to the cars they are privileged to drive.  Thumbs text furiously, and "OMG" rings out as they order $4 coffee drinks frequently paying with a debit card.  They live in a rarefied world, insulated from reality.

Contrast that with a recent discovery - a child playing on the same sports team as my grandson was living in a car with his mother - homeless , but not hopeless - this mother in the midst of her own despair was striving for some kind of normalcy for her 9 year old.  Unknown to teachers and peers, this child was going to school everyday clean, homework in hand - and all from the back seat of a car.

Thursday, driving through an intersection in this upscale area I saw a woman on the side of the road holding a sign. "Please help. Lost my job. I need school supplies and shoes for my children".  What struck me and caused me to make a U turn was that the woman could have been you or me. She was neatly dressed, pressed shorts, tucked in cotton blouse, sandals. Her hair was brushed, she wore lip gloss.  I parked and walked over to her - she looked away and her shoulders heaved.

I went with her to the drug store and bought some school basics. Very briefly her story - 43, college degree, divorced, children 13 and 9.  Her home is in foreclosure, her ex husband is unemployed, has left the state and is no longer paying child support, she was laid off from an administrative position three months ago.  She has sent out over 300 copies of her resume in a 1500 mile radius from home. She is desperate.  One of the many out of work, receiving unemployment benefits who according to one of our state Senators  "is encouraged NOT to look for work because they'd rather collect benefits."  I don't think so Senator Kyle. 

What strength it took that woman to stand on a corner and ask for help is beyond my comprehension. "I have no pride left," she told me. "I don't know what else to do. I came to this part of town because I don't think I'll run into anyone I know."

I'm counting my blessings.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On The Horns of a Dali Lama

1775 , playwright Richard Sheridan in his lovely drawing room comedy, The Rivals, introduced us to Mrs. Malaprop - a women who famously struggled to be an  agony aunt of her times and equally famously mangled words with wonderfully funny results. One of my favorite lines from the play being,  "promise to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory."  Ditsy as she was, and no doubt without Sheridan being conscious of the effect, Maloprops became part of the English language.

My own mother, a very bright woman, intrigued by the foreign currency market in the sixties used her interest and skills  to secure a very comfortable retirement for she and my father, was prone to Malaprops.  When I was very young, we lived in Egypt. She contacted  the sanitation department on the R.A.F  base we lived on complaining of, "hilarious mosquitoes around the drains" - to this day I remember the crusty chap arriving with huge canisters of DDT (oh my, I was exposed to that big time in my youth) shouting out - "Alright then lads, lets have them comedians".  Perhaps her more poignant was in the early eighties and me in the midst of divorce -"Well then," she said to me, "you are on the horns of a Dali Lama" - dilemma being the assumed word.

And those horns poke at  me still.

Do I follow safe course in life, not take chances, avoid being skewered - two reasons to pause in the past week.  A woman, once a close friend but who proved to be treacherous, surfaced via this website expressing sorrow over our lost friendship. "We had so much fun together" - we did. But that was a long time ago and before she borrowed money, implicated me in a scam she was running by using my  business name.  No, I'm not falling back on those horns. She expressed regret at the "misunderstanding" that caused the breakdown of a friendship but she didn't apologize for her role that had my business crawling with IRS audits for two years following her use of my name. She did say that "we do things in our youth that give cause for regret" - youth? we were were both 43. That one I passed on.  I've forgiven - but I don't need to embrace. Saying no was easy.

The other 'horn'  waiting to skewer me these last couple of weeks is far more complicated - causing me sleepless nights, much internal rumination or , to coin  a Malaprop - "there you go, fumigating again" - 'fumigating' on whether or not to 'illiterate' someone from my memory. Someone with whom I had a wonderful ease and relationship. Easier said than done.
Connections theme for October is 'Keeping it Simple' - oh I wish!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Tart for all Season - a Last Hurrah to Summer

I hate soggy bottoms! Referring of course to pie crusts. How many mouthwatering, luscious looking tarts have disappointed with a bottom crust that is limp and undercooked.

