Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Pho Experience

This was originally released in 2009, and for some reason it's been the most popular blog post I've ever done.  I've made a few changes since then, both to the way I make the soup, as well as where I live.  We originally moved to Bend, Oregon in the middle of 2005, but ended up semi-moving back to the Bay Area from 2008-2010 for what seemed like a great job opportunity.  It wasn't, nor was its successor.  I'd rank them both at the absolute bottom of the list of jobs I've had in my high tech career.   

Living in the Bay Area has its perks, and the wide selection of top quality foods and restaurants to choose from is among the best things about living in or near San Francisco.  We had a rental house in Belmont, which is at the north end of the Peninsula, about twenty minutes below the City by the Bay.  But even with the vast array of foods to choose from, I'm always drawn to a good bowl of pho, and have been ever since I was "turned on" to it by my co-worker Hai Nguyen, in the early '90's.  It's inexpensive, filling, healthy, and the taste is out of this world.  I've been known to have pho several times a week for lunch, while working in the Silicon Valley. 

And so as much as we loved coming back to Bend fulltime, we would definitely miss the access to pho, which can be found every couple blocks on the S.F. Peninsula, as well as all over San Jose.  Amazingly, there was no pho in Bend at that time, meaning if I wanted to eat it, I'd have to make it for myself.  And even this has changed in the last year, with the opening of our first Vietnamese restaurant here in Bend, which is called Pho Viet Cafe.  Great stuff, I hope they outlast the economy, which is no easy task currently in Central Oregon. 

In addition to lots of experimenting to come up with the recipe below, I've also worked quite a bit on a much simpler Asian Noodle Soup, the recipe for which can be found HERE.  The ingredients are less exotic, and it's something you can make in an hour, which is my personal limit for weeknight dinner preparations.  Great soup, feel free to borrow the recipe experiment for yourself. 

So with a few modifications, once again here is The Pho Experience:

I was fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area for a good portion of my life; a uniquely rare melting pot of people, culture, and cuisines. Living there afforded me the opportunity to experience some of the world's best food, and meet some extremely interesting people. In the early 1990's while working for a large high tech company here in the Silicon Valley, my co-worker friend Hai Nguyen suggested that we go out for pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that's a staple of their diet. This was my first introduction to what has become virtually my favorite lunch food, and something that I had to have a couple times a week, or I'd get very cranky.

Vietnamese 101
Pho is pronounced "fuh." If you order a bowl of "foe" they'll know you don't know what you're talking about. Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese name. The simple pronunciation is "win." Don't mangle it. My friend Hai told me "just say win."

This is the noodle house where I experienced my very first bowl of the wonderful Vietnamese street food, pho bo. It's located in Sunnyvale in a little strip mall at El Camino and Mary Avenue. If you're in the area, try it. Very nice people, excellent soups and spring rolls. 

Pho restaurants are everywhere in the south bay area (Silicon Valley, San Jose, lower Peninsula area). In some parts of San Jose, and in certain areas that have a high Vietnamese population, they're literally on every corner and in every little strip mall. Some are better than others, with small subtleties in the way the broth is made, the spices that are used, the way the garnishes are presented, and the quality of the meats that areused. But they're actually very similar, and it's tough to get a bad bowl of pho in the south bay.

There are several "universals" at pho restaurants. First, they're always served in two sizes, regular and large. Pho is always served with a plate of garnishes; Fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno peppers, and either a lemon or lime. The way you use these in your soup is up to you, but I was
taught by my Vietnamese friend that you break off and add a few leaves of the basil, add a handful of bean sprouts, spice it up with jalapenos to your personal taste (I use ALL of them) squeeze the lime/lemon on top, and add a little Sriracha hot pepper sauce, which is always on the table at any Vietnamese restaurant.

Use chopsticks and the Chinese soup spoon with your pho. Don't use a fork, it just ain't cricket. And "slurping" your noodles is perfectly acceptable. Some people pick the noodles up onto the spoon, most Vietnamese simply pick up a bunch of noodles with the chopsticks, and chew off what they want. This is perfectly legal with this food.

When you're finished and ready to pay your bill, don't expect the server to bring you a check. Vietnamese restaurants almost always expect you to note your table number, and go up to the counter and tell them the number when it's time to pay. It's just the way it works.

Prices for a bowl of pho are generally in the five-to-seven dollar range, meaning for a maximum of seven bucks, you get a huge bowl of healthy low cal flavor, that will totally fill you up (and I'm a big guy). Add a Vietnamese iced coffee for a special treat. This is a remnant of the French Indochina era, and a good one. Occasionally when dining with a friend I'll add an order of two spring rolls, which they'll serve Thai style with peanut dipping sauce, but I have to be really hungry to do this. The soup's usually plenty. Two bowls of soup, an order of spring rolls and two beverages will run you a whopping twenty bucks at the restaurant above.

My recommendation for novices is to try the "pho tai," which is beef noodle soup with rare thin slices of beef eye of round. It's essentially the recipe that follows, below. Tai Chin is also good, with both thin slices of beef and thicker slices of brisket. I'd recommend you don't get into the exotic tendon, tripe, etc., until you know you're going to like it.  I don't. 

We live in Bend; a beautiful and picturesque little town in the middle of Oregon. The Sisters Mountains, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Jefferson, and Smith Rock are some of the most gorgeous sights in the state. The Deschutes River which flows south to north from the high Cascade Lakes to the Colubia Gorge, is literally across the street from our house.  The surrounding trees and terrain provide some incredible sights, including great blue herons flying just above the water, osprey swooping down to pick up a snack for the youngins' that are waiting in the big nest high up in an abandoned tree, and salmon, steelhead, and several varieties of trout making their annual journeys. 

There are some wonderful restaurants in Bend. I'd put Zydeco and Tart up against any of my favorite Bay Area restaurants.  Phenomenal food and beverages and world class service.  Baltazar's Mexican Restaurant great, specializing in regional seafood-oriented creations. The Blacksmith, Greg's Grill, and my favorite, the Tumalo Feed Company, are all great steak houses. Tumalo's awesome; great food and sides, and any place that serves martinis in a Mason Jar can't miss in my humble opinion. Bronco Billy's in nearby Sisters is always a fun spot, and one that we take all of our visiting friends to. Soba noodles are a good lunch indulgence, but nothing close to a good bowl of pho. La Rosa's is the best Mexican food, and Longboard Louie's makes an amazing burrito. 

But true, good ethnic foods are somewhere between rare and non-existant here. Toomie's Thai restaurant is a notable exception. The single Indian restaurant ranges from ok, to not. There's absolutely zero good Chinese food. High style French food is impossible. Authentic Italian food is now gone completely, with the closing of Ernesto's, which had been a Bend mainstay for decades.

And until recently, you couldn't get a bowl of pho in Bend.  There was a half-way decent Vietnamese restaurant in Redmond up until a couple years ago, but like so many local businesses and restaurants, they were forced to close their doors.  
Which brings me to the recipe below, which is essentially a combination of several authentic recipes I found over the years, lots of experimentation, and a major "corner-cutter" which is to use a much easier method of producing the beef broth than the traditional half-day boiling of 20 pounds of beef bones that usually goes into a traditional pho recipe. I've made this many times as have several of my friends.  It's always good, it's a major crowd-pleaser, and your guests who haven't experienced pho will be instant converts to this wonderful Vietnamese soup. Plan the bulk of a day getting this together, even with the afore-mentioned broth shortcut.

A couple notes on the ingredients:
Some of these are hard to find, particularly if you live in a suburban or country area.
- Star anise in particular, presented quite a search. When I finally located some in the health foods section of a local market, I almost lost my breath when I saw that they were $35.00 a pound. But the half dozen that you'll need will likely run you about thirty-five cents. Mine did.

- Learn to char the onions and ginger. Use a carving set fork and don't be afraid to cook it right over an open flame burner. Be careful, but that's how it's done.
- Fish sauce is a Vietnamese staple and is readily available in most supermarkets' Oriental foods section.
- Find real Thai basil. The stuff you use in your pasta sauce is not the same beast. Thai basil is the only thing to use in Vietnamese cooking and as a garnish for your treasured bowl of pho.
- My go-to store in Bend for most of the above is Newport Market, but most or all are also usually available at Whole Foods. 

