Monday, August 31, 2009

For the record, I'm not a miracle worker

In a list of referring urls (how people come to this blog), I found this today:

" make pennis bigger n thicker"

Google clearly thinks pretty darn highly of this website's capabilities, and they're the experts. So, if I have helped any reader out in this regard, I'm glad to have been of service.

10 things I loved about camp (a photo collection without footnotes)

1. Tie dying my shoes

2. High altitude basketball (where my kids teamed up to claim the championship and the free milkshakes that came with it)

3. Hikes with nice lunch stops

4. Disco Bingo

5. Omelets on the deck

6. Watching my children rise out of the lake in a shining spray of sheer delight

7. The annual Capture the Flag swearing-in ceremony

8. Making a spitting image of my dog out of a few balls of wool

9. A persuasive argument for getting up at dawn to catch the sunrise

10. The face of someone who told me today that camp is better than grilled cheese sandwiches AND Disneyland.

photo credits shared with my sister

Sunday, August 30, 2009

6,600 tiny evacuees

T-minus 6 days until my mom's birthday. The subtle campaign continues.

When my sister picked her up to go grocery shopping, they could see the huge plumes of gray smoke from the 42,500 acre station fire directly out of the car windows in front of them.

My mom: My goodness! I had no idea the fire was so big! It looks so tiny on my little 13 inch TV.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The road we travelled

A few highlights from our road trip en route to our annual week at family camp.

The plan: Hit the road by 8 am, pick up my son from his camp right after lunch, and arrive triumphantly at Fallen Leaf Lake just in time for the nonsensical welcome skit-o-rama that officially kicks off the week up here. ETA: 8pm at the latest.

9:15 am: We pull out of the driveway. We have loaded up the car with luggage for a week, snacks, DVDs, headphones, 2 laptops, 5 tennis rackets, several pillows, one car seat, 2 kids and 4 adults*. Incredibly, we are all comfortable and can see out of our windows.
9:17 am: We pull into the shopping center across the street for Starbucks and Jamba Juice.
9:40 am: We pull onto the freeway. Every cup holder is full.
12:50 pm: In N Out stop in Fresno**
2 pm: Begin circling Bass Lake, looking for a pack of dirty children and some camp vans. Our directions are bad, and it turns out that every twist of the road unveils another herd of kids who are definitely filthy but not related to us. Debate picking one of them up to try and salvage schedule. Decide against it.***
2:20 pm: Stop for bathroom break and to ask directions. We have been going the wrong way around the lake for several miles, but no one has to pee any more. We consider the stop a draw.
2:45 pm: Arrive at campsite. Find long lost son fuming at a picnic table because we are nearly two hours late, but make up for it by embarrassing him with big sloppy hug in front of his newly formed peer group. Tour lakeside dust bowl that has been their home for the past few days, then stuff his enormous duffle, sleeping bag, and smelly body into the car. We are now significantly less comfortable.
3:10 pm: Depart Bass Lake.
4:00 pm: Our route will take us right through Yosemite, into the valley floor. It is a magnificent sunny day. Most people in our car have never had the opportunity to see this awe inspiring natural wonder. Most people in our car are thrilled to have the chance to stop, stretch their legs, and marvel at Half Dome and El Cap and the falls that appear as we first emerge into the park. My daughter has this to say:

Us: Wow! Isn't this incredible?
Her: Jeez, Mom. It's just some mountains. We're GOING to the mountains. These are not the right mountains. And we're going to miss the skits. I can't BELIEVE we stopped for this.
My niece: (tearing up) We're going to miss the skits?
Her mom: (taking photo for posterity anyway) Smile!
My son: Did you charge my PSP?

