Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

Several generations back, the Sullivan side of the family settled in what was then a very rural Sonoma County, in what’s now Guerneville and Sebastopol. A couple of my sisters and I have always been interested in our family history, and have both individually and collectively done quite a bit of research into our past. Peggy, who now lives on the big island of Hawaii is our resident champ at the family’s genealogy, and has really done some quality digging. Both my dad and grandfather (his father, Grandpa Gene) told us a bit about the Sullivan lineage in and around Sebastopol, but the details beyond my grandfather’s generation were kind of a blur. And unfortunately like a good many people I know, I didn’t have the common sense to ask enough questions when I was young and they were still accessible. There were some bits and pieces, broad strokes of information, but the nitty gritty about the day to day life of earlier generations were sort of a blur, in the grand scheme of things. Risa lost her uncle recently, and his daughter Katy did something I wish I (and a lot of people) had thought of; she “interviewed” her dad and dug out all the little bits and pieces, prior to his passing. Great idea, and it makes for a priceless piece of journalistic information to have around for posterity.

Grandpa Gene was an outdoorsman all of his life. Hunter, fisherman, and involved in some very early efforts at conservation and preserving nature for future generations. He was a master carpenter, and among other things he built the Pacific Rod and Gun Club at Lake Merced, as well as the now-defunct Milerick’s Hunting Lodge in Cazadero, off the Russian River, near Sebastopol. His father Cornelius was the namesake for my middle name, Neil. I’ve been thankful all my life that my parents didn’t opt to call me Cornelius! It was Cornelius’ father Isaac who was the focal point of an incredibly valuable piece of history titled “The Patriarch of the Valley, Day to Day Life in Early Sonoma County,” which was written by his granddaughter Emma Street-Hively and published in 1931. The book (which is the subject of a whole section of my book) provides a wealth of information about the life and times of the Sullivan clan, several generations back. And it’s a valuable tool for providing a clue to why the generations since then, and specifically my generation of Sullivans, celebrates holidays such as Christmas, the way we do.

Christmas has always been a fun day filled with family and friends, for us. It seemed to be the time when everyone put any sort of differences or issues behind them, and simply enjoyed the day. I imagine our family was like many, inasmuch as our two sets of grandparents never particularly got along, other than at Christmas and major family gatherings. Something along the lines of “your daughter isn’t good enough for our son,” or “your son isn’t good enough for our daughter” depending which set of grandparents you were talking to. But one particular Christmas shortly after Grandpa Gene died, there was a very unique gathering at our house on Grandview Ave, in Daly City. My mom had prepared traditional Christmas fare of a big turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and her incredible gravy, green beans, and undoubtedly canned Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, the only kind she’d eat or serve. On this night, we had my dad’s mother, and my mom’s parents, and of course my parents, me, and my five younger sisters all at the big dining table. And it was at this Christmas gathering that we decided to do some digging into our history and find out whatever we could about our lineage.

With a name like “Sullivan,” you’d think we’d be predominantly Irish, but we discovered that this isn’t the case. Our grandfather Gene was mostly Irish, with some Scotch and English mixed in along the way. My grandmother Phyllis (my dad’s mother) was from a combination of English and Welsh stock, both a mere generation back. Her grandfather was in fact a Welsh sea captain with the last name of Minor. My mom’s side is mainly Danish, with her grandmother McKinnon (who we used to call “Old Grandma” when I was growing up) being from Denmark, making my mom’s mom the first U.S.-born generation. But Old Grandma’s husband was Scotch and Welsh, adding more of the latter to our backgrounds. Grandpa Dean (my mom’s dad) also had a Welsh background, with a little American Indian mixed in a couple generations back. So the Irish that we all took for granted was minimal, and it seemed that we were mainly Danish and Welsh, with a little this and that mixed in along the way. Truly, American mutts!

Back to the present and this year’s Christmas, where we once again find ourselves back in our wonderful home in Bend, with access to all that the Central Oregon high desert has to offer. Although we’ll always miss our friends and family in the Bay Area, this is where we chose to move in 2005, and we love it. We’ve made some incredible friends here, and we seem to be luring more people up here, as well. Our friend Rich and his lovely fiance’ Patty just bought a house in Bend, and I think it’s going to be tough for them to remain in Sacramento and use this as a vacation home, once they get a taste of what all of us have discovered as a great place to live. I suppose time will tell.

Although it’s been a tough year financially, we’re so happy to be home in Bend. This year’s festivities will be relatively “easy” for me, as we’ve been invited to both Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners at friends’ houses. I cook every night, and that commonly includes most holidays, so this is a total treat. I’m doing a couple side dishes for tonight’s dinner at Lynda and John’s, and for tomorrow’s feast at Barb and Chuck’s, I was ordered to bring “nothing, other than your lovely wife.” I couldn’t go empty-handed, so I’m “cooking” a bottle of Grey Goose and some fancy martini olives as my little contribution.

This will be our older kitty Penny’s 14th Christmas with us, the first of which was in Gilroy in 1997. I remember her jumping from the top of a ladder, over to the upper branches of the big Noble Fir, which was about half decorated. Surprisingly, she’s never messed with a tree or any of the ornaments since then. However our new kitty Emily, who’s spending her first Christmas with us, is a total maniac. She has a tendency to have long involved conversations with her toys, and these now include many of the tree ornaments, which she somehow has managed to get down from the tree that’s gracing the front window. It will be the first year without Abigail (she was 13), and the second without Annie (18) and my big Maine Coon, Cody (10). One of life’s unfortunate realities is that we tend to outlive our pets and our parents.

We feel lucky to be back in our home this year, to be relatively healthy, to have two healthy kitties, to have access to all of our friends up here, and to be able to experience everything that makes Central Oregon such a special place. Financial times are tough everywhere, but I have faith in both the economy and our collective ability to get through it. Wars are taking too many young lives and a ridiculous amount of our tax dollars, and none of them are even remotely “winnable.” But there are some positive signs that the powers-that-be in Washington are being to cooperate with each other, and there’s hope. In the meantime, we feel blessed to have the life, family and friends that we have around us, and we’re looking forward with optimism to a brighter 2011.

Risa, Penny, Emily and I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a much better 2011!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thanksgiving In Paradise

This is a short excerpt from my book, which will be called "Out Of My Kitchen."  It's mostly a memoir, and it covers the bulk of the kitchens of my life (mine, family, friends' kitchens, and then some) and related experiences that have come out of them.  This piece is about the year I celebrated Thanksgiving with a group of friends while I was living and working (if it could be called that) in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Very fun time, and a memorable holiday, as you might imagine.  This is a raw, unedited piece, so the version that you'll see in the book will undoubtedly undergo some additions and deletions (mostly the latter, from what I've heard from fellow authors).  But this will hopefully convey the flavor of celebrating a holiday in the Caribbean. 

Caribe, Mon!

It was while I was living at the house in the Sunset District in San Francisco during one of our weekend dinner parties that an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years approached me about a job opportunity in St. Thomas. Yes, that St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean. It didn’t take much convincing for me to give my two week notice as Head Clerk at Byrne’s Fine Foods on Polk Street 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 that was based out of Orlando, Florida called RPM, Resort Pool Management. 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, pictured above), 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 and managing the chemical levels in a couple pools, and either working on the beach or sailing to nearby St. John and back. I returned to San Francisco three days before Christmas with the best tan I’ve ever had.  Amazing what six months on a Caribbean beach will do for you in that regard!

