Saturday, July 28, 2007

When I'm Right......

My husband is a very good person. He is a wonderful husband and father, which is not news to anyone who knows him. But he's also committed to the rest of his family. When word came down that his grandmother was about to celebrate her 94th birthday and neither his father nor his brother could attend the festivities, my dear husband made plans to travel to Oklahoma City for 4 days. I think the weather alone at the end of July would probably kill me, but he's clearly stronger than I am.

We dropped him off at the airport yesterday and then couldn't resist a peek at our fair city's celebrated newcomer nearby. You'd think we were hosting the Olympics or something. We went, we bought a few things to make our home more streamlined and Swedish (as if!) and it was a scene but now we can say we've been. Those folks do have a way with color and I fell in love with some of the fabrics by the yard, so I may well make the trek again one day. What I cannot understand is why, when one covers the entire the entire 280,000sf store and finally makes it through checkout and to the exit, there is no conveniently placed coffee cart outside the door. I think I would have willingly paid $10 for an iced Americano at that point to prop me up for the long journey back to our car. The boys were calling it "the IKEA death march".

All I could think of at that point was water and shade. We had an errand to run downtown and I decided to take the kids to one of my favorite childhood spots. The Lovejoy Fountain is tucked away in a part of Portland where the former shtetl was flattened by 1960's urban renewal. It was a spot I loved as a kid--there's water, of course, but it's also a space where one can scale heights, rest near a tranquil pool, get splashed by rushing water, and (not to be missed) float one's Crocs from top to bottom. The boys kvetched on the way there of course, assuming that the fountain would be dull. Our brief stopped turned out to last much of the afternoon. All the kids got soaked, the pigeons got a lot of mediocre Swedish oat crisps, and everyone was happy (except The Spouse who was stuck all afternoon in the Salt Lake City airport, poor fellow). I love it when my hunches are correct!
We picked up some Indian takeout and came home to fill out the meal with homemade naan, pakoras, mango lassi, and carrot halvah and spent the evening watching Lagaan, the best 4 hour anti-imperialist Bollywood cricket film you could ever hope to see!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ratatouille Follow Up

The ratatouille has been delicious and we've been eating it all week. The Spouse came up with a brilliant idea for the last of it last night: he took about a cup and half of leftover ratatouille and threw it in the food processor with similar amount of fresh ricotta, heated it, and served it over pasta. Quite tasty!

Biggest. Knitting. Ever.

Last year I started a prayer shawl for a good friend who was going through a hard time. It's a simple, subtle rib pattern based on the number three and I found the knitting to be very relaxing and soothing. I wanted it large--because what comfort is a skimpy shawl? I had no idea when I started just how much knitting I was looking at and it didn't really dawn on me until I held up the finished object and it was ....big. Really big. I'm kind of astounded that something that large could come from my needles.

Every time I sat down to work on it, I tried to turn my energy toward this friend and send her good thoughts, even if I had only a few minutes to knit. It's been almost finished for a couple of months and then for some reason I set it aside. I kept nagging myself to get it done and then letting the project languish. I knew that it could bring my friend no comfort until it was finished and yet there it sat until last weekend when I knew it was time for it to be done. I was working through something very hard myself and the process of finishing the shawl and adding the fringe was exactly what I needed. It hadn't occurred to me before that I needed this as much as my friend did. I felt such peace when I finally tied the last lengths of yarn to the edge. Now it is with its owner and I hope she'll always feel loved when she wraps herself in it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007

Birthday Cake

The Dark Lord turned 14 today. He celebrated the day with a good friend watching the latest Harry Potter film. No parents needed this time around, but who can keep a mother from making a chocolate cake?

This is surely the simplest frosted layer cake I've ever made. First the cake batter and then the frosting is made in the food processor which is quick and tidy. I love it when I don't have bowls all over the counter. But it isn't just about the convenience-this is actually a delicious cake: rich and flavorful, but not heavy. I'm not big on frosting, but this really is quite yummy and you can, of course, use whatever fancy chocolate you can find. The recipe was written for 8" pans and I have only 9" cake pans so a little math was done to accommodate my slightly larger pans.

The next time someone needs a chocolate cake (and surely someone will soon) please give this a try. The recipe is here.

Another Birthday

Summer is non-stop birthday fun in our family. Today we celebrate The Dark Lord who's now (gulp!) 14 years old. Sometimes I can't believe how the time has flown since he looked like this:
but other times it seems as if he's always been with us. Yes, he's gotten taller but it's amazing to me how much of the baby is still there if I look. The same fixed, calm gaze and the sweet mouth. He was never a risk-taker and never hysterical and he remains sensible, thoughtful, and calm to this day, but with a silly side that can pull us all into his goofiness.
I remember being 14 and even though I become exasperated with him, he's handling it all with far better sense than I did.

