A Foray Out – A Bento Picnic

I was invited to attend a picnic this weekend and I was delighted to accept because the weather during the day has been so un-San Francisco like, warm and sunny, almost like summer!

 

The night before, however, I was beset with anxiety. How would I get there? Where could I sit? Would I be able to access the picnic area? Was there an accessible restroom nearby that I could get to? Would I be able to stay out in the sun the whole time? What could I wear to cover up? Where is my hat? What can I make to bring? Would I be a burden to the other people? Would I have a good time?

 

Oh, anxiety, you are such a demon. I supposed all this comes from feeling helpless and vulnerable during this healing period. It’s only temporary but the lack of sleep the night before and the insurmountable hurdles some of these questions posed felt quite difficult.  Happily, it all worked out beautifully.

 

Fortunately for me, in San Francisco, there are places where a disabled person can picnic and have a good time! We went to Chrissy Field and my friends picked me up in their car. Thanks to my temporary handicap placard we were able to party pretty near to the picnic area. There was a decent dirt path that led to the lawn and we found a nice spot with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Angel Island and the curve of the city to the Bay Bridge.

 

NHK picnic

 

The purpose of this picnic was more than just friends getting together for the afternoon.  My amazing friend Biggie was being interviewed by NHK World television for a program about foreigners making bento.  She is the original bento food blogger and received much acclaim for her website Lunch In a Box.  I personally use her website frequently to find recipes because she’s an amazing cook and when I get home I wonder, how did she make that Thai curry?  Or what is in that sanbaizu sauce?

 

This is such an exciting time for her and so wonderful that the Japanese film crew flew out to watch her make bento and then observe the bento picnic and then (gulp) interview her friends about bento and Biggie.   I grew up eating Japanese food, thanks to my neighbors and living where I did, but I never made or enjoyed a homemade bento before my friendship with Biggie.  It has really expanded my world.

 

NHK picnic

As Biggie says, bento crosses all cultural lines and anything can go into a bento, and it is the best way to use leftovers!

 

With my weird food allergies, I can’t tell you how many times I have ended up in the emergency room because something I purchased for lunch was contaminated by egg.   Bringing a bento box not only is an economical way to use leftovers but makes lunch feel special.  This is a direct-from-Biggie-quote.

 

NHK picnic

For her special picnic I wanted to bring something tasty and special and happily I had enough goodies in the fridge for a special bento.  The focus of my blog and locus of my food preferences are items that are local, sustainably sourced and grown.  The harmoniousness of my bento happily reflected this mindset.

NHK picnic

(my bento is in the little metal tin at the bottom!)

 

Happily, everyone enjoyed my humble bento, especially the Japanese film crew who polished off every last bit except for a sprinkling of red onion.  I also brought a container of Costco’s smoked pulled pork doused in bacon hot sauce (my favorite sauce) and some fresh rice, which got polished off.  Cold bing cherries were the perfect finish to my contributions to the picnic.

 

The other bentos were truly fantastic and I am sorry I didn’t take pictures of them.  Because I was sitting up in a camp chair (the current gimp factor did not permit me to join the others on the picnic blankets), my angle of photography was pretty poor.

 

Biggie made her incredible Spam musubi, the best spam musubi on the planet, I might add (see her site for the recipe); little liverwurst and sweet pickle roll up sandwiches, maki style; a bento filled with rolled local sliced salamis, prosciutto and bresola; Tillamouk extra fancy white cheddar; a fancy prepared bento with fruit and vegetables and the maki sandwiches; and a bento of hot rice and mapo dofu, a spicy pork and tofu dish made extra spicy with lots of Sriracha sauce; and a huge Louisana crunch cake.  It isn’t a picnic without cake!  Friends brought a bento made especially for a child with fried fish, vegetables and fruits, a bento with fried polenta squares drizzled with pesto (amazing!), edamame and vegetables.   We washed all of this down with lots of wine, hard cider and beer, and juice boxes and chilled water and juices for the kids.

 

As one parent said, bringing bento to a picnic is a perfect thing, because it can be eaten alone or shared and it’s not like a huge bowl of food that can get tipped over or go off.