But the time I lived in St. Thomas was amazing. Not always easy, and we had some real clowns around us from Tennessee and South Carolina, but we certainly had some good times. I arrived first, and my sister Colleen and friend John T arrived about a month later. As it was still technically the off season for tourists when I first got there, I was told to do two things over the course of my first two weeks … get a tan (we were after all selling suntan products), and explore the island and surrounding islands. St. Thomas is small, measuring a whopping 4 by 13 miles, or 32 square miles of tropical splendor. Like many of the Caribbean islands, it’s flat near the ocean, but rises up quickly. The Danish had control of the island until 1917, when America bought it as a precautionary measure against any potential German invasion of the area. The Danish divided the island into Estates, and I lived in Estate Wintberg, which sat high on one of the hilly areas in the middle of the island. We had a 360 degree view from the several decks of the small house, and could see Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Virgin Gorda, Tortola, and nearby St. John, as well as several smaller islands and “cays.” The several of us who lived in the house were fairly poor at the time, so we didn’t have much … but we had that view, and it always seemed that we had plenty of Mt. Gay rum in the house. The best rums cost all of two bucks a fifth in Charlotte Amalie, which is the only real city on the island. That same rum cost about $15.00 in the U.S. at the time, meaning the government(s) were tacking on about thirteen dollars a bottle in taxes by the time it hit your local liquor store. And to be fair, Mt. Gay cost sixty-seven cents a bottle on Barbados, where it was produced. So the price was tripled by the time it made it to Charlotte Amalie … but only to two dollars.

Our days were spent at one of the three resorts we managed; Pineapple Beach (where I worked), Lime Tree, and Sapphire. Sapphire was the biggest and arguably the fanciest, Lime Tree was small and somewhat hidden away, and Pineapple was somewhere in the middle. Point Pleasant was on the bluff to the right, and Coki Beach (and the best snorkeling on the island) was just to our south.

I made quick friends with Jay and Carla, who owned a beautiful 36’ ketch called The Feather, which was moored in the small bay in front of Pineapple Beach resort. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to “work” on The Feather on my days off, and managed to make the day trip to St. John and back about a dozen times. We’d take six couples, plus Jay and his girlfriend Carla, and myself, and set sail around 10AM for beautiful Honeymoon Bay, which was a leisurely four mile jaunt across the Pillsbury Sound. We’d commonly zig-zag around some of the smaller islands and cays to make it a little more scenic.

Once we were out of the Pineapple Beach harbor, it was an open bar for the rest of the day. Tropical rum concoctions, blender drinks, beer, wine, and soft drinks were only a shout away. We always tried to drop anchor in Honeymoon Bay, because it was a big, open area with some amazing snorkeling, but was rarely “crowded.” More than four boats equaled crowded, and we’d sometimes make the decision to go around the island to another spot, or on a couple occasions all the way around to Virgin Gorda, where the guests got to experience The Baths.

Lunch was prepared on the boat, while Jay and I guided the guests to the best snorkeling spots. We would inevitably be asked if there were sharks in the water, and our stock answer was that "yes, there are 55 varietites of sharks in the Caribbean, but attacks are exceedingly rare."  I never saw a shark while living there (and we were in the water every day), but you could count on seeing a variety or rays and barracuda, as well as the usual array of colorful tropical fish.  Carla would put together amazing meals using fresh local ingredients, and always received a round of applause and lots of “ooo’s and aaaah’s.” One of her favorites was stuffed christophines, which we call chayote in the U.S. She used a very simple technique, which I use to this day for a variety of types of stuffed squash. Simply cut them in half, dig out the center, chop it up and mix with some bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a spice or two (try herbs de provence or just a pinch of thyme). Bake for about 30 minutes at 350, and voila.

After lunch, the guests could do some more snorkeling, or just be lazy and hang around the deck of the Feather for another hour or so, after which, we’d zig-zag back across the four mile stretch of Caribbean, returning to Pineapple Beach by mid-afternoon.


The Thanksgiving celebration in St. Thomas was quite an experience; somewhat surrealistic, verging on magical. Our company got together with another one that performed the same function as ours, and we jointly prepared a huge feast for about twenty, all of whom were relatively new to St. Thomas and a long way from home and family. The local grocery store in Charlotte Amalie is far from comprehensive compared to mainland standards, but we managed to come up with virtually all the customary food items for a great Thanksgiving dinner. A huge turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the "bean casserole thing," mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pies were prepared for the hungry group.  Everyone helped cook, and of course the whole affair took place in or near the large kitchen at our friends’ big rental house. The view from the decks was of Charlotte Amalie, the St. Thomas harbor and Submarine Island, and included a great view of the cruise ships that were docked. There were usually five or six ships in the harbor, and on this day there were at least that many, meaning many thousands of travelers were going to experience Thanksgiving in paradise just as we were. This was truly a memorable holiday, far away from my home in California.

I returned from St. Thomas a couple days before Christmas with the afore-mentioned incredible suntan 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.

After a brief stay in the room downstairs where I lived before going to St. Thomas, my life and subsequent professions were about to change in a huge way.  Next stop ... Chico.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

One not-so-perfect meal

Paella pan on the stove ... ready for action!
As some of you know, I'm working on a book.  One of the early chapters includes a story of "One Perfect Meal," which details the preparation and serving of a party I threw to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a group of us meeting at Body Therapy School.  It was on April 4, 2004 that a half dozen of us bonded immediately, and have remained the very best of friends ever since.  I thought I'd let them know how much their friendship made by doing what I like to think I do best ... cooking for them.  And the multi-course meal came out great. 

And while that chapter was actually written almost a year ago, a little meal I prepared a couple nights ago seemed like a perfect follow up to the perfect meal, since it was a very imperfect meal, and it made sense to illustrate that any cook has the capability of screwing up a meal every once in a while.  I throw out about two meals a year, meaning most of what I prepare comes out somewhere between good and very good, with an occasional excellent, along the way.  But the process below is a clear illustration of what can go wrong in anyone's kitchen. 

This is an actual (although un-edited) cut from the book ... "Out Of My Kitchen!"

One, Not So Perfect ...
So, lest you think that all of my meals turn out perfect every time, let me tell you a little story about my first attempt at paella. My sister and brother in law gave me a beautiful sixteen-inch round, non-stick paella pan about five or six years ago. I’ve moved it several times, stored it in both upright and flat positions in the different cabinets it’s lived in, but alas … I’ve never used it. That is, until a few nights ago. There are several reasons for this, although none of them are particularly good reasons, other than I sort of had a phobia about making paella for some unknown reason. I have two excellent, authentic books on the subject, which I’ve read cover-to-cover. Penelope Casas’ “Paella!” and “Paella Paella” by Maria and Natalia Solis Ballinger are both definitive works, but they weren’t inspiring to the point that I had to actually make the stuff.

