November 30, 2006

Nothing says 'festive' like... Fruitcake!

In my copious free time in the last few weeks I've been sifting through my parents' old recipes -- some of which I didn't even know existed -- but more on that in a future post. For now, just know I've found some real gems.

Among the collection is one of my favorite holiday memories of my late father. A sense memory of sorts.

A recipe originally published in the mid-seventies in the local newspaper that quickly found its way to the top of my father's gift-giving list, where it remained until his last Christmas some 20 years later.

A recipe almost perfect for Anna's call for contributions to her Festive Food Fair. What's more festive than a 6 pound Persimmon Fruit Cake?

I have several pounds of ripe persimmons on the counter begging to be put to good use. Most of the other ingredients reside somewhere in my kitchen. And then there's that persistent sense memory...

From the moment that persimmons hit the market each fall well into the Christmas season, barely a weekend went by without the sweet-spicy smell of persimmon cake wafting from the oven as it baked. We sent the finished cakes to family and friends in the Midwest and Arizona who were intrigued by the exotic flavor of this "strange California" fruit (long before a global economy put persimmons in the produce aisle of every mega-mart in the country). People who professed to hate fruitcake begged for a second (or third) shipment. Some offered to pay for additional cakes -- in today's environment, my childhood kitchen could have been the set of a Food Network Special showcasing a homegrown recipe gone commercial. And to this day, the smell of ripe persimmons beckons vivid memories of Christmas' past -- and my father's myriad contributions to them.

Yet when I ponder contributing Mo's infamous persimmon cake to the festive food fair, I hesitate...


Certainly not to protect an heirloom family recipe. Sharing these recipes and their stories with others -- even those I may never meet -- is a big part of what keeps them alive for me.

No dear reader, I hesitate because I HATE fruitcake. Or more accurately the brightly colored candied fruit that MAKES fruitcake. So while I crave the scent of the persimmon cake and the mental images it brings, having never tasted it, I can't really completely recommend it. And the thought of baking 6 pounds of it -- and then having to dispense of it -- leaves me hesitant.

So I reread the recipe. Again. With a creative eye. How can I make this work for me? The offending ingredient stares back at me in my mother's handwriting: 1 C candied mixed fruit. Can I leave it out? Or what can I substitute?

Convinced that a cake that smells this good can't taste bad I forge ahead, opting to include a blend of dried cranberries, cherries, and apples in place of the candied fruit. I include the recipe below as published for those of you who aren't offended by candied fruit and want to try it as is. Or tweak it in some other way to make it uniquely yours.

The oven is heating now. It's exactly the crisp-cold California afternoon for baking memory-inducing recipes of old, and I'm looking forward to being enveloped by the scent if not the ghost of Christmas' past.

Mo's Persimmon Fruit Cake (as published in the Oakland Tribune, circa 1970-something)
Yield: 1 Cake, about 6 pounds

3 cups persimmon pulp
1/2 cup California Muscatel
2 cups sugar
1 cup seedless dark raisins
1 cup muscat raisins
3 cups walnuts (Mo used a combination of pine nuts and pecans here -- so I did too)
1 cup candied mixed fruit
1 cup milk
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking soda

In a large bowl, combine persimmon pulp, wine, sugar, raisins, nuts, mixed fruit and milk. Re-sift flour with spices, salt and soda. Add to persimmon mixture and mix well. Pour into well-greased 3 quart heavy-aluminum pan with glass cover, set in pan of hot water. Bake, covered, in moderate oven (350) for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until sides shrink away from pan. Remove cover for last 1/2 hour. Set pan on wire rack until cool. Invert pan on heavy foil wrap. Wrap and store in cool dry place or freeze. If desired, the cake can be baked in a 10-inch tube pan covered with aluminum foil.

Check this blog entry again in another couple of hours for a photo of the finished product, and the comments section for my thoughts on how it tastes.


UPDATE: Apologies to those of you patiently waiting to see how this turned out. And special thanks to Sarah, John and Brian who provide subtle and not-so-subtle reminders to come back with an update.

The verdict?

I'm a fruitcake convert!

At 6 pounds it's not a light cake, but it's got a sensational crumb and maintains moisture beautifully. Part spice cake, part fruit cake, part rum cake -- each of the flavor elements makes its presence known without overwhelming any of the others.

One warning: small slices. A little goes a long way!

Now go check out the other delectable contributions to Anna's Food Fair.

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November 29, 2006

Comfort food, indeed!

Okay, okay, there's only so much orange juice your heroine can drink in a 48 hour period.

There's a pound of sablefish in the refrigerator that's not going to last much longer.

A pound or so of organic new and German butter potatoes from last week's CSA delivery.

A pint of cream from my truffle adventure.

A Google search for "sablefish" + "potato" + "cream" nets this "comfort food" preparation. A cursory glance through the ingredient list... check. I've got almost everything. I toss aside the neon-wrapped loaf of ramen noodles I'd set out for dinner, roll up my sleeves and get to work.

First, the potatoes. I decide not to peel the red potatoes -- just scrub them well and toss them in the pot. Peel the German potatoes to reveal their buttery soft yellow flesh and quarter them. Add three smashed garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and leave them to boil away.

