Thursday, July 29, 2010

My high school reunion: Let's go

I've established that I love a list. My spring kitchen to-do list has been a huge success, ignoring the fact that it is no longer spring and I still haven't finished it. I've officially ticked off the fried anchovy-stuffed olives and the pate de fruit, and I've made the stuffed ravioli, although I haven't yet posted it. I have left only the improved French macarons, which I put aside because I became obsessed with salted caramel ice cream, which then sent me on a bender of various fruit flavored ice creams.

But aside from recreation, I think lists can serve a valuable therapeutic function. I've always maintained that when faced with great anxiety or adversity, the thing to do is MAKE A LIST.

You want anxiety? How's this for you: On Saturday I will be attending my 30 year high school reunion. 30! There was a 20 year reunion, but I wasn't ready to come back. A considerable stoner (although a studious one) in high school, I survived my senior year only through obsessive visualization of my life the following year at college, where I went as much for an education as for a ticket out. I rode a long way on that ticket, from Santa Barbara to Boston, then Penn State, Washington DC, and finally back to California in Berkeley. A long, strange trip it's been. I'm ready now. It's taken me thirty years to accept that I didn't fit in then, don't fit in now and that that's just fine (queue up Stuart Smalley here).

But could this reunion be in a normal place, say somewhere in the mid West? Hell, no. We're going back to the ridiculously glamorous Newport Beach, a place where I feel consistently overweight and underdressed. Bring on that list!

1. Assemble an outfit. Whee! I did this without spending any money. Dress and shoes right out of the closet. I save money throughout the year by not accessorizing.

2. Lose fifteen pounds. I lost two. But I was greatly relieved when one of the organizers advised us by way of a Facebook post that fat and happy are the new rich and skinny. I'm good to go!

3. Learn to apply makeup like a grown up. I'm not talking about my standard tinted sunscreen and chapstick here. Probably too late on this one. I put on a little eye makeup the other day, just to see if I could, and Sophie tactfully observed "Mama, you look . . . sort of . . . tired. I like you just normal." Point well taken. But I don't know it's a given that because your kid thinks you look good, you really do look good. This is, after all, the kid who used to draw giant purple eyebrows on my dad as she "beautied him up" with her play makeup.

4. Figure out what to do with my hair. It's not the same smooth, blonde hair I sported in high school. It's post-cancer hair, which is a wild, wavy, often frizzy mess of a thing. And while I've conceded that my hair is neither blonde nor straight and I have neither the time nor the inclination to beat it into submission with endless treatments, products, and electrical devices, some attention to it is probably advised. But I still haven't figured out what that is.

5. Find a purse. I'm so lame about purses. Although I admire them, I really do not understand people who use a different purse every day. It's great in theory that the bag match the outfit or the shoes, but I'm just not convinced that anyone looks at my purse much on a daily basis. I ride to work, enter my office, put it on my corner chair, and it sits there until it's time to go home. Am I missing something? In the winter I use this giant black Coach bag that I bought nearly twenty years ago. It's so large I can fit in a change of gym clothes and lunch in addition to my regular equipment. Very practical. In the summer I have a cute straw bag (the only reason I own a cute bag is because a cute girlfriend gave it to me), but edges of it are a little worse for the wear because I've been cramming it in the clamshell of my motor scooter all summer while Sophie's backpack hangs on the purse hook (it's too big to fit in the clamshell). I have other purses somewhere in the back of my closet. I think.

6. Secure a date. DONE. Husband would rather die than attend my reunion, and I would rather die than take him. He is a handsome man who cleans up nicely, if reluctantly, but he just does not do well in southern California, whining that "It's all cement down here!!" and bemoaning things like the access of architectural detail on the faux Craftman style McMansions in my parents' neighborhood. Better to leave him home in his flannel shirt in the redwoods. Thankfully a friend I have reconnected with (we went to our senior year homecoming dance; see fig. 1) also has a husband who would rather die than attend. Stylish and just generally adorable, my date probably does not even own a flannel shirt. I have complete confidence that he will arrive to pick me up in the perfect outfit, with immaculately coiffed hair. His company alone is reason to go. If all else goes wrong, we can sit in a corner, talk about food, or bemoan the blahness of my blog as of late and the increasing fabulousness of his (seriously—go take a look).