But it was a recent issue of Fine Cooking Magazine that changed that. They featured a step by step guide to Authentic Paella, which seemed to remove a lot of the mystery around this traditional Spanish dish. So I made the decision to give it a try … to finally break in the six-year-old new paella pan that’s been taking up cupboard space for so long. And the one final step in the process would be to consult my brother in law John, who makes some absolutely awesome paella, and is a master at the process. I told him that I was planning to use chorizo, chicken and shrimp for the proteins, and would draw from a number of different recipes for the vegetables. He totally concurred, and told me how he puts his paella together, paying particular attention to the creation of the “sofrito,” which is the tomato, onion and garlic base for most paellas. John’s technique called for making the sofrito first, then the meat and chicken, but a couple of the other recipes and the Fine Cooking article said to brown the meats first, then tackle the sofrito. So I opted for John’s sofrito technique, but decided to brown the chorizo and chicken first.

Maybe it was their fault?
 First step was the chorizo, which I’ve never cooked before. I tried cutting it into thin slices, but quickly discovered that this meat wants out of the casing, as it was literally falling out during the cutting process. So fine … out of the casing it came, and into the paella pan for a “quick browning.” And thus begat my first clue that this was not going to be an easy process. The chorizo began popping and spattering fat and grease everywhere. I’d just cleaned the big six-burner stainless steel stove that morning, so I wasn’t pleased with this at all. But I persevered, wiped up the splattered grease as the meat cooked, and cooked, and cooked, but never browned. It had in fact remained with the same greasy consistency throughout the cooking process, and just looked awful. Ok, no chorizo … tossed it into the garbage disposal and wiped the pan out.

The cut up boneless, skinless chicken breasts had been marinating in a combination of Spanish (smoky) paprika, cumin, dried rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper for about an hour. The browning process went fine, and the chicken was put aside to rest while I prepared the sofrito.

The sofrito begins with sweating some finely chopped onions (or shredded on the largest holes of a box grater), garlic, and a couple chopped tomatoes. To this, I added some additional paprika and a little salt. At this point I was flying blind, as I had no idea a sofrito is supposed to look or taste like. My brother in law said it should take about an hour to get it to the right consistency, the magazine article said thirty to forty minutes, and the book recipes made it sound like a quick “sweating” process that wasn’t any different from the base of a pasta sauce … something I’ve done several million times. So in an attempt to strike a happy medium, I opted for about thirty minutes of low heat simmering and occasional stirring for the sofrito.

From here, I added three peppers, one red, one green, one yellow, which were cut into fine slices. Then came two cups of Arborio rice, which was folded into the mixture along with a little olive oil, similar to how I’d prepare a risotto. Next came a few saffron threads (thank you Lisa!) five and a half cups of chicken stock, which you’re instructed to minimally incorporate (don’t stir it up), and pretty much let it rest and cook as it absorbs the liquid. All the recipes had a common theme at this point, which is to not disturb the rice. And this is also the point where all the fun begins.

The recipes in the books and magazine are pretty evenly divided as to whether you should bake it in the oven at this point, or cook it on the stovetop. I opted for the latter, and I’m thinking that the oven might have been a better way to go. The problem is simple … although I have a “big” big burner on the stove, the paella pan is sixteen inches round, meaning regardless of how you vary the flame, it’s going to cook faster in the middle than around the edges. The liquid on the outside was in fact cold, while the stuff in the middle was at a vigorous boil. And you’ll recall that any kind of stirring is akin to heresy to stir the mixture, so your only option is to move the pan around and position the various edges directly over the flame, enabling the whole mess to cook. Tedious and time-consuming, but hopefully the final product would justify the effort.

After twenty minutes or so, I added the pre-cooked chicken and uncooked shrimp to the mixture … of course being careful not to disturb it … God forbid I disturb the rice! I wanted the shrimp to cook evenly, but not overcook, so I opted to place the pieces around the sides, and turn them a couple of times. The chicken was left on its own to “stew” as the outside sections of the paella pan were rotated over the heat. And while this was truly a tedious process and produced splatters on the stove and floor throughout, it seemed as though it was in fact cooking.

I buy plastic tasting spoons in the economical 500-pack size from Costco for just this type of dish. I made sure to taste small amounts from the middle and edges throughout the process, as this was something I’d never made before and I really had no idea how long it would take to cook correctly. But after about thirty minutes of cook time with all the ingredients seemingly in a state of perfection, I pronounced it “done.” As I scooped it into a couple of large soup bowls garnished with the traditional wedges of lemon, I noticed that I had a thin layer of light crispy “socarrat” on the bottom. This is what you want to see on the bottom of your paella pan, and is considered both a delicacy and the sign of a perfectly cooked paella, it its native Spain.

But sitting down and actually eating this stuff was quite an unexpected experience. I already knew that I didn’t like the cooking process or the mess, but it was the dish itself that caught me totally off guard. I didn’t like it, and after three or four spoonful’s, I’d had enough. My wife said she liked it, and in fact finished the whole bowl she’d dished out. I did not, and tossed about three quarters of my bowl out. She said she’d eat leftovers for lunch the next day, so I put some in a plastic container in the fridge … and then dumped out the rest. Into the garbage it went, directly from the paella pan to the trash. I knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d eat any more, so after my couple hours of prep work, cooking, and constant mopping up of splatters, it was all over. And the leftovers I saved for her lunch? Sat there for three days and subsequently got dumped down the disposal.

So I’m not quite sure why this was such a cataclysmic failure on so many levels, but it definitely was. Prep work doesn’t bother me, lots of ingredients are always fun, and I definitely like making new things from every part of the world. But this one just didn’t work, and on so many levels. The chorizo looked awful and had the consistency of mud. The mess and splatter from all the ingredients as they were being added to the mixture, was ridiculous. The tedious cooking process where you have to spin the sixteen inch pan over the burner to cook everything, is not something I’ll do again. If I ever make this again, it’s going in the oven. And it’s unlikely I’ll ever make it again. The end didn’t justify the means, as I didn’t like the taste, and it ended up in the garbage. Does paella mean garbage in Spanish? Maybe I actually did do it right, and I just don’t know it!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Meatfest Returns To Bend

Judging from the attendees' comments, the thirteenth installment of my little summer barbeque was once again a hit.  The food always seems to range from great to amazing, and it never ceases to amaze me that the guests seem to come up with wonderfully tasty new creations every year.  I vary the meat and what I make from year to year, but I really think it's your contributions that make it such a memorable event.   
After two years in the Bay Area (our last two years there, if there's a God in heaven), we're once again back in our beautiful house off the river in Bend, Oregon.  We have two guest bedrooms, and can easily accomodate a couple more by putting inflatable beds in one of the offices or the massage room.  Risa's bedroom served as my sister's room for the first night of her stay, and she then moved into the bigger guest suite after Angela, Nicole and Rebecca headed home to the Bay Area and North Carolina, respectively.  So our guest count varied from three, to four, to one, over the course of a week.

I've written extensively about the unpredictable nature of our weather up here in the high desert of Central Oregon.  While it's mainly a moderate climate with four distinct seasons, it can and has snowed on the fourth of July.  The snowfall is generally close to the published average of thirty-two inches a season, but in the five years we've lived here we've seen it range from fifteen to over seventy inches.  Like sharks, the only thing that's predictable about our weather is that it's unpredictable.  Therefore, it wasn't a surprise that there was a little wind and chill on the day of the annual big barbeque.  It was a hundred degrees a week earlier, and just over sixty on Meatfest Sunday.  Typical, as always. 