Labor Day weekend - inspired to take something different to an informal gathering I did a pantry and fridge raid and determined I had all the ingredients to improvise on a rustic tomato tart.  So away with soggy bottoms and in with a tart shell that can be filled with sweet or savory; that travels well; and keeps for several days in an airtight container. To really impress - I've given it an Italian name!

  Torta Rustica di Pomodoro
(Rustic tomato tart)
and to show just how versatile is this tart shell , the dessert option is 
Torta di Lampone e del Limone
(Lemon and raspberry tart)

For the tart shell pre-heat oven to 450F. You will need either pie weights or a cup or more of dried beans, and tinfoil.
  • 1 package Sarah Lee Puff pastry  - you'll have some left over so wrap tightly, label and freeze.
  • Thaw the pastry in the refrigerator until it is pliable but not soft. 
  • Spread one of the two sheets on a floured work surface and roll it lightly until it measures about 12 " square.  Take 1/3 of the remaining sheet, roll it to 12" long and cut it into 4 equal lengthwise strips. Place the large square on a baking sheet or perforated pizza tray. (I like to use the perforated tray because it really allows for the bottom to get crisp.)
  • Dampen with a brush or your fingers dipped in cold water one edge of the large sheet, do the same to one side of one of the strips.  Place the strip, damp side down on the large sheet. Repeat with the 3 other strips.  Use a fork to press the outer edges of the two pieces of pastry together. Lightly prick the center of  the pastry  square with the fork.  
  • If the oven is at temperature pop the tray in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.  (If not to temperature put the tray and pastry into the fridge while you wait. )
  • At 10 minutes, remove the pastry from the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 425F . Place a square of foil in the center of the tart, fill it with pie weights or dried beans, return to the oven and bake a further 10 minutes.  At 10 minutes remove from oven, reduce temperature to 375F and carefully lift foil and weights from the tart. Return the tart to the oven and bake a further 10 minutes.  So that's 30 minutes total baking time - your tart shell should feel crisp to touch and be a golden brown.
  • At this point you can cool it on a rack that allows for airflow and use it cold . To store it, wrap in foil when absolutely cold and keep in an airtight container.

Filling - for the Torta Rustica di Pomadoro
  • 1 cup thinly sliced sweet red onion
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced fennel bulb (onion and fennel amounts can be more - you want to end up with a full cup cooked)
  • 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2  tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil gently in a large skillet - add the onions and fennel, toss to mix well and coat with oil, season with Maldon Sea Salt and cracked black pepper.  Cook slowly over low heat , stir frequently. You want the onions to cook without browning - this will take about 20 minutes. Once onions are soft (taste one)  add the balsamic and sugar to the pan. Stir to coat and cook until liquid evaporates and the onions take on a dark color. Set aside to cool.

  • One dry pint (around 10 oz) of baby heirloom tomatoes cut in half
  • 6 dried black mission figs quartered
  • Around 1/4 cup of fresh mixed herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram, tarragon, parsley - mix or choose whatever summer herb you have available) torn or roughly chopped
  • 3 oz soft goat cheese
  • Maldon Salt and cracked pepper
  • Around 4 tablespoons olive oil
Mix all of the above in a large bowl and let stand an hour or more.

To Assemble the Tart

To cook or not to cook - you have options!  For a cooked tart pre-heat oven to 350F. Lay a strip of foil along each of the raised sides of the tart shell ( this is to stop the exposed edges from getting too brown). Spread the caramelized onion over the bottom of the shell. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out tomato/fig mixture and mound into the shell. Top with the crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle a little of the oil remaining from the marinating tomatoes over all. Either bake for 30 minutes and serve hot or warm or serve as a  fresh tart - just spread the onion mixture on the base, top with the uncooked tomatoes, sprinkle with the cheese, drizzle with extra olive oil.  Either way - I guarantee you the bottom won't be soggy!  best way to cut this into serving squares is with a pizza cutter.

For the Torta di lampone e del limone  

Spread the bottom of the cold tart shell with  softened mascarpone cheese. Follow with a layer of lemon curd. Pile raspberries on top.  Change it out - you can use different jams, cream cheese , blueberries, stawberries or a mixture of berries.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Go Ahead - Haggle!

