Oct 29 2009

What’s for Dinner

So that housing deal is showing some abortive signs of possibly lurching back from the dead. The seller’s bank wants to work with us to get a 203k mortgage. They’re willing to extend escrow 90 days (it shouldn’t take that long, but with a 90 day extension we wouldn’t have to worry about running out of time like we did on the other deal) and they’ll lower the purchase price to accommodate the cost of repairs. So now we’re waiting to get all that in writing, and then we’ll do some more inspections to make sure that the roof repairs and the fumigation are all that the house needs. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it. The one good thing is that if the repair costs stay under 35K, we could get what’s called a “streamlined” 203k mortgage, which would presumably be much less of a bureaucratic nightmare.

Meanwhile in our veggie box this week we got: lettuce, broccoli, four beets, four leeks, two tomatoes, a bag of little sweet peppers, three persimmons, a pomegranate, a bunch of cilantro, a kabocha squash, and a thing I’d never seen before that turned out to be kohlrabi. Last night for dinner we had a big salad of lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi (it tasted exactly like broccoli-flavored jicama), bacon, and hard-boiled eggs, with home-made blue cheese dressing. Robin and I had the leftovers for lunch.

Tonight I’m using the leeks and beets in a buffalo borscht. I’ve gotten on a buffalo kick lately—I tried it in something, I forget what now, and thought it was delicious; plus it’s cheaper than grass-fed beef and has all the same health advantages (high in omega-3s, low in cholesterol and “bad” fats). Although I’m afraid my buffalo borscht might not turn out well since the friendly butcher warned me that buffalo meat is too lean to stand up to extended cooking. Well, we’ll see. If it comes out tough as shoe leather I guess we can just eat around the buffalo parts.

Tomorrow I’m going to try making cilantro pesto, which is again sort of a gamble, although there are plenty of recipes online. If it doesn’t come out well we can pick something up on the road, because tomorrow evening we’re packing up and heading to Carson City to celebrate Nonna’s birthday. Can’t wait to see everyone! It’ll be a short visit—we’re coming back on Sunday. Monday night I’ll finish up the vegetables by making Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup with Pancetta and Sage, and a persimmon-and-apple pie for dessert (I should post that pie recipe, it’s good).

Hopefully I’ll also have some cute Halloween pictures to post later in the week!

Oct 22 2009

What’s for Dinner

Back home to some bad news: there’s significant termite infestation in the house we were hoping to buy, and it needs a whole new roof. This will make it impossible to get an ordinary mortgage, and as you can probably imagine, we’re pretty reluctant to go down the 203K route again. We’re just kind of processing the news right now, but I feel pretty crushed. I was trying not to get my hopes up, but I guess somewhere along the way I did. I’m tired. I’m sick of this. I can’t stand looking at another house that will never be mine.

I think we’re going to have to take a break from house-hunting for a while.

Let’s talk about something nice, like dinner. This week in our vegetable box we got six gala apples, a bunch of arugula, some lettuce, some spinach, a bunch of radishes, a head of radicchio, a bag of bok choy, four fuyu persimmons, three eggplants (one big globe and two small skinny ones), and a sugar pie pumpkin.

Tonight we’re having baba ghanoush, homemade pita bread, and a salad of the radicchio and arugula with persimmons, pomegranate seeds, and blue cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. The recipe is from the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook. It’s very colorful—here’s a picture:

Tomorrow Robin and I will have the bok choy for lunch—I’ll braise it with garlic and stir in a pack of cooked ramen noodles. For dinner we’ll have penne with spinach, sausage, and sun-dried tomatoes.

Saturday is D&D and hence a good night for leftovers or delivery; Sunday we’ll have whatever meat is on sale at the butcher counter, and a green salad. I might make a pumpkin pie, if I feel inspired. Monday, beef stroganoff; Tuesday, leftovers. And we’ll eat the apples just as they are.

Oh, I meant to link to this recipe for squash and apple bake, which I made last week. It’s very sweet, but would make a nice side dish for Thanksgiving. I’ll probably make it again, next time we get acorn squash and apples in the same box, but I’ll tone down the sugar and the butter next time.

Oct 19 2009

Three Amazing Things

So we’re here in Baltimore visiting Nina and Bizzy and the utterly snorglable baby Silas, enjoying the (considerable!) charms of Charm City—we all went to the railroad museum yesterday, and today we’re planning to hit the aquarium. But I want to tell you about our adventure last night, after we’d kissed the baby’s toes for the last time and headed back to our plush hotel.

