Thursday, April 26, 2018

Sissy's Chicken Soup

"Soup's ready, babe," my sister Molly called from the kitchen.  I heard the wooden drawer screech on it's guide, the rustle of a couple of spoons gently clanking into two soup bowls.  Sis was in town for two weeks to review my surgery procedure and to monitor post-op progress.  When I told her of a triple-bypass being scheduled, she instantly asked what she could do and after counsel with her husband, packed for a trip from their temporary home in Naples, Italy to the west coast of  'gli Stati Uniti.' Nice to have an RN in the family...

She came over to the recliner, stood beside me, pushed me forward a bit and counted down to my standing up.  "Hey, good job, that was great!" she said softly.  She put her arm around my waist as I shuffled over to the kitchen table and guided my posterior above a sturdy chair.  We performed the stand-up maneuver in reverse and landed safely.  My first real meal in 4 days and I couldn't have been more elated: home made Chicken Soup!  Moll Doll scooted my chair close to the table, unfolded a cloth napkin, layed it across my lap and took her seat across from me.   The bowl was welcoming hot; the sharp angle of it's sides allowed me to cup my hands around it while I took in the savory, healing vapors. Oh my God, I thought, I can sense every single ingredient in this dish from the strips of thigh meat, to the minced leaves of garden thyme.  The carrots, onion, and celery were present in perfect proportion; a layer of left-over basmati rice ebbed at the bottom of the bowl after my every incursion.  Little yellow droplets of chicken fat clung to the perimeter trying desperately to connect.

The floor was cold as a draft was slipping under the french doors to the patio.   Outside, Spring had recently arrived, but, Winter's chill wasn't leaving anytime soon.
"How's that workin' out for ya?"  Molly asked, "is it enough?"
I looked up at her and just smiled for a moment.
"This is perfect," I whispered, "no, I mean"  I went on about the texture of the meat, how it gave a little and wasn't breast meat fiber.  Taking two more sips of broth, I continued,
"the broth is clear and deceptively flavorful, the green, white and orange of the veggies remind me of the Irish flag, the rice provides a frugal filler.  You salted it expertly and the temp is over 200 degrees."

"This is the best Goddamn soup I have ever tasted..." I confessed, my head and eyes barely coming up high enough to make eye contact.

Sis kinda sat up in her chair, straightened her back and with a tilt of her head said,
"Well, thank you...that's very sweet of you to say, but, it's only..."  I cut her off.
"No, this is perfect.  You being here, giving me your time and compassion.  Asking questions, setting things up, sanitizing the house to guard against infection and today, my first meal at home with a new heart, is a dish that came directly from your heart.  Your kindness and love are overwhelming and delicious!"

After a second bowl and more chit-chat, I dropped back into the recliner and believe I dozed off for a few minutes.  The house was quiet except for the occasional sound of a page being turned as Molly read at the table.

Love comes in many forms: being there for someone, listening to heartache, being quiet, assisting in chores you'd rather not discuss, or maybe just making the Best Chicken Soup.  We all buy the same ingredients, but, the priceless condiment of Love makes each dish a signature.

I'll never forget the kindness of my sister Molly and am forever grateful for her selfless giving. 

I love you, Moll Doll!

Take Care, God Bless and Remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends, 
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Saturday, March 24, 2018

8 Apples and 2 Cups of Sugar

Portlanders are a funny bunch.  We don't accept change very well.  Sure, we have the largest Naked Bike Ride in the world and the most breweries per capita in the world, but, natural events like the return of Autumn rains can stymie even the natives.  Sixty days of summer sun and 'poof', we forget how to drive in a constant drizzle.   And snow?!  The 2-6" inches we might get the whole winter are nothing short of apocalyptic.  Local news stations stage communication majors, turned freshly minted reporters, at street intersections and highway overpasses to capture the devastation wrought by a dusting of wintry mix. 
"Please folks, if you don't have to go out, just stay home till this event has passed.  Hopefully, you have batteries, water and plenty of blankets.  Check on any seniors in your neighborhoods and please, please, PLEASE watch out for Black Ice!"

Good Golly, we are such weather-wimps.

Well, we had one such day this last month and they called a Snow Day for area schools.  Kids in real snow regions would bust a gut and pay cash money for our Snow-mageddon.  Siobhan and I made plans the night before to entertain ourselves with the coming free day.

"Hey, baby girl, whatcha wanna do tomorrow for the snow day?"  I asked during the 6:00 news.
"Well, we gotta play in the snow, number one!  Then, we can have hot chocolate and go out and play again..." she instructed me while looking up from her i-whatever.

"How about we bake an apple pie?"  I suggested, "I have a bag of 'em out in the pantry."
"How 'bout apple crisp...? she countered, "I love the crispy topping!"


So, after sleeping in and eventually skating through 2" of snow on the back deck with the dog and licking our first winter snowfall, Siobhan was ready for making apple crisp.