 Wild flowers from the White Mountains of Arizona - picked in the meadow this morning. Happy Labor Day Weekend .

Time was when in polite society we did not haggle, bargain, make an offer.  No, that was for the souks and teaming bazaars of the mysterious far-flung continent. Then came swap meets, quickly followed by EBay - the home to the ultimate haggling. And I'm fast learning following my experience with Comcast last week that haggling is not reserved for the cyber world or dark alleys of Medina (no, not Minnesota!) .

Had occasion to question a charge on my bank statement from Sirius Radio. I'd forgotten a three month trial for $11.95 was up and the $44 plus charge took me by surprise. I called customer service to cancel - surprisingly polite and helpful. No problem in refunding the charge , and in 5-7 working days (check that against an overcharge from my utility company last year - no refund offered, just a credit that get this, would show up two months in the future!) I've absolutely no quarrel with Sirius Radio - just that since I spend limited time at the cabin in the winter months I'm not sure that $44 for 3 months is worth it. I expressed this to the rep. She countered with, "Well how about we give you 5 months for $22. Would that be acceptable." YES. What a pleasure.

Was talking about this experience with a friend last night who proffered the observation that it is worth asking for promotional rates with all the services we get. His point - it's cheaper for a company to keep an existing customer than to gain a new one. So I suggest that when you see those dynamo lure 'em in offers for heavily discounted services, either bank cards, internet, cell phone and so on, that you call, state your long term customer status, and ask to be given the same rate that a new customer is being offered. I've tried it several times in the past two years and not once have I been turned down.

And on the subject of internet rates - check this out. Your own Hot Spot - and cheap.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Comcast - a Truce

My victory with Comcast can't be classified as a Phyrric one as the cost to me was not devastating - merely involved losing my temper, something that despite my Irish genes and once red hair, rarely happens. I'm still fuming over the fact that to get a response I had to lose my temper, and go public in this forum with my peeve. Saddened too, that as a woman who who prides herself on having good manners, I was forced into a corner with frustrating and inept customer service to the point that I was rude, and no doubt offensive to people only trying to do their job.

I am back on line. About 20 minutes ago I received a call from Comcast Corporate - a man named Mark. I'll not give out his last name nor his phone number but should any of you reach the level of frustration that I reached - e mail me and I'll give you his name and number! I told him I would do that. Our conversation was cordial, positive and sufficient to put on hold my plan to cancel Comcast service. He has assured me that I have a direct line to him should problems crop up in the future.

So I'm special! big deal. I shouldn't be getting special treatment - all customers are deserving of the same level of attention to a problem that my outburst brought about. I expressed to Mark my frustration with the condescending "talk from the script" approach used by the technical support reps - and I learned that Tucson customer support is now outsourced to the Philippines. Personally I'd like to subject every single management person in the company to a series of these calls - have them experience the painful approach to troubleshooting and the avoid at all costs involving a service call outcome. I let him know how discouraging it is for loyal customers to see "special rates" being offered to new customers and not to them.

For now there is a truce, the problems with service to my place resolved, a direct line of support established. Obviously I'm grateful for all of the above. Customer service is sacred in any business.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Communication Companies Rip Us Off

Yes, perhaps the title of this post is alerting you to the fact that I'm about to rant big time about my internet provider - COMCAST. I've been a customer for over 10 years. I pay my bills on time. I've been off-line more than I have been on this past month. Constant drop-out of service; endless "on-hold" most of the time calls with technical support personnel who all split infinitives, - (that's a pet peeve for another day - "patiently waiting" is the last thing I'm doing now!) and sound as though they are underwater. The most inane advice given is to "go to our website" - this when I'm off-line. And then the gall to attempt to up-sell me on services and remind me that I can have up to seven or was it seventeen email addresses - all I want is one that is reliable.
One solution offered was that they send a new modem - time frame ? Five days! Rather than wait I drove 48 miles round-trip to pick one up at the Comcast store. The new modem has not solved the drop-out issue.