Meatfest was always a Memorial Day event in the Bay Area, and we continued this tradition our first year in Bend.  But given the fact that it snowed the day before the BBQ, and was pretty chilly and drizzly on Memorial Day Sunday, we opted to move it to the other end of the summer in the subsequent years, where we assumed we'd have a better chance at good weather.  Sometimes we luck out, and sometimes we don't.  I'm thinking seriously of moving it to a non-holiday weekend in late July next year.  Maybe the law of averages will swing in my favor and I'll actually have some sunny summer weather!

But the weather never makes a huge difference in my guests having a good time.  And this year was no exception.  The house is big enough for people to come inside if they're cold, so we had pockets of people all around the yard searching out the elusive patches of sunshine, as well as in the living and family rooms, and of course in my kitchen.  Many of you know I'm working on a book titled "Out Of My Kitchen," and this event is a good illustration of the duality of the title.  It documents all of the meals, friendships, and experiences that have come out of my time in the kitchen, and of course emphatically requests that people generally refrain from being in my kitchen while I'm preparing their meals. 

A notable exception during this year's event was my friend Nicole, who completed pastry school last year.  It must become second nature for anyone who spends time in a kitchen with multiple chefs, to learn how to do your thing and maneuver yourself around the other chefs.  Nicole managed to prepare a tray of cheescake, which she transformed into the most delectable "chocolate cheesecake lollypops," and an amazing apple pie with a perfect homemade crust.  These went quickly, and there were no leftovers. 

Our guests brought some incredible side dishes this year.  Very inventive salads seemed to dominate ... pastas, chicken, fingerling potatoes, orzo and more.  Several people brought desserts, and these too were total hits.  Nice to see people cook, particularly the ones who don't do a lot of it.  Good for you! 

Meatfest meats are usually my contribution, but this year also featured Chris' incredible Spice Crusted Salmon.  This is a dish that she graciously let me borrow several years ago, and I make it many times a year.  She cooked two huge salmon fillets, and they were devoured.  Once again ... no leftovers. 

I cooked tri-tips, a whole pork tenderloin, chicken, and a huge pot of chili.  The tri-tips were tenderized with the Jaccard tenderizer (couldn't live without it!), marinated in my Rubbit dry rub, and cooked on the charcoal BBQ with a mop of Rubbit, apple cider, Lea & Perrins, and tomato paste.  The pork tenderloin was marinated in Penzey's BBQ 3000 dry rub, smoked in the Big Chief smoker for 2 1/2 hours with four types of wood chips, then cooked off-heat in the BBQ.  The chicken was marinated overnight in tandoori spice, and I wasn't thrilled with the outcome.  Kind of bland, probably needed some liquid marinade. 

The chili was a tad spicy, but it got rave reviews.  A combination of Anaheim, pasilla, jalapeno, serrano, and habanero chilis (only two of the latter) were sweated down, along with a couple Walla Walla onions.  Spices included several chili powders, cayenne pepper (in moderation), oregano, and of course lots of cumin.  Early in the process, it seemed like this may be too spicy for the general population, but it mellowed just enough over the course of the day, and turned out perfect.  It's sometimes difficult to gauge what "spicy" means to a large group, but I didn't see anyone running for cold water, and people were highly complimentary.  Successful batch of chili!

I do something that's arguably a tad strange, when I put on events like this.  After spending the bulk of two days doing the prep work, then testing the chili and meats as I go, by the time I have the meats cut and placed on platters, I'm commonly ready to park and enjoy a martini.  I eventually had a small bowl of chili (because it really was good), but I almost never prepare a full plate of food for myself.  I imagine everyone put on a little weight during the event ... I lost three pounds.  Interesting.

This event is always fun, and the biggest reason is the guests who grace us with their presence.  The crowd varies from year to year ... some people have been to many of these, and there's always a few newbies.  This year was no exception; we had visitors from California and North Carolina, and a good many of our local friends from the Bend area.  I believe the count was around 35 this year, which is about average.  I had 75 one year in San Jose, and all three of my current bands also played for the entire event.  Thirty five and no band was nice, as it gave me a chance to spend some quality time with each of these wonderful people. 

It's great being home in Bend.  As I mentioned at the outset, it's unlikely that we'll ever move out of this area again.  The mountains, river, relatively slower pace, four seasons (unpredictable as they surely are), and the amazing group of friends we've amassed up here, has totally won us over.  I'm so grateful that family members and friends continue to visit from California and elsewhere, and I'm always happy to provide them a place to stay, and hopefully cook some good meals for them.  It's what I do, and I enjoy playing host.  There still may be a B&B in the future ... who knows.  But for now, I'm content to be back in the big house by the river, and able to entertain friends and family in relatively nice style. 

Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the incredible array of food.  We'll of course see most of you with some regularity, and you can all look forward to next year's Evite for Meatfest 14 ... quite likely in July!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Anniversary Dinner

Yesterday was our twentieth wedding anniversary, and we decided to dine at home and I'd create something special.  We have two friends with birthdays, plus our anniversary, so we'd already made plans to go dinner tonight with them at a new restaurant here in Bend.  Our actual anniversary would be a stay-at-home dinner compliments of yours truly.  To make this even more special, we had a bottle of champagne and a bottle of wine that would be the perfect compliment to what I'd planned to make. 

We have a couple of friends, Gary and Laura, who are Hollywood stunt people.  Gary's a former stunt guy, and pretty much concentrates on directing stunts now.  This is a business that takes its toll on your body, as you can probably imagine.  Laura still does stunts, including doubles, driving, martial arts, and anything considered too risky for the "stars."  She's appeared in Fast and Furious, Coyote Ugly (the one who did the "fire trick" on the bar), Speed, and many more.  Very nice people, and we love having them visit.  Gary and Laura stayed at our house for a couple of nights last year when we were in the Bay Area, and as a thank you, left us a bottle of 2000 Vintage Dom Perignon Champagne.  An amazing gesture, to say the least.  We've been tempted to pop it several times, but our 20th anniversary was the perfect time. 

I'd started prepping dinner, and thought I'd open the wine that I'd planned to serve (more on that, ahead).  My wife heard the "pop" and yelled down ... "Don't open the champagne yet!"  I'd already gotten out the Waterford champagne glasses that I bought her for our first anniversary, but I was actually opening the wine so it would breathe ... not the champagne.  I assured her that the Dom Perignon was still chilling, and a couple of minutes later she came downstairs with a bag.  "Open this," she said.  The reason she didn't want me to open (and pour) the champagne, is that she'd gotten us a pair of beautiful champagne glasses for our anniversary, and wanted to use these instead.  Then, I popped the Dom, and we enjoyed it immensely ... in the new glasses pictured here. 

