Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It's here!  It's here!

I love Thanksgiving.  I love the food, the family, the friends, the togetherness of it all.  And I love that the very next day I can start putting up Christmas decorations.  I love the smell of leaves and crackling fires and pumpkin pies.  And the next day, I love the smell of hot apple cider and pine trees. 

Here is what I am most thankful for from this year:

1.  The family.  Every last one of them. From my parents to my siblings, from my nieces and nephews to my in-laws.  And for those who are not blood- or marriage-related but are family nonetheless.  

2.  The running.  The day after day of putting one foot in front of the other at quite possibly the slowest pace.

A run in the rain...
3.  The unexpected moments of beauty.  The surprises.

4.    The new friends as well as the old friends.  Their presence, unexpected and familiar, is a sweet reminder.  

5.    The many wonderful trips to the beaches (from Point Reyes to Monastery Beach (also known as Mortuary Beach), from Ocean Beach to Mendocino).  I love the water and the smell and the company I have kept there.

6.   The music.  This year, the husband and I have been to many shows.  So many shows.  I don't know why he decided to do this little activity this year, but he  did.  And I have loved it. But my favorite was a show that I snuck away from Steinbeck camp, drove two hours, saw the show, woke up early the next morning, and was back at class by 8 a.m.  It felt decadent.  

The Avett Brothers
7.  The books.  From Steinbeck camp to refalling in love with Mrs. Dalloway all over again.  The dedicated time to think about literature and place. 

This little photo is from the Hamilton Ranch, as it figures prominently in East of Eden by Steinbeck
8.  The last 16 years with Jujubee.  She died about a month ago.  She was a traveller, that one, living in Illinois, Ohio, DC, Colorado, and California.  She saw it all.    

Juubee is the third one back. 
9.  My parking god.  He was the recipient of last year's Thanksgiving letter, but I have appreciated his presence again and again this year.  He has found me spots when I was ready to give up and he kept me from getting a parking ticket just this past week.  He is a good man.

10.  And this little place to write it all down just for a little while.  Thanks for being here...  I have enjoyed having this place to think about food and literature and friends and family.  And I have been glad to have you here to share it.  Thank you.

May your Thanksgiving be wonderful and full.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Roast Pork with Apricots

Growing up, we would eat dinner at my paternal grandmother's house at least once a month.  My grandmother was, as most grandmothers are, a character.  Her name was Gertrude.  Legend has it that she wanted to be called Trudy, but people called her only Gert.  And she was most certainly a Gert, not a Trudy.  Further legend has it that she even changed her name from Ruby to Gertrude when she was young because her last name was Stone, and she didn't want to be know as Ruby Stone any longer.  Both legends may be apocryphal.  The truth may be that she was Gert Stone from the start, but I like the idea of this young woman wanting to reinvent herself.

When I knew her, Gert was in her 70s and 80s.  She wore the most beautiful shades of red lipstick and had fabulous ceramic chicken dishes loaded with butterscotch candies.  She would cook pedestrian pot roasts when we came to visit, and after dinner my brother and I would wash and dry the dishes in her little kitchen with these wonderful flour sack dish towels.  The sounds of Lawrence Welk would float from the living room as my brother and I stood over the sink.   

Sometimes Gert would mix it up and serve Waldorf Salad with dinner.  Other times, when she was feeling particularly adventurous, we would eat chop suey.  But pot roast always reminds me of Gert. It feels homey, a tiny bit obligatory, and steeped in another age.

However, sometimes you need to mix up what you stick in the slow cooker.  And so I made pork with apricots.

Here's what I loved--sweet Jesus, the sauce.  The apricots in orange juice with garlic and onions!  Who knew that would be so divine?  Here's what I did not like--the pork was a little dry.  I would probably put a little more orange juice and broth into the slow cooker so that it covered more of the meat.  I would also cook the meat longer.  I added times below in brackets.  But when you slice the pork and slather it in the sauce, sweet business.  This is the kind of meal that Gert would have gotten behind. Then she would have gone straight to the living room to catch Mr. Welk's show.