For this so-called service I've been paying in excess of $60 a month - a few minutes ago I called customer service and asked what they proposed doing to keep my loyalty. "We can give you a promotional rate of $39" says the chirpy, earnest young man getting the full force of my ire. And here's my primary beef with all this. Why can't they offer the same rates they use to lure in new customers to existing customers? Makes sense to me as a business model to keep your old customers happy and not rip them off. It's the same with the cell phone companies - gripe and you get a better rate. Just be aware that if you are being shafted by a service provider and you see one of those ads luring in new customers at a discounted rate that you need to get on the phone and demand the same rate.
Hoping that this posts before I lose service again! Meanwhile I have put my Sunday plans on-hold - Comcast is sending out a technician. Whoopee.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Western Drug and Really "Cool Stuff"

My daughter came up to the cabin with her youngest and two other young boys in tow to join Ben for a long weekend.  Lisa is a Smith graduate and for as long as I can remember wanted a sister and then, once married, wanted a daughter. No such luck on both counts - she's stuck with males. I'm sharing her account of a day with two 9 year olds and tw0 12 year olds - or almost 13 as they are quick to point out. Me? I bailed once the cabin was over run with males!
I'm sharing her e mail on events.

Today the boys met the horses including a foal who tried hard to eat Mike's shorts. They went swimming in the lake -- entry into the lake involved a lot of discussion about their "nards" and how far under the water their "nards" were.  After the swim, they all had to check to make sure that their "nards" were still there.  Henry declared that he had "hair" down there.  Ever helpful, Ben looked and concluded that it was pond scum.  

Next was the construction of the great fort.  Henry breathlessly explained, "Mom, we need your expertise!"  So, I guess I'm good for something. 

We went to the local organic farm to see if they had any good pizza toppings.  Mike believes that pepperoni is grown organically.  He argued quite vigorously that indeed pepperoni grows on trees.  The farmer did not have any pepperoni trees, but we did get some beautiful broccoli florets. 

Then off to the bustling metropolis of Eagar/Springerville for a visit to the Great Western Drug Store.  I know what you're thinking..."you took the boys to CVS or Walgreens -- how odd?"  

Western Drug trumps CVS/Walgreens any day.  This store was THE model for Walmart and Target.  It is has most likely been in existence since pioneer days -- some of its merchandise having been in place since the grand opening day circa 1930. Western Drug is the place you go if you need hemorrhoid cream and an AK 47; if you need to shrink wrap a javelina...Western Drug; if you need Playboy shot glasses and a monkey pinata -- yup, Western Drug is your place; if you have a hankering for doing a water color painting while bleaching your teeth, and also outfitting your 2-day old infant in guessed it, Western Drug.  It is boy heaven.  The walls are lined with dead animals...just their heads, of course -- gleaming teeth and bristling hair -- lined up above the supply of every firearm known to mankind.  The Michigan Militia could arm all of its members here.  

I was only moderately alarmed to note some of the inventory -- the Sasquatch Big Stick is featured prominently.  This is evidently Big Foot's beef jerky -- or maybe you turn hairy if you eat it?  My gross out limit was reached while noting that the Bull Elk in Rut Urine products were featured in the same aisle as the Depends products.  Is that really necessary?  I spent some time lingering in the cosmetics aisle...trying to counteract the visions of hunters smeared in elk urine wearing Depends. They have a rather large display of Wet n' Wild products;  fantasies of mud masks were dashed by the boys who found me to insist that they had found the "coolest" stuff  -  Cooler than Big Foot's food product? -  Cooler than deer mule and elk musk?

Cap guns and ice cream cones....what could be better?  Oh, yeah, the flint that Ben and Justin wanted would have added to the purchases and probably put me in the running for mom of the year.  "But mom, it's just for making sparks not flames."  Ahh..right.  NO.  NO.  NO. 

And so for the moment, they are engaged in a cap gun battle -- the rain is starting up again and I expect them to burst indoors any moment.  Pizza making is on for tonight -- dough has been rising all afternoon.  (oh, and I might have a glass of wine!)

We have grand plans for chocolate croissants and a hike in the morning then we'll clean up, pack up, and head out -- probably on the road by 1pm at the latest!  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Joy of Grandsons

There are several absolutes about the above species. They eschew running water; their feet stink; they are always hungry; if you fry it they will come.

