Thursday, July 30, 2009

New in my kitchen:
The SUV of food processors

Would you just take a look at this?

Husband's calling it my new Hummer. It is BIG. It is POWERFUL. It KICKS ASS. And it does not SUCK (like the vehicle).

It even has an UPSTAIRS. See, here we are making pesto in the small-bowl attachment, which sits right inside the main bowl and is excellent for smaller jobs. What is particularly genius is that food processed in the small bowl STAYS in the small bowl; the only things you need to clean are the small bowl, its blade, and top, not the whole dang thing.

Did I mention pesto? Yes, lots of it. For the past months I've been making it my stick immersion blender. Good for soup, bad for pesto. Before that, following the demise of my old Cuisinart, I struggled to make do with a mini-processor, which was a seriously deficient little machine that I eventually burned the engine out of. It was time once again for the real thing. Peace and pesto once again reign over the Fig household.

1 large bunch of basil
1/3 cup Italian parsley leaves
1/4 cup Parmesan, grated
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup olive oil, more or less depending on consistency you want
lemon juice to taste
salt to taste

Place in bowl of food processor and let 'er rip.
And no, there's no garlic in it, although you could certainly add a clove or two. I love garlic but find that it overwhelms the taste of the fresh basil, and Sophie often complains that raw garlic is too "spicy." If you want to include garlic, blanching a peeled clove briefly in boiled water helps mellow the taste and tame the bite.

What's wonderful about pesto is how much you can do with it. Of course, it's wonderful on pasta, but I also like it for a sandwich spread, a dip, potato and green bean salad dressing, fish topping—and it's not bad on a spoon out of the jar.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What I really want

So for those of you sitting on the edges of your seats wondering if I am buying a Kindle DX, the answer is no. At least not right now. As usual, readers and friends (some of them one and the same) came forward with cogent and sage advice, some of which is summed up here and here. So I'm going to wait. For color. For a lower price. For . . . well, all sorts of things. And maybe in the meantime I'll decide I don't really want one. Of course I do not need one. Maybe there's part of me who wanted to be the kid with the new toy. Just for once. It's been tough watching all my friends with their zoomy new iSomethingOrOthers while I still do not own even a cell phone. And the reactions when I borrow a call phone and have to ask "How do you work this thing??" to place a simple phone call? Disheartening. To say the least.

Here, however, is what I know I really want: Junot Diaz to write something else.

Oscar Wao was the runner-up selection to Netherland at my last book group meeting, and after finishing Netherland and upon the recommendation of a Facebook friend (who says there's no point to getting in touch with people you never spoke to in high school?), I read this. What a kick in the pants. It's sort of an anti-Corrections. What I mean is that the characters in The Corrections rang so true for me that the dialogue sounded like conversations I have had. There is no character in Oscar Wao who bears any resemblance to anyone I have ever encountered, every piece of dialogue astonishing and a surprise, yet I was so drawn in to their stories. My understanding of them was fragmented at best but my experience nonetheless intense. I was up for another helping.

Drown is Diaz's earlier book of short stories, told from the perspective of one of the characters in Oscar Wao. Even better. I'm not the biggest short story reader, often annoyed at the lack of development and closure that can be achieved in such a small dose. Diaz's stories, however, are interconnected and weave what is increasingly an American story, the journey of an immigrant. The stories are brutal, tender, and raw. They leave open many questions, but the questions themselves are part of the story.

So there's my summer reading suggestions. We're on our way to the mountains next week, with half the time camping in Tuolumne Meadows and the other half at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. Camping is never a great reading time for me: I'm either cooking, cleaning up, or hiking. Not much time spent on the butt. But BTC is another story: Much time spent on the butt while people are paid to cook and entertain kids with endless activities. Even I can relax there, and best with a book in hand and feet in the river.

