Monday, December 13, 2010

The advent of crabs

Pictures are coming soon of the enormous catastrophe that happens to the homes of many people married to general contractors. For a while, the cobbler's children have no shoes, and then one day the cobbler says "Dang! Let's make some SHOES!!" But instead of just making one simple pair, he decides to turn the house into a SHOE FACTORY. So that's sort of where I live.

How would you feel about imposing holiday decorations on a construction site? I could easily skip the whole shebang, but the ten-year-old in my house hangs her heart on tree this time of year. So off to buy the tree we went. And the construction site I live in is now somewhat appropriately decorated.

To give myself a break and to celebrate the winter season, I indulged the other weekend in a local delicacy: fresh Dungeness crab. The season has officially opened to rave reviews of this year's crabs: large and plentiful. It's nice to see the local fishermen catching a break after being deprived of much of their salmon income the past few years. But did I catch at break in procuring said crabs? Hell, no. Because I wanted them on Sunday, when my local fish monger is closed, I was forced to brave

The Market from Hell

Some people really like this Asian market chain. Not me. It is always crowded, and people push a lot. Look where I was in line to buy my live crab:

Fuuuuuuuuck . . . . . . .

And mind you that most orders take at least five to ten minutes each because many people want things done to their fish.

Violent and bloody things.

My order is quick: Four crabs. Live, all the claws. Don't do a damn thing to them. I'll kill them myself.

They don't look happy here, do they? I'm really doing them a service.

In the meantime, I wander around the store looking at all the interesting things you do not normally see at a grocery store.

Would you eat these? I'm one of those people who stranded
on a desert island would surely starve.

How about these? I thought Hello Kitty only made stuff out of plastic.
Maybe I'm right.

I had one of these dolls when I was a kid. Cute! Sort of?

Look—a fish for me!

I am such a giver. Anything for my family. Well, almost.

On weekends we are home, we have the MIL over for Sunday dinner. She often shows up with a game—dominoes, Scrabble, cards—that she, Husband, and Sophie play over cocktails while I finish preparing dinner (I hate games). This Sunday she showed up with something different:

Religious indoctrination material provided by the MIL's church,
which Sophie has attended about four times

The MIL has always been active in her church, but since the death of her husband, who was openly hostile to anything that diverted her attention from him, it's sort of like she's making up for lost church activity. She sings in the choir, goes to meetings, plans meetings, hosts meetings, writes biographies of church members. And she wants to share. Fine, but not this with us. I do not know what part of "We are atheists" she has not heard. We have made a concerted effort to be respectful and supportive of her choice in this area, but I'm not feeling the reciprocation here.

It's not like our choice is one borne from disinterest or apathy. My journey has been a long one from a childhood and youth of regular Congregational church attendance to where I am confident of my ability to raise my child to be a compassionate and ethical person without belief in a deity. So whereas it's nice that my MIL's church thought of Sophie, giving her a handbook that includes, among other things, prayers to a god we have taught her does not exist gets up my hackles. And it's not that I think we need to shelter her from things we do not believe; on the contrary, I think it's useful to talk about different beliefs. This, however, looked too much like my MIL attempting to take on Sophie's religious education, probably with the opinion that I'm not doing too good a job of that myself. And who knows? Some day she may choose Christianity as her belief. But while she's my kid, I'm going to teach her what I believe to be true. We talk, we think, we do. We don't pray.

A couple of weeks later, the advent book has been mostly abandoned, although the chocolate from the accompanying advent calendar has been consumed with something resembling religious fervor. In our house, it's the not the season of divine birth but merely regular birth of a probably remarkable man. It's the season to forgive, although not to forget.

And the season to break crab.

Happy merry.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What we want: Underwear, scotch,
chicken, peace, potatoes

Sophie and I had a lot of time to talk this past weekend as we toured the local attraction Playland Not-at-the-Beach. It's a museum of sorts dedicated to preserving memories of ways and places where people used to have fun, in particular the old Playland at the Beach that once stood out near the Cliff House and Sutro Baths in San Francisco.

They have tons of killer dioramas, which is timely given that Sophie is working on her California history unit mission diorama (how cool do you think royal icing will work as adobe plaster???). It was fun to talk about how if you lived before computers and television in a small town or the country the circus—really a traveling small town—visiting was a really important event. Did you know the circus they depict had a staff of over 100 just to prepare food?

We also enjoyed the glittering Santa's Village display, although I was at a total loss to explain how it had anything to do with amusement parks or circuses. Someone just really likes to make dioramas, I guess.