Moving on to the fish, I improvise a bit -- mixing a generous tablespoon of miso paste in with the butter and spreading it across the fish fillets. I've found inspiration in this recipe, but I'm still feverish and miso is one of the most restorative ingredinets I've ever worked with. Add a splash of leftover Viognier, and into the oven they go.

I prepare the mustard sauce as directed, using Mendocino Mustard's "Seeds and Suds" variety for both its palate-stimulating and sinus-clearing properties. Plus it made the sauce a rich yellow color.

The final result? I'm quie pleased. I was confident I'd enjoy the flavors but wasn't sure how the dish would plate -- a lot of white with touch of yellow? In the end it plated beautifully -- shades of yellow and white sprinkled with rich reds, greens and golds.

Comfort food. Delightfully simple yet at the sme time slightly indulgent comfort food. That looks pretty on a plate.

Moe over oatmeal. Make room orange juice. There's a new comfort food recipe in my repetoire.

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November 28, 2006

A diet of Tylenol, toast, and orange juice...

Yes, on Sunday night after an activity-filled but enjoyable holiday weekend, I uttered the words "I think I need another four days off."

This is not exactly what I had in mind.

Because while I have a pantry that would probably sustain me through four weeks of quarantine and the internet as my infinite library of recipes, I don't have the energy to lift a spoon let alone peel potatoes or marinate the cod in the 'fridge.

It took me an hour to unload the dishwasher this afternoon. The carrot soup recipe I unearthed for combining the bounty from this week's CSA box with Tammy's latest blogging event will have to wait.

Hopefully the advice nurse I spoke to is wrong -- and my symptoms DON'T indicate an acute sinus infection -- and I'll be back in action in the kitchen before the weekend.

Because Tylenol, toast, orange juice and ramen noodles just aren't inspiring...

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November 27, 2006

Dear Food Diary....

When Sam issued her holiday challenge last week I knew the challenge for me would be more in the presentation than the participation. Like many of you, my camera's almost always with me -- and photographing everything I eat isn't *that* much of a stretch from a normal day.

It surprised me then, over the course of the week when I started to weigh my food choices based on the challenge ahead. Not because I was hesitant to share with you my diet of Chicken McNuggets, Whoppers and Twinkies. No -- I found myself evaluating food not based on its nutritional value but on its photographic appeal. I discovered my usual mid-afternoon snack of a hunk of cheese with some nuts really doesn't photograph well. And like Sean, I was worried about the photographic results of my wine consumption. Not that you'd balk at 11 glasses of wine over the course of 7 days. But that they'd make an awfully boring collage.

Over the course of 7 days, I ate 42 different items. I ate at home, at work, at restaurants. In bright light and in candlelight. I ate alone, with family, and with friends. We cooked for others, and we ate what others prepared for us. Rather than bore you with 5 tubs of yogurt (my breakfast staple) and 11 glasses of wine, I've arranged my thirty-some photographs into representative collages.

Breakfast first, with it's dairy products and fruits.

Lunch, largely leftovers and takeout.

Dinner runs the gamut: The Thanksgiving feast made more meaningful having fed others first. A gathering of friends giving John and I a chance to play together in the kitchen. A series of simple "just us" suppers.

And one celebratory sumptuous dinner out.

Thanks Sam, for inspiring me to look at a week's worth of meals in a whole new way!

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November 25, 2006

Table for 6? I'll make the salad...

Top Chef fans will note that Carlos packed up his knives this week, largely because the judges felt his salad was an easy attempt to skate through the elimination challenge in the middle of the pack. Tom Colicchio went so far as to ask what he did with the rest of the four hours he had to work with.

Cutting edge or not, some of my favorite salad recipes are quite labor intensive. In response to Gabriella's call for favorite fall salads, I included a cool-weather standby on tonight's menu; a creation I euphemistically refer to as my "Thousand Calorie Salad".

Owing it's origins to this recipe, production begins with toasting and then candy-ing the almonds. Yes, I could just as easily buy them in a bag. No, they don't taste nearly as good. This part of the project was actually far more tedious (and occasionally painful -- hot caramel BURNS) before the advent of the silpat.

The Candied-Almond Process:

Line cookie sheet with clean Silpat. Mix 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until mixture turns deep amber color, brushing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush as necessary. Remove from heat and stir in almonds. Immediately pour onto prepared Silpat, spreading almonds out to the edges in a single layer. Allow to cool and harden.

Time-consuming step two in the Thousand Calorie Salad centers around the salad dressing itself. will tell you that it takes 20 minutes to reduce 4 cups of cider to 1/2 cup. would be L-Y-I-N-G. It typically takes upwards of an hour. But it is an hour well spent. The viscosity and the sweetness of the reduced-then-chilled cider creates one of the most complex sweet salad dressings I've ever encountered.

The Salad Dressing Process:

Boil 4 cups apple cider in heavy large saucepan until reduced to 1/2 cup. Transfer to 1 cup Pyrex container and refrigerate (2-3 hours will produce a nice viscosity). Remove from refrigerator and whisk in 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons each minced shallot and Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon poppy seeds. Gradually whisk in 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil. (The original recipe calls for 1 cup olive oil, but I found that produced too heavy a dressing).