4:45 pm: Snack and drink stop at Village Store. All is momentarily forgiven for candy.
5:45 pm: Leave Yosemite. Google maps is estimating an additional 139 miles, mostly over winding mountain roads. When you add in a dinner stop we are dead meat, skit-wise, candy or no candy.
6:01 pm: We round a curve and my niece pipes up, "Mommy? My belly hurts." This is five year old code for, "I'm gonna blow." Damn candy. We speed up. If the gods are with us, we can outrun her.
7:10 pm: Like an oasis rising out of the desert, we descend the final mile of the Tioga Pass to find the neon lights of the Mobil Mart shining like a beacon. The entire car**** breaks out in cheers, "The Whoa Nellie Deli! The Whoa Nellie Deli! It's open! It's open! Hooray!"
7:45 pm: We eat happily*****, grab a couple of bottles of wine****** and a snow globe to go, then pile in for the home stretch to camp.
9:35 pm: Tire pressure warning light comes on. We are in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. By some miracle, we find a shuttered gas station and pump the tire back up.
9:39 pm: Tire flat as a pancake. We have left any form of civilization back at the shuttered gas station. We do find a gravel turnout with a lone streetlight. No cell service. Menfolk deal with situation: One begins reading the car manual with curiosity. The other calls OnStar.

OnStar Lady: Hello, Mr. X! How may I be of service to you this evening?
My brother-in-law: We have a flat tire. Our cell phones don't work, and we are stranded in the middle of the mountains at night.
OSL: That's no problem, Mr. X! I'd be happy to connect you to roadside assistance. Please hold!
[Long pause]
Mr. X? I have roadside assistance on the line! Have a great evening and thanks for using OnStar!
Roadside Assistance Lady: Hi Mr. X! How are you tonight?
My brother-in-law: Not great. I have a flat tire.
RAL: No problem! Where are you located?
MBIL: In the middle of nowhere, just past the intersection of two deserted mountain highways, in a gravel turnout with a lone streetlight. I think I just heard a pack of wolves nearby.
RAL: No problem! I'm just going to put you on hold while I contact a service provider.
[20 minutes pass. Other male in the car has found relevant section of the manual, and is completely unpacking the car to reach the toolbox hidden in the back. Luggage now covers most of the turnout. Children have taken turns peeing in the woods and are now either a) hiding their face in a pillow and trying to sleep, b) watching a Scooby Doo video or c) asking with great enthusiasm, "Can I change the tire? This is so exciting! I love this! Can I? Can I? Wait! I need to go pee again! Yay!" Yosemite is apparently a waste of time, but this is a great plan.]
RAL: Mr. X? I just called [name of shuttered gas station we just passed] and there's no answer.
MBIL: This is probably because they are closed. Please try someone in an actual town.
RAL: No problem! Please hold!
[Another extended pause. Those meddling kids foil another plot. My daughter contentedly throws rocks into the darkness. No luck sleeping for pillow kid.]
RAL: Mr X? I reached a service provider who will be there in 30 minutes. What is your phone number so I can have them contact you?
MBIL: Did I mention that our cell phones don't work?
RAL: No problem!

10:40 pm: The tow truck shows up. And there was much rejoicing.
11:20 pm: We pull into camp. Amen.

* Two of whom (the females) are pretty darn grumpy because they stayed up until an ungodly hour getting all the stuff packed and ready for this @#%?& vacation. I asked myself at 1 am, in a panic, "Did I forget to charge the PSP?" I did not. I also thankfully remembered around 2 am to throw in the sand toys, laundry detergent, and a large afro wig. My sister decides, shortly thereafter, that she needs to pay all of her bills before we go, and asks if I have any stamps and is the fax machine working so she can submit a few expense reports.
** 1. It's Saturday. We always have In N Out for lunch on Saturdays. 2. It's a road trip. We always have In N Out for lunch on a road trip. Cha ching! We get a 2-fer!
*** They really are dirty, and several of them have actual parents with them.
**** My silent thanks go out as well to the gods who have delivered us from car sickness.
***** Homemade carnitas tacos, Caesar salad with marinated skirt steak, seared Ahi tuna, porterhouse steak with mashed potatoes, 2 hot dogs, and a burger.
***** Why? Because we need it. The camp wine steward does not work past 10.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do I dare?

Begin strange intro now:

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

Explain strange intro now:

As Steve Martin so famously said, "I can do this act alone. I often do." But apparently, that doesn't have to be the case. All over the web, bloggers have bonded into net-wide coalitions, posting en masse in a frenzied outpouring of prose and photos and general togetherness on various topics. In the cooking world alone one could be busy almost daily, between Tuesdays with Dorie and Thursday's Barefoot Bloggers. I’m sure there’s Wolfgang Puck Wednesdays and a Morimoto Monday if I just looked hard enough. I have decided to dip my toe into this thing from the fringes of Cheesy Pennies Land by joining The Daring Bakers*. From what I can tell, it's a bit like Fight Club**.

