Sunday, December 20, 2009

Impressive Indian Fare

This is an excerpt from the book I'm writing, which is called "The Entertaining Guy." The basic premise is about a male that suddenly finds himself alone after a lengthy marriage or other kind of cohabitation, in which his contribution to the preparation of the nightly meals consisted of putting the napkins and silverware on the TV trays, or maybe burning an occasional steak on the barbeque. And that's all the teaser details you get for now!

This comes from a chapter called "Party of Four," where our slowly evolving home chef decides to put on something of an exotic meal, much to the delight of his unsuspecting guests.

These two recipes were originally from "The Book of Curries and Indian Foods" by Linda Fraser, but of course as always, I took some liberties with them. Excellent book, small footprint, highly recommended for your cookbook collection (unless of course you don't like Indian food of any kind, then you'd be wasting your money!). In it, you'll find a huge array of menus and preparation tips for a wonderful style of food that runs the gamut of simple to very complex, fairly bland to extremely spicy, yet always exotic and a consistent crowd pleaser. You'll find recipes for all things vegetarian, rice and lentil dishes, fish, chicken, lamb, and yes ... even a few beef dishes.

She also goes into the various spice combinations, some of which you'll need to assemble yourself, and others that can be purchased off the shelf. Unless your spice cabinet looks like mine (and I'm a nutcase and should seek professional help for this illness), shopping for Indian spices can be a challenge. Depending on where you live and what kind of stores you have access to, you'll likely need to do some searching. I'm writing this in the Silicon Valley (south of San Francisco), and it's a melting pot for literally every culture imaginable. While you likely won't find anything more exotic than a basic curry powder at your local Safeway, a visit to any middle eastern grocery will provide you with a much broader selection. And most of the spices are readily available at Cost Plus / World Market. I picked up several of them from our local World Market in Bend, Oregon, which is not a culturally diverse area at all. The dishes below require a few items that likely aren't in your spice cupboard. If they are, you're probably already using them and you don't need me to tell you where to buy them!

Traditional tandoori chicken is cooked in a tandoor, which is an Indian clay oven that's rarely found in residential homes, unless you're genuinely serious about your Indian cooking. Tandoori ovens provide very high, dry heat, and they're commonly fueled by charcoals that line the bottom of the clay vessel. Temeratures on the bottom of the tandoor can reach 900 degrees, meaning that most foods cooked in such an oven develop a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing the moisture on the inside. Great technique, but you'll likely want to cook yours in the oven or on the barbeque, both of which work great. You can use a whole cut-up chicken or various combinations of chicken pieces, but I'd recommend whole chicken pieces, versus boneless skinless cuts. Part of the attraction is the crispy skin, combined with the rich flavor of the marinade's spices and other ingredients.

The prep time for the chicken is under 30 minutes, but it needs to be refrigerated between 4 hours and overnight. Cooking time for the chicken is about 45 minutes, the vegetables about 30 minutes in total. Serves four, comfortably.

Tandoori Chicken


  • Whole cut-up chicken (3-4 pounds)
  • 1/4 cup of fresh or bottled lime juice
  • Salt
  • 1 small yellow onion, peeled, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon of Tandoori Masala (Cumin, coriander and cayenne. Punjab Red Tandoori also works, and is available at Cost Plus / World Market)
  • 1 tablespoon of Garam Masala (Ground cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, ground cloves, cumin and coriander. Also available at Cost Plus / World Market)
  • 1 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 1/4 cups of plain, unflavored yogurt
  • Handful of chopped fresh cilantro and lemon wedges for garnish
  • Assuming you're using a cut up whole chicken, start by laying the pieces out, skin-side up on a non-metal plate or semi-flat large bowl
  • Drizzle the lime juice over the chicken pieces, sprinkle with salt
  • Place the onion, ginger, garam and tandoori masala, and yogurt in a blender or food processor and pulse to a smooth mixture
  • Pour over the chicken, mix well so all the pieces are coated, cover with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
  • Shake the excess marinade from the chicken pieces, and place skin side up on a grilling rack on a cookie sheet, lined with aluminum foil
  • Cook at 400 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. Internal temperature should read 165 degrees with an instant-read thermometer
  • Can be served with a rice dish or the vegetable dish below
  • Garnish with cilantro and lemon wedges

Mixed Vegetable Curry


  • 3 tablespoons of vegetable / canola oil
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered, sliced thin
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of generic chile powder (light or dark)
  • 2 teaspoons of ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric (both available at most grocery stores)
  • 4-5 yellow or Yukon Gold potatoes (don't peel), cut into 1-2 inch cubes
  • 2-3 carrots, peeled, angle cut into 1" pieces
  • Half pound of fresh green beans, ends trimmed, cut into thirds
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
  • Heat the oil over medium high heat, sweat the onions, stirring occasionally, until translucent
  • Add the cumin, chile powder, coriander, and turmeric and stir thoroughly
  • Add the potatoes, beans, and carrots, stir to coat
  • Add the tomatoes and chicken stock, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer
  • Cook approximately 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are tender
Serve the chicken and vegetables with some warm naan (Indian flatbread, available in the bread section of most markets). Best choice in a wine is a spicy zinfandel or pinot noir. If you happen to be in posession of a Zin Alley zinfandel from Paso Robles, this is the time to open it.

This is the kind of meal that will get you "ooohs and aaahs" from your unsuspecting guests, particularly the ones who didn't know you could cook anything more complicated than a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It's not particularly difficult to prepare, and the spices will add an incredible exotic aroma to your home. Be brave -- give it a try!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Monterey Weekend

We had the pleasure of spending last weekend with our friends John and Linda in beautiful Monterey, this past weekend. We traditionally get together with friends Larry and Trish, and all of us rent a house in Cambria for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, but the good doctor Larry was on call this weekend in Sacramento, so the doctor's loss was our gain, as we had a wonderful time in Monterey.

Weather can be spotty this time of year on the Central Coast, but it couldn't have been better for this trip. Low to mid sixties with nary a cloud in the sky, Monterey Bay was a gorgeous dark blue, wind was absolutely minimal.

The ride down was uneventful, after getting out of the always-too-crowded peninsula and inching down El Camino Real on a Saturday morning. We wanted to get John a wine carafe for his upcoming birthday, which meant driving down the King's Highway for about 10 miles, making a stop for his gift, and then heading out Woodside Road towards beautiful 280, and our ride south. 280 cuts through some of the most beautiful (and expensive) real estate in the state. Formerly sleepy (although always nice) suburbs like Los Altos Hills, San Carlos, and even the Belmont and Redwood City hills have become homes to a good many of the benefactors of the dot-com and computer surges in nearby Silicon Valley. Homes that sold for under $50k when I was young, are now commanding several million dollars. Suffice it to say, if you can afford to live in one of these areas, that's where you want to be.

South on 280, onto 85 and through the western part of San Jose, past the equally upscale communities of Los Gatos and Saratoga, and the totally untouchable enclave of Monte Sereno, then onto 101 south. This stretch of 101 used to be an incredible bottleneck, virtually any time you drove it. I remember driving south through this area with my dad, when I was a kid. It seemed to be a perpetual backup in both directions, and it's the only way to get from the peninsula to the Central Coast, unless you're willing to drive WAY out of your way into the Central Valley and catch 99 or 5. But times have changed, and this is now five lanes in both directions, and traffic flies through here. Slow to 70 in the right lane, and you're likely to have people on your tail. Speed up, KEEP up, or get out of the way!

We arrived in Monterey at around three, and after bringing our things into the guest bedroom of our wonderful host and hostess' abode, we proceeded to get into a martini (gin, like God intended), some munchies, and of course getting nostalgic about the several decades (I'm not saying how many) that John and I have known each other. Linda raises Lhasa-Apsos and her two bundles of joy, Kitty and Daisy were their usual entertaining selves. These are wonderful dogs, descended from Tibetan palace guard dogs, so their small size belies their capabilities. The trick is that they don't know they're small, so they just go for it, when need be. Like us, they had four cats for quite a few years. We're down to two, they're down to one ... John's prized Bengal cat ... Jake. Jake's coloring is incredible. It's hard not to fall in love with these when you first encounter them, and this is exactly what John did at a cat show we all went to about 14 years ago. I was looking for a replacement for my Maine Coon (Ben), who'd died at at only 18 months old, and John was totally taken by the Bengals. But he's the last cat in their household currently, having survived Funny Face, Curie, Sabrina, and their outside cat whose name escapes me. I enjoy my cats, they love their cat and two dogs, but I've come to believe that fewer is better. They get more attention, stay mellower, and really appreciate their homes and peeps.

Taste Cafe and Bistro, Pacific Grove

Saturday night's dinner was at a local spot called Taste Cafe and Bistro, in nearby Pacific Grove. I'd been here before, and remember it being very good, but last night's meal was one of the best I've had in years. Absolutely superb food, service, beverages, ambience, interaction with the owners, and for me, it's going to be a tough one to beat.

I had a Chilean meritage while the others shared a bottle of Bocage Chardonnay. All were superb, complimented the food perfectly, and priced fairly.