Motherhood has been acutely on my mind recently and he's the boy who made me a mother, the child on which I tried out my first attempts at parenting, the guinea pig, really. His siblings have him to thank for whatever refinements his father and I have developed at his expense.

I feel light years away from that hospital room where I labored, completely overwhelmed with the intensity of bringing him into the world. I had no idea what was waiting for me as I crossed from where I was before kids to where I live now. Parenting is such an all consuming place that I have very little perspective, but from what I can tell, things look good for this child of mine. He is bright and creative and I am enjoying watching him spread his wings. Happy birthday, my sweet boy. May this year bring you only good things as you grow into your strength and find your way in the world.

Mosaic Monday

A little darker than usual, befitting the grey midsummer doldrums within and without.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ratatouille and a Fruit Tart

Did you see the movie? I loved it--the darling French rat with gourmet dreams was absolutely charming. Technically, the movie was brilliant, and the story was great. But....what was with the signature dish? Ratatouille all tarted up to look sleek and elegant? I'm sorry, but I don't think so. On the other hand, I don't like it all slopped together, either, so it comes out like a lumpy pizza sauce. I've had some lousy ratatouille in my time and really what I like best is my own which is based on a recipe by the ever fabulous Deborah Madison who always seems to know when to simplify and when it's really worth the fuss. Despite being not terribly photogenic, this dish is worth the fuss.

We hit the farmers market today and came home with all the necessary ingredients: eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes, all of which were gorgeous. At home I began the slicing, salting, and sauteeing. It's a long process, but sauteeing each vegetable separately in olive oil and then baking them together gently is what makes the dish so delicious, especially topped with reduced pan juices for extra flavor. We'll eat it served with polenta, fresh bread, and locally made goat cheese.

All the fresh fruit at the market was calling out to me and I was inspired to make a simple fruit tart for dessert. It's an old family recipe: a simple, buttery dough topped with summer fruit to which I've added one small (but delicious) flourish. I know my great grandmother would certainly have approved of the thin layer of barely sweetened cream cheese I added between the fruit and the dough.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fortifying

I don't have a whole lot to say right now other than sometimes things just suck and you have to face them anyway. But it's best not do so while hungry. Earlier in the day I made salad rolls for the family dinner, but when I came home from work fairly trembling with hunger I knew I needed considerably more substance than was enfolded in the diaphanous wrappers.

A quick tour through the cupboards revealed nothing and then I remembered the quinoa tucked away for safekeeping in the freezer right next to a small packet of pine nuts. I discovered quinoa last year during a period of doctor-ordered dietary restrictions. Quinoa was the only new thing I tried that I continue to eat. I love its golden color and crunchy texture. It's outstanding from a nutritional point of view and it cooks up more quickly that just about any other whole grain.

With feta from the fridge and a dash out to the garden for parsley I came up with a simple dish that was sustaining and comforting. Just what I needed tonight. No doubt everyone needs a dish like this at some point. The recipe is here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Party Food, Part Two

As far as I'm concerned, nothing says "party" like a platter of dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). And since we were indeed having a party, I knew what I had to make.

I first started making these years ago when we had actual grape vines of our own. Home-grown leaves are definitely best, in my opinion, as you can pick the shape you want and brining is unnecessary. But since I have yet to get any grapes planted it was off to my favorite local Balkan/Slavic/Middle Eastern deli where I was able to get pre-mixed henna in a tube along with my grape leaves. All this and "helpful and knowledgeable stuff"!

When I've had to buy leaves, they've always been wadded up in jars so when I saw the definitely not eco-friendly vacuum-packed plastic bags I thought I'd come across something so brilliant that I'd forgo recyclable glass. Since the leaves were packed flat, I reasoned, surely they'd be intact, less ripped and mangled than the jarred variety. Of course I was dead wrong. Most of the leaves were too small to use, and others were ripped to shreds. Nearly all were so deeply notched that I actually had to double roll many of the dolmas just to hold the filling. And they were so salty, even despite repeated careful rinsing. As you can imagine, I was in a fine mood after spending an hour an half fighting with the cursed things. But none of this mattered the next day when I arranged them on a sunny yellow platter and waited for guests to arrive. They quickly disappeared into the mouths of hungry revelers who kept asking where I'd bought them. I just smiled ever so humbly when I confessed that I'd made them myself.

Many folks use meat in the filling, but mine have a simple lemon-herb-rice filling. Call up a friend or two to make light work of it an roll up a batch of your own tasty dolmas. The recipe is here.

Mosaic Monday--Birthday Edition

A few photos I took during my birthday weekend. Some are gifts from generous folks and most were taken on the Metro Garden Tour yesterday. We saw very few gardens as the nonstop dancing the night before made for rather a late start. But I'm glad I dragged myself out.