Pho Bo (Vietnamese noodle soup

For the broth:

1 large can of Swanson's low fat and salt beef broth

6 cans of hot water
Beef broth concentrate (Better Than Bouillon or the brand Costco sells are both great products)
2 medium yellow onions
3-4 inch piece of fresh ginger
5 pieces of star anise
6 whole cloves
3 inch cinnamon stick
1 ½ tablespoons of salt
4 tablespoons of fish sauce

For the bowls:
Package of banh pho noodles (rice sticks, pick the width you like, thinner is better)
½ lb of raw eye of round, sirloin, or London broil, sliced as thin as possible (partially freeze it, then cut it for best results)
1 medium white onion, sliced wafer thin, soaked in cold water 30 minutes before serving soup
3-4 scallions, green and white parts, cut into small rounds
½ a bunch of cilantro, chopped
Black pepper

Thin sliced jalapenos (leave the seeds in)
Bean sprouts (produce section, usually near the ginger and mushrooms)
Lime wedges
Thai basil (remember, there's no substitute)
Sriracha red pepper sauce (Oriental food section - big red plastic bottle)

Prepare the broth:

Cut the ends off the 2 yellow onions, char the onions and ginger over an open burner. I use a long carving fork, and rotate them around for about a minute each. Let these cool in a bowl.
In a stockpot, add the beef broth, 6 cans of hot water, 4 tablespoons of beef concentrate, the cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves, salt, fish sauce.
Peel the onions and ginger, rough cut them into chunks, add them to the broth.
Bring the broth to a full boil over high heat, lower to a simmer.

Simmer for 3 hours, uncovered, on low heat, stirring occasionally. This part can't be rushed. Three hours is the magic number!
After 3 hours of simmering, pour the broth through a strainer or colander into another pot, discard the non-broth ingredients.
Return the broth to the stove, continue to simmer while you prepare the bowls.

Prepare the noodles:

Soak the noodles in warm water for 30 minutes
Bring a pot of water to a boil
Blanch the noodles for a couple minutes, drain


Broth should be at a rolling boil
Fill about 1/3 of the bowl with noodles
Arrange the beef, thinly sliced onions (that have been soaking), scallions, cilantro, and some black pepper
Ladle on enough broth to cover the other ingredients
Provide garnishes of Thai basil, sliced jalapenos, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and Sriacha (red pepper) sauce

The only less-than-authentic step you're omitting is to boil a huge amount of beef bones for half a day.  There are so many wonderful spices and flavors in this soup, I'd argue that for most home cooks this will still make a great bowl of pho that you'll be happy to serve to appreciative guests. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Top of the Shelf

My cookbooks currently number over 100, and these are just the ones that I want close by, meaning they’re the ones that I refer to with some sort of regularity and therefore need to be readily available.  They range from specialty books on various types of dishes, such as rice, salads, breakfast recipes, meat preparations, vegetables galore, cookies, smoothies, and all things sweet. 
I have representative books for many different types of ethnic and regional foods, some of which I access a lot, some just live in the bookcase and only get accessed a couple times a year.  And the oversized “pretty ones” tend to become part of a pile that sits next to the fireplace, since they generally fall into the "too big to fit in the bookcase" category, and the recipes tend to be fairly basic.  Plus as you can see, the bookcase is pretty much … full!  The ones that live in the bookcase, and particularly towards the top of the bookcase, get lots of use. 
I’m not overly particular about the way they’re arranged, meaning I may have an Italian cookbook on the second shelf, and two more on the third shelf, as opposed to having them all together in one “Italian” section.  I don’t alphabetize them like I do my CD’s and DVD’s, although I seem to know where they’re living, at any given moment.  I’m the only one who uses them, so I know what to look for, and where to look. 

Chef Larry Chu’s masterful cookbook on Chinese cooking gets vastly more use than Martin Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” book, so the former sits on the second shelf, while Martin’s signed copy sits two rows down.  Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s “The New Basics,” which I consider to be among the true bibles of modern cooking, sits on the top shelf, while their subsequent releases sit a row below.  They’re all good, but New Basics has probably gotten more use than any other single volume in my bookcase over the 21 years I’ve owned it.  It’s falling apart at the seams, dog-eared, and liberally stained with food splatters.

The bookcase is an oak unit that I originally bought to hold CD’s and DVD’s.   But I outgrew the self many years ago, and the digital media now lives in a totally separate case that’s designed to hold many hundreds of them, upstairs in my office.  The cook book case measures thirty inches wide, six feet tall, features several adjustable shelves, with a medium walnut, lightly lacquered finish.  It provides the perfect storage area for my cook books, and it lives in the corner of the dining room, just outside the entrance to the kitchen. 

And while some books are referenced more than others, they’re all important, or they get packed away or stashed in another bookcase upstairs.  But the best of the best, the “top of the shop” if you will, live on top of the shelves, in a privileged group that I prize above all the rest.  These are the bibles, the legends, the ones that have had a huge impact on the way I (and others) approach the art of cooking.  I can tell you when and how I acquired each one of them. 

I also have a number of oversized "coffee table" cookbooks which live in the living room next to the fireplace.  These include Asia, the Beautiful Cookbook, Italy, the Beautiful Cookbook and one called Luscious Delicious Desserts.  All of these are beautiful to behold, contain some gorgeous photography, and undoubtedly some interesting recipes ... which I never use.  And then there's a book that is an exception to everything else in this article ... Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook.  It lives in the living room, either in front of this group of "oversized" books, or actually on the coffee table.  It's there for inspiration and quick reference, as opposed to a pretty conversation piece.  I absolutely love this cookbook.  And while there's no way that most of us will ever be able to approach Keller's mastery of the art of cooking (quite literally), it's both fun to experiment with a couple of the dishes occasionally, and gratifying when they actually turn out to look and taste like they're supposed to.  I don't have a whole lot of places on my "bucket list," but spending an evening dining at the French Laundry is right up there at the top. 

So then, the top shelf, from left to right … 

Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook - Darina Allen
The Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook was really a surprise.  It was a gift from my late friend Trudy, who thought I should have it after one of her visits to Ireland.  It's a very special gift from a special friend, but it's so much more;  this is such an interesting and complete cookbook that ranks with the other "bests" in this group. 
This is the cookbook for anyone who’s inspired to cook real Irish food, but it's also an extremely comprehensive book that covers a wide variety of classic international recipes.  You'll find recipes for roasted woodcock and broiled sole, but also dishes such as crab phyllos with Thai dipping sauce and Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut sauce.  She covers all the master sauces and variations, every conceivable meat, fish, or poultry (many of which we don't even have in the U.S.), dozens of desserts, barbecue, appetizers, soups, vegetables, as well as table manners and kitchen safety and cleanliness.  What appears to be an Irish cookbook, turns out to be so much more.  This one ranks with the other "top shelf books" as being truly indispensible.  This book will always be at the top of my cookbook shelf. 

The New Making of a Cook – Madeliene Kamman
The word "comprehensive" keeps recurring in this article, but it totally fits Madeliene Kamman's 1228 page masterpiece that covers virtually everything considered classic cooking: Kitchen tools, picking the right ingredients, wine essentials, classic stocks, sauces, broths, soups, vegetables, grains and pastas, meats, fish, poultry, fruits, sweets and desserts.  There's a 17 page Glossary and a 47 page Index at the back of the book, which should give you a rough idea of the contents.  There's probably nothing you can't find here. 

On Food and Cooking – Harold McGee “The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”
This book was recommended to us by Kathleen Flinn during the "Hungry For Words" writing class in March of 2009 in Seattle.  Amazingly I hadn't been aware of the book prior to the class, as it's certainly one of the many "musts" for any serious chef, and it lives atop my cookbook shelf.  On Food and Cooking covers the nuts and bolts of what we cook; how things are grown or raised, what happens chemically when you cook or prepare them, how ingredients have evolved over the years, and all the related science and chemistry that is part of how we cook.  What comprises a cheese?  Why does the taste of milk vary?  How does muscle become meat?  What's the role of fish scales and skin and how do they affect the end product?  What's the composition of plant and vegetable cells?  What's the chemistry behind spices and herbs?  What's the correct water to product ratio when boiling pasta?  How will your food vary by using different types of metal pots and pans? 

This is a fascinating book, one that's become both a reference and something that's just plain fun to browse now and then, in an effort to understand what can make the practice of cooking more predictable.  It's the first thing I reach for if something I cook yields unexpected results,  or if a bread doesn't rise evenly, or a dessert flops, and I can usually ascertain the answer.  Science and chemistry were never my strong suits, and this is the best companion to have in the kitchen if you're similarly challenged. 