The Caesar salads were the most perfectly balanced I can recall. It's so easy to go too much in the wrong direction with any of the ingredients in a Caesar, and this one was perfect. Traditional romaine lettuce with a light dressing, garnished with shreds of Reggiano Parmesan, and topped with a thin slice of baked brioche. Inventive, balanced, impeccable.

The ladies both had the halibut special, which was perfectly cooked and seasoned, accompanied with mixed vegetables, incredible camelized onions, and their famous potatoes au gratin. John had the veal medallions, which were equally delicious. I had the roasted half chicken, again perfectly cooked, garnished with roasted garlic and Italian parsley sprigs, also served with carmelized onions, mixed roasted vegetables and the au gratin potatoes. My benchmark for roasted chicken is the Los Altos Grill (formerly called Bandera's), and I think tonight's was better. This is no small accomplishment!

I've used the word balanced twice here, and it's meant as the highest form of compliment. With any of these meals, the diner could have easily been led in an extreme direction with just the slightest more "this or that" in the mix. But everything simply fits at Taste. Nothing overshadows anything else, all the spices are done in proportion to the dish, gravies and sauces are complimentary, not dominant, and it all makes for a rare meal indeed.

I'm not a big dessert eater, but I had to sample the home made butterscotch pudding, which is served in a creme brulee type ramekin, garnished with fresh whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. Once again, something you don't see on every menu, and it was absolutely perfect. If I wasn't totally full from the meal, I would have been tempted to lick the dish.

Host / owners Bill and Sue Karaki have created an elegant, yet comfortable dining experience. They personally visit every table, and are at the ready for anything the diner may need. Between Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, our friends John and Linda truly have a plethora of excellent restaurants around them, and there's good reason why they eat at Taste a couple times a month. An absolutely wonderful food and dining experience.

Saturday night was capped off with some amazing 16 year old Lagavulin Scotch. Appreciating fine Scotch whisky is one of several "vices" my childhood friend John has gotten me into over the years. Others include fine cigars, great gins (which is the ONLY way to have a real martini), cameras, and fly fishing. We also have a strange anomaly in common, which is that we tend to make an in-depth study of our interests. I've said too many times over the years that I believe I know a lot about a very few things. But I definitely do my research, as does John. Doesn't hurt to know everything there is to know about your vices (interests), right?

We awoke Sunday morning to a warm, crystal clear Monterey sky. There was no question but to pack some essentials and head for the beach for a makeshift brunch. John had brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to my brunch last Easter, but given the fact that I had about 10 people, we opted to save it for the "pre-Thanksgiving" gathering. I stopped at our local Lunardi's Market on the way out of town and picked up some huge, gorgeous strawberries, which I thought would be the perfect compliment for the Dom P. A stop at a great French bakery in Pacific Grove would add an absolutely perfect ham and gruyere quiche to our quarry, and we were off to the beach.

The Central Coast gets its share of fog, Monterey being no exception. But this November morning was absolutely gorgeous. Mid 60's, no wind, clear skies, and it couldn't be a more perfect setting. We shared the quiche, strawberries and Dom Perignon, and felt very decadent sitting on the beach watching the surfers. As much as I love our home in Bend, there's something to be said for November weather like this.

We headed back to their beautiful home for a little more conversation, then headed out for the 102 mile drive home. Along the coast that skirts Monterey Bay, inland past Castroville (artichokes galore), up past our old home of Gilroy (garlic capital), and back up 280 and home.

I was thinking pork chops for dinner, but the local Safeway didn't have any thick ones that weren't already pre-stuffed and living in the meat display case. I opted for a pork loin roast, which I stuffed with an apple, shallot, thyme, bread crumb and salt and pepper combo. Note to self: Omit the shallot next time. Not a disaster, but a distraction for sure. Rice pilaf and simple green beans capped off a great Sunday dinner.

I love weekends like this, and they're quite rare. We spend our lives working too much, and not enjoying the genuine pleasures in life. Good friends, great food, beautiful surroundings, and a reduction in the pressures around us, are something to be cherished. And I do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

This Chef's Knives

This article was prompted by a visit from my good friends Carolyn and Bruce, a few weeks ago. They were out on a business trip from their home in beautiful Roswell, GA and we decided to spend the day up in Napa doing some wine tasting. Carolyn wants to get him a great set of knives for Christmas, and asked for advice. The "need" on his end was prompted by him hacking off the end of a finger with a dull knife, which he relayed to us as we were partaking in some rack of lamb, risotto and haricot verts, which I'd thrown together for Carolyn and her co-worker, and our friend Dave. Note that you CAN "throw together" a totally lavish meal in under an hour, after work. I do it every night.

But as I thought about recommending a set of knives, I decided to do what I tend to do, which is to dive into it more thoroughly, and present some pros and cons of several types, as well as a final recommendation. Keep in mind that this is purely my recommendation, based on knives and accessories that I use and / or have used, and specifically knives that are in my collection. I'm fascinated with the concept and supposed sharpness-factor of ceramic knives, but I've never used one so you're not going to see any discussion of them here. I'm not going to write about the $25 Forschner/Victronix 8" Chef's Knife which is touted universally as the best buy in a knife, but I use one that's very similar, which is made by Dexter, and I'll tell you about that one.

What you will read about are what's in my knife block, what's hanging on the two magnetic wall racks, what's in the drawer, why they're where they are, and what gets used the most. I'm not particularly into gadgets and gimmicks, but there are a couple that I'll mention, as well as some essential accessories.

Actually, let's start with an accessory ... Where do you store your knives? In a drawer? Wrong, unless they're in a wooden holder specifically made to hold knives. Otherwise they bang together which makes mince meat out of the blades. In a block? Ok solution, but not the best, and they're expensive and take up counter space. Assuming you have some available "side-of-a-cabinet" space near your work area, your best be is one or two magnetic knife holders. They run $15-20 apiece and hold six or seven knives safely, and within easy reach. As much as I love Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, if you have a restaurant supply store nearby, that's where you should buy them. They're generic, and half the price of the afore-mentioned culinary temples of joy. I have two of them and they hold my most-used knives (with one exception, the Shun Ken Onion has its own bamboo holder).

My small collection includes:

(Top rack) 8" Henkels santoku, 8" Henkels chef's, 6" Wustof chef's, xxx, Forschner-Victronix 7" Granton edge santoku, Henkel's paring knife

(Bottom rack) Martin Yan Chinese cleaver, 8" Global chef's, 8" Dexter-Russell chef's, 4" Dexter-Russell utility knife.

In the knife block on the opposite counter is a Dexter bread knife, serrated tomato slicer, straight boning knife, curved Granton edge boning knife, Lamsonsharp Chinese cleaver, 6", 8" and 10" Lamsonsharp chef's, and kitchen / poultry shears.

(Top drawer knife rack) 10" Dexter chef's, my indispensible F. Dick steel, a couple utility knives, another Japanese cleaver (smaller version), and an Acu Sharp sharpener.

So what do you need all these for? Obviously you don't. Most home chef's specialize in a couple styles of food and can get by with very few knives. It amazes me that people buy huge knife collections and expensive blocks to hold them. Even the three-piece Global set that I bought, which seemed like such a great deal at Sur La Table, has proven to be a waste. I love the 8" Global chef's knife and use it daily, but the two utility knives have been used two or three times each, and they live in the drawer.

Regardless of your budget, your most used knife will be your main chef's knife. Some prefer a 10", I prefer an 8". I have several, they have varying degrees of pros and cons, but they get the most use by far. And the one that gets the most use is a Dexter 8" chef's which I bought prior to attending a six weekend Professional Cooking series at the California Culinary Academy. It cost me a whopping $25 in 1994, and it's still the most used in my collection. The Global chef's gets a lot of use because it's very thin, perfectly balanced, great for fine slicing and dicing, and a total joy to use. The Henkels gets used for things that require a heavier knife (great for chopping onions and smashing garlic cloves). The 7" Wustof is a great knife, and was a present from my wife-to-be, just prior to our marriage. I use it for in-between type jobs, and I use it a lot.

The 6, 8, and 10" Lamsonsharps get very little use, but the Lamsonsharp cleaver gets tons of use. I had the cleaver first and used it all the time, so I ordered the chef's knives having never used them. They're probably great knives, but I've never gotten the edge I want on them. Sounds like a good weekend project in my copious spare time. But the cleaver is a very nice knife, and quite likely the one I'd pick if I could only have one knife on a desert island. The Martin Yan cleaver is nice and stays very sharp, and it also gets quite a bit of use. A cleaver or a good santoku is essential, I feel. Both my cleavers have permanent "thumb" marks at the top rear of the blade, because I hold them at the front of the handle and upper rear of the blade, I've done so for years with both of them.

The 7" Victronix with a Granton edge is an awesome knife, and was under $30. Great all around knife and excellent for slicing meat and poultry. I also have a long ham slicer with a Granton (scalloped, not serrated) edge which gets lots of use around the holidays. Ideal for slicing a turkey, prime rib, pork roast or a whole beef filet section.

I have two 10" chef's knives, and I'm not exactly sure why I bought them. I probably read somewhere that every collection should have one, and I really don't understand why. I use the Dexter 10" for slicing half-frozen London broil meat into thin slices when I make beef jerky. And that's the only time I use it. The Lamsonsharp doesn't rock well, so it goes unused for the most part.

