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Island Guardian

Love, Cooking, and the Art of Hospitality

Truman Capote, a rather cynical writer, penned in Summer Crossing: “Oh, I adore to cook. It makes me feel so mindless in a worthwhile way.”

While that may ring with some truth, it’s not the mindlessness I aspire to. I actually tend to hope for pleasure, fulfillment, or minimally, contentment.

I’ve always wondered why some people entertain and some people don’t, why some people are hospitable and some are not, and why some love to cook for others and some would rather be eaten by the animal than prepare and share it with another.

Thanksgiving is the time of year when sharing, thankfulness, and being hospitable and generous is encouraged. Those who don’t exhibit any of those characteristics during any other time of year might tend to come out of their proud personas and demonstrate generosity; helping with community meals, donating to food banks, and generally recognizing that they are so often better off than others. And they’re grateful. It’s good to get out of our selfish selves.

Then there are those altruistic types who are consistently caring. While studying hospitality and culinary arts in college, I had the good fortune to be mentored by an amazing professor whom later encouraged and hired me to work at the inn where she was the managing partner. Its claim-to-fame is that it’s the only five-diamond inn in North America, and I felt privileged to be employed there, working my way up the ladder to the position of executive chef.

While doing so, I was continually fascinated as I observed those hand-picked, caring, hospitality professionals in action, and I felt amongst kindred spirits. No matter what was going on in their personal lives and minds, they always exhibited a philanthropic and selfless attitude towards guests as they demonstrated hospitality to the extreme. And I got it. We cooked and we loved. We were hospitable.

A year ago this week, I found myself in a position where I met some other nurturing, hospitable people. My husband and I left the island the evening before Thanksgiving. We had planned to have Thanksgiving dinner with friends and I planned and cooked my contributions to the meal with caring enthusiasm, and carefully chilled and packed everything to go.

Our first planned stop, however, was to be in Anacortes where a restaurant we had enjoyed many times had changed ownership, and I was looking forward to experiencing what the new owner and new chef had to offer. Wanting to be ensured of a place on the ferry required to leave the island, we arrived at the waiting lot extra early and it was providential to be the second car loaded.

It was cold, bumpy, and rainy as we sat bundled in our truck on the ferry, and darkness enveloped the ocean at much too early of an hour. The vehicles were loaded three across in the center of the boat, and with no other car ahead to block the dark ocean, we had only the scrambled seas in front of us. The hour-long passage seemed much longer than usual.

Arriving at the terminal, the workers readied the boat to empty, and the car next to us was signaled to depart first. After a few unrewarded efforts to start his car, the man next to us motioned his frustration, and the workers signaled us to go ahead of him.

Claiming the title of first-off-the-boat felt like a good sign to the beginning of our short vacation and we eagerly departed the terminal. A comment I started to make about such fortune was abruptly interrupted, and a loud crash and blinding bright lights took the forefront of attention, while massive amounts of adrenaline surged as an oncoming car hit us head on. A young woman had confusingly run a red light, bounced off the front of our car, and ended up facing us from another lane.

Gratefully, no one seemed to be seriously injured, but our vehicle was rendered inoperable, and an ambulance was dispatched to transport us to the hospital. The pretty, young, rookie police officer stayed with us while we waited, and the reality of the situation began to hit me.

I became concerned that the coolers of holiday food, the presents, and luggage that we needed were going to be towed away. The police officer assured me she would personally take care of it, that she would wait for the tow truck, and promised me its belongings would be safe.

After an array of x-rays and tests, we were released with icepacks, and found ourselves outside, once again in the rain, waiting for a taxi. There, too, was the young woman in her police car, sitting with our coolers, suitcases, and wrapped gifts, reminding me that she said she would take care of things.

Wanting the whole adventure to go away and determined to get to my delayed dining destination, we instructed our cab driver to drive us the few short blocks to Islands Inn, where The Petite Wine Bar was located.

Not paying attention to how late it had become, we, along with all of our many belongings, were unloaded into the restaurant’s lobby, and were greeted by the kind innkeeper as the taxi drove away.

We explained our plight, and she told us that the restaurant had closed, but not to worry, she’d certainly be happy to take care of us. With understated finesse, Bela and her staff began to demonstrate their hospitable talents with a grace they were so adept and expert at.
We were smilingly whisked into the warm, cozy, candlelit room, where the intimately set tables were covered with crisp, white linens and the wine glasses wore folded rich, red napkins, gently whispering “welcome, sit down, relax.” It felt like a safe haven, as we watched the rain through the windows and flickering fire lights, and began to recount the day’s experience.

The tension began to slowly ease as we talked over a wonderful glass of red wine chosen from the list, and the stress began to lessen as the soreness began to set in. We noted how incredibly fortunate we were to have sustained such relatively minor injuries, and thought with amazement about the man on the ferry that, if his small car had started, would have been in our spot, with the possibility of a far more damaging situation.

The chef came to the table and talked about the selection of appetizers he’d arranged for us, beginning with a delectable hummus and soft, grilled naan bread, along with a plate of roasted garlic with warm, soft brie and fruit.

Enjoying our almost-missed evening with a relaxation surprisingly possible, the chef wowed us with hot steaming bowls of his grandmother’s recipe of Braised French Onion Soup, a most delicious yet uncommon concoction made with braised beef, a cabernet infused beef stock, and smoked provolone.

Meeting the owner was delightful. Bela Burghuys moved with her mother to Anacortes in 1979 from Amsterdam and has gone full-circle with the inn, as her mother had purchased it once before her. Her mother, too, was an innkeeper and has obviously passed on her talents and traits to her daughter.

Again demonstrating her generous nature, Bela has offered to share the delectable recipe for the Crab Cakes and Apple Slaw that is presently on her appetizer menu.

We’ve been back several times since that evening, and while enjoying the varied menu selections, always remark on how the evening’s circumstances could have ended so differently.

The nightly specials are always good. One that we’ve shared is their popular Brie Burger, now on the menu full time. It is a large beef patty expertly served on a fresh Ciabatta roll, with melted brie, homemade tomato preserves, spicy arugula, and a garlic aioli that was so good we splurged and decadently ordered extra to use as dip for the side of potatoes. Perfectly prepared, I don’t hesitate to say that it’s one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever eaten.

“If you are careful,' Garp wrote, 'if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”
― John Irving, The World According to Garp

While not clear if Garp’s revelations make me happy or sad, the cynical writer in me agrees that it is too often that words and the lack of them frustrate. Bela agrees, and believes that “food is simple. If you use good ingredients, it’s easy to make a delicious meal”.

Yes, cooking keeps me sane, specifically cooking for others. And so does writing, and mostly the love of true hospitality.

Here are The Petite Wine Bar’s Recipes

Crab Cakes

3 slices of firm white bread
1 pound of Dungeness crab meat, picked over for shells
1/2 cup of good quality mayonnaise
1 T Worcestershire Sauce
1 Egg, beaten

Tear bread into small pieces into bowl with Crab, add Mayonnaise, Worcester sauce
eggs and pinch of salt. Form into 3 inch diameter patties. Sauté at Medium high heat until golden brown and firm.

Apple Slaw

2 apples peeled and cored
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced at an angle
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced
Sea salt (to taste)
Fresh ground pepper (to taste)
Drizzled honey
1 teaspoon Chili flakes

Very thinly slice apples. Add lime juice immediately. Mix in remaining ingredients.

Sweet Chile Aioli
1 Cup of Mayonnaise
1 Tbls Honey
1/2 Cup Cilantro
3/4 Tbls Chili Garlic Sauce (Like Sambal Oelek)
1 Tbls fresh Lemon Juice
pinch salt

Combine everything in food processor. Blend until smooth.

(Terra Tamai moved to Friday Harbor from Baja. She has worked as a food writer, an executive chef in Santa Barbara, and a caterer and yacht chef on the central coast of CA, all contributing to a lifetime of employment and enjoyment in the food and hospitality industry.)

Boycott or Girliecott: The Real Issue

I looked up “girlie girl” in the go-to encyclopedia of the internet, Wikipedia. It is described as “a slang term for a girl or woman who chooses to dress and behave in a traditionally feminine style, such as wearing dresses, blouses and skirts, and talking about relationships and other activities which are associated with the traditional gender role of a girl. Though the term is sometimes used as a term of disdain, it is also used in a more positive way as well.”

I admit it, and came to terms with it years ago: I am a girlie girl, although my definition is quite different than Wiki’s. I grew up in the divisive decade when being a liberated woman-child was the demand and I was so not that person. I was an even further cry from being the righteous and militant feminist portrayed in the media, appearing large and intimidating to a young, impressionable little girl.

While, yes, I chose to “dress and behave in a traditionally feminine style”, I further irritated the radical examples, as I also knew I wanted to spend my days in a dream kitchen, perfectly decorate my home, and entertain my friends as lavishly and often as possible. Those were the days when, if the term “girlie girl” had been coined, it would have been one of disdain.

In addition, I consider a girly girl to be one who prefers a more traditionally feminine approach not just in regards to fashion, but to life itself, and it becomes especially evident when dealing with (shudder) confrontation and other uncomfortable situations in life. And I prefer to girliecott over boycott any day.

My very intelligent, hard working grandmother once commented on a catty comment I had made. “You’ll attract a lot more bees with honey than vinegar” she advised me, spoken wisely in her soft, southern drawl. I wondered at the time why I would want to attract bees, but I got the gist of it, or at least thought I had. While not a traditional girlie girl by any means, she definitely condoned applying a more feminine tactic to confrontation. And she also knew and demonstrated how to girliecott.

I wish I’d made up the slogan “mean people suck”. (I also wish I’d thought to copyright it. Being a girlie girl doesn’t mean lacking intelligence). To me, aggression and confrontation feel just, well, mean, and the aggressive and confronting women I know are just that. There must be a better way.

All of the characters in the “Housewives” reality TV series fall, according to Wikipedia’s definition, into the category of girlie girls, but in my book, they are so not. They fight (sometimes even physically), yell, curse, and generally demonstrate every possible un-feminine behavior known to man.

The men in the series, while masculine looking enough, tend to demonstrate a more androgynous persona, getting sucked right into the constant drama demonstrated in every tearful episode. Oh my. Where did we go wrong, girls and women of the sixties?

When was the last time you boycotted a store, a restaurant, a business establishment, or an idea or belief? Did you really boycott? Or did you girliecott?

A couple of years ago, my husband and I began a major household remodel. We started slowly at first. We were newly wed, and although we’d agreed before we were married that we do the work, we thought we’d start by sticking a toe in the water before we dove off the cliff. Practice is always a good idea.

Painting the bedroom was a safe place to start. I contemplated worse case scenarios, and knowing the carpet would be replaced, I didn’t think much could go wrong.

Taking a quick trip to the local hardware and paint store, together we picked out the paint, and hurried home to begin. Nothing could ever go wrong with a color labeled “Pismo Dunes”, I thought, as Pismo Beach is my favorite home town (yes, I have several). I’m a big believer in serendipitous names.

I was soon disappointed. As we watched the first (and we had thought final) beautiful coat dry, bright, very undune-like red streaks appeared. Aghast, we realized that the paint had not been thoroughly mixed.

Still sporting his paint clothes, my gallant husband galloped off to the store, wanting to quickly right the wrong, as well as to appease his disappointed bride. He returned home quickly with the bounty: another gallon of Pismo Dunes.

Unhappy that we had to repaint the room and do double the labor, we began to reapply the new paint as he told the story of how he’d returned the paint to the paint department manager, and, while admitting the clerk hadn’t mixed the paint well, her reaction had been basically one of “too bad so sad” and had given him a lousy 10% discount on the additional can of the expensive, high quality product.

So the girliecotter in me kicked in, and I valiantly announced I would never buy paint there again. And no, my wonderful friends at Friday Harbor Ace Hardware, it wasn’t from your store.

True to form, I kept my word, and we began to purchase paint from my new favorite store, Ace Hardware. In fact, we purchased, and continue to purchase enough to paint the entire house, inside and out. Hmmm, I thought. I sure showed them.

Or did I? This was such a ridiculous “if a tree fell in the woods…” awakening that I am embarrassed. Is it boycotting if they never knew they were being boycotted? Or is that a perfect example of girliecotting?

I still continue to girliecott, consistently, everyday. Another great illustration takes place at what we used to consider our favorite Palm Desert hangout.

The Third Corner is the closest restaurant to our Palm Desert condo, a mere mile-and-a-half away down the highway, and it was instrumental in the early stages of our love affair with the desert.

The space is cozy, with deep, cushy sofas, the wine selection superb, and everything is reasonably priced. The wait staff is made up of some of the friendliest and best servers I’ve ever known, and the food has been consistently tasty and trendy. Until we experienced an evening of constant deal breaking maneuvers, I thought it was our BRF, best restaurant forever.

We settled into our favorite corner sofa and ordered a couple of glasses of wine. We tend to enjoy an early happy hour, typically a glass of wine and a leisurely shared appetizer or two. We noticed an item on the menu that we’d never tried, described as a vegetable pork taco.

I understand that descriptions of a menu item are meant to convey an appetizing mental image, but accuracy is also important. When something is given a title or description using a commonly found item, in this case “taco”, preconceived expectations are always inevitable.

The typically fast, friendly service was lacking today, and the waitress was one we’d never seen. When we decided on the pork vegetable taco, she curtly took our order and stiffly headed off to the kitchen. Everyone’s allowed an off day, we discussed, and we decided to be patient with the behavior.

After an unusual and untypically long wait, our tacos were brought over and set down in front of us, and without a word, the waitress turned and walked away. We looked down at what we thought were salads and assumed that we had been brought the wrong order.

It was an amazingly lot of effort, but my husband finally succeeded in waving down our server. “I’m sorry”, I said, “but I think this is the wrong order. We asked for the tacos.”

“Those are the tacos,” was the reply. “It’s a vegetable taco so the pork is wrapped in lettuce instead of a tortilla.”

Oh, silly me, I thought. How was I supposed to know that? For the record I have since asked 23 people what they would expect from a menu item described as a “vegetable pork taco”. Every single person answered the same, envisioning pork and vegetables wrapped in a corn or flour tortilla. Of course.

“Okay; no worries.” I replied with a smile. “We enjoy lettuce wraps and this will be fine. It’s just not what we expected.” Or ordered.

My husband bit into his pseudo taco and his face distorted. “This is awful! The pork is nothing but fat!”

Thinking he was exaggerating, or perhaps had just received a bad piece, I took a bite of mine and almost gagged. I opened up the concoction and discovered that the pork was 100% fat trimmings, lacking even the slightest vein of meat running through the seasoned, white chunks.

I was truly shocked and once again called the waitress over, feeling like the high maintenance trouble maker that I never want to be. Glaring at me like I’m now the customer from hell, the waitress arrived at our corner again.

“The chef needs to see this,” I said gently, trying to remain kind, knowing very well that it certainly wasn’t her fault. “Somehow pork scraps have been used in this dish by mistake. This is not edible. Look at this!” I explained, separating the unsavory pieces for her to observe.

The waitress surprised me once again as she continued with her surly expression. Instead of looking down at the object I was trying to show her, she continued to unblinkingly stare, glaring into my eyes, as if to tell me off through mental telepathy. I continued to hold up the pork for her, but she continued the cold stare-down and refused to look at my plate.

Finally she spoke, and offering no apology or remark of any kind to show concern, she succinctly inquired if we would like to order anything else and removed the plates.

My husband ordered the flatbread that we’d had several times and always enjoyed. A different person delivered it to us and it was as wonderful as we expected.

Again I vowed to girliecott and we stayed away for a couple of months. Sadly, I don’t think they missed us, or even noticed we weren’t there. And whether I was effectual at all, I did notice the “tacos” are no longer on the menu.

So, paint store, you now know who you are, and I’ve cowboyed up to the bar and boycotted in the best way I know how.

Ah, dear Third Corner. I’ve boycotted you, too, but I’ve missed you so much that I’ll forgive you. We’ve had such a wonderful time together that I don’t want our relationship to be over. So, girlie girl kisses and hugs, k?

Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of a girlie girl, at least in my opinion. I’m sure the feminists were never appeased when she spoke, but I really think she got it.

In her typical fashion, Marilyn once said “I don't mind living in a man's world as long as I can be a woman in it.” Well, that works for me; most of the time, anyway. And I do realize: Someone needs to do the mancotting, and I know it’s not going to be me.

My wonderful friend and Palm Desert caterer extraordinaire makes a fabulous Chimichurri. Joylynn Henry generously offered me her recipe to share, encouraging adventurous cooks to add and subtract quantities of the ingredients to please your own taste buds. She also says chicken or tofu make great substitutions for the pork. Make it your own way and enjoy!

Pork Tacos w/ Chimichurri Sauce

For the Chimichurri
6 cloves of garlic
1 jalapeno seeded and minced
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch fresh oregano
1/2 to 1 cup extra virgin olive oil (I use less and add a little bit of water)
3 limes juiced and zest from one lime
salt and pepper

For the Coleslaw
1 small head of Napa cabbage, shredded
1 med Jicama, shredded
1 medium carrot, peeled and shredded
1 red pepper, shredded

1 small pork tenderloin
Corn or Flour Tortillas

1. Blend the Chimichurri sauce ingredients in blender.

2. Marinate the pork in about 1/4 of the sauce overnight.

3. Grill meat on hottest part of your grill about 4 minutes per side. Let meat rest and slice thinly.

4. Make Coleslaw: Combine shredded vegetables. Add Chimichurri Sauce to taste. Toss to coat.

5. Place some of the meat into a warm tortilla. Top with Coleslaw and more Chimichurri Sauce as desired. Serve immediately.

A Meal to Curry Favor

"The older I got the smarter my father became." That is a quote, probably paraphrased, from Mark Twain. I don’t know anything about Mr. Twain’s mother, but in my case, the quote applies to the gentler parent as well. And that’s perfectly fine with me. As the years advance I find myself becoming more and more like them both, and the promise of smarter is always something to gleefully anticipate.

Lately, I’ve been noticing another parental commonality: my propensity to enjoy and actually seek out routine. As a child I found my parents’ routines amazingly comforting, albeit irritating and boring at times, but in the long run, they led to a warm, fuzzy, comfort-food-like feeling I find hard to describe in any other manner.

Knowing that my schoolteacher mother walked in the door every afternoon at 3:35 was reassuring. It wasn’t at 3:30, nor was it 3:40. It was 3:35, exactly, on the dot. She had a short drive home from school, and took the same route every day. I guess she knew the magical moment to leave her job, as well. The accomplishment was always a mystery to me.

We also had dinner every night at exactly 6:00. My father’s schedule as a school principal was a little less predictable than my mother’s, but even with traffic jams, late afternoon meetings, and particularly stressful days dealing with students that required family-inclusive counseling, it was a rare occasion that he wasn’t seated at the head of the dinner table in chair number six.

Now that the folks are older and retired, the number of reassuring routines my parents enjoy have increased, some of them benefitting me as well. Paula, the cleaning lady, comes every other Tuesday morning exactly at 9:00. Simultaneously, I find a longer than usual email in my inbox, sent from my mother’s computer while she temporarily experiences a self-inflicted incarceration in her office while the rest of the house is tidied. I look forward to that Tuesday morning catch-up.

I know that 3 o’clock is naptime in their home, albeit a short one, and I wouldn’t think to call at that time, or even knock at the door after a long journey to get there. I plan my arrival around their routine, as the predictable things in life are to be revered, and respected.

Restaurants, especially, become incorporated into the schedule. Appreciating the importance of a well crafted meal and irreproachable service was something that I learned from them while still a child. Exposure to both the good and the bad is crucial to the education for comparison, as it is in many areas of life. The trial-and-error method has introduced many fine restaurants into that repertoire, and all benefit when included in the respected and repetitive routine.

An example of this takes place on Sundays. The family car is driven out of the garage every Sunday morning at exactly 8:45, transporting the occupants to Sunday Brunch at The Spirit of San Luis, located at the San Luis Obispo airport. I truly believe that if I failed to occupy my place in the back seat in a timely manner, the car would most certainly leave without me.

The doors of the restaurant are opened widely at precisely 9 AM, and the owner, a jovial, lovable character named Doug, always greets my folks by name, along with a hug for my mother and slap-on-the-back for my dad, pleased to welcome the friends that he hasn’t seen in a week’s time. He then raucously escorts them to their readied and awaiting corner table. Julie, Doug’s wife, appears moments later, showering the revered guests with her gracious and sincere, smiley greetings.

Ah, I always say to myself when I’m fortunate enough to participate in the ritual. This is the Sunday morning that I want to own. These are the occasions and the type of people I wish to incorporate into my everyday routines. Why, then, is it such a struggle for me to find them?

Surely, there must be a lot of people who get it. I truly believe that “it”, hospitality and service above self, are two things that can make or break a relationship, be it a personal or business one, a government, a country, or a society. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

True to my adventurous nature, my routine has once again become one of traveling. In love with the warmth, I have begun to routinely fly back and forth to Palm Desert. I routinely get in line at 7AM to catch the 8AM ferry on a given Saturday morning.

After disembarking, I routinely stop at Starbuck’s in Anacortes for my grande soy latte. And it’s comforting to know we’ll then go to Costco in Bellingham, stop for lunch at the same conveniently-located chain restaurant on the way to the airport, and know that it’s standard that I’ll be standing in line when the airline window opens, exactly 2 hours before the flight is scheduled to depart.

Still, the frustration of the restaurant experiences that this food-is-my-world girl feels is continuous, and one of constant disappointment. The good food and good service criteria I possess have many variables, so it does allow me to cut some slack for lack in many areas to find an acceptable and pleasant balance. Of course, it’s a given that every restaurant has a strong suit, but when strength is demonstrated across the board, the proverbial jackpot has been hit; always a lofty goal.

There was an Italian restaurant in Anacortes that was very good. I have no idea why they closed their doors, but found myself excited when an Indian restaurant quickly moved in to fill the space.

Outside of the commonly practiced routine, we found ourselves passing through the town at a different time, allowing the opportunity for an early and quick stop for a light lunch. Walking on the wild side a bit, I decided to forego my customary soy latte and we continued traveling down the road. I became excited to find the new restaurant donning a sign proclaiming proudly “Now Open For Lunch”.

Since the hour was early, there weren’t many guests yet, and we were greeted by a waitress we’d recognized from a neighboring restaurant, and were pleased as we knew her to be pleasant and friendly. Recognizing us in return, she quickly sat us in a large yet cozy room in the back, not too far from a large display offering an all-you-can-eat buffet.

We didn’t have time for a lengthy meal, and neither my husband nor I eat large platefuls of food at a time, so we politely passed on the waitress’s encouragement to partake in the delicious looking buffet. After a quick perusal of the menu, we both decided that we’d like a bowl of soup. The waitress assured us that it was a popular and tasty choice and quickly revealed the ingredients contained in their version of mulligatawny soup. Since we both are quite fond of Indian food, and routinely enjoy soup as one of our meals each day, we felt confident we had ordered appropriately.

Mulligatawny, like so many words, is the Anglicized version of the originals. Tamil is a language spoken in Southern India and “milagu” means “pepper”, and “tanni” means “water”, thus “milagu tanni”.

After occupying Southern Asia and India for many years, the British left for home, but took their love of the food with them. Before the British, the Indian cuisine did not contain a soup course. Whether folklore or fact, it is told that the Tamil servants created the soup to appease the Brits’ cravings and the soup is actually a thinned down version of a similar thick stew that was commonly and traditionally served.

Surprisingly, the restaurant began to fill quite quickly and noisily, with a few large groups appearing, as well as couples. I noticed that everyone in the room where we were sitting chose the buffet and I enjoyed my vantage point, allowing me to observe the customers’ reactions and to hear the descriptions of foods that appeared to be foreign to them.

The fragrant spices were aromatically dispersed throughout the room, and the overly-filled plates provided a vision of what appeared to be a tasty and varied selection. We eagerly anticipated a flavorful experience.

After a lengthy delay that we never quite understood, our bowls of soup finally arrived at the table, along with a couple of crackers, possibly lentil, which we didn’t care for. The soup was appropriately hot, and was appreciated on that very cold day, but the light golden liquid was watery- thin and lacking any flavor indicative of a well-seasoned authentic curry dish.
The vegetables were few, and there was the deadly, tell-tale sign that showed the origin of them had been a freezer bag: the carrots with the decorative, machine cut ridges. The signature apple was sparse and almost unrecognizable, and the chicken, also meager in quantity, lacked any discernible flavor.

With that disappointment looming over us, the waitress was flagged down, and an order of the delicious Indian bread, naan, was requested, hoping to offset the sadness brought on by the sorry soup. There had been many baskets of the bread floating around, landing on the white, cloth-covered tables amongst plates laden with colorful delicacies, so the assumption that it was plentiful and would be served more quickly than the soup was not far-fetched. The waitress reiterated the belief.

My husband became tired of waiting and finished his soup out of hunger, but I had experienced enough of mine to unhappily push it aside. Fifteen minutes passed before the bread was finally delivered, with the explanation that the chef had taken ours to the wrong table.

Biting into the fresh, hot bread made us both smile; it was exquisitely prepared, perfectly puffed with the toasty, black marks of the griddle embellishing each side. The naan was light and creamy inside the crispy bubbles, and we were very pleased that we had ordered it, encouraging leniency in judgment, and providing hope that there were other good things to be tried. Nevertheless, the promise of return and routine was nil.

I took a class in child psychology in the early 80’s, and I had an opportunity to ask the professor her opinion of routines and the effect on a child. Dr. Lydia had a strong belief that routine in a child’s life instilled trust. When the routine, she had explained, belongs to the parent, the child learns to trust that parent. When a parent is trusted, they are believed. And when a parent is believed, and they say “I love you,” there is no doubt in the child’s mind that it’s true. I love routines.

Because life is too short to eat bad anything, here is my version of Mulligatawny Soup. Enjoy!

Mulligatawny Soup
Serves 6

6 cups water
2 whole chicken breasts, bone-in
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 apple

2 Tablespoons olive oil

3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped

2 Tablespoons whole wheat flour (white may be used)
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1 15-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes, with juice
1 ½ cups red lentils
1 apple
1 teaspoon lemon zest, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon

freshly ground pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk (optional)
Plain Greek style yogurt
Fresh cilantro, chopped

In a large pan, bring water to boil. Remove skin from chicken. Place chicken, whole cinnamon stick, and bay leaf into the boiling water, Return to boil, cover, and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes.

Place chopped garlic and ginger together. Using a mortar and pestle, (or the side of a large knife), make a paste.

Core apple. Chop unpeeled apple into small pieces and set aside.

Meanwhile, in large soup pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add celery, onion, and carrots, and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic/ginger paste and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in flour, curry powder, coriander, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne pepper, and cook about 2 minutes. Add the undrained tomatoes and lentils and reduce heat to low.

Remove chicken, cinnamon stick and bay leaf from pan and set aside to cool. Pour the chicken broth into the vegetable mixture and stir.

Discard the cinnamon and bay leaf. When cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones and shred. Place chicken into the soup pan. Add apple to pan along with lemon juice and lemon zest.

Salt and pepper to taste. Simmer slowly, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes or until lentils are tender, adding more water as necessary.

Add coconut milk, if using, and adjust seasoning. Garnish w/ dollop of plain yogurt and chopped cilantro.

The Care and Feeding of a Sour Baby

Until recently, I was never much of a bread maker, or really much of a baker at all. Years ago, when my two sons were preschoolers, someone gave me some sourdough starter. It was presented it to me as “friendship bread” and I was flattered.