The New Basics - Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins owned the Silver Palate, a gourmet food shop at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 73rd Street in New York City.  Their first publication, titled the Silver Palate Cookbook, sold 250,000 copies its first year, and ultimately went on to sell 2.5 million copies.  But it’s the second book by the team of Rosso and Lukins that I regard as a true cooking bible … The New Basics Cookbook, which was released in 1989 and is approaching 2 million copies sold.  I received my copy as a wedding gift in August of 1990 from friends Candy and Michael, and it quickly became indispensable to this struggling home chef. 

My copy of New Basics is literally falling apart at the seams.  I have to be careful when I’m thumbing through it, or the sections will drop out of the book, likely falling into a whole new “order” on the kitchen floor.   The most-referenced menus have permanent stains from ingredients that have splattered onto the pages.  The pages with the chocolate mousse recipe have dark brown spots from chocolate that flew out of my Kitchen Aid mixer, likely decades ago.  The Manhattan Style Clam Chowder pages have red spots from the tomato and chicken stock that probably boiled out of my stockpot.  I’ve made both of these recipes so many times that I can of course now do them without referencing the book, but they’re representative of the “shape” that so many pages are in, in this wonderful book. 

The Pie and Pastry Bible - Rose Levy Beranbaum
The Cake Bible - Rose Levy Beranbaum
I was introduced to The Cake Bible in an interesting way.  I was working at a now-defunct company called Molecular Dynamics in the early 90's, and was an aspiring home chef with the misguided impression that all my food was really good.  I could certainly turn out some decent meals for family and friends, but as they say ... "You've come a long way, baby."  But one of the things I did fairly well even then was a pretty good copy of the chocolate mousse recipe from the New Basics cookbook.  I've made this at least a hundred times over the years, and it's one that I can probably do in my sleep.  I vary it a little every time I make it, adding more or less of this and that, serve it over a puff pastry shell, top with whipped cream or a raspberry sauce, spoon a ring of whipped orange sauce around the bottom ... you get the point.  But it's usually pretty good. 

One afternoon I brought a big batch into work at Molecular Dynamics, and served it to a long line of happy employees.  One of my co-workers was a VP named Richard (and I've unfortunately forgotten his last name), who told me the story of his cousin Rose Levy Beranbaum.  He told me of her background in chemistry and that her baking reflected this in both the weight and composition of the ingredients.  While Rose gives the reader cup, teaspoon and tablespoon measurements, she favors weighing ingredients in grams, which she stresses is the only accurate way to approach baking. 

The Cake Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible are amazing.  The content and variety of recipes are enough to keep any amateur or professional pastry chef busy for decades.  The accompanying photography are at once inspiring, challenging, and boggling.  The mere thought of the chocolate cake on the cover of The Cake Bible is enough to make you drool, while trying to figure out how she created the masterpiece.  The Cake Bible is listed by the James Beard Foundation as one of the top 13 baking books on their essential book list.  It doesn't get much better. 

The Silver Spoon Cookbook
The SIlver Spoon Cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue a few years ago ... a "just because" gift from my friend Angela.  It's one of the most influential cookbooks to come out of Italy.  The initial publication was in 1950, and is considered a "special" wedding gift to young Italian newlyweds to this day.  The recipes are a collection of classics that come from all over Italy, supposedly by some very famous Italian chefs who amazingly go unnamed in the book.  But they're all superb, and a good many of them have appeared on my tables over the years. 

Among the more compelling features of the Silver Spoon is the simplicity of many of the recipes.  These are Italian regional classics passed down through the generations, likely with subtle changes from cook to cook.  The dishes created at the French Laundry or the impressive Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn (Big Sur) are certainly worthy of the "wow" factor in the extreme, but it's also quite gratifying to produce something simple and fulfilling.  An example might be the Rigatoni with Cream, Pesto and Tomatoes, which I've made a dozen times and vary each time I make it.  Very simple recipe, but it offers a world of possibilities ... play with the pesto ingredients, vary the type of tomatoes, swap the rigatoni for penne rigate, or add a half cup of vodka for an interesting twist. 

The Silver Spoon was an overnight success in this house, just as it was in Italy in 1950, and worldwide via many translations since.  Again, indispensible.  Thank you Ang ...

The Way To Cook - Julia Child
My sister Colleen gave me this book for Christmas in 1990.  I'd lived with her for about a year prior to getting married, and shared kitchen duties.  I also had taken over all the cooking in the house after getting married, and had gotten quite interested in getting it right, vs. throwing just anything on the table.  Colleen's inscription inside the front jacket reads "Page 418 please!"  The reference is to a decadent dessert that Julia calls a "Mocha Rum Quick Fix."  Colleen and I share an affinity for rum, and this cake is indeed phenomenal, and just one example of the thousands that reflect Julia Child's well-deserved legend status as a chef and writer. 

Julia's book is always the place I look to for elegant ideas.  Along with the Balleymaloe cookbook (and if I really want to get fancy, the French Laundry) it's the go-to place for classicly prepared, French-inspired food.  If I want the "real" way to do a French Onion Soup, or the best technique for a Beef Bourgignon or her recommendations for a leg of lamb, this is where I'll find it.  If I'm at a loss for the perfect side dish for a fancy dinner, one that my guests may not have every day, I'll borrow her recipe for something like Polenta Galettes instead of potatoes or rice.  Or maybe a Gratin of Grated Zucchini, vs. steamed broccoli.  There's no end to the creative dishes and accompanying techniques in The Way To Cook. 

Like several of the books on the top shelf, this one has gotten a tremdous amount of use in the 20+ years I've owned it.  While I try to avoid splattering anything that's going to cause pages to stick together, there's no denying that there's a significant amount of foods garnishing several dozen pages in the book.  It's a beautiful, fairly large, well-bound volume, so I don't have the problem I have with New Basics where the pages are actually falling out, but it does show some wear, and this should only be considered a compliment to Julia.  This one belongs in every chef's library. 

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry - Kathleen Flinn
I received Kathleen Flinn’s wonderful first book as a gift from my longtime friend Wes, who sent it to me as a thank you for sending him a copy of Neil Peart’s “Roadshow … Landscape With Drums.”  Wes and I share a love of cooking, motorcycles, and traveling, and Neil’s latest effort seemed like a good choice. 

After completing Kathleen's book, I emailed her regarding the circumstances that led to me reading it, citing the "Wes" connection, the "Neil Peart" connection, and so on.  She replied that she and her husband Mike had just been discussing Neil Peart, and that he was an afficionado.  My "pay it forward" move was to send Kathleen and Mike a copy of Neil's book, which was well-received.  We've kept in email contact, and I was lucky enough to spend a couple days in Seattle in 2009 attending her "Hungry For Words" writing seminar. 

Kathleen’s book was nothing short of inspirational, and it really motivated me to write more.  I’d started the LSCooks blog early in 2008, but the 16 entries that year managed to blossom to 45 the following year, after reading “Sharper” and attending Kathleen’s food writing class.  It was also at this class where I met Nancy Brook, another inspiration whose book “Cycling, Wine, and Men” resides two books down from Kathleen’s.

The Kitchen Counter Cookbook - Kathleen Flinn
Kathleen’s second book is the recently released "The Kitchen Counter Cookbook," and I’m currently savoring it, taking my sweet time enjoying it at a leisurely pace.  Kathleen mentioned during the previously mentioned writing class she was sort of a "grocery cart voyeur," and sometimes couldn't help wondering what people were thinking with the types of "food" that they bought.  I told her that after working ten years in grocery stores through college and a few years after, that I had the same affliction, which was only more evident and revealing when you were the one checking their order out at the checkstand.  I've never been thin, and definitely envy people who can eat what they want and not gain any weight.  But it's so abundantly clear that a good number of people are in the condition (and lack of) they're in, due to what they put on the table.  It's so common to see people who are way WAY overweight with a basket full of packaged foods that are artificially conceived and processed every step of the way.  It's tempting sometimes to stop and "coach" them into picking healthier items. 

And this is exactly what Kathleen does in The Kitchen Counter Cookbook.  She selects a group of women and teaches them about cooking healthier, while still staying within their budgets, both time and money wise.  Whether you live alone, with one other person, or in a family environment, she demonstrates that it's just as easy to cook a meal consisting of fresh ingredients as it is to add water and ground beef to a box of something, and calling it dinner.   