I have a couple of utility knives that I like. My 4" Dexter gets as much use as the 8". I use it constantly when I'm cooking. I believe I paid about $6. for it. The Henkels 4" on the other hand, was likely five times as expensive, and I almost never use it. I also have a small curved knife which was sold as a cheese slicer at one of the garlic stores just south of Gilroy. It's absolutely the perfect knife for slicing tomatoes, which is all I use it for. And I slice EVERY tomato with it. I believe I paid six bucks for this one too, and I've had it for well over ten years.

Last but certainly not least, is my latest acquisition and pride and joy ... an 8" Shun Ken Onion chef's knife, which comes with its own bamboo holder. If you've never used a Shun, make it a point to ask if you can try one the next time you find yourself in a Sur La Table or Willaims-Sonoma store. It's one of those things that's ridiculously expensive and worth every penny. I believe mine was around $200 which puts it at eight times the cost of the Dexter, a great knife in its own right. This was a gift from my wife, which is the only way I'd ever get one. No way I could justify paying that much for a knife. But they're absolutely awesome looking and feeling, perfectly balanced, very unique handles, a blade that looks like a samurai sword, and it's the sharpest knife I've ever used. It literally glides through an onion. It also garners lots of "ooohs and aaahs" from guests who hang around the kitchen when I'm cooking. But a more expensive knife won't make you a better cook.

A dull knife can make your prep time miserable, but virtually any knife can be sharpened to a fine edge. Good ones hold their edge better, but you can make do with what you've got, if you know how to use the knife and of course how to sharpen it. I've tried every kind of sharpener and I have two extremes that I use exclusively. I have a three-slot Chef's Choice electric sharpener that can put an edge on anything (including granton and serrated edges), without ruining the knife. Great sharpener, but they run about $125. Again, it was a gift, and I love it. I also use an Acu-Sharp sharpener that works phenomenally well on dull knives and costs about ten bucks. Sharpening stones work great if you have the patience to use them. I don't. I have a couple of them, and they sit in the back of the drawer.

While knife brands and sharpeners are debatable, one constant that you'll find among butchers is the type of steel they use; the steel of choice is made by German company F. Dick, and at about thirty-five buckes, this steel's a steal. They've been in the knife and steel making business since 1778, and they've got it down. I was introduced to it on the first day of a three weekend butchery class at the culinary academy, and it's the only one I use. Learn how to use a steel correctly and do it after every use of the knife. If you're doing a lot of cutting with one knife, stop and steel it every now and then. A steel doesn't "sharpen" your knife, but rather keeps the edge straight and the inevitable burrs that develop, at a minimum. Mine's on the counter within reach the whole time I'm preparing a meal.

Along with being the most expensive and unique looking of my knives, the Shun also has one additional feature. While they say you can use a Shun sharpener and get good results, they recommend you keep the original packing box and ship it to them once a year. They're more than happy to sharpen it back to factory standards at no cost other than the postage. Amazing toy, for sure.

So to get back to the original intent of this article, what would I recommend to my friend Carolyn for Bruce's Christmas present of a set of knives? A set of Globals that includes an 8" chef's, the larger santoku wth a granton edge, a utility knife, and of course an F. Dick butcher's steel would be all he needs. A nice set of Henkel's with an 8", utility, slicer, and shears would also last a lifetime and he'd love using them every night. Both of these stay sharp, look great, and make your time in the kitchen a pleasure. Never put them in the dishwasher, buy a magnetic rack for them, steel them often, and watch the smile on his face the first time he uses them.

However ... you can't go wrong with a few Forschner-Victronix knives, and anything that says Wustof or Lamsonsharp will also last a lifetime, and of course if your budget will accomodate a Shun Ken Onion ... that's the best.

Oh, and Bruce ... ANY of these are capable of taking the tip of another finger off, by the way

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cajun Halloween

It's a chilly Saturday on the San Francisco Peninsula, Halloween 2009, and also the end of daylight saving time. I just received an email from my friend Barb, up in Bend, which is a picture of an elderly native American gentleman and the following observation: When told the reason for daylight saving time the Old Indian said, "Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket." I like this. Arizona doesn't have daylight saving (other than the Navajo reservations), nor does Hawaii, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. But in California, it's always a welcome treat in the Spring, and I suppose we gain an hour tonight so I'll endure the next few months of it getting darker earlier in the evening. Life will surely go on ... always does.

But tonight's going to be a Cajun Halloween, of sorts. Small gathering, so far ... my wife and myself, my sister Colleen and her husband John. A small but excellent gathering! My sister loves kids, adores her nieces and nephews, and is a firm suscriber to the Peter Pan principle of "Never allow yourself to feel older than seven." So she arrived early in her Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin T-Shirt, prepared to dole out candy to the millions of kids that were surely going to visit our house in this very family-friendly neighborhood. She was thrilled when the first set of kids (great home made bug and rocket costumes) arrived a little after five, when it wasn't even remotely dark yet. But hopes of a big crowd of trick or treaters faded quickly as the hours went by, and we ended up with four sets of two kids to the house. This means a couple things ... first, my co-workers are going to have a huge amount of assorted candy to share tomorrow, and second ... what's happened with Halloween and all the kids? I'm obviously unsure if this is the trend elsewhere, but it was a little disappointing, to say the least.

Friends and avid readers know I grew up in Daly City, California. Now this was a few years ago of course, but Halloween was awesome! First, after the age of five, kids' parents never joined them in their trick or treating rounds through this little suburb just south of San Francisco. We'd go out in groups of two-to-four, fill up our pillow cases with candy, go home and empty them out, and head out for another round or two of the same. I had candy for months! And at around 9:00 we'd all head down to the Westlake Shopping Center for the annual Halloween celebration in the parking lot that faced what was then known as Alemany Boulevard, and was renamed to John Daly Blvd a number of years ago. For those of us who grew up there, it will always be "Alemany."

The parking lot that faced the afore-mentioned boulevard featured the likes of the Westlake Liquor Store which was owned by 49er legend Bob St. Clair, the Westlake Music Store, King Norman's Toys, Johnson's Enchiladas, a drug store, Georgette's Beauty Salon (still there, as is Georgette), Vern's Ice Cream, Compton's Cafeteria (best custard anywhere), See's Candies, and Walgreen's. And on Halloween, this lot would be packed with kids, parents, and pets who would partake in the live music and free goodies. One thing that could be counted on every year was little tubs of "50-50" orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, which would be given away for the asking. This was back in the days of Cho-cho's and Sidewalk Sundaes being the most popular ice cream varietals, but the little tubs of 50-50's were awesome. I'm sure I'm dating myself ... how many of you remember Cho-cho's? Just as I thought.

It was a safer time, for sure. These were also the days when I'd ride my bike ten or fifteen miles in several directions, with the only condition being "be home for dinner at 5:30." It wasn't unusual to spend a Saturday with a friend or two, riding into the City, all over Golden Gate Park, over to Larsen Pool for a swim (for a dime, as I recall), to the Zoo (which was free, back then), and back up Lake Merced Boulevard, across ALEMANY, and home to the Park Plaza Apartments. Just be home for dinner ... and we always were.

So where were the kids last night? I'd like to think they were at parties or gatherings where they were having fun, and of course being safe ... undoubtedly with parents in tow, as that's how things are done these days. But I miss the notion that they can't be out and about visiting the friendly neighbors in their home turf, amassing a collection of sweets that they'd take home and sample, sort, and squirrel away somewhere for the next several weeks. But last night, they were a no-show.

My sister and John did show though, and dinner turned out awesome. Colleen brought a Malbec from their recent trip to Argentina, and it was incredible with the jambalaya. I added a bottle of Zinfandel from Adelaida in Paso Robles for good measure. Also good.

Appetizers were kept simple because I had a feast preparing in the kitchen. Carr's crackers, a brie, and a Kerrigold aged Irish cheddar were plenty. Colleen brought an awesome salad, which meant one less thing I had to prepare. I love doing salads, but I always like not having to prepare a course. Most cooks do. I've said this many times in this blog, but never be hesitant or intimidated bringing things to a meal at a chef's house, or in fact inviting them over! Your food's undoubtedly great, and we love being cooked for. All of us do!

I started the red velvet cupcakes early in the day, and made the frosting while the two dozen little gems were cooling on the cooktop. This is a fairly common recipe, and in fact if you Google it, the results are virtually identical. Mine came from my friend Siobhan, who owns the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Truckee. I'll try to remember to post it on the website, and the jambalaya recipe is already out there. These turned out really good ... I thought the frosting that consists of two cubes of butter, a pound of cream cheese, and four cups of powdered sugar needed just a bit more ... so I sprinkled some Sharffen Berger mocha chocolate nibs on the top. Perfect.

The jambalaya took shape early in the afternoon, and was actually done before anyone arrived. Very easy to do a quick reheat, which is what I did just before I served it. The cornbread was served in the Lodge cast iron pan I baked it in, which seemed fitting.

After dinner, we got into the last of my Zin Alley Port, which of course is always served in my Port Pigs. Consistent crowd pleasers, both the Port and the Pigs. There's just something to sucking your dessert wine out of a glass pig's tail, I guess.