The instructions were simple enough: Keep it in a jar in your cabinet, feed it regularly by adding flour and water, and remove a cup from the jar weekly and give it to a “friend”. As you can imagine, especially in the then-small town where we lived in the Central Valley of CA, it wasn’t long before everyone I knew had their own smelly glob of the stuff, yet the starter continued to reproduce. I renamed it “Enemy Bread” and threw it out. I’m embarrassed to say that I never made bread with it. Ever.

My mother gave me a bread machine for Christmas and with the promise of some high-tech assistance, I decided to revisit the notion and give bread making a try. Because it’s my favorite, I researched making the starter required to make sourdough bread from scratch with a vengeance and experimented with different recipes at length. I read that sourdough starter is sometimes passed down through generations and it occurred to me that, since I wasn’t getting any younger, I’d better hurry up and get it going.

I found it very enjoyable reading other's anecdotes and discovering interesting facts. Often, sourdough bread is associated with San Francisco. Besides the combination of the particular climate, some unique mold spores, and other very specific regional scientific factors, there is another reason The City by the Bay gets so much credit for the bread.

During the California Gold Rush, prospectors carried a small packet containing a mixture of flour and water tied around their waists. The heat from their bodies caused the mixture to ferment, and using a small amount at a time, the naturally fermented leavening was used to bake their breads. That also lent fodder for the nickname given to the rugged men, and they became nicknamed Sour Bellies.

I determinedly continued with my own adventures. Originally it was a bit labor intensive. With all the continuous feedings, keeping it at the right temp, and the clean ups required when it bubbled all over my kitchen like a science experiment gone wrong, I was reminded of taking care of a baby. But now that the original effort has been accomplished and the starter is no longer particularly picky about its diet, it’s quite fun for me, and I love having the accessibility it allows for baking on a whim.

My starter is very user-friendly, and it lives in a large glass jar in my fridge. This is totally acceptable on every level, especially now that I no longer feel like I’m parenting a young child. Every couple of weeks or so, I simply take it out, actually use a couple of cups in some delectable dish, feed it a varied diet of whole wheat flour, cooked oats, or other grains, let it warm up on my kitchen counter for a day, then put it away again.

I’ve often gone out on a limb, risking the re-emergence of the previous nomenclature “Enemy Bread”, and have shared it with many of my friends. I must say, most of them sheepishly admit that they end up killing their little previously-babied batch through neglect. Still, I always happily replenish it for them when they’re ready to attempt again.

I’ve been thinking of naming mine, like a pet. I’ve had it for almost a year now and plan to continue keeping it going forever. I’ve come up with a couple of really good recipes that I love and I intend to discover many, many more.

I continue to tell everyone I meet that I’m still happy to share, and if yours dies, I’ll give you more. It’s nice to feel needed and held accountable to something once in a while, even if it is a bit odd and unconventional to feel fondness for such an inanimate object, especially one that you ultimately ingest. I heartily admit that it’s the easiest, most low-maintenance pet I’ve ever had. I think I’ll name it Flower.

This recipe is one I came up with just before Thanksgiving. I was invited to dinner with dear friends, and I wanted to take them something special. My third at-tempt turned out fabulous, and can be made with or without the sourdough starter.

Sourdough Pumpkin Nut Bread

This makes a large batch of muffins, several small mini-loaves of bread, or a couple of large loaves. I recommend making a combination of all three. They freeze very well!

2 cups sourdough starter
15 ounces canned pumpkin puree
¾ cup olive oil
¾ cup plain nonfat yogurt
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup egg whites
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
½ cup oat bran
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Streusel Topping:

1/2 cup butter, chilled and cubed
6 Tablespoons all purpose flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350. Oil and dust the pans with sugar. Stir together in a large mixing bowl: starter, pumpkin, oil, yogurt, sugar, and egg whites. In a second bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Stir into the wet ingredients until just combined. Add the walnuts. In a small bowl, combine streusel ingredients and mix well.

Fill the prepared pans 3/4 full of batter. Evenly sprinkle streusel mix over top of breads/muffins. Place on the center rack and bake about an hour (for bread) or 30 minutes (for muffins) or until tests done.

You Are What You Eat

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” John Lennon

Boy, do I hear that. Yes, sometimes I don’t understand the assignment, and sometimes I don’t understand life either. At this moment, edging towards the ‘happy’ mode that John’s mother touts, I do not understand the rules that are implied when it comes to creating a holiday menu.

One of my beloved and inspiring, favorite food writers is Ruth Reichl. In one of her several published memoirs she talks about a man she meets who boasts of his ability to discern a family’s foreign influence by what is served at their holiday dinners. Key words, apparently, are a real give-away.

Do you serve the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving? According to Ruth’s friend, if you deviate from the cultural convention or even answer “sometimes”, rather than “always”, that is an indication that your background isn’t quite steeped in the American traditions that seem to make or break the tightness of your familial cultural bonds.

Really? Not that it would be a bad thing for a holiday’s cuisine to be culturally diverse and exploratory, but is he insinuating that as a child, one’s influencing environment’s menu plan predisposes one to be considered under a foreign influence because of the course choices? Or is the quote “you are what you eat” really meant to be taken literally, even to the extreme of finger pointing with the assumed designation of a country or culture?

Actually, no. Far fetched assumptions and presumptions aside, the earliest accounting of that phrase is accredited to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826, written not long before his death. Although a lawyer and politician, his most famous legacy is that of being a brilliant epicure, and sets early precedence for gastronomic essayists. Basically, his other career interests aside, he was a really good cook and an excellent food writer.

Brillat-Savarin wrote in his essay “Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations du Gastronomie Transcendante”:

“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” Literally translating from French to English, it is “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”.

A few years later in 1863, German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Andreas Von Feuerbach wrote an essay entitled “Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism”.

Therein he penned the phrase “Der Mensch ist, was er ibt”. That translates into English as “man is what he eats”. Getting closer, but still no cigar.

No one is quoted as coming right out and announcing the actual phrase, until 1923, when nutritionist Victor Lindlahr developed the Catabolic Diet. With a following of zealous aficionados promoting his beliefs in regards to the effects of food on health, the Bridgeport Telegraph’s 1923 edition ran an advertisement boldly blaring that “Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” Finally.

What are some of the reasons that we choose to eat what we do? I, personally, thrive on the adventure that cooking and eating new things brings to me, the thrill being in the chase, and I’m grateful that there are people in my life who don’t mind participating in the process.

Friends that I invite to share a meal always know that they’re on my guinea pig list, and that it’s nothing personal when I admit I’ve never ventured into the abyss of a particular recipe, or even confess the lack experience in preparing the actual foodstuff itself. Fortunately, no one’s ever complained, at least not to my face.
One of the reasons that I do relish the thought of taking food risks and trying new things was my early-on, influencing environment, aka family. While taking an ultra-conservative, adverse stance regarding any physical risk-taking ventures that could prove unsafe to ones well-being, edible exploration was endorsed. The American culture was the one that influenced my upbringing, yet every holiday offered options of deviation from the standard. In fact, they were encouraged.

As children, we were allowed to request one item to insert into the stereotypical American holiday menu. True, some of us were more adventurous than others, and I remember one of my brothers requesting chocolate cream pie for every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Since it was one of his favorites, I’m sure he was thrilled to know he’d have it at least twice-a-year, as it was an addition to the more “normal” holiday desserts. I, on the other hand, chose to take a more creative approach.

I don’t remember most of the things I requested, but a few were off-the-wall enough to be memorable, and my mother always happily complied. For once, it felt there were no stipulations or conditions, and I took full advantage of the liberty I was being extended.

One year I requested fresh artichokes as a Thanksgiving side dish. They weren’t commonly served in most homes in the 60’s, and it made me feel sophisticated to request that we did, and ignored my father’s comment that I really just wanted the bowl of butter to dip the leaves in, a rarity in our household. And when you get right down to it, who doesn’t enjoy being actually required to eat with their hands?

Another year I asked to interject potato leek soup into the typical ensemble. It was actually a recipe for Vichyssoise, traditionally served chilled, but the hot and creamy version was the one my mother had previously made, and it was delicious.

Funny, but even today, I still consider potato leek soup to be my #1 comfort food. A little unusual, I think, but no more unusual than the little girl who suggested that it be served with the traditional turkey.

People really do children a great disservice when they fail to encourage new foods and don’t teach the fun of it by modeling their own excitement. Because it is such a passionate past time of mine, my boys ate things that even some adults would consider to be in trepidatious territory.

I remember my sweet son sitting at the dinner table, looking unhappily at something on his plate. He was about three years old, and thinking I must have forgotten, reminded me that he didn’t like what had been put in front of him.

I, in turn, reminded him of how we’d recently purchased a new shirt for him in a size larger than ever before because he had grown, evidence that his body was changing. I also told him how, like the rest of his body, his taste buds would change as well, and that even though he had disliked something the previous week did not mean that he would dislike it now.

He looked at me respectfully impressed but rightfully apprehensive, and then made the choice to try a bite. Excitedly he announced, “You’re right! My taste buds DID change!” You can imagine how many times I was able to use that line over the next several years. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it did not, but it was always well worth the effort.

While Brillat-Savarin, Feuerbach, nor Lindlahr ever meant for their quotations to be taken in the literal sense, the meanings were similar: the food one eats is a reflection of your choices, and influences ones physical and mental state of health.

And while the country or culture may influence those choices, nowhere do those men even hint that changing the menu around a bit is a bad thing. In many situations, the opposite is encouraged; variety is the spice of life, etc., etc. Only the purists think holiday traditions must never vary; tasteful change is always good.

This Thanksgiving is special for me in many areas, as each one always is in a unique way. Mostly, I am grateful, and I count my many blessings every day, not just on the politically pressured day to do so.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Although the holiday didn’t exist until many centuries later, I think he, as did John Lennon, understood Thanksgiving, happiness, and life.

Enjoy some soup and your holiday.

Potato Leek Soup

Louis Diat, originally from a small town near Vichy, France, claims to have invented Vichyssoise while working at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City in 1917. This is a similar, reduced fat recipe, and I prefer mine hot, not chilled, and chunkier than Chef Louis. Make yours the way you like it best.

Serves 6

3 leeks -- white and light green part only
1 small white onion -- fined diced
2 tablespoons canola oil
5 russet potatoes -- peeled and diced
salt and pepper -- to taste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 bay leaf
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup fat free half-and-half
Fresh chives -- chopped

1. Split the leeks lengthwise and wash well to remove all sand and grit. Slice them thinly. In a large stock pot, heat canola oil over low heat. Add leeks and onion; cover and cook for 10 minutes until translucent but not browned.

2. Add potatoes and seasonings and stir well. Cover pot and cook over low heat for 10 minutes.

3. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook on low, partially covered for 20 minutes.

4. Remove from heat. Using an immersible blender, puree until the soup is the desired consistency. Note: a blender may be used instead, working in small batches. Use caution, as the mixture will be hot.

5. Heat half-and-half in microwave, being careful not to boil to avoid curdling. Add half-and-half to soup as needed to reach desired thickness.

Serve immediately; garnish with chopped chives.

Per Serving (excluding unknown items): 169 Calories; 5g Fat (29.2% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 24g Carbohydrate

Bean There, Done That

Wikipedia describes edamame as “immature soybeans in the pod”. Funny how that evokes images that describe the beginning of many things in life besides beans. Even young children come to mind.

While the times I spend with him now are amazingly fun-filled and cherished, I have so many wonderful memories of my childhood with my father. They start young enough, I guess, and although I was definitely “immature”, they did not begin at birth, or “in the pod”, as one might have wished.

We didn’t begin life together until I was five, and luckily for me, he fell madly in love with my mother. I brought along my barely-younger brother as well, and the four of us began our little family almost overnight, at least it seemed that way to me. It was amazing to me how adding one person to three made everything in my world that had fallen apart seem whole, and right.

My life’s passion has been food, and has always been at the center of my socialization. It has been my career choice, my pleasure, and my entertainment. There have been many influences feeding my ardor and excitement, and I have been so fortunate to have been exposed to such a diversity of people and their styles of cooking and eating.

My father had a most unique impact on my culinary education. His approach of a basic pleasure in his enjoyment of eating was represented in all he taught. Still, he represents an unusual contradiction. My dad has relayed how he had felt the lack of proper table etiquette training within his family, so, as a young man, he commenced to become more adept. He educated himself through observation, and using sought out and found resources, became proficient. Having developed that proficiency, he was able to make educated choices, then depending on the circumstance, whether to utilize that knowledge. Or not.

Sitting at the dinner table with a family that had grown to include two more children was the time to implement the proper table manners and behavior. But other times, with Dad and I alone in the kitchen, he taught me how to roll and soften a whole, ripe orange on the counter with my hands, then to poke a hole in it, place my lips around the hole, and suck out the juice. I, too, while desiring to promote somewhat of a reputation for food professionalism, have felt it necessary to spend much time consulting and learning the lessons the etiquette gurus preach. Still, I have yet to discover that the proper and accepted orange sucking methods have been addressed.

At the table during a dinner with company, our napkins were properly unfolded and placed in our laps, and we enjoyed our meals, making sure the last bite was the one that could be lifted from the plate without a scrape or noise. Contrastingly, sitting alone at the table when he didn’t know I was watching, I once witnessed my father pick up his dessert plate, and lick the last remaining morsel of cheesecake that had become stubbornly adhered.

As a child, preferring to eat only the creamy middle of a baked potato, he instructed me to butter the remaining dry potato peel, roll it up “like a cigar”, and eat it with my hands. I learned to keenly enjoy my food through observing and listening to my father, who treated eating, like he does most of his life’s required functions, fervently, passionately, and with laughter. And I discovered the pleasures of eating with one’s fingers.

We had a pretty and humble little apartment when my father moved in. There I learned to love the tiny tree frogs, as they popped out of their muddy holes and sang their croaky tunes while we watered the miniature garden that surrounded the small walkway leading to our front door. It was a time my mother and I could share, as we watered and encouraged her favorite flower to sprout, enjoying every stage of the fragrant peppermint-striped carnation’s bloom.

My brother Curt and I shared a small bedroom, although it quickly felt very individualized when my father joined our family. He bought us two little bookcases, painted them bright white, and added a shiny, enameled, nautical blue trim. He placed them in the center of the room, creating a division, each facing opposite directions.

I then became the owner of my own special shelves, available to my eyes only, and felt relieved to look at the back of my brother’s private space rather than at him. We eventually personalized the backs of those bookcases with crayons, so we had our individual artwork decorating our spaces as well. That was the premise that Dad continued to teach us through example: individuality is good, and so is your private space. I still continue to use both the lessons and those bookcases today. Funny; they had seemed so large back then.

That time in my life was one of many changes, possibly the largest number of changes to fall in the shortest amount of time that I’ve ever experienced. My biological dad had become an every-other-Saturday one, and it was my first memory of real tension. I recall smells and tastes even more vividly than people or places, and those senses are the ones I continue to observe and nourish. Not all are particularly pleasant remembrances.

I remember the taste of the dreadfully bitter, yellow medicine we had to take when Curt and I both contracted a bronchial infection. Actually, my brother and I had all sorts of unflattering names for that medicine, and I still remember not comprehending the laughter when I explained to my parents’ friends that we’d been ill with broccoli pneumonia. Even my illnesses had food associations to me.

But the biggest change in my existence was that my surroundings were suddenly filled with an amazing amount of loud, raucous, gut-splitting laughter. As if discovering a newly-found skill, my brother and I had joined in and begun to giggle. We’d giggle and snort at everything, often to the point of falling out of our chairs while having our dinner, which would make others join in on our happiness, laughing at our silliness. My mother, whom up to that point I had thought of as being relatively quiet, gentle, and of a more serious nature, also had begun to issue her own share of hearty chuckles. That, alone, filled me with such joy.

What a man Ted must be, I recall thinking curiously, to be able to evoke such emotion from my all-important mother, and I remember being filled with amazement and awe. I wonder if he ever noticed that I stared at him. He was such a foreign enigma to me, and my curiosity was constantly motivated, demonstrated to all with my constant questions being one of the most obvious indicators.

Fifty years later I’m still being reminded that I have an infectious laugh, and I don’t even bother to deny the snort. I never attempt, though, to explain to anyone where I contracted my giggles, or the origin of the snort. I honestly don’t think they’d understand.

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like, to be a happy and handsome, contented 20-something man, suddenly awakening one day to find himself with the reality of a family. Today, if you ask him to share his memories of that time, he tells of two tiny children and the first time that they ran to greet him, jumped into his lap, and called him daddy. He illustrates it with such happiness, and pride, and describes it as a turning moment for him. My own turning moment with my dad is of a very different nature.

It is a given that when children become a part of your life, your hobbies, pastimes, and general outlook on life become different, never to be the same again, and as the custom dictates, I continued the tradition. When I first got my dad, he collected coins. Being five, I thought money was a generic term for the objects you exchange for something you aspire to acquire. Five year-olds back then didn’t usually have too large of a range of desires, but the tinkle, tinkle of the truck bringing ice cream to our street reminded my brother and me of ours.

My parents both worked and we had Nikki to watch over us. Her English didn’t exist, as she’d come straight from Japan with her newly acquired serviceman husband, as was common at that time. Each day she would bring her lunch with her as well, and share tastes of small tasty balls of vinegary rice with a sour, salty plum in the center, a treat that I still love today. Another thing she taught us was to eat hard, fried soybeans as a snack. But she didn’t teach us not to take the money from the jar in the bedroom out to the ice cream man. In fact, if she was curious when we came back in with our treats, she certainly didn’t show it.

I don’t recall how our parents found out that we’d procured our bounty, but it’s most likely that we, ourselves, related our adventures to them, innocently, over our evening meal. I do recall, however, the expression on my father’s face as the reality of the situation hit him, and the tightness of his jaw seemed out of place to me. I was perhaps expecting his typical rowdy laughter, possibly even pride at our newly discovered autonomy and independence, but surely not the apprehension normally reserved for every other Saturday. Nothing much was said at that moment and conversation throughout the rest of the meal was strained, and after dinner the door to my parents’ bedroom closed and there was a muted discussion going on, and we weren’t included.

Later that evening, after the ritual baths had been taken, and the respective pink and blue flannel, footed pajamas were donned, my mother and father sat us down on the camel colored tweed sofa, and began the dreaded and inevitable discussion. We knew by then that something had gone very wrong. We had taken money that hadn’t belonged to us, and spent it.

The consequence was fair; we would have to repay the money to our dad, and every cent would come from the extra chores that we’d be paid to perform. Although we couldn’t have known at that moment, we were so very fortunate that we were to repay only the face value of those dollar coins, rather than the actual worth of those old silver dollars.

So coin collecting was left along the wayside, and parenting and Sunday afternoon drives were put into practice. As is common among fairly successful, handsome young bachelors, my father drove a small, 2-seater convertible, a 1955 Thunderbird to be precise. In the days before seatbelts and other riding requirements and rules, I remember that we actually were able to stuff three of us in the front seat at a time, and although not in my recollection, possibly all four. The most important thing to my brother and me, though, was that one of us was going to have the opportunity to ride on the horse.

I didn’t know the reason why it was so important for my brother to win his turn at the coveted middle seat, but whatever, it was the highly sought-after prize. The horse was the endearing moniker that we had for the small, vinyl covered foam pad that separated the two front seats. I really wish I could recall how the decision was made, determining who the lucky winner was to be, or perhaps I never knew. For me, the horse was the coveted place to settle upon, because it was next to my dad.

I know my father had cherished that car. I think it really represented the man he had been before us, and circumstantially, it was not for the man he would become. On his way home from work one day, another car rear ended him while he waited for the red light to change. I knew nothing more of the details for many years, only that the awesome little T-Bird was never repaired, and it was replaced with a respectable, light blue, Ford family station wagon.

As an adult I was participating in an after-dinner, evening conversation, and the story of the incident was casually brought up. My father, as usual, was laughing as he relayed the accident, the insurance company payoff, and how rather than repairing his T-Bird, the money had come along just in time to pay for the family’s Christmas. There was no resentment, regret, or bitterness of any kind in his voice, as he matter-of-factly relayed the long passed situation. That evening, I heard something special in his voice; it was reminiscent of happy times long past, and that made me yearn for the horse once again.

While Nikki, our Japanese babysitter, shared the crunchy, fried form of soybeans, my preference is the boiled-in-the-shell version. Edamame are fresh soybeans, the literal translation meaning “beans on twigs”. Japan is credited with edamame’s rise to fame, becoming popular back as far as 927 AD. Common throughout most countries in Asia, it is also a big part of the Chinese cuisine, where the fresh soybeans were originally found around 200 BC, long before being introduced in Japan. The Chinese call it “mao dou”, meaning “hairy bean”.

Edamame, as well as the many preparations of soybeans, are rich in carbohydrates, protein, dietary fiber, and omega 3 fatty acids, and also include the nutrients manganese, folic acid, and vitamin K.

Edamame is not a variety of soybean, but rather the immature bean, picked green and served fresh. They are available year-round; when they are not in season and fresh, they are readily available frozen, as a whole pod or shelled.

Roy Yamaguchi is one of my favorite chefs. As the beloved poster child for Hawaiian Fusion cooking, he has given fresh, simply prepared, and beautifully presented food a top priority in the line up of the popular and preferred cuisine. I’m fortunate to have one of his Hawaii based restaurants, “Roy’s”, nearby in Rancho Mirage, to enjoy when I’m down in the desert.

Chef Yamaguchi grew up in Japan loving edamame. He shares that his family offered edamame at the beginning of each meal, and kept some ready in the fridge as a healthy snack. He still regularly prepares it, and explains that “Edamame is a great way to start a meal so you don’t get filled up on bread.”

He shares his simple preparation of the delicious pod, as well as the recipe for his special seasoning.

Roy’s Edamame

8 ounces kosher salt
4 ounces shichimi (Japanese red pepper seasoning)
1 ounce granulated sugar

½ pound edamame, in pods
1 T Roy’s Edamame Seasoning

Boil 7 cups of water in a large pan. Wash edamame bean pods well. Add edamame to boiling water, and let boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and sprinkle Roy’s Edamame Seasoning over them. Serve warm or cool.

Note: A good sea salt or Himalayan Pink salt may be substituted for the seasoning, if desired. Roy’s seasoning recipe makes enough for many servings, and experimenting with different applications is encouraged. Enjoy!

The Art of Dispensing Happiness

The sun is out today, and although the cold permeates bodies, homes, and normally intelligent and meaningful conversation, I’m content to be home, looking out at the green, mossy rocks and trees, the frantically feeding birds, and the weather. I’m content, as well, to have the time to write.

Writing and cooking have many commonalities to me, as well as some shared challenges. When faced with either, my quandary is always the same. What to cook? What to write?

There is an epic poem written by Louis MacNeice that pens the same appeal.

'Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.'

I guess a muse comes in all sizes, colors, and flavors, whether inspiring food or writing, or perhaps other things MacNeice fails to disclose. As MacNeice gives a colorful life to his desire, he encourages an interesting visual in my head. Still, it’s not quite the description I would choose for myself.

In the foodie world, the world is my oyster, figuratively speaking. I take great pleasure in making something I’ve never made before, (and I certainly don’t mind a repeat either). The part that invites the struggle is the deciding: what to make.

Sometimes one simply has a craving for a particular cuisine, inviting the foreign and exciting to intrude into our otherwise boring day. Perhaps our goal is to entice emotions of home, safety, and comfort, and to retreat from the perils of our adult world, if only for the length of time it takes to relish the meal.

If it’s hot outside, we desire a chilled dish. Or, because it’s cold, we want a warm bowl of something steaming and flavorful. No matter what the motive, the decision remains to be made, the dish determined, and often at a much more stressful price than is evident to the hungry eaters, patiently (or not) waiting to be served.

Knowing those things, I embark on a quest, asking questions, demanding answers, and because it feels like the right way to approach, applying all of the logic I can muster. Then I remember the muse and I feel relieved.

Technology invites us to intrude into the lives of millions, dead or alive, famous or villainous. The victorious and flourishing, as well as the beaten and suffering, all allow their privacy to be interrupted. Clandestine and concealed activities are gawked upon by anyone with the desire to do so. I am thankful for the opportunity. As those most interesting people reveal themselves to my curious eye, I once again appreciate that the world, in its entirety, is my oyster.

Because MacNeice mentioned her in his poem, I decided to research Elsa Schiaparelli, and I could not have been happier had I won a coveted prize. How had I forgotten about this fascinating person? Why did I not know more of her flamboyancies and articulate expressions of thinking-outside-the-box? Were her accomplishments not worthy of earning the stature of a muse? It worked for me, and at that moment, that was the sole criterion.

I was immediately entranced, and became captivated as I perused page after page of her colorful life and amazing accomplishments. I became lost in her world, forgetting my own tasks at hand, and was transported to Europe to a time and place where people were still effected by a shock factor that could became an enterprise, and creativity was a gift that could be capitalized on.

I saw a bit of myself in Elsa, at least the person I think I would have enjoyed being. Throwing caution and good sense to the wind, she was a slave to the art that became an all encompassing emotion that ruled her life and endeavors. She was a slave to her creativeness, and in reading the descriptions of her undertakings, I pictured a woman powered by a dark, bigger-than-life passion for expressing herself, no matter how diverse, distinctive, or disapproving the consequences.

While my passions tend to be a bit more conventional and less extreme than Elsa’s, I too promote outside-the-box thinking, especially when it comes to preparing a meal. When no outside influences are ruling my meal planning, I find myself being more artistic and process-oriented, and caring less about an impressive or compliant outcome.

Elsa Schiaparelli’s words were often profound, and she is quoted on many subjects. I have a favorite, of course. "A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness" she astutely observes. Whether a good cook or not, she was definitely a sorceress, and I look forward to getting to know her better.

I created this concoction because I had an urge to be imaginative, I had all the ingredients in my refrigerator, and it was dinnertime. It turned out absolutely delicious, and in sharing the recipe I hope to dispense happiness. Enjoy.

Cod with Lemongrass and Ginger
Serves 4

4 cod fillets
1 lemon
½ red onion
3 stems lemongrass, finely chopped
1 T chili garlic sauce, or Sambal
1 small piece ginger root, peeled and chopped
4 T olive oil, divided
½ cup cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place each filet on a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Slice part of the lemon into 4 slices. Juice the rest into the bowl of a small food processor.

Cut 4 slices off of the onion. Chop the rest of the onion and place into the bowl with the lemon juice. Add the lemongrass, chili garlic sauce, ginger, 2 T olive oil, and cilantro, then process until it is a coarse paste. Distribute equally over each piece of fish.

Place a slice of lemon and an onion slice on each filet. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Seal packet tightly and place on a baking sheet. Bake about 15 to 20 or until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

Being Great Full

Great full. Or is it “grate-ful”? Then why do we not say “great empty” or “great less”? My take on that is because great and full are meant to be in the same word, as in grateful. There is no “grateless.” But that may change.

It’s the trend to be content with less. We downsize our lives; reduce food intake, decrease spending, move to smaller homes, and relish the promise that when we do we will be happier. And content. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s working for me, at least most of the time.

I’m watching the snow fall out of the sky and the powdered sugar dusting is swiftly altering the ambience before my eyes. I am so grateful for the luxury. It’s been years since I’ve lived where it snows, and I feel that the brilliance of the island is my reward for learning to be content with less.