Figure 1. The bloggers now known as authors of
and attend homecoming dance a really long time ago.

A friend who has attended a reunion a while ago observed that everyone, regardless of success or pretense of it, has likely survived some loss that has given them an amount of perspective on life that renders them infinitely nicer and more interesting than they were in high school. One can only hope that the deaths, divorces, illnesses, drug addictions, and grand jury investigations have taught us something and left us wiser and gentler people. You think? I do. In thirty years we've grown up.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cheater cheater, tortilla soup eater

This time of year I'm usually all about chilled soups. Berkeley is usually basking in a radiant sunshine that we enjoy while looking smugly across the bay at the blanket of fog covering San Francisco. But not this year. We're lucky of the fog breaks for half an hour in the afternoon before it blows back in.

What this means is that I'm all confused about what to cook. If I want to grill, I need to put on a jacket. And no one wants chilled soup. What I've been craving is hot soup—for some reason, tortilla soup. But when I say "hot," I mean temperature. Very spicy foods make me want to cry. I think it's genetic. A college friend once tested on me the theory that it was because I grew up eating mildly flavored food. The plan was to start me out on mild salsa with my chips and gradually ratchet up the intensity. We progressed safely from mild to medium and declared the experiment a failure when I called uncle and begged to return to mild.

And so most tortilla soup recipes are a problem for me. You can use milder chilies, like Anaheims or even some jalapenos, but you just do not know. It could be too spicy; it could have not enough flavor. Chilies can be so confusing.

But enchilada sauce is not. You can buy it in a can that says "hot," "medium," or "mild." And it comes with all the spices you would want in a tortilla soup. Call me a hack, but it's easy and good.


1 10-ounce can red enchilada sauce
4 cups chicken broth
1 small onion, diced
1 chicken breast, bone-in, skinned

2 cups baby spinach
1 medium avocado, peeled and diced
1/2 cup queso fresco Mexican cheese (jack will also do)

6 corn tortillas, cut into strips
canola oil to spray

salt, to taste
lime, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine enchilada sauce, broth, onion, and chicken in a large pan and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until chicken is done. Remove chicken and allow to cool. Continue cooking soup, which will reduce a little. When chicken is cooled enough to handle, shred and return to pan. Add salt and lime to taste.

Spread tortilla strips over a baking sheet, spray with canola spray, and toss to coat. Bake until crisped.

In individual soup bowls, place spinach, avocado, cheese, and tortilla strips. Ladle soup over.

Serve with lime slices and cilantro.

I also serve with something like this to people who would otherwise feel cheated out of their heat.

Monday, July 26, 2010

We actually leave the house

In light of furloughs from both of our jobs (at least I keep my paid holidays and vacation—he didn't), we've been keeping close to home, working on our never-ending construction project of a house. I understand it's called a "stay-cation." Haha—like you're laying around your own house relaxing. We seem to have missed the "-cation" part of it.

But I thought at least Sophie and I, who are not permitted to use power tools anyway and are sick of reorganizing closets, might benefit from an outing. So we grabbed the MIL, her rolling walker, and handicapped parking pass and set out . . . for Oakland.

Although I'd heard rave reviews of the newly reopened Oakland Museum of California, I was a little skeptical. The museum was designed to facilitate people experiencing the exhibits—interacting with them! Christalmighty, I thought. The museum was fine the way it was. Can I not just go and look at shit??

Who knew how much I would like it? And how interactive I got??