What happens next depends on what ingredients I have on hand and on how I intend to serve the salad. I typically toss 10-14 ounces of lettuce (butter lettuce and romaine both work very nicely, endive and radicchio add a pleasant bitterness) with sliced apples of whatever variety I have handy and/or a handful of candied cranberries, plus a small red onion that I've sliced finely and soaked to remove some of its punch. If I'm going to serve the salad straight out of a single bowl, I toss 10-12 ounces of crumbled goat cheese in at this point too, adding the dressing and the candied nuts immediately before the salad hits the table.

If I'm going to plate individual salad servings, I dress the goat cheese up a bit. I slice a log into disks 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, dredge them in nutmeg-seasoned panko crumbs, and pan fry them lightly until the bread-crumbs darken and the cheese softens a bit. I plate the lettuce mixture across the requisite number of servings, add a couple of goat cheese disks, a small handful of the nut brittle and drizzle the dressing lightly over the top.

This salad pairs nicely with hearty, meaty fall fare -- such as the Individual Beef Wellingtons and French Onion Soup with which we served it tonight.

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November 24, 2006

Following Turkey comes... Chocolate!

The Passionate Cook dedicates Sugar High Friday #25 to the devine, the sinful, the delicious: chocolate truffle. The catch? She's expecting us to MAKE them.

I've surfed around. A lot of you are good at this candy-making thing. REALLY good. Bordering on professional-good. My candy-making endeavors to date include fudge, caramel corn, and a failed attempt at divinity.

I have a lot to learn.

And I realize my limitations -- I'm not going to wing it on this one. I'm counting on Google for some tried-and-true recipes to get me through.

What better way to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving than freckled with chocolate? White chocolate for the Limoncello Truffles. Bittersweet chocolate for the Caramel Truffles. Milk chocolate for the Nutella Truffles.

I opt to start slowly, with what looks like the most idiot-proof preparation: the Nutella truffles. Plus if I fail, I've still got 3/4 of an open jar of Nutella and a spoon... I assemble the ingredients, boil the cream mixture, add the chocolate, and let stand as directed. So far, so good. I like a recipe that gives me time to clean-as-I-go. Whisk in the Nutella and refrigerate.

On to Limoncello. I struggle a little here -- enough to forgo the digital camera for a bit. I have no problem infusing the cream with the lemon zest, but by the time I've strained it, it's not warm enough to melt two ounces of white chocolate, let alone 8. So I return the mixture to a saucepan over a VERY low flame and whisk like heck until I have meltage. Into the refrigerator next to the Nutella it goes...

I take one look at the Epicurious recipe for the Caramel Truffles and practically punt the camera out a window. It's not technically difficult, but it's a lot of steps for one person. So I concentrate on executing and save the photography for the end product.

Ganache is in the refrigerator now, and as soon as I hit "publish post" here, I'll begin truffle assembly. Stay tuned for an update with the outcome -- and more photographs!

8:00 PM Update: Production complete. Tasty, but time consuming and not terribly pretty. I'm glad I tried my hand at truffles, but I'll probably go back to paying $4.00 a piece at the local chocolatier.

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November 23, 2006

Giving thanks by giving back

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action. (W.J. Cameron)

We''ve talked about it for years.

Dispensing with the stress of of who is hosting, what's on the menu, and what to do with all of that leftover turkey.

Heading instead to the local food bank or a homeless shelter or some organization helping others and offering our services for the day.

When we talked to Daniel and discovered he was again working with the local chapter of Loaves and Fishes, opening the restaurant and preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast to feed the homeless, we knew that this was the year we were going to do it. A chance to spend the afternoon playing in a commercial kitchen AND contribute to the community in the process? What a deal!

Service was scheduled from 2-6 PM, so we showed up promptly at 1 and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Tracy finished up the last of a dozen pumpkin pies while Heather tackled the mashed potatoes, John prepped turkey parts for the gravy, and Daniel and I assembled a plantain gratin -- plan B if we ran out of sweet potatoes.

But with 2 - 18 pound turkeys, two large vats each of potatoes and stuffing, a gallon of cranberry chutney, 10 dozen rolls and several pounds of veggies for sauteeing --- plus extra containers with several servings of vegetarian options for each of the sides -- we weren't likely to run out.

From the gratin I moved to the vegetable saute station under Daniel's expert direction, while John whipped a half gallon of cream for topping the pies.

While we spent the majority of our afternoon in the kitchen -- other volunteers waited the tables in the dining room -- we familiarized ourselves with the menu options in case there was a rush and we needed to switch gears. Our dining room volunteers offered each guest a beverage: milk, coke, diet coke, sprite, iced tea, coffee or water. They could then select from white meat, dark meat or vegetarian, and servers inquired about nut or other food alergies. Children (and there were a few) could choose vanilla ice cream in place of the pie for dessert.

After climing over one another creating the first few plates the process princess in me and the professional chef in Daniel kicked in and we created a makeshift line that worked pretty well right and left-handed alike.