We knew we needed diapers, so we stopped by a grocery store to pick some up. However we got distracted in there (“We should pick up some bananas!” “How about some cheese?”) and ended up coming out with two full bags that did not include any diapers. We only realized our mistake back in the hotel room, two bananas later, when Robin started tugging at his pants and announcing “Poopy! Poopy!”

He sure was. He was very, very stinky: and we were out of diapers. It was close to midnight local time (we were still awake because it’s three hours earlier in San Francisco). We called down to the concierge and asked if there were any 24-hour groceries or drug stores nearby. He suggested a 7-11 a block away, so Sam set off on foot to buy some diapers, while I stayed back in the room to distract my poopy boy.

Unfortunately, the 7-11 didn’t have any diapers, so Sam was back ten minutes later and I was on the phone with the concierge again, getting directions to a grocery store a bit further afield. Meanwhile, Robin, perceiving that Sam was about to go out again, began expressing his desire to go along. It started with him tugging on Sam’s pant leg and then running to the door: “No,” said Sam, “you should stay here.”

“Maybe we should go with you,” I offered, “I can help you navigate and make sure you can read my directions.”

“No,” said Sam, “it’ll be easier if I just go. You’re in your pajamas.”

“It would only take me a minute to get dressed. The boy can stay in his PJs.”

Sam looked over at Robin. “Well, I guess since he’s already got his shoes on he might as well come.”

“Okay!” I said brightly, and started changing. Somewhere in the middle of that I actually registered what Sam had said. Indeed, Robin was standing by the door in his pajamas and sneakers. “Wait,” I said, “did YOU put his shoes on him?”

“No,” said Sam, “I assumed you did.”

I sure didn’t. Has he got socks on?”

No, he didn’t have any socks on, and that clinched it: neither of us had put his shoes on him. Robin had put his shoes on all by himself. And yet that, while a notable “first” and an important achievement for a little boy, is only the third most amazing thing about this story!

The second most amazing thing, to me, is the multi-step chain of logic he must have used. “Daddy’s going outside,” he must have thought to himself. “I want to go with Daddy. In order to go outside I’ll need to have my shoes on. I’d better put on my shoes!” I didn’t quite realize he was capable of such logical and ordered thought at this stage.

But the most amazing thing of all is that it worked. Robin was absolutely correct in his thinking. It was because he already had his shoes on that Sam decided to bring him along. He was right!

Oct 15 2009

What’s for Dinner

There were bananas in our veggie box yesterday, which made me do a double take: bananas most certainly aren’t grown locally. I made a call to Capay Farms to see if we’d been switched over their their general-organics box, which I know includes some produce shipped in from out of state. They told me no, the bananas had only been included because we told them we don’t like melons (Sam’s allergic), and the other local boxes were getting honeydews. So all the other produce is still local, which is good: and we buy bananas anyway, so I don’t mind getting them in the box.

Besides the bananas we had lettuce, arugula, three beets, a bunch of leetle carrots, a bunch of radishes, a bag of bok choy, three sweet peppers, six oranges, four small tomatoes, and a sugar pie pumpkin. The oranges are incredibly juicy, and Robin loves them: he ate three last night and by the time he was done he was drenched in orange juice.

We have a special challenge this week, which is to eat all of the produce before we leave on Friday for Baltimore, on a long-awaited trip to see my BFF Nina, her lovely little woman, and their amazing new baby. We’ll be back on Tuesday: it’s a short visit, but with the house sale still in escrow I didn’t want to be out of state for too long. I’m terribly excited about seeing them.

The house deal seems to be proceeding normally, by the way: the bank will resolve the lien, and the inspections will be done on Monday. They were supposed to be done this week, but the power to the house got turned off and we had to wait for PG&E to turn it back on. I do feel for the people who are living there now, underwater on their mortgage and behind on the utilities, to the point that their power just got turned off. It really seems like this sale would be a good thing for everyone. I hope the inspections go well; if they do, we’ll close on November 6th. Send us your good thoughts, please: it’s been a long and tiring process.