Here's Sophie finding out what the Spaniards who first came to California brought with them. All kinds of stuff, apparently. The theme of the California history section is on coming to California, starting with the native Americans and progressing through various waves of invasion, immigration, and migration. I tried to explain how California is different that way and when I lived in Massachusetts for a while many people I met had entire families going back generations who still lived right there. Weird. My boyfriend's mother would exclaim, after a few cocktails, "But people in California don't know who their people are!!!" To which I would reply now "Of course we do. We've got a whole goddamned museum about them." At the time, of course, I was too shocked by the fact that the grownups seemed to get more wasted at parties than the kids to say anything at all.

At the end of the California history section was one of my favorite parts: The exhibit where they pile all the stuff they couldn't figure out what to do with. Categories included fun things like "What doesn't belong in this group?" (we were really good at that) and "Stuff kids collected" (the MIL and I had a good laugh over explaining the Blue Chip Stamp booklets to Sophie: "You get stamps at gas stations, paste them in books when it's raining, fight with your siblings over what to order out of the catalog, and don't ever get around to ordering anything!").

Here, Sophie got to select among a variety of labels for including herself as an exhibit. She chose "Strangest thing in the museum. Who brought this here?" She wanted to have the MIL hold one that read "Oldest thing in the museum." I pointed out the MIL not might think that was funny, and besides she had wandered off to the next section and we had to chase her down.

In the portrait gallery, Sophie used a lightboard to create a portrait of herself. You choose a color at the top and sort of fingerpaint with it. When you're done, it goes into a bank of portraits by other visitors that you can access on the screen on the left. But first it goes for a few seconds into a frame on a wall with other real portraits.

Look—I'm an artist featured at the Oakland Museum! The museum is supposed to email us our pictures, but they haven't shown up yet. They're not nearly as efficient as Disneyland, which always has my BuzzLightYear ride picture waiting for me when I get home.

Here we are enjoying jazzy art while listening to jazzy music (Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo) and looking through funny glasses.

It was a nice way to demonstrate that art need not be a solemn and quiet experience.

But just when I think Sophie and I are really in a groove, she cycles back to take a picture of her favorite exhibit:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looking for the warm

In the midst of an unseasonably cool July in Berkeley, I enjoyed hearing one of my authors grumble about the oppressive heat he was enduring as he dispatched map corrections from his temporary Istanbul "office," the Abracadabra Cafe. No doubt over a glass over iced mint tea. Hmpf.

I can do nothing but feel sorry for myself and Sophie as we blast through the fog on our motorscooter to summer camp on what would otherwise be an enjoyable and scenic ride through Tilden Park, over Grizzly Peak, and down Strawberry Canyon. At least I can fantasize after dropping her off about opening my thermos of steaming coffee in my office as I buzz past the crawling lines of minivans. But I'm further chilled when I think of Sophie, whose first activity of the day is water polo. Brrr.

But when it's cold and foggy in the coastal bay area, it's usually hot as Hades inland, which means, among other things, one of my favorite summer foods makes its appearance:

Padron peppers!

Tossed in a little olive oil, charred in a cast iron skillet, and sprinkled with a course salt, they are positively addictive.

What I particularly love about them is that they have slightly smoky pepper taste, usually without the heat. I emphasize usually: A friend and I shared a plate of these at a local tapas bar, and half way through I got one that . . . was . . . not . . . mild . . . at all. I was in tears for several minutes, waving my hands frantically at my mouth, saved only by the tequila gimlet I had thankfully also ordered. The chance of getting a sneaky hot padon increases as they are harvested later in the summer, so if you're a heat wimp like me, eat up now!

And stay warm. Or cool. Wherever you are.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It depends on who you ask

Mama said she bought the new chair in Sophie's room for me,

but Lillian says no, that's not right.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

OMG: Salted caramel ice cream

I get so cross with Sophie for punctuating far too many assertions with "Oh, my God!" as in "Oh, my God, Mama . . . " I point out that first of all, we don't believe in god, and second of all, if one overuses an individual locution, it ceases to have meaning. But in this case, we are in complete agreement.

OMG! My salted caramel ice cream is simply AMAZING!

It was amazing the first day

and the second as well. There's probably only one other day's worth, so we'll be making it again soon. We want MORE!