Roll on a pie plate in the oven. Check.

Potatoes at 12:00, dressing at 3. Turkey over the top, and a ladel of dressing over the entire ensamble. Check.

One step to the right, add sweet potatoes at 6. The sauteed vegetables -- 3 carrots, a quarter cup or so of cabbage and a broccolini spear -- at 9. Check.

Pull the roll from the oven and add it to the center of the plate. Check.

Hand the enitre ensamble to Heather, who added the cranberry sauce before delivering to the table.

In the end we served 18 dinners over the course of 4 hours -- we might have seen a larger turnout if public transportation had been an option, but it doesn't run in Contra Costa County on Thanksgiving.

The biggest surprise for both of us was the amount of food waste. While some of our early guests requested seconds -- not sure where or when their next meal might be -- most plates came back largely untouched. I think back to the stories my parents told about the depression -- how grateful hungry families were for whatever the soup kitchen served -- and I don't know how to parse the waste I witnessed. I just know it bothers me.

In spite of the food waste, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was fun to play in a real restaurant kitchen. And both interesting and educational to work with Daniel and his team. And uptimately reaching out and helping other human beings -- that's what Thanksgiving's about to me.

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November 22, 2006

The Melting Pot (Larkspur)

We've been to La Fondue in Saratoga a couple of times. Once early in our relationship -- an experience with dining companions that we still ponder 11 years later. There's a huge difference between commenting that the chocolate course demands licking the bowl and actually picking it up and using one's beard as a brillo pad. I will never forget the look on our waiter's face.

We've also journeyed to the much lower key Fondue Fred -- with the aforementioned dining companion and a pack of his Star Trek loving friends. We enjoyed the cheese and the chocolate, and ignored the freaks speaking in Klingon.

So when a summertime visit to friends in Marin left us with an open evening and a recently opened Melting Pot in Larkspur, we were eager to check it out. Even with the caveat that it would cost us $30-40 each. Frankly, we figured that was a bargain in Marin County.

We chose the Pacific Rim three course fondue dinner -- traditional Swiss cheese fondue, a salad course, and Asian-inspired dippers like teriyaki sirloin, duck breast, chicken breast, shrimp and the somewhat strange potstickers, cooked tableside in a bouillon broth.

Despite the Emeril-sized dollop of garlic our waitress enthusiastically added to the pot, the cheese course was delightful -- buttery, creamy, slightly sweet, utterly decadent.

I selected the seasonal strawberry salad and was quite pleased. For the product of a chain restaurant whose specialty is NOT fresh produce it was excellent. John went with the mushroom salad and was far less enthralled with the button mushrooms tossed with iceburg lettuce in a standard Italian vinaigrette. But we didn't come for the salad.

The main course was little more than adequate. The dipping selections were plentiful -- but not terribly interesting. The dipping SAUCES -- specifically a green goddess dressing that was recommended paired with the veggies -- were the highlight of this course.

None of the chocolate courses on the menu spoke to us -- we're generally of the less-is-more and premium-is-ideal school of chocolates so "Chocolate S'mores" and "Cookies & Cream - Marshmallow Dream" sounded like a bit of overkill. In the end we opted for a simple dark chocolate with a shot of Grand Marnier for a hint of orange flavor. They went a little nuts with the dippers here - the fresh fruit was lovely, but marshmallows? They're clearly aiming at a family audience, providing something for every palate.

One final commemnt -- given that this is a chain establishement aiming at a mainstream middle-American family demographic, the menu is a little -- schizophrenic. We've done the fondue thing before and we found the menu confusing -- we'd have been completely lost as beginners. Fortunately, the waitstaff is friendly and well-versed in how it all fits together. But a newbie diner with a newbie waiter might find the experience a bit overwhelming.

In the end, if you're in the bay area looking for a romantic fondue experience, plan ahead and make a reservation for two at La Fondue in Saratoga. If you're in a larger group and looking for a budget cheese-and-chocolate experience, take BART to Fondue Fred. Save Melting Pot (additional establishements opening soon in Pleasanton, San Mateo & Walnut Creek) for smaller groups looking to explore traditional and non-traditional fondue in a relaxed, family-style atmosphere.

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November 21, 2006

Three days in the kitchen

I'm really looking forward to Thanksgiving weekend this year. Not for the shopping. Not for the sleeping (okay... maybe a *little* for the sleeping.) But mostly for the opportunity to reconnect with my kitchen. The cooking. The baking. Without the attendant deadlines from last weekend.

And because we're *serving* the Thanksgiving feast rather than indulging in it, I suspect I'll have energy for more than poking buttons on the remote control watching a marathon of "Seasons Eatings".

Not sure exactly what I'm going to make yet beyond the general "some soup," "a cake or two" and "some cookies". But I had fun today in my half-empty office today contemplating the possibilities.

There's the Cranberry Upside-Down Cake that dropped off last weekend's menu. I've got some great looking cranberries from the CSA.

And a Spiced Apple and Almond Cake for the gorgeous Pink Ladies in the box. Or maybe some fritters?