1. There is an uber secret recipe challenge every month.
2. You must make the uber secret recipe in secret.
3. On a pre-determined day, everybody "reveals" the challenge and how it came out***.
4. If you don't keep the secret, I think something very bad happens****.

And so, with a big drum roll, here is my first production as a Daring Baker:

Pretty darn impressive, huh? (pause for applause)

But here's the thing. It was a lot of work. Totally doable, but a lot of work*****. I hand form thin layers of sponge cake. I whip up an intensely rich butter cream frosting. I decide the recipe's version is cloyingly sweet, and improvise by adding both a pinch of salt and some coffee for flavor. I rock! I make caramel. It's way too lemony for my taste or to suit the rest of the flavors in this cake, but there's no way to fix that. I add a pinch of salt anyway to make myself feel better. I coat a layer of cake with said caramel, and then swear a lot as I try to cut that sticky stuff into decorative wedges. I chop Marcona almonds and macadamia nuts. And then I'm still facing this step called "assembly"******.

But I did it, and the torte looked amazing. My sister and I cut into it with anticipation. And were underwhelmed. It tasted fine. Good even. But after all that? I wanted to be blown away. Only one part of this monumental effort did live up to the hype, and that was the frosting. That stuff was silky, smooth, buttery bliss on a spoon. Made the whole thing worth it, just to lick that mixing bowl.

Will I be baking again? I can't tell you, or I'd have to kill you.

Rich Mocha Buttercream
the best part of the Dobos Torte

4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup bakers sugar (superfine white sugar)
4oz bakers semi-sweet chocolate or your favorite dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used Trader Joe's Organic Dark Bars)
1 Tbs. finely ground (like to a powder) instant coffee
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature.

Note: This can be prepared in advance and kept chilled until required. Allow to come to room temp before using.
1. Prepare a double-boiler: quarter-fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and thickened, about five minutes. You can use a balloon whisk or electric hand mixer for this.
3. Fit bowl over the boiling water in the saucepan (water should not touch bowl) and lower the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes until you see it starting to thicken a bit. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the coffee powder.
4. Scrape the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. It should be quite thick and sticky in consistency.
5. When cool, beat in the soft butter, a small piece (about 2 tablespoons) at a time. An electric hand mixer is great here, but it is possible to beat the butter in with a spatula if it is soft enough. You should end up with a thick, velvety mocha buttercream. It would be fantastic on cupcakes, chocolate cake, vanilla cake, or just by itself. DIG IN!
If anyone would like the full recipe, let me know and I'll pass it along!

* Main attractions: Monthly activity, not weekly. Involves baking.
** "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club."
*** I am so following these rules! Go me! For example, not only did I use the "club" intro text properly (I hope!) I actually wrote this post like a week ago, but kept it uber secret until today!
**** Just kidding. I think they just kick you out of the blogroll.
***** Perhaps a clue for me in the name "challenge."
****** If you haven't noticed, very few of the recipes I talk about have this as part of the process. Usually, it's straight from the oven to "dig in."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade – Episode 4

The brigade hit the streets again last week, and simultaneously managed to stick with our short lived traditions (we were drawn in to this latest spot by reports of an outstanding dish that featured pork*) and break with them (we brought along our kids). Let's see how it went.

Episode 4 - The slow food movement

The scene is Little Dom's, a quiet, cozy spot in Los Feliz, on a bright and sunny Thursday afternoon. The door to the restaurant swings open, once, twice, and then a third time. It is suddenly a bit less quiet. Four women, seven children under the age of 12, and a camera have come for lunch. They have come here based on this e-mail from FG2:

"Either of you been to Little Dom's? Have I gone completely ape s***, or does this place look amazing? I know it's far, but we should really put it on the list. Wait, do we even have a list?"