"Dad, ready when you are," she alerted me after putting her Ugg boots, gloves and sweater over the back of a chair and pushing it onto a heater vent.

I had the antiquated, hand-crank, peeler/corer on the counter next to the cutting board, apples, baking dish and spices lined up.  My bib apron indicated I meant business and Bonnie Belle stepped into the kitchen with a lively spirit of service.

"Whatcha want me ta do?  she asked, "Can I measure stuff?"
This is the part where you, as the adult, give in to enthusiasm, but, monitor with a watchful eye.  I like to give her a 1-cup measure and watch as I tell her "about 1/2 cup of this or 1/2 teaspoon of that."  That's what cooking is about, basic measures and adapting to the situation.

"Ok, so, let's get a big mixing bowl to put our peeled apples into as we prepare them.  I'll need you to grab the peels as they come off and put them in the garbage can," I instructed as she pushed a tall kitchen can over to our prep station.

I then demonstrated how the old peeler worked and how it's the same model as the one my mom used when I was her age.

"And it still works even though it's like 57 years old?!," she gasped, "pretty good for being pretty old..."  This prompted my chin to drop and give her 'the look' over the top of my glasses.
"Whaaaaaat, I'm just sayin'.....sheesh!" she exclaimed with arms extended to her sides and shoulders scrunched.  She's learning how to get the desired response with a little dig of humor.

As the first apple finished it's cycle, Siobhan started eating the peel like an extra long piece of spaghetti. I skewered the next apple and continued the process.  We chatted about how the machine does three jobs in one: peels, cores and slices.  She gathered up the pile of peels and swept them across the cutting board into the trash can below.

"How long do you think this peel is from just one apple?" I asked.
"I dunno, like one yard?" she replied, "let's measure it.  There's a tape in the junk drawer."

So, we did, carefully untangling the peel of one medium apple across the kitchen floor and extending the 1" wide, yellow Stanley tape measure next to it.

"Holy Cow, it's 108 inches!" I hollered, "how many feet is that?"  Siobhan had to divide 108 by 12 in here head...
"Nine feet!" she exclaimed, "that's three yards, Dad."

After some reflection on the stunning revelation of our kitchen science, we returned to the last of our apple processing.  We cut the spiral apples in quarters, dusted with half-cup increments of sugar, juiced and zested one whole Meyer lemon and eye-balled a 1/2 teaspoon of allspice.  We tasted the mix and agreed it had sufficient sweetness and acidity.  Then, I hit it with a 1/2 cup of flour for binding.

"Do we have enough?" she wondered.  Remember, I told her, how we placed the apples into our dish before peeling them to get an idea of how many we needed?   Siobhan nodded her head slowly, recounting the initial exercise of our project.  She then scraped the mixing bowl with a rubber spatula as I held the bowl above our baking dish.

"Don't forget to get the sides, all that juice is good flavor," I encouraged her, "and let's save this same bowl to make our topping."

We then put one cup each of flour, oats and brown sugar into the bowl and cut-in one 4 oz stick of butter.  Siobhan rubbed her hands together in the mixture as I explained that the warmth of our hands will help to melt the butter into the topping.

"This feels kinda weird," she said, scrunching her nose and squinting her eyes, "Lily does this when she's excited."  Siobhan then recanted how her BFF rubs her hands together when she's pumped.

We then place cupped handfuls of our oat mixture on top of the apple filling and smoothed the top.  Onto a baking sheet it went, to catch any bubble-over and into a pre-heated 350 convection oven.  We washed our hands and set the timer for 30 minutes, knowing it would take longer, but, that we'd turn the fan off at such time.

"How longzit gonna take, Dad?" she asked, "like for-ever or an hour?"  An hour is forever to a 10 year old, so, I said,'ll be an hour or until it's done.  I explained how we have to kill the fan at half an hour and cruise it into the finish line, so, we don't burn the topping.
Siobhan helped to clean up and after twenty minutes or so, the aromas began to drift through the house.   Thus began the 'is it ready yet?!' whine every 15 minutes.  This was a great time to practice dance moves...

"OK, dad, I'm Camila Cabello and you're the guy in the music video," she instructed, "and you have to twirl me and try to dance with me."  Her reference was for the latest pop-singer and her hit song, "Havana" in which several swarthy young lads attempt to woo a red-fringed dressed Camila in a simulated Cuban night club.  Siobhan's favorite part is putting her fingertips on my chest and pushing me away, followed by the dramatic flip of the hair and walk-away strut....A beeping timer brought us back to the States and our baking. 

After a total of 1 1/2 hours, we noticed the edges of our crisp bubbling sufficiently and a digital thermometer gave us the desired 215+ degree temp.  We pulled it out of the oven and set it on the stove top; the toasty crumb topping smelled like pie dough.  The burnt edges added a bitterness that countered the sweetness of the spices and filling.

