Sunday, November 30, 2008

Winter growing: Forced paperwhites

Every year about this time I start my forced paperwhites. This year's batch have been hanging out in the dark cool garage for a few weeks, and now that they've got small stems and some roots, they're ready to come in the house.

This year I'm trying something new. Replacing the water at this stage with a mixture of water and alcohol is said to stunt the growth of the stems while allowing the flowers to grow to full size. The point is to prevent the stems from flopping over just as the flowers start to bloom.

You can use either rubbing alcohol (I couldn't find any) or distilled spirits (I found plenty). With booze, mix one part alcohol to seven parts water. The best way to do this is to pour out the water in which the bulbs have been rooting (it will probably be sort of brown and smelly anyway) and replacing it with a solution you have measured carefully. As with people, too much alcohol is not a good thing.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Thanksgiving photo essay

I hope yours was filled with thanks and joy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fig Pooper Pants: Tomorrow's schedule

Did you ever see the SpongeBob episode where he throws a house party?

It's called Party Pooper Pants. Our hero buys a Plan Your Own Party Kit and takes it from there:
[Speaking to Gary the Snail] The Plan Your Own Party Kit warns that unsupervised parties can lead to disaster. That's why I've taken the liberty of devising a schedule! 
8:00-8:05: Guests arrive.
8:05-8:15: Opening remarks and general discussion.
8:15-8:27: Craft corner, followed by name tag distribution.
At 8:27, we begin the qualifying rounds for our cracker-eating slash tongue-twister contest.
9:07: Running charades.
9:38: Charity apple-bob.
9:57: Electric jitterbug dance marathon, ladies' choice
At 10:09, things start cooking as I dig into my world-famous knock-knock joke vault!

As might be expected, things don't go so well, with overscheduling being the main problem. (SpongeBob also locks himself out of the house, but this turns out to be a good thing because then the guests can rage on and actually enjoy the party while SpongeBob is eventually arrested and hauled off for attempting to break in.)

Proving that watching SpongeBob can indeed be an educational experience, I will refrain from such a complicated mapping of my Thanksgiving day. But we do have a schedule:
3:00 Badminton
4:00 Cocktails and appetizers
5:00 Dinner
Sound good?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The world's easiest centerpiece
and other Thanksgiving prep

Yesterday Sophie and I did our big produce market shop for the Thanksgiving meal. Along with my Marmalade Brie Toasts, I will serve assorted crudites with Baba Ganoush. Vegetables will include broccoli, asparagus, green and yellow beans, red and yellow pepper, fennel, carrot, green onions, and radishes. The first four will be blanched the night before; the rest will be served raw. I serve the longer ones (beans, asparagus, green onions, carrots, pepper strips) standing up each in a jelly jar glass, perhaps with a little raffia tied around the outside of the glass. The others get arranged on a tray.

I also bought a few of those miniature pumpkins, which I hollowed out to make candle holders. I'll give her credit: Martha thought of this first, but I think mine look better (she used white pumpkins and place them on an inverted pie plate). I'll put this in the center of the table and a few more individual pumpkin candles farther down the table.

In other Thanksgiving prep news, I made crust for the two pies I will bake, pumpkin and Dutch apple quince. I roll out the crusts flat, stack them between parchment paper, fold the stack in two, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and freeze. I'll take them out tomorrow morning for pie making in the afternoon. (They would have been fine in the fridge, but it's filled with vegetables, and a large bird is moving in later today.)

I was going to iron table linens last night, but news that a Facebook friend, with whom I've had lots of fun talking food, crisply informed me that he has completed all his shopping, ironed his linens on Monday, and was finishing off his silver polishing. I was so discouraged I just went to bed the minute I completed my very complicated centerpiece.

And I fell asleep wondering if I have enough frozen chicken stock. I think I do.

Monday, November 24, 2008

May I recommend a kosher bird?

Of course I may. It's my blog.

And so I'll share with you the advice I gave to my neighbor this morning (that's what I do after depositing Sophie in the carpool: stand in front of my house and disseminate advice and opinions about food). Cancel the expensive free-range, college-educated, organic bird you have ordered from your fancy butcher and go to Trader Joe's to buy an Empire Kosher turkey. They're of course more expensive than a regular bird but are so much more flavorful and are nearly impossible to overcook to that dry crumbly state. Here's the thing: the kosher process gives you in effect what you would have from brining a turkey. I know brining is all the rage, but don't you have something else you would rather do with that refrigerator space?? Brining is great. I've got pork chops brining in my fridge right now, but brining something as large as a turkey is a pain in the butt.

