Monday, January 30, 2012

Will Work For Butter

In my very first post (almost a year ago!) I mentioned how the transition from working girl to housewife/artist/property manager has been a strange, yet surprisingly easy one. Well, it's still a bit strange. I think perhaps it’s because the farmer's market is closed for the winter, so I'm not busy creating culinary delights for my townsfolk anymore. I miss my customers and the amazing people I worked alongside with – Julie, Sylvia, Michael, Linda, Virgil…but mostly I miss the learning. Baking for the market was a bit like attending my very own private culinary school. Days before the market, I would read and re-read complex recipes, pour over countless cookbooks, including Linda Dannenberg's fabulous book - Paris Boulangerie Patisserie - Recipes from Thirteen Outstanding French Bakeries, and plan-out my menu. 

When I was living in the city and working 9-5, I never had the time to sharpen my gastronomic skills nor the proclivity to master such delicacies as Bouchons (chocolate "corks"), Croissants aux Amandes (almond-filled croissants), Tarte Normande (apple and custart tart), Gougeres (giant gruyere cheese puffs), Sables a' l'Orange et Raisins (orange and raisin cookies), Tartes aux Framboises (raspberry tartletts with pastry cream), Coco au Miel (coconut-honey cakes), pizza dough, ham and Gruyere bread, my grandma Davis’s apple pie – or piecrust for that matter. The five months I spent working for the market has been an invaluable education that has not only opened the door to my culinary imagination, and has shown me tangible ways in which I can make a little cash; it has made me realize how very blessed I am to have such opportunities as these.

"Women Gardening" Courtesy of
Another blessing the transition from city life to rural bliss has uncovered, is the opportunity to volunteer. For a few months after the market ended, I was volunteering for my friend Linda on her farm - what a joy! I am looking forward to helping her harvest potatoes, garlic and more when spring approaches. Then, this past month and a half, I have been volunteering at St. Timothy Episcopal Church’s soup kitchen. Curiously it was my sweet, unbelieving friend Linda who told me about St. Tim's. When I asked her if she knew of ways in which the community was helping its homeless/transient population, she said that St. Timothy's was the first church (out of ~27 in town) to start a soup kitchen. Then shortly thereafter, six other churches stepped-up to the plate and started their own programs. So now the city of Brookings, OR offers one good meal every day of the week for those in need. It's a good start.

My buddy Linda also told me about The Gospel Outreach Mission, which is where people may buy, donated clothing and small pieces of furniture - for cheap. Growing up, I remember my mom and grandma used to shop at St. Vincent de Paul’s in Oakland procuring a lamp, a couch, or end tables. Then when I was a teenager my friends and I used to hit St. Vincent’s, for vintage dresses and men's wool pants to wear with our Doc Martins. I never realized it was generational, but for the past 20 years I've been donating to St. Vincent de Paul's; then we moved to this little seaside town.

So now it’s The Mission on HWY 101 that gets all our stuff. When I dropped-off my first donation I asked the man there, Mario, if he knew about St. Timothy’s. “They have THE BEST meals.” He said, straight-faced. “How does one go about volunteering?” I had no idea how to get in the door, and couldn’t imagine they would “hire” me based on my enthusiasm. He told me to ask for Carla. The next week I did just that, my husband came with me and we scoped it out. 

What an amazing smile Carla has, it’s so big and welcoming, I knew I was on the right path. My first day volunteering I arrived at 9am sharp. I think Ron, the director of the soup kitchen, could see I was very eager to help, so he didn’t have the heart to turn me away, even though I couldn’t remember Carla’s name and I called Mario, Martin. Still, he gave me the rundown, then he gave me the task of setting up tables and chairs, “Which is normally Rich’s job.” When Rich arrived he quietly fixed what I'd done, then I got to work on the salad, “Which is normally Angell’s job.” When Angell arrived she kindly let me continue making the salad, even though I asked, “Where are the band-aids?” After I bandaged my finger as discretely as possible and put on a plastic glove for good measure, I blurted out, “You know if you want I can bake. I bake for the farmer’s market at the grange.” What was I thinking? “Oh really!” Rich said excitedly. Ron looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I would like to use-up the frozen pears and peaches that I have in the storeroom. How about you make something next week?” “Great!” Talk about exciting, my hands were itching to be covered in butter and flour once again.

When I left the soup kitchen that day I came straight home and perused my cookbooks for a good fruit crisp recipe, but only came up with pie recipes. Two days later I found one on-line that sounded good because it used freshly grated lemon and orange rind, only it served 8. I needed a recipe for 100! I’ll just multiply everything by twelve I thought, that makes sense. Ha!

