Monday, November 30, 2009

Frozen green peas

They're probably the best of frozen vegetables.

And not only for eating. I'll be piling them on my shoulder starting this afternoon.

My Thanksgiving obsession was a great distraction from thinking about the shoulder surgery I'm scheduled to have this afternoon. I hate surgeries scheduled in the afternoon—more time to think about how much I want the bowl of cereal and cup of coffee that I can't have. But this doesn't sound bad as a surgery goes. I'm going to have arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum. I was hit from behind by a skier going way too fast (I'm not known for picking my way down a mountain slowly) and completely out of control. I was thrown head-first down the mountain, with my right arm pulled back. Almost a year of rest, ice, Advil, physical therapy, and I've said "uncle." My surgeon says he can fix it. "Do it," I said.

I've had so much surgery that I'm not particularly nervous, but I'm really not looking forward to the time robbery. It's not like when you go to sleep and wake up and feel like some time has passed. You're laying there chatting with the nurses (if they ask me if I'm worried, I say "yes!" so they give me the really good drugs and I drift off thinking not everything about being a drug addict is so bad. . . .) and whammo "Cindy, Cindy—can you hear me? How are you feeling? Don't move anything!" There's no subconscious regrouping like there is in sleep. I'm never ready, and it doesn't feel right.

I'll have a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, but at least there's hope that someday I'll once again do a downward-facing dog and a decent plank, that I'll be able to put a ponytail smack in the middle of my head, that I'll regain range of movement and symmetry with the other side of my body.

In the meantime, it's peas. I passed on the $175 device that you strap on your shoulder and plug into the wall to circulate chilly water and make a noise I've been told is wonderful to fall asleep to. It sounds lovely, but insurance didn't cover a cent of it, and as I pointed out to my doctor "I have peas!"

Back soon.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The best entertaining tip ever

Remember, you heard it here.

Start every party with an empty dishwasher. That way dirty dishes won't pile up on the counter and in the sink. Even if they're dishes that need to be handwashed, you can hide them in the dishwasher to keep them out of the way while you are entertaining.

Happy Thanksgiving from sunny northern California.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving eve

So, how are you doing? Ready?

I've ticked a few things off my list.

Two pies down, one to do in the morning (crust is made).

Linens ironed. Table set.

It will look so much better tomorrow with people around it.

The only hitch: Tomorrow is a bay area "spare the air" day, when we are not allowed to burn any wood. We heat our house with a woodstove and have no central heating. We have two elderly women who are easily cold coming to dinner. Do we go for the fire and risk our first official warning and the wrath of our politically correct neighbors or do we plug in every electric heating device we can find? It's always something. . . .

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Time out for a Thanksgiving meltdown

Never let it be said this is a blog devoted to depicting an unrealistic depiction of a perfect life. We now take a break from the Thanksgiving countdown to bring you . . . a Thanksgiving MELTDOWN.

The Symptoms

I wake in the middle of the night and worry: What if my turkey sucks? What if I forget some key ingredient? What if I leave one of my dishes or appetizers in the refrigerator and forget to ever bring it out? (This happened to my mom once.) What if people start flinging ambrosia at me?

I continue in my wakened state to do stupid things like count silverware in my head.

I obsess over the fact that in my Thanksgiving countdown, the numbers of the posts are going UP! Isn't this sort of a logical problem?

I focus exclusively on what I have NOT done. Let's run through that list:
Made my pie crusts. This is an obvious do-ahead, but I've just run out of gas every night. I'll probably end up cranking them out as I bake my pies tomorrow afternoon.

Ironed table linens. This is huge. They have been laundered for a week and just sitting there. Gaaahhhhhh!!!!

Thought about my centerpieces. I know—what kind of hostess am I?????

Cleaned the house. My house cleaner comes Wednesday morning, but she doesn't deal with the miles of piles, which are my main problem. We might have to resort to the strategy I used when I hosted a friend's wedding: Everything in the closets! At least Sophie is old enough now that I can coach her not to tell anyone who remarks on how nice the house looks "Just do not open any of the closets!!"
I know, I know. What an idiot I am. I should get a friggin' life already. It is, after all, just a dinner. Right. OK.

So back to the version of my life where I have it all together. Presenting . . .