This is an important book, and just as Fast Food Nation was such an eye-opener for people who lived on junk food, this one needs to be read, particularly by anyone who has a lack of confidence in their cooking capabilities, or belives that Hamburger Helper is actually food. 

Cycling, Wine, and Men … A Midlife Tour de France - Nancy Brook

I met Nancy at Kathleen's writing class in Seattle and we became fast friends.  Nancy lives in Montana, and at the time I met her was an aspiring writer, as was I (still am!).  Nancy wrote an exceptionally entertaining book, which followed a sort of personal impasse and subsequent epiphany, that led her to train for a daunting and challenging bicycle ride through France.  This is one of my favorite books, as it hits all the right buttons in its execution; fun, funny, interesting, dramatic, challenging, encouraging, and very entertaining.  After reading it (in much the same way I felt after completing Kathleen's first book), I can't wait for her next book.  Highly recommended, and a permanent member of my top shelf. 

The Three Binders (far right)
My collection of recipes 
Nothing more than a loose-leaf binder where I keep the recipes I've developed or borrowed (usually from the Internet ... and yes, chef's look up recipes on the Internet too!).  The binder is broken down into Mains, Sides, Appetizers, Soups, Desserts, and Misc.  Most are obviously self-explanatory, and "Misc" contains things like how to make a Mojito, which doesn't fit into any other category.  I, like most cooks, tend to use recipes as a guideline, utilizing the basic concepts and steps, and most or all of the ingredients, and then adding or subtracting accordingly based on what I know I want the final product to taste like.  If I'm making Emeril's Cream Biscuits, I'll omit his recommended sprinkling of sugar on top if I plan to serve it as an accompaniment to a beef stew on a cold winter night.  And the stew recipe I used may or may not call for the red wine or string beans I knew I wanted in it.  Fine Cooking Magazine's recipe for beef tenderloin calls for a variation on a classic duxelle filling, which I prefer, and that's the way I make it. 

But these are my favorites, I guess.  My go-to group of tried, successful "keepers."  This binder, just like the one to the right of it, both say "CCA" on the spine.  This was originally my California Culinary Academy binder, which I outgrew via my own recipes, and had to move the CCA papers to their own binder. 

Class notes and recipes from my California Culinary Academy classes
I was fortunate enough to attend a couple classes at the California Culinary Academy in downtown San Francisco.  It has subsequently been taken over by Le Cordon Bleu, but it was very good in its own right, when I attended.  My culinary training is limited, and includes these classes, a four hour session with Chef Larry Chu (his restaurant is Chef Chu's, in Los Altos, CA), and a non-hands-on soup class at Sur Le Table in Los Gatos.  That's it.  Other than that, it's cookbooks, and just doing it every night. 

The first was a three-Saturday class on Butchery.  Our instructor was a butcher in Bay Area supermarkets for more than 20 years, prior to taking up teaching at the Academy.  Unlike the chefs in subsequent classes I'd take, he did not want to be called "Chef," but rather "Butcher Bob."  His logic was that he was not a chef, but was a butcher, and his name was Bob.  So be it ... Butcher Bob it was! 

In addition to learn how to butcher a variety of beef, lamb, pork, poultry and fish from "big pieces" to more manageable cuts, we were charged with preparing the proteins for whatever main course they were featuring that night for the CCA diners.  The first week, it was chicken.  We each cut up no less than 20 chickens into every conceivable cut (including a concoction called a turducken, which for this meal, consisted of a game hen, a chicken, a duck, a capon, and a turkey, stuffed inside one another.  No comment ...).  I recall feeling so empowered after spending half of that first Saturday dismembering, de-boning, and de-skinning a couple dozen chickens.  My friend Dave and I decided we'd get a couple whole chickens from Safeway on the way home, and demonstrate our butchery prowess for our wives.  It was then that we discovered the difference in "good" chickens, meaning organically raised and free-range, like we'd spent the day working on ... and the common variety you find at Safeway for two bucks a pound.  Greasy, fatty, unappealing, and the last time I bought one of these.  The same proved to be true in our subsequent weekends, with regard to meat and fish.  Buy good meat and poultry, even if it means eating less of it.  Says I. 

After three weeks of Butchery, we began a six weekend Professional Cooking series.  Our head instructor was Chef Mullen, and he was incredibly inspiring.  He was also the last guy that the fulltime students had to impress (meaning pass your finals) before graduating from the Academy.  And as such, he had total control over the big downstairs kitchen area which was affectionately called the "fishbowl" because of a huge wall of glass that provided entertainment for the evening's dining guests, as the prix fixe meal was presented to them.  Chef Mullen also had the keys to a couple of very private walk-in's, where they kept the "good stuff."  I apparently impressed him with my enthusiasm, because very early in our training he began giving me and my partner the keys with instructions to bring back "a couple bottles of good red wine," or some truffles or foix gras, or maybe a whole salmon or prime rib to cook that day.  We must have been his "chosen ones," because in addition to all the required sauces, soups, sides, entrees and desserts that the whole class was required to prepare, he'd sneak in a few extras each week for us to tackle.  "Why don't you try a Beef Wellington and a poached salmon today, in addition to your other dishes?"  Or, "see if you can do a tarte tatin to share with the class in addition to the souflee's that everyone's making." 

I loved this class, and while it was only six weekends, it provided an excellent foundation to build on.  There's no substitute for professional training for the basic techniques that ultimately lead to advanced preparations.  But although these two classes added immeasurably to my culinary knowledge, it's been the twenty year since of preparing every meal in the house, that's really made the difference.  You gain confidence and new techniques, you experiment with new foods and prep methods, you score some home runs, and you have a few strike-outs along the way. 

Class notes from Kathleen Flinn's writing class
These are my notes from Kat's class along with a wealth of recommendations for books, magazines, training, websites etc., for an aspiring writer.  Such an amazing class, so much information in a mere two days, and a recurring reference that of course has to live where it lives, at the top of my shelf. 

So at least for this home chef, I have to say that my Top Shelf has been nothing short of inspirational over the years, and continues to deliver on a daily basis. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Only Cat

This piece was originally published on March 22nd, 2010, and unfortunately, now requires an update. 

I now have to say that for the first time in eighteen months, and only the second time in 26 1/2 years, I'm down to an only cat, and a different one than I wrote about last March.  The newest member, and current "Only Cat," is Emily. 

Emily was acquired after our return to Bend, as a result of my somewhat questionable theory that cats should have roomies.  I'd been watching the ads for available kitties at our local Humane Society here in Bend, and one kitty's looks and description seemed like a perfect match for what I was looking for.  She was staying at the PetSmart store at the north part of town, so we decided to take a little ride up there and check her out.  As luck (and fate) would have it, the kitty I wanted to meet was in quarantine, having "freaked" a little after the floor cleaners made an unpleasant amount of noise that morning. 

But in one of the other cages was the cutest little gray and white girl, who they'd dubbed "Dana" for her stay at the pound, and subsequently her visit to PetSmart.  We asked if we could have a visit with Dana, and they were totally accomodating, letting us come into the meet and greet area and spend a few minutes with her.  We both fell in love with this little girl, but my lovely wife wasn't sold on the idea of yet another cat in the house.  The last four (see below) had all had their ups and downs, and the biggest "down" was when you lost one of them.  And the count was three losses in less than three years, at that point. 

The "Only Cat" at the time that this was originally published was our Penny, who I always used to refer to as my "Special Cat," because she was.  Penny was unique in so many ways, and was the only cat I've had over the years who truly got along with all the other cats that have come and gone during her stay with us.  She wasn't necessarily passive with her room mates, and actually took the lead in chasing both Annabelle and Abigail around the various places we've lived, but the claws never came out with any of her house buddies.  She even got along with the two "problem children," my giant 28 pound Maine Coon, Cody, and little Annabelle, who we affectionately dubbed the "bitch kitty from hell" for her sometimes snotty behavior towards the others. 

Over the 15 1/2 years we had her, Penny endured some nasty illnesses and somehow managed to bounce back.  Before our two year return to the Bay Area in 2008, she'd lost a ton of weight, stopped eating, and consequently had to endure force feeding through a tube in her neck for a couple of months.  Not pleasant for her, or us.  But we made the decision not to do an expensive no-guarantee surgery, and simply pull the tube out and see if she started eating.  Amazingly, she did, and initially put all her weight back on (and then some). 