Since I have not bought a Kindle, I'll be headed to the bookstore in the next few days. Suggestions?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What I can and cannot do,
and an easy cake recipe

I am not a whiz with frosting, which I do not often consider much of a problem because I really do not like the classic frosting rose look. And besides, we all know what gives the frosting the consistency to hold those forms—Crisco, a substance I refuse to use in anything that is intended for consumption (it's fine to adhere parchment paper to a pan, I guess).

I am also fairly hopeless when it comes to flower arranging. I cannot even pick out a decent arrangement at the florist. Almost anything at Trader Joe's beats my efforts hands down.

But I can stick flowers on a cake.


Who needs frosting flowers? If you invite me to your birthday party, I will bring a cake if you ask me to. How I decorate it will depend on what is growing in my garden. Or my neighbors' (don't tell).

And unless you request otherwise, your cake will be a sour cream chocolate cake that is a family recipe. My grandmother always made it for my dad's birthday, and it's come to be know in our family as Dad's Cake. It's the easiest cake ever. All ingredients except sour cream are likely to be found in anyone's cupboard. And this is the classic one-bowl cake. It doesn't even really matter how you combine the ingredients; everyone in our family probably does it differently. Here's how I do it:

1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup sour cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.

Combine sugar, cocoa, salt, and soda in a bowl and whisk until combined. Add butter to the bowl (it doesn't have to be softened). Pour in boiling water and mix until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth. Add the sour cream and mix further. Add flour and mix until flour is absorbed. Add eggs and mix on high speed for two minutes. Stir in vanilla.

Pour into prepared pans and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cake is done when it pulls away from the side of the pan—a clean toothpick out of the center means the cake is overdone.

My favorite frosting for this is a cream cheese frosting. It is easy to spread (don't try any roses), avoids chocolate overload you would have with a chocolate icing, and is so much tastier than buttercream . Mixing in 2 teaspoons of espresso powder dissolved in 1 teaspoon of hot water makes a wonderful mocha icing.

This was one of the first cakes I made by myself as a child. I was so proud to be trusted with this important responsibility. You can imagine my horror then when people reacted to their first bite with absolute horror. I had used baking powder instead of soda, and the results were disastrous. It tasted like chewed up aspirin. My dad's reaction, however, was priceless: "It's just fine!" as he choked down a few more bites. I'm sure after I ran from the room in tears, the rest of the cake went down the sink. To this day when I make this cake I repeat as I cross the kitchen to the cupboard "Soda! Soda! Soda!!!"

Friday, July 24, 2009

What I want

Aside from ski and cooking gear, I don't consider myself a very materialistic person, but I want want want one of these:

At least I think I do. Just look at it! It is BIG! So I could read things other than books. Like The New York Times! And Cooks Illustrated! Cooks is available to Kindle reader for FREE, and I think The New York Times is too. Whee! And can you imagine loading a pile of books, most of them for $9.99, on one and carrying it away outfitted in a little leather jacket (sold separately, of course)?

Don't get me wrong—I'm no hipster lusting after the latest electronic gizmo (hipsters don't use the word gizmo, do they?). I do not have a laptop computer, wireless, or an iThisorThat; in fact, I do not even have a cell phone. Seriously. Aside from the fact that I seem to have survived thus far without any of these devices, I am loathe to adopt anything that requires me to enter into a service contract with monthly payments. The Kindle comes with a wireless connection that does not require any other device. It's built right in, sort of like magic. And it's FREE. Well, more like it's included in the cost, which is [cough, cough] significant.

But as much as I am impressed by what I read, I am not sure. So let's break it down.

  • How cool would it be to search what you are reading? Like the first time a character is mentioned.
  • You can annotate what you are reading. Handy for making comments for the next book group meeting.
  • It comes with a dictionary! No more reading around words or guessing their meaning based on context. Do you think the dictionary would work for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Maybe not.
  • The cooking thing: Although I have a ridiculous collection of cookbooks, I do much of my recipe cooking from on-line sources. How great would it be to prop up the Kindle on the kitchen counter instead of running back and forth to the computer in the office or shuffling around printing pages? Recall that I have neither a laptop nor a wireless connection.
  • You could take the newspaper with you without hauling a big stack of paper. Recall that I do not own an iWhatever that allows the portability most people enjoy.
  • The Readers' Digest-style enlarged type might be a useful feature.
  • You would save a few trees.