A Roasted Pumpkin Soup that caught my eye.

And in honor of the upcoming Sugar High Friday, I may spend some time playing with chocolates. Or caramel. Or Nutella. Or limoncello.

The mind boggles.

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November 20, 2006

San Francisco, here he comes... Va Di Vi (Walnut Creek)

Kelly Degala.

A genius with seafood on a small plate.

The first man in whom I had no romantic interest who managed to convince me to try a dish outside my comfort zone.

A down-to-earth "celebrity" chef we're proud to call a friend.

Look out, San Francisco, here he comes!

Va de Vi
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Walnut Creek, CA 94596

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November 19, 2006

Pour some sugar on me...

Every open house is a little different, from a culinary perspective.

Sure, the pork, the spinach dip and the mushroom tarts are always a hit.

But from there, the first-to-go dishes vary year-to-year.

In 2000 it was a smoked salmon mousse.

In 2003, it was a simple jar of Caramel Sin with some bananas sliced for dipping. When the bananas disappeared, guests improvised with meatballs. Hey... we have eclectic friends.

In 2004 it was a loaf of ciabatta sliced and smothered with brie, sprinkled with brown sugar, spotted with walnuts, and slid under the broiler.

This year, that honor belonged to the desserts. First, Fine Cooking Magazine's Chocolate Stout Cake had people reaching for their dessert forks.

But the real honor of the day belongs to my new friend Peabody and her Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake. We took a handful of pictures as we prepared the recipe, sensing from the silky quality of the cheese filling and the earthy-sweet smell of fall in the pumpkin swirl that it was going to be a winner. And I had every intention of photographing a slice of the final product. Heck, I had every intention of *tasting* a slice of the final product.

But this cheesecake may have broken a record on my buffet table. I put it out, made my way around the living room collecting empty wine glasses and plates for deposit in the kitchen. And no more than ten minutes later, the cakestand was empty. A dozen people asked me for the recipe. Several mentioned having taken "small slices" "just to taste" the latest dessert -- and found themselves back in line to retrieve "the rest of [their] serving."

Thanks Peabody. You've got several new Bay Area fans...

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November 18, 2006


'if I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up.' (Dr. Seuss)

Nintety-some of our friends. An unseasonably warm Northern California November afternoon. A handful of tried--and-true recipes, and a couple that turned out to be instant-favorite must-repeats. An annual event in my adult life that has roots in my childhood.

For as long as I can remember, my father held and "open house" party the day after Christmas.

He invited everyone he knew. Co-workers. Neighbors. Friends from church. Dog show judges (one of his many hobbies was showing his beloved cocker spaniels). Disney collectors (Disney figurines was another).

The guests often didn't know each other, but no one stayed strangers for long. A neighbor whose son befriended my brother discovered he shared a love of astronomy with an English teacher. And thus new friendships were born.

The menu included lasagna or ravioli, a roast turkey with stuffing or a beef roast with yorksire puddings or a huge ham wrapped in puff pastry -- or all of the above. The sumptuous feast displayed buffet style in the dining room inviting guests to partake.

To drink a handful of popular sodas, a jug or two of Dago Red and a fully stocked bar with a full bottle of Mo's favorite: Bombay Sapphire served on the rocks with 3 skewered olives on the side.

Mo's open house was legendary among his friends -- a bigger production in our household than any of the traditional holidays.

My father's birthday was the day after Christmas, but less than a dozen people knew that. Most thought he'd chosen the date to avoid conflicting with other obligations during the busy holiday season. Others figured he was just a bit eccentric. Late in life he shared the secret with me: his gift to himself was to surround himself with his friends and watch them enjoy one another's company.

So when I moved to my first REAL home five years ago and it was time to start thinking about a housewarming, I knew *exactly* how I was going to structure the celebration. John wasn't sure at first. How would it work when our guests didn't know each other? I wasn't sure how it would work, but I'd lived it long enough to know it would. And the first time one of our square dance friends connected with one of my co-workers and spent 45 minutes shared their passion for performing Shakespeare in a musical format, I understood why Mo considered the whole thing an indulgent gift. It's an opportunity to see our friends outside of whatever original activity brought us together -- to get to know them in an entirely different setting.

Six years later, the format's changed a bit from what I remember. Rather than a full meal on Chinette, John and I go with the finger-food approach which is much more our style. (And feels like a bit of rebellion, since Mo and I often butted heads over whether my beloved appetizers spoiled people's appetites for the "real food".) Wine has replaced the classic cocktail as the beverage of choice among our friends (though at this year's party, we went through a record 7 pots of coffee as well).

But more than once across the week or so we spend focused on the open house... when shopping for groceries, molding the hundredth meatball, schlepping the vacuum up the stairs, greeting the first guest or saying good-bye to the last, I thank Mo for showing me the joy of celebrating friendship.

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November 17, 2006

An exercise in organized chaos


All except the last minute bread-and-ice shopping is done.

The pork's marinating.

The tartlett stuffing is assembled and mascerating in the 'fridge.

The crab cheesecake is in the oven.

The living room's mostly vacuumed, and all of the hard surfaces *except* the kitchen floor have been mopped clean.