And don't listen to the New York Time's advice that you should refrain from rinsing your bird. You need to give a kosher bird a good rinse or the pan drippings will be too salty for making gravy.

This is the effect I will be going for.

Last year we were at Husband's Aunt Nancy's for Thanksgiving, and she produced this beautiful and delicious bird by covering the bird with cheesecloth soaked in white wine and melted butter. She covered this with foil for most of the roasting, removing it at the end to brown things up nicely. I have a smaller over that heats unevenly (the downside of having a lovely vintage stove), so I probably won't end up with a bird as uniformly brown. But it will taste good.

If you visit the Empire Poultry website, they also have a very useful glossary, allegedly for food professionals, that includes everything from bagel to Mazel Tov. But they forgot schiksa. That's an important word, right? As in "Good Lord, there's a schiksa in my kitchen!!"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My body is frosting cupcakes;
my mind is still riding rollercoasters

Tickety, tickety, tickety, tickety, tickety, tickety . . . WAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! No. Oh, no. No, no. WAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!! Not happy. OK, that's enough. WAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A couple of weeks ago, blogger and real life friend Gwendomama was up in my neck of the woods for a wedding, after which we took our kids to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to ride roller coasters, visit Thomas the Train land, and get scared silly by bands marauding ghouls in celebration of the upcoming Halloween. So scared, in fact, that Gwendomama—the master of consumer complaints—(you guessed it) complained. Too scary for small kids, difficult if not impossible at times to push a stroller through. To the effect that she was offered FREE TICKETS to come again for what was hoped would be a more pleasurable experience. Today we took advantage of our free tickets for a do-over trip. The ghouls were gone, the Christmas decorations not completely up, and the park nearly empty, leaving us to walk right onto the best roller coasters limited not by how long we could stand waiting in line but by to what extent our stomachs could hold up. Mine isn't quite what it used to be. Sophie and Gwendomama outlasted me on Medusa, the park's crown jewel, a bottomless coaster from which your feet hang free.

Fortunately I survived to come home and finish the snack I started baking last night for Sophie's class tomorrow. The last time Gwendomama was here, she bought me these fabulous miniature ice cream cones, which I had seen on her blog but was unable to find in stores in my area. Each cone is about two inches tall—perfect for a bit or two, but not much more, of ice cream. She has generously outfitted me with mini cones for the next year or so.

I baked pumpkin bread batter in them (standing them up in a mini muffin pan for baking). If this were a baking project for something other than the class snack, I would frost these with a cream cheese icing, but since we're supposed to keep it relatively healthy (don't tell anyone how much sugar is in that pumpkin bread), I piped cream cheese whipped with a little honey, vanilla, and softened butter on top.

Sophie is very excited to take them. No one, it appears, has ever brought them before.

So can I get back to Thanksgiving now?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another diversion: cupcakes,
a party, and opera friends

Another necessary break from Thanksgiving planning. Sophie has been invited to a party for all children who served as supernumeraries in San Francisco Opera's past season. As if being in an opera wasn't fun enough.

There will be several of her fellow castmates from Das Rheingold who Sophie is excited to see. They got to be pretty friendly during all those hours in the dressing room, in line for hair and makeup, and waiting in lines to do it all over and over and over.

Parents have been asked to bring something. Of course I thought first of opera cake. That would be fun, and Jen, who has made it, could help me.

But instead I made two dozen cupcakes, which are loaded into their double-decker traveling case and ready for a subway ride over to the city.

Kids will lick off the frosting, toss the cakes, never noticing that one half are a delicious chocolate sour cream and the other a yellow vanilla. But not being a big frosting eater, I'm always happy to eat the cupcake my child has licked clean. We work well together that way.