42

Incredibly, another birthday has come and gone. Didn't I just do that a few weeks ago?

I'm still just like a little kid about birthdays-- I really do love to do it up. We had a little amateur mehndi session on Friday night, then rose early for Shabbat services where MonkeyBoy led one of the psalms and The Dark Lord and I both chanted Torah. Beautifully, if I can boast. I was only half as nervous as when I read at his bar mitzvah so I am making progress.

We had a lovely lunch out and then zipped home to prepare for My Big Fat Birthday Dance Party. The Spouse and I have long tossed about the idea of a dance party and finally decided that the time had come. Apart from a rather dramatic and sticky episode involving the fizzy beverages, the house went from chaos to charming rather smoothly.

We moved furniture, rolled up the rugs and turned the dining room into a perfect little dance hall. I had put together an upbeat and eclectic playlist which came under scrutiny at the last minute and was then infused with a liberal sprinkling of 80's pop hits because The Spouse informed me that there weren't enough songs in English. So we had David Bowie and The Talking Heads mixed in along with songs in Spanish, Russian, Hindi, and French. And it worked! It took a little effort to get people dancing, but once they started there was no stopping. I wonder how many times we looked at each other, breathless and sweaty and said "What a great idea!".

We took breaks on the patio, drank tasty handcrafted beer, and gobbled all kinds of snacks (brought mostly by my generous friends) and had a blast. The kids ran wild, fueled by root beer and cupcakes, and seemed to enjoy themselves as well.

I even got presents! (I told you I was like a little kid about birthdays)--my kids bought me a beautiful plant I'd been eyeing for a while and there were flowers galore and a groovy bag from my sister, some lovely art paper, handmade soap and, notably, a carton of eggs from this lady. Have you ever gotten multicolored eggs for your birthday? Pretty cool!

And then there's my husband, the guy with perfect taste and an excellent memory when it really counts. Not that he can remember where he put his just-poured mug of coffee, but he remembered a swing through a gallery a month ago when I gazed longingly at this:It's a striking, one-of-a-kind bracelet made of antique paper sandwiched between tiny panes of glass. And whenever I wear it, I am sure to think of a balmy summer night when friends came to dance with me until the wee hours of the morning. If any of you are reading this, thanks for dancing with me!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Party Food, part one

I'm not quite sure how it's happened again so soon, but once again I find myself a year older. I blame my bad health luck last year on the fact that I didn't throw myself a party and, not wanting to repeat the curse, I made sure to plan something big this year. I have lots of friends and loved ones joining me tonight for a dance party. We're moving furniture, rolling up the rug, and cranking up the stereo for a few hours of craziness and I am really looking forward to it!

I spent more time thinking about the perfect playlist (and perfect it is, with a little bit of everything thrown in to make a perfectly spicy mix) than I did thinking about the food. When I finally focused I realized there were two things I had to have to call it a party: tomatillo salsa and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). Yes, I know, completely different continents but really, with the range of music? They make a perfect couple for this party.

The salsa is a snap, really. The hardest part is peeling the tomatillos which isn't a huge job. Take a pound and a half of tomatillos, peel off the husks, and wash them in hot water to remove the waxy coating. Place tomatillos in a large roasting pan along with a couple of nice, fat jalapeƱo chiles . Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until they begin to soften. Toss into the pan a handful of garlic cloves which you've separated, but not peeled. Roast for another 20 minutes or so, until there everything is started to collapse and darken.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Pick over the tomatillos and chiles to remove any stems, and dump into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic by squeezing it out of the skins. Toss in 4 or 5 scallions (green parts included), as much fresh cilantro as you like, and a good pinch of salt. Whiz away until you have a pleasant consistency and give it a taste. You may want to add a bit of sugar or more salt. Admire its lovely color and bright flavor. Serve with chips or quesadillas or eggs or, honestly, just about anything. Refrigerate the highly unlikely leftovers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Salad Rolls

It's always a pleasure when I discover that foods I previously thought beyond me are actually not that challenging. Yes, some of the mystery is lost, but it's but it's a fair price to pay to have all the salad rolls I can eat.

It's been dreadfully hot here in Portland so when a friend offered me both an air conditioned space in which to hang out for the day and lunch I knew I'd gotten lucky. She made a yummy peanut noodle salad (a warm weather standby around here and I'll get a recipe up one of these days) and a bunch of Vietnamese style salad rolls. I've always found the diaphanous wrappers quite intimidating but after watching her work I realize it's something I can handle. After all, I can make my own cheese, so surely I can do anything!

This morning we walked over to the Hong Phat market for supplies. I'd thought the wrappers were rice paper but what I ended up getting was made of tapioca flour, as were the noodles. I spent some time slicing and chopping to set up my assembly line:

I was delighted to find that as long as I worked quickly, the rolls came together easily and stayed stuck. It takes a bit of practice to become familiar with the wrappers, but they come thousands to a package so you can afford to toss a few as you improve.