Our absolute favorite park though was Pinball Alley. Forty pinball machines all set on free play!!!! We played, laughed, gabbed, and I tried to explain the story of Tommy ("That deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball!"). The pinball crown for the afternoon was Sophie's given that she beat me soundly on almost every game.

We left feeling all giddy and holiday-like since we had just had a wonderful time and were heading home to roast a pre-Thanksgiving turkey. And so we got in some good work on the Christmas lists. Sophie thinks Husband should receive:
  • new underwear
  • the cream he likes to put on his face after shaving
  • a bottle of Scotch
Done! We can totally handle that. Sophie would like:
  • ski race training shorts
  • a Nerf gun
  • new skinny jeans
  • a roast chicken she can have all to herself to pick on at her leisure
I can do that. Although Husband's not going to be happy about the chicken. My list was harder. I want for little. I'm signing up for:
  • world peace
  • lots of snow
  • good mashed potatoes
World peace is not looking good. Lots of snow is. We're playing hooky tomorrow and heading up to the mountains for a pre-Thanksgiving ski, a rarity in our neck of the Sierras.

And I've had mashed potatoes on the brain lately. It's one of Sophie's favorite foods ever. She would have them as a side dish for nearly every meal if she could, and I indulge her a lot. They just make you feel good. I think if more people ate mashed potatoes, they would be happier, nicer to people, and we might have a better shot at world peace.

So for Christmas I would like (my sub-wish list):
  • No one to buy frozen mashed potatoes at Trader Joe's. The packaging is wasteful, and they're just not that hard to make.
  • No one to use an electric mixer to make them. Just makes them all gooey.
  • Everyone who does not have a food mill to run out and buy one.

They are inexpensive, work when there's no electricity, and make perfect mashed potatoes.

Buttermilk and melted butter, both at room temperature before they are combined and added are a secret of this recipe, modified from a Cooks Illustrated issue of a few years ago. And stirring in a little cheese (we like chevre or paremesan) doesn't hurt a bit.


2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes , peeled and cubed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup buttermilk, room temperature

Place potatoes in large saucepan; add cold water to cover by 1 inch and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until potatoes break apart when paring knife is inserted, about 20 minutes.

Set food mill in sink and pour through to drain. Set mill over medium bowl and turn to process potatoes.

Gently mix melted butter and buttermilk in small bowl until combined. Fold mixture into potatoes using rubber spatula until just incorporated. Adjust seasoning with salt. Serve immediately or cover tightly and then warm in microwave and refold before serving later.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fruitcake: I swear you will like it

You know, the joke about the same fruitcake being continually regifted contains an element of truth: Fruitcake lasts nearly forever. I do not understand, however, why when you're talking about single malt scotch longevity is considered a virtue; with fruitcake, it only contributes to the endless and cruel jokes. The truth is that fruitcake also improves with age.

Just look at last year's fruitcake that has been hiding in our second refrigerator. The deep rich fragrance alone is worth digging it out. And it worked well to buy me a reprieve from what Husband had planned for me this weekend:

Staining cedar shingles for our house exterior.

It was not fun.

I agreed with Husband that it was easier to stain shingles before going up rather than after, but still. The stain smelled horrible and after a few hours, my ass hurt from sitting on the little stool I was allowed. I received only occasional breaks to help Husband run electrical cables through walls and up and down from the attic to the basement. (I love rewiring. I get to point and say "Give me an outlet here, here, and here. With a switch there.")

But feeding Husband a little aged fruitcake gave me the best break of all. With the thought that we could run out of fruitcake in his head, he was happy to have me retreat into my kitchen for a little holiday baking. Yes, that holiday. Fruitcake needs a little time to soak in its juices, so it's time to do this now.

What makes this a great fruitcake recipe is that it contains none of what people hate about fruitcake, namely that weird candied fruit that no one can identify. This recipe (clipped years ago from Sunset Magazine) includes only dried fruit: apricots, pineapple, cherries, and cranberries.

The chopping is a little laborious (my food processor doesn't do a good job on gummy apricots) but beats the hell out of staining shingles.

The batter is little else than sugar, butter, eggs, molasses, flour, and a panoply of spices.

It barely holds together the mountain of fruit and nuts folded in before baking.

These slowly baking loaves will scent your house better than any candle, without risking the anyone becoming upset that there really isn't anything being made to eat.

The last step to this fruitcake before it is put to rest for a few weeks before holiday eating or gifting is a soak in a mixture of orange liqueur and apricot preserves. When taken out to slice and eat, it is a gooey delicious mess—quite different from that fruitcake that has been circling the globe the past century.