The morning I was to make my crisp for the soup kitchen, I felt like I did on finals day at UC Berkeley, scared but hopeful. “Today I’m going to make the biggest dessert I’d ever attempted so, step back and say a prayer!” I told my husband. When I arrived at St. Tim’s, Ron had faithfully purchased everything I asked for, except I brought the old-fashioned oats. I wanted to make a small donation just in case it was a flop. Plus, I grated the lemon and orange rind at home to save time since I wasn't sure how long this dish was going to take from start to finish.

After I’d opened and drained ten gigantic cans of sliced peaches and thawed about ten cups of chopped pear, I realized this project was bigger than I’d imagined. Still, I kept my cool and continued working, even when Rich, John and Ira began needling me about the gargantuan mound of chopped butter I was enthusiastically trying to incorporate into the topping ingredients. “Julia would be proud!” Rich said, patting me on the back, “You should have a sign on your back - Will Work For Butter. HA HA HA!" I had to laugh; it was a ridiculous amount of animal fat. “I only use butter when baking." I informed them. "It’s easier to digest, it’s better for you than margarine, plus butter makes everything taste good!” I said, half-jokingly. Thing is, six pounds of cold butter is hard to handle, so Ron came over and helped me with the final mixing, and then I spooned the fruit into the three metal pans I was given. After sprinkling each dish with the topping, I noticed two of the pans were shallow indeed... I’m sure you can guess what happened. 

As the topping began to melt in the ovens, the pans began to overflow, and burning butter = smoke, lots and lots of smoke.  Before you could say, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," all of the kitchen staff were outside coughing and gasping for breath, and I was left virtually alone to ladle off the excess butter which floated on top of each pan, like a golden pool. When Angell arrived I told her what had happened and she miraculously fitted higher sides to the pans using tinfoil. Ingenious woman! Once the excess butter was removed and the higher sides were in place, I put the pans back into the ovens to continue baking. When I opened the oven door, I got hit in the face with so much smoke it scorched my eyeballs in their sockets; I almost dropped the pan but somehow slid it in safely. That’s when the ovens plotted their revenge against me. 

Due to high heat, the ill-fitted racks began to shrink and fall down. Each time I pulled out the pans to spoon or blot off the excess butter, I had to very gingerly place the pans back on the racks, otherwise they would fall. Talk about nerve wracking. On top of this, I had to endure a Monday morning quarterback from another soup kitchen, whose remarks were rather trying. “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you? How long have you been volunteering here? You should have known better than multiplying the quantity of butter.” It went on and on. All I kept thinking was, “What would Jesus do, what would Jesus do,” so I took it on the cheek and kept working. He went away eventually, when he did Ron said something like, “Lady, you’ve got rhinoceros skin.” “I can take it,” I said feigning a smile. “My pride is completely squashed, and I just want you to know that it was really nice knowing you all, since after today you’re no longer going to want me here.” He just laughed and patted me on the shoulder.

Luckily, by the time our patrons started to arrive the smoke had cleared and people began commenting, “Wow, that smells good.” Carla was sweet and said it smelled like burnt caramel, which makes sense as the ovens had just burned off enough butter and sugar to make a pound of caramels. It's amazing how something so catastrophic can turn out ok; God was merciful, my crisp was a hit. My husband, who came to see me on his day off (he got a BIG hug from me), sat with Ron for a bit, and all he heard from our patrons was, "Great dessert...The best dessert they've ever served...It's called a crisp, a crisp! Amazing." Praise indeed. A woman who works in the free clinic even asked me to e-mail her the recipe, so she could make it for her family on Christmas day. 

Can you believe that even after this drama, Ron still wants me to volunteer? Of course I get the occasional poke from my fellow kitchen staff, “Got Butter Rachel? This needs more butter, don’t you think Rachel? Don’t forget the unsalted butter!” But it's always followed-up with praise for my “amazing crisp.” I feel so blessed to be volunteering at St. Timothy's. Not only do I get to help those in need... I get to wet my culinary whistle every week, and I have found an amazing group of people who have taken me into the fold. Let's see, I've made rice pudding, herbed hard rolls, lots of salad, and this week I will be baking bread pudding, which will require the ovens so cross your fingers.

Here’s the recipe for my now infamous fruit crisp (with the correct amount of butter). Enjoy!