I used mixed greens from my garden. The speckled lettuce was lovely, but I really liked the bite of tiny mustard greens. One child nixed the peanuts and another whined about the avocado but it won't be long before the darlings can simply make their own custom salad rolls.

You'll want a sauce or two for dipping. I always love sweet chili sauce, and one of the kids decided to give some commercial honey-garlic sauce a try which wasn't bad. I think something involving fish sauce and lime juice would be traditional and a quick, spicy peanut sauce would be tasty as well.

The best part? No heat, apart from quickly boiling the noodles and the hot water for the wrappers which was really nothing. I'm looking forward to experimenting with these rolls as summer progresses and the markets offer new possibilities.

You'll find my novice recipe here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Morons on the Loose

What is the connection between Independence Day and pyromaniac morons? The idiots on our block seemed determined to repeat last year's stellar performance in which their amateur pyrotechnics incinerated the arborvitae hedge across the street, leaving us with this splendid sight every morning:

There's nothing like waking up in Mordor to start your day right.

We've been preparing food to take along tomorrow for a day of picnicking and hanging out at Blue Lake Park, my new favorite July 4th destination. We used to stay home and avoid the crowds but I am happier not being home while the morons set the neighborhood on fire.

We visited Blue Lake Park last year on the 4th and found it delightful. Yes, there are thousands of holiday visitors, but the park is huge and there's room for everyone. There's a vibrant multicultural mix of folks who show up on the 4th and last year we shared the park with Russians, Somalis, Latinos, African-Americans, Southeast Asians and more. The ESL teacher in me loved spending the 4th of July with so many new Americans and the kids had all kinds of fun so back we go tomorrow.

I taught my students about the 4th of July tonight. It was tough finding a reading that was simple enough for them to understand but we worked through a good introductory piece. I admit to getting a bit choked up discussing the word "freedom" when one of my Russian girls suddenly got it and explained that that was why they came to America and there were nods of agreement from many. I know there are a lot of creepy, flag waving, God-Bless-America types out there who've taken over words like freedom, but that young woman's face gave me a new understanding of an idea I thought I'd thoroughly considered.

Now if only we could be free of the incendiary morons on our block....

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dinner on the Patio

I know a lot of folks who are deliriously happy about the onset of summer. Not me. I hate being hot. I'll go out in the cold without a coat and happily shiver until I get where I'm going but the heat makes me miserable, especially at night when it makes sleep difficult. I'm not going to handle the climate crisis graciously, you can bet on that.

There are, of course, a few good things about summer. The fruit is gorgeous and varied, my garden goes wild, and we can enjoy our covered patio. Years ago someone decided to slap some extra roof over the northwest side of our house, making a very dark little corner which, frankly, is quite unpleasant most of the year. But in high summer, it's a wonderful place, a cool refuge from the sun's rays complete with the soothing burbling of my home-made washtub fountain. We move the houseplants out for the summer, and we've been covering the walls with an odd collection of mirrors to bring a bit of light into the dim space and for a couple of months, it's not a bad place to be, especially on a warm evening at dinnertime.

The kids had been asking for onion pie for quite a while, so I finally indulged them even though it made the kitchen even hotter. With the fan set up, I was good to go, chopping and sauteeing onions in a mixture of olive oil and butter until they turned a rich, deep brown.

I put the caramelized onions into a deep pie dish, scattered grated cheddar and fresh thyme over the them, and then made a quick biscuit dough and plopped it over everything. Half an hour in the oven, and the whole thing was tipped out onto a plate, ready for serving.
After last week's cheesemaking I was all ready to give it another try. I found some beautiful heirloom tomatoes which I sliced up and layered with the slices of fresh mozzarella. I drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar over everything, along with a pinch of salt, black pepper, and some chopped fresh basil.

The final dish was sauteed garlicky zucchini, fresh from the garden of friends. I remember thinking they were crazy to put their zucchini in so early but they called it right this year. My plants are still spindly while they've been eating fresh zucchini for quite some time.

It was declared by all to be a fine meal, which is something in this household of picky children. Should you feel inclined to try the onion pie yourself, you'll find the recipe here.

Aaaahhhhh.....

I've been hearing about this place for ages and held off on visiting as I knew how easily I could become hooked. A dear friend talked me into joining her and we enjoyed two hours of total decadence: a hot foot soak in scented water, an aromatherapy salt scrub, and a nice long foot and lower leg massage. All this while ensconced on elevated puffy couches, sipping tea and munching snacks, in a pleasantly darkened room draped in sumptuous fabrics. It was such a lovely treat, which, followed by a delicious Lebanese dinner, made for a perfect mom's night out.