The wine I've been alluding to was a gift from my friend Larry Wolff, who visited us last week with his lovely wife Trish.  I met Larry in our seventh grade homeroom class, and we've been the best of friends ever since (this was a long time ago!).  He wanted to be a doctor as long as I've known him, and is in fact a cardiologist, specializing in cardiac electrophysiology. Larry and Trish made their annual trek to Washington, where Trish's family has a piece of property that they've camped on since she was young.  And instead of going straight down Interstate 5, back to Sacramento, they cut inland along the Columbia Gorge, past beautiful Multnomah Falls, and south on 97 to our house in Bend.  Larry's also an amazing athelete, currently training for a world class level bicycle race in Portugal.  He could end up number one in the world in his division, and knowing his drive and capabilities, he just may do it!  He had one of his Scott bikes with him during his visit, and of course had to take a little jaunt up to Mt. Bachelor, which is a twenty mile uphill battle that would kill most mortals.  But this is the kind of thing he enjoys, and he totally took it in stride and rode up and back, in the afternoon Central Oregon summer heat. 

Back to the wine ... Larry brought us a bottle of Joseph Phelps Cabernet, vintage 2003.  A very nice California red, to say the least.  Although I could have and arguably should have put it in the wine rack and let it be, I decided that it would be the perfect compliment to the 20th anniversary meal (which I promise to get to eventually), and had to pop it on this night.  And what would be the perfect glasses to serve it in?  Of course, I had to go for the Waterford wine goblets that Larry and Trish had given us twenty years ago.  These were in fact our first wedding gift, and a very nice one at that.  Done! 

The Meal ...
Grilled loin lamb chops
Marinated for four hours in garlic, olive oil, chopped fresh rosemary, salt and pepper
Grilled on the gas barbeque, 7 minutes per side, turned a couple times, medium high heat

Vodka cream penne rigate
(Variation of a recipe from the Silver Spoon cookbook ... the bible of Italian cooking!)
This is a very simple, yet totally tasty pasta recipe.  As opposed to the classic idea of a spice and garlic laden Italian preparation, this one's pretty much devoid of these expected ingredients.  This pasta, along with the tomato cream pesto rigatoni (also from the Silver Spoon) are two of my favorite pasta side dishes.  And if you don't have the Silver Spoon in your collection, and aren't lucky enough to have someone like my friend Angela give it to you as a gift, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy.  Amazing book. 

16 oz. of penne pasta, cooked 11 minutes for al dente
3-4 ounces of proscuitto, chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tomatoes, diced, seeded, strained
3 tablespoons of heavy cream
3/4 cup of vodka
1 tablespoon of dried parsley flakes
Parmesan cheese for garnish

Plan ahead for the penne rigate ... the sauce will take about 15 minutes to prepare, the pasta takes 11.  Have the water boiling, drop the pasta in the water about 5 minutes into your sauce prep time.

Heat the oil and butter over medium heat
Add the proscuito, parsley and tomatoes and cook over medium low for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Stir in the vodka and cream, simmer on medium low for another 5 minutes
Drain the penne rigate, combine with the sauce, stir in a couple tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan

Cold Asparagus
1 pound of thin, fresh asparagus
Drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Shaved parmesan strips

There's a simple trick to trimming asparagus to the perfect length.  Find the place on the "thick end" that breaks easily when you bend it.  It's usually a couple inches from the end, you'll know it when you find it.  Save the broken off piece to measure the right spot, and cut the remaining pieces the same length.  You'll now have equal length pieces to cook, without having to break them all individually.  Looks better cut, vs. broken too!

The technique is to blanch the asparagus, then cool it on a flat pan or plate until you're ready to garnish and serve it.  Have a big bowl of icewater next to your sink.  Boil a couple quarts of water with a little salt.  Drop the asparagus into the pot, and boil for 5 minutes.  Drain the asparagus in a colander (a pasta pot with an insert works perfect for this), and immediately plunge it into the icewater.  This stops the internal cooking process and keeps it crispy, which is what you want when you serve it. 

After a minute in the icewater, lay the asparagus out on a small cookie tray or dish, cover with foil, chill in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve it.

Serve by laying the asparagus out flat on a serving platter, drizzle a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with salt (good use for your fleur de sel), and garnish with some Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler.  Makes for a beautiful presentation, and it's a consistent crowd pleaser.

Dessert?  Couldn't do any better than chocolate sundaes with Oregon's own Umpqua Vanilla Bean ice cream. 

Great dinner, plenty of leftovers for lunch today, and tonight we'll check out the brand new "Bourbon Street" restaurant in town.  Not a bad couple of days and meals!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Asian Noodle Soup

I've gotten so many requests for this, and people seem to love it, so I thought I'd post it as a blog piece.  Feel free to use it, copy it, exploit it, whatever you want.  It's my recipe, but it's simply the end result of lots of experimenting in an effort to get close to pho flavor without spending all day doing it.  Don't be put off by the list of ingredients, this is actually an easy soup with a bunch of stuff that you're probably not used to using.  This is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. 

This soup is good year ‘round, and it takes less than an hour to make. I love making homemade pho, but it takes way too long for a weeknight dinner. This is very close, and infinitely easier. There are a few ingredients you likely don’t have in your pantry (I do, which is sort of scary!). All of these should be available in any good supermarket’s Asian section. If we have them in Bend, you have them where you live. Noodles are a personal choice. I’m using Udon tonight, I also like Soba, or you can certainly use real Vietnamese pho noodles. All are good, and work equally well.
The recipe also works with either chicken or beef. This recipe's for beef, but you can substitute chicken and chicken stock for exactly the same effect. I've made it with just chicken or beef broth (and no meat) and it's still great.  Haven't tried a total vegetarian version, but the rest of the spices and ingredients are likely to yield an awesome soup as well. 
  • 8 cups of water
  • 32 oz. box of Swanson’s low-sodium fat free beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons of “Better Than Bouillon” beef stock concentrate
  • 1 pound of lean beef, cut into 3 inch, very thin strips (I like eye of round)
  • 1 large white onion, peeled, quartered, slice thin, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
  • 1 bunch of green onions, sliced at an angle (white and most of the green)
  • ½ bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • ½ bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon EACH of Thai Kitchen green and red curry pastes
  • Lemongrass, either:
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 2 star anise pieces
  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce (light, low sodium works fine)
  • 12 oz of your choice of Asian noodles, cooked according to the package. I prefer Udon or Soba (buckwheat)
Garnishes of:
  • Lemon or lime wedges
  • Thin sliced jalapenos (with seeds)
  • Fresh bean sprouts
  • Thai basil if you can find it, regular basil leaves if you can't - whole leaves on the stem
  • Sriracha red hot sauce (no substitutes, track it down!)
  • In a stockpot on high heat, combine the broth, 8 cups of water
  • Stir in the bouillon concenrate, chili paste and curry pastes
  • Add the lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon, soy sauce
  • Stir in the beef, reduce to medium high heat
  • Stir in the cilantro, basil, green onions, return to a boil
  • Drain the water from the white onions, add to the stockpot, return to a boil
  • Reduce to medium low heat, partially cover, simmer for 45 minutes
  • Remove the star anise and cinnamon, and the lemongrass if you used whole pieces
Prepare the noodles according to the directions (generally, have the water boiling and allow 15 minutes for the noodles.  Some take longer, some shorter, this is a good guideline).