It wasn’t always that way. I’ve continually demonstrated my tendency to learn things the hard way. Lessons and consequences were for someone else and I had a propensity to jump into and down the rabbit’s hole with both feet, sometimes forgetting to observe its depth. I did, at least follow my mantra: Always know where the exit is.

Along those lesson-learning lines, my “ah ha” moments often require something to be of a fairly decently- sized magnitude. And although minor, simple, and perhaps unduly influential, I once experienced something that made an impact that I find hard to convey the profundity of, or the reason it touched me so deeply. And it’s about doing with less.

Living in Mexico exposes one to much poverty, at least compared to the standards in the United States. Still, building a house in such an area is similar in some ways to building here on the island, and perhaps anywhere in the world. People don’t show up when they say they will; there are always a few really hard workers, and a few really flakey ones. Materials are not always readily available, so you are delayed and find employing patience to be your most valuable asset. But in some ways, it’s the differences I experienced that were inspiring.

I had decided I wanted an oversized, electric, wrought iron gate. Mostly the barbed wire fenced yard was only useful for keeping my old dog in, yet gifted me with an unrealistic sense of privacy and security without obstructing my need for unbroken glances of the Pacific Ocean. Like anything you want done down there, someone always knew of at least a few “masters” of that particular project. While the referring amigo typically received no monetary compensation for his or her assistance, the Mexican version of karma runs rampant and is believed in strongly, and directions to this particular hombre’s workshop were happily revealed.

The nearest town was 15 miles north of the enclave, and directions never included street names, since few, if any, existed. It was always “turn right past the Pemex station”, or “left after the old house with a blue door.” These directions, of course, were revealed in Spanish, so since I had considered myself directionally challenged in the US, imagine the adventurous searches there.

Nevertheless, the day had come to search out the expert wrought iron gate maker named Sergio, and I was prepared with exact drawings, dimensions, and directions to the shop. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was for my heart to be forever touched.

The man’s shop was located in a quiet, mixed-use community of homes, garages, and even a broken-down church or two. Everything was brown, the same as the dusty, pot-hole filled dirt paths that produced the fine dirt coating that every home, car, and poorly-clothed, playing child was enveloped in. Water was a scarce commodity, and even when available, the attempt to wash off the grime would have been considered wasteful.

The roads began to shrink in size and maintenance, and I was grateful for the sturdy 4 wheel drive truck. I noticed that the surplus of old, broken down, deserted cars was beginning to increase, as the road out to the main highway and fuel became more remote and a hardship for some. Simply giving up the effort seemed to be the acceptable attitude.

It was Tuesday, and while I usually cooked a hot lunch everyday for the men building the house, they often were treated to pizza on Tuesday, freshly baked from the town’s own pizzeria, purchased after the week’s building supplies were gathered, and just before the half hour trek home was begun. Pizza there was not quite up to our standards in the states, as the crust was tough, the cheese was processed and flavorless, and most ingredients straight out of a can. Still, it was considered a treat, and while $15 for an extra-grande pizza may not seem like much, when the workers labored for $15 and $20 a day, it was an extravagant expenditure for them.

This particular Tuesday, on a whim, I decided to pick up an extra pizza, as I’d heard that Sergio had a family that lived on the premise, and when hiring someone who would be spending many hours creating and laboring for you, a little pizza goodwill couldn’t hurt.

His own wrought iron gate presented itself as the appropriate opening to his property; broken down, hanging defeatedly on one hinge, and not unlike most metal things in this part of the world, it had rusted beyond repair.

A mangy and skinny dog ambled up to the truck, soon to be followed by a couple of younger, bigger, and meaner looking animals, announcing their presence and claiming their territory with loud barks and growls and numerous expressions involving teeth.

Sergio hustled to the truck, with a welcoming “Buenos dias” and his hand extended to demonstrate he meant it. A young girl, perhaps 12 or 13, followed closely behind him, and her prettiness was discernable even through the ragged clothing, evidenced in a warm smile and a quiet, gentle eye contact.

“Mi nina, Daniela!” Sergio proudly announced. It was hard to imagine the parentage, as the young girl was a full head taller than her father, and moved with a feminine grace beyond her years. “An artista!”

Walking further into the yard I struggled to perceive the situation accurately. Electrical wires were haphazardly strewn, strung loosely from poles along the road, evidently providing the necessary power for the welder’s work. Used and weathered plywood was fashioned to supply shelter for the workspace, providing protection from the bright sun and winds, and the harshly blowing sand. Broken equipment was layered in piles that were twice the man’s height, as were scraps of rusted metal in all sizes and shapes and stages of decay. Yet even through the visual cacophony of the disorganized clutter, I noticed something out of place.

In a small mound, separated from the others but just as distinguishable as rubbish, were several ancient looking wheel chairs, the likes I had no knowledge of being in existence for the last several decades. True to my Alice-like rabbit hole adventures, I continued following Sergio and Daniela, and glanced around curiously, looking for their casa.

Passing the workshop and turning to the left of the scrap metal mountain, the wires ceased to travel any further, no longer providing electricity. More weathered plywood rose from the dirt, this time with pieces of fabric that had once had a life as bed linens, hanging from the roof providing separate spaces, dividing work from home and family.

A baby began to cry, and Daniela scurried inside the structure, seemingly walking through the cloth walls towards the sound. A 35-ish year old woman materialized, a tiny baby swaddled across her chest. I saw that she had the height of a young child, yet exhibited the face of a woman many years her senior. She shyly voiced a polite “Como esta? Yo soy Marta” and smiled the pretty and feminine smile of her much taller daughter. Sergio, his proud papa persona even more pronounceable this time, pointed at the baby and almost too-loudly proclaimed in English, “My son!”

The daughter returned, this time pushing a still archaic but functional wheelchair. Seated was a young girl, evidently quadriplegic and seemingly mentally handicapped as well. The girl pointed at the seated child and smiled, softly announcing “mi hermana, Claudia”, then returned her attention to her sister and focused on covering the girl’s shriveled legs with an old, tattered wool blanket.

With introductions complete, I raised my hand and pinched the tips of my thumb and forefinger together to convey the common sign meaning a little bit and said “un momentito, por favor”, excused myself for a moment and headed to the truck to retrieve a pizza. The intention was to leave it for their lunch, but the family had a different idea.

I was motioned to sit, and with all objections ignored, I found myself resting in a precariously balanced dirty, wooden chair. Marta handed the baby to her elder daughter and quickly scurried into another room, returning with a small watermelon, proudly presenting her contribution as a regalo, a gift, to me.

Still attempting to refuse her hospitality, I realized that not only was she going to continue to insist, but that I was being rude. With a small steak knife, Marta quickly cut the watermelon into sections, and handed me the largest. She motioned for me to enjoy, and I began to bite into the cool, sweet fruit. As typical with melon, its juice began to run quickly. Marta handed me a fairly clean looking piece of dish towel, and we all giggled at my discomfort and embarrassment, and I felt at ease.

Finishing my snack, I thanked Marta and her girls, and walked towards the truck with drawings in hand. I explained and showed Sergio the sketches and also discussed the large, metal palm tree I wanted designed and placed in the center of the gate.

Understanding, he nodded enthusiastically, and for the second time announced “No problema”, not a problem, and reminded me that Daniela was an artist.

It took weeks for Sergio to complete the gate, and as promised, Daniela was able to draw the metal insert to be exactly like I had wanted. Although the gate was beautifully crafted, the impact and pleasure I received through meeting Sergio and his family was 10-fold that of the finished product. They helped me realize that the happiness found in the simplicity of sharing a gleaned-from-the-field fruit was as important and as big as a house.

There is a saying in the Bahai faith: “A thankful person is thankful under all circumstances. A complaining soul complains even if they live in paradise.”
I’m choosing to be grateful to be great-less, and while it’s admittedly easier for one to be thankful while living in paradise, I will always be in awe and admiration of the family that demonstrated being thankful, hospitable, and kind under all circumstances.

I’m grateful for this recipe that was handed down to me from my grandmother. It seems appropriate for the Thanksgiving season traditions, and it’s amazingly simple as well as incorporating the trend to do with less. Enjoy.

Barbecued Turkey Drumsticks

2-3 pounds turkey drumsticks
¼ cup flour, seasoned with a little salt and pepper
3 Tablespoons butter
16 ounces canned, diced tomatoes
½ cup water
2 Tablespoons brown sugar (more if you prefer a sweeter sauce)
2 Tablespoons vinegar
3 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon celery sed
2 cloves minced garlic

Dredge drumsticks in seasoned flour. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat and brown on all sides. Remove and place on paper towels.

In same skillet, place all remaining ingredients and stir. Add the turkey drumsticks. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cover and simmer on low for about 45 minutes or until meat is cooked all the way through and is tender. Note: Sauce is great served over mashed potatoes!

Savoring Mexican Memories

I’m feeling homesick. To people who know me well, that announcement usually brings a questioning look to their face: Which home? I understand, and that’s a fair response, as there are an unusually large number of places that I’ve hung my proverbial hat.

Although my current home is on the beautiful island of San Juan, in the small town of Friday Harbor, there have been many homes before here, and today I am feeling Mexican. That was what I was before I landed in this little foreign country of an island. And I’m missing the place that was almost the opposite of where I’m living now, the place I had called home for several years.

Growing up in southern California enabled me to experience Baja numerous times as a child. The Tijuana that was just over the international border effortlessly availed itself to Americans, and was, in my memory, remarkably different than it is today. It was poorer and dirtier then, and people had sadness and hunger in their eyes. Still, they were kind, appreciative of the American’s business and patronage, and demonstrated hospitality in every way they were able.

Those Tijuana eyes now include fear, and the violence, hatred, and anger have become a loud, dominating presence. But I knew the Mexico and her people that I had so comfortably loved were still there somewhere; I was determined to find where they had gone.

The discovery of the diminutive American enclave that, along with several other Americans as well as the residential fishermen of several generations, I still call home, was an adventure in itself.

Many years ago my life’s focus changed concurrently with the purchase of an externally neglected 49 foot sailing yacht. Although home at that moment was Santa Barbara, she was promptly sailed south to Ensenada, a touristy town about an hour south of Tijuana. Ensenada boasts a large, state-of-the-arts harbor and boatyard, while “bienvenidos” is proudly and loudly shouted from her red-clay tiled rooftops.

It was there that the soon to be beauty-of-a-boat was taken to be retrofitted, and she happily took up her new residence. From her slip she watched boats of all sizes come and go, from the local fishermen’s small and worn out skiffs, to the immense cruise ships that pulled in and out daily, single-handedly financing and converting a previously sleepy little fishing village into a tourist-oriented, albeit friendly, town.

Although still living four hours north of Ensenada in those pre-Baja days, the next rapidly progressing year was spent visiting the Baja Naval boatyard every weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed the transformation of the boat as well as experiencing all that the local shops, residents, and restaurants had to offer.

I grew to anticipate the weekly expedition with immense amusement at the diversion, and when found with a two week vacation to plan, didn’t hesitate to arrange a voyage that would take the adventuring even further south.

Driven by the desire (and a detailed map and book) to locate seldom-explored surf spots and beaches, I organized and provisioned the cab-over-camper in anticipation of a rugged escapade, foreseeing lengthy, unpaved terrain, situated in scenic and barren regions. I was not to be disenchanted, and the current Baja in which I had been taking great pleasure and had thought representative, seemed to pallor in the comparison.

Nevertheless, the traditional rules applied, and as every day concluded and the nightfall approached, the camper and contents were positioned for a prudent and uneventful slumber. This day, sadly creeping quickly towards the latter part of the journey, found us near a tranquil beach, with markers indicating the available camping facilities.

Straying off the main road, exchanging the not-too-worn black pavement for the cornmeal colored sand that softened the trail, the rig rambled towards the playa, pursuing a path of primitively printed signs, indicating not only the direction, but also that a modest monetary compensation was expected to be paid.

Approaching the granddaddy of the signage, I disembarked from the truck, landing in a mob of uncommonly unattractive dogs playing sentry to a modest casa that was wrapped in a meandering, bougainvillea covered patio, tiled expansively, and bedecked with the customary and time-honored multitude of colors.

Guardedly ringing the bell positioned on the considerable red door, I was delighted to be received by a warm, welcoming, cherub face.

Graciously offering a customary salutation of “buenos tardes”, the older senora extended her small, browned, and weathered hand, not to be shaken in greeting, as I had misinterpreted for a quick instant, but as a receptacle in which to place the payment for her hospitality.

Returning the smile with as much sincerity, I bestowed the single bill upon the senora, and responded to her grateful wave of “adios” with one of my own. The darkness was approaching quickly, and I felt happy and relieved to have safely arrived at the sanctuary. Positioning the camper with an unrivaled view of the tangerine sunset that had begun to cast its warm, welcoming glow over the uninhabited sandy beach, the discovery was happily nominated a successful one.
I have spent the last two winters leaving Friday Harbor and visiting my beloved Mexican enclave, but this year the pattern will be broken, and I will remain in my new home and equally new life here on the island. That, too, will be an adventure in its own right, as I do delight in being here.
The homesick part of me is still inside though, compellingly and emotively residing, manifesting in my every action. Cooking, like any of the many meditative chores to be reckoned with in a day, creates an atmosphere within my mind that encourages thought.
While creativity flows generously through my fingertips when I begin giving my cooking tasks a life of their own, my brain is allowed to regress and the memories of cooking in my cocina in Mexico are consoling. I am placated in knowing that my Mexican home will wait for me. For the time being, I’ll joyfully cook in the home where I hang my hat, or in my case, mi sombrero, and I’ll savor every moment.
This is a recipe that I used time after time when entertaining my Mexican neighbors. I was often on the fortunate receiving end of freshly caught fish, and was happy to amuse my guests with this present-like presentation of the local fare. It’s quick, simple, and can be prepared ahead of time, and allows me the time to enjoy the most essential aspect of cooking and entertaining: mis amigos, my friends.

Pescado en Papel
(Fish in Paper)
with Fennel, Carrots, and Kalamata Olives

1 small fennel bulb, stalks removed
4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 medium baking potatoes, scrubbed and sliced thinly
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced
Zest of one lemon
2 T fresh thyme
4 whole garlic cloves, minced and divided
4 T. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 ½ pounds boned and skinned fish fillet, cut into 6 pieces
6-12" squares parchment paper
Kitchen string

1. Place a large baking sheet on bottom rack of oven and remove any other racks. Preheat oven to 400F.

2. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise. Rinse well, removing all traces of sand between layers. Remove core and cut bulb lengthwise into thin slices.

3. In medium saucepan, bring pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch vegetables separately: Blanch the carrots for 1 minute, fennel for 2 minutes. After the designated cooking time, transfer carrots and fennel together to a large bowl of ice water using a slotted spoon, then drain well; set aside. Bring pot of water back to boil and blanch the potato slices for 2 minutes, then drain and set aside, keeping separate from fennel and carrots.

4. Toss fennel and carrots with olives, zest, thyme, half of the garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

5. Toss the potatoes with remaining oil and garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Lay out the parchment squares. Divide the potatoes evenly between the squares. Season fish with salt and pepper and place a piece on top of the potatoes, then top each piece of the fish with the fennel and carrot mixture.

7. Gather sides of parchment up over fennel mixture to form a pouch, leaving no openings, and tie tightly with string. (Note: Foil may be substituted for the paper and string. Fold into envelope shape, crimping edges instead of tying.) Place packages directly on hot baking sheet in oven and cook 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

8. Serve immediately, passing the scissors to open the fragrant packages at the table.

Pulp Non-Fiction

Summer encourages lasting memories for many people. Memories, for the most part, seem to be created through notable life changing events, whether the times are pleasant, comfortable, and happy activities, emotionally distressing occasions, or just plain, old exciting, fun times. The ones especially remembered are the ones from the summers in our childhood. Those are the recollections that need to be revisited occasionally, or they tend to distort a bit with time, or worse, to fade away completely.

I remember a road trip with my family that happened over 40 years ago. As was typical for us, as well as thousands of middle-class families back in the sixties, our summer vacations would be spent visiting far-away relatives. This vacation would find us packing up kids and dog in the station wagon and driving from southern California to Oklahoma, where I had been born and had lots of family members remaining.

Contradicting my theories on the requirements for creating memories, the trip had no particular redeeming value to me; no adrenaline-producing, exciting moments, nothing gloomy or distressing going on with any of us, and I don’t remember being overly-elated about anything in particular. In my general contentedness, the thing that made this trip most memorable for me was the watermelon.

Being quite young, I had not yet learned the word gourmet. I knew some foods were better than others, and that they weren’t always consistent. I think I must have been about four years old when my mother taught me that eating a rotten peanut should quickly be followed by another, for the odds that the next nut would be bad were low, and the good flavor always overwhelmed the bad.

The evenings that summer were wonderfully green and sultry, and after our dinner (they called it “supper”) the kids all got shooed outside to play. At dusk, I learned that there really was such a thing as a firefly, and I experienced the enjoyment of catching them in jars, with the urban-legend based hope that if you caught enough of them, you’d have a homemade flashlight. The most important thing I learned, though, was to shoot watermelon seeds.

My experienced aunt had been wise enough to send all the kids outside to enjoy their cool, fat wedges of the sugary sweet dessert. The syrupy liquid ran down our faces, our arms, and anywhere else it wanted since the juicy fruit was more of a thin, sticky fluid than solid.

One of the boy cousins found the timing appropriate, and began demonstrating his prowess and proficiency as he emptied his mouth of all but a single seed, then aiming high, propelled the seed with an amazing trajectory. Not being very competitive by nature, as well as kind of a girly-girl, I half-heartedly attempted a couple of times, but achieved no gratifying height, nor distance.

Although I may not be competitive, I am creative, and I quickly figured out how to achieve respectable results by placing the moist, slippery seed between my thumb and forefinger, then tightly squeezing it out, demonstrating that the pinch technique had as much distance potential as the more traditional seed-spitting approach. Thinking outside-of-the-box once again prevailed!

While many of the food purists tend to poo poo the idea of science messing with our food, I’ve found that while many foods tend to have improved, and actually taste better than they did in my childhood, one that has not advanced is the watermelon. Sadly, the acceptably downward changes in food production have become the way-of-the-world today and we consent and take so many of these changes for granted and regard as unavoidable.

When my oldest son was about six, I took him to the local farmers’ market. As often was his modus operandi, I’d turned my back for a mere moment and he’d disappeared. He’d been gone about two minutes when I found him talking to the local purveyor of apples. As I approached, I heard him ask the woman in a loud, confident voice, “Are these apples genetically engineered?”

What? I had just recently learned that phrase myself, and I was the mom! The food world seemed to be changing so quickly that I felt threatened, and at that moment I realized that I’d better pay attention to the movement or I’d quickly be left behind.

The next week’s excursion, with the apple lady confrontation behind us, my son turned his questioning towards me. “How do you grow a seedless watermelon if there aren’t any seeds?” I was starting to dread the farmers’ market.

In the world-as-we-know-it, seedless watermelons are common, just as I’m sure the innocent question is widespread. Sweet, juicy, and good, the fruit is, by weight, the most enjoyed fruit in the United States. As is always the case with everything I love, it is often surrounded with controversy.

The Kalahari Desert in Africa is credited as the origination of the Citrullus lanatus, or watermelon. It is a member of the botanical family curcurbitacae and related to squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, as well as numerous other melons.

Depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the first recorded harvest is believed to have been almost 5,000 years ago. Then, spreading by way of the Mediterranean Sea, it appeared in China, which is now the world’s largest producer. By the 13th century, watermelon had proudly prospered throughout the entire European continent.

The Southern food historian, John Egerton, claims in his book, “Southern Food”, that it is his belief that African slaves introduced the first watermelon to the United States, while another historian, John Martin Taylor, claims that Greek settlers brought the method of pickling watermelon to Charleston, South Carolina. A U.S. cookbook, published in 1796, reiterates that theory and is credited for printing the first recipe for watermelon rind pickles.

A typical seeded watermelon, weighing between 15 to 18 pounds, contains 500 �" 1000 seeds. In 1949, Dr. Warren Barham decided to refine the most desirable traits of the watermelon, including the elimination of the seeds. Performing hand pollinations, he combined different “parents”, and while producing a hybrid fruit with a smaller seed was successful, he found the quality of the fruit lacking.

The scientific explanation for this is a bit complex. To successfully produce any kind of seedless watermelon, a female parent with four sets of chromosomes, called a “tetraploid”, must be crossed with a male parent with two sets of chromosomes, called a “diploid”.

The way this is achieved is by using a chemical called “Colchicine”. The chemical has been around since 1938, and is derived from a number of plant sources. When the white powdery substance is dissolved in water, then exposed to the dividing cells, Colchicine is capable of producing what is called “induced polyploidism.”

My laymen’s understanding is that the chemical alters the mitotic spindle fibers without altering the individual chromosomes. The cell recovers from the application, then a new spindle is created through kind of a healing process, then the nucleus undergoes a normal mitosis, now doubling the number of chromosomes.

Simply stated, the tetraploid, female, and the diploid, male, together produce the triploid, the sterile offspring resulting in no seeds. As usual, it takes the crossing of two different parents to make an even more unique offspring, although many of the peculiarities, characteristics, and attributes of the parents continue on.

To further enhance the qualities that Dr. Barham had been searching for, the diploid and tetraploid parents that have those desired traits are selected. Both parents must be planted within close proximity of each other as the seedless offspring still require natural pollination by honeybees, etc.

As parents, we often retell those stories and memories of our childhood to our children. My experiences with that story telling often produced less-than desirable results.

I told my 4 and 5 year old boys about my summer discovery of seed shooting, just as I repeated the tradition of sending them outside with their own slices of the fruit to enjoy.

It wasn’t long before their shouts of glee and giggles flurried through the kitchen window, and I hurried out to see what fun I was missing. There I found two little boys covered in not just watermelon juice, but pulpy-pink chunks from head to toe.

They acknowledged that the story of my own adventures with seed spitting and seed shooting had been presented as a fun and acceptable past time, but since they couldn’t find any seeds, they decided the melon itself would have to do.

I guess to them, pulp spitting seemed like a modern day version of the childhood pastime, and was proof once again that thinking-outside-the-box was an inherited trait. Unlike the seedless watermelon, genetically altering some of the peculiarities, characteristics, and attributes that our kids inherit from us, is not an option…despite, in my case, those many moments of desire.

This is a recipe I “altered” a bit; the original being credited back to my friend Diane Giesy. I love this simply-prepared salad, and although the combination of the ingredients may seem a bit unusual, the flavors are fabulous together. I hope you’ll try it and enjoy it as often and as much as we do.

Watermelon Salad

2 limes
½ cup very thinly sliced red onion
3 T olive oil
3 T red wine vinegar
¼ cup mint, sliced
½ seedless watermelon, cut into cubes, about 6 cups.
½ cup crumbled feta cheese (I use fat free)

1. Using a micro-planer or the extra fine side of a box grater, remove the zest from the limes, being careful not to cut into the pithe (white part). Into a large bowl, squeeze the juice from the limes, and add the zest, sliced onion, oil, and vinegar. Toss.
2. Place the mint leaves on top of each other and roll up tightly like a cigar. Starting at one end, slice into fine shreds (called a chiffonade). Add to the bowl.
3. Add the watermelon cubes to the bowl and toss. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, up to 12.
4. To serve: sprinkle feta on top, then toss.

Perfect Pairing Potential

A year or so ago, I had the opportunity to meet a member of my husband’s fam-ily. She and her family live in another state, so we planned a lengthy road trip and prepared to spend a couple of days and a night with the relations and possi-ble new best friends. I’m not close to any of my family, and as Bob’s is very lim-ited, we thought it was a good idea.

Let’s cut to the chase immediately. Do these things really ever work out as planned? As in the marriage of food and wine, is there pragmatic potential for people to be perfectly paired?

Our first stop of the journey was intended to be a happy birthday luncheon with a girl, okay, a woman now, whom I have known and loved since she was about 8. As a little girl, she’d come over to play with my son, but he’d take off to do boy stuff, and she and I’d play in the kitchen.

After many wonderful play dates canning tomatoes, chopping salsa, and produc-ing shiny, warm, glass jars of delicacies as our reward, she grew up. Among all of her many, impressive successes and degrees, she’s also been educated as a classically trained pastry chef. Yep, I feel like a proud mom.

The second aspect of the journey was a bit more precarious. When the new-to-me relative learned a bit more about what I do, and after the gracious invitation to be house guests in her wonderful home was accepted, my suggestion of taking them to dinner in a specific local, trendy restaurant that I’d been hungering after was quickly dismissed. Nice, I thought to myself, she wants to cook for us in-stead.

Wrong. It turns out that she thought a fun welcome for us would be for her to in-vite several of her gourmet club friends over for a dinner party, with the assump-tion that I would be cooking and teaching a hands-on class. Please send agreed upon menu and shopping list, and suggest any necessary specialty equipment, she directed.

Rocking the boat with a new relative-in-law never seems like a smart move on any level, so I felt it wise to cyber-smile and just go along with the program. I knew I’d at least have a fun-but-too short visit with sweet Kristin, and it would be worth it.

During that lunch, I vented. “Maybe I’m just being too sensitive, and should merely be flattered,” I passively complained, after filling her in on some of the commands I’d received. “I’ll enjoy doing it, but geez, it seems like kind of a weird request of someone virtually unknown and invited to be a house guest.”

Reacting like only Kristen can, her eyes widened like saucers before rolling around in her sophisticated head, then speaking softly, slowly, and intentionally, she emanated a confident authority, and answered. “YEAH, way to go, pimping your services.”

Oh. I hadn’t quite thought about it like that. Darn. Of course, Kristen was right, and, as usual, I was being too nice, and too silent while doing so. Cooking dem-onstration dinners are a huge amount of work in even the most familiar, state-of-the-art equipped kitchens, and here I was, supposedly on a vacation, being flaunted like an emerging poor relation, privileged to serve this woman and her fine friends.

A wonderful and long-time friend of mine, Dina Fernandez, teaches incredible classes in Eureka, California. While hands-on cooking is the teaching method she usually chooses, her scholarly approach to the topics is extraordinary.

“My main consideration is that I use my class presentations as a platform to ad-vance gastronomy and food history in its own right,” she explains. “Participants have come to expect more than just a cooking demonstration on these occa-sions.”

I’ve known Dina for about 30 years, and have watched with admiration as she built her culinary career. I had just started out as a part-time caterer when we met, and she told me that she, too, would like to learn more about cooking and become a professional chef.

She had previously spent time as a teenager at a fine dining establishment be-longing to a relative and credits her family’s influence for piquing her interests, then continued to work hard at university, serving her well as a gastronomist to-day.

Many years later, the one thing I’ve learned about Dina is that she can be very determined, brilliantly focused, and not much appears to get in her way. I re-member that along with her announcement that she wanted to be a chef came the significant proclamation that oh, by the way, she was lacking a kitchen.

Not to be deterred by such details, she and her partner purchased a silver tear-drop camper, and he began to construct her new kitchen within its confines, planting it firmly on the edge of their prolific fresh vegetable garden. Voila, Dina’s continuous and long-running career began, and has been as multi-faceted as her personality.

I was unable to attend Dina’s latest series of classes, but she revealed her notes to me, and I became enamored. I read, studied, then read some more, attempt-ing to absorb all 2,290 words of her intensive and extensive research, and sali-vated at her many creative recipes and pairings. She consented and encour-aged me to share them, and I’m thrilled and feel honored to do so.