 

We hit that wonderful peaceful lull that comes to every picnic when everyone is sated, the sun feels fantastic and one gazes out over the incredible views with perfect contentment.  Like a bento, it was a perfectly encapsulated moment of enjoyment.

 

NHK picnic

(the fog, rolling in a bit)

 

The interviews were handled with great care and consideration and did not feel at all intrusive.  We really enjoyed getting to meet the crew and chat about food cultures, eating habits in California and San Francisco and how we knew Biggie.  It was such a fun day!

 

Soon the program will be aired and I am excited to see my dear friend on television – soon the world will be sharing in her wonderful food!

 

Later, at home, I reflected on how enriched my life is by knowing extraordinary people like Biggie and the parents from her child’s school, our mutual friends and new friends, and the access to scenes and food like today.  Despite being disabled at the moment, I feel like a very lucky lady.

 

NHK picnic

Summers Past

I would give anything to go back to the summers of my teenage years. I used to attend to an interesting and unique school that trained the students for field biology and other scientific careers. We were an Explorer Post and used to spend our weekends and summers in the field, working for the forest service by clearing trails or clearing streams of deadfalls or just scientific research, and geological, plants and bird and animal scatology identification.

 

We hiked and backpacked all over California and Oregon, we did some amazing, incredible things. Our teachers were unique people, and I learned a lot from them including how to get along with difficult and irascible individuals, a skill which has stood me in good stead over the years.

 

One summer I took over cooking for the group, over 60 extremely hungry and growing kids using Government surplus and Army surplus foodstuffs, if you want to call it that. We made the best of it, of course. We had already learned to forage so I tried to supplement the menu as much as I could, if not for everyone then for myself.  There was the rattlesnake incident, of course, and I learned a trick from my older sister about letting the cheddar sit out so that it would age.  She was the cook too during her years at the same school, five years ahead of me.

 

I remember finding wild chives on a mountain slope in Lassen national volcanic park along the slopes of Mount Brokeoff by a stream bed. I collected as many as I could find and added them to my government surplus pressed turkey roll sandwich and it made it actually pretty edible.   I foraged dates fallen from the trees in the groves at Furnace Creek to add to the deplorable oatmeal.  We got creative with Tiger Juice and canned pineapple juice for pancakes.  Nothing really could salvage the dried eggs but I did my best to get them fluffy with powdered milk.  You try making scrambled eggs for 60 grouchy teenagers sometime!!

 

During our survival exercises, we had to kill a lamb and kill Cornish game hens, to simulate killing a deer or wild fowl in the field.  I brought a Bento box from home stuffed with herbs and spices to help flavor up my share.  One teacher expressed scorn at my stash but a few others asked if they could us the garlic, rosemary and other herbs I brought.   Bay leaves were added to everything, and I learned that if you picked enough bay leaves you could create your own tick and mosquito repellent, it worked, sort of, and I certainly smelled better than everybody else. I learned how to create a balm for said tick and mosquito bites by using Manzanita leaves, and the bark made a really nice tea.

 

Junk food like candy and chips and sodas were contraband, so we learn to enjoy acceptable contraband such as kippered herrings, salamis, Ak Mak and canned black bread. One blissful weekend each year was spent up at the Battle Creek fish hatchery where we would each be given a large empty tin can and sent out to collect as many blackberries as we could. We would come back stained purple and full with our cans also full. We made an incredible blackberry sauce to put over ice cream that was purchased from the grocery store miles and miles away. It was such a decadent treat and only happened once a year.  There was that one memorable time we left the sauce out until the next day and it fermented! The sauce was an especially delicious treat with our high protein pancakes (high protein because the mosquitoes would divebomb the griddle, oh well!)!

We lived rough, sleeping on the ground, rarely ever with tents, and endured freezing cold or extremely hot temperatures,  brutal hikes and hard physical labor. It was some of the best times of my life.