WHY CINDY SHOULD NOT BUY A KINDLE DX (with refuting arguments)
  • It is crazy expensive. How many paperback books can you buy for nearly $500? (My MIL gave me a whole bunch of money for my birthday and I've only bought a pair of sensible shoes.)
  • It does not have color. Yet. (Is there a trade-in policy? Probably not. Who needs color?)
  • There has been a big whoopla over the fact that has the ability to delete from your machine material that you have purchased from them. No one would likely have noticed this except they deleted George Orwell's 1984 because they found out after the fact that they did not have the right to sell the version they did. It might be considered a one-off situation, but there has been some discussion over whether the "read aloud" feature violates rights agreements that do not include audio rights. It does seem like they need to iron out some of this.
  • This means I would be purchasing books from, which I have avoided doing in the name of supporting local independent booksellers. (There hardly are any more local independent booksellers, and the ones left almost never have what I want when I want it.)
  • I could break it. Could you see me having an epic crash on my motorscooter and taking it out?
  • I would miss the touch, feel, and smell of a book. (Horsefeathers! I work for a publisher and spend all day around the damn things. And besides, there are way to deal with these things.)
So what do you think? Do you have one? Should I have one????

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What we're eating: Red, white, and green

Sometimes you like a vegetable just for its name.

For example, the French Breakfast radish. It gives me visions of breakfasting at a leisurely hour on a warm crusty baguette, a slice of cheese, and a few fresh radishes while gazing across my cottage porch to endless fields of lavender and planning out my day of wine tasting and a visit to the local farmers market to . . . buy more radishes, of course. This radish is milder than others in flavor, such that I think of it as a child's radish.

But back to reality. Sophie grows these in our garden most of the summer, and one of our favorite ways to enjoy them is in the June issue of Bon Appetit's Green Bean Salad with Radishes and Prosciutto. It also features one of my favorite cheeses these days, Ricotta Salata. It's less aggressive than feta, which I love on salad, and therefore perfect for this salad that has a mix of delicate flavors you would not want to overwhelm. Everything can be prepped well in advance, and the finished salad is fine assembled an hour or so before serving.

We eat it for weeknight dinners.

We eat it for Sunday dinner. And Sophie is happy to take the leftovers in her summer camp lunch.

That's what we're eating over here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A new toy!

After dithering over kayaks on the REI website and deciding we really couldn't afford the kayak we wanted (2-person, skirts, rudder), especially considering how often we would use it, we decided we simply did not need another expensive, large toy

But we still wanted one. Enter the wonderful organization Save the Bay, which decided it did not need a small fleet of kayaks, since it had finished work on the site for which they used them (they're using canoes for their remaining sites). They were happy to sell their used kayaks at very reasonable prices, and we were able to pick out just what we wanted. 

Sophie has announced that she wants her next birthday party to have a "fishing theme." She and a few friends would go out on kayaks and  . . . fish. Could this child possibly be related to me?? I like to paddle and be out on the water but HATE to fish. I suppose I could pack them a picnic. With a fish theme. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

We have houseguests—hundreds of them!

Well, more like yard guests. But we like them!

They even brought their own room. A friend of ours is, among other things, a beekeeper, and as part of his maintenance of several hives, one of them needs to go somewhere else for a little while. Something to do with new bees, old bees, swarms, and the like. Whatever. We're happy to bee sit for as long as he needs us.

In the morning sunlight, our guests are very busy, flying in and out of an opening at the bottom of their box. We get along well: We are careful not to step on or frighten them, and (so far) they do not sting us. They're honeybees, after all, and they're busy.

We like watching them but were surprised at one of their behaviors.

Apparently as bees die off naturally in the hive, the other bees remove the bodies and deposit them in a little heap outside. "Bring out your dead!"