1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses

1 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 pound (2 cups) pecan halves, chopped
1 pound dried apricots, chopped
1/2 pound dried lightly sweetened pineapple, chopped
1/2 pound dried cranberries
1/2 pound dried cherries

1 cup apricot preserves
1 cup orange liqueur

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Spray loaf pans with canola spray. This recipe makes about six small loaves.

Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Beat in molasses.

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour and spices. Add to egg mixture and beat until just blended. Fold in pecans and dried fruit.

Spoon mixture into loaf pans, pressing down to eliminate air bubbles. Smooth each top level with a knife.

Bake for about 1 1/2 hours. Cool for 2 hours.

Combine preserves and liqueur in small pan and heat until preserves has melted and mixture is reduced slightly. Allow to cool a little. Place loaves in an air proof container and spoon mixture over to cover loaf and leave a slight puddle beneath. Seal and refrigerate for several weeks—the longer, the better.
Seriously, you will like it. Served with a little vanilla ice cream, you may love it.

About a million years ago when we were debating wedding cake selection, Husband ventured: "Maybe fruitcake?" We compromised with a small cake and many pies (the man just does not like regular cake), and I like to think that compromise set the stage for a great partnership: I love to make what he loves to eat. And I get all the outlets and switches I want.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What's shaking: My house

You'd probably have to have spent a little time at the House of Figs to understand why I think this is a beautiful site:

For year—yes, I said years—this part of the front of our house was covered with tarps. Sophie grew up playing under them, creating an installation filled with toys and tiny outdoor furniture that she called Fun Land. We had to pay admission to enter it.

But today it's a glorious construction site. We (I use that term loosely—I really mean Husband) have repaired the faulty foundation, wrapped it in copper sheeting, and a concrete company is now building forms for a raised garden bed and some brick steps. As a general contractor, it's hard for Husband to cede control of the homestead to other professionals. He's fussy and exacting, but he has paying work right now, so it's our only way of moving forward. I quizzed him as to how he selected the specific concrete contractor. He is the cheapest? No, not really. The very best? Hmmm . . . maybe. I wasn't buying it. There had to be something else.

When this parked itself in front of my house, it all became clear. They have their own bathroom. Which means they do not need to use our bathroom, which is hugely important. They're lovely men, and it's not that I have a problem with them in my home, but there is nothing my fastidious husband loves more than a clean bathroom. It's a little-known secret that I married him because he pees sitting down. Does that rock or what? And lest you consider this sissy behavior, know that my husband is the manliest of men—all 6'4" flannel plaid clad of him. Very sexy, actually.

The inside of the house, not so pretty. With the jackhamming of concurrent foundation repair, Husband was concerned that the contents of my cabinets could come bouncing out onto the floor, so everything from the front of my kitchen now resides on and under the dining room table. Not very convenient. Husband suggested some "simple dinners" for the next week or two.

Would you imagine that chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto qualifies as such?

It does! It's one of the easiest things I make and a weeknight favorite at our house.



You do it like this:


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim chicken breast, removing tenderloin. Slice open a pocket in each breast and fill with crumbled goat cheese. Close up the breast and wrap with a slice of prosciutto.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in an ovenproof pan. My old cast iron work perfectly for this. Saute chicken for a few minutes, flip each piece, and place pan in the oven to finish for about 15 minutes.

Rice, a green vegetable, and a salad completes the meal.

A little concrete, some brick, and some stone will complete the front of my house for now, later followed by some more shingles and new windows. It's all pretty exciting—work we've been saving and waiting for for years. But recent reports of snow in the Sierras and viewing of this season's Warren Miller movie have caused us to utter the unthinkable: "Screw the house. Time to ski." Almost.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sophie and I make some choices

The other weekend I took Sophie to the Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibit at the De Young. We went all the way across the Bay Bridge to the exotic city of San Francisco. Given how close we are in Berkeley, it's amazing how infrequently we go. But then I add up the bridge and cross-town traffic and the $16 parking garage fee (for this trip add on the exhibit tickets, the audio tour, a small visit to the gift shop, and lunch) and it all becomes clear.

But some things you've just got to do. How often can you drive your car to see a painting like this?

The Musée d'Orsay is doing a little remodeling and so thoughtfully sent some of their art to San Francisco (the only city in North America to host this collection) for a vacation.

My brief foray into art history via undergraduate general ed. requirements leaves me in questionable position to guide Sophie through a meaningful art experience, but this one was pretty easy: These guys got sick of painting what everyone wanted to see and buy and went off the rails to paint what they wanted to, limiting themselves not only to what they saw but what they felt. And not only wealthy people who could afford to commission paintings but ordinary people doing ordinary things. They messed with light, time, theory, and—as we saw in the optics of Pointillism—science.