Great night, always a treat seeing my sister and her hubby, the food worked, and we gained an hour via the end of the afore-mentioned Daylight Saving, granting us an extra hour of sleep, which I currently need as I'm fighting a cold. But I'm still wondering where all the trick or treaters were last night. Perhaps there were ghosts and goblins out in the neighborhood, and we were the only ones safe???

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stopping At Fifty

On a recent trip to the Bend house (pictured to the right), my wife and I got into a discussion of moving, and specifically "moves" we've done both individually and together. Although we weren't "Army brats" with moves dictated by the whims of a branch of the government, it seems we moved quite a bit. The discussion delved further into the pain or pleasure aspect of moving. It's nothing that either of us likes to do at this point in our lives, but for the most part over the years, I've greeted moving with a positive attitude, vs. something I dreaded. Sure, you're always going to leave friends behind, and you'll miss the 'hood, but I enjoyed moving to new places and meeting new people. Friends and readers of the food blog (LSCooks ... Stir It Up!) know that most of my youth was spent in the community of Daly City, just south of San Francisco. I’ve also spent many years in and around Pacifica, seven years in Chico, a few in Gilroy, and most recently of course, several years in beautiful Bend, Oregon.

But I got to thinking about all of the places I’ve lived, even ever-so-briefly in some cases, and thought I’d get them down in one place. And as the title suggests, I’m hoping that I don’t have to do too many more.

1. Taraval St. apartment, San Francisco. I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, and this is the first place I called home. My parents had a small apartment in the Sunset District for a couple years. My dad worked for a bank, and my mom worked for City of Paris department store, which is unfortunately no longer in business. I remember absolutely nothing about this place!

2. Parkmerced, 40 Rivas St. We moved to a little apartment in Parkmerced which I remember vividly. Parquet wood floors and stainless steel counters, two floors, white doors, sort of a garden setting in front where neighbors would congregate. My grandfather (Gene, my dad’s dad) would visit often in the afternoons, as he was a guard somewhere in the big complex at that time. Most memorable day there was when I was about 3 ½, and I decided to take my little girlfriend Diane (who was 3) on streetcars all over San Francisco. We were gone for several hours, saw lots of sights in the City. I managed to get us home in one piece, and my parents were not amused. What they didn’t know at the time was that I could actually read at 3 ½, and I’m sure I simply read the signs on the streetcars and managed to transfer to the right ones. Don’t all 3 ½ year olds have this capability?

3. San Mateo House. My parents’ first home purchase was a little corner home in the Shoreview district of San Mateo. Best part of this place was its proximity to my grandparents’ house, which was about two blocks away on South Norfolk. I spent afternoons at my grandparents’, helping in the yard where they grew what seemed like every vegetable in the world in a few rows of an immaculately laid out suburban yard. Fresh everything, commonly plucked right from the yard. This has to have something to do with why I shop every day for what I want to prepare that night!

4. 141 Park Plaza Apt #6 in Daly City was the first of two apartments we’d occupy over several years. My mom kept having babies, so we pretty much were forced to move into roomier places. It was I and my younger sister Lynda when we moved in to this two bedroom one bath apartment. As with the Parkmerced apartment, this one had parquet floors and stainless steel counters. Must have been the fashion, I can only imagine. Danish modern furniture was also popular at the time, and I recall my mom buying “squarish” couches, chairs, and occasional tables in some wild colors. Blue upholstery and black lacquer tables, if my memory serves correctly. The Park Plaza apartments were fun. We were directly across the street from the Westlake Shopping Center, which we would watch grow from the Town and Country Market and a few department stores, to a giant mall with dozens of stores in a single locale. One of the first such malls in the nation, and very successful in its day. I’m told that this bright little boy used to take himself to the dentist, get haircuts, and go shopping alone. I was about 5. Kindergarten was a half mile away at Westlake School, and I’d make the walk every weekday.

About this time, my grandparents moved from San Mateo to Bonnie Doon, which is up the Empire Grade, outside of Santa Cruz. This lasted a couple years, and they moved into the little house on Lazywoods Road, in Felton. I would spend virtually every holiday period and every summer vacation there, and have major fond memories of the times. I’ll bore you with that write up, at a later time.

5. Salinas apartment. My dad was working in sales for a canning company out of Oakland, and was offered a “golden opportunity” to manage his own territory. Unfortunately, it would require moving the family from our beloved Daly City, to what surely was the armpit of California at that time … Salinas. Although the area has expanded into lots of fruits and vegetables (and even vineyards) in the last couple decades, at the time we lived there it was all lettuce fields, and the population was 100% Latino. I’m of course not putting a value judgment on that fact, but we were quite literally the only English speaking Caucasians in our complex, and it was a tough time for both my mom and us. And it was hot … Daly City has an annual average temperature of around 64 degrees, and it rarely varies much above or below that. Our little apartment in Salinas had no air conditioning, and opening the windows would allow the 115 degree summer heat to make the place miserable. Salinas didn’t last … six months was about all my mom could take, and my dad was given a clear ultimatum … we’re moving back to Daly City or …

6. 141 Park Plaza Apt #20 was our second apartment in Daly City. The shopping center continued to grow, the old Town and Country Market was about to be replaced by the new, modern Westlake Foods, which was in the middle of the shopping center and directly across the street from us. It was here that I had my first slice of pizza … nineteen cents got you a big slice of cheese pizza from the giant supermarket’s deli. Very important early formative years were spent in the Park Plaza apartments. Many friends from Westlake School are still good friends who I see several times a year. It was a safe, fun, friendly place to grow up. But alas, my mom was about to have twins, so …

7. 41 Grandview, Daly City. Five kids just weren’t going to cut it in the little apartment, so we moved into a real house in the Westlake Knolls. Small place, looking back, but a giant leap from the two bedroom apartment. We still had to share rooms for the first few years, but ultimately my dad and grandfather build a makeshift room in the garage, which would be mine. Cold and drafty, it wasn’t much more than two doors and some two by fours and sheetrock, in the forward part of the single car garage of our little ranch house in suburbia. But once again, this was a safe neighborhood and we all have fond memories of the Grandview house. My Grandview school years included a brief (bussed) stint to Fernando Rivera School, until Thomas Edison was built and I could walk down the street for 5th and 6th grades. Then Ben Franklin Jr. High, which was also a bus ride, and then to Westmoor High, which was an easy walk of about a half mile.

It was also at this house that my mom decided she liked monkeys. When I tell people this in 2009, they can’t believe it, but it’s true and all of my sisters will vouch for it as well. My mom was dying to have a pet monkey, so my dad surprised her with a little spider monkey. Pain in the butt little thing, and it didn’t last long before being given away. Then came a squirrel monkey which met a similar fate. But then we got Shoo-Shoo the owl monkey, and had her for upwards of 10 years. At one point Shoo-Shoo ran away, and we got a second owl monkey. After finding Shoo-Shoo a couple blocks from the house, we gave away the backup owl monkey. A couple years later my mom increased the monkey population to two, with the addition of a capuchin. It lasted a couple years, and was replaced by the last monkey in the Sullivan house … a wooly. This one was like a little chimp, or actually more like a two year old kid, including all the associated crying and moodiness. The wooly was given away, and we were down to good old Shoo-Shoo for the last few years of her life. Fun pets.

8. 244 Morton was the next move for the clan, which now included five younger sisters to yours truly. This would be my first real bedroom which I didn’t have to share with any of the girls. I had my own phone and TV, and a bathroom right outside the door, as opposed to going upstairs and the far back of the house, which was the routine in the last house. I’d died and gone to heaven. This was a nice new house in the new community of Serramonte. This whole stretch of homes that included both Serramonte and the previously-mentioned Westlake area, were the inspiration for the Malvina Reynolds composition (and Pete Seeger recording) of “Little Boxes.” Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

9. San Diego State and a dorm room in Zura Hall was my next stop. I remember packing up all my worldly possessions, which included a pretty nice stereo, tons of record albums, two surfboards, clothes, and my trusty typewriter, piling everything into my little orange VW (named Humphrey) and driving 500 miles south. San Diego was a great experience, but unfortunately it would prove to drain any savings I had, and my parents couldn’t afford to pay for it, so I was forced to return to home base for awhile. But once again, I met some great friends in San Diego, and still keep in contact with a couple of them. Took a lot of searching to track one of them down, and the other recently found me, but it’s great being in touch again.

10. San Jose Apartment. After briefly moving back into my old room on Morton, it was off to San Jose and a shared apartment with my friend Marty. Marty and I go back to early grammar school years, and we’ve always been the very best of friends. Fondest memory from this apartment was the release of Who’s Next, and cranking up the entire “album” as loud as my stereo would go. We WON’T get fooled again!

11. Oakmont house, South San Francisco. Marty was working 30 miles north, and I was about to return to San Francisco State, so for the immediate future, it seemed like a good idea to move out of the apartment and back into the parents’ abode in South City. I was once again relegated to a room in the garage, but this time it was a professionally built room (with a heater!) in an otherwise very large garage. I was working in grocery stores at this point, making union wages and benefits that gave me a taste of having a few bucks. I had a decent car and a motorcycle, a new surfboard, and a nice set of Ludwig drums which I drove my parents crazy with. I was never a “subtle” drummer, and this was the height of my “I wanna be Keith Moon” days.