To Serve:
  • With tongs or a pasta server, place some noodles at the the bottom of large soup bowls
  • Ladle the soup over the noodles
  • Serve with the garnishes and chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons
The Vietnamese Way:
A former employee and good friend of mine, Hai Nguyen (just say "win" for the correct pronunciation) introduced me to pho in Sunnyvale about 15 years ago.  He also taught me the correct Vietnamese way of garnishing and eating it.
  • Tear off a few leaves of basil and toss them in the bowl
  • Throw in a handful of bean sprouts
  • Squeeze a wedge of lemon or lime on top
  • Use Sriracha to your own level of heat tolerance (it's hot, but imperative!)
  • Pick up the noodles with chopsticks, "chew" them off.  This is not a neat process, but this is how you do it!
  • Use the soup spoon for the broth and remainder of the ingredients

Monday, August 9, 2010

Walk This Way!

We've had an extremely nice summer so far, up here in Central Oregon.  Warm days, cool nights, nothing outrageous one way or another, other than a couple freak thunderstorms here and there.  We get four seasons here, and you have to learn to both appreciate them and adjust to them, or it can drive you crazy.  Winters sometimes seem to go on forever, springs and falls can be way too short, and summer's generally mid-June to the end of September, and no more than that. 

One of the things we totally love about our home in Bend, is the proximity to the river, and specifically the Deschutes River Trail that's five minutes from the house, and parallels the river into town.  I've written about the walk and posted lots of pictures in earlier articles, but I made a concerted effort to shoot pictures all the way into town today, so this will be more about the journey via the pictures, and less of my babble. 

This is the "trail that leads to the trail," and is about a five minute walk from our house.  Actually steeper than it looks, and nothing you want to mess with without snowshoes in the winter. 
The Deschutes River starts in the Cascade Lakes, and flows south to north. They direct some of it from the river into this spillway on the left, where it flows into a 10' pipe, and ultimately to several smaller streams that run through town. This water is MOVING!

This is a little metal and wood pier that juts out into the river about 20' or so.  Undoubtedly has fly fishing potential, as it extends out into the river at a seemingly perfect angle.  Just gotta find the right little spots to toss the bugs out to ... Riffles, riffles ...
Looking downstream from the little pier.

This is an interesting shot (if you can believe it).  The semi-tree-thing in the middle is actually an osprey's nest.  Some friends pointed this out the first year we moved up here, and it's remained a nest year after year.  You can occasionally see the "mama" fly in or out of it, and with binoculars you can spot the little ones.  The mama bird is HUGE, and we see her flying around every night. 
The river trail is a circuitous route that goes from close to our house in River Canyon Estates, to the Old Mill District, in the middle of town.  The Old Mill is a great spot to shop, eat, hang out, listen to (or pay to watch) a concert at the Amphitheater, or just to walk around.  This is a shot of the river, flowing in that direction.  Still amazes me that this river (and several other prominent ones up here) flow south to north. 

This is a little up higher, looking down at the river in one of its wider spots. 
The trail into town has very little in the way of ups and downs, but the river goes from eye level to "this high" over the course of the three mile trek. 

This is the 10' pipe that channels the flow off of the Deschutes to the little tributaries around town. You'd think you could actually hear the water running through it, but amazingly you can't. BIG pipe!

My lovely bride pausing and refreshing.  We've made our way to the fork in the road where you can travel the rest of the way into town on the "other side" of the river, or "this" side of the river.  This day, we chose "this side." 
The final little wooden bridge, as you're approaching town.  You're obviously right on / off the river here, and it's a very cool sensation. 
After the miles of ups and downs, rapids and relative calm sections, it's finally a totally peaceful river as you approach the Healy Bridge and "civilization as we know it."  Bend's just around the corner.  Let's hope.

The beautiful Bill Healy bridge.  This is such an incredible site that we (and others we know, trust me!) actually go out of their way to cross it.  You can't tell from the picture, but that "black thing" sticking up in the front of the raft is actually a very big Labrador Retriever.  I suspect he's been left in charge of the yacht while his people are diving for treasure.  Or something. 
Farewell Bend Park, with the Old Mill smokestacks in the distance.  This is one of the most gorgeous places in town, and we never tire of it.  Along with the Sisters, Bachelor, and the other mountains of the Cascade range, this is simply a site to behold.  Dogs run free here, people use the picnic tables, it's the place to get into the water for a float down the Deschutes, and it's just a gorgeous place to hang out. 
This specific spot at Farewell Bend Park was apparently the spot where the city was first conceived, and everything was built out from here.  Now I know, and I'll always take out of town friends here to see it. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Happy Birthday Marty

Some of the best times of my (much) younger days were spent traveling with my friend Marty. He and I met at catechism at about seven or eight years old.  We were more acquaintences for the first few years, but we both had a dislike for attending the afore-mentioned religious training (Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt, I believe the church was called?) and commonly would "cut" catechism and walk up and over what was then called Alemany Boulevard, to Thornton Beach.  Alemany ultimately was renamed John Daly Boulevard, after the founder of Daly City, and Thornton Beach is now a dim memory in the minds of those of us who used to hang out there when we were kids.  I believe it had one too many bouts with erosion and the San Andreas Fault, and they simply closed it down and made a parking lot out of the top of the hill that used to lead down to the beach.  Curiously, the Mar Vista Riding Stables that have always been right next to this parking lot, are still in operation.  They were boarding and renting horses to ride along the trails on the cliffs when I was a kid, and they're still in business.  This used to be five bucks an hour ... I wonder what inflation has done to the cost of renting a horse on the coast, just south of San Francisco.  But Marty and I spent plenty of time there in our youth, and no offense to Sister Timothy and Father Powers, but we had way more fun than we would have had at catechism. 

Our friendship really took off when we discovered a few common passions ... surfing, music, cars, and of course girls.  There were several occasions over the years when our girlfriends were actually best friends themselves.  Made things much simpler, and seemed to be a repetitve pattern for a few years.  We played in a band together for most of our high school years, and both of us caught the surfing bug in about 8th grade.  We were relegated to bumming rides from older friends, parents, or hitchhiking to the beach until we could drive ourselves, but we somehow managed to get to Pedro Point in Pacifica a couple times a week, and Santa Cruz every couple weeks.  Both his grandparents and mine lived in or near Santa Cruz, so overnight visits were commonplace.

After getting our driver's licenses, we probably averaged 3-4 trips to Santa Cruz per week.  For those of you unfamiliar with this surfing mecca that lies about 65 miles south of San Francisco, they've raged an ongoing battle with Huntington Beach for the official "Surf City" moniker, for many decades.  Within the span of about 15 miles, there are literally dozens of known and secret surfing spots.  Our favorite place was always Pleasure Point, which is where the legendary Jack O'Neill (of wetsuit fame) has a house overlooking the waves.  "Outside" Pleasure Point could usually be counted on for bigger waves (as well as the worst wipeout of my life), but also more crowded conditions.  "Inside" Pleasure was an easier climb down the cliff, and a much easier paddle out.  High tide was best, low tide provided a lot of boulder dodging, but either way, we loved surfing there. 