Dina began her class by introducing Sherry as a fortified wine, explaining the ori-gin and distinctions of the authentic Sherry, or Vino de Jerez, and spoke about sweet and dry regional wines that are blended to create a range of varying styles.

She had the class taste many different wines, and included Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, and Oloroso, among others. Dina described and defined each of their individual characteristics, categories, and the methodology involved, all re-quired mandates necessary to distinguish the authentic from those made else-where.

Dina, whom I consider an amazing historian and writer as well as an accom-plished chef, dosed her class' conversation with plenty of historical anecdotes and tales of high adventure. Her intention, she told me, was to place emphasis on the international character of the Sherry industry, and after citing stories about the Phoenicians, Sir Francis Drake, Elizabeth the First and Shakespeare, the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, the Indies trade, and the expansion of the market, she then moved her narratives into more modern wines and times.

Dina provided some distinguishing details and food pairings for a few of the dif-ferent types of Sherry:

Vino de Jerez (Sherry):

Authentic Sherry is from the south-west region of Andalucía in southern Spain, in the Province of Cádiz. The major Sherry producing cities are Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
There are two officially recognized areas of Sherry production: The Denomi-nación de Origen (D.O.) Jerez/Xérès/Sherry and D.O. Manzanilla Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The principle grape varieties are Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (P.X.), and Moscatel.

The Diverse Types of Sherry:

Fino - The driest of sherries, light-bodied and straw-like in color. The characteris-tic aroma associated with Finos is almonds. Typically, 15-17% alcohol by vol-ume, it is best served chilled and is a world-renowned aperitif. Fino is good with nuts, especially almonds, olives, Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, shellfish, fish, vinaigrette salads, and marinades.

Manzanilla - Pale in color, dry and refreshing. This is a "fino" style of Sherry made in the unique microclimate of Sanlúcar on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Serve chilled. Best with seafood and tapas and goes with anything a Fino does.

Oloroso - Deep amber or darker with a rich, nutty flavor and walnut fragrance. Olorosos range from dry to semi-sweet and 17 to 22% alcohol. These big wines are a great match for stewed meats, grilled steaks and flavorful cheeses . Serve slightly chilled or room temperature.

Amontillado - Falls between a Fino and Oloroso in terms of color and complexity. Typically tawny colored, it may be off-dry or medium-dry. Amontillados have a smooth, nutty flavor and hazelnut aroma. 16 - 22% alcohol by volume. Serve slightly chilled or room temperature. Ideal with soups, tuna, pork, chicken, wild mushrooms, and semi-cured cheeses.

Cream Sherry - Rich mahogany in color. Luscious, sweet, with a roasted nut and caramel aroma. 15.5 to 22% alcohol. The ideal dessert wine with fruit pastries, cheesecake, and ice cream. May also be served as an apéritif with sliced apples and bleu cheese . Serve slightly chilled or on the rocks.

Dina’s class was an amazing success, and she reports that she and the partici-pants prepared and paired numerous delicacies, and tasted them all with the various sherries that she chose. I’ve selected her Crab Croqueta recipe to share, hoping to employ and enjoy our own local seafood’s qualities.

My own class didn’t go so well. After countless hours of planning potential menus before agreeing on one, creating the recipes and the lists necessary for provisioning, emails back and forth checking on the availability of pots, pans, and miscellaneous equipment, I had a game plan.

In order to be prepared for the guest’s imminent appearance, our time of arrival was strictly calculated, and the long distance traveling arrangements were made. I cut the birthday lunch short, but knowing the issues at hand, Kristen appreci-ated the significance and we said our good-byes.

I never told Kristen the end of the story. I didn’t describe the door to the relatives’ house that was left open for us, the interior devoid of people as well as the food necessary to begin preparation, and my disappointment in the hostess arriving 3 hours later, having been detained at a cocktail party and “unable to break away.”

The upsetting details were left out of my accounting, and I could not explain my mixed emotions when my question regarding the notable guests’ arrival was met with an unbelievable answer. “Oh,” the never-to-be-my-best-friend replied. “We decided to cancel.”

After this experience, I continue to encourage the question: Do these things ever really work out? Meanwhile, friends and relative issues aside, I continue search-ing and enjoying the perfect pairing of food and wine.

Enjoy Dina’s Croquettes. They are remarkable, especially when served with the Rémoulade Sauce recipe she provides.

Crab Croquettes/ Croquetas Makes about 35 Cro-quettes

3 Tbsp butter
5 Tbsp olive oil
¾ cup flour
1 ¼ cups milk
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup fish broth or clam juice
Salt & pepper
Dash cayenne
A touch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 lb Dungeness crab meat, thoroughly picked-over
1 tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced

Flour for dusting
Toasted bread crumbs, lightly seasoned
Oil for frying

In a large saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the oil. Add the flour and cook about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually pour in the milk, wine, and broth, and sprinkle in the salt, pepper, and cayenne. Whisk over medium heat until thickened and smooth. Add the crab and herbs and continue stirring until the sauce returns to a slow boil. Cool and refrigerate for several hours or over-night.

Roll the dough by the tablespoon into balls, periodically dusting hands with flour to keep them from sticking. Dip each croquette in the egg wash then roll in the breadcrumbs. Fry in an inch of hot oil, turning once, until golden, about 4 min-utes.

Spicy Rémoulade
1 cup mayonnaise made with olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp. capers
1 Tbsp. Sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp. Amontillado
1/8 tsp. cayenne
½ tsp. sweet paprika
1 Tablespoon chopped parsley
Salt & pepper to taste

Place all ingredients except salt and pepper into bowl of food processor or blender. Process until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill.

Wasting Away

To avoid sounding like I’m ranting, let me say it right off: mostly I’m just confused. I’d love for someone to simply explain the reasoning behind all that I see and hear that seem like hypocrisies. I’m sure it’s just me.

We threw a really fun fiesta last weekend. I cooked a large quantity of Mexican food because I invited a large number of guests. Even if only a few were expected, though, I’d still cook a lot. I like leftovers and I like to share with friends, and since it’s not much more effort, I just always do it that way. It doesn’t go to waste.

Because there were a lot of guests, food was served buffet style. That’s not my preference, but with our beautiful San Juan summer sun still beaming down brightly at 6 PM, it would have been sacrilege to unnecessarily spend time inside the house. So, patio dining al fresco with buffet table service inside became the obvious and preferred choice of the evening.

Over-flowing platters of frijoles, Mexican rice, and tortillas shared the table with shiny, steaming chafing dishes stuffed with chicken mole, costillitas de Puerco (pork ribs), and other appropriate accoutrements, including five different homemade salsas. Then, in a display of sensible rebellion, I put out small, luncheon size plates and small, petite-sized salad forks.

I observed one manly-sized guest holding up a plate, looking quizzically around the table, as if expecting to find an equally man-sized platter to fill. There were none to be found, just the tall stacks of cute, hand painted Vietri dishes, the perfect size for a sampling taste of everything.

And sample they did, some guests eagerly returning 2 and 3 times to the table, enjoying the repast, washing the meal down with limey margaritas served in pint-sized Ball jars, tall bottles of ice-cold beer, and fine, flavorful, Mexican-food-paired wines. I was thrilled the meal was a hit, and flattered as the full food table was slowly lightened of its load, and my guests appeared to savor every bite.

No one went away hungry, thirsty, or unhappy, and other than the remainder of the now exposed chicken and pork bones, few victuals lingered on the plates at the end of the evening. No waste, no problem.

I really am curious. At what point did the food industry begin to make ridiculously large plates of food trendy, altering the expectations and requirements of the restaurateurs, eventually trickling as far down as to changing the standards of the dish and cutlery makers? And who said that was preferred and okay?

A friend of mine recently remarked on a discovery he had made. While sorting through boxes of his parents’ belongings, he came across their fine china. Noticing the tiny, delicate plates, he commented that he experienced an awareness of the size differences in the old china plates and bowls and current modern day dishes, and he felt that along with that quiet subtlety, an expectation of over-indulgence is presented, thus encouraging excess.

When my husband and I first married, he immediately dropped forty pounds, and he wasn’t even trying. Friends noticed, and remarks were made to me, like “don’t you feed this man?” I bit my tongue so as not to be insulting in return, but he always quickly answered, “Yeah, about six times a day I get her great cooking.” Yes, that’s true, with lowered fat content and in tiny dishes. The food industry calls it portion control.

Using things conservatively is not about politics. My political stance is loosely described as a right-leaning Libertarian, and I strongly feel waste is nothing less than a despicable and sad statement of affairs in our world. When it comes to consumption, be it food, money, or natural resources, being wasteful is just simply wrong and unnecessary.

A while back I enjoyed a wonderful meal at a friend’s home and was helping her with cleanup and dishes. When she casually tossed a once-used Ziploc bag into the garbage, I had to ask. “Why don’t you wash out your bags and reuse them?” For some reason, I naively had assumed people did, and thought I must be missing something.

Knowing this person’s loudly outspoken “green” stance in so many areas of life, I admit I was shocked. From the country-of-origin’s computer components, to the humane treatment of a particular brand of chicken being the deciding purchasing factors for her, she always had a lot to say. She is educated, knowledgeable, and wastes no breath in the sharing of her constant findings, and I listen.

Her response was casual and surprising to me, as she spouted a few reasons. “They’re kind of hard to dry. And sometimes they get little leaks so I’m never sure if they’ll hold liquid or not.”

That was it? I’m sure my jaw had dropped in shock and my mouth must have opened in the process since my words could not be contained. “What? Just let them sit upside on the counter for a while, and then try drying them with a dishtowel. If they’re not liquid tight, wrap your vegetables in them.”

Because I have issues with anger management (so I’ve been told, but I prefer to say I’m just a hot-head and let it go at that), plus, since I’ve discovered that the back-space and delete keys don’t work in face-to-face confrontation, I shut up. But I continued to think, and then thought some more, about the hypocrisy surrounding me.

If my wonderful doctorate-friend so flippantly disregards such an obvious and easy reuse of such a simple and common product, am I wrong in giving so much daily thought and energy to not wasting stuff? Do I just look cheap in other peoples’ eyes when I hand them a small plate? Geesh, I hope others get it better than she. Am I the only one who notices the duplicity in this?

I just read a fellow columnists’ comparison of some current political views on property rights with some of the principles dating back to the time of our country’s founding. He artfully quoted some locals’ points, and I admit I won’t judge harshly because I haven’t seen the context from where they were taken.

A point I feel to be of great importance is that there is an underlying commonality to both sides of the views presented, and I think it’s something that most people fail to see. Both sides realize, although present it very differently, that it’s all about moderation.

While trying to get a point across, I think one tends to exaggerate the importance of a particular stance, and in the process, sometimes sounds more opinionated than necessary, usually ending up leaning more to the political left or right.

When speaking with reason and logic and less with emotion, and not considering one’s overall and general political peeves, who could argue the point that more moderation and less waste is universally beneficial to everyone’s well being?

I’ve been accused of making the best margaritas in the world. I prefer them on the rocks, but my husband received an abundance of raves when he used the following recipe to produce smooth, slushy ones, poured icy cold and fresh from the blender. They’re really easy, and another good application of the word “moderation.” And none ever go to waste.

Makes a large batch serving many or a few, depending on the size of the glass

Frozen Concentrated Limeade
Triple Sec
Beer (preferably pale)

1. Using the can of frozen limeade as your measurement, pour 1 can of each ingredient into a large pitcher and stir.

2. Fill the blender jar ¾ full of ice, then pour the margarita mixture to the top of the ice. Process until desired smoothness is achieved.

3. Pour into glasses and garnish with lime slices.
(Note: If you’d prefer more authentic margaritas, dip the glass rims into lime juice, then salt.)

The Birthday Month

A lot of people consider themselves to be early risers. Some find it a requirement in order to get to a job; others find it a time to start the daily regime of a discipline; doing yoga, praying, exercising, etc. In my past lives I’ve been a participant in all of the above. Now I look forward to waking up to contemplate and write, sometimes on paper or computer, sometimes not, but always in my head.

Saturday morning began as an “in my head” day. It was only 7 AM, and the reason had already made itself known to me. I didn’t want to go out for dinner. I awakened thinking about how tired and bored I was of pricey, mediocre food, and found myself dreading another evening being a participant. I certainly go out often enough; I love the people, and the atmospheres that appeal to me bring me back over and over again. But this was my birthday weekend so it was different.

Actually, the entire month of June has been decreed to be my birthday. I awakened on the first day of the month to a husband wishing me a “happy birthday month”. I guess he started something that made it officially okay for me to continue the hilarity of the concept. Still, I’m sure my mother is rolling her eyes at the audacity of reinventing the birthday wheel. The Italians ask it well… perche no? Why not? I can’t think of one reason.

I happily share the month (i.e “plays well with others”) with many of my friends having birthdays, and we’ve all high-fived the “woo hoo; birthday month” thing many times over. But this was the birthday weekend; the last one of the month, and just a couple of days before the real day.

Still, being a true Cancerian, I really just wanted to stay home. In my consistent, routine mode, I wanted to entertain my friends, to make them feel special and cared for, and to cook for them, and birthdays don’t change that. We’d had the conversation many times over, and as someone who’s definition of simple is different than most, it was appearing to those outside-looking-in that I was working way too hard for my own birthday.

At the last minute I conceded, and my husband started emailing a few good friends to join us at a local restaurant for dinner. Then I realized I didn’t want to go.

I was awakened early Saturday by a great cacophony of bird noises that I interpreted, as always, that it was going to be a sunny one. Typically, that deduction is my way of thinking positively, and circumstantial evidence that I live in la-la land. But today I was rewarded with being correct, and the sun appeared through the thick forest of trees, unadorned in the exemplary outfit of the day, the sad, grey shroud I’d become used to. Grey has become the new blue, and the birds were as excited as I to see the unaccustomed blue hue, arriving on the scene so early in the morning.

With a bit of sleep still attached, I remained tranquil as I serenely tiptoed out of the bedroom, and brewed that first aromatic espresso of the weekend. I curled up catlike in the corner of the softly worn leather sofa, and I stared out the picture window at the sky. Feeling comfy and safe in my fuzzy fake-fur throw, my thoughts became bolder, and it was decided. It’s my birthday weekend, and I can cook if it want to, right?

My thirty minutes of solitude ended, and a sleepy-looking partner emerged. I hadn’t yet found my outside voice, but the inside one was enthusiastic. I acquiesced to share the solitary space, and intuitively my husband prepared for a conversation he knew would require his attention.

“What’s wrong?” he softly asked, after exchanging the dutiful good-morning-how’d-ya-sleep niceties. I found my voice and answered with the soft, succinct, yet not unexpected, “nothing.”

He sipped from the still hot mug I handed him, and skillfully danced to the tune of the conversation. “Mm hmm,” he stated, and demonstrated that he knew how to patiently wait. My words found their way out of my head and poured like hot liquid into the whisper-filled room.

“I don’t want to go out tonight. I want to cook. It’s not work to me just because it is to other people. I don’t care if the house isn’t clean; well, yes I do, but my friends don’t. I don’t need you to go to the store or to do anything to your day that you weren’t already planning to do. I can just email a couple of people and have a party. Right?”

I only paused because I needed to take a breathe, and that split second was all it took for the reply to be artfully and sensitively inserted. “Sure, if you’re positive that’s what you want to do.”

Yippee! I flew up out of my nest and across the room to the computer. I emailed a couple of people and the few already planning a restaurant evening were happy to make the change, and a couple of others happily contemplated the spontaneity and adjusted their schedules to join us. My blue skies became even more brilliant, and my decaf espresso didn’t affect the adrenaline rush I enjoyed, knowing what fun my day ahead held.

After a couple of “yes!” email commitments, I dove into the usually well stocked refrigerator and freezer. Backwards as usual, I would plan recipes from ingredients, instead of purchasing ingredients for recipes.

Some of my most favorite things to prepare are Mediterranean inspired hors d’ouevres, and it felt like a day for favorites. I began to make a list of ingredients I had on hand that would become my playthings of the morning, and the recipes began to evolve.

The first thing I found in my collection was a package of extra-large mushrooms, and knew that the spicy sausage in my freezer would be great mixed with some fennel and last-night toasted croutons, stuffed into the hollowed out mushrooms, then baked and covered with feta cheese. Recipe #1 was decided and I was on a roll.

I pulled one of the hot Italian sausages from the freezer and placed it in the microwave to thaw. I removed the stems from the mushrooms, and along with a small onion, chopped them both into a coarse chop. Placing a wok over high heat, I removed the now-thawed sausage from the micro. Holding on to one end of the casing, I squeezed the sausage out of its tube into the wok along with the vegetables, stirring all until brown. Removing the wok from the heat, I tossed the croutons and feta into the mixture along with a bit of black pepper.

I placed the mushrooms on half of a large, metal baking sheet, then after adding the fragrant stuffing to the hollows, I set it aside.

There were several small on-the-vine ripe tomatoes on my counter, as well as a package of fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and with those two ingredients pulled into view, the prolific basil plants in my kitchen herb garden immediately shouted “pick me”.

Since it was only 9 AM, I sliced and placed the creamy mozzarella into a zipper bag to marinate for the day in a garlicky olive oil and herb vinaigrette I had made, promising wonderful infused flavors when assembled with the sliced tomatoes and a thinly sliced chiffonade of basil just before serving.

I scrubbed and threw a dozen tiny potatoes into the micro-wave. I usually buy ground meats in bulk and break them down into half-pound packages before freezing, and pulled one of lean, ground turkey out to thaw. The giant bag of fresh spinach is always begging to have a quick handful thrown into the wok to be cooked down and reduced, so I did, and while that was cooking, I grated cheese off of a large block of peccorino romano I found in the cheese drawer.

Ten minutes later, the potatoes had been pulled from the microwave and placed on the cutting board to cool, the spinach was removed from the wok and drained, and the half pound package of ground turkey was browning in the same pan.

I rushed out to the herb garden with shears in hand, and began cutting herbs that I wanted to use because they appealed to me at that moment, although I was not exactly sure where I'd end up using them. Garlic chives, rosemary, large handfuls of fresh basil, parsley, thyme, and oregano make for a good beginning, and I knew that with a couple of short steps, I could always go back for more.

I returned to the wok and snipped some chives into the pan of browning turkey. Ground turkey is typically bland but al-ways possesses the promise to become alive with the correctly chosen spices and herbs. It was my artists' canvas, and I worked with the boldness of a painter, knowing that the potatoes are also inherently boring and considered bland in regards to flavors. Some Italian parsley, lemon thyme, and Italian oregano were chopped and thrown in, and some of the cooked, drained spinach was chopped and added to the pan as well.

I cut the potatoes in half the short direction, and using a sharp melon baller, I removed the center of the potato, tossing it into a bowl. When all were halved and hollowed, I made mashed potatoes, smashing the potatoes along with a little fat-free half and half (I know, an oxymoron) until they were light and fluffy. I sprinkled a handful of the grated cheese into the bowl, and then folded in the turkey mixture as well. I ground a good amount of coarse, black pepper along with some pink Himalayan salt (my drug of choice at the moment) into the bowl and gently stirred again.

Sharing the other half of the baking sheet with the mush-rooms, the hollowed out potato shells were seated, then filled with the turkey/potato mixture, spooned in carefully as to not tear the skins. The full tray was set aside to cool a bit, then placed in the fridge to chill.

A couple dozen jumbo shrimp were removed from the freezer and running cold water over them encouraged them to thaw. I mixed together a homemade lemon vinaigrette with some fresh basil and pine nut pesto and used that to marinate the shrimp. Taking some of the same pesto, I whisked in some mayo, freshly chopped garlic, and a bit of lemon juice for a basil aioli dipping sauce.

Thawing a sourdough baguette, I sliced it thinly, then seasoned the slices with salt and pepper and toasted it for fresh crostini. I decided on two tapenades, one with capers, garlic, and three types of olives, and the other with artichoke hearts, spinach, and parmesan cheese. Both tapenades were chopped up in the food processor and completed be-fore the crostini was out of the oven, about 8 minutes from start to finish.

Small flatbread pizzas are wonderful on the BBQ, so I made a quick pizza sauce with tomato paste, diced canned tomatoes (with juice), chopped up some more of the Italian herbs and garlic, and added a bit of dried red chiles for spiciness. I sliced the other half of the log of mozzarella cheese and put the flatbread, sauce, and cheese back in the fridge for later assembling.

The other day my husband brought home a couple of man-goes, hoping I’d make a salsa. I told him I’d once received a first-place award for my mango salsa, but felt it was mostly because it was such a novel concept at the time, and most people had never tasted one. I assembled the simple salsa, and had told him it’d be better in a couple of days. And now it was.

I took out a couple of pieces of frozen cod, and cut each of them into six small pieces. They thawed quickly, with the moisture being absorbed into a couple of layers of paper towels.

Twelve 10x10 inch squares of parchment paper lined my counter tops, with a piece of cod placed in the center of each one. I put a generous tablespoon of the mango salsa on the fish, then grasping two opposing sides of the paper, I folded them tightly together forming a sealed packet, then folded the open sides of the package underneath.

I gently slid each one onto a plate and back in the refrigerator for later baking. When the time came, I'd preheat the oven to 400 degrees, then placing the fish packets on a baking sheet, quickly cook them for about 6 to 8 minutes.

It was still before noon, and all the food was pretty much ready to go. The guests weren't expected to arrive until 6:30, so I had until about 5:30 to enjoy the rest of the sunny day outside before I returned to the kitchen and started baking and assembling.

In order to remain in birthday party mode, I promised myself and husband that I wouldn’t dust, (and didn’t), and benefited as well from a wonderful, creative beginning to my weekend.

The next week, when I celebrated my actual birthday day, I carried out the tradition I had taught my children: every year on your birthday, take a few moments to step outside into a quiet place and clap your hands together three times, thinking about the year since your last birthday.

When we’re young children, the birthdays seem so far apart that you can barely remember the last. As I get older, the time span between the birthdays seems to become amazingly short, and I was reminded of this as I stood, clapping my hands together, and contemplating the recent year's passing events.

Many memories came to mind, some unbelievably wonderful, and some things so heartbreakingly hurtful that I thought I might not survive them. All of them together, though, made up the package that was an incredible, event filled year.

I ended my birthday in my own, loved kitchen, sharing food and wine with a magnificent group of first-rate friends. As my birthday wish came true, I had to ask myself: what more could one possibly ask for?


I was working in the office the other day and realized how backwards I can be in so many areas. As bookkeeper for my husband’s business, I was anguishing over my self-assigned task of balancing the budget.

Coming from the food world, I’m somewhat experienced in such areas, although I typically inherited the previous person’s budget, considered the current economic flavors that were being reflected in the restaurant and hospitality industry at that moment, and ultimately tweaked it to make it work for me.

Cutting a little here, then expanding a bit in another area is something required of every executive chef in order to keep the fiscal teeter-totter level. But today my task was different. I found myself trying to wiggle the budget to fit our living, opposed to fitting our living/lifestyle to exist within the budget. I began to reflect-okay, unfocus and daydream- and realized that I did exactly that same backwards-thing in so many areas of my life.

An example off the top of my head is my current re-landscaping project. I appreciate that the simpler, more economical way to re-anything is to assess what you currently have and add and update the necessities to meet your current needs. But do I implement that logic? Nooooo. Instead, I have this quirky way of over-thinking and creating a gigantic explosion where a little “puff” should have been sufficient.

I wanted more seating, entertainment space, and storage outdoors. Instead of simply purchasing a couple of tables and chairs and storage chests, then fitting them comfortably and cute-ly into the existing maturely-landscaped yard, I decided to re-concoct the whole spacious acre. The term “re-inventing the wheel” comes to mind.

I did the same thing with the house’s interior. I don’t know for sure, but it’s a pretty good guess that when I announced before my impending marriage that I wanted to redecorate a little, my unsuspecting husband-to-be was probably envisioning a new sofa and maybe some carpeting. Ha! Ah, the things that only a new bride can get away with.

So budgeting and decorating dilemmas acknowledged and out-of-the-way, I’m realizing how much my cooking and menu-planning styles have spilled over into the rest of my life. Somehow it just seems to be more normal and acceptable behavior when we’re talking food. Or maybe it’s that personality trait/flaw/gift that once again proves the theory that good cooks are born, not made.

Not long ago I tasted some recently released wines with Yvonne Swanberg, the owner of our local San Juan Vineyards, and came across one that encouraged exceptional food. I often say that wine should be paired with food, and although a glass of wine is commonly enjoyed solely on its own merits, my stance remains that it’s always better with food where the two work together to compliment and enhance the flavors present in both.

Sangiovese, meaning “blood of Jove (Jupiter)” is a red grape that I feel makes a particularly good “food wine”. Often a blending grape used in Chianti and in Bordeaux-style blends with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/or Syrah, Sangiovese is background for many Italian wines.

Through cloning and experiments in growing factors and variables, the fruit that Washington and California wine growers are re-discovering is producing a medium to medium-full bodied wine with up-front fruit and a balanced acidity, and the grape is beginning to be used not just for its blending qualities, but commonly to produce wines that are 100% sangiovese.

The San Juan Vineyards sangiovese is described by Chris Primus, the winemaker, as having a “bouquet of ripe black cherry, plum, and barrel toast, with the taste of red fruit, strawberry, and orange peel.”

That particular sangiovese aside, I know that a classic sangio pairs well with tomato sauces, and that spices and herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary, sage, clove, and thyme all tend to bring out the fruity nuances that are typically present in the wine.

True to my nature, I chose to create a recipe to flatter the wine, rather than find a wine to match a particular dish. To condense the overwhelming range of possibilities, I next chose a region. A generic and often used formula in pairing food and wine is to choose a region where the food and wine both originate, but I, of course, wanted to do it differently.

I just discovered that next year’s Rotary International convention is going to be held in New Orleans, and I look forward to attending. With that trip on my mind, I’ve been thinking about the food I’ve enjoyed there in the past, and credit good fortune that sangiovese is a great wine for much of that locality’s cuisine. Voila, region defined.

When mentioning words like Creole, Cajun food, Louisiana, and the French Quarter in New Orleans, the first dish most people think of is jambalaya. It’s legend that the name is a combination of “jambon”, French for ham, and “paella”, the similar Spanish rice dish, possibly originating during the early period of Spanish rule in Louisiana.

I’ve fine-tuned my jambalaya recipe to make the pairing of the San Juan Vineyards’ Sangiovese particularly perfect. I caramelized the onions to balance the fruitiness of the wine, and the herbs and spices I chose add interest and harmonize with the wine’s flavors. The addition of cloves, especially, gave a noticeable distinction.

To further add another layer of complexity, I added a sprinkling of finely chopped fresh lime thyme at the end, as garnish, and the hot dish released the essence from the herb, complementing the many other flavorful aromas of the meal.

One of my favorite movie lines of all times is from “When Harry Met Sally”. Do you remember the famous scene where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal were sitting conversing in a restaurant? No, not that line.

It’s the other famous line that Sally articulates when she orders her meal with a dozen stipulations as to its preparation and presentation. After the visibly shaken waitress walks away with order pad in hand, Sally turns to Harry’s disapproving expression and announces, “What? I just want it like I want it!”

Actually, that makes perfect sense to me. Even when it’s backwards.

