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.