"Daaaaa-duh!  Can I have some nowwww-uh with vanilla ice creeeeeeam!" she pleaded.  So, I scooped some in a bowl and put it outside in the snow, telling her that it would burn her mouth, coming right out of the oven.  She watched through the French doors as the steam rose from the apple crisp cooling on a mound of snow.  Siobhan began to run in place, throwing herself at me until, I finally relented.

She sat at the kitchen table as I placed a cinnamon and allspice laced bowl of our simple creation in front of her.  After a few bites, she came up for air.

"Oh my gosh, Dad, this is great!" she grinned, "we need to do this again!"

There will be more snow days, but, this one was special and not for the lack of snow.  It's for the memory of a few hours in the kitchen with 8 apples, 2 cups of sugar, a girl and her daddy.

I'd say that's time well spent.

Take care, God bless and Remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things."


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

(Heads-up: this is wayyy long, and a bit of a rant, but, I tried to offer solutions and not just a list of gripes...unfortunately, it's what I see all the time.  There IS hope!)

A few years back, a buddy in residential construction called me.
“Hey, I got a brand-new Wolf stove…you want it?” I paused for a few moments, wondering what the catch was.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, “does it work, what’s the deal, how much is it?”
“Dude”, he continued, “the crazy lady had it installed and doesn’t like it. Can’t return it either. Oh, it’s free, too!” Tony was over the following Saturday morning, backing his work trailer into my driveway as I stood in a wool robe, barefoot and sipping my first cup of coffee.
“You’re good!” I hollered, giving him a yelp and clenched fist indicating a perfect landing. He bounced out of the cab of his growling, diesel elk hunting rig and began loosening the tie-down straps. “Nice, huh!?” he grunted with a grin, “you’re gonna love this. Gimme a hand…where you want it?”

This will be really nice, I thought, to finally have a Big Bad Wolf. What did I do before this extravagance? Well, I cooked like everyone else in America on whatever I had. Would this new stove make me a better cook? Not likely, but, the fun factor just went off the charts. Odd isn't it, I thought, so many families have top of the line stoves, but, use them only intermittently. What's the story on American lack of cooking anyway!? It's not for want of equipment, tools and books, that's for sure. Why don't we cook as much as we used to...?

Families for the last 40 years have cut the apron strings to their home kitchens in increasing numbers and it’s become a crime of epic cultural consequence. The scourge of convenience has inundated our homes; wracking our health, stealing our traditions and is responsible for the general dumbing down of two generations in basic cookery.

As a country, our cooking skills are in the toilet. Actually, we suck.

Is it just prepared foods that have wrought the demise of the home cook? Not entirely; there are a host of additional reasons for the downfall of the family meal. Single-parent families became more prevalent and the time to prepare a meal at the end of the day became diminished. The Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s, instructed us that a mom cooking for the family became a foolish and demeaning endeavor. Running a household was akin to indentured servitude and women were encouraged to find themselves outside the home. The era of both parents working stressed more income and subsequent better lifestyles. Unfortunately, this pulled the cook out of the kitchen. Men stood back, ignoring the vacuum and didn't lift a finger, seldom if ever preparing anything more complicated than meat on a grill during a weekend beer session. Therefore, some girls growing up since the 70s weren’t taught the basics by their mothers. The chain of tradition was broken. Industry picked up on this shifting demographic and began offering more and cheaper substitutions. If you didn’t know how to cook rice, mash a potato, or make a gravy, no sweat. Here’s a packet that will do it for you! Better yet, just go out to eat.

Now we have millions of families that genuinely don’t know how to prepare a balanced and nutritious meal. When I speak to people on their reasons for avoiding the kitchen, I’m met with a raft of sorry excuses.

“ We have so many activities, the Costco chicken is only $5, it never turns out like the picture in the magazine..."

As of 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average household spends $7,023 annually on food. Of that, $3,008 is spent on eating out, a whopping 43% of our food budget! As a chef, I know that the food cost in a restaurant is around 33%, so, the money spent on eating out could have purchased over $9,000 in groceries.

It must be hard to cook a meal at home when you don’t know what you’re doing. Imagine the frustration of the home cook, the sheer terror of failing again in front of loved ones. Without skills, we're forced to rely on following a stifling recipe by rote; flailing about like a clumsy, wooden puppet only to collapse at the end of each performance. The torture that has become the kitchen experience is revisited each time because we reinvent the wheel with every recipe, we never learn the skill of cooking. Recipes are guidelines, as every chef in the world will tell you, but, you have to use your sense of taste and powers of observation to create a dish. How could you cook without recognizing Sweet, Sour, Salt, Bitter and Savory (Umami)? You don’t cook because you can’t cook, therefore, you assemble and re-heat factory prepared products. Wow, it only took 12 minutes, yay!