12. Pacifica, Esplanade #1. I soon tired of being under my parents’ roof, and moved to a nice apartment on the beach in Pacifica. The apartment overlooked the water, and work was a five minute walk to Brentwood Market.

13. Pacifica, Purple House. From the apartment on the beach, I moved about 3 blocks up Monterey Road to a purple house, with friends Marty and Bob. It was great telling people how to find us … Monterey Road is a main thoroughfare that cuts down to Pacifica from Skyline Blvd, and all we had to tell them was “look for the purple house.” You didn’t need the address … just look for the purple house. Trust me, you’ll see it. This place was a party house in the true sense of the phrase. Marty and Bob eventually moved out and replaced by two other friends (and we all were equally crazy party animals at that juncture), and we really had a good time there. Unfortunately when we finally moved out, I discovered that my waterbed had been leaking slowly for a year, and the floors were quite a site. Oh well.

14. Pacifica, Esplanade #2. When the lease at the house ran out, I moved back to the apartments at the beach, but this time to an “upper” unit, for an even better view. I recall an older lady next door who apparently took pity on this lonely bachelor, and frequently would send food over, via the adjoining patios. Amazing that I’ve gotten so into cooking, looking back at such days when I would consider a good dinner to consist of a heated can of store-bought Dennison’s chili con carne on an English Muffin with some pre-shredded cheese and hot sauce as the sole garnishes. Last Sunday’s full beef tenderloin with a wild mushroom duxelle stuffing and a port reduction, with sides of risotto and haricot verts, would never have seemed possible, in retrospect. You’ve come a long way, baby.

15. Culver City apartment. My dad was offered another of a seemingly endless stream of golden opportunities; this time it was a relocation to southern California. Four of my younger sisters were about to graduate from 6th grade, Jr High School, and High School respectively, so the timing wasn’t right for the whole family to move. I loved southern California, so I opted to move with my dad for a few months, after which the girls and my mom would move down as well. After a few months, it became clear that my dad’s job was not going to pan out as presented, so he moved back to South City, and I moved to Redondo Beach. Another fun place, very close to the beach and I truly enjoyed the area. I recall a memorable evening when I drove to the Roxy Theater in Hollywood and sat through two Tubes shows, back to back. Alone. Me and my little yellow Fiat.

16. South City – Brunswick townhouse. Returning to the Bay Area to resume my San Francisco State “studies” (a term I use loosely … I was going through the motions and not applying myself at all), once again meant a brief stay at the parents’. They had moved to a townhouse in South City, and I was allowed to camp in their family room until I found another apartment. This is something I went about in a very diligent fashion, in an effort to quickly escape the parents and girls once again.

17. Pacifica, Hickey Blvd apartment with a view. The next apartment was a gem. I was at the top of Hickey, where it met Skyline Boulevard, also known as Highway 35. It was a small studio apartment, but one of only two in the complex that were situated in upper outside corners of a building. The view was a sight to behold. For those of you familiar with the San Francisco area, I had an unobstructed view from the Cliff House and Ocean Beach, to south of the airport. The entire north peninsula was out my living room window. This was my “house plant period,” and I probably had over 100 plants in this little place. My cat Tillie loved to eat them, so they were mostly hung from a variety of macrames and other hanging devices. Wandering Jews, Creeping Charlies, philodendrons, climbing ivy plants, a couple Norfolk Island Pines, and every color of coleus imaginable, were the main décor items for my beloved Tillie and me. Very solitary lifestyle at that point, as I recall.

18. Pacifica Vallemar house. From the apartment, it was another house with friends, once again in Pacifica. This one was a big house back in the Vallemar area, which was known for being sunny while the rest of Pacifica experienced the usual fog bank. Significant feature: a kitchen sink that was stopped up for 6 of the 12 months we lived there. We ran a hose downstairs to the stationary tub in the garage. Yes, this is true.

19. Oceana Apartment. Yet another Pacifica apartment. This one was on the east side of Highway 1, facing the ocean, and once again had a phenomenal view of the Pacific Ocean. Pacifica gets an inordinate amount of fog, but on a clear day you can see forever.

20. 18th and Santiago in San Francisco. For someone who was born in San Francisco, I haven’t lived there much. The Taraval apartment, Parkmerced, and that was it until this house, which is the 20th place I called home. I had the room downstairs, my own kitchen, and a couple good friend / roommates upstairs. Another in a seemingly endless stream of party houses that I managed to land at, during this period.

21. St. Thomas, USVI. An old friend from high school came to one of our parties at the house above, and mentioned that he was about to move to St. Thomas to live and work. It didn’t take much convincing for me to give my two week notice as Head Clerk at Byrne’s Fine Foods in the City, pack up, and head to the Caribbean. St. Thomas and the whole Caribbean area was a phenomenal experience. I worked for a company called Resort Pool Management, Inc. The gig was that we took care of three different resorts’ pools, and in return we got to have a concession on the beach where we sold suntan products (Panama Jack), diving, fishing and sailing tours, and rented snorkeling equipment and sailboats for use in the harbor in front of us. I worked at Pineapple Beach, and my day would start by putting on a bathing suit and T-shirt, going to work and taking off the T-shirt, cleaning a couple pools, and either working on the beach or sailing to St. John’s and back. I returned to San Francisco three days before Christmas with the best tan I’ve ever had. Thanksgiving in St. Thomas was quite an experience. From the decks around the house (atop the Estate Wintberg district), you could see Puerto Rico, St. John, Virgin Gorda, Tortola, St. Croix, and a myriad of smaller islands that dotted the Caribbean around us. And I can't possibly begin to estimate the amount of time we all spent at The Greenhouse on the waterfront in Charlotte Amalie (pictured to the left). Amazing time.

22. Parkmerced, with parents. I returned from St. Thomas with the afore-mentioned tan, and about twenty dollars to my name. The only answer was to spend a few weeks with my parents, who were now living in a little townhouse in Parkmerced. Something about living here felt like I’d come full-circle, but not necessarily in an ideal or predictable way. But here I was.

23. 18th and Santiago in San Francisco, round two. Back to the room downstairs for a few months, but my life and subsequent professions were about to change profoundly.

24. Oroville, CA. My friend Bob had an entrepreneurial idea that he needed some help with. He wanted to open an unfinished furniture store in Chico, which was about twenty miles from where he and his lovely wife Chris lived in Oroville. At the risk of offending any readers from Oroville, it’s not the most pleasant of places to live. Nothing much going on there, too much crime, ridiculously hot in the summer, and in fact would be a perfect place for an enema, if the Sacramento Valley needed one. ‘Nuf said. But move to Oroville I did, and commenced to putting the business plan, marketing ideas, advertising, profit charts, etc. for what would become Natural Habitat. I knew absolutely nothing about furniture or creating a business, and at that point it was unlikely that I could tell a piece of oak from one of pine or cherry. Quick ramp up, but I learned the business quickly. We started in Chico, expanded (and closed) in Paradise, opened a bigger store in Chico, and another successful one in Redding. Very fun business, which in fact I miss to this day.

25. Chico, mobile home. I’d never lived with a girlfriend before, but that was about to change. I met “D” through one of the ad reps who worked our store account, and it was a fairly quick ramp up to serious dating status, which led to her asking me to move in with her and her daughter. The next seven years would be spent in an on again, off again relationship with her and her daughter. Suffice it to say, this was not the smartest way that I could have spent this time of my life.

26. Mountain View, CA apartment. “D” decided that there could be some real opportunities outside of Chico, and the furniture stores I was managing weren’t doing tremendously well (one of many recessions I’ve weathered, looking back!), so she decided to sell the mobile, and we moved to the Bay Area. Nice little apartment in the heart of Mountain View, but it was quite an adjustment for both “D” and her daughter, neither one of whom had ever lived outside of the sleepy college town of Chico, CA. I managed a rent-a-car company, and it was a miserable and low paying job.

27. Pacifica house. As luck would have it, her new dental career and my (once again, although for the last time!) grocery store experience, dictated a move to the north end of the peninsula. We rented a nice big house in Pacifica, which we needed for our two cats and nice big dog. We got Zorba as a puppy before leaving Chico, and he grew to be a 175 pound merle-colored Great Dane very quickly. Big boy, best dog I’ve ever had. You know how some dogs chase cars? Zorba would catch them.

Alas, “D” and daughter missed Chico, I’d had enough of living with the two of them, and she decided to move back to Chico. I stayed in the house, and had subsequently met someone new, and she moved into the house. Amazingly, her cat got along with both Zorba and Tillie, so it seemed like a natural.

28. Pacifica, townhouse. I came home from work one evening to discover that “K” had found a place that she was sure we’d like, and signed a lease on it. Unfortunately, it meant I had to give up my beloved Great Dane, but he went to a great house with kids. It turned out to be a nice place, but after some initial good times, it was a quick downhill turn for this relationship.