We're making progress.


I've learned not to panic -- it doesn't get things done any faster. And in the end, it all comes together. Sure, we may drop a planned item from the menu for lack of time, but our guests are none-the-wiser (unless they're reading this on Monday comparing Tuesday's list to what actually hits the buffet tomorrow). But no one walks away hungry.


There's the oven; the cheesecake's done.

Now excuse me while I go elbow deep in meatballs...

As promised, the recipe for Dom's Mom's Meatballs:

2 pounds ground chuck
1/2 pound ground pork
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs (up to 3 cups, depending on the moisture content in the meatball mixture)
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped very fine
1 onion, minced
1/2 cup pignoli (pine nuts) (optional)

Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Let stand 1/2 hour. Shape into medium-size meatballs. Fry gently in olive oil until lightly browned, or place on foil on a cookie sheet and bake for 1/2 hour at 350 degrees. Gently place in your own hot spaghetti sauce and cook on medium-low heat for 1 hour.

We typically opt for plan B and bake the meatballs for 20 minutes at 350. We skip the sauce and stack the almost-baked meatballs in a four-quart countertop oven (think Nesco) set at 250 about a half hour before our guests are supposed to arrive. We occasionally serve a zesty mustard or a BBQ sauce on the side, but they're perfectly good "naked".

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November 16, 2006

Channeling the Caribbean

It's been a rough enough day that last week's vacation seems like a distant memory. Allow me to reminisce...

November 15, 2006

The home that Mo and Jo built

Perhaps it's the approaching holidays.

Or the fact that my brother and I will soon be letting go of a critical part of our childhoods as we put our family home on the market.

Something's certainly got me reflecting on the home that Mo and Jo built fo us -- the lessons they taught and the traditions they passed on -- the sights, smells and sounds that will forever remind me of home.

The cherry tree in the back yard is long gone, but I remember rushing home from school and quickly changing out of my uniform to climb that tree for the refuge, the view, and during the late spring, the sunsweetened goodness it offered.

The lemon trees in the front yard remain -- and I'll soon be looking for a way to graft them and hang onto that piece of home. It's lemons were critical to summertime 10c lemonade -- and we had no idea that the small sweet-tart fruit with which we worked had a name and would one day be trendy. The neighbor kids have figured it out -- they were selling lemonade this summer for a dollar a dixie cup!

Every Friday and Saturday night was a party -- a handful of friends gathered for family-style dinner and a game of pinocchle or monopoly with dessert. BIG parties featured Great-Aunt Lena's "touthlach" ravioli on Christmas day, Grandmother Kathryn's cinnamon buns with Easter brunch, Henri's "company carrots", Linda's torta di riso and dozens of other plates of goodness from around the globe.

This is a transitional holiday season for me. I'll be baking lemon bars in my kitchen using lemons from the aforementioned trees. Serving the touthlach on it's traditional 50-year-old serving platter to a new set of friends and adopted family on my parents' dining room table with my mother's wedding china in my dining room. The mingling of the past, present and future are palpable for me this year -- and strangely comforting and awkward at the same time. I guess that's a part of the process -- the delicate balance between hanging on and letting go...

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November 14, 2006

Planning a party (or pandering to my inner list geek)

In less than four days, a hundred or so of our friends will drop in over the course of the afternoon and evening for a glass of wine, a plate or two of finger food and a chance to spend a bit of time together before the holiday season takes over. In it's sixth year, our annual open house has become what one guests affectionately calls "one of the highlights of the season". The regular guests know the drill and the newbies quickly catch on to the very simple rules:

1. We'll do the cooking. You don't need to bring anything.

1a. If you must ignore rule #1 ...a bottle of wine or some other libation would be lovely. but not necessary.

1b. Because of rule #1, it's critical that we know how many of you will be here. Running out of food is not cool. Neither is eating leftover meatballs on New Years Eve. (even if they don't suck with caramel sauce). So pl-EEEAA-se RSVP.

At not quite the 11th hour, we have 71 confirmed "yeses" and 44 on the "not yet responded" list. John's mission over the next 72 hours is to get commitments one way or the other from them.

MY mission over the next four days is threefold.

Cleaning. Lots of cleaning. But because we very strategically schedule this gathering, no decorating.

Last-minute menu planning.

Grocery shopping.

The second two tasks appealing to my inner list-geek, and providing me with blog fodder.

First, the menu -- mostly a list of old standbys, with a couple of new things to try:
Cooking Light's Jamaican Jerk Pork Tenderloin -- the most-requested recipe on our menu.
Dom's Mom's Meatballs (for the recipe and the story of the assembly, check back tomorrow)
Tyler Florence's Wild Mushroom Tartlets
Sauteed mini-sausages
Emeril's Crab & Wild Mushroom Cheescake
Brie Kisses
Everyone's favorite spinach-sour dough bread dip (we damn near had a riot the year we dropped this from the menu)
Alton Brown's Onion Dip and Fromage Fort.
Cooking Light's Hot Asiago Dip
An antipasto plate of assorted cheeses, meats and olives
Chocolate-Dipped Espresso Shortbread Cookies
Cranberry Upside-Down Cake
Chocolate Stout Cake
Sliced apples & bananas with "Caramel Sin"
Peabody's Pumpkin Cheesecake

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November 13, 2006

Dim Sum means one of each - Loon Wah (San Jose)

One of the things I'm really enjoying about NaBloPoMo is the opportunity to revisit restaurants we visited and dishes we prepared at home, the corresponding photographs on my hard drive -- and finish the partially written posts about them.

