Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In a Manner of Speaking (or Singing)

Exactly who gets to decide what defines good table manners? In Brazil, blowing or wiping your nose at the table is unforgivably rude, I’ve read that in Ecuador, one doesn’t eat with their fingers and in Egypt if you look at someone else’s plate, they must out of politeness, offer you their food. Who decides all that?

Last month, the Smithsonian’s food blog, Food and Think, issued a writer’s challenge on “Manners”. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but it keeps creeping back into my consciousness after reading their guest posts over the month.

When I was growing up, the ultimate rule in our house (as decreed by my father) was “No singing at the table.” Well, why not? I don’t really remember why my sisters or I would feel compelled to sing at the table, but I do remember being frequently admonished, “We do not sing at the table.” The only worse offense was all the times that in my youthful awkwardness, I managed to turn over my full glass into my father’s plate at dinner. And this happened frequently. So frequently it became absurd. And my mother’s giggles at how ridiculous it became only infuriated my father.He would storm away from the table, and thus I was never punished for this inexcusable behavior.

I digress. Back to the singing. Some people do sing at the table – at church camp we sang “Johnny Appleseed” as the pre-meal blessing, and what about “Happy Birthday” before we blow out the candles? I never told my son he couldn’t sing at the table. But he never did. I loved to hear him sing “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Jingle Bells” in a nasal two-year old voice in the bathtub. If he had wanted to sing at the table he could. Maybe that's why he didn’t-because he could. I loved to hear him sing in the choir in junior high school, in the elite Madrigals and the church contemporary musical group when he was in high school, in his garage band in college and now in the duets he records with his wife.

How can something so joyful as singing be bad manners? If my grandchildren want to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” at the dinner table, I’ll probably sing with them. Forget someone else’s definition of table manners. This is my table.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hooray!

At last! Our kitchen has returned to functionality. We can once again cook when we feel so inclined. Who would have suspected that it could take so long to get it back in working order after only a minimal “refresh.” It’s not like we did a real remodeling. We have finally finished cleaning the sawdust out the cabinets and drawers. Only now we can’t find anything since we had to do some rearranging.

To celebrate our little milestone, we decided to open a bottle of a favorite wine for dinner. We organized and relocated our wine collection yesterday and realized we have far too many reds, so we could certainly allocate one for this occasion. Most of them are finer wines, many that need to age a few more years, but I had a few more bottles of that favorite La Honda 2002 cabernet sauvignon than I thought. So why not??!!

My favorite improvement in the “new” kitchen (other than just the change in appearance) is the new cooktop. We have a very small kitchen with space for only a 30” cooktop, so this new version with dual and tri-ring elements is great. It provides more flexibility than standard burner sizes by allowing you to choose the appropriate heating element for your pot size. It also has a feature for boiling water quickly. Now all we need to do is find the time to do our own cooking more often.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Friday Night Delight

I was ready for an outing. And what better place to go than our favorite café and wine bar, GC’s Tasting Café in Menlo Park. Often their special tasting events are held on Thursday, but this week it was Friday. Perfect timing for me. The tasting event menu consisted of their favorite California red blends. Five generous pours of wines priced in the $23 to $45 range, for only $15. A couple of the wines on the list, we know well and already have, such as the TFW Lexington Meritage and the Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains red. But the others were quite nice as well, especially the Justin Savant, which we had not tried before.

GC's Café is a bustling, friendly, family-owned and run place, great to meet friends for a glass of wine or light meal. No quiet romantic corners here. We’ve tried the cheese fondues and several sandwiches and salads, and all were delicious. The owners and staff are friendly and always helpful with suggestions. It was quite busy last night, but Kathy greeted me with a hug since I've been absent for about a month, Larry always has a few minutes to chat about the wines and Theresa prepared our table. We’ve been going there since long before they became “famous” after their good review in the newspaper. I’ve said before that I credit (blame) Ken Wornick at La Honda Winery for my new-found taste for red wines. But GC’s Café shares that responsibility equally since that’s where I met Ken and his wines. Nights like last night tend to add to my collection as well. They have an excellent selection of local and imported wines.