Anyway, the easiest way to eat a lot of vegetables at once seems to be in a salad, so we had one last night with the lettuce, radishes, peppers, and carrots, and we’ll do another tonight with the arugula and beets. The bananas are already gone; if there are any oranges left on Friday we’ll bring them on the plane; and the pumpkin can sit around decoratively until it is, at some future date, made into a pie. Robin and I will have lentils with the tomatoes and beet greens for lunch. That leaves only the bok choy, which I guess I’ll braise with garlic, and we’ll eat it with the beet salad. It’s maybe not the most harmonious food pairing in the world, but it’ll do.

Oct 15 2009

Toddler Psychology

Robin has developed a bathtime ritual. He did it on his own; it took us a while to even notice. He got a set of dolphin-shaped bath toys for his birthday, and he likes to play with them in the tub. When it’s time to get out he’ll often grab a couple to take with him.

Then we noticed that out of a dozen or so plastic dolphins, it’s always the same two that he grabs: the orange and the light red (there’s also a dark red dolphin, but that one he never chooses). And he only holds on to them while we’re drying him off and putting him in his jammies. Once he’s set loose, the first thing he does is run back to the tub and drop the dolphins back in with the others. What purpose does this ritual serve? We have no idea.

He’s definitely gotten into the stage where he likes his routines. I think he mostly likes being able to make predictions about the world. He gets upset when, for instance, we start walking towards a destination he recognizes, like the park or the grocery store, but then veer off to go somewhere else. I think his understanding of the order of things is foggy enough that he really clings to the parts of it he can predict or control. Sometimes we call him the Iron Tyrant, on account of how harshly he protests when his expectations are violated.

At the same time, he is delighted by small acts of transgression. His very favorite reaction to provoke from us is one of surprise or mild disapproval: not anger, he doesn’t like that at all, but the recoil when (say) he runs up and licks us is hilarious to him. He craves our approval, of course, but it also seems that he craves our disapproval: he needs to know where the boundaries are, and he needs to push them just a little.

So that’s a toddler in a nutshell: he likes his routines, he wants a predictable environment, but at the same time he’s always testing and pushing the boundaries. Trying to bring more of the world under his control. Mwah ha hah, says the Iron Tyrant!

Oct 7 2009

What’s for Dinner: also, Houses.

I have a very sad story to tell, and here it is: I had planned to make stir-fried okra and tomatoes with Indian spices tonight, served over brown rice, but when I got to the store there was no more okra. Isn’t that the saddest thing you ever heard?

Well, maybe not. All it really means is that summer is truly over, and we’re well into autumn: the season of soups, stews, squashes, and slow-cooked everythings. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself when I put it that way. Still, I didn’t get anywhere near enough okra this year. Next year, with any luck, I’ll grow it myself in my own garden.

Oh, about that: we do have another offer in, and it’s progressing surprisingly well so far. I say “surprisingly” because the property strikes us as being in all ways too good to be true: a beautiful (oh so beautiful) historic bungalow on a nice street, in (apparently) good condition and in our budget. We’ve pretty much accepted that we can have old-fashioned detailing, a nice location, or a home in good condition, but not all three, at least not in our price range. This one is all three so we don’t really believe in it: we just felt that we had to go through the formalities, you know, just in case. It is such a sweet house. We had to try.

Well, we’ve gotten further than we thought we would. It’s a short sale, so we expected this offer would die the same way the last one did: with the bank refusing the sale. Much to our surprise the bank has accepted, and the seller accepted, so we’re now farther along in this process than we ever have been before. There’s two things left that could go wrong: the first is that the inspections could turn up something dreadful, even though the house looks to be in great shape. The second is that there’s another lien on the property (not another mortgage holder, something smaller like utilities or something) and we need the sellers to take care of this before the title can be transferred. Either of these conditions are potentially deal-killing, but we’re not even going to order the inspections until we get some assurance from the sellers that the lien will be dealt with. The lien is definitely the more serious issue. I guess there’s just some part of me that assumes, or hopes, that the sellers and listing agent wouldn’t have even bothered putting this house on the market if there was no way it could be sold anyway. I mean, why would they? That would be dumb and a big waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Anyway. We’re waiting around for our hopes to be dashed, which they almost certainly will be—but like I said, we had to try. This house is better than any other we’ve seen. While we’re waiting, this week in our veggie box we got: lettuce, arugula, chard, beets, radishes, a pint of figs, two grapefruits, two acorn squash, three sweet peppers, and eight slicer tomatoes.