As a chef, looking back at the he food we ate in those days makes me cringe.  A common day would include a trip to A&W Rootbeer on our way out of town, probably for a Papa Burger or a huge Sub sandwich, fries, and a huge rootbeer or float.  If we'd spent the night, we'd probably hit up both our grandmothers for breakfast, playing the starving student card frequently.  They enjoyed feeding us, we took advantage of their hospitality often.  We'd surf for a few hours, then it was lunch time.  Several tacos from Taco Tio on Ocean were the norm, but if the waves were good we'd simply pick up "sandwich kits" from the little Pleasure Point store.  They'd package a sourdough roll, lunch meat, cheese, mustard and mayo, and sell them by the billions to the surfers.  Then it was back in the water for a few more hours before heading back up the coast.  Dinner at my parents' first, then his house for another meal. 

We took many trips to Southern California, beginning when we were both 16, and able to drive ourselves.  The first trip was in his parents' Ford Country Squire wagon, which was smooth and comfortable, althouth the big V-8 probably guzzled plenty of gas (which was a quarter a gallon then).  First food stop on the way south was at a restaurant in Pismo Beach.  I remember Marty's meal like it was yesterday ... he ordered the chicken dinner and asked the waitress how much food was involved ... after she described it as a pretty good size meal, he retorted with "then you'd better bring me a burger and fries while I'm waiting."  Classic Cloonan. 

The first waves of the trip were in Huntington Beach.  I'd just gotten my first "short" board, which was an 8'6" Gordon and Smith Midget Farrelly Model.  Beautiful blue V-Bottom that replaced my 10' Hansen Superlight.  Both of these ran about $175 apiece, and they'd fetch about five grand today.  They don't make 'em like the used to!  I managed to get some waves at the Huntington Pier, but the last one managed to nail me and I had to swim in to my board which washed up on the beach.  There were no surfboard "leashes" in these days.  In the span of the next ten minutes, we encountered all the bad karma we needed for the rest of the trip ... First, I was stung by a jellyfish.  Then as we stood on the beach watching a rescue team diving into the water to save a swimmer, I managed to jam the skeg of my new board into my foot while standing it up in the sand.  We returned to the parking lot to discover that Marty had left the wax on the hood of the car in the 90 degree sun, and it now covered the hood.  And finally, pulling out of the lot, he ran into a metal post, putting the only dent that car had ever seen in the right front quarter.  Memories of Huntington Beach.

But the rest of the trip provided some amazing surfing in places like Redondo Beach, Hermosa, Tourmaline, and the famous Windansea off the La Jolla coast.  We also surfed the Tijuana Sloughs, which was a long stretch of crummy surf in front of where his brother was living, just north of the border.  Two memorable nights here that will forever remain in the memory of these two impressionable 16-year-olds.  We went to see the Beach Boys and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap at the Coliseum in San Diego one night, and Marty's brother Wayne was driving the car.  Apparently he did a rolling (California style) stop through an intersection, and a bike cop pulled him over.  Without missing a beat, as the cop walked up to the window Wayne says "I'll have a Super Burger, a bag of fries, and a Jack Cola please."  The cop laughed, and proceeded to write him out a ticket. 

The other "fun" night was the first of dozens of trips I'd eventually take to Tijuana.  If you're old enough to reach the bar and order a beer in "T.J.," they'll serve it to you.  I think we both drank about a dozen Superior Mexican beers that night.  Tijuana's a trip ... 'nuff said on that subject.  We were 16. 
Another memorable trip that once again ended up in Santa Cruz, was one night that we had a band gig in Pacifica.  We were opening up for another band that was managed by our manager, the Western Civilization, who were from Santa Fe.  I'd been semi-dating a girl named Kathy at the time, but she was spending the week at her parents' place in Clear Lake, thereby clearing the way for me to invite a friend of Marty's girlfriend Cathy, named Janet, who was visiting from Seattle.  So Marty and Cathy and Janet and I loaded all of our band equipment into my '51 Chevy Woodie and headed to the gig.  Upon arriving there, the bass player from the other band told me that his stewardess girlfriend was at the gig, and she had lined me up with a friend of hers for my date for the night.  The evening was getting complicated very quickly.  Sometime during my drum setup, I hear a little "Hi" from behind me, as "my" Kathy walked in.  She decided to come back early from Clear Lake to see us play.  I was cordial, and also made nice with the "setup" stewardess (who was gorgeous as I recall), but there's no place like backstage when this kind of thing happens.  We played our first set, hung around backstage, played the second set, and promptly piled everything into the Woodie and headed for Santa Cruz while the other band was finishing the show.  Most nights I'd be very lucky to have one girlfriend at a show ... three was unheard-of, and way too complicated.

The last trip I'll attempt to entertain you with was one we took to the Lake Almanor area.  Once again, it was in Marty's Country Squire (which he'd bought from his parents when he was 18), and once again it involved his girlfriend Cathy and by sheer coincidence, another friend of hers.  Cathy had gone on vacation with her family to the booming metropolis of Graeagle, California, a tiny resort town near Portola, in the vicinity of Lake Almanor and Mt. Lassen.  Unfortunately, Marty's parents were away for the weekend, and his 100 pound boxer "Duke" was his responsibility.  But Cathy's parents invited us up, and she mentioned that she had a girlfriend up there who she wanted me to meet, so we piled ourselves and Duke in the wagon, and headed north.  We were pleasantly shocked to find that Cathy's parents were kind (or stupid) enough to get us a room in the resort, so we wouldn't have to sleep in the car.  Fine, so far. 

We left Duke in the room, had some dinner, and went for a swim in the resort's pool with the girls.  We'd been gone for maybe an hour when one of the resort people came and got us, saying something like "you need to vacate the room ... your dog ATE the door."  Yes, he used the word "ate," I didn't make this up.  He didn't of course, but he mangled it pretty badly, and we were once again relegated to sleeping in the back of the Country Squire.  Duke got the front seat to himself. 

Marty has a big birthday today ... one of those "left digit" birthdays that we all hate coming along every decade.  I skipped second grade so he's older than I am, meaning my "turn" at this birthday is still a year off. But it's a momentous one for him, and he's been a great friend for such a long time.  He's the kind of friend that you can go without seeing for a couple years, and when you get together it's like you saw eachother yesterday.  It's a friendship that hasn't missed a beat since we met during Sister Timothy's catechism classes (which we cut so many times).  It's endured through his time in the Army, my time at San Diego State, and moving to St. Thomas and Chico, and now Bend.  He's raised great kids, and now has a few grandkids to spoil.  His lovely wife Donna is his best friend, and their homelife is the classic American dream. 

So on the occasion of this birthday, which is meaningful in more ways than I went into here ... I'd like to wish my friend Marty a happy one, and many more to follow!  Alla Ka Zip!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Returning Home

Sayonara, California
Two weeks ago, we made what I believe to be the final move from California to Bend, Oregon. The proverbial bottom line of an otherwise very long story, is that we moved to Bend in 2005, but subsequently ended up moving back to the Bay Area for jobs and the economic downturn in 2008. Ridiculous tax rates everywhere you turn, a crazy economy on a grand scale, an unfathomable cost of living, layoffs and corporate politics, and simply way too much population has tarnished any luster that the Golden State once held for this San Francisco native. So it’s back to the beautiful house across the street from the Deschutes River, and all the wonders that the beautiful state of Oregon has to offer.