To go with our red wine tasting we ordered a 3 piece California cheese flight. We asked Gerard (whom I think of as The Cheese Master, which I'm sure he would prefer to The Cheese Whiz) to select the cheeses to go with the event wines. The pairings were perfect. The Cow Girl Creamery Red Hawk was almost stinkier than I could manage, but if I didn’t breathe too deeply, the taste is reasonably mild and it really did pair well with the full-bodied Justin Savant and Ridge wines. I looked back at my tasting notes from previous events and found they had once paired it with a Frog’s Leap Merlot. I had noted then that we liked the combination, but the cheese was too stinky to serve to people who eat at our house! Along with the cheeses, you get small plates of fruit, marcona almonds, fig spread, butter, quince paste and a basket of bread and crackers. We cleaned our plates with a sigh of delight.

You can check out GC's Tasting Café’s website at http://www.gcstastingcafe.com/ to see their menu and more. Better yet, maybe I’ll see you at next week’s Spanish wine and cheese pairing event.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Full Circle

Raising a child can be challenging. Raising one who eats healthy is even more so. When my son was a baby, I tried to keep him away from processed sugar and fed him only natural sugars, such as fruit. Well, that didn’t last long. For his first birthday, I made an applesauce cake with no added sugar. He threw it on the floor in disgust. He was used to the sugary frosted cupcakes they served at daycare. I was so desperate for him to  eat healthy, I once resorted to telling him grapes were candy to entice him to just taste them.

I really wanted him to have a healthy diet. When he was about six, I made him sit at the dinner table until bedtime because he refused to eat even one carrot. He inherited my stubborn streak and I lost the battle. He went to bed without dinner. I could relate. When I was growing up, I used to lock myself in my room rather than eat some of the food my parents served.

When my son was five years old, he began traveling between the East and West Coasts, sharing time between his father and me. The summer he returned from his dad’s and smugly announced that he now liked broccoli and salad, I was ecstatic. I had been afraid he would never eat green vegetables. His junior high graduation quilt was inspired by a fabric containing his then favorite foods – mushrooms, pizza and BROCCOLI. The quilt pays hommage to his awards, activities and taste buds. I considered liking broccoli to be one of his major accomplishments.

Now that my son is grown and married, I no longer attempt to influence his food choices. That job has been passed on to his wonderful wife. She has him eating food he would NEVER even consider for me. The power of being in love! He now eats a healthy diet that occasionally even includes fruit. His wife can persuade him to try almost anything with no threats or nagging. Maybe it’s love, or maybe all those years of my begging and pleading during his childhood lurk somewhere in his adult subconscious. Do I get any credit at all? However it happened, I am pleased to relate that my obstinate, chocolate-craving, sweet-toothed child has transformed into a health conscious adult. And now that he has a son on the way, it will be his turn to face the challenges of raising a healthy eater.

Monday, May 17, 2010

There is a season....

What is with this weather? It's late May and it's 50 degrees and raining here in Northern California. It's hard enough living in a place with no distinct seasons, but this is crazy! It never rains here after March. I grew up on the East Coast where we had real seasons, so I am compelled to create my own as a coping mechanism. My husband dreads the words, five times a year (spring, summer, fall, Christmas and winter), "It's time to switch." That means he has to drag out the dishes, glassware, linens and all the decor for the new season. I create a fresh new environment (and season) each time. But this year the weather is a mess, and so is the kitchen. There was no spring and who knows about summer, not in the weather or in our house.

Another way I create seasonality is with food. I am ready to give up the stews and soups, hot chocolate and  cold weather comfort food, but it's tough when it's still so cold and dreary outside. My plan for this week is to cook spring-like food and pretend that the weather is warm. I have to admit that I was so cold this afternoon, I gave up and made myself a cup of frothing hot chocolate. But for dinner, we're having a spring meal.