And so, it continues…the food industry has now created our palates for us; loaded with sugar, salt and fat. As my 10-year-old daughter and I drive to school in the morning, she notices and we pity the cars lined up at a McDonald’s drive-thru at 7:30 for ‘breakfast.’ “Dad, you mean all those people don’t know how to toast an English muffin or crack an egg?! That’s saaaaad…”

Our American Palate. If we are what we eat, then this has become a nation of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

What absolutely kills me is how parents have become spineless enablers to their children’s’ pseudo-sensitive palates. “My kids won’t eat anything but chicken nuggets.” “He doesn’t like anything green,” “She only eats buttery noodles.” Really?! I've always found hunger to be a key motivator.

How many kids in Mexico have the same afflictions? None.
How many kids in India, France, Vietnam, Wherever-istan won’t eat but a few select items? Zip!
They eat everything and do you know why? Because they aren't afraid of food, they savor it. Look at America in the last 40 years and the Food-pocalypse, tripe-du-jour we have been fed. Butter, gluten, nuts, animal fat, red meat and cheese are just a few of the killers lurking the aisles and cases of our grocery stores. The real 'Killers', however, are the gargantuan portions now expected by an increasingly sedentary population glued to screens and subsequent inactivity. Remember when a Coke was 6 ½ ounces? If you’re worried about weight, get off your butt and get physically active. That means play so you sweat, kids. Get away from the screens and be an active, sentient being. The equation is very simple: Calories in = Calories Out.

Cooking in America has become an almost gladiator spectacle as well, replete with winners, losers, king makers and tyrants. The Cook has become the Spectator; cheering the victors, critiquing the vanquished and yet, never once entering the arena to soil their leggings or infinity scarves. In some instances, the food channels have taken a beautiful and essential part of every culture since the dawn of humanity and debauched it into culinary pornography. The scorched-Earth eating, cooking and baking competitions, the voyeuristic intrusions into businesses and personal lives, and the close-ups of staged emotions are sad and pathetic exhibitions. I’m waiting for “Kitchen Injuries” to be next…let’s see some blood dripping, third degree oil burns and minor amputations. Hold on! To really get the feel of a commercial kitchen, nothing tops the calamity of a dinner-time grease fire with cooks screaming in 3 different languages. Maybe we could ride along with a county Health Inspector and see how our food is really stored; the fluctuating holding temperatures of over-used refrigerators, listen to the stalling, song-and-dance of the chef/owner while prep cooks scurry to cover, label and date foods. “Cual es la fecha?” they yell, “What's the date?”, to be told by the sous chef to use yesterday's date for prepped food containers.

Yet, like a pining, would-be lover desiring acceptance, the home cook still longs to be a part of the kitchen. We may purchase the latest, glossy book oozing with Tuscan romance or romp through a chain kitchen store to add another glistening thing to our appliance garage. Look! I bought a crock of wooden utensils for my mirror-like counter top. Big deal, you'll never get them dirty. We want the association of being a ‘foodie’, but, really we're just too lazy to learn and petrified of failure; like the kid in elementary school that had the best baseball glove and new kicks, yet, still couldn’t make contact and struck out every time. Tools are useless, inanimate objects without our knowledge and skill guiding them.

When we do try, American home cooks want to it to be convenient too, hoping that skills can be absorbed through osmosis from either the shiny covers of our cookbook collections, making dinner reservations at the latest ‘farm-to-table’ establishment or a weekend in Napa.


It’s time to drop the oven mitts and fight back! “But Chef, I don’t know where to begin…” We start with fundamentals and must come to terms knowing we are ignorant, have been lazy and selfish, and in need of emergency assistance. Call it a 12-Step Healing Process. Here’s how…

1) Buy a digital meat thermometer and learn to use it: on-off, Celsius-Fahrenheit, battery replacement. This will take the guess work out of ‘doneness.’ I use one and own 3.

2) Roast a seasoned, whole chicken on a half-sheet pan in your oven at 350 degrees. Using a digital thermometer, cook to 160 degrees when inserted in the thigh. That’s the piece connected to the drumstick. When done, cut away the drums and thighs, remove the breast meat and save the pan drippings for a sauce or gravy in a saucepot. Put the carcass in a large pot and cover with cold water. Place this on a medium flame burner, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 2 hours. This will become a stock for soup. Pour 1 qt hot water on the sticky bits of the roasting pan and scrape with a cookie spatula. Place this in the sauce pot with the original pan juices. Thicken with a roux and adjust salinity. This is do-able; I just taught this same lesson to 12 and 14-year-olds in a 50-minute elective class at my daughter’s school.

3) Take your children grocery shopping and task them with selecting 2 fresh vegetables and 2 fresh fruits. Let them choose a dessert which will be served one night per week as a special treat. Period. They now have ‘skin in the game.’ Don’t flinch on this!