29. Kathy and Chip’s, Daly City apartment. I was pretty much in dire straits at this point. I had a decent job with Pak ‘n Save (which we used to call “Pack and Slave” in Colma, but I’d pretty much had it with the grocery business and the Bay Area. After leaving the Pacifica townhouse, I found myself pretty much a man without a country … I had few possessions, nowhere to live, and I was very ready for a change. I spent a few weeks at my sister Kathy’s, and took a leap of faith and returned to Chico. I’d had enough of the Bay Area again, the furniture store was once again calling, and it was back to Chico for a few more years.

30. “D’s” apartment. The first apartment for the second time around in Chico was a small place near the college with “D+daughter.” The best thing about this place was that it was walking distance to the best hamburger joint in town – the Burger Hut. Simple concept; Great burgers made to order, baskets of fries, and a long counter with anything you want to put on it, available for the taking. Yum.

31. House near the park. We soon tired of the small apartment, and rented a nice little house by Bidwell Park. Chico’s a fairly small town, but this put us closer to friends, and it was really a nice setting.

32. Apartment off East Avenue. There was a pattern developing here … “D” and I didn’t last long periods of time together. We didn’t fight or argue particularly, but it was a total pain being in the same house with them … commonly. So my next place would be alone, on the far side of town.

33. Funky apartment. Another lease ran out, the rent was going up, I opted for what arguably was the funkiest place I’d ever lived. Tiny little apartment, and for the first and last time in my life … cockroaches. Never again. This one didn’t last long … a few months was plenty.

34. Apartment off C&J’s house. My friends “C&J” had built a room off their house, which was initially a macramé business for her, then an antique business for him, but they decided to rent it to me and make some extra money. Making a living in Chico is ridiculous. It’s a beautiful place to live, and lots of college students and grads end up staying here because of that fact … but they get away with paying you minimum wage and no benefits. Such was the case with C&J, and this is no way to get ahead.

35. House across the street. “J’s” father Paul was an excavator, meaning he tore down houses and buildings and hauled them away for people. A small Caterpillar tractor, a backhoe, and a big truck were his entire business tool collection. Every once in awhile he’d run across a house that someone wanted to tear down, but it would be in good enough condition to warrant having it moved onto the street he owned. “C&J’s” house, as well as his own and several others were all “tear downs” that he moved, put some labor into, and either sold or rented out. One morning, we saw a big truck coming up the block with a fairly nice looking blue two-story house in tow. Paul had bought it and moved it, and it was going right across the street from C&J. A couple months of work and a coat of paint produced a very livable home, and once again I decided to take a gamble and rent the place with D & daughter. This was a fun house, and we actually had some great times here. C&J were great friends, we had other great neighbors, the kitchen was a huge sprawling country kitchen that I loved, and we actually got along well here and enjoyed the house.

36. Last Chico Apartment. We moved from the house to an apartment, once again near Bidwell Park. The furniture business had closed, “D’s” job was eliminated, money was tight, and the house had to go. About six months in the apartment was to be the end of my days in Chico, and the last time I’d see D & daughter, after seven years of ups and downs. I worked for a few months at Computerland as a sales person, but quickly discovered that I was much better on the technical end. Back to the Bay Area, into a new profession that would be life-altering.

37. Shelter Creek with my sister and brother in law. My sister Colleen was kind enough to offer me a room in their condo while I got back on my feet. It took me about two weeks to get a job, which was downtown San Francisco at a Computer Craft store. Some sales, some technical, and a huge learning experience in what would be my new profession.

38. Shelter Creek studio. After a couple months at my sister’s place (for which I will forever be in her debt), I got my own little studio apartment in the same complex. I’d spend the next 3 ½ years here … all alone, with my cat Tillie, who had now gotten a little long in the tooth, so goes the old saying. This place would prove to be Tillie’s demise. She simply ran away, never to be seen again. You’ve heard that animals can sense their “time” coming and they just go away? It’s true. But the Shelter Creek studio was fun. Small, for sure, but it was mine, and I treasured having a place of my own, making a few dollars, being able to buy a car and some new toys, and generally enjoying my life again. Chico, and living with “them” for so long was a mistake that took way too long for me to leave.

39. Fremont, with Colleen. After 3 ½ years in San Bruno, my sister presented me with an irresistible offer. She’d recently divorced her first husband and suggested I move into a spare room of her house in Fremont. We got along as we always have – tremendously. These were good times. I was doing great at work, where I was now a network manager at Western Digital. I had a new car, could afford to live a little, and things were definitely on an upswing. It was while I was living in Fremont that I met my future wife, at work. After a couple months, my nights would be split between Fremont and her house in Palo Alto. But we didn’t live together until a month before we got married, so I was technically still living in Fremont for well over a year.

40. Palo Alto. Just prior to getting married, I moved in with Risa at the house she shared with her son and a couple roommates. Very nice place in a great neighborhood in Palo Alto. This was an “Eichler” home, which featured some interesting design features, as well as some downright weird ones. They got mixed reviews when they were built, but amazingly have stood the test of time and are once again something of a fashionable acquisition for young Silicon Valley couples. Along with getting married during this period, it’s also significant to mention that it was in this house that I became the “cook of the house.” I’d cooked quite a bit over the years, but it was always a shared duty. Not so any more … I’ve cooked all but a handful of meals for the past 20 years since this house. It has in fact become a major part of my life, and a lot of my social structure revolves around food, cooking, and writing about it. But alas … that's an entirely different blog!

41. Greenhouse apartment. We decided to get into an apartment with amenities and save some money at the same time. The Eichler home was expensive to rent, heat, cool, and keep up in general. The Greenhouse condos on San Antonio Road on the Palo Alto – Mountain View border seemed like a good move. Great pool and clubhouse where we had many gatherings.

42. Bird Street house. From the Greenhouse, we once again opted to move into a “real” house. This one was in Sunnyvale in an area known as the “bird streets.” All the streets are named for different types of birds. You have to wonder what the city planners were thinking … particularly since the “bird streets” blend into the “fruit streets.” Interesting concept for sure. Another nice house which had its own pool. I’d worked for a pool company in St. Thomas so I had no problem being the pool boy here. Our pool was immaculate, and I loved it. Fun place.

43. Manufactured home on Tasman. The next move was a gamble, of sorts. We were secure enough in our jobs that we decided we’d actually buy our first place. This was of course the Silicon Valley, and home prices are legendary. But we could afford a new manufactured home. This was just like buying a new house, meaning we got to pick colors, carpets, options, etc. We loved this place, and we managed to time the boom in housing pretty well. Two and a half years here would net us enough money for a down payment on an incredible house in Gilroy.

44. Gilroy home. The house in Gilroy was awesome. Huge, four-bedroom, three bath place with a great yard, incredible neighbors, a wonderful community with proximity to the coast, the central valley, or the peninsula, nice restaurants, and amazing weather. We loved this house, and arguably should have stayed there. The only problem was the commute … I was working in Los Gatos, Risa was initially in Cupertino and then San Jose. The weekday grind took a minimum of ninety minutes, and could easily become in excess of two hours … each way. They’ve since added three additional lanes in each direction which has made a huge difference, but this drive was absolutely killing us (and multiple cars).

45. La Mesa house. We then bought a house in San Jose, which should have been both a good move strategically, as well as a much easier commute. It was neither. We soon tired of the tiny house which we’d purchased from a contractor who had just remodeled it. But the remodeling was not the best, being more appearance than function. And the commute, although only 14 miles instead of 50, still took an hour each way, through the streets of San Jose and the lower peninsula. Crazy way to spend a significant part of your life; On the road to and from work, stuck in traffic at a crawl. It was about this point when we decided to start looking seriously for an entirely new place to live. Major contenders included Cambria (central California coast), Boulder, Atlanta, Fort Collins, and ultimately … Bend, Oregon. We sold the house on La Mesa, put the profits in the bank in anticipation of buying something out of state, and moved to a rental in a different part of San Jose.

46. Willow Glen home. We rented a house in Willow Glen, which is one of the nicest areas in San Jose. Very close to the downtown area, 10 minutes to the HP Pavilion where all the major musical acts play, and walking distance to the quaint Willow Glen downtown area. This is truly a “walking” neighborhood, which is a rarity in San Jose. Safe, quiet, friendly, featuring tree-lined streets and older homes with predominantly older inhabitants who’ve lived there for decades. This house also had a pool, which of course I loved, as well as a room that was perfectly suited for my drums and occasional visits from the members of my band. We did lots of entertaining here, and as most of the places we’ve lived, I think people really enjoyed visiting us here. It was during our eighteen months in Willow Glen when we took up our next life-altering activity; Massage therapy training. What began as a two-weekend introductory course became several years of professional level training. Fundamentals, Advanced, Cranio-Sacral, Acupressure, Hot Stones, Deep Tissue, Hydrotherapy, Chair Massage, seminars, plus several semesters as a teacher’s assistant in the Advanced class. Dangerous hands that can rub you the right way!

