Being Fed By Others

I realized I haven’t written in a while, the impetus to create has just fizzled away after a minor surgery last month.

It was rather a shock to realize they I have been in pain and in healing mode since November 2010. It’s a hell of a long time.

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I’ve had a lot of hopes fade away, I’ve lost people I’ve loved – both my fathers, my ex boyfriend, and family friends. My ability to have fun has been squashed by 2 major surgeries, 2 minor surgeries, and a 5 month bout with whooping cough. I still am not allowed to walk and I’m looking at another month or so of being on the scooter. No wonder I haven’t felt like writing, cooking, creating, anything really. I don’t even feel like knitting, which had been a source of solace.

The inability to cook for myself has been a blow. When I could walk I wasn’t allowed to carry anything, ergo no shopping for myself. Now that I’m on the scooter I can’t be on it too long because it hurts my knee and other parts and it’s damned awkward. It’s an amazing device, and I am so grateful to have it, it allows me to be able to support myself and work during this recovery period. But trying to cook or use the stove is tricky, and using the oven just doesn’t work, too tippy and dangerous and I burned my arm pretty good last time I tried it.

Despite the inevitable depression over all of this, I am lucky to have supportive friends and family. It’s lonesome being stuck at home or turning down events because there’s a flight of stairs, or I’m too exhausted or uncomfortable, or no way to get there easily – danged SF hills!! Being an independent person I supremely fail at asking others for help, so my kitchen gets cold and empty and I end up snacking on random things instead of eating properly.

If money were no object I could order prepared food from a variety of places. The tech boom in SF has really made a positive impact on my life. Without all of the great services offered here I would have had to rely and wear out the goodwill of others.

  • Seamless, Grub Hub, Eat24 have some good options but in my neighborhood the variety is rather meh
  • Postmates is a great way to get restaurant and other deliveries but it’s pricey and you’re dependent on nice people with bikes to fetch and deliver.
  • Instacart has been a godsend for getting consumables from Rainbow, Whole Foods, Safeway and Costco. I’ve had such nice people shop for me.
  • Good Eggs has been my go to place for fresh food. They liaise with farmers and food producers such as the ones I regularly visit at the farmers markets. I’m totally addicted to Firebrand Hearth’s bacon fougasse. The price is about the same but you have to order a few days in advance.
  • Flywheel, Uber and Lyft have helped me get to and from work every day as I don’t dare risk MUNI. I used to ride the bus but I’ve been injured 3 times because of passengers and my mom has basically forbidden me from riding until I’m off the scooter. These apps are fantastic and I don’t care what BS the taxi commission says, they’re all essential.
  • Taskrabbit has been amazing at helping me with chores around my apartment. I’ve learned the hard way I can’t vacuum or clean while on the scooter and after it took an hour to change the sheets on my bed (an hour!!!) I’ve realize paying someone $20 an hour to do things is rather essential.
  • I miss my routine so much though, shopping at the farmers markets on the weekends, cooking up a storm and making meals to take to work, having friends over for dinner, taking inspiration from recipes on websites and then shopping to make them. I don’t even feel like I can connect socially with people, I’m too inconvenient, I’m tired of explaining why I’m not able to walk, why I’ve gained weight so drastically, and why I’m otherwise broken to everyone. My ability to appear chirpy and not complain or avoid talking about what’s going on is just not happening. I shake my head. I’m a fucking mess and I can’t even joke about it now.

    I know someday I will have my life back, I know it in my heart. But right now it’s obvious it won’t be this year, and that feels like a millstone around my heart. I feel like my life is in my past, and that the future isn’t even worth thinking about or planning because none of the plans I’ve tried to make have been possible.

    In this holding pattern the years are slipping away and yet I still feel guilty feeling down about this because I have so many friends who are worse off than I am, with cancer, permanent crippling injuries or other horrible issues that I can’t even comprehend. How dare I feel upset about my ankle/shoulders/knees/back/neck/allergies.

    There we are though, so tonight I’m going to try to see a beloved vendor at a party for his latest cookbook, and tomorrow I have another minor surgery that I’m just minimizing with my work and my friends because I’m scared to death of losing both groups.

    Deep breaths, think positive, onward.

    Sunday Cooking

    Sundays are a great day to bond with your couch, and often I like to putter a bit in the kitchen in between.

    Like any “normal” person, I tackled the pile of dishes in the sink that built up during the week. Somehow every coffee cup ends up in the sink instead of the dishwasher. After KP is completed I pulled out the produce that was waiting in the fridge.

    I am cooking for breakfast and lunches during the week. Dinner tonight is already sorted out, minestre from Nonni’s recipe and meatloaf that I made on Friday night.