I was inspired after overpaying for a scoop of this flavor at a local gourmet chocolate shop following a painful visit to Sophie's orthodontist. Something cold and sweet was in order, and we had only a limited amount of time before her violin lesson. I sucked up the $4.00 charge and posed the question I always do when enjoying something delicious and expensive: "Could I make this??" Turns out I can.

My standard obsessive internet recipe research yielded this recipe from David Lebovitz, an apparently charming man currently living in Paris after cutting his chops at our local Berkeley pride, Chez Panisse. It is always so much fun to discover when searching for a specific recipe a site containing a treasure trove of other recipes you cannot wait to try.

Levovitz's recipe is well worth referencing. His instructions are clear and easy to follow and his illustrations helpful, which is good because I've always found melting sugar scary.

Husband wasn't paying attention, so I filched his laptop for a use I've always envisioned: Referencing on-line recipes while cooking. Having open two windows, one for the ingredient list and another for the illustrated procedures, was sublime. And even though Husband kicked up quite a fuss when he caught me in the act ("You will get FOOD on it!!!"), he agreed once he tasted the result that this was worth the risk to his favorite toy.

I wish I had followed David's (I think we should be on a first-name basis) recipe to the tee, but I made a couple of adjustments.

His recipe calls for salted butter, but whoever buys that anymore? I grew up in a household with only that, kept in the pantry rather than the refrigerator so it would maintain a spreadable texture, but converted to unsalted once I understood salt is used only as a preservative and can always be added to a recipe but never subtracted from butter when a baking recipe calls for unsalted. I increased the salt amount to compensate for my unsalted butter.

Second, the custard from his version did not taste quite sweet enough (remember that I was attempting to recreate Sophie's $4.00 scoop). I increased the sweetness by adding a couple teaspoons of light corn syrup, an ingredient I've noticed in other ice cream recipes and one I suspected would only enhance texture.

Third, I omitted his praline. I'm funny that way: I often do not like stuff in my stuff. Hence, nothing crunchy in ice cream, no ice cream with my pie, and nothing added to my coffee.

Here is my adaptation:


2 cups whole milk, divided
1½ cups sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or sea salt (not table salt!!)
1 cups eavy cream
5 large egg yolks
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoon light corn syrup

Get ready

Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and setting in it a smaller bowl, at least 2 quarts. Pour about 1 cup of water around the smaller bowl into the larger one. Pour 1 cup of the milk into the inner bowl, and rest a mesh strainer on top of the bowl.

Make the caramel

Spread the sugar in a heavy saucepan.

Heat the sugar over moderate heat until the edges begin to melt. Use a wooden spoon to gently stir the liquefied sugar until it is mostly dissolved. (It's ok if there are still some lumps—they'll melt later.) Continue to cook stirring infrequently until the caramel starts smoking and begins to smell like it's just about to burn. Don't go anywhere! It won't take long.

Remove from heat.

Make the custard

Stir butter and salt into the caramel until butter is melted. Gradually whisk in the cream. The caramel may harden and seize, but that's ok.

Return mixture to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hardened caramel is melted. Stir in remaining 1 cup of milk.

Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour some of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read 160–170 F.

Pour the custard through the strainer into the milk set over the ice bath. Add the vanilla and corn syrup, stirring frequently until the mixture is cooled. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or until thoroughly chilled.

Churn and freeze

Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. I churn for about 30 minutes in my Braun electric model. But with any model, you should churn until the ice cream is starting to set up and freeze—sort of the texture of soft-serve ice cream.

Chill in the freezer until firm—overnight is good.

A note about the timing: Start well ahead of when you want to serve this. The bowl to your ice cream maker should chill overnight (mine lives in the freezer when not in use). The custard mixture needs to be completely chilled before churning. And the finished ice cream is best frozen overnight.