The Move
I decided to do a "pre-move" trip in the little GTI, which is a total blast to drive through the Sacramento Valley, up over the Siskiyou's, and up through Central Oregon. Keep a diligent eye on the speedometer and the rear view mirror, and it can be a very fun trip. I've gotten so used to making the trip, that the whole thing seems to fly by (in 8 hours). I pack a few diet coke's, crank the tunes up, and just go. The only mandatory stop is of course Granzella's Deli in Williams, for a quick sandwich to go.

I spent a busy week at the house, arranging the garage, carrying in and unloading the 30-40 boxes of items that we'd been storing out there for the last two years. I'd originally planned to drive back, but it made more sense to fly, and leave the GTI in the garage (which now looked like a garage again and would actually keep the two cars out of the snow!). So it was back to the Bay Area for another week of packing and getting everything ready to load up and move.

The 2005 move north was done by the nice people at United Van Lines, who for the sum of nearly ten grand were happy to load, move and unload our 18,000 pounds of "stuff." Let me say up front that you never have a true idea of how much you've accumulated, until you have to pack and move it. Crazy! But this time I decided to do it myself, since we were able to move everything to California in a couple medium truckloads. 

I flew back to SFO with the intention of loading up a huge 26’ truck and driving the remainder of our worldly possessions from Belmont to Bend. But it became evident about three quarters of the way through the load up process that this was not to be. It was going to require an additional truckload to get all of our stuff home. So move day #1 began with loading up the monster truck and driving the 525 miles north, which unfortunately began during San Francisco’s famous rush hour, at 4 PM (something else you never give any thought to, in Central Oregon). Ten hours later, I pulled into our little track of homes in Bend. We hired “loaders and unloaders” to help with this portion of the move, so I only had to do 1/3 of the work myself. Still a lot of work, though, considering I did the bulk of the packing, and all the driving. We unloaded the big truck the following morning, turned it into U-Haul, and reserved a 14’ truck for the following Tuesday, since there was snow expected on Monday and there’s no way I was going to drive a moving van through snow in the Siskiyou’s.

Tuesday morning … up at 4, on the plane at 6, Angela picked me up at SFO at 7:45 and drove me to the U-Haul place in Millbrae, back at the house at 8:45 and began loading it up with the remains of our worldly goods in the garage. My friend Danny was kind enough to drive over the hill from Pacifica and help with the heavy stuff, and I was able to get out of Dodge by 10:15. Eight and a half hours later, I was once again in Bend, hopefully for good.

I generally love the drive to Bend. And it’s not just because I’m heading back to the place I now call home, but in fact it’s the ride itself. Several years ago when we first started making this 500+ mile trek, it seemed to be a long arduous ride that couldn’t end quickly enough. But I began looking at it in more of a positive light (what else was I to do?) and began enjoying the many “chunks” of scenery that this ride provided.

The first hurdle is always the same … getting out of the Bay Area. Same thing when you’re traveling north to south … it can be a beautiful ride for 400 miles, and then you hit Vacaville and it’s anybody’s guess how much congestion you’ll run into for the final push. But once you’re through the traffic of the greater Bay Area, and make the turn from Highway 80 to 505, it’s generally smooth sailing.

The “chunks” I’ve referred to in earlier pieces include the 505 connector from Vacaville to where it meets Highway 5 (my sister refers to this stretch as the Nurburgring, since the 70 mph speed limit and long straight expanses of road tend to encourage a lead foot), the long ride through the valley to Redding, the winding road through the Siskiyou’s and around Mt. Shasta, the turnoff onto 97 at Weed which provides some phenomenal views of the north side of Shasta, as well as the high plains and the lower section of the Cascades, and finally the turn from northeast to due north at Klamath Falls and the last 135 miles to Bend. See how easy it is to make a 525 mile trip seem like a piece of cake? But three times in two weeks, and twice in three days was plenty, and I’m staying put for now.

Back on the Deschutes
After several days of unloading and feeling the full impact of packing and moving the entire house full of “stuff,” (not to mention the afore-mentioned three driving trips), I was ready for the first real nice day outside, and the first walk along the Deschutes in quite some time. I often refer to our home as being "across the street" from the river, which technically it is.  But it's down a bit of a gorge, and to get to it requires a walk around the corner, and a small hike down to the path that leads along the Deschutes into town.  It literally takes five minutes to get to the path ... a huge plus! 

You're greeted at the beginning of the path with a rushing of water that is split off of the river and into a massive ten-foot round metal pipe, which then carries a portion of the river runoff through several smaller tributaries around town.  Like any runoff, it's regulated from high in the mountains (in this case the Cascade Lakes), and varies with need and time of year.  But the spring runoff is in full force currently, so the water in both the river itself, and the split off mechanism were pretty impressive. The Deschutes (and several other rivers in Central Oregon) runs south to north, which I've always found fascinating for some reason.  It just seems that "downhill" would mean the opposite direction of flow, but such is not the case.  The Deschutes starts on the south side of Mt. Bachelor high in the Cascade Lakes, and flows north to the Columbia Gorge, which separates Oregon from Washington. 

This day's walk along the river would be about a mile each way.  I didn't have the time (or energy) to do the full walk into town, which is two and a half miles each way.  But I definitely enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the way, and the views that range in elevation from nearly even with the water, to maybe a couple hundred feet up.  Wildlife is ever present, particularly in the spring and summer months, and today was no exception.  Deer are sometimes seen on the other side of the river, but generally only at dusk, not mid-day.  Osprey are common, and there's been a family of them nested at the top of an old hollowed-out tree every year we've been here.  Great blue herons are a rare spectacular site, butterflies and dragonflies are everywhere, and of course the path is heaven on earth for all forms of dogs.  Some of them are content to walk and explore with their "people," but some of the retriever-types can't resist a romp in the river, which is abundantly evident by the wet canines along the way.  The river moves at a fairly good pace, so I'm sure they have to "sneak" a quick swim in the water before they're told not to by their owners.  Go for it, guys!

Central Oregon's weather is famously unpredictable.  The local saying goes something like "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it'll totally change."  And there's a lot of truth to this.  In the three weeks since I drove up in the GTI, we've seen four days of pretty good snowfall, several days of rain (which we need - this is after all, high desert), a little bit of wind, and days like my afore-mentioned walk and today that are totally gorgeous, warm, with nary a cloud in the sky.  Days like this beckon you outdoors. Among the many things we love about it here is that there's so much to see and do, so close.  The river's always an easy choice, but brief rides in any direction can provide some spectacular scenery and outdoor activity.  Tumalo Falls, the peak of Mt. Bachelor, the Cascade Lakes, Sisters, Lava Butte, and some amazing views of the Cascade Range are all within a very few minute drive.  The Old Mill District and an outdoor restaurant seat with a river front view is within walking distance.  Our great little two-block Downtown is another mile. 

So we're back for good, and obviously enjoying it.  My years in California and high tech management are history.  The politics and layoffs of the Silicon Valley are a thing of the past.  With any luck the real estate industry will return to some semblance of normal, and I'll be able to make a living here!  And although we've only been back for a couple of weeks, we've already seen a good number of our wonderful friends, and have had a couple of dinner parties, as well as being invited to a great "welcome home" party at our friends Bob and Chris' house.  It's nice to be home.  And it's once again time for a walk along the river!