Jambalaya for Sangiovese

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 chicken breast, cut into small bite-sized pieces
1 cup cooked ham diced
1 cup cooked andouille sausage, sliced
12 large shrimp, peeled
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 small jar of roasted red peppers, drained, rinsed, then chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
¼ cup fresh chives, chopped
¼ cup fresh thyme, chopped
¼ cup fresh basil chopped
1 (28 ounce) can stewed or dice tomatoes, with juice
3 cups cooked rice (Note: I prefer to use brown, short grain, because it’s healthier for you and maintains it’s texture better when reheated, but to be authentic, long grain white is used.)
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
salt and ground black pepper to taste

1. In large heavy skillet or wok, heat 2 Tablespoons oil on medium high heat. Sauté chicken about 3 minutes or until browned, but still slightly pink in the center. Add ham, sausage, and shrimp, and stir for 2 minute longer. Remove meat from pan and set aside.
2. In same skillet, heat one Tablespoon oil. Add onion and sauté on low until caramelized, about 8 minutes. Add carrots, peppers, and celery and sauté until tender. Add garlic and stir one more minute, being careful not to burn the garlic.
3. Stir in bay leaves, cloves, cayenne pepper, rosemary, parsley, chives, thyme, and fresh basil.
4. Add can of tomatoes and liquid and stir.
5. Gently fold in reserved meat and cooked rice. Add chicken stock and hot pepper sauce, salt, and pepper to taste.
6. Simmer on low until heated through and liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. (Note: Depending on the moistness of the rice, more chicken broth may be needed).
7. Serve immediately, garnishing with fresh herbs.

Scent Sense

I was sitting at a restaurant recently, lifting a just-poured glass of my favorite wine, pinot noir. Swirling, swirling, then swirling some more, I mentally anticipated the rich, cabbage-y bouquet that I have learned to love and expect, and I consider the nose to be a preamble to what comes next. And then it hit me, like a sensory ton of bricks. Gardenias.

How can that be? True, that very volatile pinot noir grape does, on occasion, produce a surprising and unexpected nuance in the finished product, but gardenias?

I looked up from the red liquid in my glass and observed a couple being seated at the table next to me. An older, distinguished-looking gentleman gently and smoothly pulled out the chair for his wife, and equaling his finesse, she slid her silk-covered self into her seat. Her well-appointed and splendid jewels were bedazzling, only slightly distracting from her perfectly coiffed silver hair. And I remembered. Jungle Gardenia.

The olfactory, our sense of smell, is a very complex system, and is connected to our memory more than any of our other senses. There are many theories as to why this is, and many complicated explanations on how is works.

From an evolutionary perspective, our sense of smell is the most important; when it comes to survival it’s even more crucial than sight or hearing. The ability to search out, discern, and recognize the differences between food and poison, and family, friends, and enemies, requires the basic sense of scent that almost all mammals use, and is one of the oldest parts of our brain.

Humans have about 1000 different sensors in their nose, but can identify about 10,000 odors. Linda Buck, an American biologist and Nobel Prize winner, is best known for her work on the olfactory system. She explains the discrepancy by using the analogy of letters and how they are used in different combinations to make individual words, thus accounting for the greatly reduced number of scent sensors required.

Inside your nose and between your eyes is a small patch of tissue containing millions of nerve cells. The odor receptors lie on these cells. After an odor molecule enters the nose, the olfactory receptors recognize it as such, and send the signal to the olfactory bulb, sitting above the eyes. Different signals from different sensors are targeted to different spots in the bulb, forming a sensory map, linking it to memory.

When there is prolonged exposure to a particular airborne compound, a condition called Olfactory Fatigue occurs.
The awareness of the odor fades to the point where the smell is not perceptible, or is at least noticeably weaker.

Wikepedia defines the term “Wine Tasting” as “the sensory examination and evaluation of wine”. The term Olfactory Fatigue is commonly used in wine tasting, where one loses the ability to perceive a wine’s bouquet and characteristics after an extended period of time.

For me, there is the ubiquitous consideration of sensory overload and confusion. Those are my non-expert terms, and I use them when confronted with perfume and wine at the same time. Concerned that I was over-reacting, I decided to go to the experts.

Chris Primus’ wines are award-winning many times over. Producing bouquet- abounding wine for San Juan Vineyards, he had a definite and declared opinion about perfume at wine tastings.

“Just don’t do it.” He succinctly states. “It’s disrespectful, offensive, and amateur.” He went on to mention that not just perfume, but any scented product is impertinent, such as fragrant lotion or hairspray.

Chris also acknowledged the existence of Olfactory Fatigue, saying that “you cannot trust your own nose with products you use everyday.” He recommended that “If you are in doubt about how loud your odor is, ask someone.”

I asked Yvonne Swanberg, the owner of San Juan Vineyard, if her thoughts were similar, and she expounded even further, referencing strong, conflicting food smells as being possible interferers as well. To illustrate her point, she cited an instance when a customer brought a box lunch into the tasting room, and she had to request he go out outside with it, as the strong garlic was interfering with other customers’ abilities to taste wine.

Stan Reitan, aka Stan the Wine Man, is another local authority, expertly running the wine department at King’s, as well as teaching wine classes and hosting wine events throughout the year. When I asked his opinion on the subject, he, too, felt strongly in regards to the subject.

“In the wine world, wearing perfume or cologne to a tasting event is tantamount to yelling “Bomb!” at airport security,” he explains, “…you just don’t do it!!”

He offers further advice: “There are at least four things one should never do before going to a wine tasting event. Three of them affect only you. Never brush your teeth, chew gum, or drink coffee just before attending a wine tasting. Any of these will alter the taste of the wines and hinder your good judgment and enjoyment.”

“The fourth and most important,” Stan continues, “is NEVER WEAR PERFUME OR COLOGNE TO A WINE TASTING EVENT!” And although I agree as vehemently as he, the capital letters are Stan’s, not mine. It seems lots of us have very exacting opinions on this topic.

Although one has little control over whom we share a restaurant with, I continue to pursue my passion of food and wine in public. I didn’t enjoy my wine that evening, though, and left feeling very disappointed.

The next night I chose to rectify my disheartening encounter. I paired a wonderful appetizer with a delicious pinot noir from Willamette Valley, and relished the aspect that since I was home, I also was able to choose whom to share it with.

Combining the creaminess of mild goat cheese, the earthiness of mushrooms, and the lightly sweet, roasted flavor of caramelized onions, I quickly assembled them together in a warm and fragrant baked tart.

“I realize that some folks look at wine tastings as a social event, dressing up and trying to smell nice.” Stan continued. “However, the vast majority of us go to wine events to taste wine and understand what it has to offer. That being said, I promise not to spill wine on your pretty dress or nice shirt, if you promise not to spill your strong perfume or cologne on my olfactory senses.”

I think that’s a fair proposal. To add to that, I also request: please don’t overload or confuse my senses. I don’t want gardenias in my pinot bouquet.

Mushroom, Caramelized Onion, and Goat Cheese Tart
Serves 8 as appetizer

1 9-inch pie shell (Note: either store-bought frozen or homemade may be used)
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large or 3 small portabella mushrooms
2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
3 eggs
8 oz. soft goat cheese, divided in half

Preheat oven to 400°F. Using the tines of a fork, prick the pie shell all over. Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned. Cool.

While crust is cooling, heat 1 T. olive oil in heavy skillet over low heat. Add onions and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until soft, lightly browned, and caramelized. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

If present, remove mushroom stems then thinly slice all. Using the same skillet, heat the remaining 1 T olive oil over high heat. Add the mushroom caps and stems and cook about 6 to 8 minutes or until browned and dry. Season with salt and pepper.

Add mushrooms to the bowl of onions. Add the thyme and
set aside.

In another bowl, combine the eggs with half of the goat cheese. Blend until fairly smooth (may be a little lumpy). Spread the mixture onto the cooled pie shell and bake until lightly set, about 4 minutes.

Spread the mushroom and onion mixture over all. Crumble the other half of the goat cheese over the top and bake until melted. Serve warm or room temperature.

Terra Tamai moved to Friday Harbor from Baja. She has worked as a food writer, an executive chef in Santa Barbara, and a caterer and yacht chef on the central coast of CA, all contributing to a lifetime of employment and enjoyment in the food and hospitality industry.

Smokin’ Salsa

We were watching a really good and intriguing movie the other night. It was the thriller, based on a true story, where Russell Crowe plays a scientist working for a big tobacco company, then after being fired, decides to go on 60 minutes and blow the whistle on industry-wide wrong doings.

During his TV interview, Crowe’s character, researcher Jeffrey Wigand, announced that “cigarettes are just a vehicle to transport nicotine”, then with encouragement from the interviewer, declares it even more vehemently a second time. What? I don’t care if this movie was made way back in 1999. That’s my line!

Well, not exactly. My line has always been that “chips are just a vehicle to transport salsa”. It’s kind of the same thing, right? At least they are similar in the sense that cigarettes and salsa are both legally addicting.

I’m not really sure how nicotine works. I’ve never been a smoker, and happily admit that capsaicin is my drug of choice.

When that capsaicin-caused spicy sensation hits my tongue, those lovely endorphins are released to ease the pain, and like most people, my tolerance level to the pain has been built up over the years. Because I crave that high, I continue to gradually spice it up little by little, more and more. I’m confident that this is when the saying “It hurts so good” comes into play.

I’ve heard that joggers jog because they’re addicted to endorphins. Shouldn’t someone tell them that there’s a much more pleasant, simpler, and tastier way to get that buzz? True, though, that the number-of-calories-burned verses calories-ingested discussion would weigh quite a bit more in the joggers favor.

Hot, spicy food of all walks of life is one of the joys of living, no matter the intensity of the heat or national origin of your particular “addiction”, whether it is Thai, Mexican, Indonesian, etc. Even a good old American spicy barbecue sauce can feed that craving, if transported in the right vehicle.

After living in Friday Harbor for over 2 years now, I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never been in the local San Juan Hot Shop and Flavor Emporium. Many times I’ve walked by the cute store front, quickly peering inside the window without breaking my stride, and in retrospect, I must ask myself why.

It’s quite an incredible idea. A whole store of varying degrees of delightful and delicious hot sauce? Remarkable strategy! The notion seemed almost incomprehensible to me, and after seeing that the Hot Shop had won the Chamber’s “Business of the Year” award, I felt compelled to taste further.

It was exactly what I expected. There were dozens, no, hundreds of varying jars of all shapes and sizes, positioned proudly on countless rows of shelves. Sauces, dips, and mixes of all categories peered out from behind their shiny, brightly colored labels, each trying their marketing best to uniquely intrigue you to pick that particular product, and the competition was fierce.

In keeping with the tourist-town theme, cutesy hats and t-shirts adorned crowded wall space, and all-things-chile-peppers themed into dishes, mugs, serving bowls, and platters. Even with countertops sporting bags of chips, the spotlight was impossible to miss.

While perusing the shelves and contemplating the concept, it occurred to me that there was an aspect of the public not being marketed to. What about the people that don’t like spicy, peppery food? Are they to remain the biased non-shoppers, resulting in a group of possible purchasers lacking the desire to set foot in such a store?

I guess in this world that is acceptable. But wise marketers continue to try and capture as much of the consumer base as possible. See’s Candy offers hard candies to the people who don’t like chocolate (even though there can’t be too many of them in existence!). One of my favorite stores, Bath and Bodyworks, promotes everything highly fragranced, from candles, cosmetics, lotions and potions, yet still will find a small corner of the store to sell the “unscented” products.

I located a jar with an intriguing name. “Pina Colada Dessert and Cooking Sauce” began to conjure up all sorts of fantasies, mostly because I was cold, wearing a raincoat, and suffering from a lack of Vitamin D. My subconscious took me to the proverbial white, sandy beach, and at once I sat under the palm tree with a sweet drink in my hand.

Shaking the delusion, I saw that my hand had, in reality, reached up and selected the jar of sauce, and I began to read the ingredients. Hey, wait a minute, I thought. There was not one spicy thing in this stuff. Even the delicate taste buds of a three-year-old would love this! And I was further intrigued.

I went home and began to create. In general, I prefer to make things from scratch, whenever possible. They’re often healthier, less expensive, and fresher. I used the same ingredients that were listed on the jar, estimating quantities based on the knowledge that the largest amount of an ingredient is listed first in the ingredient list, the least last, and the rest somewhere in between. It was good, but honestly, not as good as the jarred sauce. Not surprisingly, I think I erred with too much rum, but have since adjusted the recipe.

With the intention of promoting the less promoted, I temporarily ignored my addiction to the hot and spicy. I also created a vehicle in which to transport this not-spicy-sauce, along the same longing-for-the-tropics theme.

Even the Ancient Greeks knew there was danger in too much spice. Plato, the world’s most influential philosopher, alleged his opinions:

“Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or individuals, or in governments.” If Plato was here today, I’m pretty sure he would paraphrase his statement, addressing addictions, salsas, and the vehicles that promote them.

Coconut Chicken Strips with Pina Colada Dipping Sauce
Serves 4 (or makes a dozen appetizers)

615 Calories per serving

1 ½ pounds (about 4 halves) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut lengthwise into 2” strips
½ cup canned light coconut milk
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup shredded coconut
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ cup egg whites (note: 1 whole egg, lightly beaten, may be substituted)
Olive oil spray

Dipping Sauce
½ cup crushed pineapple, drained
½ cup shredded coconut
¼ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup coconut milk
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 Tablespoon (or more to taste) Dark Jamaican Rum
½ of a fresh banana

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F

Rinse and pat dry chicken strips. Place in bowl or zip bag along with coconut milk. Allow to soak in refrigerator for an hour or so.

Pour the olive oil into a shallow baking pan.

In medium bowl, mix together coconut, flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

Place egg in a shallow dish. Dip chicken strips into the egg, then into the coconut mixture, covering well. Place each strip into the baking pan, not allowing the strips to touch. Spray generously with olive oil spray.

Bake about 15 minutes or until coconut coating feels firm to touch. With a small spatula, carefully turn each strip over, and bake until coating is browned, about 5-7 minutes.

For Dipping Sauce:
Place all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse cycle, process quickly, being careful not to over mix. Sauce should remain a little chunky.

Note: This recipe can also be used for whole peeled shrimp, reducing the baking time by about half.

The Mexican Muse

I can’t recall my first memorable encounter with Mexican food. Growing up in Southern California automatically encouraged one’s eating experiences to commonly include Mexican influences, and Mexican food simply became synonymous with everyday, commonplace eating.

Of course, we all had our favorites, whether it was my mom’s homemade cheese enchiladas or the crispy ground beef tacos from Pancho’s, the local hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, or Taco Bell’s beloved Enchirito, the illegitimate child of an enchilada and a burrito. Was any of it authentic? It was to us, and that’s all that mattered at that time.

As a teenager, I arduously admit, my favorite restaurant was Taco Bell, and that was definitely not authentic. It was, though, yummy, filling, and cheap. I was, however, destined to face the reality that I would outgrow my admiration of the yummy, filling, and cheap, as well as considering those three words my primary palate principle, and would soon replace my yearnings with the quixotic gourmet.

I was living the sequel to that teenage reality at the time I discovered sailing, and my much-more-discriminating food favorites had long since evolved. Sailing and epicurean eating may seem eccentrically united, I know, but you have to know me to understand my existential quests. I am terminally challenged to make atypical assemblages align, and am often, not surprisingly, disappointedly unsuccessful.

My responsibilities had advanced from caterer to personal chef to cook to executive chef, and I decided to become skilled at, and to bravely conquer, a quirky combination of those flairs. I was determined that I had at last discovered the ideal amalgamation of my latest loves: Mexican food, gourmet cooking, and sailing. With great panache and pomposity, I resolved to become a galley goddess!

I, along with six friends, chartered a beautiful 36 foot sailboat out of Santa Barbara, in hot pursuit of a Cinco de Mayo celebration. We plotted our charts for Santa Cruz Island, and, you guessed it, I became the one assigned to galley duty, and keeping with the appropriate theme, to cook gourmet and genuine Mexican food. Since we were replacing the proverbial “three-hour-tour” with a three-day weekend, it required some extensive planning and preparation and I felt I was up to the task. I was confident of my skills, although I quickly came to the realization of how my past skill set seemed only partially applicable here. Anyone cooking on a boat knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Still, I was determined to prepare accurate and bona fide Mexican faire, which necessitated extensive exploration into the possibilities. Along with the many avenues of research I implemented, I included a trip to Baja for authentication, and also re-watched “Like Water for Chocolate”, hoping for some magical clues to success. I took my quest very seriously.

I fashioned a menu from this self-inflicted education, and begin to admit that a person with any sense would have not have taken on such a daunting task, especially considering my sailing experiences had thus far been quite limited, and although enthralled by the entire sailing scenario, I really had no idea of the deep water I was getting myself into.

The chartered boat was fortunately well equipped, and the entire sailing trip was smooth. Ironically, I was to realize years later, it was one of the smoothest and most uneventful excursions I was ever to experience. Thank goodness, as my labor intensive and extensive food adventure would have kept even my land-based commercial kitchen and staff bustling, and here I was, clueless, in a small galley, and single-handed.

Although I learned much from that adventure, and applied much of that hard-earned education to my cooking career on the water, it was a short-lived passage in my food world, as I discovered that being a galley chef is really more hard work than fun, and certainly not as glamorous as it’s made out to be.

In spite of my inexperience and naivety, and concluding from the crew’s consensus, the Cinco de Mayo cruise was an overall success. We consumed massive quantities of freshly-fashioned, gourmet victuals and enjoyed every out-of-the-ordinary taste presented. Three days of unquestionably authenticated appetizers, Mexican meals, and delectable desserts were accomplished, surprisingly, without a hitch.

Most flavors were, of course, not completely foreign to us, as we all considered ourselves to be somewhat sophisticated eaters. Still, we were able to enjoy several dishes utilizing combinations of ingredients atypical of our everyday fare, yet not uncharacteristic of true Mexican cuisine.

While still underway, I launched the first afternoon’s lunch with a simple starter of Spicy Grilled Shrimp and Melon Skewers. I had previously marinated the shrimp, and the smooth and calm seas made the use of the outdoor grill possible. The zesty, effortless repast tided us over until we were safely anchored in a remote cove on the island.

Once calmly tucked in, the meal progressed with a starter of a chilled and creamy Sopa de Aguacate, Avocado soup, that I had prepared while still in the Santa Barbara Harbor, much earlier that morning.

Later, an exceptional, mouth-watering entree was presented in the form of a wonderfully stuffed green chile, and we enjoyed it with a fresh fondness and unprecedented pleasure. Served with a Cilantro Caesar Salad, washed down with a Mexican brown beer, and ending with freshly boat-baked cinnamon cookies, made these Chiles en Nogada a lunchtime encounter that anchors sensual reminiscences of all we experienced on that voyage.

Several years later, with dozens of cruises and many zany experiences under my belt, I still consider this trip to be one of the most memorable. Comparatively, the childish enjoyment I experienced growing up eating the non-authentic, Californian Mexican food was a good thing, too, in its own way.

Although not really remarkable as a pseudo-cuisine, nor even memorable- event inspiring, its effect remains as a quest for enlightenment, thus my inspiration, to research, discover, and to continue understanding and desiring the real thing on many levels. My Mexican muse, in the form of food, has been a great, positive persuader, affecting my life, my loves, and my learning.

Chiles en Nogada
Makes 6 servings of 2 Chiles each

1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Swiss cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 ½ cups finely chopped ham
1 Tablespoon finely minced jalapeno chiles
½ cup dried currants
½ cup slivered almonds
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
12 canned whole peeled green chiles
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Cream Sauce
½ cup whipping cream
½ cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons tequila
½ cup chopped cilantro (for garnish)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl mix together filling ingredients (cheddar cheese through salt.) Taste and adjust seasonings.
3. Place each whole chile onto a cutting board. Place a finger inside each chile and slide along the side to open. Gently pack each chile with stuffing.
4. Lightly oil baking pan and place stuffed chiles inside, allowing sides to touch. Bake about 10 minutes, or just until cheese has melted.
5. While the chiles are baking, whip the cream until soft peaks form (not too stiffly). Gently fold in the almonds, sugar, cinnamon, and tequila. Serve chiles, topping with Whipped Cream Sauce and chopped cilantro.

Marcel and The Madeleine

I’ve had an ohmigod moment. I have fallen in love with Marcel Proust. Luckily for me he’s dead, so there’s no real threat to my marriage. Unless being enamored with anyone other than a spouse, dead or alive, causes disconcertment.

It would be very detrimental if the shoe were on the other foot, but fortunately for me (and my husband), it’s not. Or at least he has the good sense to avoid sharing such fanciful behavior. But I, with my typical lack of good sense, am announcing it to the world. Proust rocks.

He (Proust, not my husband) had me at Hello. Specifically, when I read a paragraph from “The Guermantes Way”, I felt the familiar addictive excitement I tend to search for over and over again. The racing heart, damp palms, endorphin-flooded happiness that overwhelms me usually prefaces trouble, but this time my infatuation was innocuous.

Proust spoke to me directly:
“If only I had been able to start writing! But, however I set about it (all too similarly, alas, to the resolve to give up alcohol, to go to bed early, to keep fit), whether it was in a spurt of activity, with method, with pleasure, in depriving myself of a walk, or postponing and reserving it as a reward taking advantage of an hour of feeling well, making use of the inaction forced on me by a day’s illness, the inevitable result of my efforts was a blank page, untouched by writing, as predestined as the forced card that you inevitably wind up drawing in certain tricks, however thoroughly you have first shuffled the pack.”

Although comparing my writing habits to Proust’s are preposterous, food writing is still writing, and I feel his pain, as, it appears, he feels mine. Could it be that Proust was also a foodie?

I’ve often considered and written about the sensory experience of food. There are many hedonistic happenings to be referenced and the numerous possibilities of those encounters, incorporating and enhanced by the obvious taste, touch, smell, and sight, are begging to be explored.

Maybe because even the most articulate, accomplished people have to be involved with food at one point or another, statements worth quoting that involve food are numerous, substantiating the desire to discuss food as a personified entity; loving, hating, and to yearn for as you would another human being.

The more I research along those lines, the more I find comparisons referencing sexual innuendos. We’re surrounded by constant allusions pointing out the sensuous similarities, and are pretty much subliminally bombarded.

American novelist and sensual screenwriter Frederic Raphael (think “Eyes Wide Shut”) is quoted as once saying “Great restaurants are, of course, nothing but mouth-brothels. There is no point in going to them if one intends to keep one's belt buckled.”

Okay, I get the reference and see the humor. But it’s a bit far-fetched, wouldn’t you say? I mean, belt unbuckling has many different purposes, and to me equating brothels and restaurants is nonsensical, as they are pretty much as dissimilar as you can get. I’m just guessing here, of course, as I’ve never been in a brothel.

Even my beloved chef and food writer inspiration managed to spout off a line or two of sexual references in his day. James Beard determined that “A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch.”

Both of these citations speak to me in favor of basic overindulgence. Unbuckle your belt and overeat comfortably, and for goodness sake, don’t count the calories or expect to be compared to a lady of the night.

If we move away from the sexual aspects of sensuousness, yet stay within the confines of emotional comparisons, the focus on too-muchness continues. “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise.” Henry David Thoreau must have either kept his belt buckled, or was feeling guilty at having failed to do so.

And then there is love. Pretty much everything in the world has been eloquently equated to love at one time or another, but I doubt anything has as often as food and its preparation.

Articulating with a bit more finesse than some of his male counterparts, but possibly with the same thing on his mind, major American novelist Thomas Wolfe found that “There is no sight on earth more appealing than the sight of a woman making dinner for someone she loves.”

Although she wasn’t born until 20 years later, in all probability Thomas and pioneer radio and TV critic Harriet Van Horne would have enjoyed a virtuous meal together. Revealing her opinion on the matter, she once broadcasted that “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Perhaps Harriet would have preferred a repast with George Bernard Shaw, appreciating that he wrote in “The Revolutionists’ Handbook” that “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” Ah, the inspirations of true food aficionados are so insightful.

The intellectuals, the writers, and even the dramatic want to talk about food and the humanistic qualities that are found therein. While performing in Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, the most famous actress of the 19th century gushed “Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me.” I guess all are necessary for sustaining life, even to drama queens like Sarah Bernhardt.

The authentic Madeleine, a small, shell shaped sponge cake, is the particular victual that Proust references in his seven (seven!) volume masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time”. The dessert has inspired many debates questioning his objectives, as the brilliant French intellectual, novelist, and critic encounters his lost memories, regained through the ingestion of the cake, dipping it first in tea, then reveling in the recollections of his childhood reminiscences.

The cake may have originated in the Lorraine region of northeastern France and been named after the inventor, Madeleine Paulmier, but Proust’s citation made it world renowned. He brilliantly explores the correlation between the senses, specifically smell and taste, and the brain, embarking on territory quite exploratory for his time, and intuitively cites the roles played that scientists now know has a biological basis.

Jonah Lehrer, is his book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist”, claims that “…smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long term memory…” and “…all our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.”

Proust, with his vivid verbosity, avows, supporting my resolute writings regarding the sensuousness of food:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinching, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

See why I love this guy?

Here’s my rendition of the simple yet inspirational French dessert:

Lemon Madeleines

10 Tablespoons plus 1 T unsalted butter
1 cup all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon lemon zest
Powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using the 1 T. of butter, lightly oil and flour the pan. (Note: Madeleine pans are typically molds shaped like scalloped shells, but any small-shaped mold pan will work.)

2. Place the remaining 10 T. butter in microwave-safe bowl and melt the butter in micro.

3. In medium bowl beat eggs, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest together with electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Add flour and salt and beat until just combined.

4. With mixer on low speed, slowly add the melted butter. Continue beating until well blended.

4. Using a tablespoon, pour batter into each mold. Bake for 5 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees and bake until light golden, about 8 minutes.

5. Allow to slightly cool then remove from pan. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.


I typically like to create recipes that encourage novice chefs to cook more at home. My established recipe criteria are simple. Applying the motto “everything in moderation”, I want (#1) moderately healthy food; (#2) to be of moderate expense; and (#3) to be only moderately time consuming. This, however, is not one of those times where all the requirements can be met, and for this occasion, I will have to back down on my rigorous and relentless rules.

Pho, pronounced like “fun” without the “n”, is one of my favorite dishes. Although it’s been around since the end of the 19th century, I personally discovered it not too long ago and became immediately enamored. When my cooking customs are compromised and challenged, yet I find myself persevering, I must pose the question: Is it possible I’ve fallen for the bad boy once again?

Pho is often described as simply a Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Sadly, that simple depiction does not begin to represent the depth, character, and amazing qualities contained in this anything-but-simple meal.

There are options besides the original and traditional beef “pho bo”. Other ways to enjoy the delectable dish are “pho ga”, the chicken version, or “pho chay”, meaning “non meat”, to name a few. No matter what your meat (or non-meat) choice may be, the fragrant broth has secured the sovereign and most significant station in the soup bowl, in tandem with soft and satisfying rice noodles, and accessorized with some really good garnishes.

In my research, I found pho differing from other food fabrications in that the recipe writers seemed to hold the pho in reverence, with a respect not unlike a religious regard. If someone were to try and implement a shortcut to save time, they would be chastised, as if it were sacrilege to circumvent the many hours required. It is a common consensus: the longer the broth is cooked, the better it will be. The message is clear: Be prepared to spend much passive cooking time.

When U.S. consumers begin to be lured by the exotic and to crave a foreign cuisine, the customary occurrence is to alter the time required to produce the original fare. Substantiating that statement is the fact that in 2003 a Campbell Soup Company subordinate, StockPot, responded to the pho craze with a pre-prepared, time-saving broth.