I thought tonight I’d use most of the tomatoes in the okra stir-fry, but like I already told you, that didn’t work out so good. So instead we had a repeat of those “English Mutton Chops” from my Italian cookbooks. To which I can only say, YUM. I don’t know if it’s because the meat is locally raised and grass-fed, or if all mutton is that good, but let me tell you, a pair of lamb or mutton chops sprinkled with salt and pepper, brushed with butter, and broiled for five minutes on a side make for a fantastic dinner. As a side we had creamed chard from this recipe (also delicious).

Tomorrow night we’ll have baked squash with apples (the recipe was tucked in our veggie box, and I’ll post it if it turns out well) and a beet salad. I’ll also make fig bars.

Friday night, a roast chicken and a green salad with the rest of the veggies. I’m really liking the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for avocado ranch dressing: I’ll post that if anyone’s interested.

(As a side note, I always rewrite the recipes I post, so as to respect copyright law. I don’t know if everyone realizes, but recipes, like software algorithms, or all ideas ever, really can’t be copyrighted: they belong to humanity. What can be copyrighted is the specific language or creative expression used to encapsulate the ideas in question. So you can always share recipes as long as you don’t plagiarize the descriptions.)

Right, so. Saturday night, we’ll have pasta with tomato sauce. Sunday I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends, so we’ll have leftovers or sandwiches for dinner. Monday, something simple like pork chops; and Tuesday, baked potatoes with asparagus. So yeah! Despite myriad digressions, that’s the plan.

Oct 5 2009

Really Great Squash Soup

So that Hubbard squash turned out to make a fantastic soup. I started with the recipe given here, roasting the squash as they suggest with garlic cloves, a drizzle of honey, and sprigs of fresh thyme:

I scooped out the roasted squash flesh into a food processor, and processed it with a splash of cream until it made a nice even puree.

I didn’t have a ham hock, and I was dubious about the amounts of cream and milk called for in the original recipe (a quart? Really?), so I made some variations. I started by chopping up four pieces of thick-cut bacon into half-inch pieces, and frying them over in the bottom of a stockpot over medium-high heat. When the bacon had darkened in color and released its grease, I added the diced onion and two ribs of diced celery, and sauteed them in the bacon grease (I think I also put in a splash of olive oil, because there wasn’t that much fat in the pan, and I think about half a teaspoon of salt) until the vegetables were soft. Then I peeled the four garlic cloves that had roasted with the squash, mashed them up, and sauteed them with the vegetables and bacon for just a minute, until fragrant. Then I added the squash pulp, stirred everything up, sauteed it all for a few minutes more, and then added the five cups of chicken stock and another sprig of fresh thyme (I didn’t have the savory the recipe called for).

The recipe suggests letting everything simmer for 45 minutes, but I gave it like five because I was hungry, and it already tasted really good. Then I put in a cup of cream (hey, it’s better than a quart!), some more salt, a lot of fresh-ground pepper, and I put it into bowls and we ate it. It was easily the best squash soup I’ve ever had. Sam was enthusiastic about it too, although Robin wouldn’t even try it. He’s getting pickier, unfortunately. Maybe he didn’t like the color?

We had leftovers, but they disappeared quickly too.

Oct 5 2009

My Boy

I think Robin’s had a growth spurt recently. I’m constantly stunned by how much more mature his face looks. I feel like I can see what the seven- or eight-year-old Robin will look like now.

And the baby in his face has disappeared. I was afraid I would miss that tiny baby when he was gone, but now that I’m here, I really don’t. It seems like Robin is more himself with every month. He’s joining us more fully in the world. It doesn’t feel like a loss. My friend Madeline once said something like, “babies are nice, but I like little kids even better,” and I think I agree.

Of course I can say this because Robin is still small enough to climb in my lap and curl up under my chin, or fling his chubby arms around my neck and sack out on my shoulder. I’m pretty sure I’ll miss that when a monosyllabic teenager has taken his place.

Oct 2 2009

They’re Not All Winners

This was supposed to be a fig galette with gorgonzola custard. I was very careful when I made the pastry dough not to overwork the dough; I let it chill in the fridge for a couple of hours and then, again, took great care in rolling it out to the proper thickness; I mounded the figs in the center, folded the dough over, and poured in the custard mixture very slowly, so as not to spill a drop; and then, five minutes before the baking time given in the recipe was up, I smelled the burning.