4) Vow to have 3 distinct components to the meal: carbs, veggies and protein. They can be integrated in a pasta, soup or baked dish. The Big 3 can be combined on a skewer, rolled in a tortilla or artfully arranged in concentric circles on a dinner plate.

5) Look up these words in the dictionary: Saute’, Fry, Roast, Braise and Steam. Take notes on when to apply these techniques. It will prevent you from ruining your meals.

6) Never buy Top Round Beef, it will only be edible as a burger patty slathered with vinegar-based condiments. Avoid factory breaded fish, it’s never as good as doing it yourself. “But, Chef, I don’t know how…!?” In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, beer, salt and white pepper. Mix to a pancake batter consistency. Easy. Learn to ‘Cook with your eyes closed,’ that is, braise a chuck roast or pork shoulder overnight as you sleep. When you wake, the house smells fantastic and you have 2 or 3 meals of protein completed to perfection.

7) Surprise your family and cut up a fruit tray to be served at a meal. It’s colorful, delicious, healthy and sparks conversation at the table. Left-overs can be recycled for breakfast smoothies. If your knives are dull, learn to sharpen them. Dragging a blade over a sharpening stone is like slicing thin peels off the top of a cold stick of butter. 5 times on each side at a 22 degree angle (¼ of a 90 degree angle) until sharp.

8) Gather at the table each night for dinner, together. Show children how to properly use their utensils. They didn’t arrive pre-programmed, therefore, we are tasked with uploading their software. When cutting your food, you must see the pointer fingers on the backs of the knife and fork, pointing down at the plate, providing support as the remaining fingers wrap around. Chairs are for butts, napkins are placed on the lap and used to wipe the mouth and fingers. They are NOT hats, tissue for a cold or receptacles for partially chewed food. Set a timer for your meal at 30 minutes. No one may leave the table until then. All screens, phones, and TV are off. Music may play quietly in the background.

9) Clean out your fridge once per week. All those Tupperware petri dishes of remnants are just dying to make you ill. We tend to save everything and continue to push foods to the rear of the fridge until they grow fuzzy jackets. If you don’t use something within 3 days of preparation, either pitch it in the trash or freeze in a Ziploc bag. ‘But Chef, how do I know food is good or bad…?!” Label and date all your foods with masking tape and a Sharpie marker. It’s what the pros do. If we don’t use it in 3 days, it’s adios amigo!

10) Organize your shelves and pantry with military precision, including the fridge. Put those items used regularly the closest to you; kosher salt, pepper mill, peanut butter, soy sauce and honey are on my first cabinet shelf. Same goes for the pantry. Place your reserves on the shelves according to type: pastas together, beans and rice, canned goods, baking spices, savory spices, juices, vinegar and flour. In the fridge, here’s a novel approach: put big things in the large spaces and the small things in the small spaces. Store foods in square, stack-able containers since the refrigerator is a square, empty cube! Drives me berzerkawitz when I see a big-ass salad bowl in the fridge. All around it is wasted space.

11) Your refrigerator door is your saving grace, the straw that stirs the drink. Load that baby up with condiments; Sriracha, Red Hot, 4 different kinds of mustard, mayo, pickles, salsas, relishes, hoisin, sauces of any kind. These small, intensely flavored condiments will take a simply prepared group of protein, starch and veg and turn them into a regional favorite. Pivot into the Crisper section of the fridge and garnish with green onions, sweet peppers, citrus zest, cilantro, and Bammo!, you’ve got a new face on a pretty ordinary dish.

12) Make your Kitchen Space your Happy Place. Put on some music, pour a glass of wine or a Northwest IPA, set up your station with cutting board and favorite knife, grab a bib apron that you like, and start from an immaculately clean work area. Arrange the pans you’re going to use, set up your spices and herbs, arrange your ‘mis en place’, all the things you’re going to use in an orderly fashion. Invite family members to assist in some small task. Glance out the kitchen window and take a breath. Think to yourself, “I’m about to have a great time, because I’m prepared, and they will love what I cook because I know what I’m doing.” Look over at your stove and wink, because it’s big and bad, but, you’re no longer afraid.

You’ve domesticated your Wolf.

Take Care, God Bless and Remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends, 
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Sunday, December 31, 2017

It's Just Matt and Ana Maria...

Was at a dinner party over the holidays and the host finally opened the wine I brought: Merlot, Seven Hills, Walla Walla, Washington, 2013.  He splashed a rush of gorgeous varietal color into immense burgundy stemware, the nose was intense and it focused lush blueberries, cocoa, and currents.  I love this already.  The first sip, and I closed my eyes...delicate tannins and balanced acidity on the palate, the aromas carried over to the palate, with blackberries and dark chocolate setting off a series of mid and back palate detonations and finally, breathing the whole experience through the olfactory after swallowing.  My eyes opened, my chin dropped as I stared into this divine liquid clinging to the sides of my Austrian crystal stem.