 

I learned skills that would surprise my current friends and coworkers.  I learned how to climb trees using a rope and with a chainsaw to cut down deadfalls,  rock climbing and bouldering techniques from actual experts, rather than what my sister and I tried to figure out on our own bouldering. We kayaked down class four rivers, learning how to flip our kayaks in the swimming pool at school. I learned how to tread water for over an hour fully dressed, and how to use my blue jeans to form a flotation device.  We backpacked into Death Valley in extremely remote areas that most people don’t ever go to, into old gold mining camps, defunct borax mines and caves with hidden Indian drawings that only we knew about, and we kept that secret safe.   We sang songs and wrote some too and there was always someone with a guitar.  The music was amazing.  I had a songbook from my early teens that had every hippie and folk song around and that was almost worn out from use.  There were no cell phones or iPods but sometimes someone had a Walkman (also contraband) so we had to entertain ourselves on the 7-11 hour car trips.  The bird of prey game was quite popular, negative points for misidentifying a turkey vulture for a BOP.

 

We were tough and strong and got really dirty and we had the most fun. We were smart and savvy and were safe.  Nothing scared me, I did the most reckless and incredible things back then and have injuries, scars and wear and tear now to prove it. I used to backpack carrying 75% of my bodyweight in gear, wish we had the great lightweight gear that’s out there now! But I wouldn’t give up those days for a hot minute, despite what how my knees and ankles feel today.  I pulled out my songbook the other day and tried to play a few chords on my soprano guitar and wished with all my might I could be out under the stars surrounded by pine trees and near a stream.  Someday, ankle, someday!

Work in Progress: Stinky Bacon Sriracha Wrapped Sweet Peppers

peppers

It seems like at every supermarket they sell miniature sweet bell peppers in red, orange and yellow and they’re so delicious to eat in many different ways.  Usually I just saute them but I was in the mood for something more feisty.   I picked up a bag of them at a farm stand on the way back home from my mom’s house, along with a pound of bacon from a fantastic place in Lockeford. I got to thinking that it might be a pleasant change from the spicy jalapeno stuffed peppers to use these sweet peppers instead.

When I got home I realized I did not have cream cheese but I did have goat cheese, and I found a wedge of Tallegio, a marvelously flavorful and stinky soft rind aged cheese. When I opened the fridge door my erstwhile bottle of Sriracha sauce fell out, again, and the idea for stinky bacon wrapped Sriracha sweet peppers was born!

I used about three ounces of Tallegio cut into small pinky-shaped pieces, and shoved those into the hollowed out peppers first, followed by a topping of goat cheese.

Each little pepper was wrapped in bacon, and then I prepared a cutting mat with a puddle of Sriracha sauce and mound of Demerera sugar.

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Each fat little pepper got rolled in the hot sauce, and then rolled around in the crunchy sugar and placed on a little baking sheet covered with mushed up tinfoil to make an impromptu rack.

Because I’m still using the kneeling walker/scooter thing I can’t use the big oven, but my convection toaster oven is pretty fantastic, despite my not having all of the required equipment, like mini baking racks.

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I baked them at 425 F for 15 minutes until the bacon was a crispy and bubbly and the sugar and Siriracha melded together for a savory sweet spicy coating.

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My apartment smelled mercilessly of Tallegio and bacon and chilies, but I didn’t care, I was just waiting for them to cool down my enough that I could eat them.

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I call this recipe a work in progress because obviously they baked up too dark, but they still tasted amazing.  Next time I will lower the heat and maybe add more bacon.

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While I waited for the peppers to cool I mounded a few of them on a little plate and mixed up a vodka Gibson. I was expecting a dear friend to come over but didn’t know exactly when she would arrive, and wouldn’t you know, the moment I sat down my doorbell rang. Perfect timing!

The heat from the Sriracha was exactly enough to make you want a sip of your cocktail, and the sweet pepper, cheesy baconiness was the perfect snack for a tipple when the sun pasts the yardarm.    We knocked back the Gibsons and then made another batch and chatted about her travels while noshing on the peppers.   Then we made pizza!  It was a perfect Sunday evening.

Work in Progress:  Stinky Bacon Sriracha Wrapped Peppers

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.

    Pretty flowers from my office for the memorial. So sweet

    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.

    Me and mOm

    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.