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    It helps me figure out what to cook when I see what I’ve got to work with, so I heaped everything on the stove and decided I would make:

    o Melitzanosalata or Greek eggplant salad
    o Broiled tomatoes
    o Sautéed chard
    o Gratined chard stems and leeks
    o Rainbow quinoa
    o Lemon tarragon vinaigrette

    The eggplant gets baked until very soft and a bit smoky from the browned skin, so I pricked it all over with a fork and got it settled in a hot oven on a piece of foil.

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    The quinoa was next, it’s extremely easy to make, just boil water! Add a bit of salt and while you’re waiting for the water to boil, measure and rinse your quinoa. I use a cone shaped strainer that gets used for everything from straining stock, sifting flour and draining pasta.

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    I set the quinoa to simmer while I prepared the tomatoes.

    The tomatoes are an heirloom variety from a local organic market, so they’re especially juicy and flavorful, yet another reason to love California produce in the spring. I cut off a tiny sliver from the bottom and removed the stem end and halved them, and nestled them in a gratin pan. I sprinkled them with a sea salt blended with bell peppers and dried onions, and a grind of pepper and a pinch of harissa spice. Then I sprinkled over a little bit of bread crumbs from one slice of bread chopped in the food processor. A hearty drizzle of local, peppery olive oil and they are ready for the oven.

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    The timer for the eggplant sounded so I pulled it out of the oven to cool, and popped in the pan of tomatoes.

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    The eggplant is cooked when it’s sort of collapsed looking and is as wrinkled as a surfer after a long set.

    I cut it in half while it was hot, and trying not to burn my fingers and with the help of a paring knife, I flipped over the eggplant and peeled off its skin. The skin comes off easily with a tug from the knife.

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    The eggplant needs to have all of the liquid removed while it is still warm, so using my trusty strainer I put in the peeled eggplant and used a spatula to squish out all the liquid I could.

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    The eggplant cooled off in the strainer for a while to drain a bit more while I removed the quinoa from the stove.

    I let the quinoa cool for a few minutes then fluffed it with a fork. The quinoa still had a bit of texture to it, not mushy, but nutty and fluffy, and it absorbed the lightly salted water and was perfectly seasoned.

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    The timer went off for the tomatoes and I pulled them from the hot oven. The tomatoes were still holding their shape but soft and bursting with juices under their crispy breadcrumb topping.

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    Back to the cooled eggplant, it was a small one so I put it in my mini chop with a small clove of garlic and enough plain yogurt to help the mixture purée smoothly was added, along with the juice of a lemon. Since my lemons were minis, I used three!

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    When the eggplant was perfectly smooth, I poured in some olive oil and let it purée a bit more to emulsify. A quick check for seasoning a added more lemon juice and then decided to eat it right away. All of this cooking is making me ravenous.

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    Before I had my snack, I cooked the chard quickly. A quarter of a slivered onion went in the pan first with olive oil and was sautéed until soft. The rinsed and chopped chard leaves went in next with a splash of water to cook until they are tender, this takes just a few minutes.

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    When the greens were cooked I put them in a bowl to cool with a bit more olive oil and crunchy sea salt. The chard is tangy from the lemon and I think they taste far better than spinach.

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    I rinsed out the pan and added the halved leeks and chard stems with a little broth so they could simmer until soft.

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    While they simmered, I had my little melitzanosalata and pita bread for lunch and watched the rest of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

    The eggplant is light and lemony with a pleasant earthiness from being roasted. It tastes fantastic at room temperature or cold. I also like to put inside sandwiches but I polished off this batch quickly. Next time I will buy a larger eggplant so I can use the melitzanosalata for other purposes.

    Since the lemons were so tiny, I abandoned my plans to make a vinaigrette and saved the last one for a cocktail.

    The leeks were finished cooking by the time I was done with my lunch. Using a spatula, I lifted them out of the skillet and placed them in a gratin pan, added cream and a heavy grating of Romano cheese and put them in the oven so that the cream thickens and the cheese browns. I saved the 1/2 cup of broth leftover from the braising leeks and added it to my minestre; it had great flavor and would be a shame not to use it.

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    The gratin smelled divine, the leeks are sweet and meltingly tender and the chard is toothsome and coated in rich cream and the savory, salty browned cheese on top was the perfect mouthful.

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    When the gratin was done I had a glass of wine before tackling the KP duties again. All this lovely food was done and cooling.

    Tonight I will have half a tomato with my meatloaf and a cup of soup. For breakfasts I can have the quinoa topped with chard or with a tomato half. For lunches I can have the gratin with a the leftover meatloaf or a tomato half. They all work together in various combinations, and it’s comforting to know I don’t have to worry about going out for a meal at work and accidentally eating eggs. Plus, all of these dishes are nutritious, besides being very tasty.

    It’s still early on Sunday, there’s time for a nap or some knitting or some more bonding time with my couch or perhaps all three!