"Matt needs to be here," I lamented, shaking my head,"this is friggin stellar, it's a pour that you talk to!"  He knows because he planted and started the vineyard and winery with his dad and 7 brothers back in the 70s.

Sometimes, I talk to wine.  When it is particularly enchanting, it becomes a muse that temps us into not only description, but, conversation.  She speaks without talking while we respond with all 5 senses, waiting for responses to our rhetorical questions.  I needed my favorite interpreter, my wine geek brother to help me translate this beautiful verse spoken from sun and soil, vine and rain.

Matt and Ana came by last week for Clam Chowder and Garlic Bread on Christmas Eve.  Not an unusual event since they are practically family; we've seen each other in the craziest circumstances and supported each other during triumphant and sometimes bitter life moments.  Actually, they're better than blood relations since we don't carry grudges, can come together or stay away as long as we want.  If something happens on the way to the dinner table (I over-cooked a pork loin once...horribly!), we say, "oh, it's just Matt and Ana.  They understand..."
Should we go to their place and the egg whites for the egg nog are on the ceiling because the spatula got dropped into the mixing bowl, no problem.  "It's just the Quinns, they understand.  Can you grab a mop?  Oh, and watch the seat, it's a little sticky.  Beer's in the back fridge.  Dinner will be a little late."

Our friendship is like that comfy, plaid bathrobe you would never get rid of, ya know, the one missing it's cinch, so, you take a leather belt and secure it, much to the distress of your family.  Or a t-shirt with rips in the pits and the collar is about to separate, but, it has so many great memories.  You didn't get into it to 'create memories' or become threadbare, but, it just kinda happened because every time you came in contact with it, it just felt right. And stains?  We laugh them off eventually, and call them 'character marks.'  Each was earned and from each we learned. 

Ana is a great story teller.  She spent her adolescence in foreign countries as her father worked for the State department.  Since her mom was from Mexico, Ana blended well during posts in Chile, Bolivia and Italy.  Her relaxed manner in regards to time and schedules is legend; her compassion for the down-trodden is exemplary.  Summer parties on the back deck are incomplete until she tells a tale of high school cigarette smoking at a convent in Rome, visits to Uncle Pepe' in Mexico City or market excursions in Bolivia with the domestic staff.  Ana's timing is pitch-perfect, she displays a grin that barely breaks, laughs so hard it squishes her cheeks, and works an eyebrow that conveys simple surprise to unbearable breaches of protocol.   She commands unsolicited, yet, prolonged hugs from my adult boys, their undivided attention during Life Journey critique and plate clearing, Prosecco filling needs are fulfilled with a well directed, maternal smile.

All in a barely 5 foot frame.

Our friendship began over meals at our restaurant, the former Ivy House.  They were customers, I was the chef in a sweaty t-shirt, apron and shorts, pressing hands and checking on customers satisfaction. They were a young family, but, evolved into much more than clients.  We share a passion for stinky cheeses, eclectic menus, tapas, any kind of grilled meat.  Wine is a particular area of shared interest; we go deep into acids, tannins, mouth-feel and finish.  We can sit at a table, talk, laugh, discuss and agree-to-disagree till the wee hours.
They were restaurant regulars, became friends and are now indispensable members of our family.  We are solid.

Food, wine, dining together are transformational; we discover, we learn, celebrate and grow.


We are all blessed and this next year, I hope you have someone so special, so close you can succeed and fail with the same sense of acceptance.  'Foodie Friends' that praise your best efforts and are blind to your mistakes. Food is the vehicle, the table is our road, but, lasting friendship is the destination. 

Take care, God bless and remember,

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"


Friday, December 15, 2017

Gifts Money Can't Buy...

Received a Facebook post that a friend had made, imploring anyone in the area to get to the mountain quick; they had 20" of new snow and regardless of seasonal shopping obligations, we needed to embrace the day, the season, by immersing ourselves in God's glorious nature.  She concluded that, "the best things in Life aren't things..."

So, it got me to thinking.  What is Christmas about, really.  Other than the main focus of the celebration of our Lord's birth, and a beautiful celebration it is, where do we stand in the mix of all this swirling, commercial confusion?  Do we buy more stuff to show our love, do we add $100 to the collection plate at church, or plug-in an extra display to our outdoor light scheme?  I stopped and thought of the last 24 hours and how it was different than other months.  How am I changing and how are people changing during Christmas...?