Ensconced at the cabin with soon to be 13 , Benjamin, the absolutes are crystal clear. Nagged about taking a shower - four days into his stay he finally humored me. Used 5 towels in the great dry-off but he certainly smells better.  He has a few idiosyncrasies - weather reports being among the more remarkable ones. "Hey, G'Ma , it's raining in Chicago" - this at 5.45 a.m. The reports for Mumbai, Tripoli and Aix au Provence follow in quick succession. The converging clouds on our little hamlet of Nutrioso are reported at 30 minute intervals throughout the day. Yesterday we noted a 2" rainfall - historic in proportion. The "what if" scenarios followed. "What if the cabin gets picked up in a water flow; what if the horses in the flooded bottom meadow don't  know how to swim; what if the pond overflows and the giant grass carp move in with us and eat the dogs". Enough!

It's the food pre-occupation that gets to me. He finishes breakfast (detailed in conversation the night before) - scrambled eggs, chocolate chip pancakes. "What's for lunch",  he asks as he pops his plate into the dishwasher. This sequence of eating and establishing  the provenance of the next meal is repeated throughout the day.  His mother , the judge, is a superb cook - their house has two filled to over flowing refrigerators. This child has never gone hungry.

His "nuncles" - my sons,  did the same thing. My line of defense was to teach them to cook ( and to learn how to avoid the foot odor - the rule was put your own  socks in the washing machine.) Dinner planned thanks to his insistence before noon , we did a fridge raid and established the ingredients for Orange Chicken and Stir Fried Rice.

He did a great job slicing, dicing the red and green pepper, scallions, just picked from the farm across the lane asparagus, mincing fresh ginger and garlic.  We found a box of tempura batter in the pantry that he mixed to directions.  As the tempura coated chicken sizzled in the oil (hey, I didn't say this was a healthy meal) the "crinklings" - loose batter floated to the top and I scooped them out.  Epicurean Eureka!  - "G'Ma - we should package these and sell them!".

Nostalgia set in. I told him about my cousin Maureen's Gran - Mrs. Morris. She owned a fish and chip shop in Salford, Lancashire and sold little bags of "crinklings" for three pence. Maureen - set me straight if I have the name and price wrong. I got to wondering if the "crinklings" - those free-floating chunks of batter were a Yorkshire pudding of sort - something to fill you out to stretch the meat or fish.

Dinner was a success - as I scooped crispy, battered chicken from the oil - Benjamin set the table and called out -"G'ma - this dinner needs candles". Indeed it did. I shall remember it for a long time - probably have heartburn too. A small price to pay for a candlelit dinner with a charming young man.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

PMS in Tucson

I have serious PMS - Pre-Monsoon-Syndrome - it's a common  affliction at this time of the year, just about everyone I know is suffering.  Symptoms are not limited to heavy sighing; pacing back and forth to windows to scan the horizon; irritability; listlessness; a desire to head for the hills.

These dog days of summer - diēs caniculārēs - the most sultry, dulling days of the season enticing dog   to seek out a cool spot on the polished concrete floor of my study, position himself under the fan and stretch out, panting.  I'm inclined to do the same.

If the old ones are to be believed there was a time here when the monsoons arrived like clockwork on the 24th. of June - Fiesta of San Juan Bautista.  My first monsoon season in Tucson, 1982, I remember 4th. of July bringing in the monsoons and washing out firework extravaganzas. It seems that their advent gets later each year. Here we are on July 15th. still being teased, waiting, watching the cloud build up from the South East.

The monsoons are major flirts - they dangle all kinds of promises - a cloud mass, a certain wind, humidity in the air - they hold  these portents  of imminent action  just beyond reach only to take them away and leave us with another night where the temperature hovers around 80F for a low  and by noon the next day a blast furnace greets you as you open a door.  And they they are selective - even in full flow they  skirt your neighborhood capriciously and drench an area not five miles away - you can see the "walking rain" clouds, you can smell the damp desert  - and yet remain bone dry.