Restaurants like Loon Wah - almost an accidental discovery. Driving through San Jose on a mid-summer Sunday between social events, we both had a serious jones for dim sum. Loon Wah had been on our "to try" list for several months, making it the obvious choice.

There's one challenge with dim sum. When John and I are ravenous (which we were) we tend to go overboard and order way too much food (which we did). Chow Mein noodles. Barbequed Pork Buns. Sui Mai. Potstickers. We pretty much eyeballed the menu and said "yes." Which resulted in a large-ish collection of takeout containers.

Our impression of the food? Good, solid basic dim sum. Some of it a little greasy. but all of it tasty. In larger than average portions. At reasonable prices. Loon Wah's strength is in their "pastry" -- the pork buns, rice noodles and custard buns are consistently quite good. Potstickers are the only dish we ordered that need som fine-tuning; they were a bitl rubbery and the filling had an odd chemical taste. In short we wouldn't traverse the bay for a meal at Loon Wah, but when in the neighborhood, we wouldn't hesitate to stop in. We have -- twice -- since our initial visit.

Loon Wah
1146 S De Anza Blvd., San Jose, CA 95129

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November 12, 2006

Mindless drivel...

You Are an Excellent Cook

You're a top cook, but you weren't born that way. It's taken a lot of practice, a lot of experimenting, and a lot of learning.
It's likely that you have what it takes to be a top chef, should you have the desire...
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November 11, 2006

Farewell, MS Veendam

As we unpack the suitcases, stage the laundry, download the photographs before we fall into bed, I share the first of many images from our week in the Caribbean. Enjoy!

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November 10, 2006

Homeward bound

Out like a lion, in like a lamb -- our return trip to Tampa has been much smoother than Sunday's journey out. As all successful vacations end, it's a bittersweet return home for us tomorrow and a gradual re-immersion in the day-to-day routine. Look for expansions on each of the last week's post and a wrap-up some time mid-week when I've pulled my paperwork, my notes, my menus and my head into the same space.

And expect the world to get a bit more chaotic as we gear up for next weekend's open house...

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November 09, 2006

It's a world of laughter...

The Mayan Reality Tour (tm)

The one excursion on this voyage that I chose.

I was looking for a bit of Tony Bourdain.

I got equal parts Mr. Roarke and Donald Duck.

Welcome to Fantasy Island... would you like an authentic tortilla with that?

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November 08, 2006

Holland America's Pinnacle Experience...

The short story is we spent a large part of the afternoon in a hands-on cooking class with the executive chef from our cruise ship's premiere dining experience (after I spent the morning going a couple of shades of blonde...) Then we spent the evening dining in the chef's Pinnacle Grill.

The long story -- complete with pictures -- waits for a cheaper, more stable internet connection.

Next stop, Costa Maya Mexico...

November 07, 2006

Yah Mon -- Exploring Ocho Rios for Jamaican Jerk Pork

After an adventurous if not aerobic morning spent swimming with our new dolphin friend Skye and climbing a waterfall...

Do not adjust your monitors, you read correctly... I said climbing a waterfall. I can't consistently find forty five minutes a day to get to the gym or take a walk, but spent a week in the tropics and I'm signing up to climb waterfalls. I believe I've lost my mind. Every muscle in my body aches -- but I've got some GREAT pictures I plan to share when we get back next week.

But I digress. After the morning's adventure, we went searching for jerk pork. And found it in an open-air downtown street food stand/bar called Jerk Centre. A half pound of melt-in-your-mouth, spicy without melting your tastebuds off pork loin for eight bucks. A Bob Marley CD in the background.

Yep, I can see why folks call this paradise...

November 06, 2006

Searching for my lost pillar of salt...

First stop on our iternerary... Grand Cayman Island. We opted to dine on the ship and play ashore -- a two hour snuba-dive adventure and a bit of souvenier shopping for the folks at home.

I understand internet connectivity runs in the single-digits from Ocho Rios, so I'll plan a longer update from there.

November 05, 2006

Corkscrews are for wine, not cruising...

More on yesterday's experience from a land-line, where connection is cheaper... but in the name of not blowing NaBloPoMo this early in the month, I wanted to touch base with my loyal readership and let you know that the worst of the stormy seas seem to be behind us, and that I got through the morning without losing breakfast (largely because I *skipped* breakfast)...

Tonight's dinner is formal. I'll be back from Grand Cayman tomorrow with pictures...