Standing in line at the neighborhood, Safeway supermarket line is one of my favorite experiences.  Who is the checker, what is her stress level and who are my co-shoppers?  I'm usually in the Express Line, which is neither fast, nor a line, since so many people have 15 items or less, that there is a daisy-chain of humanity trailing off into the pet food aisle.  Nonetheless, we stand and eventually a conversation begins.
"So, fresh pineapple already cut up and vanilla extract...I see a cake in your future," I commented to the lady behind me.  Conversations are never initiated by the person behind, that would be intrusive.  It is up to the person in front to pass a favorable word to the person behind us; reaching out, as it were in a kindly manner.
"Well, yes, my neighbor watched our house while we were away during Thanksgiving and this is going to be our 'thank you' to her.  She is such a dear."
"Well, bless your heart, I wish I was your neighbor, that's a very kind thing to do..." I said.
"It IS the Season and you know, it's such a great time to thank all the people in our lives.  We're so very fortunate to have such wonderful neighbors.  Our kids grew up together and attended the same schools.  We're blessed to have neighbors who are genuine friends!"


I was sitting on the couch this afternoon, working through the flu, when the screen door made the 1-2-3 noise that only a wheelchair bound neighbor with a cane can make.  Like she's a Marine breaching a door in Afghanistan, fer chrissakes!
"Hey Dennis, I was just dropping off some soup for you.  It's my Romanian grandmas recipe and it will make you feel better."
"Thanks, Rhonda-le'."  I was in socks standing at the threshold, but, she was parked with the brake on and ready for a visit.  Went outside and sat on the steps, crossed my arms round my legs and asked how she was.
"Oh Dennis, I told him that I'd give him a year and after that, I'd move back to family in Washington.  This working in Seattle and home on the weekends isn't what a relationship is about.  We have a house in Portland and that's where he needs to work!"

She talked for a bit about how she was so angry with him, but, how they both loved each other so much.
"Dennis, he told me that he couldn't live without me," she whispered in a soft voice, "wanna have a drink?"

I popped up, grabbed the dish towel wrapped chicken soup and bounced into the kitchen.  Put the soup in the fridge, put on a toasty duck hunting coat, poured two bourbons in lightly faceted, whiskey neat glasses and went back outside.  Her eyes lit up.  She slid her right hand into a hidden pocket on her Hoveround and whipped out a cigarette like an old West gunslinger.
"Oh, Dennis...what's this?!"
"Bourbon," I quipped, "you said we need to get together for a Holiday drink.  Well, here we are!"
"Just seems like we used talk more during the nicer weather, ya know, out in the yard.  Just talking. I miss that...well, Cheers!" she lamented.
"Did I tell you that big-ass coyote came up the street last night at 7:00 as the girls were getting into the car for the Christmas pageant?  The BIG one!  He high-tailed it to the top of the hill once a cars lights came on him,"  I told her matter-of-factly.
"Oh Dennis, when's somebody going to do something about him?!  I mean, all they found of Michelle's cat was a paw up in the cul-d'-sac.  That's it, a paw right there in the road!  Don't you have a gun with a silencer or something?!"
I assured her that I would do my best with Lisa and Siobhan out of town this week.  I couldn't divulge details, since it may incriminate her.  Rhonda nodded briskly, then flicked her cigarette and smiled slowly.
"It's getting cold and I should get in.  Thank you for the chat and drink," as she reached for her pumpkin pie plate from Thanksgiving I brought out, "and Fluffy still sleeps on my back porch sometimes.  I brought her a blanket, but, she seems to prefer the elements."
I thanked her for watching my cat, the neighbors cats, my gopher holes, hops and tomato plants.
"It's what I do Dennis.  Some people say I should make a business out of it..." she cackled as her buggy pulled a 180 in the walkway and down the driveway she went.

Christmas is a perfect opportunity for reflection.  Winter is upon us, the world is quiet, and in silence, there is God.  Each single element we bring into that silence is profound and magnified by it's purity.  I put on Mark O'Connor, a bluegrass fiddler, this evening with only the Christmas tree lit to write.  No TV. No extraneous noise, laugh tracks, booming voices from commercials.  Just the tap of my heel lightly touching the Douglass Fir floor in time to Amazing Grace.
The traditional music foundations from Irish and Scots immigrants formed the basis of all American music and is still so moving when we allow it to be so.  Peaceful, emotive, reflective; it can make a fire burn slowly and deliberately as you watch it consume itself and fall asleep to it's wisps and gentle sighs.

Thank you, Kristy Lou for your passion of snow, beauty and service to others.
Thank you, Rhonda for chicken soup to a sick neighbor.
Thank you, Mark O'Connor for bringing traditional American music to Christmas.

The Best Things in Life Aren't Things!

Merry Christmas,

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cooking at the community college #5..."I hate onions."

Between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m., things are a little quiet at the griddle station.  Restock for the next day, pre-cleaning and sanitizing for the days end, and service for the occasional food order.
'Mason' approached, looking somewhat bewildered as he glanced side-to-side, hoping to find instructions posted or a counselor on hand to guide his search for a hot sandwich.

"How's it going, what can I do for you?" I asked, giving him a generous and welcoming smile.  The verbal cues seemed to settle his meal time trepidation and he flashed a broad, beaming smile.