Conversation in line at the coffee shop with total strangers centers on the one topic - not the controversial anti-immigration Bill, not the economy but the promise, the 'will it be today', the yearning for the monsoons.   Friends call to report, "we got a few drops" - it's an obsession. Our arroyos and washes remain bone dry, the desert vegetation takes on a parched, shriveled dull brown facade;  prickly pear pads hang limply. Birds and beasts alike seek shelter under what shade they can find - this morning going down the front steps I brush past a clump of lavender spilling out of a window box - something moves!  Snake radar on high I  part the stems with a stick - 17 walnut sized Gambel Quail chicks squeeze up against one another - Mom and Dad scold me from a nearby wall. "Richard Simmons", one of my regular lizards, hangs out on a rock performing languorous push-ups displaying his sparkly blue beard; a Bob Cat jumps my neighbor's wall to drink from her pool.

And then just when you think you can't stand it any longer, when your head is pounding and you feel as parched as the desert it happens.  The clouds mass, roll in, and the heavens open. Rain, glorious rain. The dry washes become rivers albeit briefly; the cactus flesh out; the creosote bushes release a scent that to many of us desert dwellers is synonymous with home.  Dog stirs , pokes his head out the door. The temperatures drop, sometimes 40 degrees in a matter of minutes. The air is cool, it's bliss. We know the curse is broken - the monsoons have arrived.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Old Fashioned Fourth

There's no parade in my tiny community up here in the White Mountains but just a few miles down the road, the little township of Alpine celebrated in style. Yesterday, the third,  was parade day - not sure why.
On a crystal clear morning with temperatures around 72F, my house-guests and I threw folding chairs into the back of the car and headed into Alpine thirty minutes before start time. Our plan was to get a cup of coffee and muffins at Bush Valley Cafe and then stake out a place along the parade route.

Alpine was jumping! A veritable traffic jam at the T junction. We parked behind the cafe, set our chairs out under the shade of a leafed-out aspen tree and coffee in -hand joined in the banter around us as we waited for the parade to begin.

It was short and sweet! Locals, summer visitors, the Forest Service and Fire department - two services vital to this high mountain area where the fire season has already taken its toll - two guys on mountain bikes, a rag-tag group of little girls desperately trying to follow their leader in a stepping routine. The participants threw candy to the kids along side the road and we cheered. 

Couldn't help but get nostalgic for simpler times in life.

Today a few of us have invited neighbors in the valley to bring something for the BBQ and a covered dish to share - we're hosting a picnic. This is the pace of life I go for.

Happy Fourth to you all, native born Americans, immigrants of all colors - let's celebrate the diversity and generosity of this country and put aside those issues that divide.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Warm Fuzzies - Notes from the meadows

Dusk is a magical time up here in the mountains. The temperature drops with the disappearing Sun; a light sweater is welcome when I sit out on the deck with a glass of wine to watch the early evening activity in the meadows and on the pond.

I notice movement in the tree line to the west.  Through binoculars I follow a group of around 50 elk cows moving rapidly into the open grassland. Calves, the size of Great Danes, skip along behind mom. One cow breaks from the herd and heads back to the trees - a lone calf straggles into the clearing - mom races to the little one and they nuzzle.  A wildlife biologist told me that when the cows calve - they leave the calf and stand off at a distance watching - apparently some primitive defense mechanism to lure predators away from the new born. It explains why people frequently report finding 'abandoned' new born. Not so. The mother almost always returns.

On the deck I'm dive-bombed by the aggressive Rufus Hummingbirds who come in to "tank-up" before nightfall.  The dogs move under chairs, out of the way.

 Families of Canada Geese hustle to the water leaving ripples as they cruise in formation across the silver dappled pond  for the safety of the island where they stay overnight - safe from foxes and mountain lions.  Most of the little fuzzball goslings have lost the fluffy feathers and are now pale grey.  A lone Great Blue Heron is up to its "knees" in shallow water fishing. There's great debate around the meadow as to whether or not the supposedly sterile grass carp introduced a couple of years ago to control weeds have spawned. Something breaks the water in - trout? That's the really burning question amongst the guys - "Have the Rainbows survived?"

On the deck with me, Hamish and the "cousin" dog who is staying with us, Rana, follow every movement on the pond. They look at me hoping I'll open the gate and let them go and and play. I don't allow them out off leash at this hour, nor after dark,  too many predators.