Tonight's dinner is a pasta dish made with the asparagus and peas we purchased at the farmer's market yesterday. Doesn't that sound like warm weather dining? Pasta with fresh basil and Italian parsley, parmesan cheese, scallions, garlic and crispy pancetta. You can't go wrong with pancetta. It makes most anything taste better. So in spite of the cold and dreary weather outside, in our house we pretended like it is spring.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It's the weekend!

I am really tired of cleaning sawdust out of drawers and cabinets. But at least it has given us the opportunity to review the contents and dispose of some items we no longer need or use, or never did or don't even know what they are. And BTW, just how many empty jars does anyone need, Larry?! Due to my treatment schedule, I'm not working right now, so you'd think I have plenty of time to get this done. But my energy level is pretty low and I need lots of naps, so it seems like it's taking forever.

But by the weekend, the side effects have worn off and I'm feeling fine. Just in time for a good weekend of wine tasting. Saturday was the monthly tasting for La Honda Winery in Redwood City. This month was "Library Wines." I think they are also doing some housecleaning to make room for the upcoming new releases. We came home with a bottle of pinot noir at an outstanding price. If you've been reading my posts, you know that I credit (blame) La Honda for my new-found interest in reds, especially cabs. Our collection has grown to the point that we just ordered a new wine rack to hold 70 bottles. There was a great article in the SJ Mercury News recently about the winery. Check out their website at http://www.lahondawinery.com/ for a link to the article and to find out about upcoming events and their outstanding selection of wines.

Next comes Sunday morning and the farmer's market. I've missed our usual Sunday routine which has been preempted due to travels. The market was packed today with people pushing and bumping constantly. I almost wished I'd stayed home. But I excused their rudeness and enjoyed the sights and sounds. Today we got some delicious mandarins - I love it when you can taste before purchasing. Also peas, arugula, flowers for the almost refreshed kitchen, a slab of herb bread and carrots to make a soup I plan to try this week. The carrots looked so delicious, I just couldn't pass them up for grocery store carrots, even though they cost a little more.

Sunday afternoon was the Thomas Fogarty Spring WineFest. We met friends there and spent a lovely afternoon sipping wine and nibbling cheese, fruit and chocolate. The garden was in full bloom even though it was still only in the 40's and foggy in the mountains. Way too chilly to sit on their beautiful deck. You get 10 tasting tickets and as usual, we came home with a couple of bottles to add to our collection. In case you didn't bring a picnic, Sam's Chowder Mobile from Half Moon Bay was serving its seafood specialties. So in addition to all our other goodies, I ordered fried calamari and the others had clam chowder. The calamari was a very large serving of sweet rings and tentacles with a nice crispy batter. Much better than I expected from a mobile truck. Overall, an excellent weekend for food and wine.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Best Dining Ever - Part 1

Since our kitchen is still in disarray from its "refresh", there is still not much cooking happening here. The drawers are full of sawdust and the dishwasher isn't connected yet. I'm hoping that this weekend, we'll get enough parts back together that we can at least enjoy some spring vegetables. And maybe the weather will be warm enough that we can clean up the patio and enjoy an outdoor meal as well. I'm really tired of perpetual takeout.

So while I haven't been pouring over recipes and menus and grocery lists, I've been thinking about what were some of my favorite dining experiences of all times. A dining experience isn't necessarily just the best food, but could combine the ambience, the unique atmosphere or even just the challenge of making it happen.

In no particular order, five of my top favorites are:

1) Ubuntu restaurant in Napa. I never dreamed vegetarian could be so good. Now that chef Jeremy Fox has left for new endeavors, I don't know if it will be the same, but the two times we dined there, it was one of our favorite restaurants ever. We especially loved the cauliflower in a cast iron pot. Usually I find cauliflower terribly boring, but this was divine. Oprah must like it too, since she has published the recipe in her magazine. Go to Ubuntu if you have the chance.

2) All the pairing menus as Kendall Jackson Wine Center. If you read my blog you know about these already. So much fun! They publish the menus on their website.