The group settles at an improvised table, peruses the menu, and orders with abandon: Cheese pizza, arugula salad with roasted grapes, fried Fontina cheese, and aged balsamic, risotto balls, a meatball sandwich, a side of potatoes (more on those in a minute) egg white frittata with wild boar bacon, fresh made pasta carbonara, pepperoni and sausage pizza, fried oyster sandwich, Little Dom's chopped salad, and the dish we've all heard about: pizza with a sunny side up egg, speck, mozzarella and tomato sauce. It becomes evident that the benefit of bringing kids is that we can order way more food without being embarrassed. It also becomes evident that the kids don't find that nearly as exciting as we do.

The food arrives. The pizzas were terrific. They arrive on a wooden plank, the edges puffy and crisp, the crust almost impossibly thin. The sauce was zesty without being overpowering, and the ingredients were absolutely fresh. Everyone loved them. The famous breakfast pizza was excellent. The risotto balls were tasty, too. The other winner was the potatoes that came as a side. According to our waiter, these were basically potatoes five ways: boiled, then pan seared, then roasted, then fried, then scattered with lemon juice, salt, and parsley. [You can see them in the photo of the meatball sandwich, above.] They were so good we ordered a side of them on their own. Delectable! The rest ranged from fine (the meatball sandwich, frittata, and pasta) to not so great (the grape salad and the oyster sandwich were pretty awful). And the service was super slooooow.

On the plus side, they had a great mirror to allow our little ballerinas to watch themselves dance around while they were waiting for their food. You can't put a price on that.

Foodie Girls Final Verdict: Little Dom's stays on the long as you order pizza and potatoes, and aren't in any rush when you go.

* On an episode of the Food Network show "The Best Thing I Ever Ate", this pizza was top of the list.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My sister's keeper

Since early January, my brother-in-law has been a member of our nutty household. He himself is the opposite of nutty. He’s a calm, matter-of fact guy, with a taste for tennis, mixed nuts, a glass of red wine on occasion. I think the exposure to our maniac ways has been both eye-opening and amusing to him, although he does often seem perplexed by the effusive greetings from the 100 lb. dog when he returns from a business trip, or my daughter’s high-pitched squeals from the pool outside his room. He is one of the most level headed people I know, and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to have had this time to get to know him better*.

That’s why it’s been so gut wrenching to watch the twisted, ridiculous, torturous tale of his California adventure unfold. Originally transferred here by GM to start what was supposed to be a three year tour of duty, our collective excitement dimmed as the strain of living out of boxes and with a mother-in-law in Michigan began to take a serious toll on his wife and child. Every weekend here was full of fruitless rounds of open houses and real estate tours And the new job consisted of helping decide which GM dealerships were on the chopping block, and then being the bearer of bad news, day after day.

When my sister and niece arrived, you could almost see the burdens he’d been carrying simultaneously lift and shift. The drive to find a home for the people he loved consumed him, but every house hunting outing became a Goldilocks situation:

“Too small”
“No pool”
“Too old”
“Wrong schools”
“Too cold”
“Not cool”

And then, on the day they finally found the perfect house (a delighted chorus of “Just Right!!!” from the entire displaced Michigan clan, and a huge sigh of relief from their incredibly patient but increasingly baffled real estate agent), the news broke. And he did, too. His job, tough as it was, had been eliminated. The whole, precarious plan, the months of upheaval, the push towards normalcy, had all been derailed with the stroke of a pen. Worse still, they put him in a kind of crazy limbo that only a company like GM would be capable of: he was on a list of people to be reassigned, but no specific job was available. If he did not get a “reassignment” within two weeks, he’d be laid off. And the reassignment was completely out of his control.

No amount of tennis, wine, nuts, or support from all of us could make this better**. You could see, writ large all over his face, the savage self-criticism of a person whose role as provider for his family was on shaky ground.

Although this story is repeating itself all over the country, with as many small painful variations are there are people losing their jobs every day, the blow is deeply and intensely personal, and it reverberates down to the very foundations of a family.