But over the last six months, which haven't been the best of times for her, she was once again on a fairly obvious decline.  In addition to the ongoing digestion problems, I think there was some senility creeping in, and she may not have even realized that she wasn't using her sandbox like she was supposed to.  And for way too much of the last 5 years she had the recurring issue of not being able to keep food down.  Not a good quality of life for her, and definitely not for us or our house. 

So the decision was made to bring her into the Humane Society, and allow her to move on to greener pastures, much to our displeasure.  It's never easy losing a pet.  They become members of your family.  I've used this phrase way too many times over the years, but it's true ... unfortunately, most of us will outlive our parents and our pets.   

So if there's a kitty heaven (and I can only hope there is), she's probably engaging in one of her favorite activities, which included finding an elusive ray of sunlight to lay in, or a warm lap, or her favorite dining chair.  She's undoubtedly talking a blue streak, and begging for her next meal, which she always looked forward to.  Hopefully someone managed to sneak a laser light into kitty heaven, and is moving it across a big area of floor, providing hours of endless fun for her.  And of course there has to be catnip filled socks ... this is after all Kitty Heaven.  Rest in peace, little girl. 

The Original "Only Cat", below ...

For the first time in about 25 years, I find myself with just one cat in the household. For the bulk of this afore-mentioned period, I've had anywhere from two to four. Two's fine, four's ridiculous, in my opinion. Although the four of them were as different as night and day from each other, and each had their own distinctly unique personalities and moods ... they are after all, cats.

I've had several dogs over the years, and it's an ongoing thought to get another one, but as wonderful as they are as companions, and obviously polar opposites of felines, they're also a lot of work. Cats use a sandbox, eat and drink from large containers that only require occasional refilling, use their scratching post religiously, sleep twenty hours a day, and basically go about their business with very little fuss. They don't require walks, you don't have to follow them with plastic bags, they give themselves their own baths, and if you keep them inside, they usually live relatively long trouble-free lives.

But of course nature being what it is, things do come along that cut short the lives of the healthiest of cats and dogs, and when they leave your household, it's a sad event. They become members of your family. You talk to them, listen when they talk back and pretend to understand, try to diagnose their occasional woes and mood swings, and generally integrate them into your family situation. You're protective of them, just as you would be of a child or spouse. You're allowed to yell at them or throw some verbal barbs their way on occasion, but nobody else better do it, or there's likely to be trouble.

My life of cats began with a little orange creature named George. I believe I was about eight years old when he joined our household on Grandview Avenue in Daly City. George was my cat, as opposed to a family pet. There seemed to be a special bond with us, quite likely because of the overwhelming number of females in the house. I had four younger sisters at this point, and that would soon become five. My dad worked two jobs, so it was usually me and George vs. all of them! George would of course sleep at the foot of my little twin bed, like all my subsequent cats would do over the years. We got George as a tiny kitten, and I believe he was about three or four when an unfortunate event cut his young life short. It was Christmas morning, and my newly-converted Catholic parents demanded that we all go to church. Pulling away from the curb in my dad's baby blue Ford Falcon, we heard an unmistakable thump. George had been sleeping in a rear wheel well, on top of the tire. In retrospect, I'm sure it was a quick and painless way to go, but for an eight year old, to lose my beloved buddy on Christmas day, it was a minor disaster. But it was also a good leaning experience, as most of my cats that followed over the years have been relegated to indoors. Outdoor cats average two-to-three years, indoors are up around fourteen. If you intend to keep your pets safe and alive, statistics favor letting them live in the house.

During my junior high and high school years, we had a very different variety of pet in the house, which precluded us from having cats or dogs. My mother decided she liked monkeys, so we had a string of them. The first was a skinny little spider monkey, which was given away fairly quickly. Then a squirrel monkey which lasted a little longer, but ultimately met the same fate. Then we got Shoo-Shoo the owl monkey, and she would prove to be a member of the house for about ten years. Owl monkeys have sort of a lemur-look about them and they're very nocturnal. Translation = she ran the treadmill in her cage all night every night, much to my dad's dismay. Shoo-Shoo got out of her cage and ran away at one point, and after about a week of searching the neighborhood, my heartbroken mother went out and bought another owl monkey, which she named after her father (a sort of backhanded thank you for them naming their Boston Terrier after my father, I believe). We then found the wandering Shoo-Shoo a couple blocks away, so for a few years we had two owl monkeys. The younger one died fairly young, and we were all hopeful that Shoo-Shoo would be the only monkey in the house. But no ... my mom wanted something closer to a chimp, so she bought a capuchin. This one was a pain to have around, as I recall, and didn't last long. The last in the line of monkeys was a wooly monkey, which was kind of like having a two year old. This one was very tame, fun to show off to friends, but unfortunately the source of a major allergic reaction with my mom. So this guy once again was given to someone who could tolerate his fur, and shortly thereafter, Shoo-Shoo went to monkey heaven. We were finally free of monkeys. This was a happy day.

I had several cats during my high school and early college years. Most were a combination indoor-outdoor variety, likely strays or "pound cats" that we took in, sometimes a couple at a time, but occasionally, "only cats." The only one I remember as being particularly special was a solid white cat named "Cat," who was an absolute lover, and we had her for several years. Nice kitty.

Around 1974 I was living in a house in Pacifica with a group of friends, when my buddy Bob and I decided we should get a couple cats for the house. Apparently, it wasn't "cat season," as there were almost no cats to choose from at either the humane society or through the newspaper. We did lots of looking, saw some "ok" cats, but it was several weeks into the search when we paid a fateful visit to a house in the Sunset District in San Francisco. The people advertised that they had a whole bunch of kittens to choose from, which had come from a couple different parent pairs, which they also had in the house. Golden opportunity to both meet the parents and see what their demeanor was like, as well as have the pick of two big healthy litters.

Walking into this house, you couldn't help but think that these were "cat people." The center of their living room was dominated by a huge cat tree, where no less than 15 kittens were climbing, jumping, sleeping, and generally having a wonderful time. Bob spied a little solid black kitty, which immediately took to him. One down. I was looking around the room and scouring the cat tree when I spotted a little tabby furball at the very top of the tree, curled up and hanging by herself. A loner, possibly, but something about her was appealing enough to get her down. She curled up in my arms and started purring immediately. Sold. We had our cats.

Bob came up with the name Tinkle Butt immediately (no idea what correlation this had to the cat), but it was a couple days 'til I came up with a name for my little girl. As fate would have it, I went to a movie in the City called "The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man In The Moon Marigolds." It was a relatively small artsy film which was directed by Paul Newman and starred Joanne Woodward and their real-life daughter Nell. Nell played Tillie, whose full name was Mathilda. The movie left an impression, the daughter's character was uniquely interesting, and I had found a name for my new kitty ... Tillie.

Tillie was my buddy for close to fifteen years, moving way too many times to various locales around the state. We had ups and downs, but she ate well, twice a day. If I was down to my last couple bucks for dinner, I'd have a can of chili so Tillie could have her daily dose of Purina Tuna. She'd greet me when I came home each night, and follow me from room to room, shadowing my movement around the house or apartment. I'd commonly wake up in the mornng with her standing on my chest, looking down with her sweet eyes, waiting for her morning meal. Tillie had four litters, producing two, five, five, and five kittens. The only ones that hung around were the two from the first litter. She had a beautiful Siamese looking kitty which we gave to the family of Leo Ryan (the Congressman who was slain at the Jonestown massacre). The other was a huge solid black cat named Pamplemousse (or Moose, for short). It means "grapefruit" in French, and for some reason I liked the word. Big, nasty cat that nobody but my sister Colleen could even approach. Lived a few years and succumbed to feline leukemia (and this was an indoor cat). But Tillie was a great cat in every respect, and I miss her to this day. Geez, we went through a lot together!

At several points over Tillie's tenure, I lived with people with cats, so she was rarely an "only cat," unless I happened to be living alone. But she was totally friendly and got along with any of the other kitties that happened to be around for varying periods of time. In retrospect, this was probably the beginning of the multi-cat trend I've had ever since.