We felt we were in on the joke a few days later watching Ferris Bueller's friend Cameron experience La Grande Jatte at the Chicago Institute of Art on their day out. We had done the same thing—stand close, move farther back. As your eyes go in, the picture fades into a field of dots. Cameron gets lost in the painting. I like to imagine this is where the switch was tripped that allowed him to eventually take his stand.

Sophie and I both appreciated many of the same paintings, but our favorites were vastly different. I liked some of the Monet landscapes, with dappled soft light playing off a snowy field or a wandering river. And of course Van Gough's self-portrait and room at Arles.

Sophie's favorite was The Snake Charmer by Rousseau. I'm not crazy about the stylized vegetation, but she loved the cool calm sense of nature it evoked. And of course snakes are always cool. We bought a small print of this on our way out ("You sure you wouldn't like one of Starry Night??"), and it's hanging in her room's new reading corner.

Her choice of lunch was equally adventurous in my eyes.

In keeping with the exhibit, the cafe featured a French theme. While I chose a more pedestrian sandwich, Sophie selected and enjoyed an open-faced hot mushroom sandwich topped with a warm poached egg.

Our tastes agreed in neither painting nor sandwich, but I love her all the more for appreciating my favorites but choosing her own. I choose her.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What's up: Two sauces and five thoughts

So real quick here, I made two sauces for my ravioli.

The spinach, feta, pine nut ravs got a hastily improvised lemon cream sauce that went something like this: I heated a tablespoon or so of butter, stirred in a wee bit of flour, added some cream or half-and-half (we always have this in the house but not always cream) and then some lemon zest and juice. I sprinkled with a little chopped basil and viola.

This picture of the basil cream sauce the smoked salmon ravs got looks like crap, but boy did it taste good! Here's a real recipe:

Basil Cream Sauce

2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 ounces pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1 pint cream

In a food processor, combine basil and garlic. Begin processing, and pour in olive oil in a thin stream. Process for about 40 seconds, or until mixture begins to emulsify. Add pine nuts and Parmesan, then blend for 1 minute.

Heat cream in a saucepan over low heat until simmering. Pour half of the hot cream into the processor with basil pesto, and pulse for 20 seconds to incorporate. Pour mixture back into cream, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until thickened.

So sauce-schmauce. Do you what's really on my mind?
  • My daughter reports that she has invented a new religion. We're atheists. I'm horrified.
  • I recently took a Lebanese cooking class. It was fun, and I learned to make some really good stuff.
  • My house has a door you can lock, open, and walk through. The front of the house almost is not partly covered with tarps. We have way less money than we used to.
  • I have a brilliant new idea for political campaigns. Ok, it's really a pretty stupid idea, but so are a lot of people running for office.
  • Ten percent of the way through (on the Kindle we read in percents, not pages) and I have officially called "uncle" on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I'm not proud. I don't hate it or anything, but I just cannot take it any longer. Life is too short. At least mine is—I guess he thought his was too long.

That's what's up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Still there? Back to ravioli

You know, the ravioli post series was not meant to drag on for three months. And it hasn't been three months yet, but still.

To roll out the excusesJust to bring you up to speed, here's what's been up since I made pasta dough for the first time:

  • I went camping with Sophie's class at the Presidio—sort of like camping in Golden Gate Park but not quite. Last year she did not want me to attend, but this year she really wanted to sleep in our teensy backpacking tent instead of a large group tent, and children were required to have an adult in their tent, so she decided I might be useful for this purpose. It required me to camp with a whole bunch of people (I think upwards of forty at times), which is not really my thing. And not Sophie's either it turns out. She opined more than once "I wish it were just us, camping by ourselves." Our little tent was good for crawling away and pretending we were doing just that.
But then if we had been doing just that we would have missed a mandolin around the camp fire, catching up with people we really like and don't see much of in hectic everyday life,
and hiking to here, which you'll note is not in the mountains. Camping in the city's not all bad.