On one of the dark days of limbo, I came home to find my sister cutting into a bubbling pan of the cheesiest, most luscious sausage and spinach lasagna. Clearly, the urge to cook people into feeling better runs strong in our family. Everyone gathered around the dinner table and dug in, and the lasagna did indeed work its magic. Laughter and chatter flowed across the circle of warm light, as we savored both the food and the pleasure of having the people we loved all around us. The dog was at our feet, vacuuming up every crumb that dropped. That dinner reminded us that no matter what, our foundations were intact**.

Now, we are counting ourselves lucky, and deeply thankful, that we heard this week that he is likely to get one of the coveted reassignments, to a position that not only preserves his stature at the company but actually interests him. He’s cautiously excited, and immensely relieved. And the hunt for the perfect house will resume, in Washington D.C.***

My Sister's Magic Lasagna
Also known as Get Several Pounds of Everything at the Store Lasagna or “Really? You put THAT much cheese in here?” Lasagna

1 box of lasagna noodles
2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. Italian sausage
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion, chopped
¼ c. chopped garlic
1 lb. mushrooms, chopped (optional)
2 ½ large jars of hearty marinara sauce, preferably Mids, preferably with sausage (!)
1 large can chopped tomatoes
Some tomato paste, on standby
Italian spices, on standby
1 container of ricotta cheese
4 c. grated or shredded mozzarella cheese (one package, if you buy it pre-grated)
4 1/2 c. grated or shredded cheddar cheese
1 ½ c. grated Parmesan cheese
about 2 Tbs. chopped parsley or other fresh herbs
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and completely drained of excess water (optional)

Preheat to oven to 350. Oil a 9x13 pan with cooking spray, and get out a cookie sheet to hold the pan.

Boil water and cook most of a package lasagna noodles according to directions, then rinse in cold water.

Brown the meats together, and drain of fat.

Cook up the onion and garlic in some of the meat fat until softened. Take ½ of the onion mixture and put it in with the meat, along with some salt & pepper. Take other half, sauté in the mushrooms if you are using them, and add that mixture to the marinara sauce in a large pot. You need a lot of sauce. Add the chopped tomatoes. Season to taste with the herbs to make it yummy. Use your standby tomato paste if you want to intensify the flavor. Allow sauce to simmer on low while you make the cheese part.

Combine in a large mixing bowl the tub of ricotta cheese, the mozzarella cheese, 2 c. of the cheddar cheese, the Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, a little salt and pepper, and the eggs. Mush with your hands ‘til its nice and goopy.

Now you are ready to assemble your lasagna. Start with a layer of sauce. Then add noodles, covering the whole thing. You can cut the noodles to make them fit if you need to. Then cheese. Be generous. Layer on some meat. Sauce. Noodles. Cheese. Meat. (Insert layer of spinach here, if you are using it.) Sauce. Noodles. Cheese. Meat. Sauce. (Spinach) Noodles. Sauce. Finish with 1 ½ c. of cheddar cheese.

Put the completely stuffed pan on top of the cookie sheet, and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cover with foil about 30 minutes in. You should see some drips and bubbling over happening. Add another cup of cheddar cheese (!), then bake for 5 more minutes. Allow to set for at least 10 minutes, but preferably 20. This tastes even better the next day.

* Between my sister and my niece, it’s pretty hard for him to make much of an impression when they are in the room.
** It was powerful stuff. The good news came through just a few days later.
*** Selfishly, and oh so quietly, this Goldilocks is saying, “Too far.” I don’t want to jinx anything, but man!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I usually wear a hat

My daughter, my niece and I were in the check out line at Gelson's, with our selections from the salad bar* being tallied up by the kindly clerk. I glance up to see a black woman hurrying into the store. We give each other the quick "Hey, nice to see another black face in Encino" nod and smile, and I gather up the girls and our bags to head out. Suddenly, she turns and comes back to me:

"Excuse me. I have to give you my card. I run a hair salon."
She smiles again, presses her card into my hand, and repeats:
"A hair salon."