One Year Ago: Homemade Granola
Roast Pork with Apricots
Adapted from  Williams Sonoma's Essentials of Slow Cooking

4-6 Servings

1/4 cup flour
Salt and pepper
1 boneless pork loin roast, about 2 1/2 pounds
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chicken broth [I would add more--maybe 2-3 cups, enough to cover 2/3 of the meat]
3 cups dried apricots
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1.  On a plate, stir together the flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Turn the pork in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.  In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil.  Cook the pork, turning frequently, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes.  Remove from the pan and set aside.

2.  Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the pan.  Add the onion and saute until softened, 3-5 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Pour in the broth and deglaze the pan, stirring and scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

3.  Transfer the pork to a slow cooker and pour in the broth mixture.  Add the apricots, orange juice and thyme.  Cover and cook until the pork is very tender, about 2-3 [4-5 might be better] hours on the high-heat setting or 4-6 hours on the low-heat setting.  [I would definitely do 6-8 hours on the low.]

4.  Transfer the pork to a cutting board and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the apricots and set aside.  Use a large, shallow spoon or a ladle to skim as much fat as possible from the surface of the cooking liquid.  Strain the juices into a large saucepan.  Brings to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and concentrated, about 10 minutes.  Stir the mustard into the sauce and add the apricots.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5.  Cut the pork across the grain into thin slices and arrange on a warmed platter.  Serve with sauce and apricots.

Wicklow Pancake


Carrying on with my non-Thanksgiving-themed meals, I bring you the Wicklow Pancake.  Today’s entry is decidedly non-Irish, although this recipe for a not-quite-a-pancake, not-yet-an-omelet* comes from one of my favorite regional cookbooks, The Country Cooking of Ireland.  This cookbook is a real pleasure, and I have not one but two recipes from this book already filed on this blog.  However, the entry begins in Ireland and ends in Oakland, with a stop on Virginia Woolf's Bond Street in between. 

(Yes, the Brittney pun was intended, but has no bearing on the rest of the post.  I just couldn't resist.)

I turned 21 in Wicklow in the little border town of Bray.  Famous residents of this seaside vacation spot south of Dublin include James Joyce, Bono, and Oscar Wilde.  Count me in their company for a short while and merely by geography.  However, I will take the company any chance I can get.  When I first arrived in Ireland in the fall of 1995, I stayed with a family near Bray Head.  The mother of the family would sit in the afternoons with her pot of tea, teaching me Irishisms, and the two little boys in the family clamored to ride piggyback as we hiked to beautiful overlooks to watch the sunset.  

The top of Bray Head (some pictures from 1995.  The hillside was badly burnt, but the views were gorgeous.)

On the night of my 21st birthday, the entire family was kind, the boys making me a card, the mother tying the house key around my neck before sending me out to celebrate with my newfound friends.  That night, I swam in the Irish Sea and sang tunes in the local pub.  When I returned “home,” the mother of the family was waiting up, and she kindly put me to bed.

Later that year in Ireland, I moved to the West coast and studied in Galway, where I took 10 literature classes, I kid you not.  For one of them (forget which—was it Women Writers?  Modernism?), I read Mrs. Dalloway, a book I am reading for book club next month and teaching this coming spring.  I just reread the book this past week, but that fall I cracked the spine on my first copy of Mrs. Dalloway: I remember being in love with it the moment I began on somewhat unsteady feet.  I didn't quite understand the structure of the book, but my first copy of this book is dogeared and underlined every couple of pages, and the final page is covered in notes.  This is one of those books that ranks up there with Ulysses (even though Woolf thought the book and its squalid, little goat writer to be unimpressive, smutty, and a bit boring), Beloved, Jane Eyre, and The Great Gatsby for me. 