What's in it for us besides countless minutes of amusement?

Hopefully a comb full of honey for Sophie. So much better than a scented candle, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's cooking: Fresh strawberry pie

The most important thing about this pie is what you don't do. Fresh seasonal strawberries are too good to bake; they're best uncooked, with just a glaze. And not that day-glo goop you buy in a squeeze bottle. Real glaze is easy to make and just takes a few minutes.


6 cups strawberries
3 tablespoons corn starch
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

dough for single pie crust

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out the pie crust dough (remember: make a disc, roll from the center out so you don't get a shape like Florida) and place it in a pie pan. Crimp edge and chill until firm. Line dough with foil and add pie weights, dry beans, or rice. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and weights and bake until lightly browned, about 10 more minutes. Cool.

Rinse and slice berries, separating off one cup of the less than lovely ones.

Puree the one cup of berries in a food processor, blender, or food mill. Pour puree into bowl and add corn starch. Stir and then press out corn starch lumps with a rubber spatula. Add sugar and lemon juice. Pour into small sauce pan and heat to boil, cooking until spoon draws a clear path through mixture (see photo above). Cool.

Mix cooled puree with berries. Fill crust and chill or serve at room temperature.

Whipped cream, with a little sugar and vanilla added, or vanilla ice cream is good on top.

So don't say you can't make pie, OK? Ya'll can make pie.

Why they call it organic

Joanie Mitchell sang
Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DTD
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

But what about the BUGS? Like this little devil at the bottom of my strawberry bag. Look at him marching right toward that last strawberry. He probably pooped all over the rest.

NO PROBLEM. That's what colanders, the kitchen sink, and lots of clean water are for.

And, really. These organic family farm berries are so worth it, with a flavor that just pops. Those giant overwatered supermarket berries in plastic clamshells may look nice, but they don't have anywhere near the flavor of these.

Like most really good seasonal produce, the less you do to it, the better. Fresh berries tossed with a little glaze is all that's needed for the best strawberry pie ever. Come back for glaze instructions tomorrow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I was up to: A summertime beverage

A Bellini, of course!

Can you believe some people make these using peach schnapps?? That's just wrong.

One of the things that makes a proper Bellini, made with white peach puree, special is that you can only have one a couple months out of the year. I know . . . some people freeze their puree, but a Bellini just would not be the same in front of a roaring fire. I wait for after the first crop or so at my produce market so I can get peaches that are really ripe—the kind with a shelf life of about half a day.

I peel them using a vegetable peeler—you just need to the get the skin started and then it pretty much pulls away. Since my peaches were too ripe to slice, I squished them up up with my hands into my food mill. I've been using my food mill a lot lately while I wait for my new food processor and a part for my blender to arrive, and I've found it's better for applications like this since it removes the fibrous matter instead of just pulverizing it.

2 lb. very ripe white peaches
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
lemon juice to taste
1 bottle of Prosecco, chilled (or other dry sparkling wine)

Peel peaches and run through a food mill or food processor. Add sugar and lemon juice to taste. Stir to dissolve sugar. Chill.

Add two tablespoons of peach puree to a flute. Fill remainder of glass with Prosecco. Stir gently and serve.
Although very pretty on its own, a sprig of mint or a few raspberries makes a nice garnish. And sparkling water with the puree makes a nice kids' drink. Of course kids always need a garnish on their drink.

Happy summer.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I will not even give you the recipe

Not because it's top secret or anything like that.

As if I'm going into the pickle business and need to guard professional information. Nosiree.

They looked nice, but they just didn't taste very good. In fact, they were really quite awful. Unless you like to chew on vinegar. I liked the idea in this recipe to substitute tarragon for dill, and I have a new tarragon plant in my herb garden. But . . . no. I don't even want to compost them for fear of what they'll do to the worms.

A friend of mine who is a much-respected food blogger once laughed that she only posts the good stuff. I usually do too, but what the heck? I get to do a food post without typing up a recipe.