The Menu!

sliced baguettes w/ duck rillettes & cornichon
pita chips with smoked trout pate & basil leaf
goat cheese phyllo tarts
baby carrots
green onions
radishes with butter and salt
stuffed mushrooms (Jim's bringing)

roast turkey and gravy
sausage chantrelle stuffing
buttermilk mashed potatoes
whole cranberry sauce
spicy cranberry relish (Lisa's bringing)
smoked salmon (Jim's bringing)
corn pudding
sauteed fennel with white wine and parmesan
sauteed green beans (Matt's bringing)

apple crumb pie
pumpkin pie
bourbon-pecan tart
sweetened vanilla whipped cream

The Bright Spots in All of This

This is my favorite new prepared food item. It is truly the bomb. I like the idea of pate but eschew all organ meats solely on the yuck factor. This is made with just duck breast, duck skin, and duck fat and has a rich roasted duck taste. Sophie would probably eat the entire jar if I would let her. Once I am past the holidays, I want to learn to make my own, but until then I am ridiculously happy with this. You can order it from

These pretty organic miniature colored carrots. If we can't have fall-colored leaves in California, at least we can have fall-colored carrots.

These beautiful yellow chantrelles. This time of year we usually have the standard orange chantrelles, but these yellow ones are a nice change and will enliven my stuffing.

But the real bright spots will be my guests who share my Thanksgiving with me on Thursday.

I Think It's All Going To Be OK

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown VI: Do-aheads

When I was growing up, we always had canned jellied cranberry sauce. What wonderful stuff it was! My mom served it on a long silver platter, and slicing it so fanned out just so was one of my favorite Thanksgiving tasks. I've grown into more of a whole berry sauce girl though, but cranberries remain one of my favorite seasonal foods.

This time of year, when fresh cranberries are abundant, I cook up a few batches and can them, not only for Thanksgiving but for all the roast chicken dinners we eat through the winter.

But if you make yours now for Thanksgiving dinner, you're in luck. There's no need to mess with canning in a hot water bath. The sauce will easily last a few days til the big meal and through the leftovers.

I cooked three bags of cranberries, giving us enough for our meal and for making a small jar for the MIL to take home with her leftovers.

I also cut up my stuffing bread so it can dry to a nice crunchy texture. Growing up, we used spongy white Weber bread because that's what bread was in our household (my parents have since evolved to whole grain). I use a locally made ciabatta. Two large loaves should yield enough stuffing for my thirteen guests.

1 12-ounce bag of cranberries, rinsed and picked through
3/4 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and cook until slightly thickened and about half of the berries have burst. Ladle into clean dry jars and let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.

This recipe multiplies easily. If you make a large batch, can what you do not intend to use right away in a hot water bath. Process hot preserves in a hot water bath for fifteen minutes.
Next: I'm working my way to . . . Thanksgiving MELTDOWN! Tune in to see what I have not done in preparation for my big dinner. And why it's going to be ok (at least that's what I keep telling myself).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown V:
Equipment check

Silver polished?

Check! Some of these pieces I inherited, but most are ones I found at flea markets, small antique shops, or even thrift stores. It's amazing how good a tarnished mess can clean up with a little Mrs. Wright's.

Knives sharpened?

Not yet, but Husband dropped them off at Hida Tool, with a promise that they would be ready on Wednesday. Can you believe he did not buy a single tool while he was there? Unprecedented.

Glassware inventoried and restocked?

Check! We seem to go through glassware like tissue. I have almost enough nice wine goblets, but I picked up these extras from the Crate and Barrel outlet for $3 a piece. At that price, we can throw them at walls. I also needed new water goblets, and although I'm not crazy about them (far too heavy to throw at walls), these saved me from driving to a mall. They'll do.

Later tonight after Sunday dinner is consumed and cleaned up, I'll be ironing napkins.

Next up: Food do-aheads.

Just think, in a week it will all be over, and we'll be sick of turkey sandwiches and I'll be craving anti-holiday food—usually Thai. Seems like a long way off, doesn't it?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown IV:
Canned pumkin shortage?

Have you heard about it? Two words I offer in response: WHO CARES? Because roasting a pumpkin is about the easiest thing to do. And it's a good way to heat up a cold kitchen.

It's important though to buy the right kind of pumpkin.

Not one of these. You want a sugar pie or baking pumpkin. The jack-o-lantern kind are full of stringy stuff and will leave with nothing but a bunch of orange water (don't ask how I know this).

Scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff.

Place cut side down in a roasting pan filled with about an inch of water. This steams the pumpkin as it bakes. Roast at 350 degrees until skin starts to brown and can be easily pierced with a sharp knife.