Sure, Virginia said to Vita Sackville-West that To the Lighthouse was her best book—but she said it ironically when she sent Vita a dummy copy of the cover with the interior of the book filled with only blank pages.  Virginia worried that Vita would not get the joke and sent a follow-up letter to clarify.  Deep down, I am convinced, even Virginia knew that Mrs. Dalloway was her best book.  Or at least it was the book that most beautifully affirmed life.  Yes, Clarissa “always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”  And yes, she confronts the courage and beauty of Septimus’ death as it enters her party.  But she begins the day, watching sky writing, thinking, “overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”  And in the end “there she was,” her identity not fixed, as fluid as it ever was.  But she is as much in life at the final moment of the party as she was when at the opening moment of buying her own flowers.  “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual,” Woolf wrote in her diary on the 17th of February in 1922 as she was writing this novel.  I do feel it with this book—the life breaking in as usual.   

There is this sense that in the midst of horror for Clarissa (the aftermath of war, the encroaching madness, the news of a suicide, the loss of a daughter’s affection) and for all of us that life does, indeed, break in.  I find this beautiful book strangely and hauntingly hopeful in the end, as Clarissa reenters the room after having faced death and as old friends Peter (her once-rejected love) and Sally (the woman whose kiss marks the happiest moment in her life) gaze upon her and know that she is indeed there, or as there as she ever was and ever will be.  Maybe it’s the act of this fiftyish woman re-entering a room to her lovesfirst, current, and taboo—who know her in a way that she does not know herself and whom she knows in ways they do not know themselves that pleases me.

All of this brings us to Oakland, some 16 years after a fall and winter studying in Ireland and some 86 years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway (86!).  This morning, I have been reading a Virginia Woolf biography, and I have fantasies of going to Cornwall to stay at Talland House, where Woolf spent much of her childhood summers. While I am not making the food mentioned in the novel (chicken in aspic, anyone?), I whipped up this little breakfast goodie.  Clearly, this breakfast was a way to use up day-old bread.  The texture is smooth like a pancake, but the taste is more like a frittata.  I tried to invert it, but the bottom (now the top) stuck a little to the pan.  But it turned out alright in the end.  

My attempt to turn the pancake on its head.

So I sat to eat my Wicklow pancake and think back on the time in Bray.  Like Clarissa, I find the past weaves with seams exposed into the present.  And now, as much as I would rather garden or cook or write or run, it's time to start grading those final exams.  In the mean time, enjoy...

See you can even see the stack of finals that I need to grade.

One Year Ago: Homemade Granola (I make this recipe ALL THE TIME now without the oil and with varying grains, seeds and fruit.  I sometimes use agave syrup instead of honey.  Seriously, this one is good.)

Wicklow Pancake

4 Servings

4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream  [I used 1/4 cup cream, and 1 3/4 cup milk, because that's what I had.  The world did not stop turning]
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs [preferably fresh ones that you have made yourself from day-old bread]
4 scallions, trimmed and minced
2-3 sprigs parsley, trimmed and minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, chives, rosemary [whatever herbs you have handy]
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons butter

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2.  In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly, then gently beat in the milk and cream.  Stir in the bread crumbs, scallions, parsley sprigs, and thyme, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

3.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat in a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet, then pour in the egg mixture.  Cook fro 5 to 8 minutes or until the bottom of the pancake browns.  Put the skillet in the oven and bake until the pancake puffs slightly and the top browns, 20 to 25 minutes.

4.  Turn the pancake out onto a large plate and garnish with parsley leaves.  To serve, cut the pancake into 4 wedges.  Put a pat of butter atop the pancake if you wish.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous

Yesterday, I gave my final exams for the first term.  I am always amazed at how much gets packed into the first trimester.  An open house here, a stack of papers there, a set of student-parent conferences to follow, and I am just about wiped out.  Whew.  We're eyeballing Thanksgiving with a bit of glee, but in the mean time, I am making decidedly non-Thanksgiving fare.  Be prepared!