47. Bend. In August of 2004 we took a trip to Bend and Ashland, Oregon. We’d read very positive things about both of them, and figured a week would be enough time to come up with a yay or nay on a move to Oregon. We first drove to Bend, where we’d planned to stay three or four days at the La Quinta on 3rd Street, which is the main drag that runs the length of town. We fell in love with the place almost immediately. The river is gorgeous, the Mt. Bachelor and The Sisters mountains are a spectacular site from just about anywhere, the towering pines, aspens, and junipers are everywhere, the people were friendly, the restaurants excellent, and at least in August … the weather was phenomenal. We looked at a good number of new homes, and one tract in particular caught our attention. But of course we had to compare this with Ashland, where we’d spend the second half of the week. Ashland’s beautiful, but we soon found out that the town revolves around the annual Shakespeare Festival, and that’s pretty much the basis for the economy. I’d planned to get into real estate, and the sales in Ashland weren’t nearly as attractive as they appeared in Bend. I’d already gotten my license twice in California, and had managed to hit two recessions. Little did I know, the same would happen in Oregon the following year. We returned to California after a beautiful week in Oregon, and had pretty much decided that Bend would be our new home. Risa spent some quality time working with the sales guy (Julian) and picked a wonderful corner lot in a cul-de-sac. We’d be across the street from the Deschutes River with a peek-a-boo view of Mt. Bachelor from the upstairs windows. The house would be started in December, and complete and ready for its new occupants, the following June. A trip up in late December proved to be an indication of what can happen on some years up there … the winters are generally mild (although cold and full of snow), but this one was the worst in a decade. The normally eight-hour trip from the Bay Area, took about 15 hours. Terrible weather, blizzard conditions, accidents, delays, etc. No fun. The house was finished in May, and the decision to leave the Bay Area and take a gamble in Bend was a relatively easy one. The house was just too beautiful to be a part time home, or something we’d move into “some day.” We gave notice at our jobs, and moved all of our possessions and four cats, on the last day of July, 2005.

48. San Jose Apartment. As I mentioned earlier, I became a real estate broker in Bend … just in time for the whole market to fall apart (worldwide, not just here). I found a job in I.T. at a local healthcare provider, and spent the next two and a half years working for exactly half of what I made doing the same thing in the Bay Area. A call from a former co-worker, who was now the CEO of a promising start-up in San Jose, was too good to resist. We packed up about a quarter of our possessions and once again headed back to San Jose. This time, to a small apartment in a huge complex. Two months after we landed here, the “promising” company I went to work for had a 25% layoff, and I was a victim. First time I’d ever been laid off, and coming from a guy who was allegedly my friend, really hurt. A summer of consulting work and job hunting produced a new position in South San Francisco. As Risa was working on the north peninsula as well, we left the apartment and moved to Belmont.

49. Belmont house. The house in Belmont was built in 1951, and was occupied by its original owners until we moved in. It started out fairly small, but was added on to over the years, producing a nice living area, master bedroom, and a killer downstairs area which provides ample area for our massage room, my drums, and a second “living room.” The big yard was a hit for this year’s Meatfest, which is a big BBQ I do every Memorial Day weekend. Although amazingly, the weather was just as bad here as it was the first year we were in Bend. Cold, rainy, dreary, unfriendly. But the yard’s nice, the house is old but comfortable enough and I can’t complain about the commute.

50. Bend … Home. The Bend house is currently occupied by my friend Bob’s daughter and her cat. 3000 sq. ft. house with four bedrooms, three full baths, massage room, media room, separate living, dining, family rooms, and a kitchen to die for, with one person and her cat. But it’s in good hands, and I’d rather see it have one appreciative occupant, than to be empty. I have no doubt that we’ll ultimately end up back in Bend. The weather can be a struggle some years, and the “four mild seasons” we heard about are a fallacious marketing ploy. The “mild” winters can start as early as October (they got seven inches of snow two weeks ago), and it’s not uncommon to have snow on Mother’s Day in May. Summers are usually three months long … no more, no less. Spring is usually an extension of winter, until late June. But fall is gorgeous, and our trip up there a couple weeks ago provided some exceptionally nice weather and fall colors.

We miss our friends, the slower pace, the lack of traffic, the beautiful scenery, and of course my kitchen. I can’t believe I’ve lived fifty places. When I got the idea to approach this piece, I hadn’t taken a count, nor did I get into the emotions and decisions that were to come with this little exercise. One thing that’s definitely changed is something I mentioned in the first paragraph … the notion (at least when I was growing up) that moving was not a negative thing, but rather an interesting experience that would certainly provide new friends and new places which I’d get to know.

One thing that’s proven to be true over the years is that people tend to gravitate to our homes, and I’d like to think they enjoy being here. Gatherings tend to be in the kitchen, which was also the case in my parents’ and grandparents’ homes. I’m sure it’s a combination of people wanting to watch how I prepare their meal, as well as just liking to hang out in or near the kitchen. I’m friendly by nature, and the fact that I put on a reasonably good meal tends to attract people to our homes. For the time being we’re living two lives; One’s on the San Francisco peninsula, where we spend the bulk of our time and of course where we’re employed. But our heart’s in Bend, and I’m sure there will come a day when four or five trips a year to the house and area we love so much, will cease being enough.

Note: I’m working on a book with a working title of “Out
Of My Kitchen,” and I’m already planning to modify this piece and create a chapter called “50 kitchens.” Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Late Summer Week Off ...

After months of debating and investigating places to go for the final week of vacation for the summer, we decided on half the week at the Bend house, a day at home, and four days in Cambria, on the Central California Coast. We’d considered Hawaii or Mexico, but decided we didn’t want to fly anywhere, or spend the money that both destinations are happy to take from you, once you’ve arrived. Even “all inclusive” vacations looked like a streamlined collection of your bank account. I always love going to Maui, and it came close to winning this battle, but we opted for Oregon and California trips, and were quite happy with these decisions in the long term.

The ride to and from Bend is one that I’ve written about ad nauseum in both the blogs, and loyal readers know that for some sick reason, I truly love this little 500 mile jaunt (each way). Getting into and out of the greater Bay Area is always a crap shoot, and can range from an easy, relatively traffic-free cruise, to a several hour nightmare that makes me wonder how anyone can live here. We managed to get out of the house by 8:30 on Saturday morning, and the cruise North was one of the easiest I can remember. Very little traffic, and before I knew it I’d made the turnoff onto 505, which is a short stretch of freeway that connects Vacaville to Highway 5 North. My sister Colleen refers to this road as her personal Nurburgring, as it’s usually relatively free of CHP’s, and the 70 MPH speed limit and virtually no traffic invites enthusiastic drivers to open it up a little. I still watch for gendarmes like a hawk, but this road’s pretty open and you can see forever in every direction. Slow down for the overpasses though, as they’re commonly hanging around on the on-ramps, waiting to pop some unlucky driver for daring to go 10 miles over the limit. My last ticket was for 53 in a 50, while crossing the Bay Bridge en route to a fraternity party at UC Berkeley. That was nearly 40 years ago, and I’d like to keep it that way. Don’t give them any reason to pull you over, and they won’t.

This trip would provide a “first,” in that I didn’t stop at Granzella’s on the way up OR back. It wasn’t quite lunchtime on the way up, and too early for dinner on the way home. Plus, Joe’s of Westlake was beckoning, it seemed. In general, the newly remodeled deli in Williams is a virtual magnet for me, as well as anyone else who’s ever been there.

Redding was once again the only notable bottleneck on the trip (both ways). They’re widening the highway, and it seems like a never-ending project. We moved to Bend in 2005, and it was under construction then. Just north of Redding, you start to climb through the beautiful Siskiyou’s. With Mt. Shasta looming in front of you most of the way, the ride is spectacular. You cross Lake Shasta twice, and the boaters were still out in full force in late September. But why wouldn’t they? It’s a crystal clear 90 degree day!

Off to the left as you round one of the “slow to 55” corners, the amazing Castle Crags jump out at you. Located between Castella and historic Dunsmuir, this product of glacial erosion from the Pleistocene era, is absolutely stunning. Today it’s a California State Park, and lucky hikers and campers can venture from a base of 2500 feet at the Sacramento River, to about 6500 feet at the summit of the tallest peak, exploring these majestic sheets of granite. Beautiful site, and one that I never get tired of watching.

Somewhere between the turnoff at Weed onto Highway 97 North, I had “this trip’s” big thought. As we passed the multitude of farms and ranches that occupy the high plains of Northern California and Southern Oregon, I wondered how many of these farmers and ranchers sought their profession out, as opposed to being born into the family business and staying there. Those of us who come from the “big city” tend to go to school, some go to college or beyond, and a choice is made as to “what you want to do when you grow up.” I have friends from high school who fell into the family business, but for the most part, this isn’t an option for city folk. I think this is very different in rural America, where a good percentage of the country’s farmers and ranchers were in fact born into this type of trade. And I can only imagine that they either stayed on at the family farm/ranch, or ventured into one of their own. The thought that struck me, is that I doubt that a significant percentage of people, whether they’re city or country born … actually seek out a farm or ranch as a career. In other words, from my graduating class of 600 individuals in the bedroom suburb of Daly City, California, it’s unlikely that more than a very small number have “gotten into” farming or ranching as a profession. And likely an even smaller number who stuck it out and succeeded at it. But regardless of the origin of the people doing it, or how they stumbled into a rural life of raising livestock or fruits, vegetables, trees or grains, America needs them. As a cook (and a picky one), I appreciate every bit of meat or produce that I pick up from the market. It’s actually very rare that you get a bad “anything” from your local store or farmer’s market (which I highly recommend for anyone who has one nearby). We take it for granted that our food is going to be good, clean, fresh, and something we’ll be comfortable serving friends and family. And our farmers and ranchers are responsible for this. I for one, appreciate their endeavors. And I don’t think I could do it.