After Tillie, I briefly had a little Himalayan named Elizabeth (which was also Tillie's middle name, but more on middle kitty names later). Beautiful cat, but she had a tendency to pee when and where she wanted, which quite commonly was in a closet or on a piece of wall to wall carpeting. This would not do, and she was given away to a friend of my mother's who had another Himalayan. From what I heard, she was fine in her new house, and lived a long life.

Another fateful moment came while I was working at Sequence Systems, and was invited to a BBQ at a co-workers. Their cats had just had a litter of kitties, and they were all just the nicest cats and kittens I could imagine. Totally socialized at a very young age, obviously destined to be great family pets for some lucky people. My friends said this would probably be the last litter, but if they had one more, I could have my pick of the group. Well there was another litter, and on a warm spring day we were invited over to take our pick of six beautiful little kitties. And although any of them would have been great pets due to the wonderful lineage of the parents, one stood out to us, and Annabelle came home with us that day.

Annabelle (Annie) was a small cat, who probably never went over ten pounds. And she was both a lover and a complete terror. One of her favorite kitty tricks was to run from one end of the house to the other, scurry to the top of the curtains, and hang there by her claws. Not the best thing, considering this was a rental house and the landlord was very picky about this kind of mayhem. Annie wouldn't be an only kitty for long, as she was soon joined by another little tabby we found in a local pet store. Beautiful kitten, loving, cuddly, but unfortunately she had Elizabeth's bad habit of peeing here and there, and pretty much everywhere. Gone, quickly.

I'd always wanted a Maine Coon Cat, and the search for my dream pet was about to begin. These are the largest domestic breed, and males commonly range from 16-18 pounds.  We began going to all the cat shows, traveling a hundred mile radius in search of the perfect cat. We settled on a couple who ran a cattery in Davis (near Sacramento), who we met at a cat show and we really liked both them and the cats they were showing. Our order was placed, and a couple months later we drove to Davis and picked up Ben. Ben was a gorgeous Maine Coon, and just the nicest cat in the world. Friendly, smart, not overly-talkative (this can be a challenging trait with Maine Coons), and a joy to have in the house. But Ben wouldn't be around for long, as he developed a fairly severe case of diabetes at a little over a year old, and we took the vet's recommendation to end his young life, vs. deal with inevitable complications for the next 15 years. I was so bummed.

Right after losing Ben we moved to our first big new house, in Gilroy. It was the middle of August, 1997, and typical of Gilroy summers, it was about 150 degrees out and the air was filled with the pungent odor of garlic.  Gilroy prides itself in being the "Garlic Capital of the World" and it's obvious why, during the hot summer months.  Within the first week, we started visiting the local humane society in search of a companion for Annie. Once again, it was apparent that this was not the best season for kittens, as the humane society and newspaper didn't have much to offer. But on one warm early September morning we wandered into the local pound and right in the entry way in a big cage, like it was their "featured kitten" for the day, we spotted a beautiful little tabby. I sought permission to take her out of the cage, and reached in and picked her up. She crawled up on my shoulder and started rubbing and purring. Jackpot, was my immediate thought. We looked over the other kittens, but it was pretty clear that this one was going to come home with us. We did the required paperwork, agreed to bring her back in a week to be spayed and microchipped, and Penny became the newest addition to the house. She was probably about 8 weeks old, already sandbox trained, and an absolute gem of a kitten. Her quiet early demeanor would eventually disappear as she's gotten quite verbal over the years, but at least as a kitten, she was very passive, vocally.

So Penny settled in nicely, and Annabelle, who we called the bitch kitty from hell because she almost NEVER gets along with other feline roommates, actually tolerated the new kitten. We took Penny back to the humane society the following week, to get her work done, and made the mistake of walking into the kitten room while we were waiting. My wife spotted a cute little black and white fluff ball that seemed to be beckoning us. She was much smaller than Penny, and literally fit in the palm of my hand.  We figured she was closer to six weeks old, but she and Penny were close enough to almost be sisters, and eventually we'd refer to them as just that. The black and white kitty came home with us, as with Penny, she had to go back for her spay and microchipping session. She'd become Abigail, or Abbie, and she'd spend the next 13 years with us.

But I still wanted a Maine Coon, and once again we began the long search, via cat shows and websites.  We settled on a little cattery up in Burney Falls, near Mount Lassen.  The "parents" were both show cats, with his dad being a Supreme Grand Champion and mom being a Grand Champion.  Good lineage and VERY big cats.  We placed our order and waited for his arrival.  It was about eight AM on Father's Day in 1998 when I received a phone call that began with ... "Larry, you're a father."  Hmmm ... let's see here ... OH, my kitty's been born!  Six weeks later we took the two hundred mile trek north, and brough our little furball of a Maine Coon home.  Little did we know that he'd grow to 26 pounds in a little over a year.  But Cody was a strikingly beautiful cat and people totally loved visiting him. 

The four of them were all very different, and didn't necessarily always get along.  Cody quickly grew into a monster sized cat, and I think his size alone was intimidating to the other three.  Penny in particular, was petrified of him.  Annabelle was the tiniest of the group, never getting much over ten pounds, and amazingly she got along fine with him, sometimes sleeping like bookends in front of the fireplace.  And Penny got along with all of them. 

After moving to San Jose, and subsequently to Oregon, Cody developed diabetes.  I was now two for two with this disease, with my Maine Coon Cats.  As much as I love them, it's unlikely that I'd get another one.  The heartbreak of losing such a magnificent animal is just not worth it.  Cody required testing and two shots a day, and lasted about eighteen months with his disease before developing some major complications.  He faded fairly quickly, and we lost him in January of 2007.

A move back to the Bay Area proved to be the last one for Annabelle, who lived a long and healthy life.  But at eighteen, she clearly was on a downward spiral, and we had to do what was best for her. 

Still in the Bay Area, but now on the Peninsula, Penny and Abigail were the remaining two.  The two little pound kitties had the run of the house, and were of course the best of friends.  But the eighteen months we spent in the house was not the best of times for Abbie, as she lost a good half of her weight.  The last month of her life, she had almost completely stopped eating or drinking any water, and it was painful to watch the little girl morph into nothing more than black and white fur over skin and bones.  We tried feeding her everything from the best cat food to pure tuna, made sure she alway had water close by, but nothing was going to turn her around.  We'd been planning our move back to Oregon, and it became clear that little Abigail would not be up for the trip.  So last week, I made the painful decision to take her to the local humane society, and once again put an end to a cat's downward spiral.  You know in your heart that it's the best thing to do, that she lived a long and relatively nice life, always had food and a clean litterbox, etc., but it doesn't make it any easier.  They're members of your family, and when they're gone, they're gone.  All you can do is live with it. 

Which leaves us with Penny ... Penny was "Penny Ann" for years, but lately has been dubbed "Penny Portly," since she obviously hasn't missed many meals.  Oh ... I mentioned they all had middle names ... Tillie was Mathilda Elizabeth, Annie was Annabelle Lee, Cody was a purebread and was technically "Wild Bill Cody of Burney Falls," and little Abbie was Abigail Lee O'Day.  Same middle name as Annie, and had a last name too, for some reason. 
Penny was sick a couple years ago and couldn't eat or keep anything down, and consequently had to be fed through a tube for a month.  She'd gotten down to about half her normal weight (always a big girl) when we made the decision to remove the tube and hope for the best.  It's almost as though a little light went off in her head and she decided she'd better start eating again.  She did, she bounced back, and now seems to be on a mission to keep a little extra weight on ... just in case. 

Penny's my buddy, and I've always called her my "special cat."  Noisy as all get out, doesn't like to be picked up, but she's a total lover and will sit on your lap and purr for hours.  She's always been the friendliest of the four, and will make friends with whoever comes to visit ... particularly people who don't like cats (seems to be the case with many cats, actually).  But she's now an only child.  I'm not sure when or if I'll get another kitten, but I'm sure there will come a time when I break down and once again add to the brood.  I've always had cats, and undoubtedly always will.  But for now, Penny is The Only Cat, and will soon have the huge house in Oregon all to herself.  Hopefully, climbing the stairs to get to her food and sandbox will help with some of her portliness ... I'd like her to be around for a good many more years. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I have a young friend who's turning sixteen, and it sort of dawned on me last night as I was trying to fall asleep, what a significant date this can be when you're living the experience yourself.  My friend Daina's wonderful daughter is turning sweet sixteen on June 2nd, and the thought of this lofty experience brought back some memories from my youth. 