    Recipe:    Melitzanosalata – Greek Eggplant Salad/Dip

    Gratineed Leeks and Chard Stems

     

    Comfort Food – Italian Wedding Soup

    After my stepdad’s memorial, mOm and I drove back up to her house in the country for some much needed rest and relaxation, the car filled with flowers from the service.

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    Flowers from my office for the memorial service, so pretty

    In case you have ever wondered about the capitalization of “mOm’, she started signing cards and emails this way, saying the O in Mom was for a big hug, how completely adorable.

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    My pretty mom

    This has been a tough winter and whenever the road life takes you on gets bumpy we gravitate to comfort food. To me, that means a brothy soup with lots of great vegetables and something meaty.

    Mom and I love cooking together, even when our hearts are heavy.  My produce CSA box was delivered a few days before the service so I brought up a huge bag of beautiful cooking greens, winter root vegetables and lettuces. Mom found a recipe online for Italian Wedding soup and wanted to make it with me, so we donned our favorite aprons and started assembling the soup ingredients.  Not only do aprons keep your clothes tidy, they are also very absorbent for when tears fall unexpectedly.  When you are grieving it is a lot like leaving the drip hose on in the garden accidentally, you don’t really notice the tears are falling until a puddle forms or the vision blurs.  This is problematic when trying to chop things.

    Many hugs later, while reading the recipe, we realized that the ingredients for the meatballs seemed really bland so we started pulling out cookbooks, looking at our favorite meatball recipes and all the many variations and finally settled on just using our favorite flavors in the Italian theme: garlic, oregano, basil, parsley.

    Mom had in her fridge a pound of pork sausage and a pound of ground beef ground fresh from her local butcher. I love her grocery store, it’s been around since 1865 and was a former Wells Fargo pony express stop.  The savvy agent added mercantile products and eventually the stop became the one and only grocery store in the township, and it still is the only game in town. The butchers are really nice and love special requests. Being in the country, their customers are heavy meat eaters so everything is really fresh. Seafood, on the other hand, is an impossibility. I love that behind the counter the staff have a lot of their buck and other animal heads mounted on display, this goes to show you they know how to butcher everything.

    I had made a wonderful stock using a duck leg and some wings and some odds and ends of bones from the freezer, which was our soup base but premade chicken stock would have been just fine too.

    The meatball assembly was fun. Mom weighed out the meat while I played sous chef, chopping garlic and parsley to sprinkle over the ground meats in the bowl. Mom added grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses, plain breadcrumbs and dried oregano and salt and pepper and mixed up the bowl of meatballs. We decided to bake them since we omitted the egg in the batch in lieu of my allergies and we were not sure if the usual method of poaching the meatballs in the stock would work without the egg as a binder.

    A half sheet jelly roll pan was lined with a Silpat and Mom used her smaller meatball scoop, which makes golf ball sized meat. I rolled them up quickly with water dampened hands.  After a few meatballs were formed, we decided they should be smaller, so we halved the balls and ended up making 80 or so tiny balls.

    It didn’t take too long to roll the little marble sized balls and space them on the baking pan. I tossed one in the hot stock and fried another one up in a skillet for a taste test and, surprisingly, the poached meatball did really well and did not fall apart. The additions to the meatballs were just what we had intended and we nailed the seasoning perfectly.  Although both of them were delectable, the sauteed meatball was even more flavorful because of the browning process so proceeded with our plan to bake the meatballs.

    Into the oven they went while we diced up onions, carrot, celery and a mound of kale and chard for the soup pot. I cooked a little diced bacon first to render the fat to sautée the vegetables and resisted the urge just to eat the mirepoix from the pan. The hot stock was poured in and I splashed in a few shakes of Worchestershire sauce and bitters to deepen the flavors of the broth.

    When the meatballs were browned and sizzling from the oven, they were left to cool a bit and then we slid into the soup along with the kale. When the greens were tender it was time for supper. We sprinkled the last bits of the grated cheeses decadently over our soup bowls and tucked in while watching an episode of Sherlock on PBS.

    I wish I had a photo to share because the soup was just lovely.  The stock was a warm brown with tiny brunoise of vegetables, long shreds of bright green kale and little meatballs, just the size to nestle into the soup spoon comfortably but not too large so that you couldn’t fit in a mouthful of broth and a few vegetables.  The cheese melted over some of the kale and some of the meatballs and then settled gently down to hug the bottom of the bowl, to be scraped up in long, cheesy strings, in subsequent mouthfuls.   Time seemed to stop for that bowl of soup.

    We ate contentedly, sitting side by side on the couch in the cozy family room, the heat from the kitchen spilling out into the room while the hot soup warmed us from the inside out.

    The soup pot was still full so I ladled the soup into five or so plastic storage containers to be frozen for future dinners for Mom. There’s nothing like finding a tub of homemade soup on the freezer when you want a meal but don’t have the energy or motivation to cook, rather like finding forgotten money tucked away in a pocket.