We arrived at the Bend house in a record 8 ½ hours, which included lunch at Chevy’s and a couple gas and convenience breaks. The new trees are doing amazingly well, but as I write this in early October, I bet they’re starting to think about losing their leaves. This is ok, as long as they come back next year. The first two trees I planted were 50-50 in this regard. The maple survived and is thriving; the other one died a quick one-season death. All the other yard foliage is thriving, and I was actually proud of myself, having planted everything in the yard a couple years ago, and it’s comforting to see that they’re enjoying their domain as much as the home owners.

Sunday night in Bend was spent with a good collection of our friends, celebrating the life of our friends Barb and Chuck’s dog Driver, who passed on a few days earlier. Driver was a gorgeous Viszla who lived to a ripe old age along with his buddy Addie, who’s noticeably bummed with the loss of her housemate. I can say first hand that the fact that a pet lives a long healthy life is no consolation for them dying. I think particularly for those of us who don’t have kids, your pets become members of your family and their loss is huge.

Barb managed to put on an awesome dinner, and people brought some great side dishes and appetizers. Sandy Mills’ bean salad was amazing, as was Chris’ bread and dip. It truly kills me that I can’t cook when I’m up there. I have an incredible kitchen, but virtually all of my cooking utensils, pots and pans, knives, etc. are down in the Bay Area. I brought wine and a cake that I had to purchase at the local Ray’s Market. Not my style, but it would have to do. For now.

Chuck put together a photo show of his life with Barb, which was totally entertaining. And with his audience laughing at all the “old” shots of the two of them (as well as several of the guests in attendance), he segued into shots of Driver and Addie, finishing off with some great shots of Driver in his last days with them. These are great friends, great dogs, and Mr. D. will be missed by anyone who crossed his path. Simply wonderful, all of them.

After four days in Bend, it was time to return to the Bay Area. The ride back was uneventful, but the number of CHP’s was boggling. Unfortunately, this means that everyone is relegated to a slower pace, and traffic backs up accordingly. Think of what you’re doing with your radar and cruisers, guys!!

As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t quite dinner time when we passed Granzella’s, so we continued to head south in anticipation of yet another great meal at Joe’s of Westlake. This is the local institution in Daly City that I’ve been frequenting since the early 60’s. Hasn’t changed much, and this is a good thing. Restaurants like this are interesting, because you generally don’t even think of looking at the menu, having committed it to memory several decades back. I knew what I wanted to eat, a full 50 miles earlier in the trip. Tonight would be a bowl of minestrone soup and an order of “half and half,” meaning half raviolis and half spaghetti. Add a half liter of wine and traditional San Francisco sourdough, and it doesn’t get any better.

Wednesday was a stay-at-home day, with a couple of side trips to local malls. Lunch at Max’s in Stanford Shopping Center provided an interesting high point. I’ve eaten here a hundred times, but never had the Kobe hamburger before. How could I have missed this on the menu? Oh that’s right … I try not to get things that I can cook at home, when I go out. Turns out that this is (are you sitting down?) quite likely the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Anywhere. Joe’s does an awesome burger, I do a pretty mean burger for that matter … doesn’t compare. If you have the opportunity … have one.

Early Thursday had us on the road again, this time bound for our favorite Central Coast hamlet of Cambria by the Sea. We love this area, and have been making three or four trips per year, for more than 15 years. Most of the tiny local shops have survived, but a number of them have succumbed to the downturn in the economy, and it’s a loss to the community as well as the shop owners. You take a gamble when you undertake a business of any kind, and smaller ones that are dependent on tourist trade seem to be particularly vulnerable. The same situation is true in Bend, unfortunately.

But the ride to Cambria is another of my favorites. Once you’re south of the Monterey turnoff, it’s a leisurely cruise through the farming and wine producing meccas of California. My family lived in Salinas when I was very young, although about six months was all my mother could stand of the heat and lack of bridge-playing friends. But I recall this area as being predominantly lettuce-producing, with a few other vegetables in the mix. Now, it’s everything from spices (big McCormick plant) to everything imaginable in the vegetable kingdom. And just south of there is the Monterey wine-growing region, which blends seamlessly into the Paso Robles wine-growing region. The past 20 years has seen hundreds of square miles of rolling hills become one of the biggest concentrations of vineyards in the state. A friend at Tobin James Winery commented recently that as recently as 5 years ago, he knew every vintner in the area … all 20 of them. There are over 200 wineries now, and they’re producing some of the most phenomenal wines in the state. Zin Alley produces four of my current favorites. Their signature Zinfandel is literally my favorite wine. Their Syrah is incredible, and their Port and Nerelli After Hours wines are all amazing. Denner and Jada are two new wineries that show tremendous potential. Winderful whites and unique reds and blends stand out from the crowd and will only get better as the wineries get a few years under their belts. Grey Wolf produces some phenomenal zins, whites and blends, and the friendly staff is a pleasure to interact with. Eagle Castle continues to improve, and is finally living up to the beauty of the beautiful estate-like setting. The winery appears as a medieval castle, complete with a moat and draw bridge, and featuring a huge banquet room with suits of armor on display. Quite a site.

We rented a house in the Marine Terrace neighborhood, a half block from the beach. The first day was a little foggy, but the subsequent three provided some awesome sights and sounds of the Pacific, and some amazing sunsets. Clean, roomy, quiet, great hot tub, we’ll be back.

The first night in Cambria always seems to land us at the Main Street Grill, which is a BBQ spot at the north end of town. We’ve watched this grow from a tiny take out spot, to a huge restaurant with inside and al fresco seating, large screen TV’s, and a BBQ menu that will please the most finicky of meat eaters. Dinner on the second night was up for debate. We almost always eat at The Sow’s Ear, but it had been awhile since we ate at Robin’s, so we opted to go there for our Friday night dining experience. We’ve been to Robin’s many times over the years, and it’s always a wonderful meal. They’ve been serving fresh Asian-fusion foods with the freshest of local ingredients since 1985. The menu always has some favorites such as the The Chow, which is a wok-flahsed pasta with local vegetables, garlic, ginger, and soy, with either tofu or chicken. Specials are always interesting, and again are always done with fresh local fish, proteins, and vegetables. The wine list is reasonable and features some of Paso Robles’ best.

Cambria seemed a little quiet for this time of year. September is traditionally some of the best weather of the year along the Central and Northern California coast, and this weekend should have drawn a lot more visitors than were evident. More ramifications of the lousy economy, no doubt.

Saturday was a perfect day for a ride. We turned south onto always scenic Highway 1, with the coastal community of Morro Bay as our destination. It quickly became evident that there was a fairly major bike race taking place. A few pods of riders became a few hundred, all the way down the coast. We found ot later this was an annual event called the Lighthouse Century. For those unfamiliar with bike race lingo, the “century” meant that this group of hearty riders were going to pedal a hundred miles on this warm day. Along with the riders, we passed through several micro-climates as we headed south … Cambria was in the low 60’s, but by the time we hit the booming metropolis of Harmony (population 18) it was in the 90’s. Then back to the 60’s fifteen miles later. And I thought Bend weather was unpredictable! The picture at the left is in the courtyard that leads to a little pottery shop in Harmony. I thought the blue door was an interesting contrast to the surrounding scenery.

Morro Bay has one of my favorite surf shops, Wavelength’s. This is always a mandatory stop, and I never get tired of looking at surfboards and related items. Lunch would be across the street at a little seaside dive called Giovanni’s. Our friend Dave took us here on our last trip, and they have some of the best fish and chips around. I thought it was particularly appropriate that the first boat in the harbor when we were entering and leaving the restaurant, was the Trudy S. Dave’s wife and our dear friend Trudy left us a couple years ago … way too young. She is missed by everyone who knew her. One in a million.

Back to Cambria for some relaxing time in the hot tub, an amazing sunset from the deck, then into town for dinner at Linn’s. This is a family owned restaurant and local landmark that features fresh fruits and produce from their nearby ranch, located five miles up Santa Rosa Creek Road. They’re famous for their pot pies (I had the chicken) and desserts, particularly all things ollalieberry. My fridge is always stocked with frozen pies from Linn’s, and when I get low I know it’s time for a trip to Cambria. Highly recommended for any meal of the day.

Sunday meant the ride back home, once again traversing by the beautiful vineyards and sleepy valleys of San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Santa Clara Counties. Our vacation was about to come to a close, and it was back to work the next day. Friends and loyal readers know how much I love to drive. Not in traffic, particularly, but in open country, through mountain passes, across vast spans of mileage, I’m as close to nirvana as I dare imagine. This was a fun week. Low key, not at all stressful, no airplanes, no tourist trappings, and exactly what I wanted it to be. Now if only I could take these any time I wanted. That dream’s going to have to wait awhile.