StockPot Soups, an Everett, Washington based producer of soups and entrees, partnered with Vietnamese culinary expert Mai Pham to create the pre-made pho broth. It was a successful endeavor, and there are now numerous variations of the Vietnamese victuals, delivered frozen, and boasting a 21 month shelf life. Although the product may be a tasty and hasty substitute for the real thing, I am disappointed.

In regards to my checklist, my #3 criterion is not met: to produce a quality product, the preparation of the traditional, religiously regarded Pho is unquestionably not “moderately time consuming”. Nevertheless, being the stubborn and determined person I am, as well as often lacking good sense, I “pho-lishly” (sorry) chose to continue the endeavor.
The cuisine of Vietnam, not unlike that of the vast majority of countries, has a fusion of flavors and foods from many cultures. The fresh fruits and vegetables that define the local recipes are similar to its Southeast Asian counterparts, yet the uniqueness is defined with an essence of French and Chinese influences, in preparation methods as well as ingredients. Pho, considered Vietnam’s national dish, is the perfect example of that.
The French, while colonizing Vietnam in the early part of the last century, introduced the practice of pre-roasting the onions before adding them to the dish. Mimicking the French technique of adding the charred onion, as well as beef bones and marrow to their classic stew, “pot-au-feu”, the pho broth echoes the similarly acquired rich, brown color.
The French word “feu” meaning “fire”, is believed to be the origin of the corrupted word “pho”. Replicating the addition of the pre-boiled bones, along with the “fire” charred aromatics that are brought into play in many French dishes, the slow and subtle simmering imparts a consommé-like character to the broth, distinguishing it from other Asian noodle soups.
The hundreds of Vietnamese cooks who are eagerly willing to share their take on the dish all seem to agree on another thing: it’s expected and accepted to tweak the recipe to meet your situation. The freshest foods available are fundamental; the vital vegetables and herbs can not be substituted with the leftovers in your fridge, and availability becomes an important consideration.

You also must be open minded and prepared to use foods not commonly found in an everyday American cook’s larder. I was intrigued with the recipes requesting knuckle bones, marrow, and oxtail. The heartily recommended dried sea snail, though, was not intriguing. Pho is not for the faint of heart.

Although I acknowledge the apparent uniqueness of the foodstuffs, I disappointedly was unable to locate those particular parts. I took into consideration that this is, after all, an island, and commonly used ingredients are the ones most readily obtainable. I wasn’t surprised at the need for an alternative, and chose to substitute the more frequently found beef ribs. Still, the number of ribs required to produce the quantity of bones was large, thus relatively expensive.

Continuing down my shopping list, the purchase of the many ingredients continued to add up. Limes, star anise, and bean sprouts. Cilantro, sesame oil, fish sauce. Rice noodles, ginger, cinnamon sticks. Fortunately I have a fairly diverse stock pile of ingredients already, but still the financial outlay grew along with the fullness of my shopping cart.

When the register was finally totaled, and even though I had carefully purchased the ingredients solely for this meal, I stuttered at the $60 receipt. Obviously my #2 criterion, “moderately priced” was not met either. Although only momentarily, I felt disillusioned and disenchanted. Hoping to apply the thought that “two out of three ain’t bad”, I trudged home with my packages, anticipated the project, and when I reflected on the freshness and quality of the purchases, remained optimistic that #1 might remain on the board.

The bones and meat must be par boiled to eliminate the foamy excess impurities and fat that forms, and is one of the many time consuming tasks. Excess calories and cholesterol are immediately reduced by dumping out the first pot of water, making this extra step, while uncommon in most soups, worthwhile.

When the many aspects of the amazing stock are completed, and the remaining ingredients to be added are lean meats, fresh vegetables, and herbs, the end result really is a surprisingly “moderately healthy meal”.

I made it through the many hours of prep, and the wonderful end result was indescribably palatable. Was it worth it? Unquestionably. Will I do it again? By all means, some day. Meanwhile, I’ll never again complain about a restaurant charging $15 for a bowl of this understated soup. Now that I’ve experienced the time and expense required, I understand.

While Anna Nalick, in her song “Wreck of the Day”, may announce that she’s “not falling in love, just falling to pieces”…and “if this is giving up, well I’m giving up...” I’m choosing to take an opposite stance. I won’t be falling to pieces, nor will I be giving up. Instead, I will remain forever infatuated and in love with this charismatic bad boy of kitchen captivity. Pho, like many bad boys, is not complicated. It just takes time, and hopefully, in the end, will be worth it.

Vietnamese Pho: Serves 6 - 8

Broth Ingredients:
5 pounds beef soup bones, preferably marrow or knuckle bones

2 T canola oil
2 onions -- peeled and halved
4-inch piece of ginger -- peeled and cut lengthwise
5 whole star anise
6 whole cloves
1 T whole fennel seeds
3 whole bay leaves
4-inch cinnamon stick
1 ½ T salt
½ cup fish sauce
1 T sugar

Soup Ingredients:
1 package rice noodles -- preferably 1/4" wide
½ pound lean beef
½ bunch scallions -- thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro - chopped

1 bunch Thai basil leaves
Bean sprouts
3 limes -- cut into wedges
Sesame oil
Chile garlic sauce

In a large soup pot, cover the bones with cold water. (Note: Due to lack of availability I used beef short ribs. Oxtail works too.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil 1 minute, then remove bones and set aside. Drain water.

Place bones back in to stockpot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Continue boiling on high for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the water. Place bones and pans in sink. Rinse bones with warm water. Clean the pot, removing any grease or residue.

Return the bones to stockpot and add 6 quarts water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours, skimming off any "scum" that appears on surface.

Meanwhile, char the onion and ginger: Heat the canola oil in a small skillet. Add the onion and ginger, cut sides down, and cook over high heat, about 5 minutes, turning occasionally with tongs to allow even charring. When blackened and gently softened, remove from skillet and rinse under cool water, loosening black bits and trimming off any blackened stem, roots, or skin. Use same procedure for ginger root. Set aside.

If using bones with meat, remove bones at this time, setting aside until cool enough to handle, then stripping the meat from bones. Place bones back into the soup pan, reserving the meat for future use. Add the onion and ginger to the pot.

Place the star anise, cloves and fennel seeds in a tea ball or place in a square of cheesecloth and tie with string. Add the tied spices, along with the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, 1 T. salt, fish sauce, and sugar to the pot and allow to simmer, skimming occasionally, for another 1 1/2 hours.

Remove pan from heat and strain broth through fine strainer or colander lined with cheese-cloth into another pan or large, heatproof bowl. Discard solids and allow broth to cool. Using ladle, skim as much fat from top as possible. (Note: If you choose, the broth may be refrigerated at this point for 8 hours or overnight, encouraging fat to solidify and float to top. Remove fat from surface.)

Place broth back on stovetop on low. Adjust to taste with additional fish sauce, salt, and/or sugar. Continue to simmer the broth while prepping remaining soup ingredients.

Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak until barely pliable, about 20 minutes, then drain. Slice raw beef into paper thin slices. (Note: Freezing the beef for 15 or 20 minutes prior to slicing makes it easier).

Working in small batches, place individual servings of noodles and the thinly sliced, raw beef in large strainer and lower it into the simmering broth for about 30 seconds, or until vermicelli is barely tender. Transfer portions into the individual soup bowls. Ladle the hot broth into each bowl.

Arrange the remaining garnish ingredients onto a large serving platter. Serve immediately, allowing each person to finish their bowl to their individual preferences. Pass sesame oil and chile garlic sauce.

Approximately 300-600 calories per serving, depending on meat choice

Egg-strordinary Tricks

Remember David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks? I was researching eggs for this column and, as so often happens, came across something that totally blew me away (the intended pun explanation comes later).

While looking for interesting recipe ideas as well as the history and origin of the coveted and beloved deviled egg, I came across a Stupid Egg Trick. My words, not theirs, but so apropos.

First, before tricks, I think it’s interesting and important to know where it all started. Even though everyone knows that the chicken came before the egg, there are chronicling contradictions covering thousands of years, making it difficult to substantiate anything eggs-actly.

Historically, not just poultry eggs were eaten, of course, and the first ingestion of varied eggs such as turtle eggs, alligator eggs, as well as a multitude of jungle fowl, is impossible to date. It is notable to know, however, that the domestication of fowl actually started in China as far back as 6,000 BC.

Ancient Rome and Egypt take credit for the first use of chicken eggs as a binder in baking, but the actual records of fostering fowl for their eggs and meat, credit India in 3200 BC, the next in the line-up after the Chinese.

As countries were developed and settled, the treat traveled throughout Europe, becoming a household staple. In 1493 Christopher Columbus, as is the norm, is credited for bringing the chickens, thus eggs, to North America, introducing the “new” delicacy to the “new” world.

Moving on to the actual “deviled egg” is more interesting. I read, surprisingly numerous ancient quotes specifically describing the piquantly packed provision. It’s pretty much the consensus that 13th century Andalusia gets credit for taking the first real zesty approach, and, although in very different textual form, the ingredients and instructions are described in a similar fashion, replicating an early relative of the recipes formats akin to today.

The specific term “deviled” is an 18th century moniker, with the first known print reference published in 1786. It is assumed to have been so named while comparing the fiery spiciness to the heat of the “fire” in hell.

In the 19th century the term evolved to include other spicy foods besides eggs. In the year 1822, William Underwood began a small condiment business in the US, and, with his sons following in his footsteps, created a product line of various seasoned meats.

The process, named “deviling”, as well as the infamous Underwood red devil on the label, is still popular today. The Underwood company also boasts the title of maintaining the oldest existing food trademark currently in use in the United States.

It’s common to have issues with the peeling of boiled eggs. Chopping them up to use as an addition to a recipe doesn’t require a pretty and perfect peripheral, but to produce a picturesque deviled egg, a precise presentation is important and imperative.

There are some simple guidelines to creating the effortless, easy-to-peel egg. Like me, most people know some of those guidelines. I thought, since I’m the research freak, I’d unearth and try as many techniques as possible.

To save anyone else the embarrassment of admitting that they had spent 10 hours on the computer learning all there is to know in regards to boiling and peeling the perfect egg, I’ll take one for the team and share the results. Kind of gives a new meaning to the nomenclature, “egghead”, doesn’t it?

Before I talk about unusual modus operandi, let me reiterate some common ones for the not-so-experienced.

Although the phrase is seldom used in the food world, this time un-fresh is best. It’s a fact that eggs that are a week or two old are the most easily peeled. If you can’t buy them ahead and let them mature, at least check the expiration date on the carton and buy the oldest most aged possible.

Choosing a pot large enough for the eggs to sit comfortably is also important. Cramming in too many will make them play boiling bumper-egg and increase the likelihood of cracking. Hint: Just to be proactive, it’s a good idea to throw in a couple more than you’ll need.

Another discovery was that the material of the pot is not important, as I experimented with glass (like Pyrex), aluminum, stainless steel, etc., and they all pretty much rendered the same result.
Assuming there’s someone else besides me who cares about such things, here is a not-so-well-known technique to produce an especially attractive, consistent-looking deviled egg.

The idea is to get the egg yolks to center themselves more exactly in the center, thus resulting in a more uniform appearance: Remove the eggs from the carton they came in. Instead of letting them rest them on their ends, set them back in the carton on their sides overnight in the fridge. Of course they won’t fit in the carton as well, so just leave the lid open.

When ready to start cooking, gently (obviously) place the eggs in the pot. Some people like to bring the eggs to room temp first, but when I put the theory to the test, I didn’t notice a difference. Fill the pot with enough cold water to cover the eggs by about two inches.

Now here’s where people’s advice begins to differ. Some say that adding a teaspoon of salt to the water raises the boiling point. Again, when I tested the suggestion, I didn’t find the peeling process results particularly dissimilar.

The best tip I discovered was new to me. The instruction was to put 1 teaspoon of baking soda in the water along with the eggs, thereby raising the ph and inhibiting adherence of the shell. I found it worked, but could not find an explanation to my satisfaction as to why.

Another procedure used is to make a small hole in the flat end of the egg. I used a metal skewer and when the water began to boil, some of the egg white unattractively oozed out. I tried a smaller hole, and while the egg remained inside the shell that time, the non-poked eggs had no discernable distinction in any way.

Cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid, place on the stove and turn the burner to high. Bring to a boil.

Egg white becomes firm between 140º F and 150º degrees, and the yolk coagulates between 150º F and 157º. That is quite a bit lower than the boiling point of water (212º F). Keeping that in mind, let the water come to a full boil, then after 1 minute, take the pot off the burner and set aside.
After you have moved the pot, add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the water and eggs and let sit in the hot water, covered, for 7 minutes to continue to cook at the lowered temperature. Set a timer for exactness.

The next important step is to cool the eggs quickly. You know that unattractive green covering that sometimes forms around the yolk?

That discoloration is caused by a chemical reaction between the iron in the egg yolk and the sulfur in the egg white. When heated, together the two create a green-gray ferrous sulfide as well as the stereotypical “rotten egg smell” of hydrogen sulfide gas. Rapidly cooling the eggs keeps this natural chemical reaction to a minimum.

Have a large bowl or sink full of ice and water ready. Using a pair of tongs, pluck the eggs out of the pot and place into the ice water. Leave the eggs to cool in the water for about 20 minutes, and then begin the peeling process.

Remove a cool egg from the water and give it a few gentle taps on a hard surface. Continue lightly tapping the egg all over until the shell is completely covered with tiny cracks. Place the cracked egg back into the cold water. The water will penetrate under the shells to loosen and aid peeling. Continue the procedure with all the eggs, allowing them to sit for about 10 more minutes or so.

Remove each egg from the water, and gently roll on the countertop or other hard surface. Gently is the key word or the egg will split in half. The shell should begin to slip off easily at this point. If any shell stubbornly remains on the egg, immerse in the cold water once again, and while submerged, gently wipe off the persistent pieces of shell.

Rinse each egg in cold water and pat dry. Place the egg lengthwise on a cutting board, and with a sharp, smooth-edged knife, cut the egg in half vertically.

Gently squeeze the egg half to pop out the yolk into a bowl, assisting with a spoon if necessary. Cut a tiny slice out of the bottom of each egg half to allow them to sit neatly, and place attractively on a serving platter.

The filling for a deviled egg has an infinite number of possible ingredients. The featured component is the mashed yolk, of course, but that being said, I did find a recipe that eliminated the yolk completely and substituted instant mashed potatoes. That is not considered customary, though, and since I haven’t tried it, I’ll not endorse it.

The range of fundamental factors typically includes something liquid and/or creamy to correct the dry consistency. Along with various herbs and spices, other assorted ingredients add character, texture, and flavor. Rather than provide a restrictive recipe, I’ve provided numerous possibilities by category, allowing a mix-and-match approach, allowing choices to facilitate personal preferences and tastes.

The first step is to smash the egg yolk with a fork, or if you prefer a really creamy filling, use a mixer or food processor. The idea is to create a final product with a texture that is smooth and firm yet fluffy enough to fill the egg white and hold its shape.

I read literally hundreds of deviled egg recipes. Here are some, but definitely not all of the filling ingredient ideas I found interesting, hopefully encouraging creativity.

To the smashed egg yolks, add the moistening ingredient/s and blend. Combine any following ingredient (or combination thereof) with the yolks, measuring approximately ½ cup total per dozen eggs, creating a creamy and smooth filling:

Category I:
Mayonnaise or Salad Dressing
Dijon Mustard
Yellow Mustard
Sour Cream
Cream Cheese
Fresh Lemon or Lime Juice

I found a varied assortment of filling ideas. These are to be added after the yolk mixture is moistened and of the correct creamy consistency, and they are optional. If you choose to add any of the filling ingredients below, and you used a blender or processor for the yolks, remove and place them in a bowl at this time. Stir by hand to allow the texture to remain a bit lumpy. The idea is for each of the additions to stay somewhat discernable. Add about ½ cup total of any one or combination of ingredients:

Category II.
Chives or green onion, chopped
Sweet onion, chopped
Sweet or dill pickle relish
Sweet red pepper, very finely chopped
Celery, finely chopped
Crab meat, rinsed and drained well
Shrimp, chopped, rinsed and drained well
Black or green olives, sliced
Roasted red pepper, chopped
Fresh parsley, chopped
Fresh dill, chopped
Cocktail Onions, chopped
Bacon pieces, cooked, cooled, and crumbled
Spinach, cooked and well drained
Salmon, fresh cooked, canned, or smoked
Jalapeno pepper, sliced
Green Chiles, chopped
Ham or prosciutto, chopped
Any firm Cheese, shredded
Tomato, seeded and chopped
Bleu or Gorgonzola Cheese, crumbled
Cooked or canned chicken, crumbled
Anchovies, finely chopped
Capers, rinsed and drained
Canned deviled ham
Pecans, finely chopped
Multi-colored peppercorns, coarsely ground
Spam, finely diced
Watercress, finely chopped
Radish, finely chopped

Here is a list of some dry seasonings and herbs. Stir in just a small amount of your preferences at a time, limiting the combination to a few to encourage complimentary flavors. Taste after each addition, keeping in mind that while refrigerating, the flavors will “marry” and become a bit more intensified.

Category III:
Dry ground mustard
Ground black pepper
Hot pepper sauce, like Tabasco
Onion powder
Worcestershire sauce
Dried parsley
Celery salt
Dry ranch dressing mix
Curry powder
Wasabi powder

Once the yolk filling is completed and it’s time to assemble, my preference is to pipe the deviled yolk mixture out of a pastry bag, creating a pretty, decorative design. A plastic zip-type bag also works well.

Place the yolk filling into the bag, pushing the mixture all the way to the bottom. Snip off a tiny corner and, aiming at the center of the egg, squeeze and fill the empty whites.

Another technique is to fill a spoon with the mixture, then with another spoon, push it off into the hollowed white.

Garnish the eggs with the desired topping and/or toppings and refrigerate.

Category IV: Garnishes
Paprika (I prefer smoked for most recipes)
Chili Powder
Fresh Oregano
Fresh Parsley

The historically important data has been spewed, your confidence has been instilled in regards to boiling and peeling eggs, and your preferred ingredient additions have been chosen. Now I want to rock your world like mine was.

I’m a skeptic by nature, and even the most innocent know that you can’t believe everything you see or read, especially when the medium is YouTube.

I’m here to tell you, though, that this stupid egg trick really works, and you’ll need to check out this video for yourself.

I tried it, and although admittedly lacking the finesse the man in the video has, my success blew me away. You’ll understand the pun when you watch, and I hope you find it as enjoyable and amazing as I.

There’s a Lithuanian proverb that expresses “Offer the lazy an egg and they’ll want you to peel it for them.” With this newly found knowledge, you probably won’t mind teaching them how to do it for themselves.

I have always challenged the saying “Tricks are for Kids”. Finally, I have proof. Follow the directions exactly, and have some fun!

Quinoa, The Super Seed

Perhaps the most rewarding part of any occupation is the learning curve one goes through in order to perform a job well. To remain worthwhile, there should be continual learning, whether it is about the particular job or just life in general. I discover daily that there is so much to be learned from cooking, as well as in life, though perhaps not in that order.

A while back (could it really be over 15 years ago?) I taught a cooking class in Pismo Beach, CA. Teaching, like writing, is rewarding to me because not only do I learn from my own research, I have other people asking questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask.

Everyone likes to be effectual in some way, and the effect is most rewarding when the influence is, at least from a person’s own perspective, a positive one. I wanted to have a positive influence on the students, not only in an attempt to provide them with cooking instruction, but to offer enlightening facts, figures, and explanations that I felt would be both helpful and interesting to them.

I also get to learn new things during that research process, so it’s really a win/win situation as I strive to find many answers and clarifications. I realize that I most likely give more information than necessary, but when someone asks a question, I’ve observed that the best teachers also aspire to make the students feel heard and cared about as individuals. One of the questions asked by a student was “how do I cook quinoa?” I began my endeavor to learn.

Quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”) is not something that commonly sits in the pantry of the majority of people, mine included, at least not until about a month ago. I was on the receiving end of a quantity of quinoa, sparking a renewed interest in the not-a-grain, not-a-cereal, little seed. My sister-in-law had purchased a large bag of it in bulk, and as there are only two in their family, wisely realized the unlikelihood of them using that abundant amount. I was reminded of all that exploring I had previously done, learning about the wonderfulness, and versatility of the seed, and once again went in search of more particulars.

While quinoa is often called a grain, and sold alongside other grains in the market, it is actually the seed of a spinach-related plant, the goosefoot. Although the leaves are edible, they do not contain the amazing amount of nutrition the seed does, and are seldom available in the US.

The versatility of it is evident when replacing grains such as rice, couscous, millet, or barley, to name a few, while supplying twice the amount of protein as rice. Quinoa can also be ground into a nutritious flour or flake, providing a healthier and gluten-free alternative to wheat.

The seeds are tiny like a sesame seed, about 2 to 3 mm, and while most commonly a creamy ivory color, can also be found in red and black varietals. Quinoa, in its early processed state, has a bitter and soapy tasting resin coating called “saponon” that helps deter insects and animals from eating it. Although the saponon is usually removed during the manufacturing process and the saponon coated quinoa is unlikely to be found in the U.S., placing the seed in a finely meshed strainer and rinsing with cool water is a precaution often applied.

Preparing quinoa is much more forgiving than rice. A little bit of stirring actually keeps it fluffy as it expands to 4 times its original volume, while stirring rice can develop an undesirable gumminess.

Quinoa is boiled in water or broth, measuring 2 parts liquid to1 parts quinoa, unlike the 3:1 ratio often required by many rice varietals. The broth and quinoa are brought to a boil, the heat reduced to medium-low, then covered and allowed to simmer for about 10 minutes. All of the liquid is absorbed, and you can tell it is done when the outer germ of the seed appears as a tiny curl or tail attached to the kernel.

The roots of the cultivation of quinoa are found in South America, dating back over 5000 years. The seed, considered sacred, was a staple of the ancient Incas who named it “chisaya mama” or “the mother grain”. It was their custom to have the Incan emperor sow the first quinoa seeds of the season as “golden implements.”

It is legendary that the Inca warriors combined quinoa with fat, then rolled it into ingestible “war balls”. The combination helped sustain them during their prolonged fights and battles.

Nutritionists are entitling it the “supergrain of the future” and are recognizing quinoa as a “superfood”, containing an astoundingly large amount of minerals and vitamins. Bolivia and Ecuador now produce the majority of it, with recent farming popularity increasing in the southern US states. The great nutritional attributes, along with the fact that quinoa will grow in extremely poor soil, makes it a potential candidate as the grain to feed the world.

The seed is packed with calcium, and WHO (World Health Organization) has rated the quality of protein to be equivalent to that found in dairy products. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, quinoa is considered a complete protein, as it’s a source of all 9 essential amino acids, including a high concentration of many of those lacking in other grains. Agreeing with the consensus of both of those organizations, The Academy of Sciences is quoted as claiming that quinoa is “one of the best sources of protein in the vegetable kingdom.” It is also a good source of insoluble fiber, and for those with dietary medical conditions, possesses carbohydrates that are released slowly into the blood stream.

Quinoa is a valuable source of the heart-healthy B vitamins, (riboflavin, thiamin, niacin and B6), potassium, zinc, and copper, and 12% of the daily value of manganese as well, necessary for strong bones and maintaining normal blood sugar levels. While also containing vitamin E, folic acid and Omega-3 fatty acids, a scant ¼ cup uncooked quinoa provides almost 22% of the daily value of iron and magnesium and just 159 calories.

Aside from all those technicalities, quinoa is delicious. To answer the student’s question, the class made a simple pilaf with tomatoes, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, steamed zucchini, and cooked, diced chicken, then tossed it with a lemon vinaigrette. The whole class enjoyed eating their project.

I have come up with a recipe a bit more “gourmet”, and while requiring a few more steps in preparation, it still lacks complication. This dish makes for an impressive presentation, and, although there is the considerable offering of nutrition and taste, is low in calories and harmful fats.

The other night my husband was listening intently as he fine-tuned the DVD sound system. “Wow!” he exclaimed as the complex sounds blasted throughout the house. “I love it! That is really full of flavors!”

Hmmm. Vincent Van Gogh stated that “the way to know life is to love many things.” When non-edible sensations are loved and described with statements generally reserved for things fit for human consumption, I feel that I, personally, have been effectual, or at least influential. From my peculiar perspective, it’s particularly positive. And I feel heard.

Rosemary-Infused Quinoa with Chicken Breasts
Serves 4

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite size pieces
2 c quinoa, rinsed under cold water
4 cups chicken broth
1 bunch or bag of fresh baby arugula
1 fennel bulb, white part only
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of 1 lemon, plus 1 teaspoon of zest
3 T grainy mustard
1 bunch fresh rosemary (about 4 6-inch sprigs)
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper, if needed
2 roma tomatoes, seeds removed and finely diced


Cut fennel in half lengthwise and rinse well. Chop each half into small slices.

In a large pot, heat 1 T olive oil and add chicken pieces, onion, and fennel. Cook on medium heat until chicken is lightly browned and fennel is tender, about 2 minutes.

Add garlic and continue cooking 1 minute longer until garlic is lightly browned.

Add the quinoa and continue to cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low.

Add the broth, 1 tsp. of salt, and the bundle of rosemary. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 - 20 minutes or when liquid is absorbed and the little tails are present. Remove from heat, remove the bundle of rosemary, and set aside.

In a heavy skillet, heat 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the arugula in small batches, if necessary, continuing to cook until all is wilted and tender, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the mustard, the lemon juice and the zest. Remove from heat and set aside. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed.

To serve: Oil individual bowls or custard cups. Pack quinoa/chicken mixture into bowls, pressing firmly with the back of a spoon. Turn upside down, and gently release the mixture onto the center of each plate, keeping the shape.
Spoon the arugula on top of the quinoa. Top with the diced tomato.

Mis En Place

Organization is everything. Timing is crucial. If you don’t plan ahead, you plan to fail. Do you ever feel that what is supposed to be helpful advice really sounds more like threats?

I’ve always had good organizational skills. Not bragging; it’s just how my brain works. I didn’t always know it, though.

When my boys were in primary grades and attending private school, parental involvement was an imperative requirement, especially in the fundraising category. That was during the time that I hadn’t yet achieved the awareness that I was organized, just as I didn’t know I was allowed to say “no”.

Another parent, a very over-involved helicopter mom without a life, approached me, requesting that I chair an upcoming “home tour” event. I was surprised.

I not only had never been the chairperson of a fund-raising event, I had never even been to a home tour. Apparently, experience was not a requirement.

When I questioned the person’s good judgment in trying to recruit me, my objection was overcome with the announcement of her observation that I possessed “amazing organizational skills.”

While I doubted her perception of me, I did know, however, that I had an overly critical eye for design and décor, and I decided to reinvent the entire structure and effort involved, mostly out of necessity due to my lack of knowledge and exposure to previous home tours.

So I organized. I interviewed potential candidates and their lovely homes with eagerness and enthusiasm. I gave other parents tickets to sell, recipes to follow, and solicited the many other marching orders I found necessary.

Elegant, tasty appetizers were presented in every home but the last, where impressive desserts and beverages encouraged the guests to savor, sip, and socialize, creating a feeling of success and satisfaction to all who were present.

What had I been thinking? I not only had organized a profitable and worthwhile event, but I had proven, especially to myself, that I had the ability to do so. My volunteering future was now doomed and I knew my days as the lowly worker bee were over. I said I was organized, not intelligent.

Cooking takes organization. If you are organized you can cook. How great the cook potential you have depends where on the organizational scale you fall. If it’s pretty low, you’ll master peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the best.