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    My family, from happier days

    Italian Wedding Soup
    printable recipe

    Mangalitsa Pork Loin Extravaganza

    While I was recuperating from pertussis, or whooping cough, I was staying with a very sweet friend during the convalescence period, just in case I kicked off during the night but mostly to alleviate the tedium of being stuck at home from this dread illness.  My friend was quite kind to take me in, and when I was feeling a bit better and my appetite returned, I asked if I could cook dinner one night for her and another understanding friend.

    I was not contagious, just not suitable to be out in public, and completely wiped out from not sleeping more than an hour at a time.  But I could make a simple meal!  Stashed in my freezer from hog butchering season was a loin of pork from a Mangalitsa pig, a very fat and flavorful porcine breed, and the loin had been waiting for a suitable occasion.  With additions from the wonderful delivery service Good Eggs, we also had a gorgeous butternut squash and some fresh asparagus and other herbs that would make perfect accompaniments to the meat.

    I thawed the pork loin and scored the fat in a diamond pattern, and then made a marinade out of salt and pepper, herbs and garlic and a splash of white wine and olive oil.

    Marinating Mangalitsa pork loin, fat side, garlic paste and herbs, paprika

    In my friend’s largest skilled I browned the meat very well.  With the capacious fat cap on the loin there was no need to add any fat, I just allowed the meat to render the savory, hazelnut scented fat to brown the roast.  The aroma that wafted from the kitchen filled the hallway outside my friend’s apartment and the cats were underfoot, constantly meowing hopefully.

    Browning the Mangalista pork loin

    To accompany the roast I halved fat and sassy shallots and then topped them with slabs of peeled butternut squash, and then slathered on the leftover marinade from the pork.  They roasted first for about 40 minutes, and then the browned roast sidled up next to them in the oven to finish off.  I like this kind of cooking, it’s very hands-off and perfect when you are exhausted by life or just feeling lazy.  The house is warm from the heat of the oven and everything feels so very cozy.

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    The pork roast was richly browned and smelled so tempting while it rested a bit before carving.

    Mangalitsa pork loin

    When I sliced the loin you could really appreciate the thick blanket of nutty fat from this special breed of pig.  The trick to a good pork roast is to not cook it to death, just to 160 and then let the meat rest.  The pink hue is due to the pasture raising of the pig and does not mean it is undercooked.  While the meat roasted it bathed the lean loin with its own fat and juices and it is probably one of the most memorable roasts I have ever prepared.

    Mangalitsa pork loin. It's all about the fat.

    We arranged everything on a serving platter, the tender and succulent pork slices on one side, and the meltingly browned, sweet shallots and squash on the other, everything fragrant with herbs.

    Roasted Mangalitsa pork loin, butternut squash and whole shallots

    To offset the richness of the entree I made a light and refreshing salad of shaved fennel, blanched asparagus and herbs, with a creamy chive dressing.  The baby lettuces, arugula, fresh mint, fennel fronds, chives and parsley were washed and spun absolutely dry.

    Herbs

    I shaved a fennel bulb into the salad bowl using a serrated Y shaped peeler, sharper than lemon juice in a paper cut.

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    It was hard not to snack on the blanched baby asparagus, I cut them into forkable lengths and splashed them briefly into salted, boiling water, then refreshed under cold tap water and drained well on a towel.  *Most* of them made it into the salad.

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    I tossed everything together gently with my hands and then served separately a little bowl of creamy chive dressing, inspired by the Princess Diana’s favorite salad dressing from her chef at Balmoral Castle, Darren McGrady.

    Herb salad

    Chive cream dressing

    It was a simple dinner to prepare, the hardest part was making the salad.   It was a convivial evening and it felt good to do something to thank my friend for her caretaking of me and to share the rich treat of the Mangalitsa.

    Printer friendly recipe:

    Chive Cream Salad Dressing

    How Do You Like Your Nuts?

    I wanted to makes spiced pecans for a snack for a day’s excursion to the South Bay and needed inspiration, so I posed this question, “How do you like your nuts?” to some culinary minded friends on Facebook. Usually spiced nuts are mixed with egg whites and baked to allow the seasonings to adhere to the surface of the nut, but for me that is disallowed because of the eggs so I needed a new idea.

    Happily my friends came through with suggestions such as rosemary and cayenne, sugar and black pepper and butter!

    My memory flashed on a jar of Aji Amarillo chile powder I purchased from Peppahead, a friend’s family business. It’s a beautiful yellow chile with a warm heat and fruity flavor, and much more interesting than cayenne pepper.

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    My grocery delivery the night before included a sack of fresh rosemary so I broke off a big piece and pulled the jar of Demerara sugar from the pantry cupboard and set to work making hot, spicy, salty and sweet nuts for our snacking pleasure.