St. Timothy’s Peach & Pear Crisp

Serves: 8
Prep: 30 min.
Cook: 55 min.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees

4 pears 
6 peaches
1 tsp grated orange zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 tbsp sugar
2-½ tbsp flour
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp salt

1-cup minus 2 tablespoons flour
10 tbsp sugar
11 tbsp brown sugar, lightly packed
½ tsp salt
1-cup old-fashioned oats
15 tbsp cold, unsalted butter

Peel, core and cut fruit into large chunks. Place fruit in a large bowl and add zest, juices, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into a 9x11” oval baking dish.

Combine flour, sugars, salt, oats and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for 1 minute until the mixture is in large crumbles.

Sprinkle evenly over the fruit, covering the fruit completely. Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until top is brown and fruit is bubbly. Serve warm with fresh whipping cream.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Scotland and England and France - Oh My! Part II Flying in the Millennium

When I was a teenager I used to drive to the Oakland airport with my best friend, Mama Dog. She and I would sit in the car and watch the planes take-off for hours. It was a great escape, dreaming of all the places I would go one day and the wonderful things I would see. To this day, I still find it thrilling to go to the airport, even if it's just to pick-up a friend. Of course airports have changed considerably. I'm not sure if it's allowed to watch the planes take off from the airport anymore with all the added security risks. The last time Tony and I flew the friendly skies was in 1996, pre 9/11/01 (God rest their souls). In '96 it took less than one hour to board your international flight, and the thought of taking your shoes off at check-in was unconscionable. 

Yes, flying was much more dignified back then. It was all about YOUR comfort. I remember after being in France for two weeks we were so excited to be going home, that we arrived at the airport in Paris two hours earlier than expected. We were told the x-ray machines were not yet heated up so...they didn't bother x-raying our bags. Why make us wait? My husband was especially glad this happened since he secretly stashed a bunch of "novelty" switch blades in my luggage. "After all, they're less likely to check your bags than mine," he reasoned. 

No it was 2009 and things have changed A LOT. For one thing, I was told to pack all of my toiletries inside of my checked luggage and not my carry-on bag. "But I always wash-up before I land." I protested. I'll need my Neutrogena face soap, toner, face cream, eye cream, toothbrush, toothpaste, and then there's my hair smoothing cream. "Whatever happened to looking glamorous on the plane?" I asked. I was told to forgo all that and to be prepared to strip for security. 

The day before we left for Scotland, I nervously perused the TSA website (Transportation Security Administration) and became vaguely familiar with a confusing concept, simply named 3-1-1. In short, every (1) passenger is allowed to bring a (1) quart-size zip-top bag stuffed with containers that hold (3) ounces or less. So really it should be called 1-1-3, but that's just me. Actually, I was happy to finally use the dozens of adorable little bottles I'd saved over the years.

One aspect of air travel that I was not prepared for in the millennium was the smell of fear and foot odor. Not to mention, walking though various metal detectors barefoot is just gross. Plus, I'll admit that I slowed down the line a little when the TSA girl told me I was not allowed to bring my Cal water bottle onboard, and I'll further admit that I let out a rather audible moan escape my lips when I was told to throw it in the trash. Other than that, I breezed through the metal detector virtually unscathed. 

Tony was another story. The man is a harbinger of metal. After several failed attempts to walk through the metal detector, a serious-looking man in a red suit told him to stand still while he slowly ran a wand all over his body, and finally to his neck, where his Saint Christopher hung. Pulling the chain over his head, I could see my husband's hands shaking. My poor honey I thought and instinctually wanted to run to his side, but I was already being pushed forward by the lady with stinky feet behind me - who could care less about anyone's discomfort. 

Our view from the Old Waverley Hotel, 
Edinburgh, Scotland
Surviving check-in was nothing compared to our flight, which lasted ~26 hours. Our engine warmer failed so we were forced to change planes twice in New Jersey. Fine with me I thought, better that than plunging into the sea at 500mph. Walking around the airport at 2am was eerie, with all the concession stands closed and the lights at half power, but it was fun too. As the other passengers walked around each other in circles like zombies, Tony and I explored. We found a nice restroom where we could freshen-up, then we looked at overpriced sunglasses through brightly lit cases and laughed about our trip thus far. Re-boarding was also comical because everyone was cranky and looked a fright, except the flight attendants. They were very patient with us and treated us like kind zookeepers, giving us an extra meal and free drink tickets. Hooray! Normally, I'd rather starve than eat airplane food but on this occasion I found myself willingly eating a curious chicken dish and washing it down with Jameson. Within minutes, I was a happy little monkey. 