For me, sixteen was huge for so many reasons.  First, my experience in grammar school included a "grade skip."  I started kindergarten at the normal age, but early in first grade I found myself being yanked out of class for what seemed like an endless battery of tests.  My teacher was somewhere between delighted and concerned (for both herself and yours truly) that I was teaching my fellow first graders to read and write and do simple math, faster than she was.  So the testing that I thought everyone was being subjected to, was actually a thorough I.Q. exam on both educational and social levels which would determine if I should "skip" second grade, and go from first to third.  Apparently I aced the tests, as about three-quarters of the way through first grade, I found myself ousted from Room Six of Westlake Shool, and sent next-door to Mrs. Van Valen's second grade class in Room Seven.  This is where I'd spend the final couple months of my first / second grade year, and if their assessment of me was on target, I'd go directly to third grade. 

Being both the "new kid" and the one who was a full year behind the rest of the class chronologically, was sort of like diving into the deep end of the pool for your first attempt at swimming.  But amazingly, there were some great kids in this class, and I became fast friends with several, and am still friends with a few of them today.  Kids tend to hang with other kids in their grade at this stage of life, and while the third graders (and up) were known as "big kids," the younger ones (like me) were considered beneath them.  But my friend Geoff Becker (who I still see a couple times a year) came to my rescue, and several others followed.  Geoff proactively came up to me and introduced himself and asked if I wanted to have lunch with his group.  I've not only never forgotten this moment of kindness, I embarass him and remind him of it every couple of years.  He doesn't seem to mind, I still appreciate it, I'll continue to do so. 

Being a year younger than my classmates always seemed unfair.  The milestones of turning 10, 13 (becoming a teenager!), 16, 18 and of course 21, would be experiences that all my friends would experience a year before I did, although we were all in the same grade.  I turned 17 a few weeks before graduating from high school, while everyone else was already 18 (and able to vote!).  And sixteen was the biggie.  I've always been fiercely independent, and I had to wait an extra year, which seemed like an eternity, before I could get my driver's license.  All my friends had licenses, many had cars, and the fact that I had to either "bum a ride" from one of them, or ask my parents to take me places, was miserable. 

The places this manifested itself the most was with regard to dating, and surfing.  Any dates other than going to a party or "meeting up" somewhere, meant that I had to double date with one of my friends who had a license and access to a car.  Even if they had to borrow their parents' car for the night, the difference was huge ... they got to drive, I was a passenger in the back seat. 

And surfing was the killer.  I started surfing at about eleven or twelve, and had initially depended on my parents, and later friends to get to the beach.  The other alternative was to hitch hike the 10 miles to Pedro Point with a wetsuit and forty-five pound nine-foot-seven surfboard in tow, so I obviously bummed rides more often than not.  And as all my surfing buddies got their licenses, drove around with surfboard racks permanently affixed to their cars, and were able to make the trek to the beach whenever they wanted, I was still bumming rides. 

 It seemed like the longest wait in the world, and that I'd never reach the lofty age of sixteen, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and after counting the days forever, it finally arrived.  I attended Westmoor High School for my freshman and sophomore years, but had to spend my junior year at El Camino High when the family moved out of the district (just barely out, as I recall).  Fortunately, there was something called "senior priveleges" which made it possible for me to spend my senior year back at Westmoor with all the friends I'd known since grammar school.  But it was at El Camino where that huge April 7th finally arrived, and I was going to get my California driver's license ... assuming I passed both the written and behind-the-wheel tests.  I believe I was in second period (Shirley Axt's social studies class, I believe) when a messenger came to the door and handed a note to the teacher.  Mrs. Axt said that someone was asking for me at the Principal's office, and I was to go there.  That "someone" was my dad, who apparently fashioned some sort of family emergency to drag me out of class ... and escort me to the DMV.  It was license time! 

I passed both the written and driving tests handily, and as a birthday gift, I was granted use of the family car.  The old blue Valiant station wagon would be MINE for the evening, and I already had big plans to attend what would surely be an awesome concert.  At the risk of dating myself here, the concert was the Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young, Steve Stills, Jim Messina and Richie Furay all in the same band!) opening up for the Jefferson Airplane.  The Airplane had just released Surrealistic Pillow, and were at the top of their game.  I believe this concert cost all of $2.50 apiece, and was held in the gym of the University of San Francisco.  My girlfriend Kitty was my date, and friends Tim Pappas and his girlfriend Vickie joined us.  Great show, awesome night, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. 

Turning sixteen was an incredible event that I thought would never happen.  The "big birthdays" of 18 and even 21 were somewhat anti-climatic, although it was nice to be able to order a glass of wine at dinner or make a purchase from a liquor store (legally).  But while getting "carded" and being able to produce valid proof of being twenty-one was initially a thrill, the subsequent milestone years are mostly forgettable.  The "left digit rotation" years of 30, 40, and so on, tend to be dreaded, vs. something anyone looks forward to.  I imagine it's going to be the achievements of hitting something like 80 or 90 when I'll want to start bragging about my age (or even admitting it) again.  Interesting how that works. 

But sixteen was indeed sweet, and I remember it like it was yesterday.  And while this blog entry consisted predominantly of my memories, I wish Rhys a wonderful day that will be filled with great memories for many decades to come.  She deserves it. 

Happy Birthday Rhys!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Three Soup Week

Gazing out of the window of my upstairs home office, I'm watching some huge snowflakes settle in our little cul de sac, only to melt on impact.  I love watching the snow fall silently to the ground, each flake unique to itself, even though this winter has only provided us with a couple brief glimpses of our more typical winter wonderland here in Central Oregon.  For now, the "balmy" 40 degree temperature is still too warm for anything to stick.  So maybe it's this wintry mix of a little snow, a little rain, chilly days and chillier nights, or maybe it's just a life long affinity for all things soup that's gotten me into such a soup mood this week.  Regardless, it's turned out to be a three soup week, with leftover soups filling the in-between miscellaneous lunches and dinners as well.  And very UN-typically, none of them made it to the freezer!  Everything's been consumed by the two of us, as well as an assortment of friends who've apparently enjoyed it as well. 

Loyal readers know I love soup, and always have.  I've written three long blogs on Asian noodle soups alone.  I think my pho article has gotten the most views and comments of anything I've written over the past three years that I've been doing this.  But apparently I'm not alone in my love for a big bowl of warm tasty soup, fresh out of the big 16 quart stainless steel soup pot. 

My love of soup dates back to my childhood, and I have a few very vivid memories of that time.  The first was our family visits to my great-grandmother's house in San Francisco.  Grandma McKinnon, or "Old Grandma" as we all used to call her, was seemingly always very old, but amazingly she was around until my early teens.  Old Grandma was born in Denmark, and the most common lunch that she'd prepare for us when we were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with her, was her special potato soup (likely a potato leek, in retrospect), and Swiss cheese sandwiches.  Maybe it's because I liked this combination so much, or perhaps it's just my old mind getting the best of me, but I really can't recall eating anything but this specific combination at her house.  And I recall her house vividly ... big, lots of wood, somewhat dark, long, wide stairways, and always that wonderful smell of home cooked soup coming from her old kitchen. 

Second was the soup at Compton's Cafeteria, which was located next to Vern's Ice Cream, two doors up from the Westlake Delicatessen, and three up from what would become my favorite clothing store by the time I reached junior high school; The New England Shop.  Compton's had three phenomenal things on their menu, and I don't recall eating much of anything but these three things.  Their hamburgers were awesome, and always came with a big pile of fries.  I remember slathering Heinz (not French's) mustard on the toasted, buttered buns, and drowning the fries with ketchup.  They also made an amazing custard, which was some of the best I've ever had.  I love custard, and Compton's had one that I can still picture and almost taste, and that was a long time ago.  But their vegetable soup is what I remember the most.  It would come in a porcelain soup bowl, brown on the outside, white on the inside, with a couple packs of soda crackers that were immediately crushed and sprinkled on the soup.  This was simple, comfort food at its best.  Very inexpensive, consistently good, and like the restaurant that would eventually be built across the street, packed every day of the year.

But as the shopping center "matured," and new stores replaced old ones, the venerable Compton's eventually gave way to a pizza parlor, and the days of fulfillment via a burger on a toasted bun, a bowl of vegetable soup, and a dessert of their delectable custard, were ultimately history.  But there was certainly "hope," and a lot more, as the vacant lot across the street, on the corner of Alemany (now John Daly Blvd) and Lake Merced was about to acquire a new building next to the Flying A gas station.  Joe's of Westlake opened for business in 1956, and the lives of the lucky people of Daly City and beyond would never be the same. 