So we begin with this Moroccan Chicken with Dates.  Dates are really just an excuse to mainline sugar with dinner.  Those of you with sweet tooths (teeth?) know what I am talking about.

But before we get too far, let's indulge in some fun facts about the date:  Apparently there are 1500 varieties of dates--a dateganza, if you will--and the most popular American date, the Medjool date, came to California in 1927.  A singular Dr. Walter Swingle, an American horticulturalist for the Bureau of Plant Industry, took a little trip to the French-colonial-controlled Bou Denib oasis in Morocco to "save" the Medjool date palm, which was facing extinction from a little soil-fungal disease called Bayoud.  Nine of eleven offshoots from one date palm survived in sunny California and Arizona. (I love how much you can learn about the date!).  Nowadays, Coachella is not just the home of a sweaty-and-dehydrated-hipster music show; its valley is also the home to hundreds of acres of date palm orchards (quaintly called date gardens).  We Americans boast about 250,000 fruit-bearing trees, which seems pretty paltry when compared to the once 30 million date palms in Iraq--a number slashed by 8 million in the past three decades of war.  Suitably, it is the Arab world that has the rights to boasting about the date.  The Moors brought the date to Spain, Muslim tales tell of god feeding Adam dates in the garden of Eden, and dates are often the first food to break the fast of Ramadan each night.

This dish is not necessarily one of the gods nor does it transplant you to the shores of North Africa, but it is delightful and very simple to make.  Alice Waters, cookbook author extraordinaire, in all her foodie glory recommends using the Zahidi (a semidry date with fibrous flesh) or the Halawi (small, golden-brown, sugary date with a very sweet, concentrated flavor) dates.  I merely used what was available at the local grocer, which happened to be Medjool.  Futher, Alice calls for grating the onions, but I think that a simple chopping would be fine.  After plumping up the dates for fifteen minutes in the broth, I cooked the couscous in the liquid rather than spooning it over the couscous.  I wanted it to be soaked in saffron and cilantro, some of my favorite flavors, rather than merely topped with it.  All of these adjustments did nothing to ruin the simplicity of something so infallibly good.

Finally, indulge me for a moment.  I have always wanted to go to Morocco.  A friend of mine in passing has mentioned her time spent studying abroad there.  She brought back tiles that she then inlaid into her steps.  She doesn't know it (well, I guess she knows it now!) I am in love with those tiles.  I, of course, realize that I am sublimating my desire to travel into a desire for tiles.  But I can live with that.  She just may not be able to to live with it when she wakes one morning to find her tiles transferred into the inlay of my front steps.

And now to enjoy the sweetness of this simple dish.  Happy date feeding!

One Year Ago: Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons (Fish Fillets Poached in White Wine With Mushrooms)

Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous
Adapted from  Chez Panisse Fruit

2-3 Servings [I made a 1/2 recipe.  Alice calls for double of all of this, but I am merely feeding me and the husband]

2-3 chicken breasts
salt and pepper
1 onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup cilantro
1/4 pound dates--about 6
2 cups couscous, cooked

1.  Season the chicken well with salt and pepper.  Peel and grate the onion.  Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot.  Add the onion, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and chopped cilantro; season with salt and stir over high heat for 2-3 minutes.  Add the chicken and cook another few minutes before pouring in enough water [I used chicken broth] to just cover the chicken.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking.  Add water if necessary.

2.  When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and set aside while you finish the sauce.  Skim the fat from the liquid left in the pan, taste for salt, and adjust as needed.  Add the dates and simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat.  Stir occasionally, but be careful not to break up or smash the dates.  Return the chicken to the sauce.  After 5 minutes or so, when the chicken is hot again, arrange on a platter over a bed of couscous and pour the sauce over the meat. [Like I said above, I cooked the couscous in the sauce and then transferred all to my plate and then my gullet].