Does anyone have a favorite pickle recipe? I have a good one for bread and butter pickles, but I'm thinking here the refrigerator kind, with a good crunch. Dill or otherwise.

File this under Only in Berkeley

Where else can you find a car that matches your daughter's psychedelic dress?

And no, we don't know him, but he was kind enough to pose for a picture. And yes, he is wearing hot pink shorts. I know.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Just asking

Why oh why did my daughter, sent off to day camp with three kinds of sunscreen (spray, lotion, and stick— all over 30 SPF), come home looking like


I think she's suffering from not only a sunburn but some kind of allergic reaction. Not good. We've treated with aloe, but I'm thinking of keeping her home from camp tomorrow.

And another question while we're here.

Am I the only one who thinks Michael Jackson's coffin looks like a giant buffet server?

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fourth of July recap; or, what we were doing while Sarah Palin bagged it resigned

As has happened for the past seven years, our group of friends, the Usual Suspects, hit the road for our annual Fourth of July camping trip. The Fig Family missed the past two (the MIL-sponsored Alaskan cruise and the Tetons-Yellowstone-Montana trip of last year), so we were particularly psyched for this trip.

We went to Upper Blue Lake, about twenty miles from Lake Tahoe, near Kirkwood, one of our favorite skiing haunts. Camping is no reservation, so we hit the road Thursday afternoon and raced in to grab sites for our group.

We were too late to get the spots down by the lake, but our crowd was appreciative nonetheless. We were negligent close enough for the kids to walk down by themselves.

As we expected, the lake and the hiking were great. But before I get to that, let's go over what sucked.

Here they are now: Our campground neighbors. Not only did they run their ATVs around the campground and up some of the lower hiking trails incessantly, but they fired up their goddamned generator the minute it became dark so they could run the FLUORESCENT light fixture they strung up over their picnic table. Seriously—their campsite looked like high noon all evening long and sounded like a fleet of lawn mowers. The first night they ran it until 11:00, when I got out of bed and marched over. The next night I kicked the campground host's butt at 10:00 to go enforce the campground's policy of turning off generators at 10:00. Assholes. Makes me want to backpack far away from all this trash.

However, these people were nearly outdone in aggravating us by the campground hosts themselves. Left to their own devices, these people would have run their generator around the clock, we think to power air conditioning they denied having. Thank goodness for my girlfriend the attorney (now the Usual Suspect In-House Counsel), who mentally muscled them into limiting their noise pollution to only part of each day. Why on earth did these people ever leave Modesto anyway??

But on to the good.

We set up camp.

We hung out with good friends. I'm looking all peppy here because I just got out of my solar shower.

We hung out at lakes—the one near our campground and a couple we hiked to.

We kayaked. We liked the used kayak our friends bought from Save the Bay that we're getting one just like one we borrowed for a spin around the lake and a little fishing.

We hiked. That's our friend Eric the Goat on top of what is called The Nipple and his dog Biscuit the Mountain Dog.

We, of course, we ate. The first night one family did burgers, hotdogs, sausages, and pasta salad. The second night was lamb kabobs and an amazing jicama slaw. And I did tacos on the third night (pictured here). It's the easiest camp meal ever for a crowd: I roast and shred the carnitas and prep the chicken at home. The morning of the meal, I marinate the chicken in a plastic bag. Before dinner, it's just a matter of warming up the carnitas and beans, grilling the chicken, assembling the slaw and condiments, and grilling the tortillas. What I love about camping with a group is not having to make every meal. Or do all the dishes. Rocks.

We're back to the summer camp routine, which seems like hardly a routine at all given that it changes every week. Sophie has done a week of fiddle camp, a couple weeks of jr. life guards at a local lake, a week of swim camp, and has sports camp, more jr. guards, and peace camp (this being Berkeley and all) on tap. Did someone say something about vacation being about rest and relaxation? No? That's ok, the Figs not being big resters or relaxers.