When we get home, it will be back to Thanksgiving prep. The silver is polished, and it's time to work on table linens.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hillary: The new SomethingOrOther of State

As someone who voted for Hillary in the Democratic primary, I'm happy to see her receive such an important appointment as Secretary of State. But am I the only one who feels a twinge of regret over the designation of . . . secretary? Something obviously to do with this being at one time part of the triumvirate of careers viewed as acceptable for women: teacher, nurse, secretary. I know Obama isn't going to expect her to take minutes or serve coffee at cabinet meetings, but still. And yes, I know Condeleeza Rice bore this title with dignity, but she was a female minority working for the Republicans, and I just couldn't bear to watch. 

Can't Hillary be called something else? Administrative Assistant of State? No. ThingyMaBobber of State? That would be Sophie's choice, but no. Head, Vice President, Treasurer? No, no, and no.

How about Barack-Takes-Care-of-the-Economy-I-Take-Care-of-the-Rest-of-the-World General Asskicker? I think it's better than Secretary.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back to Thanksgiving:
Chesnut pear dressing

I call it dressing instead of stuffing because I cook mine out of the bird. The bird cooks faster this way, and I can stuff the cavity with herbs instead. I cook the dressing in a cast iron Dutch oven in another oven. This also means the amount of dressing I make is not limited to the size of the cavity, which never seems large enough. It also means I can make two kinds of dressing. Yippee!!

This year I'm branching out from my standard bread, onion, celery, and apple dressing to a chestnut pear (for the vegetarians) and a chantrelle mushroom Italian sausage (for the omnivores). I can wing the latter, but I wanted to give the former a test drive before the real dinner.

I discovered the key is having a good chestnut peeler on hand (this one easily bribed with a glass of iced peppermint tea).

The rest is easy.

The dressing is good, and I will use the recipe—with a few modifications from the original, of course. I use chiabatta bread instead of white and tear it into small pieces and let sit for a few days, turning occasionally so it dries out evenly. I used homemade chicken stock that I always have in good supply, but for Thanksgiving I'll use vegetable stock since there will be a vegetarian present. I'll buy the stock since I won't have time to make it immediately beforehand and I don't think vegetable stock holds it flavor well in the freezer. And I'll kick up the flavor a bit with some fennel added to the celery and onion.


4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ribs of celery, small dice
2 medium onions, small dice
1 head fennel, small dice
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh sage, minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 to 2 pound chestnuts (I prefer Italian)
chiabatta bread, torn into small pieces to total about 8 cups
1 1/4 chicken or vegetable stock
4 unripe pears, Bosc or Anjou, diced
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare chestnuts: Using a sharp paring knife (or a chestnut knife if you're lucky enough to have one) score each chestnut with an X. Place chestnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes. The flesh should be tender and golden, and the skins should peel off fairly easily. Chop nuts coarsely. This can be done several days in advance and the chestnuts stored covered in the refrigerator.

Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Combine herbs, chestnuts, and bread in a large bowl.

In a skillet, melt butter. Add celery, onion, and fennel; cook, stirring until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add to bread mixture in bowl. Add stock, 1/4 cup at a time until bread becomes moist. Add pear. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Combine well and transfer into a Dutch oven. Bake covered for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove lid and continue to cook until top browns slightly.

What's your favorite dressing recipe? Do you always make the same kind or do you mix it up?

Coming up soon: table linens, centerpieces, candleholders . . . the fun keeps coming.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's that time of year again:
The first hot buttered rum of the season

Tonight there is a nip in the air and Husband has a terrible head cold. This can only mean one thing: It's time.

I'm not a rum drinker, but there's nothing Husband likes better than this on a chilly northern California evening. Many recipes for hot buttered rum include melted vanilla ice cream. This is a slightly less rich version.

This recipe provides a batch to keep in a jar in the refrigerator. How long it lasts depends on how much you entertain. I keep a jar on hand throughout the season. It's ready to offer in only the time it takes to boil water.


In a table top mixer, combine

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
Mix well, adjusting spices to taste. I've also added small amounts of ground cardamon, ginger, and/or clove.

To serve, place two heaping tablespoons in a mug, add a short (or two) of rum, and fill the rest of the mug with boiling water. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and piece of orange peel.

Hold up to chin and inhale. . . .

We interrupt this Thanksgiving
planning for a monogram alert

Because some things are just that important. So among the avalanche of catalogs for stuff I have never and will never order came one I had never before received: Kelly's Kids. They are originally one of those home party companies where you host a party, shake down all your friends, and benefit from their purchases. You know, the Tupperware thing. But now they have a catalog and website . . . with tons of cute monogrammed children's clothes.

