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.