Joe's is legendary, and lots of people including myself have written volumes about it.  I've been going there since I was a little kid, the first visit being a late night snack after attending the live play of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," with Zero Mostel, at the Berkeley Community Theater.  All compliments of my friend John's lovely mom.  On this first visit, I ate a cheeseburger, as recommended by John.  It was, and still is among the top two or three burgers anywhere.  A huge patty is cooked on the wood fired grill, served on a third of a loaf of San Francisco Sourdough, with a heaping mound of thick steak fries as the preffered side dish.  I've had hundreds over the years, and it's always a top choice when I visit Joe's.  This is a restaurant where most of the regulars (myself included) have stopped looking at the menu several decades ago, and have in fact committed every item on it to memory.  It's the kind of place where you start thinking of what you're going to order, days in advance.  And other than the sweetbreads which John maintains are excellent, I've eaten just about everything on the menu, and you can't go wrong with any number of dishes.  I draw the line at innards ...

It wasn't long after my first visit to Joe's, when I had the first of hundreds of bowls of their minestrone soup.  Joe's minestrone is simply the best, and as you may have gathered, I've eaten a lot of soup.  It's consistent in the extreme, never varying one bit from the last bowl you had, whether that was a week, a month, or five years earlier.  It's a huge bowl of vegetables in the best broth, with the optimal thickness, served steaming hot and ready for the hungry diner to devour.  In addition to the ever-present generous baskets of sourdough bread, Joe's leaves large shakers of grated parmesan cheese on every table.  You'll of course want copious quanties of both, with your soup. 

I almost always order a bowl of their soup before my main meal, as it's guaranteed that you'll get this course almost immediately, but you'll still have plenty of time to digest it and prepare for your main course ... which could range from a simple plate of rigatoni or "half and half" spaghetti and raviolis, to a huge portion of veal parmigiana with a side of pasta or vegetables, the roast lamb, pot roast, or roast beef, or maybe the ultimate ... veal scallopine sec with button mushrooms (and a side of rigatoni - it's the law).  I'm making myself hungry, and alas, I now live 500 miles north of this mecca in Daly City, so I'd better move on.

So it's been a week of soups ... three to be exact.  As I mentioned, winter in Central Oregon lends itself to soups and stews, and other warm comfort foods.  As much as I enjoy barbequing for the other three seasons here, the snow and ice in the yard just don't provide the encouragement necessary to go out and brave the elements and fire up the 'Q.  My old Lodge cast iron skillet gets lots of use this time of year.  All three of these started out as someone else's recipe, but I've done a lot of modification to all of them.  I'm not sure where I found the basics for the first two, but the tortilla soup is based on a recipe from Fine Cooking Magazine, which is one of my favorites.

My first soup of the week, which was last Sunday's meal, started out as a beef vegetable barley, but was modified somewhat for a low carb diet that one of my guests was striving to maintain.  Instead of barley, I substituted a cup of my "grain mix" which consists of a bunch of whole grains that I usually have in the pantry.  When I buy new grains or replenish one that's low, I always take about a half cup out of it, and combine it with the other mixed grains.  At any given time, it probably contains some combiation of red and green lentils, Israeli couscous, wheatberries, barley (with hulls, not pearl barley), some small beans, spelt, etc.  And it makes for some great soup.  Here's how I made it:

Beef, vegetable, whole grain soup
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (sweet onions work great, if you have access)

3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (including any leaves)
1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of marjoram
1 lb. of eye of round, sliced into 1/2" cubes
1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil
1 large can of diced tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons of dried parsley flakes
1 large bay leaf
8 cups of home made beef broth, OR
8 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate (such as "Better Than Bullion")
3/4 cup of mixed whole grains, uncooked

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a soup pot, and brown the beef over medium heat, stirring to coat all the sides
Remove the meat to a bowl, dump any liquid out of the bottom of the pot
Warm a second tablespoon of oil, add the onions, celery and carrots, cover and cook over medium heat for about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add the tomatoes, spices, stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer
Add the grains, cook on medium low for about an hour, or until they're tender

Two days later, I opted for my second soup of the week, which was a creamy chicken with white and wild rice.  This recipe started out as a cream of chicken soup, but I've found that adding some pasta or rice to it makes a huge difference in texture and overall taste.  You can also opt to omit the cream at the end, and the taste is still awesome.  It doesn't add a tremendous amount of fat calories to a big pot of soup, but if you're watching and counting all of them, leave it out.  I also scaled the amount of butter down to about half of what the original recipe called for, and it doesn't hurt the taste at all. 

Creamy Chicken and Two Rices
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked, diced
Large can of Swanson’s 99% fat-free chicken broth
4 cups of water
1 tablespoon of “Better Than Bullion” (chicken stock concentrate)
1/2 cube of unsalted butter
1 med-lg white onion, chopped
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (include leaves)
4 carrots, peeled, sliced thin
2/3 cup of flour (any kind will work)
1 tablespoon of parsley flakes
1 lg bay leaf
1 tablespoon dried thyme (Penzey’s French Thyme is best)
1/2 cup of heavy cream (optional)
2 tablespoons of sherry (dry or cream both work, don't use "cooking" sherry)
1 cup of uncooked white rice
1/4 cup of uncooked wild rice (optional)
Salt / pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a soup pot
Stir in the onions, celery, carrots, cover and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Sprinkle the flour on top, mix in thoroughly
Cook the mixture for another 2 minutes, stirring often
Add the broth, slowly at first, stirring to combine with the vegetables
Add the water and chicken stock concentrate, stir
Add the spices, bring to a boil over med-high heat
Add the chicken, wild rice, white rice, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender
Stir in the sherry and cream, simmer on low for 5 minutes
Remove the bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste, serve

For some odd reason, I didn't feel like anything resembling the traditional St. Patrick's Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.  We were having a few friends over, and I opted for another one of favorites, tortilla soup. Purists will want to make their own tortillas and cut them into small pieces, I generally don't have the time or patience and have found that decent store-bought chips work fine, particularly since the flavors all come from the soup itself, not so much from the chips.  This is yet another recipe that calls for concentrated broth, this time chicken.  Most stores now carry the "Better Than Bullion" brand on the top shelf of the soup section, and you can also get larger containers (for less cost) at Costco or Cash and Carry.  I buy the large sizes and use it constantly. 

Tortilla soup
2 lbs of chicken breasts and/or thighs, diced
2 #2 cans (the big can) of diced tomatoes, with the juices
Small can of tomato paste
8-10 cups of home made chicken stock, OR
2 lg cans of 99% fat free chicken broth (Swanson's is best)
1 tablespoon of concentrated chicken broth (can substitute granulated bouillon)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon of good chili powder or a combination of chili powders (New Mexico, California, etc.)
1 teaspoon of powdered cumin
1 pound pkg of frozen corn
1 can of black beans, rinsed & drained

Avocado, halved, sliced thin
Sour cream (real, or light works best – not imitation/non-fat stuff)
Salsa fresca, or a chunky salsa of your choice.  Make it yourself with some cilantro, half an onion, a jalapeno, and a couple diced tomatoes
Tortilla chips

Combine the chicken with 1 teaspoon of the chili mixture in a bowl
Sweat the onion in 1 tablespoon of oil (5 minutes, medium heat, covered)
Add the tomato paste, 1 can of tomatoes, the remainder of the chili mixture, the cumin, and simmer for 10 minutes – Stir occasionally, don’t let it boil or burn
Add 2 cups of broth, and the chicken, return to a simmer, reduce to low heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally
Add the remainder of the canned broth, the chicken concentrate (or granules / bouillon cubes in a pinch), the other can of tomatoes, ½ the cilantro, the corn and beans, bring to a boil on high heat
Reduce to Med-Low heat, simmer for an hour, partially covered

Serve with a garnish of a couple chips in the middle of the bowl, topped with a few avocado slices, a teaspoon of salsa, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.

Best with a Margarita and a bonus is a fresh key lime pie for dessert.

And tonight?  Out to dinner to a restaurant I haven't tried before, in the nearby community of Sisters.  I cook almost every night, and every now and then it's nice to let someone else have the kitchen duties!