3) Acaraje on the street in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. On our first trip, I didn't have the nerve to eat street food. But Salvador is known for the Bahian ladies and their acaraje stands. One of the most famous is across from a McDonalds. At 5pm just before the stand opens, there is a line in the street at the acaraje stand and there is no one at McDonalds. Acaraje is a pastry whose batter is made essentially of black eyed peas. It is filled with tiny shrimps still in the shells, along with "salad" and dende oil, a spicy oil made from a local palm. I kept telling the ladies to make mine "mais picante" which means hotter, and they just shook their heads thinking I was crazy. It was great except that the shells on the shrimp were scratchy on my throat.

4) Borscht in Poland. I ordered borscht in every restaurant in Poland, lunch and dinner, for a week. It was fun to compare all the different preparations. I was extremely disappointed a few times when they had run out and I had to choose something else. We were chaperoning a group of high school kids and I also enjoyed hearing them groan at every meal, since they absolutely refused to eat anyting made with beets.

5) North Carolina barbecue. I never knew how good it was until I can't easily get it anymore. We are unable to duplicate the central Carolina, cook the pig all day, vinegar-based style of barbecue at home. When I go back to NC for a visit, I try to visit all my favorite restaurants and eat barbecue two or three times. Barbecue, slaw and hush puppies.Why can't somebody do that here?

Stay tuned for more favorites and also my worst culinary nightmares.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

My mother really couldn't cook. Maybe that ability, or desire, or both skips a generation, since her mother was a decent traditional Southern cook whose Sunday dinners were fried chicken, biscuits and vegetables from my grandfather's garden. I think my mother saw food as a necessity rather than something to enjoy.

I was raised on packaged foods-canned, frozen and boxed. I'd never even eaten a real pizza until I was dating. Prior to that, it came from a box. Never had fresh peaches, pineapple or pears. I was subjected to all kinds of unpleasant food during childhood. I would lock myself into my room rather than face some meals. Creamed chip beef on toast and oyster stew come to mind.

Nevertheless, food binds us together as families. Good food and bad contribute to the love and memories we share. My mother despised green peas. As adults, we had an understanding. Whenever she came to visit I would serve her peas in repayment for all the disgusting food she served me as a child. She understood my intentions and she always ate them with no protest, or even comment.

My mother died five years ago. On this Mother's Day, what I wouldn't give to be serving her peas.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Come Sail Away

After sailing for eight days in the Galapagos Islands, I can report that we did not eat any guinea pigs or anything else terribly exotic. We ate lots of seafood - amber jack, shrimp and wahoo - cooked in a variety of ways. Our chef's name was Pedro. I don't think he ever came out of the galley. He was always below deck in his chef's hat, apron, and hot pink crocs preparing something tasty for us to eat.

We had fresh tropical fruit and juices with every meal. Also lots of fresh vegetables. Pedro seemed particularly fond of brussel sprouts. That's about the only thing he prepared that I could not eat. I even tried them just in case the beautiful sauce he smothered them in worked some kind of magic and made them edible. Still didn't work for me.

The potatoes were always particularly good. There was a tiny variety that I thought tasted like beets, but our naturalist guide, who is a native of the Galapagos, insisted they were really potatoes. Another potato dish had an oil made from soaking the seeds of achiote chilis. I need to look into this one and see if I can find a recipe. It was exceptional.

Dining was outdoors on the deck of the boat. This was both wonderful and challenging. Sometimes it was windy and one night the sea was so rough everything slid continually across the table. Larry like the idea of eating his dessert, mine and Bob's, as they all passed by him, back and forth as the boat swayed wildly from side to side.

After we returned to Quito, we had one final meal at the hotel before departure. Larry had the goat stew which is an Ecuadorian specialty. I gave it a try and it was surprisingly good. It did not taste like chicken. More like a lighter, sweeter version of beef. I would definitely go for the goat stew next time I'm in Ecuador.