That was most of an afternoon’s work, completely unsalvagable. I’m posting it here just to show that I have my share of spectacular failures!

Oct 2 2009

Tocaya’s Arroz con Pollo

My great-grandmother was a remarkable lady. Her name wasn’t actually Tocaya: it was Herlinda, or Linda for short. Tocaya means “namesake” in Spanish, and it was what she asked my aunt Linda to call her when her granddaughter Linda was born. Then all the other grandchildren—and, later, the great-grandchildren—grew up calling her the same thing, because as far as we knew it was just her name.

Tocaya was born and raised in Sinaloa, Mexico; her mother was a descendant of the Spanish nobility there and her father an American surveyor and engineer who became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. She married an American diplomat and traveled extensively engaged in her husband’s work—which apparently included espionage as well as diplomacy—before finally settling down in Texas. She lived to be 100 and left behind a thriving family that multiplied in every generation: I think she had two children, six grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren, though I may be forgetting someone. I remember her as a grand and stately lady, always carefully and respectfully attended, presiding benevolently over her brood. She was very proud of her Mexican heritage—although she always referred to herself as Spanish—and kept careful genealogical records that, according to her, went back to Christopher Columbus.

I recently asked my grandmother if she had any of Tocaya’s recipes, and she was kind enough to send me this one. It came typed on an old-fashioned recipe card:

I made it last night and it was delicious. Here it is, with my own notes:

1 chicken, cut up into 8 pieces, neck and back removed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup rice (I used brown rice, and as you can see it still comes out a lovely golden color)
1 medium onion, diced
1 sweet pepper, diced (the original recipe calls for half a green pepper, but the red/yellow/orange peppers are sweeter, and I don’t see any reason not to use the whole pepper. The original recipe also tells you to mince the onion and pepper, but in a rustic dish like this one I think slightly larger pieces are nicer.)
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press (originally called for one, but I’m of the opinion that any time you’re going to use one clove of garlic you might as well use two. I really like garlic.)
1 bay leaf
2 cups water or chicken stock (Tocaya calls for two cups of water and three chicken cubes. It seems to me that since there’s a whole chicken and an onion in there that plain water is fine. It’s going to turn into chicken stock by the time it’s done cooking anyway!)
4 tomatoes, diced
1 cup peas (I didn’t have the peas on hand so I left them out, but I can tell they would be nice if you have them. Frozen is probably fine.)
1/4 teaspoon saffron or tumeric (I used saffron, because I am thrift-challenged as we have already established, and cooking with the most expensive spice in the world gives me a thrill.)
pinch oregano
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pat the chicken pieces dry and sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. Pour enough olive oil (the original recipe called for “salad oil,” which I think could mean any kind of light-tasting oil, but olive oil is good for you) into a skillet to coat the bottom and heat the pan over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, place chicken pieces in skin-side down (you might have to do this in two batches) and let cook until lightly browned, 3-5 minutes. Turn the chicken and brown on the second side. Set aside.

There should be enough chicken fat left in the pan to cover the bottom; if not, add a bit more olive oil. When it’s up to heat, add your rice and saute, stirring constantly, until the rice turns light brown. (If you’re using brown rice you’ll still be able to see the color change when it’s slightly toasted. Turn the heat down to medium or medium-low if the rice seems in danger of burning.) Add your onion, pepper, and garlic, and saute until the onion is softened and the garlic is fragrant, a few minutes. Add the water or stock along with your tomatoes, saffron, oregano, and about 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Stir it all up and bring to a simmer over high heat.

Combine the rice mixture and the chicken pieces in a large covered casserole dish (or a large casserole dish which you have covered tightly with aluminum foil!) Try to get the rice submerged in the liquid, because any grains of rice that are left out are in danger of coming out crunchy.

Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. (Tocaya recommends checking and stirring it after 15 minutes.) Then uncover, give it a stir, and bake 40 minutes more, until the rice is nice and fluffy. Dish the rice out into individual servings and place the chicken pieces on top: or if you like you can let the chicken cool first, remove the meat from the bones, and shred it into the rice. Serves 6.

I think you could probably do this in a Dutch oven to make it a one-pot meal, although the chicken would have to sit on top rather than being distributed throughout the rice and liquid, and that might affect the flavor. Also, the chicken-to-rice ratio in this dish is quite high. You could probably double the amount of rice used if you wanted, though of course you might want to boost the seasoning as well if you did that.