When pumpkin is cooled enough to handle, spoon mixture into a food mill (one of the most useful low-tech. kitchen gadgets ever—makes the perfect mashed potatoes) and apply a little elbow grease.

The mixture is fine in the refrigerator for a few days and freezes well.

And it's not just for pie. There's bread! And soup! And risotto! Stir some into your favorite pancake recipe, add a few pumpkin-friendly spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove), and you have pumpkin pancakes!

But on the subject of Thanksgiving desserts, I've decided on three: pumpkin pie, apple crumb pie, and a new one: bourbon pecan tart, a recipe in Bon Appetit by my personal pie mentor, Carolyn Weil. I'm excited about the tart: It sounds like a great alternative to the standard pecan pie.

On other fronts, I seem to be going down in flames. We're having ambrosia. And after giving Husband the final call, we're also having rolls. He wants them for mopping gravy, and I was swayed by the argument that Thanksgiving is a feast and not meant to be a nutritionally reasonable meal. But I am drawing the line: We are not saying grace. It's my house. My dinner. No grace. No discussion. We're just giving thanks. Period.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown III: Rolls?

Thank you to everyone who weighed in on the ambrosia discussion. I have made my peace with the fact that my MIL's feelings are more important than what I serve my guests. And besides, there's not a chance in hell anyone will think I made the ambrosia: My hostess rep. will remain intact.

But someone's suggestion that I redirect the MIL toward crescent rolls brings up something I've been gnawing on for a while.

Does one really need to serve rolls at Thanksgiving?

Are rolls and stuffing not redundant?

After all, they are both essentially bread. Don't get me wrong: I am no carb. counter (I've heard there's research that says people on low-carb. diets are bitchy, and I cannot afford to move any farther in that direction, but I tend to be of the persuasion that the only thing that should be doubled up on the plate are vegetables, especially when they are different colors. So beets are nice with something green, like zucchini. And who does not think corn is nice with spinach? But a roll sitting next to a pile of bread? And no, there's no room on our table for bread plates. I dunno. But then I've taken similar issue with pasta and garlic bread: Isn't pasta enough in the carb. category? And don't forget the pie crust coming up.

And besides, rolls come with other accompaniments (butter, preserves) that take up a bit of real estate on the table. But then I make really good preserves. I make only ok rolls—I purchase rolls much better. I will be sure to buy some nice bread or rolls for turkey sandwiches before bed or the next day.

And some people really like rolls. But my nephews, who at some family dinners have eaten nothing but rolls, will not be there.

What do you think?? Discuss.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown II: Menu planning

So just when I thought we were moving forward with Thanksgiving plans, my MIL volunteers cheerfully "I would like to bring something!" Remembering the pink syrup in a bottle she once squirted on strawberries to go over my homemade short cake, I scrambled to think of something long enough for her to volunteer what she really wants to bring:


I could just weep. Do you know what this is? Mini marshmallows, shredded coconut, various kinds of canned fruit (we live in California, for christsake—why would anyone eat canned fruit??), sour cream, and I think Cool Whip (cannot believe I just typed those words). I hate ambrosia!!! It is gross!!!!!

So do I point out that everyone else hates ambrosia too? Well, I guess that is not really true. After all, she likes it. Maybe other people do too. But probably not. The "not if it's too much trouble!" did not work. Ambrosia is coming to dinner. Along with my MIL. At least we all really do like her.

So what else are we having? In addition to various appetizers, yet to be determined,
  • Roast turkey with gravy
  • Whole cranberry sauce (I always can a bunch this time of year)
  • Cranberry relish (Lisa is bringing this)
  • Stuffing with sausage, apple, and chantrelles
  • Buttermilk mashed potatoes
  • Corn pudding
  • Sauteed green beans (my friend Matt is bringing this)
  • Smoked king salmon (Jim is bringing this—he wanted to smoke my turkey, but I told him no because of the stuffing and gravy issue)
And of course, we will have pies: definitely apple and pumpkin, possibly pecan. Does anyone really like pecan? Probably the same people who like ambrosia. I guess I'll make one.

What's your Thanksgiving favorite? Would you eat ambrosia?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown: Stocking up

So Thanksgiving is at my house again. Do you want to come? Oakland is the nearest airport, and you should be here by about 3:00 because that's when badminton begins. Here's the plan: We have a cocktail and munch a few appetizers, play some badminton, have another cocktail and munch a few more appetizers, yack a bunch, have dinner, yack a bunch, have dessert, and then lie on the floor holding our stomachs. Thanks goodness we got that badminton in, right? And if you get here earlier in the morning, you could come on my family's hike in the canyon to look for migrating salamanders, which should help a little with the calorie situation.