Case in point, you know you need to assemble the ingredients, peanut butter, jelly, and bread. You also know you’ll need equipment, i.e., a knife or spreader of some sort.

Nothing needs to be chopped, cooked, or measured, nor is the order of application important; either the peanut butter or the jelly can go first, either on top of each other, or on separate pieces of bread to be placed together later. It just doesn’t matter.

If you’re really organized, you can cook more complicated things. A lot of great recipes, even those with a large number of ingredients, simply require that you organize an assembly line, with no particular previously learned skills necessary.

Sometimes you have to precook an ingredient before it’s allowed in the lineup. Sometimes 2 or more ingredients must be combined together before they are considered a single entity.

If a recipe is well written, you’ll know what to do ahead, and the order in which to do it. And because you’ll have read the entire recipe from start to finish, you’ll know whether any other skills than organizing are involved, and whether or not you feel skilled enough to produce the product.

In order to prove my point, I wanted to write such a recipe. I needed a dish that required many ingredients but not any particularly trained skill other than organizing. I decided that with that criterion in mind, as well as the flexibility of preparation, a pan of paella was perfect, and I found the story interesting.

What most people typically consider to be paella (pronounced pie-A-ya) is not the original version. The original paella was basically a Spanish rice recipe with three main ingredients: rice, saffron, and olive oil.

Meat was later added to the Spanish rice dish. In Canas y Barro, novelist Vicente Blasco Ibanez describes the life of Valencian peasant fisherman in the 18th century, and recounts what possibly was the first meat addition, marsh rats.

In the late 19th century economic standards improved, and the meat that was added was typically rabbit, duck, chicken, and sometimes snails. The poorer Valencians often used snails as the sole meat addition.

Valencia, a region on the Mediterranean eastern coast between Barcelona and Murcia, possesses widespread rice fields as well as an abundant selection of fresh seafood, so the marriage of the two was unavoidable.

The popularity of the paella grew beyond the borders of Spain, acquiring the regional influences of other cultures.
Those cultural changes made their way back to Spain, and a mixed version of paella, except to the Valencian purists, grew in popularity.

Mixed paella, with the flexible combination of seafood, meat, and vegetables began to be served across it’s source country, giving rise to possibly the original rice-based “surf and turf.”

The patella, the Latin word for pan, is the paella pan that is commonly used and thought to be the possible origin of its name. Often the pan is referred to as the “paellera” and an open, wood burning barbecue is still used today to produce an authentic version.

Although the ingredients in a mixed paella vary widely, there are two characteristic that are essential to a good paella: one is the toasted rice crust on the bottom called “socarrat”.
The other is the “sofrito”, the combination of gently stir-fried vegetables, cooked down until very soft and thick, which forms the base of the paella.

“Mis en place” is the French culinary phrase for the organization and preparation of all the ingredients and equipment necessary before beginning to cook.

Good cooks instinctively know that “everything in place” is crucial and key in planning for success. If you want to be a good cook, and can read a recipe and have decent organizational skills, then you have the ability. But also know: if you don’t want to cook, it’s okay to just say no.

Mixed Paella
1 teaspoon Pimenton (Smoked Spanish Paprika)
Freshly ground sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 boneless chicken breast
1 (16-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained well with liquid reserved
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup bottled clam juice
About 2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 links (6 �" 8 oz. total) lean, uncooked chorizo sausage
1 onion, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red, yellow, and green bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 cup arborio rice (or any short grained rice)
1 large pinch saffron (pistils only)
½ pound large shrimp, cleaned and de-veined (leave tails intact)
½ pound small hard-shelled clams, scrubbed
½ pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 cup frozen peas
2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled and sliced thinly (out of a jar works fine)
½ cup parsley, coarsely chopped

Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry. Rub with smoked paprika, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place reserved tomato juice into 2 quart measuring cup. Add wine, clam juice, and enough chicken stock to measure 3 cups. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large paella pan (or heavy skillet). Brown the chorizo on medium high heat; using tongs, remove and set aside. Using the oil rendered from chorizo, add the chicken breasts and quickly brown, leaving raw in the center. Remove and set aside.

Make the sofrito: Add the onion, garlic, drained tomatoes, and peppers to pan and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Fold in the rice and sauté, stirring often to coat well and to avoid burning. Stir in the saffron.

Cut chicken breast into bite-size pieces and slice chorizo into 1-inch pieces. Add the seared chicken and chorizo back to the pan and stir.

Stir in the liquid. Bring to a low boil, simmering for 10 minutes. Avoid constant stirring; better to move the pan around to cook evenly.

Remove from heat and add the shrimp, clams, and mussels, tucking them into the rice.

Place on very lowest rack and bake in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes until mussels open and rice is al dente, and most of the liquid is absorbed. (Note: If you prefer you may continue cooking on the stove top on low heat.)
Sprinkle the peas on top and continue to bake for another 5 minutes.

Remove from oven (if using) and place back on the burner. Crisp bottom by cooking on high heat for about 5 minutes or until you begin to smell the rice toasting on the bottom (“Socarrat”). Top with thinly sliced roasted peppers and parsley and set aside about 5 minutes to finish absorbing the liquid and to firm up.

Serve traditionally by placing the paellera directly on the table.

Better for Thee

If you think you have a healthy diet, raise your hand. Okay, now those with your hands raised, how many of you incorporate oatmeal into your diet? Hopefully most of your hands remained raised. If not, perhaps you should reconsider.

I admit that I enjoy research almost as much as I enjoy writing, and ultimately end up spending even more time at it. When I discovered that January is national oatmeal month, I felt it appropriate to devotedly delve further, and found myself surprised and delighted at how much enlightening information is available regarding oats.

It’s also the birth month of the beloved Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, again piquing my interest in anything from Scotland, and sparking further discussion and depiction of the beneficial granule, especially of the Scotch variety.

I will assume that, as usually is the case, what I find entertaining and interesting isn’t always the common consensus. Therefore, I’ll not bore you with too many facts, but I would like to highlight a few of my research results. Some of the dates I found conflicted, but the most consistent I found are as follows:

The first oat mill in America was in Ohio, erected in the 1850’s. In 1877 the first cereal with a US Registered Trademark was awarded to the Quaker Mill Company, whose motto was once the alluring "Nothing is better for thee than me," yet it appears to not be officially formed as a company until 1901. Fourteen years later, in 1915, the round box that we are familiar with today was introduced.

The charming picture of the “man in Quaker garb” is, according to the Quaker Oats company, not, and never has been, a real man. Nevertheless, his face became a household image, with his first portrait gracing the box in 1877. In 1946 and 1957, the portrait was updated to present a more modern appearance, with the last modernization done in 1972.

China began cultivating oats way back in 7,000 B.C. Ancient Greeks are given credit as the first to finally make the porridge as we know it today, while the Romans considered oats strictly as food for livestock, thus resulting in their hurled insult “oat-eating barbarians.”

Not only were the Roman horses fed oats, but the porridge was also considered food fit for Scottish peasants. The staple was well suited to Scotland due to the wet climate and short growing season and eventually became an essential grain for the entire country.

In the state of Vermont, the long tradition of oatmeal as a breakfast staple originated with the Scottish settlement in the state. Vermont leads the U.S. in per capita consumption of the cooked cereal, consuming it together with, you guessed it, Vermont maple syrup.

In the late 80’s, oatmeal was discovered to lower blood cholesterol, resulting in a surge of oat bran sales. Although that enthusiasm died down in the early 90’s, in 1997 the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow oat-rich foods to bear labeling stating that the product may help prevent heart disease (with the caveat “combined with a low-fat diet”), re-inciting the trendy tendency to breakfast on bran.

Today, the promoted health benefits have become numerous. Oats contain more soluble fiber than any other grain. According to the staff at The Mayo Clinic, soluble fiber “appears to reduce your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol, by reducing the absorption of cholesterol in your intestines. Ten grams or more of soluble fiber a day decreases your total and LDL cholesterol.” (Note: 1 ½ cups of cooked oatmeal provides 6 grams of fiber.)

Cooked oatmeal also has a high content of complex carbohydrates, thiamin, iron, vitamin B, and water-soluble fibers that allow glucose to be released very slowly into the blood stream.

The multiple-benefits that oats boast include anti-inflammatory properties, and have been clinically proven to aid in the healing of dry skin. Because oats are the most amino-acid balanced of all the grains, they can be used in skin care products as water-binding agents. Being hypoallergenic, as well as highly absorbent, oatmeal also makes an appearance in soaps, shampoos, and body powders.

There are different types of oat products, usually characterized by the amount of processing. In order they are:

“Whole oats”, sometimes called “Groats”, have their hulls removed.

“Oat Bran” is the hull that was removed from the whole oats and is particularly high in soluble fiber, and is a suitable way to introduce oats into baking.

“Scotch oats,” “Irish oats” and “Steel-Cut Oats” are all whole oats that have been cut, the Scottish being the finest cut. They all take longer to cook than the “Rolled” or “Old-Fashioned” oats that have been steamed then flattened, but they remain firmer and chewier and retain more of the nut-like flavor.

In 1921, rolled oats were cut smaller and thinner in size, allowing them to cook more quickly, and were introduced as “Quick Oats”.

In the 50’s, they were refined again, giving birth to what is now known as the “One-Minute” oatmeal.

In 1996, the “Instant Oatmeal” made its first appearance. By precooking, then drying and flattening the groats even thinner, the only preparation needed was to be reconstituted with liquid.
Finally, grinding the original groat into a fine powder produces non-gluten oat flour.

Plainly put, there are many ways to ingest oatmeal, and the health benefits are undeniable. You don’t even have to enjoy the flavor to utilize the versatile grain, as oatmeal is not always center-staged as a breakfast cereal, but as an inexpensive, healthy addition to many recipes.

80% of Americans have oatmeal in their cupboards. Of those 80%, 89% eat oatmeal as a breakfast cereal, the other 11% use it to make (#1) cookies, (#2) meatloaf, then (#3) pies and cakes.

Hopefully, you are in that first eightieth percentile, and are benefiting from the venerable and valuable oat, however you may choose to consume it. And the old Quaker’s motto seems to still hold true through the times. “Nothing is better for thee than me.”

The following recipe is adapted from one shared with me by an artist acquaintance of mine in New Mexico.

Katharine’s Oatmeal Griddle Cakes w/ Apples and Pecans

1 ½ cup old fashioned or rolled oatmeal
1 ½ cup boiling water
1 egg
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all purpose flour
2 T baking powder
pinch salt
¼ c sugar
1 cup fat-free half and half (or whole milk)
¼ cup plus 2 T olive oil
3 apples- cored and chopped
½ c chopped pecans
2 T butter

Combine oatmeal and boiling water. Let stand 5 min. Add egg, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Mix well.

Stir in half and half, ¼ cup olive oil, apples, and pecans.

Heat olive oil on griddle and cook cakes about 2 minutes on each side or until lightly browned.

Serve with yogurt, maple syrup, or jam.

Valentine’s Day Perfection

Valentine’s Day is definitely not for the feint of heart. If you were to ask the collective world of single men and women to name their least favorite holiday, I’m pretty positive the answer would be Valentine’s Day. It’s the biggest in-your-face reminder of their solitary existence. Whose idea was this holiday anyway?

Even for the in-love-forever crowd, it’s still a pressure. It’s only been a couple of months, and you’re still basking in the Christmas success. Remember the sweaty palms as your favorite man/woman in the world opened the gift that had taken you months of anguish to make that crucial purchase decision? Then, after all the pain of picking the perfect present, they loved it! Whew.

And now the nightmare starts all over again. In many ways, this is infinitely worse. Christmas gifts are sometimes discussed ahead of time, and the propriety police warrant that communication as proper and perfectly acceptable. In my case, we decided our California Christmas vacation would be our gift to each other. Then, at the last moment, we each reneged on the agreement, and decided to give the other a “little something” but chose something basically for our in-the-remodeling-phase home that we would both enjoy. Very logical.

That works for Christmas, but there’s nothing logical allowed when it comes to Valentine’s Day. And it creates the worst case of performance anxiety imaginable. The unknown expectations are probably the worst of it. The world is screaming out the question, and is listening impatiently for the answer: How romantic are you?

There’s always the stereotypical yet acceptable possibilities: the red satin and lace, heart-shaped box of fine chocolates, perfectly chilled expensive champagne, the coveted dozen red roses, extravagantly priced jewelry, a night out on the most crowded and expensive evening of the year at a restaurant, and maybe, if relationship-appropriate, pricey, sexy, seductive lingerie. Of course, hearts, hearts, and more hearts.

Still, to complicate things even further, everyone feels the need to do something different and superior to last year’s attempt at romance. The “prove to me you love me” personality of the relationship longs to be on the receiving end of that perfect gift.

If you are the technology loving type, the first step is to do as I do: Google it! Type “perfect valentine’s gift” in the search box, and the answer should reveal itself, right? Yeah, right… over 20 MILLION perfect answers! What a racket, huh?

I interviewed several people in order to check out my “I hate Valentine’s Day” supposition. A lot of my friends are single, so of course I got the predicted “another reminder that I’m a lonely loser” sentiment. Some gave me way more information than I needed, and that flattering glimpse into their private lives was kind of interesting, in a voyeuristic sort of way. Startlingly, the happily-in-love ones unexpectedly responded in a way that would make the American Greeting Card Association cringe.

“Commercialized”, “crowded”, and “costly” were adjectives commonly used. I’m pretty sure that those are not the conjured up images that the industry is trying to sell us.

I once had a friend who, although intelligent, educated, and very successful in her field, would fall back on her overly-exaggerated ethnicity when it would conveniently benefit her in somehow making a point. A conversation that had turned into a discussion about my lack of desire to bake became one of those times.

“Terra!” she scolded me in her sudden and exaggerated southern drawl. “How ya’ll expect to get a man if you can’t make a decent biscuit?”

What? My friend was quickly lumped into the category of the I’m-no-longer-single-so-you-shouldn’t-be-either friends, and I had to ask myself, why would anyone want to “get a man” who only wanted you for your biscuits? Pondering further, I wondered: to what lengths would a person go to avoid being the single person on Valentine’s Day?

As usual, this happy holiday had historically commenced with a clash. In ancient Rome there was a pagan fertility feast called “Lupercalia” held annually on February 15th. At the time, Rome was being ruled by Emperor Claudius II, decidedly disliked by his constituents, thus nicknamed “Claudius the Cruel”. He and his numerous bloody campaigns were so detested that his people would not join his army. Thinking that a happy home life was keeping young men from aspiring to be soldiers, he outlawed all future marriages and engagements.

In 269 AD, a Catholic priest named Valentine went against the decree, and defying Emperor Claudius, secretly continued performing the marriage ceremonies. He was discovered, and, after a failed attempt by the Emperor to convert the priest to paganism, imprisoned. Instead of Valentine switching religions, he attempted to sway Emperor Claudius towards Christianity, albeit unsuccessfully. On February 14th, Father Valentine was stoned and beheaded.

While in prison, the kindly priest had befriended the guard’s daughter. Before leaving his cell for the last time, he penned a short farewell note, signing it “Love from your Valentine.”

As Christianity became more popular throughout Europe, the Catholics recast many of the pagan festivals, altering them to be more “puritanical” and renaming them to honor their martyrs. In 496 BC, Pope Gelasius changed the date for the former “Lupercalia” to February 14th and declared that it be called “Saint Valentine’s Day”, honoring the martyr and posthumously appointed saint.

Around the 17th century, Saint Valentine’s Day was commonly celebrated by upper-class Europeans as well as Americans, but by mid 18th century became widespread throughout all classes, acknowledging the occasion with the exchange of notes or poems, or small gifts, as tokens of affection.

For several years, Esther Howland’s father had been importing Valentine cards from England for his stationery store in Massachusetts. In 1830 she began to import her own lace, ribbon, and decorative paper, and, employing three women to help, started the first Valentine card business. She reportedly made $100,000 her first year, becoming one of the first successful business women in America. It is notable that Hallmark didn’t even get in the game until 1913.

This year many of the less traditionally minded, especially those rebuking commercialism, promoting romanticism, and desiring financial conservatism, seem to be more inclined toward homemade gifts and meals. Noting and encouraging this, I want to share a recipe that is truly foolproof, even for the person who says they don’t cook or bake.

While I was the executive chef at a very romantic inn in Santa Barbara, guests continuously returned with raves and comments, requesting this wonderful dessert that we romantically presented for two to share, declaring that it was the best they had ever eaten.

Kindness, consideration, and quality time spent are so meaningful in a relationship, and it is the consensus that it’s what every Valentine (or potential Valentine) wants.

St. Valentine may have been a martyr, but you needn’t be. This is an amazingly impressive and easy recipe, and the love of your life will appreciate your consideration, as well as some soft music, candlelight, and the sharing of your precious time.

Jean Anouilh was a hopelessly romantic French dramatist and playwright. In his adaption of Sophocles’ “Antigone”, he asserts “Love is above all, the gift of oneself.” If your Valentine is truly worthy of your affections, and you have the same opinion as the playwright, they, too, will concur.

Valentine Sherry Cakes (Makes 12 large or 24 small cupcakes.)

For the cake:
1 box yellow cake mix (18.5 Oz.)
1 box instant vanilla pudding (3.5 Oz.)
1/3 cup canola oil
4 eggs
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup chopped pecans

For the syrup:
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup sherry
1/4 cup water

1. Preheat over to 350 degrees. Grease cupcake pans. (I prefer extra large, but the small size will work fine). In large bowl, combine all cake ingredients except pecans.

2. Using hand mixer, mix at medium speed for 4-5 minutes.

3. Sprinkle chopped pecans in each pan. Equally fill pans with the batter, about 2/3 full.

4. Bake for about 40 minutes for the large size or 30 for the small, until cakes are golden brown and spring back when touched lightly.

5. To make syrup: During the last 10 or 15 minutes that the cakes bake, place the syrup ingredients in a medium size saucepan, and bring to a slow boil. Reduce heat to low and boil for 5 minutes, watching carefully that it doesn’t boil over.

6. When done, remove cakes and place upside down (nuts on top) on a cookie sheet. With a toothpick or small skewer, poke 4 or 5 holes in each cake. Slowly pour syrup over cakes, distributing equally and allowing it to soak in. Let cool.

(Note: I actually prefer these chilled, and I make them a day or two in advance, storing them covered in the fridge. Warm is good too, especially when served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries, or chocolate syrup, or when feeling decadent, all three.)

The Creative Art of Cooking

I find food very exciting and thought provoking. For some reason, my self-inflicted lifelong challenge is to make it just as interesting to others. But am I really up to such a challenge?

It’s a Friday morning, and I’m determined to make my “real job” part-time, and write 3 days a week. As I sit before the keyboard, my mind keeps wandering, and I glance at the refrigerator… I really want to clean it out.

Most people would find that a chore. I find it creatively challenging and surprisingly stimulating. Maybe not a wise disclosure.

I’m semi-famous for indiscriminately taking ingredients and creating something first-rate and virtuous with them, and I defy and dare myself to view the task as a puzzle, peppered with an excited expectancy of what clandestine parts of the mystery I would find behind the doors.

Several years ago I watched a television show showcasing a chef with a camera crew. He would randomly (reportedly) knock on someone’s door and “surprise” the person that answered. The entire assemblage would aggressively advance into the openly embarrassed individual’s chaotic and cluttered kitchen, and with prying eyes, begin opening doors.

Cabinets, refrigerators, and freezers became publicly observed as the chef would begin removing the contents that appealed to him, all the while commenting on what they were unearthing as well as what creative juices had begun to flow. Within the short 30 minute segment (including commercial interruptions), a meal for the unsuspecting family would be produced. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Funny, I never heard comments like “hey, I was going to use that pot roast for company tomorrow night” or “oops you can’t see the mold, but I’m sure those leftover green beans are at least a month old.”

Along those same lines, although more believable and interesting to me, I read a column where, with an appointment and permission, a writer/interviewer would go into a recognizably successful chef’s private home, and again, look in their refrigerator and cabinets.

Simultaneously, the recorder was turned on, and the writer would gather food for thought as the clever chef allowed the public to look up the proverbial skirt and unabashedly reveal the refrigerators innards: the leftover Chinese takeout containers, the completely empty 3rd shelf, a quart of 3-week-old half and half, and their favorite, long lasting condiments, cuddled contentedly in the door.

Then, with finesse and speed, the confident chef would offer a repast for the writer, a creation deftly produced in a mostly-empty kitchen, and served with style and grace as well as skilled garnishing touches, all the while providing a most impressive presentation.

I decided to go to my own refrigerator and interview myself, spontaneously, without an appointment, and view the contents through another’s eyes.

Interviewer: So, Terra, I see you have a very full refrigerator. Can you tell me what are in all of these containers?

T: Well, yes, I can. I can’t tell you what they’ll be tomorrow, though, because this is my canvas, and I’m obsessed and neurotic about being creative. Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t reveal that. Isn’t there a medical condition described that way?

I: This small drawer seems to be completely stuffed with Ziploc bags. What’s that about?

T: When I have time, I cook some basic, versatile ingredient in quantity, like several chicken breasts, a dozen carmelized onions, or maybe formulate a couple of quart bags of homemade marinara. I keep some of them in this drawer to remind myself where to look when it’s time for a meal. I’m usually able to throw something interesting together in a very short time. It’s planning ahead with no real plan.

I: You have a shelf here with jars of ingredients that look like a deli. What do you do with all these different olives, peppers, pickles, salsas, and marinated vegetables?

T: Often we just nosh appetizers instead of a meal, and I like to have a healthy tray of munchies sitting around. I enjoy having a variety to pull out on a moment’s notice. Many are homemade, and I appreciate the long shelf life.

I: Can you pick your favorite out of all these different and unusual condiments and describe how you use it?

T: Easy. It’s the sambal, and I use it as a seasoning in a variety of dishes. The ground fresh chile and garlic paste adds an extraordinary dimension to many things; vegetables, soups, stirfrys, salsas, even a relatively boring egg dish can be notably improved. It’s salty and hot, though, so a little goes a long way.

I: This shelf appears to have dairy products. I recognize cottage cheese, buttermilk, and a quart-sized carton of egg whites. What do you do with these containers of plain yogurt?

T: It’s Greek style yogurt and wonderful. It’s thick like sour cream because it’s been strained, but has a more acidic and alluring flavor. I enjoy the unsweetened savory-ness of it with fruit and/or oatmeal for breakfast, or even top enchiladas or a baked potato. I buy the nonfat version, but you wouldn’t detect any deficiency in taste or texture.

I: Wow, you really have a lot of lettuce in here. Are you sure there are only two of you?

T: We try to have a healthy salad every evening as a 2nd course (after appetizers.) A little rice wine vinegar and olive oil make the interesting greens even more refreshing.

I: It sounds like you cook constantly. Don’t you ever get tired of it?

T: Nope. It’s what I do to relax as well as amuse myself. I’m like the painter that emotes with a brush. Instead of painting, I use specialized tools, arrange and create colors and textures, get to tame fire and water, and create and construct with my hands. I also love playing artistically with different dishware and cutlery and linens, and the way I chose my presentation projects my emotions of the moment. And when the taste is satisfactory as well, the most gratifying dimension is added.

Interviewer: So what are you going to fix for me?

Terra: I’d like to incorporate all of the senses that I mentioned and prepare Thai Lettuce Wraps. I’ll seat you at the dining table, present the many components of the meal to you on antique Japanese china, dim the lights and light the candelabra, then give you a large napkin so you’ll comfortably enjoy the sensuous experience of constructing your creation and eating with your hands.

That’s how my imaginary interview would go. My fantasy would be that the interviewer would become so in awe of the awakening off his own senses that he would discover food to be his canvas as well.

If he was a good writer, he would then be able to convey that sensuousness to his readers through his words, encouraging their own imaginative visions, therefore they, too, would feel inspired.

My challenge would at long last be a victory, and others would feel what I feel, and like I, delight in the creative art of cooking.

This recipe has many steps, but none of them complicated. The dipping sauce may produce more than you need for this meal, but it will last for a couple of weeks in the fridge and you’ll find other uses for it.

Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Meat Filling:
1 T olive oil
1 pound lean ground chicken or turkey
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups dried shitake mushrooms

Stir-fry sauce:
3 T low sodium soy sauce
3 T seasoned rice wine vinegar
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 t chili garlic sauce (sambal) or more to taste

Dipping sauce:
2 T seasoned rice wine vinegar
1 T hot mustard powder
2 T ketchup
1 t powdered ginger
2 T low sodium soy sauce
2 T chili garlic sauce (sambal)
2 T sherry
1 T sesame oil
¼ c sugar
½ c water
1 T lemon juice

½ cup unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
1 head of butter lettuce (or any large leaf lettuce)

1. Place mushrooms in heat resistant bowl. Pour boiling water over mushrooms to cover. Let sit for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving liquid for another use. (I used mine to make soup. Amazing flavor! Also freezes well.)

2. Make Dipping Sauce: In a large bowl, using a wire whisk, dissolve sugar into ½ cup warm water. Whisk in remaining ingredients and set aside. (This can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for a week or more.)

2. Prepare Stir Fry Sauce: In a small bowl, whisk all ingredients together, dissolving brown sugar. Set aside.

3. Stir Fry Filling: Place mushrooms, and chopped onion in food processor. Chop finely. (Note: this can be done by hand, if you prefer). Add oil to wok or large skillet. Heat oil over high heat, about 1 minute. Add ground meat and sauté until browned. Push aside in pan and add mushroom/onion mixture. Reduce heat to medium high. Cook until mushrooms and onions are lightly browned and liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir all together and add the Stir Fry Sauce. Continue cooking about 2 minutes longer, reducing the sauce until thickened.

4. Serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping, dipping sauce for pouring over all, and peanuts for adding a bit of flavor and crunch.

Why Not?

Cooking at home is a good idea on so many levels. Not only is it much more economically feasible, but you also can choose to use the most wholesome, healthful, and good-for-you ingredients available.

You also are aware and in control of the health and sanitation of the kitchen and people handling your food. Parking is never an issue, and you have the option of sitting at a candlelit dining table, or relaxing in the comfort of your favorite chair watching television.

That leaves me pondering one perplexing, unanswered question: why not?

Most important to me is that cooking is such an exceedingly pleasant experience. It is one of my preferred pastimes, and I relish the opportunity to cook for a friend.

I’ve asked people to describe how they feel about the preparation of a meal at home. Readily and rapidly they unanimously answer with the descriptive word “chore”. Ah, the collective sadness.

I recently became the fortunate recipient of the cookbook, “New Classic Family Dinners” by brilliant chef and restaurateur Mark Peel. He decided to take up the task of uncomplicating some of the meals his LA restaurant, Campanile, offers by making his classic and comforting menus home-cook doable.

Encouraging the reader with step-by-step, perfectly clear, concise instructions, again poses the question: why not?

I was a naïve young woman before I realized that the common consensus regarding cooking was contrary to my own. It was another indicator of my quirkiness, as I often find enjoyment and enchantment in what others find to be pretty much a nuisance.

I hear the protestations, and I acknowledge that the number one grumble from the assembled apprehensive is their lack of time, and as any home cook will admit and agree, yes, creating extraordinary and exceptional cuisine does take time.

Like most skills, a person becomes more proficient with practice, having the right tools, and receiving constructive, helpful instruction. Employing time saving appliances are also highly recommended.