    I melted almost an entire stick of butter in a skillet and added the sugar, spices and the rosemary and when it was all melty and mixed well, I poured in handfuls of fat pecan halves. Four minutes of stirring later I poured the hot nuts onto a platter to cool and showered them with sprinkles of crunchy Maldon sea salt. I love Maldon salt, it has such a clean flavor and the squared shaped crystals, like little patio umbrellas, crunch delightfully between your molars before hitting your tongue with that perfect salty hit.

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    When they were mostly cooled I scooped them into a little bento box that would fit into my satchel I was bringing on the trip. I made up a thermos of hot Earl Grey tea and tossed in some little bags of peanut M&Ms for good measure and set off for my fun day with friends.

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    When we stopped for a break we were the envy of all around us as we popped these rich, toasty, buttery, spicy and sweet and salty nuts into our mouths and groaned in delighted pleasure as all the flavors combined in our mouths. It was an utterly satisfying snack. The best part is that I still have a half a bag of pecans left at home to make more!!!

    Spice up your own nuts here! (printer friendly recipe)

    Party Flatbreads

    My friends C___ and D___ had a party this weekend to celebrate C___’s birthday, their wedding anniversary and the anniversary of moving to their condo. What a fun trio of occasions!

    I had splurged on a purchase of the best mozzarella on the planet, from Angelo and Franco, a whole BBQed chicken and racks of ribs from Sneaky’s Underground BBQ and with the haul from some recent grocery forays I realized I had some great ingredients in the pantry to make flatbreads for the party.

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    Using a dough recipe from Artisan Pizza and Flatbreads, I mixed up a batch of dough and had enough for three flatbreads for the party plus enough for home dinners for the next two weeks.

    I made three flatbreads:

  • Marinated grapes in herbs and olive oil, goat cheese and pecans
  • Brown tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil
  • BBQ chicken mixed with BBQ sauce, red onions, Gruyere



  • Each flatbread baked in about 15 minutes and were topped with a sprinkle of Maldon crunchy sea salt when they came out of the oven. They were perfect with the variety of white and red Rhone style wines my friends poured. Warm or at room temperature, we scarfed them down.

    If you think outside the box any leftover or ingredient can be made into a flatbread or a pizza. To me, the difference between a flatbread and a pizza has to do with tomato sauce; dough with tomato sauce is a pizza, anything else is a flatbread. They’re both equally delicious! A local Indian place is making flatbreads with curry sauce and tandoori chicken, it’s fantastic and I am bitter they don’t deliver to my neighborhood.

    Tonight I am making myself a BBQ chicken flatbread just for me for dinner, the oven is preheating now and I can’t wait.

    For other pizza toppings ideas, check out my Sharknado pizza party! What would you make?

    Asian Inspired Soup from Costco Shopping

    My mom visited this weekend and we girded our loins and went to Costco on Sunday. May I suggest that if there is an epic rainstorm in your city and it is the weekend that Costco is probably the worst possible place on earth to be? It was like that World War Z movie but instead of zombies exploding out of the crowd it was surly people viciously jabbing giant shopping carts at other shoppers in mass hordes.

    I hadn’t been there in months and months for a variety of ankle related reasons, so despite the crowds and the overall oppressive and surly attitudes, Mom and I had a good time checking out what was available and picking up some good finds.

    I was quite delighted to find packages of Chinese cured pork sausages, the kind that taste like char siu BBQ pork. In the walk in cooler I found a package of beech mushrooms and my favorite haricot verts and Meyer lemons. Of course, we had to pick up cheese and wine and toilet paper and a few other necessities and checked out all of the kitchen gadgets.

    Once home at my apartment, we watched the the rain bucketing down, which was wonderful because we are in a drought and despite 20 inches falling in Marin that weekend we would still need six more storms of this level to take us out of drought situation this year. For dinner, given we were both not terribly hungry, I concocted an Asian inspired soup from the goodies from Costco, plus a few items in the pantry and from my last produce CSA box.

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    The soup only took 30 minutes or so to put together and we watched the Olympics and caught up on Downton Abbey until dinnertime. I am taking the leftovers to work for lunch this week, which makes me terrifically sharp at watching the clock, or checking this site often.

    Asian Inspired Soup

    1 pork chop, diced
    2 Chinese cured pork sausages, sliced
    1 Tbl grapeseed oil
    2 Tbl chopped ginger
    3 cloves garlic, minced
    1 cup dry sherry
    1 quart of pork stock (from 4505 Meats) or chicken stock
    2 cups of water
    1/4 cup soy sauce
    2 Tbl fish sauce
    1 stalk of lemongrass, crushed
    1 bunch of green onions, sliced
    2 cups of beech or other mushrooms (sliced if they are large)
    1 cup green beans, cut into 1″ lengths
    2 bunches of spinach, stems removed
    Juice of 1/2 a Meyer lemon
    1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
    1/3 package of rice noodles, cooked in boiling water per the directions, drained and rinsed with cold water
    Cilantro for garnish

    In a soup pot over medium high heat, heat the oil and brown the pork chop pieces and the Chinese cured pork sausages. Add garlic and ginger and saute for 2 minutes. Pour in sherry and scrape the bottom of the pan and let reduce for 5 minutes. Add pork stock, water, soy and fish sauces, lemongrass and the Sichuan peppercorns and bring to a boil. Toss in the green beans, mushrooms and the white parts of the green onions and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the spinach and stir, simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Taste for seasoning, my soup needed a bit more salt and I added the lemon juice and the green onion tops right at the end.