I'm never lonely up here - there is always something in nature to keep me company. Last night as I pulled my sweater around me and contemplated moving inside, a Great Horned Owl called to his mate who responded. They have three fledglings this year.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bone Chilling

Dog has taken up a major obsession with gophers.  On our late afternoon on-leash walk down the lane as opposed to rollicking through the meadow and around the ponds morning routine, before I could stop him, he snatched a gopher from its hole and devoured it in two gulps! I await with trepidation the end results and I'm certainly not kissing him goodnight. Too bad that we have a 4 plus hour drive into Tucson tomorrow - I'll be a nervous wreck.  I worry that the bones (maybe even the tail and cute little feet) will get stuck and impact his digestive system. But - why am I obsessing - he's probably eaten a dozen of them out of my sight. "Let him be a dog" - rings in my ears. Oh but do dogs have to be so gross!

This whole episode has me reminiscing on bone adventures.  My youngest brother lives in an National Heritage Trust  village in England.  Excavating footings for a new barn he uncovered a skeleton but not before his pick axe had dealt a blow to the skull. Dutifully he called the Trust and reported his find. An earnest young man and woman loaded with clipboards, cameras and pens surveyed the scene. "Orientation suggests burial around 1170. Subject suffered severe blow to the skull." Martin didn't have the heart to tell them about his mishap with the pick axe.  Since the property was originally owned by the Church of England and recorded in the Doomsday Book, they technically own from "the earth to the heavens" - he was , after much research and paper signing, granted a certificate by the Church allowing him to continue excavation with permission to re-inter  this specific subject.  In the course of his excavation he uncovered upwards of six more skeletons and personally broadened the scope of the certificate and permission to encompass all.

My own bone encounters have been far less personal.  I remember my first effort at pressing a duck. My ex-husband was finishing his residency. The NYT magazine - my then bible for exotic culinary adventures - featured a Pressed Duck Breast layered with Cassis sauce. Despite not having the elaborately described, and horrendously archaic and expensive duck press - I determined to make the recipe for 12 guests. In lieu of the big, brass press - I wrung out the carcass in a series of clean (definitely clean) kitchen towels - my hands were bleeding, the mess was incredible and in tears I finally sacrificed five ducks to the garbage and made a duck "bits"  lasagna.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson. No. Julia Child came out with her first beautifully presented big paperback - can't remember the exact title - probably Cooking with Julia.  One recipe ( no, all the recipes) drew me in. It was boned capon, stuffed and re-formed, tied with kitchen string to resemble a melon that was my culinary Olympus.  I did three of them for a dinner party crying the entire time! Have to admit they were an epicurean  triumph  - too bad I lost the faith and have never re-created that particular tour de force.

My final attempt at boning ended in tears of laughter and lots of wine!  We were living in England for a year and joined another of my brothers on his catamaran to cruise the south coast of England. Two couples, two , two year olds on running harnesses, and a seven year old who put her head under a blanket for the entire trip. We took turns cooking. In Chichester harbor I bought just-caught lemon sole. They were lovingly basted with rich Devon butter and lemon juice and grilled  over our small charcoal fire.  Pumped over this gorgeous meal I decided I would bone the first one - flipped it right into the water. It was a moment  out of Fawlty Towers.

But I digress - back to the gophers. My daughter-in-law's parents are not only dear friends but wine and cooking buddies.  Jim and Chris have a remarkable kitchen partnership . They have traveled the world and nothing in the kitchen daunts them. Together they create amazing international menus. I treasure one story however. Chris decided on a menu for 12 of boned, stuffed game hens. The unsuspecting Jim asked, "What can I do" -"Oh honey, just bone these". He did and vows he'll never fall for that one again. But - I'm wondering, since he's really fond of Hamish the dog, if I can get him to bone a gopher or two.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Have you seen my glasses ....

 Elk in the pond
I made a Thai style shrimp curry for dinner the other night and learned there is a big difference between 1 tsp and 1 tbs in measurements.  Recipe called for 1-2 tsp. of Thai chili paste - without my glasses I read that as tablespoons and added an extra for good measure! Wow - talk about hot.