But it's not like we went camping for weeks. I also

  • Had my first migraine. Disco balls started floating across my vision field and I became so dizzy I could hardly stand yet look up signs of a stroke or aneurysm on my computer. Since I had never experienced anything like this and wasn't exhibiting quite the textbook migraine symptoms, off to the emergency room I went, where received a scan of my head (so much easier than an MRI!) and was told I was having a retinal migraine, probably due in part to STRESS.
  • Received an annual performance review at work where my boss advised to "make friends with" and treat in a "gentle, motherly way" a coworker I may be working on projects in the coming year. You can imagine how my head nearly exploded at that suggestion. I said no. Will. Not. Do. That. No way. I will be professional and cordial, and that's all that should ever be required of anyone in the workplace. Ever. Period. I think she gets it.
  • Survived Husband's two surgeries, ankle and knee, realizing how much he really does do around the house now that I've had to do most of it for the past three weeks. It's how people over fifty get ready for the ski season you know. And no, I did not treat him in a gentle, motherly way.
So don't you think a person who survived all that deserves one of these?

Me too, but they're really expensive and we're forging ahead on our ten-year house remodel plan, Husband's job may be evaporating, and . . . well, that's another post. So I pulled one of these out of the back of a cupboard and found that this low-tech method worked fairly well.

It's important to make sure the pasta dough is thick enough to hold the filing. The setting one in from the thinnest worked best for me.

A good dusting of flour ensured that the finished raviolis did not stick to the plate (your opportunity to learn from my mistake).

But now to the fun part. You almost cannot go wrong with ravioli filling—almost anything that sounds good is. A quick trip through the food processor, and you're good to go.

I made two:

Feta spinach pine nut

Smoked salmon

Both delicious and easy.

Feta Spinach Pine Nut Ravioli Filling

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (10 ounce) bag fresh spinach
1 cup feta cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the spinach until fully wilted, about 2 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze the spinach to remove as much liquid as possible.

Combine the cooked spinach, feta, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until mixture is the consistency of a fine paste.

Smoked Salmon Ravioli Filling

6 ounces smoked salmon
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
lemon juice to taste

Combine ingredients food processor and pulse until mixture is the consistency of a fine paste.

These instructions for using a ravioli mold give a clear step-by-step illustrated explanation.
To cook, fill a large pot with lightly salted water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the ravioli, stir gently, and return to a boil. Cook uncovered until the ravioli float to the top and the filling is hot, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Up next—any minute now—a quick sauce recipe. Seriously.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Homemade ravioli: The dough

Very busy garden spiders setting up shop all over my yard the past few days have drawn my attention to the fact that it is fall. Not spring.

Do you have these at your house? They are everywhere here.

Which means I'm a total loser when it comes to completing my spring kitchen to-do list. But wait—did I actually say I would complete the list in spring? Or did I just propose the list in spring? Fact is, I've been a little disappointed with myself for technically only completing half the list (fried anchovy-stuffed olives and pate de fruit). Part of it is Trevor's fault because I wanted to make picture-perfect macarons with him when I was in his neighborhood this summer, but he had to go eat rice with his Persian in-laws that day.

And I really haven't been a loser when it comes to the homemade ravioli. On the contrary, I've been a positively industrious ravioli maker, but it's taken up so much of time, I haven't had time to post it all. It's been so much more involved than I thought and has, in fact, spun off it's own list:
1. Learn to make homemade pasta dough.
2. Master the mechanics of ravioli making.
3. Come up with a few fillings.
4. Discover the perfect sauce.
See what I mean? But as my favorite co-worker will say when I ask if he has completed the next step in a project "I dood it!" But it's too much for one day, so here comes the ravioli post series.

Today is the pasta. Or the noodles. When I was growing up we seriously did not ever use the word pasta. It was all noodles. Pasta was just a fancy word for the same thing, and we were an unpretentious family.

I only have one food processor (can you believe it??), and it was busy making something else, so I was happy to find that a bowl and a fork work perfectly well to blend this dough.

As far as ingredient proportions, Lisagh correctly observed that it's about the feel.

You want to add enough water that you can pinch the dough together. Sort of how pie crust dough feels.

I pushed it around with the heel of my hand on a floured board until it was slightly elastic and had lost its stickiness.

Then came the fun part.

Remember this? It was called the Fun Factory, and when your Playdough was new and springy and your machine was not clogged up with dried crusty dough what fun it was!

My hand crank pasta machine was almost as fun. I divided the dough into pieces about the size of a fist (mine as small) and ran them through a couple times each on successively tighter rollers, folding the dough in two each time before feeding through.

Lots of flour at the end was important so the dough didn't stick together

Basic Pasta

1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons water

In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour and salt. Make a well in the flour, add the slightly beaten egg, and mix with a fork. Stir in 2 tablespoons water.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough for about 3 to 4 minutes. With a pasta machine or by hand roll dough out to desired thinness.
I'll be back (promise!) to make the ravs. Two kinds! Just guess.