    To serve, add a heap of the cooked rice noodles to each soup bowl, ladle in the hot soup and top with handfuls of fresh cilantro.

    Printer Friendly Recipe here

    I am so glad my mom came in for the weekend to stay with me, despite the rain.  It was so lovely to catch up on things, do a little shopping and errands together and enjoy each other’s company.  Since my stepdad passed away it seems time is very precious and every moment we get to spend with family and friends feels that much more important, even if only shared over a fast bowl of soup.

    The Nostalgia of Christmas and Family and A Farewell

    Up late one night I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on television, 84 Charing Cross Road. The book is truly one of my favorites, and Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins do a stellar job in bringing my beloved novel to life.

    In one scene, it’s Christmas time and a lovely cathedral in London is performing Handel’s Messiah by a beautiful choir. Suddenly I was transported back to Christmases past.

    We used to all live here in San Francisco. My sister lived on Pacific Heights, my parents had that lovely flat on Russian Hill, which I still think of as my permanent address as it was since I was 15, years before my parents moved in.

    Family friends lived there for years, the Days, and they proffered me the use of their mailing address so I could register for school and for the use of their 6 foot bathtub since the luxury of a long bubble bath was much needed by a teenager while Mom and I were living on the boat.

    Meantime, Mom married my darling stepdad and I graduated from high school and left home to my first apartment with my beau. When the Days moved to DC and my parents moved into the flat it really felt like we were all coming home. I lived nearby in various apartments on Russian Hill and then later on Cathedral Hill to be closer to the Opera House.

    December in SF is pretty mild, weather-wise. The air is snappy and chilly, the buildings along the Embarcadero and all over town are outlined in white lights, the top of the Transamerica Pyramid glows with a color shifting laser light that I can see from my winter-grime streaked windows. One building has a giant bow in lights along the roof somewhere on the slopes of Nob Hill that is a favorite, and my building’s owners decorate the Art Deco lobby with Christmas decorations and wreathes.

    My parents and I would sometime go together to Fort Mason to the Guardian’s tree sale in one of the piers to get our Christmas trees, then back to my parent’s flat (home) for supper and hot buttered rum with Trader Vic’s mix and those chocolate schoolboy cookies.

    Some years, I would take my laundry cart to the tree lot on the corner of Van Ness and Filbert and push a tree up, up, up that great hill to my apartment to collapse on the couch, sticky with sap, to drink very boozy eggnog while my cat snuffled around the pine boughs.

    Either way, my stepdad would come over and help me get the tree in the stand and make sure it was up straight, and we would have a little scotch and soda to congratulate ourselves on the fine job.

    I would shop and shop for pantry ingredients and cook up a variety of gifts for Christmas. I would sit on the couch with a tray on a triangular table in front of the TV and zest piles of lemons to make a decadent lemon curd. The recipe was from the beloved Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino where visited with my father when we used to see each other. It called for 14 whole eggs and 6 yolks and a pound and a half of butter and took a long time stirring over a double boiler with a wooden spoon to turn into thick and creamy and tangy lemon curd.

    I spooned the finished pale yellow curd into pretty jars topped with circles of Christmas fabric from the fabric store on Polk Street and secured with ribbons or with sparkly wrapping paper and hand drawn stickers. My mom and sister loved this lemon curd especially and I always had enough leftover to make a tiny fruit tarts for myself for a decadent tea on a weekend of hard cooking.

    Our dear neighbor Peggy Baldwin, the most chic and sophisticated lady with her red hair in a sleek bob, gave me a set of mini loaf pans and her recipe for zucchini pineapple bread one year. This gift along with an inspiring edition of Gourmet Magazine spurred a new tradition of my baking dozens of savory and sweet mini loaves for gifts. I scoured the city looking for cellophane wrap to package them up with bows of satin ribbon.

    Another Christmas staple was trays and trays of peanut brittle. It was so much fun to make, using my largest stock pot cooking the sugar and peanuts until they were the perfect hue and temperature, testing the sugar the way Grandma taught me with a bowl of ice water and her old teal painted wooden handled sugar thermometer as a backup. A poof of baking soda caused the seething hot mass to bubble up perilously close to the top of the pot, to be calmed with soothing butter and a dash of vanilla extract and poured out onto pans to cool and harden. My sister taught me to make candy but I could never recreate her wondrous chocolate topped toffee and stuck with the simpler brittle.