After the lights dimmed and the same movie came on for the third time, my husband, who has been trained to sleep standing, was snoring while I gabbed with the lady across the isle. She was on her way home and gladly told me where to go and what to see in Scotland. She even drew me a map! We were to encounter this several times in the Land of Tartan. The Scotch are very helpful, friendly people. Later, I was to discover they also had one of the most generous breakfasts in the world: eggs, gigantic pieces of bacon, a variety of freshly made breads to make toast, steel-cut oats, coffees, teas, orange juice and of course haggis - something I had to try but ended up avoiding like the plague. Every hotel in both Scotland and England offered an amazing spread. This was especially appreciated by me since I wake up so hungry, I can eat a wagon wheel!

They say life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. Even thought this trip was to be an unplanned extravaganza, I was so glad I made reservations for our first night in Edinburgh. I didn't want to roam around the city looking like Día de Muertos trying to find a place to rest my frizzy head. When we arrived in Scotland's capital and at the Old Waverley Hotel we wanted to sleep so badly, but we'd learned our lesson years ago to adapt to the new time zone at all cost. So, after showering we tripped around the Royal Mile, where I saw my first Red Telephone Booth. Maybe I was delirious from lack of sleep, but it was thrilling. 

After a full day exploring Edinburgh on foot we finally collapsed in our hotel room and slept soundly, until around midnight. Sometimes jet-lag isn't all that bad...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Something Borrowed

I've mentioned my cousin Vanessa before, the one who loves April Fools jokes. Well, she's getting married this year on April Fools Day. She swears it's no joke, but something deep down inside me thinks she's secretly planning her revenge on the world. It may sound crazy, but she has just the temperament to pull it off. Is this really going to be her blessed wedding day or the best party in the world? We shall see. 

One inducement that makes me believe she may be telling the truth about her coming nuptial, is the fact that she's going to wear my wedding dress and veil. Yes, the very dress I wore on the happiest day of my life to the sweetest, sexiest man alive. How did this come about?!

We'll have to go way back to 1987, when I was a sixteen year old New Waver and she a wicked slip of a girl nine years my junior. I can still see her on a particular New Year's Eve at Aunt Pam's house on Baker Street in San Francisco. She was wearing an oversized men's t-shirt with a wide belt, slightly pushed down and to the right, no shoes and wild hair. Her eyes were everywhere. I thought she was the closest thing to an elf or an Irish Fairy. Elusive, laughing all the time, surviving her childhood best she could. I used to try to hold her, like I did all my cousins, nieces and nephews but she'd always squirm her way out of my arms and run away screaming and laughing. 

Little did I know as the years passed, she sort of looked up to me. She would secretly go into my bedroom, look through my things, put on my perfume, steal my favorite sweater...all without a trace that she'd ever been there. At one point she lived with us and I had the little sister I'd always wanted, but she remained evasive.  

It was years - a near death car accident, the birth of her son and believe-it-or-not Facebook, before she and I became friends. I'd just been laid-off from UC Berkeley due to budget cuts, when she invited me to the premier of New Moon and on a road trip to Forks, WA right after the movie - a real bonafide TwiHard Adventure. How could I resist? 

On that trip, while her buddy slept in the backseat, she and I talked about our lives and how we'd got to the point where we could forgive our pasts, and more important, how our faith in God has been our saving grace. It was so nice to catch up with her after years of brief encounters at baby showers, bridal showers and weddings. As I listened to her talk about her mom and becoming a mother herself I realized that she was all grown up, and more. I was the one who admired her now. 

Not only has she survived her childhood, she is the most amazing mother I've ever known. I remember as a girl she loved babies. She always wanted to hold them, feed them, speak tenderly to them. A real natural. Her son, Joshua Tiger, has special needs and he's the happiest boy I've ever seen. A big part of this is due to Vanessa's loving care, hard work and selfless dedication. She's amazing. I'm always singing her praises to my friends and family. In truth, Vanessa inspires me to be a better person. 

So, while she was here for Christmas with her fiance, JV, I had an epiphany. She still didn't have a real wedding dress, barely four months before her wedding, so why not offer mine? It took her a long time to believe I really meant it, but as she stood there in my bedroom, with the entire ensemble on, she positively glowed. It was one of the most precious moments in my life.

When I got married my cousin was only sixteen years-old. It has always made me sad, she and her mom, as well as our grandma wasn't there. Now Vanessa is thirty-two and she's getting married. Her mother, and our grandma have since passed away...but I'll be there. I am a part of Vanessa and she is a part of me. Our bond started long ago...