Some of it is admittedly a little too traditional for me. I mean, really—would you send a boy out the door in this?

You might as well pin a sign on the little guy "Kick my ass and push me down in a mud puddle."

But some of it looks like Sophie's style. She thoughtfully circled this top, which I think might be perfect for a Christmas card picture. It would work with jeans, black leggings, or her red corduroy pants.Holiday red: check. Toile: check. Monogram: check.

Here's the question: Which headband? (You can get these monogrammed too, but then I couldn't borrow it.)

Toile. An obvious choice, but too matchy matchy?
Red corduroy. The practical choice: It would go with the most.
Red houndstooth. I'm kind of liking this one.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Getting ready for Thanksgiving:
An appetizer is born

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. No gifts! Lots of food! Good wine! And it's over in a single day—unless, of course you drag out preparation for three weeks likes I do. But it's all fun, right?

Here at the Figs house because I'm starting to noodle over what I will serve at my dinner. Thanksgiving dinner is admittedly an array of old favorites, but every year I like to add a few new things. My friend Alex provided inspiration for an appetizer last weekend with sandwiches she served when we got together to press our Zinfandel.

Alex and her husband Tim are the proprietors of the Kensington Marmalade Company, which specializes in organic preserves using fresh locally grown produce and a minimal amount of sugar. The products are insanely good. One of my favorites is Stafford's Picnic Jam. Can you think of any words that go together better than picnic and jam? Picnic jam is a marmalade that includes Eureka lemon, Meyer lemon, Valencia orange, bay, rosemary, and juniper berry—sweet and savory. Eating it makes me feel like I'm on a picnic. You should really go to their website and order some at once. It is also available at a few high-end food shops in the bay area (listed on their website) and every Sunday at the Kensington Farmers' Market.

Alex says the two best ways to eat marmalade are with a fork and a spoon, but she is forever coming up with ways to eat and cook with marmalade. For lunch she spread thick crusty bread with Picnic Jam, melted brie over the top, and served this open face.

So I got to thinking, wouldn't this make a nice appetizer in a smaller version using baguette slices? The MIL is fortunately game for trying out almost anything, so I served it before our dinner on Sunday night (along with the pear rosemary martini).

She liked it, it's easy and quick to prepare (the baguette can be slice the night before and wrapped in plastic), and it's now on the menu.

Marmalade Brie Toasts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice a fresh baguette as thinly as possible.

Spread each slice with marmalade (I highly recommend the Picnic Jam).

Layer each slice with brie or other soft cheese.

Bake in oven for about five minutes or until cheese melts. Serve warm.

Stay tuned for my test run of a new stuffing recipe and exciting table setting updates. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When one thing leads to another:
Dessert to drinks

The other night I made this dessert, Cornmeal Pound Cake with Rosemary Syrup Poached Pears and Candied Rosemary, for my book group from a recipe on that was brought to my attention ages ago by one of my first blogger friends, Libby, who used to blog here but now blogs over here. Still with me? I think it's important to give credit where credit is due and keep this all straight.


Anywhoo, I was also inspired by the fact that it's the beginning of pear season and by these beautiful little Forelle pears I found at my produce market.

And it doesn't hurt either that I have an enormous rosemary plant in front of my house (it's one of the few things deer won't eat). Making this made my house smell really good.

You not only get this wonderful candied stalks (good for munching and then picking your teeth), but you also get rosemary syrup.

The dessert was lovely and the flavors a nice combination, but I had quite a bit of candied rosemary and rosemary syrup left over. What to do with these? I put the question to readers on my Facebook page and received a truly inspired answer:

Rosemary Pear Martinis

From Urban Girl's Almanac at

I had some Pear Absolut vodka left over and couldn't swallow the price of the pear brandy that most recipes I found called for. Here's what I did to make a batch for kicking off Sunday dinner with the MIL:
4 oz. pear vodka
4 oz. regular vodka
juice of one Meyer lemon
a few tablespoons of rosemary syrup, to taste
candied rosemary for garnish
You know what to do: Shake on ice and pour. The MIL loved it and thought it gave her a good excuse for cheating at dominoes before dinner.