    My stepdad would always give us pounds of Sees Candy, stashed under the Christmas tree for Christmas, and we would reach for those before even starting in on our homemade candies.

    Later, I was granted the honor of the recipe of Ken’s daughter in law’s mother’s recipe for shortbread. Margaret Golbranson was a fine and true Scottish lady, as is her daughter Una, with whom I grew as fond as a sister. Margaret’s recipe came from her great Aunt Violet and it was one of the few recipes she brought from home in Scotland. Una would give my stepdad a tin of shortbread each year and I would too because there was never enough. Una’s batches were of course far superior to mine but Margaret approved of my efforts anyway.

    I would set aside a Saturday in November and hike down the hill to Ghirardelli Square to watch their tree lighting ceremony, then grab a crab to take home for dinner and an Irish Coffee from the Buena Vista to fortify myself for the hike back up the hill. My parents and sister and I would walk around the neighborhood admiring the Christmas decorations on display, and would drive around in the Marina, our old home stomping grounds, to see our former neighbor’s decorations. Mom and I would make a trip downtown to shop and look at the store windows.

    My parents attended St. Luke’s church, where they were married, and were members of their very fine choir. The choir performed many beautiful concerts at various venues around town and even recorded albums. It was one of the finest music programs in the city and their Christmas concerts were beautiful.

    My sister and I were not raised to attend church but we loved hearing our parents and our choir family sing, so we would don our Christmas wool dresses and skirts, warm coats decorated with Christmas jewelry and meet up in the pews to hear the concert on Christmas Eve at 10 pm. The church was lit with tall white tapers and pretty decorations. Floyd Dade, the church caretaker, would give us big hugs and remind us not to sit on the ends of the pews under the candles as they dripped. The Trompette à Chamade would sound and the choir would start their procession singing out greatly, Mom and Ken would see us in the pews and smile and nod with glistening eyes as they passed by along with our family friends. It is hard to believe the church is 150 years old this year.

    After the Christmas service and concert we would pile into the car and head out to the outer Richmond district to the Blomberg’s house, our dearest friends, for a party given for the choir. Sue decorated her house adorably and made a lavish spread with classic displays of silver, crystal and fine china holding her exquisite fare, lit by candelabra and tapers everywhere. Sue is an elegant hostess and this late night party was quite a great bash. We would take turns warming by the fireplace sipping hot oyster stew out of glass mugs or crystal cups of Bill’s famous eggnog. The punch bowl that had the boozy eggnog was decorated with a red bow. Bill’s annual masterpiece had eggs and whipping cream, eggnog ice cream from Mitchell’s, and who knows what other magical things went into this rich concoction.

    When the eyelids began to droop and people got tired playing the baby grand piano and singing carols we would head home to get some sleep before Christmas Day, stopping for an embarrassing smooch from whoever caught us under the mistletoe.

    Christmas Day was invariable sunny and bright but cold like a refrigerated apple. I would load up my laundry cart with my goodies and other Christmas gifts and head over to Larkin Street.

    Mom always baked orange sweet rolls served with lots of strong coffee and bacon or sausages, stollen and Ken would blend up Ramos fizzes for a bit of the hair of the dog.

    We would open our Christmas stockings first, filled with candy, nuts in their shells and gifts from Santa and Mrs Claus, all secretly filled by their ‘elves’, meaning Mom, my sis and me. The gifts under the tree would be opened and we would admire them and the view of the bay outside, classical music or Christmas carols would be playing on the stereo and the floor was littered with paper, ribbons and decorations.

    We had a tradition of reusing some gift decorations so it was always a treat to see one of the old family favorites on your own gift that year. They were carefully set aside for the next year during the Great Clean Up of the holiday debris. Ken would always don a bow on his shirt or on the top of his head, until one of us would notice and break out in the giggles.

    After cooking together for dinner, reading our Christmas books and sucking on a candy cane or two, the cannon in the Presidio would blow and Ken would make cocktails. The Blombergs would arrive for dinner and sometimes we would have other guests, such as our dear neighbor Peggy, my boyfriend (except for the Jewish one who always camped out in my apartment eating Chinese until I returned) or other family friends who didn’t have a place to go. We would have Christmas gifts again and Sue heated up the leftover oyster stew from Christmas Eve to sip with our drinks as we watched the sunset through the Golden Gate Bridge. Dinners were always grand affairs and ended with Christmas crackers, telling jokes and donning the tissue crowns that came inside the crackers.

    My family moved away about ten years ago and I would trek out to my parents new home in the Sierra foothills for a holiday break and Christmas at their cottage, which was tucked into a hollow filled with oak trees and quail.

    We would always have crab on Christmas Eve and listen to the local PBS radio station play Amal and the Night Visitors, play Spite and Malice on the card table set up in front of the stone fireplace, warming ourselves with a toasty fire.