I need my glasses for a lot of things these days - reading labels in the market, reading the dials on the dishwasher and oven - long distance vision is great. I can spot an elk a mile away but my that close-up stuff is getting closer and closer - I'm beginning to wonder if my sense of smell will compensate and I'll find myself sniffing my way through the day much like dog does.

Hamish the Mighty Warrior

Dog - aka Hamish -  has discovered his inner hunter. This is a nine year old mutt who when the cat would bring offerings of choice mousie parts and lizard bits would all but shriek and jump on a chair. I'm really not sure what has unleashed his hunting instinct but he has discovered gophers and is dog seventh heaven.  Biggest problem is that the circa 1989 carpeting in the cabin (wood floors next year - window blinds this year - ordered through Connections for Women Shopping Deals at Just Blinds and saved over $4K on identical Solar blinds) could pass for a dead giraffe and the gophers blend in perfectly - really not sure how many might be lurking in that pathetic squished nap.

I received a gift at dawn yesterday morning that I can't put a price on but I could see! I woke around 5:15 am to first light and the sound of female elk trilling.  I wandered onto the deck and there at the bottom of my meadow five elk cows gathered around a sixth one who had literally just given birth. Within minutes that little thing - no bigger than a large dog - was on it's feet and suckling. I watched for about 15 minutes until the group dispersed over the hill.  Our valley is a major calving ground for elk. Two evenings in a row last year's juveniles came down to the ponds to frolic - I get so much joy in watching these bucolic scenes play out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

One Small Step

July 21 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and his words "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind" are among the most quoted words in America.  On that day my daughter was just seven months old. We didn't have a television so along with friends went over to the math department at the USNA where my husband was an instructor.  We gathered around a black and white TV screen, entranced, amazed, excited. At the very moment that Armstrong took his first step - my daughter crawled for the first time. Still not sure which action gave me the greatest thrill!

That baby has grown up to be a fine woman - mother of two rambunctious boys, active in her community, an Arizona Superior Court Commissioner.  Spending this last weekend hiking with her I reflected on  the privilege of giving birth, raising children in a free society.  I read a NYT article about child brides in Afghanistan, at the punishments meted out to children who attempt to escape marriage to older men, who are beaten, killed, by their own fathers, brothers. I count my blessings on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

I support the work of the likes of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn  who in their book, Half the Sky, document the plight of women worldwide; of Greg Mortenson and his mission to educate girls; my daughter-in-law, Annie Wallace  working in Ethiopia on issues related to women's health. I think of all the small steps taken daily to bring about change in attitudes towards women.

Small steps aside, Lisa and I embarked on two ambitious hikes this weekend in the Escudilla Wilderness of north eastern Arizona. We joined hikes lead by The White Mountain Conservation League. What fun we had and oh my aching calves! First day we headed up towards the Escudilla lookout through groves of newly green aspen trees.  We cut off, contouring a grass covered ridge line over Profanity Ridge topping off at an elevation of 10,600 feet  for spectacular views stretching all the way to Mount Graham, the Chiricahuas, and the Catalina's that are my backyard in Tucson.  We scrambled down Crankshaft Hill ( a seated position part of the time - I'm not proud!) and into the woody shelter of Tool Box Draw to follow the creek back to the road. Profanity Ridge, Crankshaft Hill, Tool Box Draw - all names given by the Forest Service in the early days of managing this land.

Monday's hike, according to the memo was  far less ambitious - a stroll. Hah! We took the boys and dogs and bushwhacked to a "two-track" - a disused logging road - to  spectacular sandstone bluffs and from there picked up another old trail down to Paddy Creek. Along the way the boys picked up a bleached jawbone from an elk; a fellow hiker pointed out lion tracks;  we heard stories of the days when this area was one of the most heavily logged forests in the US.

Purpose of the two hikes was not only recreational but also to continuing taking small, citizen lead  steps toward encouraging the Forest service to declare more of these precious lands as Wilderness Areas.  I was surprised to learn that the Forest Service has an almost philosophical antipathy towards designating Wilderness Areas - conflicts with their training/mission to "manage" the forests as opposed to letting them be wild.

(Lisa took the really pretty photos! including this one of a stunning aspen grove.)