I have been out of the ice cream business since losing the blade to my ice cream machine (surely it's in the house somewhere). I recently replaced it and am excited to be back. Next up may well be another of David Lebovitz's ice cream flavors, although I think I'll pass on absinthe
or candied bacon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The English cosmoplitan:
Served up in Berkeley

This summer I was enchanted (I love that word—the MIL used it recently to describe her reaction to a University of California alumni magazine. And all this time they've probably thought no one reads it.) by a New York Times Style Magazine article on the bramble cocktail, described by the author as English's cosmopolitan.

Isn't it pretty? And of course I could use a new summer cocktail. I mean, how many gin and tonics can a person drink? Don't answer that.

But I was stopped in my tracks by the ingredient crème de mûre, a blackberry liqueur. Sounded expensive. So in my best chin-up recession spirit, I set off in search of a recipe to make it myself.

Most of the recipes I found were for a blackberry wine, not liqueur. I finally settled on a recipe for crème de cassis, substituting blackberries for the recipe's currants.

Don't make this wearing a white t-shirt.

This recipe yielded a little over two bottles, which should (but probably won't) last for quite a while.

Crème de mûre
1 pound blackberries, mashed lightly
2 1/2 cups fruity red wine (Zinfandel works well)
4–5 cups sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries
1 to 2 1/2 cups vodka

Combine blackberries and wine in a ceramic or glass bowl for at least 24 and up to 48 hours.

Puree mixture in a food processor or blender and then strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a large bowl.

Measure into a heavy saucepan. For every cup of liquid, add 1 cup of sugar.

Heat gently, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved. Do not let the liquid come to a simmer, as you don't want to boil off the alcohol. Reduce heat to lowest level and simmer for an hour or more, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced a little and become slightly syrupy.

Allow to cool.

Mix together 1 part vodka with 3 parts of the cooled syrup and funnel into clean, dry bottles. Store in a cool place for at least 2 weeks before drinking.

Here is my bramble cocktail, served last night before Sunday dinner to rave reviews from adult Scrabble players.

It's not quite as pink as the NY Times', but why should it be? Blackberries are black, not pink. And I have neither a fancy glass, shiny straws, nor extra blackberries for garnish. But I have an amazing collection of jelly jars that are just the right size for summer cocktail over ice, some silver cocktail picks, and a few leftover blueberries.

The Bramble
Adapted from the New York Times Style Magazine

2 ounces gin
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (see note)
1/2 ounce crème de mûre

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, shake together the first three ingredients and strain into a glass over ice. Drizzle crème de mûre over the top and garnish with a slice of lemon and two blackberries.

Note: To make simple syrup, combine equal measures of water and sugar and heat until sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature and store in refrigerator until ready to use.
As festive as a cosmopolitan but infinitely more seasonal. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Never too late, right?

Actually, I'm not sure. Is there a moratorium on posting Fourth of July pictures? Or is it never too late to note that

our friend Matt did a lovely job of cleaning out his pool for us?

So the kids could have a great time swimming until fingers and toes were completely pruned?

And that we had (thankfully, among other things) barbecued oysters? I will not will not will not eat them because their texture places them in the category of "yucky," but everyone else enjoyed them very much.

And that I brought a blueberry pie?

And our hand-crank ice cream maker? The rule is that you have to turn to eat. I always get in my licks early when the turning is easy.

And that Chris purchased and supervised our very own fireworks? Safe and sane! He even hosed down the roof before starting.

I can't remember the last time I twirled a sparkler.

And it certainly beat watching professional fireworks through the San Francisco fog.

But it can certainly never be too late to tell you about our holiday drinks. The red ones were a champagne berry cocktail with strawberry Pop Rocks dropped in at the last minute. Ka-bing!

Have you heard of Hpnotiq? Well then obviously you are not hanging out in the cool clubs where this is apparently all the rage. And neither are we, which is why it was completely new to us. It's a blend of blue vodka (what the hell makes it blue???), tropical fruit juices, and cognac.

It was pretty tasty, but we found most interesting the fact that it looked an awful lot like pool water in a glass. Which we agreed is not entirely a bad thing.