    My elaborate baked gifts stopped then as they wouldn’t survive the train trip or long car rides, but I always made shortbread and sometimes candied ginger for Ken, they were his favorites. We cooked elaborate Christmas dinners for just the four of us. Sometimes I would bring up my cat Pogo or my sister would bring up her two fluffy white cats. They were fun to watch, exploring under the Christmas tree or watching the plethora of birds outside and “helping” with the ribbons on the gifts and the great unwrapping party.

    Over all the years it was a comfortable feeling of family being together, enjoying our company, cooking and playing cards, watching football or PBS, sneaking off for naps and long walks and depleting the vast amount of chocolate desserts, the holidays were a pleasant time.

    Last year my stepdad became suddenly and severely ill with dementia and we didn’t decorate the house for Christmas. It was an odd holiday with just my parents and me trying not to freak out over this horrible illness and the severe and breathtaking worry over what would happen next. I roasted a duck brought up from my local butcher in the city a day after Christmas because my stepdad was really under the weather on Christmas Day.

    Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to the hospital for an infection, then he was transferred to a dreadful nursing home where his dementia made him non-responsive. By May, he was allowed to go home for hospice care, almost immediately he began to improve, although we knew it wouldn’t last.

    At Ken’s 92nd birthday party in July he was having a good day but he didn’t really know who we all were and he was very tired. He took a turn for the worse in November and then, suddenly, on Veterans Day, he was gone. He was taking a nap and slipped away. I am so glad he was able to be at home that he loved so much, with my mom who he loved even more. I was with a dear friend, recuperating from whooping cough, too sick to travel yet.

    Sometimes people talk about the passing of a loved one as a mercy, and I understand this, Ken hated this illness and he was tired of it. I am grateful his ordeal is over and that a fine tenor has joined the choir with St. Peter.

    I wrote about my memories of my stepdad on my Facebook page. I can’t bear to repeat those thoughts here. He was a wonderful man, he was my dad and friend.

    A friend Sean wrote about the anniversary of the loss of his brother and said, “Life is not about what we’ve lost, but what we keep. Every memory, no matter how it’s retained, is a treasure.” Mom re-read my blog this last week and remarked how happy she was that I wrote so much about our family. I have been re-reading my writing too and I am grateful I have chronicled our happy times together here.

    I can’t imagine how the holidays are going to be this year. All I know is that I want to give my mom all the hugs I can. Being together is the greatest gift and I am truly thankful,

    Gone Fishing

    Life has taken an unexpected turn, again, this time because of whooping cough or pertussis.

    I wrote about this here.

    I have learned no matter how sick I am I can still make some chicken broth and sipping broth every few hours has been helping I think.

    I’m so grateful to my friends who have been bringing me my medications and groceries and for the various delivery services in the city who help fill in when I couldn’t bear being a continued burden.

    Hope to be writing about fun things again soon.

    For The Zucchini Overwhelmed – Tiger Salad

    Some lucky people are swamped with zucchini these days. Imagine a garden in your own yard, filled with summer produce and zucchini and herbs popping out all over. Since I am an urban dweller and dirt-deprived I am quite envious of people with gardens. We just passed the annual “sneak some zucchini on your neighbor’s porch” day, and sadly no one did this to me, but in my urban highrise it would be likely snarfed up by other garden-free zucchini-hungry neighbors.

    Photo courtesy of Faith Kramer - Blog Appetit

    Photo courtesy of Faith Kramer
    Blog Appetit

    If you are overwhelmed with zucchini you might like to try the refreshing salad I made for the Bay Area Food Blogger’s picnic.  It’s a riff on a traditional Thai salad that calls for cucumber and celery.  With my weird food intolerances I cannot eat those vegetables so I decided to go with thinly sliced zucchini and fennel to approximate texture and found the combination even better than what I remembered having at my local Thai restaurants.  It was really refreshing with the mint and cilantro leaves and a hit of heat from red chile flakes.   I served with an Asian marinated chicken legs and that was a terrific combination.

    My little double-edged mandolin made quick work of the prep, I sliced up the zucchini right into the mixing bowl, then carefully sliced the fennel.  I picked off leaves from the bunches of mint and cilantro, added a pinch or two of the red chile and added shiso dressing until everything seemed moistened enough.  After an hour in the fridge I tossed the vegetables again as the zucchini expressed a lot of water from their contact with the soy shiso dressing.   Before leaving for the picnic I mixed up the vegetables one last time and lifted them out of the mixing bowl with a slotted spoon to leave behind the excess liquid.  I plopped the salad into my picnic serving box and added some more herbs and toasted sesame seeds on top, into my cooler it went and I was off to the park!

    Many thanks to Faith of Blog Appetit for sharing her photo of the salad!  Now I need to make her vegetarian paella.

    Recipe:  Zucchini Tiger Salad + Shiso Salad Dressing