"Oh, sweet!  Ummm, I just wanna get a burger and some fries," he stated.   I showed him how to fill out the order form and where to place it for future reference.

"Soooo, just meat and cheese?" I asked, scanning his white chit, "No lettuce, pickle, tomato, onions?"
He claimed to have missed that part, feeling that it would be like the advertising pictures with all the accompaniments on it.

"Everything only no onions, hate 'em," was his final word.

Come to find out, after a very short interview with his culinary consultant, Mason didn't like the heat of raw onions.  We can fix that, I told him.

"OK, while, the burger is cooking, let's try some things out with onions," I stated, like an instructor prodding a reluctant student, "we're gonna grill some using a few easy-to-do preparations.  You folks in the home audience can try this in your own kitchens."  My fake, info-mercial voice was on and it caused Mason to break a crease of a grin on one side of his mouth.  He strained his neck to watch how I put melted bacon drippings onto the hot griddle and spread thinly sliced onions onto the surface in a low stack.

"Next, I'll use just canola oil in another pile, and finally, cook a third portion in canola then, reduce with Balsamic vinegar.  That shit will blow you away, dude!"  I was getting excited as the chemistry of applying heat to the carbohydrates in onions was explained.  Those carbs converted to simple sugars, then, the simple sugars became 'caramelized' with additional heat, giving grilled onions a sweetness that is antithetical to the pungency we experience in say, a fresh salsa.

"Dude, it smells so friggin' sweet!" he told me as his eyebrows raised while pulling on the bill of his ball cap, leaning further over the grill, "that's amazing..."

With a pair of kitchen tongs, I pinched the onions in bacon fat for him to taste.  His face said he had just finished a test.  The ones in canola, he gave a neutral nod of agreement.  The onions in oil and reduced in Balsamic vinegar, elicited the look of a marathon finisher.

"Oh...My...God...!" he quietly murmured, "I want those on my burger!"

"What did you learn at college today, Mason?!  That onions are friggin dee-licious when they're prepared the way you like 'em, right?  I chided.

"Yes, sir.  Thank you SO much!" he concluded, reaching over the sneeze guard for a fist bump.

Atta Boy...

Cooking at the Community College...#2...Miss Tina

(This was from June '17, but, forgot to post it)

"Well, hellllll-o, handsome!" It was Tina, my favorite transitioning student at the community college, sidling up to the sneeze guard separating her from me at the fryer station.

 "How's your day goin'?" she inquired in a perky, supermarket, check out girl tone of voice. She then leaned one arm on the old tray line, swinging her chin upon her shoulder in a rehearsed pose of classic, Hollywood seduction.  Goodness, it's early, I thought, but, we have theater in the cafe' today. With great earnestly, I resolved to remain virtuous to this cooing temptress by shaking a basket of tater tots, grabbing her standing, daily order of gourmet fries and dropping them into the scalding oil.

"Not too shabby," I started, looking away from her and gazing out across the Cougar Cafe' pausing, "but, it just got better."

Looking directly at her, I needed to make eye contact and parry her fledgling advance.  A confused, 20 year old queen isn't going to put me on my heels, I thought.  Flattering though it may be, attempting to put this middle-aged cook in a dither at my own work space is not an open audition. There will be push back.  Gloves off...

"How's your morning going, sweetheart?" I confidently inquired, "love your blouse and jeans shorts outfit...PERfect for our first 90 degree day of the year.  And the dark denim of the cut off short-shorts? Nice contrast to the lighter top.  I LOVE the puffy, Mexican peasant shoulders, too.  They really suit your body type.  Oh well, I could go on..."

Her mouth was visibly agape; hazel eyes bulging and stunned behind black rimmed, safety glasses.  A blank expression had set into a light, powdery foundation; a few blotches of acne concealer barely visible under a soft pink expertly brushed into her plumped cheeks. The boy from Pendleton that became a girl in Carlton actually blushed.  She took a breath and composed herself.  Someone finally noticed her.

"It's all I had today.  Was running late, slept through my first mid-term, then...," she began making swirling gestures with a hand in the air, rolling her eyes in an attempt to break my fixed and piercing stare.  Tina actually looked away and pretended to wave at a friend across the cafe'.  She nervously resumed our conversation and peered into the fryer, hoping her gaze would complete the cooking process.

"Girl did what Girl had to do with what Girl had," I stated matter-or-factly,  "And she looks FABULOUS!" I confirmed, pulling the french fries out to hang for a few seconds.  Tossing them in a bowl with seasoning salt and into a paper-lined basket, I then loaded them with Tina's favorite toppings: bacon, cheddar cheese, garlic/parm and sour cream.  Presenting the dish to her, she commented,

"And you remembered no green onions..."

"Of course I remembered.  Enjoy, and have a great rest of your day, sweetheart" I offered.

Daintily selecting, then tasting a few shoestring potatoes, Tina turned, threw her head back and winked,

"It just got better..."