The slow cooker was invented to allow foods to cook unattended for long periods of time. In case you’re unfamiliar with them, a slow cooker consists of a pot, usually ceramic but sometimes metal, sometimes having removable stoneware inserts, and always having a tightly fitting lid.

There is a thermostatically controlled electric heating element, located at the bottom and sometimes within the insulated walls as well. Some even have timers.

Slow cooking is cited to be the cooking method discovered way back when man first tamed fire and hunted meat. The animals in those days were lean and tough, so the long, slow cooking of the creature in a hot pot of water tenderized the chewy victuals by breaking down the collagen, and added the much needed moisture to make the meal palatable.

Thousands of years later, with food preparation more sophisticated and complex, hunting and gathering has taken on a very different meaning. Our family cooks have become too busy to spend all day in the kitchen, and time-saving devices have become a much sought-after necessity.

In 1970, Rival bought the rights to a slow-cooking electric device called “The Beanery All-Purpose Cooker” then in 1971 reintroduced it under the copyrighted name, Crock Pot.

Although they no longer own the name (Sunbeam does), we commonly use the moniker synonymously with the slow cooker, and many companies have introduced similar products.

Cooking should be fun and enjoyable. I often feel inept in my struggle to convey the pleasures to be had, even if only to allow another to vicariously share the satisfaction of a meal splendidly served. Still, I am determined.

In that mode of determination, I have created this recipe in an attempt to assist a “non-cook” in creating a meal full of flavors, learning something new, and all the while thoroughly taking pleasure in the entire process.

The ingredients may be assembled the evening before and put in the fridge, or go ahead and take the 15 minutes in the morning and do it before work. Whatever works best for you is the goal here. The objective is to enjoy the entire process.

Follow the instructions that came with the slow cooker, or just throw in the ingredients, plug it in, put the lid on it, and turn it to low. It’s a simple process, and allows you to focus on your senses, not the mechanics. Enjoy the blend of colors, the variety of smells, and the anticipation of how wonderful it’s all going to taste.

If you want to avoid having to wash the measuring tools, just eyeball it all instead and add the ingredients to your taste, trying to come reasonably close. This isn’t rocket science, and it will be difficult to do it wrong.

I know you’re going to love it. And finally, I will feel like I have succeeded, if after this meal, you too, will ask yourself the mystifying question: why not?

Slow Cooker Ribs

1 large onion
2 T smoked Spanish paprika
3 Pounds lean country style boneless pork ribs
1 ½ cups ketchup
1 cup yellow mustard
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 T chili garlic sauce (sometimes called “Sambal” and found in the Asian food section. Wonderfully addicting and spicy!)
1 t liquid smoke
1 T Worcestershire sauce

1. Peel and slice the onion. Place it in the bottom of the crockpot.
2. Sprinkle the onions with paprika, then place the ribs on top of the onions.
3. Measure the next 6 ingredients directly into the crockpot. Stir a little, if you’d like.
4. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Turn it off when the meat is fork tender.
5. Serve the ribs with some of the sauce on the side. Enjoy!

Note: For those of you who prefer a non-electric, less modern-day style of slow cooking, this recipe can be converted by making the following changes:

Place the ribs in a pan and cover completely with water. Slowly simmer for about an hour until tender, checking occasionally to make sure there’s enough water to cover. Drain thoroughly.

In a large bowl or pan, mix the remaining sauce ingredients. Place ribs in sauce, making sure all are well-coated with the mixture. Refrigerate and marinate overnight, or at least 3 hours.

Place ribs and sauce in baking dish. Bake at 300 degrees for 1-2 hours until ribs are tender and sauce is reduced.

Objectionable Obsolescence

I love cookbooks. Actually, I love all books, but have a particular affinity for brightly colored, hard-covered cookbooks with lots of pictures. I hear that the printed word is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. To anyone who’s listening: I object.

I will honestly disclose without embarrassment that each day I read and research food and recipes with the fixation and fervor that only a true foodie can understand.

And yes, it’s commonly done online, not using a tangible, held-in-my-hands book. And for that, I’m ashamed, and acknowledge that in some (very) small way, I’m a traitor to the book-and-magazine world.

Books of all kinds are sensuous and sumptuous. Within their covers, they possess the marvelously magical ability to mimic the memory of the myriad of our life experiences.

Admit: if you close your eyes and envision your early childhood books, can you smell the crayons? Can you remember how comfy and warm and loved you felt when your mother or father held you in their lap and read to you? How about the pride you felt as you proudly read aloud to someone as you achieved the skill of interpreting the letters on a page into an image? Ah, the complexities of the power of the written word, and the recalled senses evoked from them.

I often wonder about the correlation between the young bliss I experienced through books to the current pleasures I derive from food, and even more so, with sharing those pleasures.

Pleasing people is important to me and when I know someone has a favorite food, I crave the opportunity to delight and share.

My son Tyler loves great food and always has. When he was a very young child I could thrust a spoonful of a concoction-in-the-making and say “what does this need?” to receive a precocious resolve beyond his years: “more oregano”, “how about a bit of white pepper”, or “throw in a potato, Mom… way too much salt”. I think I overdid it with the kitchen education, but I could only teach what I knew.

One of Tyler’s favorite dishes is Gazpacho, the cool, tart, tomato-sweet soup that cries out “summer”. I tried and tweeked years of recipes before I felt I had aptly achieved a superior outcome.

Every year, about the same time that it is announced that the firmly-fleshed bright orbs are at their peak-of-the-season, I find myself embarking upon my quest for new ideas encouraging and challenging change.

This year the modification I made was to substitute the dense and compact, fleshy romas of the past years with the heirloom tomato.

An heirloom tomato is considered a cultivar. That, simply stated, is a plant that has been deliberately chosen and/or altered by humans, then cultivated to retain certain characteristics that make it different from similar plants in its species. A true heirloom, to a purist, is a cultivar that has been nurtured, chosen, and then handed down from one family member to another for many generations.

As is often the case, opinions differ, although most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated varieties that were bred and stabilized using classic methods.
Often, an “expert” identifies an age or date of origin as the determining factor as to whether or not the nomenclature is acceptably warranted.

Although not consistent, some state that the seeds must be over 100 years old; some say 50 years, while another requires the date of 1945 to be the indicator. That is when the predominant use by the agriculture industry began. Commercially, the hybrid seed trade began to flourish and prosper in the 1970s.

Two heirloom authorities, Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male, divide heirlooms into four categories, a point that I found most authorities agreed upon.

1. Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties more than 50 years in circulation.
2. Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.
3. Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) and dehybridizing the resulting seeds for how ever many years/generations it takes to eliminate the undesirable characteristics and stabilize the desired characteristics, perhaps as many as 8 years or more.
4. Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.

Many of the heirloom varieties, along with the small family-owned farms that sustained them, no longer exist. The mixed multitudes, after avoiding obsolescence by adapting to endure hundreds of years of plant epidemics and infestations, were superseded by hybrid tomatoes, bred for their commercially attractive characteristics.

This past summer, we were fortunate. Our local farmer’s market offered a very large and amazingly varied selection of the prolific produce. It appeared to be the most popular item to be sold, a conclusion that the long lines would encourage, and the locals seemed to need no prompting to lavish big bucks on the gratefully received fruit.

Perhaps the parallel is a bit far-fetched, but I find an ironic correlation between the beginning of the unplanned obsolescence of books and tomatoes.

I have had many of the things in my life that I love become obsolete, and I’m stubbornly fighting to hold on to the ones that are important.

Sometimes, extinctions are blessings to all, like the disappearance of saddle oxfords and go-go boots. But heirloom tomatoes and tomes, unlike bad shoes, need to be protected.

No torrent of criticism is necessary, nor is disparagement or denigration necessarily directed towards the debate of words-on-paper versus more technologically advanced communications.

Admittedly both have their benefits, albeit one has an obvious lack of romanticism that the other does not. And that lack of romanticism never works for me.

The same objectivism can be used for the case of the heirloom vs. roma. There is room for both.
Still, the thick, acidic sauce that a meaty roma tomato produces is like no other. The reliable, consistent, more-than-just-a-cute-tomato will never be completely replaced in my kitchen.

And just for the record, neither will my cookbooks.

Here is my recipe for gazpacho, tailored to bring into play the not-new-kid-on-the-block, the heirloom tomato.

Heirloom Gazpacho

46 ounces tomato juice
1 cup beef broth
1 cup cream sherry
½ chopped red onion
1 cup finely diced celery
½ cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
1 large can diced green chiles
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, and diced
4 large heirloom tomatoes, diced
4 green onions and tops -minced
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup tablespoon chopped cilantro
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper -- to taste
1 cup prepared hot chunky salsa
¼ cup olive oil

2 avocados -- diced
1 cucumber
3 lemon slices
for accompaniment: tortilla chips, salsa, Tabasco sauce, and lemon wedges.

1. In a large serving bowl, combine all ingredients except garnishes and accompaniment; chill thoroughly (24 hours is best).

2. Remove half of the soup and place in blender. Process until smooth. Return to bowl with the remaining soup.

3. Using a fork with sharp tines, firmly drag it down sides of cucumber to score skin. Cut into rings.

4. Float cucumber rings and lemon slices on top of gazpacho and serve ice-cold. Accompany with tortilla chips, salsa, Tabasco sauce, and lemon wedges.

Vicariously Vegetable

I wonder how many people actually choose a relocation location based upon the local food offerings. Do people ever consider produce as a portal to new places?

I moved to the San Juan Islands to write about food. I made the decision based on a seemingly quite-the-illogical whim, but made it with verve, vitality, and a vengeance and wouldn’t be dissuaded.

While visiting a friend on Lopez, we took a day outing to visit Friday Harbor. It was time to acknowledge that a change would do me good, and upon spying Friday Harbor from the deck of the Hiyu, the 12 year old inside me yelped gleefully, and the adult simultaneously decided this was the change I’d been craving.

I perused the local Friday Harbor shops, enjoyed the local Friday Harbor sausage, and while gulping down a local Friday Harbor brew, began packing and plotting a course in my head to facilitate my becoming local as well.

My home-at-the-time in Mexico was a long ways away, and I knew the excursion might be a bit stressful as I planned to drive it alone, in a truck too big for me, and I’d never driven in snow. After all, it was November, so I’d better hurry. Still, I was up for the challenge, and willing and prepared to go.

I don’t think it’s possible to explain to another how empowering your emotions through food can become exponentially energizing. The pictures in my head crawled out from their hiding places, and I envisioned and anticipated my future days, writing, tasting, savoring all that what-would-soon-be-called-home had to offer, then writing some more.

Moments of such clarity manifest themselves few times in one’s life. The logic behind such a decision became secondary, possibly irrelevant, okay, maybe even non-existent. But none of that mattered at that life-altering moment, as I was sure that this was the right place for me, and I don’t believe in accidental travel. Eureka.

The liquid-like sloshing place in my brain that would occasionally ooze inspiration was activated, and I was sure, and for the first time in a long time, was alive again.

I trusted that image in my vision enough to stop hesitating, and I jumped in with my entire soul, as if wavering would destroy the vision, and the empowerment and excitement that was my reward would dissolve like wet salt.

I had been living with a deficiency in awe-ness for too long, and this was the shot-in-the-arm I’d been wanting, and inspired and pleasure-promising myself, I said yes.

Being a dreamer with a overabundance of vast and lofty ambitions, I am often unrealistically open to things that I am technically incapable of. The proverbial “they” say to write about what you know, and as I had already taken that road and felt successful, I rationalized and considered this to be a sensible and levelheaded decision as well. After all, don’t “they” always know best?

I know about food, taking risks, telling stories, and have learned how to remain full of pleasure while tormented. I have lived in enough emotional states to be considered a country, resulting in the ability to sufficiently and convincingly write about humanness and being real. And what is more real than food?

After settling in my home I began the adventures; writing, researching, and inquiring about the inspiring. Too quickly, though, I found my earliest expectations to be disenchanting. This wasn’t what I was used to, and this foreign-to-me place was cold and well, foreign.

The farmer’s markets were tiny and limited, and in my incredible enthusiasm, somehow I hadn’t thought much about the long-term impact the unavailability of sunshine could have, not only on a person’s state of well-being, but on a growing season as well. Yikes.

Relying on the propensity to search out gratification, and to enjoy the complexity of contrasts while woefully chagrined, I began a frenzy of frequenting some of our more modish eateries, and talking to people whom I thought would be in the know.

It was my proof of providence that the Rotary Club celebrated their “changing of the guards” installation with a plan of a social hour and dinner at Vinny’s.

Having previously been a Rotarian, I’d only been on the island for a few months when I joined the local chapter, and was finding it a fantastic way to meet terrific like-minded people, and to learn about the locale. Vinny’s was truly one of those discoveries.

As my first spring, then summer, came and departed, I found myself back in the throes of what I later heard called “one of our worst winters ever”. This time, though, I had a partner to share it with, and together we started a comfortable routine of a great glass of wine to unwind after work, and enjoyed the comforting friendliness and welcoming atmosphere of Vinny’s.

Becky and Julie, the owners, and the hostess and waitresses as well, quickly introduced us to, and allowed us to continue to claim what would become our favorite table in the restaurant. Seated in the corner under an oversized plant was the wall heater, and as I looked out towards the turbulent sky and tempestuous ocean, my feet remained toasty and the fun factor for me flourished like the flora.

The Italian gold walls reflected their most prominent European cuisine, and the warmth of their hospitality reflected the eclectic Pacific Northwest influence that Becky told me they aspired to.

A benefit of co-owner Julie’s husband being a professional fisherman is that their guests are commonly treated to the freshest seafood available. And among my peers, Becky is rumored to make the most incredible dirty martini ever.

Summer is finally here, (with the emphasis on “finally”!) and the produce I came in search of is trying its best to make a presence recognition-worthy, along with a temperate sun and the liberating comfort of sandals and sundresses.

Although limited in variety, I’ve had some amazing fresh greens that have perked up and turned my seemingly never-ending winter into reminding us why we choose to live here.

The season’s meal of choice has become a cool, crisp salad, and Vinny’s generously offered to share the recipe for their wonderful Dark Balsamic Salad Dressing.

So when the climate isn’t as warm as I’d prefer, I need to remind myself that the warmth of a good friend will always see me through to the next season. And maybe the portal I was in search of was here all along, and I just had to thaw out enough to recognize it.

Vinny's Dark Balsamic Salad Dressing: Makes approximately 2 cups

½ teaspoon fresh garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon dark brown sugar
2 ½ teaspoons dijon mustard
1 tablespoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup red wine vinegar
3/8 cup balsamic vinegar
1 ¼ cups extra virgin olive oil

Place chopped garlic, brown sugar, mustard, basil, thyme, and pepper in large bowl and stir. Add vinegars. Using a wire whisk, gradually add oil in a slow, steady stream. Chill and serve over mixed greens.

Chili Solutions

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here, or how well adjusted you may be: this weather can get depressing. Being a Ca girl living in Mexico did not prepare me well.

There is no doubt that there are many areas in this country with much more severe weather, but it’s still too cold to enjoy much of anything that requires lengthy time spent outdoors, unless there’s a source of heat nearby.

When I begin to consider depression and the lack of heat in the same sentence, I think of food, specifically hot and spicy chilies. There seems to be a number of us that make this timely association, and this Saturday’s chili cook-off is the result.

The Kiwanis, Rotary, and Soroptimist clubs are joining together at the fairgrounds from 2 to 6 (Saturday, January 24) to enjoy some of the island’s best chili. The public is invited to take pleasure in some tasty victuals, listen to live music, and to enjoy the friendly competition of the chili cook-off participants.

There’s a scientific explanation why this source of peppery heat comes to the aid of the winter doldrums.

Simply stated, the chili pepper contains a chemical combination of capsaicinoids, the flavor producing part of the pair, and capsaicin, the heat culprit.

I believe the slang phrase “hurts so good” must have been coined after imbibing in a particularly spicy pepper. There are pain receptacles located throughout the mouth called the trigeminal cells. When the trigeminal cells are irritated, the brain reacts by releasing endorphins, that beloved hormone and buzz word that drove us to jog ourselves crazy in the 70’s.

The effect of this flood of euphoria- producing endorphins, accompanied by an increase in heart rate and perspiration, results in a basic overall feeling of well-being, a much cherished cure for the wintry weather blues.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, chili peppers, the great food heat source, were among the most widespread of the plants cultivated in the New World. Recipes using the chili pepper along with various meats and vegetables began to emerge soon after.

The southwest Native Americans are cited as making chili as we know it as far back as1612, but the first recipe to be actually written down is accredited to a nun around that same time.

Over a hundred years passed before a group of settlers from the Canary Islands brought the first chili into San Antonio, where Texans continue to boast the conception of the best chili in the world. The gentle folks of Oklahoma, where I was born, endorse the urban legends of gunfighters arguing the point.

In 1912, W. L. Scoville devised a method to determine the heat in hot peppers, measuring the amount of sugar required to neutralize the heat. Scientific evolution produced a more technical method called Liquid Chromatography. It is a direct measurement of capsaicin, where the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) actually measures the total amount of capsaicin and the capsaicinoids.

I recently made a pork dish requiring fresh pureed chiles, and using a particularly spicy pepper, found the resulting dish tasty, but too piquant to eat. Encouraged by this miscalculation, I decided that determining the amount of heat produced by commonly found chiles could prove useful.

The following compares some Scoville Heat Units among peppers. Keep in mind that 15 SHU equals 1 PPM of capsaicin, and the range is due to the cultivation conditions.

Pure Capsaicin: 16,000,000
Commercial Pepper Spray: 2,000,000
Habanera: 115,000 �" 325,000
Scotch Bonnet: 115,000 �" 325,000
Cayenne: 30,000 �" 50,000
Crushed Red Pepper: 30,000 �" 50,000
Serrano: 6,000 �" 25,000
Jalapenos: 3,000 �" 30,000
Ancho: 3,000
Anaheim: 500 �" 1,500
Peperoncini: 100 �" 500

My grandfather gave me this simple recipe about 25 years ago. He received it from an old man in a bar as a winning in a dice game, who claimed to have paid another man $100 for it about 25 years previously. I altered it, using canned beans opposed to dry, but the result is not discernibly different.

I won’t be cooking for the Chili Cook-Off on Saturday, but I’ll be there in the capacity of a judge. I look forward to trying other cook’s creations, as well as spicing up those depressing wintry woes with friends. And we won’t be promoting any Wild West legends, no matter how “hot” the competition may get.

Grandpa’s Chili
Serves 6

2 pounds ground beef, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 cup chopped red onions
1/3 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons garlic powder
12 fluid ounces tomato sauce
32 ounces pinto beans, with juice
32 ounces Italian tomatoes, crushed
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Water as needed for desired consistency

1. Brown the ground beef. Remove the meat to a slow cooker, draining the oil. Add vegetable oil to skillet. Brown onions for 2-3 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except beans to slow cooker. Add water as needed.

2. Simmer, stirring occasionally, on high, for 2 to 3 hours. Add beans, turn to low, and continue to simmer for 1 -2 hours longer.

3. Top with fresh chopped onions, cilantro, shredded cheese, sour cream, or any desired topping.


It’s been an amazing 3 years since my son Benjamin died. In some ways, it seems like it was just yesterday, but mostly it feels like an eternity.

A waking hour never passes without some thought of him, and whether it is regret, sadness, or joyful recollections, there’s always some bit of him tugging on my heart. I wonder if I’ll always remember his face so vividly, or if, like some of the pain, it will begin to fade.

“Dia de Muertos”, Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated with great joy throughout Mexico. November 1, All Saints Day, is set aside specifically to remember the “angelitos”, angels, that are the infants and children that have passed on into another world, and November 2, All Souls Day, honors the deceased adults.

My first experience with the holiday occurred just after I had settled into my healing cocoon in Baja. I had never felt so fortunate as to have had my safe haven, away from the world, the reality, and I had hoped, the pain.

Emotionally we are not equipped with the capability to rationalize, or find logic in, children predeceasing their parents, thus are never prepared, nor have the capacity to understand, the death of a child.

Still, I searched hard for that logic, for logic can exist without emotion, and the emotion I was overcome with felt as if it could and would destroy me. It’s always sad, albeit sometimes immensely traumatizing, to lose a grandparent, a parent, or even a sibling. But we are taught to know and expect the inevitable; that is the logical progression of the world.

Along with the eagerness of partaking in a holiday that was foreign to me, I had felt a privileged acceptance into the sorority of other mothers that had become my Mexican neighbors, and several of us had this experience in common: the one of loss, and now of honoring, and I had looked forward to the grand celebration.

This holiday is commonly observed at the family burial plots, decorating significantly with vividly colored wreaths, toys, and garish paper and silk flowers. Although the gravesites may be neglected all year, the overgrown weeds and trash are removed at this time, and the entire site takes on a polished and cared for glow.

Back at the casa, shrines are often erected, and elaborate fiestas are planned, as it is expected that the upcoming visit from the spirit entails a long journey, so sustenance of the loved one’s favorite foods and beverages would be essential and appreciated.

The feast often includes massive platters of the typical Mexican cuisine, and beer and tequila are offered to the usually large families for the occasion of this reunion.

Along with the favorite foods of the departed, the offerings will include time honored preparation techniques resulting in delicacies such as pollo in mole sauce, carne asada, chile verde, and typical side dishes of arroz, frijoles, homemade tortillas, and salsa.

Coffins and skulls are fashioned from sugar and chocolate, sometimes engraving the dead persons name on them. Sweet rolls, called “pan de muerto”, are shaped and molded to resemble bones and “animas”, or souls. These are considered additional and important offerings to the beloved deceased and their anticipated manifestation.

When Benjamin was young, his favorite was not unlike the surprisingly favorite of so many ninos in Mexico. Funny; the entire universe of children seems to love spaghetti.

As his taste buds grew older, and through his many gustatory explorations, his palate become a bit more refined, and his spaghetti worship matured into one of adoration for rigatoni, maintaining many similarities of his original fondness, but with a more, substantial, shorter, and sophisticated pasta. Even at 22 years old, whenever home to visit, his request was predictable.

Whether or not Benjamin’s journey entailed a visit to the dusty little town that day, the festivities and merriment shared with mi amigos was honoring, and the warmth and closeness of the community felt amazingly therapeutic. For this occasion I gave a Baja twist to Benjamin’s Rigatoni that was adored by all who had come to feast and celebrate.

BJ’s Rigatoni

2 packages rigatoni pasta
1 pound Hot Italian Sausage
1 pound cooked pork, shredded
1 T olive oil
2 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 cups pasta sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 eggs
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1 cup Queso Fresco, shredded
1 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated

1. Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, warm the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the sausage, pork, and onion, and brown. Drain, then add vegetables and garlic. Add pasta sauce and seasonings, cover the pan and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 3 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Blend together the eggs and Ricotta cheese until smooth. In a 3-quart casserole dish, layer the pasta, Ricotta cheese, and tomato mixture, ending with a layer of the tomato mixture. Sprinkle the top with grated Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Bake until golden brown on top and bubbling, about 45 minutes.

Plays Well With Others

I’ve always enjoyed mushrooms.

Unlike the majority of children, I wasn’t particularly opposed to exploring strange foods that were presented wearing an unappealing color (grey), were unusually shaped (tiny umbrellas), that grew in your yard and were promoted to be poisonous and would kill you if you were to eat them (toadstools), or squeaked between your teeth when you bit one (okay, that one was kind of cool). The pleasurable potential still existed for me, as I was an admittedly adventurous eater.

Enjoying new tastes, along with learning to play well with others, came easy for me, and I found myself a people pleaser. Babies learn to respond to the people’s reactions around them, and from those early discoveries, I found it simple to make people smile. And I was taught that when your efforts come from a perspective of kindness, they become much more effective.

“Plays well with others” was consistently checked on my childhood report cards, along with “talks out of turn”, “fails to pay attention” and “is disruptive (i.e. giggles) in class”. Ah, but those little boxes were checked off by a teacher who was smiling at me when she did it, and I remained a bit too chatty, distracted, and silly, but a people-pleaser nonetheless.

In junior high school speech class, I always chose the demonstration-style-of-speech option, and found presenting how-to-make a simple recipe, then passing the end result around the classroom for the other students to enjoy, consistently won applause, new best friends, and the grade of A every time. Even my spinach stuffed mushrooms received raves, although the students’ parents would presumably have been shocked in disbelief.

Then, as a contemplative teenager, I, not unlike most anguished kids of that age, started rethinking my entire life’s premise. Mrs. Fields may have given away her cookies on the sidewalk, concluding consequentially in an unprecedented bazillion bucks in the retail food industry, but that wasn’t my intention. It was becoming more obvious, as I became less enchanted, more cynical, and less trusting, that sharing all with everyone was not necessarily resulting in recreating the reminiscence of my kid world.

As an adult, I began working with a fairly famous, retired actress/television personality who was launching her own niche in the food industry. She began manufacturing a food line that was interesting, innovative, and at the beginning of a major trend.

After a few months I disappointedly discovered where she’d obtained some of her recipes. She’d actually asked the local restaurant chefs for theirs, and being the infamous personality she was, they’d obliged her, unknowingly, innocently, and as typical in the chef-dom, trying to please. She reproduced the pilfered products, and without any kind of financial compensation, or even the credit of origination, made them her own. Sad, unfair, but typical and common.

The previously disparaging teenager in me emerged, and during that “ah ha” moment, became once again protective of my recipes and creations, and decided to forego the “plays well with others” report card and formulate career protective choices.

I recently enjoyed dinner at the local restaurant, The Place. It’s discreetly located on the water near the ferry landing, and has a wonderful and enjoyable view from every table. The amazingly attentive and friendly staff is a reflection of a good management team, and when I requested to speak to the owner, Kathy Anderson, I was graciously introduced.

I talked a bit about the food I’d previously enjoyed, and although Kathy was busy readying for the anticipated evening dinner rush, she paused in her busyness to talk a bit about her husband/chef Steve Anderson and the music he was going to be playing as entertainment for the evening.

I wasn’t tentative about asking for the recipe for their fabulous mushroom appetizer. I knew it had been previously published in Bon Appetit magazine in March of 2000, and sharing it again seemed like an appropriate and unobtrusive request.

I read advice once that promoted “Forget your own self-absorption and make yourself other-people focused. Shift your focus and you will determine your purpose.” I would bet that Kathy had read something similar, as The Place demonstrated that sort of motivation. And she, too, obviously knows how important it is in life to earn the checked box that proudly declares to the world …“plays well with others”.

The Place’s Mushroom Sauté with Goat Cheese on Crostini

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)
1 cup boiling water

6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
4 garlic cloves, chopped
½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, sliced
12 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
½ cup white wine
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
8 artichoke hearts from 14-ounce can, cut into ½-inch wedges
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1 crusty French bread baguette, cut diagonally into 1/3-inch-thick slices
6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, melted
½ cup (about) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

8 ounces herbed goat cheese

Place sun-dried tomatoes in small bowl. Pour boiling water over tomatoes; let soak until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain tomatoes; slice thinly. Set aside.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, dried red pepper and thyme; sauté 1 minute. Increase heat to medium high. Add shiitake and button mushrooms and sauté until brown, about 10 minutes. Add wine and lemon juice and simmer 2 minutes. Mix in sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. (Can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm over medium heat before continuing.) Mix in basil and 2 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl; sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven; maintain oven temperature. Brush each baguette slice with butter and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Return to oven; bake until cheese begins to melt, about 5 minutes.

Serve warm crostini with goat cheese and mushroom mixture.

Tom Bauschke
John Evans
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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