Thanksgiving is a little over a week away—time to get cracking! First up on my agenda is making sure I have lots of stock. I need it for gravy, for stuffing, and possibly for some of my vegetable dishes (anything cooked in water is better cooked in stock).

I know some people do crazy things like roasting bones, but I think that sort of misses the point. Stock should be made from what is left over, like all those chicken carcasses that I bag up and throw in the freezer until we reach critical stock mass. Regardless of what else I add, I've found the best stock I make is that with the most chicken carcasses. Three or four is good.

I add a few carrots, a few stalks of celery, an onion, a handful of parley, a bay leaf, some thyme, some sage, a few peppercorns, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Sometimes there has been a lemon inside one of the chickens, and that ends up in there too.

I simmer overnight, let cool the next day, then strain the broth through a mesh colander lined with cheesecloth, and refrigerate it to let the fat harden on top.

Usually I remove the fat, ladle the broth into containers, and freeze, but because I have an afternoon at home (parent/teacher conference week, with all half days) and just because I'm feeling special, I'm going to cook down the defatted broth to concentrate it, giving me a richer broth and saving some freezer space.

Coming up: knife sharpening, turkey buying, menu planning, pie crusting, and a discussion of ambrosia.

So, are you coming?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Just asking

Before I allowed Sophie to move in with visit the neighbors this weekend, I required her to help clean her room and sort through old toys she no longer plays with.

It was time, she admitted, for the Calico Critters, all the rage the past few years, to be packed away. She wants them to be shallow storage because she might want to play with them again. At some point they will migrate to deep storage where they will wait for her children to play with them.

We spent over an hour sorting out all the landfill donations—headless Polly Pockets, bald Barbies, and plastic ponies with manes hopelessly matted— from the Critters wonderful stuff, which we both admit is pretty amazing.

Unlike Polly, Barbie, and those ponies, the Calicos area wonderful and charming family that we have been happy to host. They are well-made, soft, fuzzy little creatures with a lovely Victorian house, cute outfits, and an astounding assortment of furniture and accessories.

So I was puzzled that Sophie insisted on including in their box this character:

"Oh, I need her. They use her as a maid sometimes."

Really? So when and from where do children acquire the idea that someone who waits on you or cleans your house should be someone different from you? Did I do that? Probably. I guess my message of "Work hard enough and earn enough money or be nice enough to your mother-in-law, and you'll never have to scrub a toilet!" went terribly wrong somewhere along the line. Crap. Liberal guilt's a bummer.

Do you think the Calicos paid the maid a living wage? I'm going to ask about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fall cooking: Stuffed summer squash

In California we have the end of the summer squash crop still around. But we have cool fall evenings that make me search for a reason to turn on my oven.

This recipe for stuffed squash is satisfies on all fronts.

I use a sharp knife to cut off both top and bottom off. Cutting the bottom means that each squash can stand in a pan without rolling away. A melon ball scooper works perfectly to hollow out the squash.

The filling for this dish can be almost anything you want. My favorite is ground lamb, chopped onion, minced garlic, fresh dill, and lemon juice.

A can of diced tomatoes poured over the top, followed by crumbled feta, and you have a dish almost as easy as the Hamburger Helper my mom used to make (really, she did and we liked it).

About 45 minutes in the oven, and you're ready to eat.


A dozen or so squashes
1 pound ground lamb
1 onion, diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dill
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup crumbled feta (I like Bulgarian best)
1 large can diced tomatoes

Slice off tops and bottoms of squash, then hollow out using a melon ball scooper.

Mix lamb, onion, lemon juice, dill, salt, and pepper. Arrange in a shallow baking pan and pour over diced tomatoes and juice. Sprinkle with feta and bake uncovered until juices of meat run clear, about 45 minutes

A quick spray of aerosol cooking spray on the pan beforehand makes cleanup quicker.
I serve this with a rice pilaf and green salad.

What are you cooking up for fall??

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Packing for a party

We're heading off for a weekend celebration of one of our best friend's fiftieth birthday. At this stage in life, we're mostly done with weddings and showers and have yet to move on to memorial services. The best parties for us are the fifty-year birthdays. Husband has gone ahead; I'll follow in a few years.