November 04, 2006

Reflections on the Sky Mall magazine

Okay, so I'm going on thirty hours without sleep. I'm trapped in seat 8E for four hours. To my left, an older gentleman has removed his shoes, eaten his tuna fish snack, and appears to be practicing yoga. To my right, John's bunched up my discarded sweater as a makeshift pillow and is trying desperately to nap. Some movie starring...Kenny Chesney? Tim McGraw? Toby Keith? I dunno... Broken Something-or-other... is playing, but largely because the big head wearing what looks like a neon red cotton condom in front of me eclipses the TV monitor, I didn't spring the $5 for the headphones with the soundtrack.

It's hot and stuffy and my little air vent is broken (and I'm going to be forty... someday. whine.) Every time I consider napping, the toddler behind us starts wailing or a flight attendant fires up the intercom to announce that the restrooms at the front of the plane are for first class passengers only -- the great unwashed should proceed to the back of the plane to pee.

Desperate for something -- ANYTHING -- to entertain me for the next few hours, I pull out the Sky Mall magazine from the seat pocket in front of me and search for foodie items I didn't know I needed. Amongst the three thousand dollar wine storage and the vintage carnival popcorn popper/cotton candy maker combination, I find:

The Marshmallow Shooter(tm)on page 26 proclaims that its magazine holds 20 marshmallows, shooting them some 30 feet and provides LED (safe) laser to help pinpoint your target. Um... why? And what *will* they think of next?!? Read on...

On page 110, you too can purchase your very own president or historical figurine. And they'll *talk* to you. Abraham Lincoln. Hillary Clinton. JFK. Pope JP2. Albert Einstein. "W". Take your pick. Gotta wonder which "25 authentic phrases" they've recorded...

Moving steadily onward if not upward, for the lazy parent with copious disposable income, we have the Breakfix(tm) Cereal Dispenser. For 79.99, you can dispense the sugary cereal of your choice in premeasured portions at the push of a button. Fruit Loops anyone? Seventy. Nine. Ninety. Nine. Oy...

And lastly, the gift of the holiday season for the man or woman in your life who has *everything* -- an iPod docking station for the... um... throne room. With moisture-proof construction and four built in speakers.

Um. Yeah. It just doesn't get any better than that folks...

In *good* news, in the time since deplaning and drafting this masterpiece, I've eaten a solid meal and slept nine-solid hours. We're just a couple of hours away from boarding the ship. I'm off to wake John up and grab some breakfast.

Details on last night's dinner to come from some secluded spot on the Caribbean...

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November 03, 2006

Leaving, on a jet plane...

Our bags are packed, we're ready to go...

Dawn's not quite yet breaking, but will be soon.

And at this hour, that's all the lyrics I remember...

Next stop, SFO.

Stay tuned -- I'll nap on the plane and touch base from the right coast...

November 02, 2006

Inspired by others

A lot of my recreational web surfing centers around exploring other food blogs. I'm amazed by some of the sensationally mouth-watering creations many of you describe. Over the months, I've gathered an impressive list of links to recipes I want to try.

Twice in the past couple of weeks I've surveyed my kitchen supplies and turned to that list for inspiration.

As our Indian summer transitions to fall, chilly weekday mornings beg for a warm toasty breakfast. Yet my not-a-morning-person-nature demands a quick breakfast that allows for maximum untilization of the snooze button. Enter Nicole's recent harvest themed oatmeal. Simple, speedy, satisfying -- with a side of maple-flavored yogurt this has become a regular in my breakfast rotation -- and kept me going through endless morning meetings.

There was swiss chard in the CSA box. Eggs in the 'fridge. And we were looking for a quick, throw-together Friday night dinner when I surfed onto Brendon's Eggs Davis. (Go ahead. Follow the link. Check out his sensational photograph. Vegetarian food porn!) Yum. Another we'll be repeating.

Two recipes down. Several hundred still to try...

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November 01, 2006


Welcome to November.

We're leaving on a cruise in two days -- seven days of rest and relaxation (and hopefully some good food) in the Western Caribbean -- probably the first *real* vacation of my adult life (Weekend getaways notwithstanding). While my blog IS recreation, internet access in the Atlantic comes at a hefty price...

Upon our return from Florida, we have a week to prepare for our 6th annual open house -- a hundred or so of our closest friends dropping in for a glass of wine, a plate or two of finger food and our sensational hospitality. Six-point-five days to get the house clean, the menu planned and prepared, the wine poured...

Thanksgiving falls quickly on the heels of the open house. We're changing the holiday pace a bit this year. After years of talking about it, we're going to take the plunge. Rather than drifting into a tryptophan-induced coma in the mid-afternoon, we're going to give back to the community. We're going to join Daniel & Tracy at the restaurant, helping them prepare and serve feast for the homeless.

Oh, and mid-month is critical to my company's success or failure with a project that reengineers our business process and its infrastructure from end-to-end. I'm a critical contributor to the project, and my long term prospects hinge on its success.

Yeah, seems like a great time to commit to daily blog posting.

I should be committed. Because that's precisely what I've done. I've joined a group of dedicated bloggers participating in NaBloPoMo -- National Blog Posting Month. So for the next 30 days I pledge that the five of you reading this will see something new from me. Something at least loosely food-related.

On a positive note, it's a busy month. I should have plenty of fodder with which to entertain you.

One down, 29 to go...

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