I can't wait to watch her sweep down the isle on Tony's arm and towards her future life. That is if this isn't all an elaborate hoax. April Fools!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Well-Traveled Man and a Woman Who Can Pull Her Own Weigh, Scotland and England and France - Oh My! Part I

Two years ago my sweet husband and I decided to save our dough and take a big trip. I'm talking huge. Unlike the time we flew out of SFO (San Francisco) to Charles de Gaulle (France), then CDG back to SFO; I wanted a real planes, trains and automobiles vacation. So we decided to fly into charming Edinburgh, Scotland and out of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Everything in between would be an adventure, no plans whatsoever. A tall order indeed, but we had almost three weeks to roam and the money to do it this time.

The last time we went to Europe it was 1996 - two crazy kids flitting around Paris, France for their 1 year wedding anniversary. Even thought the exchange rate was 5 francs to the dollar, as newlyweds, we didn't have two nickels to rub together and ended up running out of money half way through our trip. A big chunk went towards the Corsair charter, so upon arrival, we were shocked to discover that we had roughly 400 francs a day to live on - 80 bucks american. After finding a cheap hotel at 250f a night we survived solely on crepes, baguettes, spaghetti bolognese at Don Vito's and love.

Luckily, Tony's dad (my new father-in-love) was kind enough to pay for our stay at Hotel Studia, a great find on 51 Boulevard Saint-Germain. Without his help it would have been another kind of trip indeed! Now we were able to afford the Metro, a day at the Louvre Museum, Monet's Gardens in Genevieve and the extravagant train ride to Rouen in northern France, where Tony spent lonely summers as a boy. What a life changing trip that was for me, not to mention my first experience outside of Les États-Unis.

My husband on the other hand is well traveled. As a young lad he'd go visit his father on summer holidays. He was just seven years old when he first took a plane, all by himself, to see his dad in Santa Barbara. By the time he was fourteen he was taking trips to Rouen, France making eyes at the stewardesses, getting free pens and peanuts.

Being a man of the world at a young age has lasting effects. One thing I have always admired about my husband is his confidence. He is truly comfortable in his own skin. We can be anywhere, from the shadiest barbecue joint in Oakland to the swankiest restaurant in France, and he blends. While I'm awkwardly figuring out which fork to use for my salad, Tony is sitting with his back to the wall, gazing around taking it all in. Then he'll flash me a look and say something that melts my backbone, putting me at complete ease. The best is when a waitperson tries to intimidate us, jaded from waiting on too many rude or snobby patrons. He completely disarms them with small, polite acknowledgements so that by the end of the meal our server is all smiles and warm eyes. For a woman, this is a highly desirable trait and makes going out that much more enjoyable, and romantic.

Two months before our big trip, Tony and I and my best friend Evelyn went out to dinner. Over pizza and beer she announced that she too was going to Paris and wanted to know if we could meet up with her before we flew home. She'd just ended an eleven year relationship with a man I never really liked, except he had good taste in music and was a good dancer. I warned her that our plans were not set in stone, but of course we would meet her! It was thrilling to think of the three of us in Paris even if it was for only one or two nights.

Sometimes when you plan a big trip it all seems so far away and dream-like. With Ev's announcement, things were starting to become exciting and REAL. One month before leaving, Tony and I had a serious discussion about luggage. In the softest, most democratic way he told me his one fear - that he'd be left to carry the bags, or all of MY bags. Normally, I take three: my purse, a duffle bag for my clothes and a backpack for our arsenal of toiletries. Since we were planning to jump on and off trains, possibly travel by car through England, then take the Eurail from London to Paris, we needed to strategize. He opted for a long, OD green Army duffle bag. I on the other hand strategically chose a red roller that had secret zippers on the sides, so when unzipped, my bag resembled a pregnant ladybug. C'est parfait!

The night before we left Alameda for Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-bur-ah) I spent two hours packing and unpacking to no avail. I was new at putting everything in one bag! I called Ev; she came over and showed me how to roll everything up. By the end my suitcase looked like I was smuggling tortillas from Ramiro's, but everything fit. "Won't the inspection people just undo our rolls and throw everything back?" I was proud of our pack job and yet resented the amount of time it took. "Who cares?" Ev said, "You're going to Europe!" "See you in Paris!" I said, then we both screamed like 12 year old girls.

Right before we hit the hay Tony and I made a practice run; he with his bag and me with mine. I must admit it was difficult. After clumsily rolling my ladybug down 50 stairs, out to the car, then swinging her into the trunk without any assistance from Tony, I was sweating bricks. It was time to lighten the load. I went back inside and removed 5 sweaters 5 pants 2 jackets 4 skirts 9 shirts and one pair of boots.

As I drifted off to sleep I remembered how I almost froze to death in France, in October circa 1996. "Maybe it won't be so...cold...this time in October." I whispered. "No matter...we're going to have a great adventure...together." Tony whispered back. Boy was he right.