We're driving up tonight after we get home from work. I'm on board for Saturday night's Big Pasta dinner with spaghetti with meat sauce or pesto, Caesar salad, and birthday cake. Most of it is made and ready to go. I'll frost the cake when I get there. We'll have about thirty people, which after a couple years of making spaghetti for evening events at Sophie's school for several times that number sounds like sort of a Medium Pasta dinner. And want to bet people will be appreciative? And not find something to complain about? Right—these people are my friends (I'm done cooking for the school for the time being, possibly forever).

Husband is all over the wine, something he takes very seriously. He emerged from his cellar (otherwise known as our basement) the other night with his selections. He's even packing his decanter. 

Sophie has her own ideas about what we should pack. Husband asked if I wanted to take my car (a Honda CRV) or our vanaroo (a VW van with a Suburu conversion engine). I said I didn't care and tossed the question to Sophie. "Definitely the van! So we can take more stuff. Life the chestnut pan!!"

The house in which we'll be staying has a woodstove and we bought some fresh chestnuts at the produce market the other day, so why not? I'm not crazy about how roasted chestnuts taste (Sophie and Husband love them), but you can't argue with how they make the house smell.

We are overdue for some relaxation and time with our favorite people, the Usual Suspects. And we can't think of a better reason than celebrating this man (pictured here with Husband, on the left). And no, his name isn't really Morty, which is a nickname given to him when it was determined at some point that there were too many Matts around. Wouldn't you like to look like that at fiddy?

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Homemade pepper jelly:
Eat some now, give some later

Last week I had the worst week at work: Layoffs and furloughs have left many of us stressed, overworked, and at serious risk for burn out. And to top it off I have had what I thought was a head cold for nearly three weeks running. I've since decided it's allergies, but living with constantly stuffed and achy sinuses has left me feeling pretty under the weather.

Thank goodness I found an activity that addressed both problems: Pepper jelly. I'll explain. I find few things as relaxing as canning. It's sort of like cooking in that it's a creative outlet, but canning really addresses the squirrel in me: Especially during this time of year, I like to stock up tasty things to take me through the winter. And the hot water bath works as a nice sinus steamer, while the pungent odor of the peppers blasts through, giving me a whiff of something for the first time in weeks.

Much credit goes to my blog and real-life friend Trevor for this inspiration. I mailed him some fig jam; he mailed me some of this grandmother's recipe of pepper jelly. Over the weekend, he made fig jam, and I made pepper jelly. He made his as part of a holiday gift-making collective; I'll take some of mine to sell at Sophie's school holiday art fair.

My produce market had a wonderful collection of peppers. Although the recipe calls for red peppers, I couldn't help throw in a few yellows as well.

Seeding the jalepenos keeps this jelly from being too hot. It's just perfect for my white-girl taste buds.

I chopped all peppers coarsely and then ran them through the food processor.

Perhaps what I love most about this recipe is what it does not include: green food coloring. You can go ahead and dump this over a brick of cream cheese if you must, but it does not need a lurid green hue. I prefer Trevor's recommendation of crostini and goat cheese. It's a great addition to any cheese and cracker or bread combination.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Laughing with—not at—figs

Being the blogger sometimes known as Figs, you can imagine my delight at being forwarded by several people this important article concerning, among other things, figs. And the First Citizen of the People's Republic of Berkeley, Alice Waters, whom bad boy Anthony Bourdain calls "Pol Pot in a muumuu." Sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than a little old-fashioned name calling. And she does sort of ask for it. The woman is simply not funny. At all. Which makes her a perfect and hilarious target for Bourdain.

And where do figs come in? When New York chef David Chang remarks that "fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate with nothing on it." Which is really not too far from the truth. If it's not figs, it's tangerines or persimmons. Sort of way of smugly showing off that we have nearly perfect weather and wonderful local produce all year round.

And what is wrong with a menu offering of figs on a plate? It is silly. Here is where I draw the line:
Figs on a plate at home is fine. It is actually very nice.

In a restaurant? That is just silly. Is it anything other than pretentious to imply that a diner is incapable of purchasing, washing, and slicing his or her own figs? Figs with a nice slice of cheese (St. Andre, maybe?) and a drizzle of lavender syrup over the figs, that's more like it. Show some effort, and not by just harboring deep thoughts about produce.
Chang got in all sorts of trouble over his remark concerning the emperor's clothes (I bet Bourdain is happy Alice has on that muumuu), and a promotional event for his book was cancelled to show him his place. But I haven't heard that anyone was upset with his suggestion that bay area folks just need to mellow out and smoke more weed. After all, we grow that too.