* Early on it was clear we would need three containers:
Mine: Spinach, mixed greens, mushrooms, green onions, hard boiled eggs, blue cheese crumbles, caesar dressing
My daughter's: Iceburg lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese, ranch dressing. Side of bacon.
My niece's: Carrots, grated cheddar cheese, dash of egg yolks

Monday, August 17, 2009

David Johansen said it best

Standing in an overgrown parking lot on a foggy, overcast morning in LA, watching the caravan of camp buses and vans pull away with my son, I could only think of the immortal words of The Ghost of Christmas Past in one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies*:

"Niagara Falls, Frankie. Niagara Falls."

It kind of cheered me up. A little.

* It is not Christmas at my house without at least one showing of Scrooged. I can quote the entire thing verbatim, and usually do, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Another one rides the bus

Having survived (barely) the exodus of my youngest child for nearly a month earlier this summer, I am approaching the impending departure of my oldest in the morning (also heading to sleep away camp for the first time) with an eerie sense of calm acceptance.

He has helped me immensely by behaving as if he is not actually going anywhere.

While my daughter pestered me for months beforehand about the arrival date of her trunk, so that she could begin to pack all the clothes she had arranged to the exact specifications of the list*, my son had to be nagged into rummaging through his dresser for socks as the sun began to set tonight. Definitely looked to me like there were an odd number and several different colored specimens in the pile at the end, but he was good with it. He could not get out of REI fast enough, whereas my daughter and I spent hours and hours shopping together and debating the merits of each and every item of clothing and camp accessory. My daughter purchased her very own lock for her trunk, created a top secret combination, had me pre-address and stamp envelopes so she could write letters home, and carefully stowed a camera in a special waterproof case, along with a journal and her favorite stuffed animal. My son said he "is not a picture person", doesn't think he'll write**, and felt strongly that he did not need to bring anything extra for crazy hair day or the camp's "ever-popular cross dressing extravaganza"***.

Exasperated, he finally says to me, "Mom! I'll be gone for SIX DAYS. Would you please CALM DOWN?"

Fine. Point taken, Mr. Maturity. But, in the morning, when we get to that fateful goodbye hug at the bus stop, all bets are off for both of us.

* aka The Camp Bible, The Packing Commandments, The Law, and The Paper That Thou Shalt Check and Recheck at Least Twice Per Day, Every Day, Until it is so Tattered that Thy Mother Shalt Have to Request Another Copy By Email from the Nice Lady in the Camp Office Who Very Patiently Keeps Answering All Your Questions Like Can I Bring A Camera To Camp If I Am Very Careful With It.
** I put a card with my name on it in his bag anyway. Just in case.
*** Their description, not mine. Calm down?

Friday, August 14, 2009

G-Force for evil

When Jerry Bruckheimer is arming animated guinea pigs, you know it's not going to be a good thing. But according to The Associated Press, the sins of this movie extend far beyond being a piece of crap film*:

"LOS ANGELES — The Disney movie "G-Force" shows a squad of specially trained, computer-generated guinea pig spies coming to the world's rescue. After the movie comes out, though, animal activists say it will be real life guinea pigs who need rescuing.

Some guinea pig rescue groups have already posted pleas to those who might rush out to buy the furry little rodents. "I can tell you, every single rescue in the United States and abroad** took a look at that movie trailer and said, 'Oh God, here we go,'" said Whitney Potsus, vice president of The Critter Connection, Inc., in Durham, Conn."

The article goes on to dispel some common misconceptions that are propagated by the new film:

"In "G-Force," which opens Friday, Agents Juarez, Darwin and Blaster drive cars, parachute, use blowtorches, swim, talk, walk on two legs, live in tanks with mice and rats and use hamster balls, Lyn Zantow, a volunteer for the Orange County group, warns on her Web site.

In real life, guinea pigs are noisy, eat and poop all the time, require big and clean cages, don't swim and can be expensive to care for if they get sick, she said, adding that they should be kept out of the hands of young children."

That's right. They can't swim***. Hear that, you fly-by-night impulse purchasers? They are guinea pigs. Not GOLDFISH.

But they are unbelievably cute in real life, even if they are pretty damn boring. Way cuter than those faux fur balls could ever be.

* Which was #1 at the box office when it opened, and has made nearly $90 million in the U.S. to date.
** I picture a global chorus of jaded volunteers, some of whom might not speak English, but know enough to understand yet another threat to small defenseless animals when they see a trailer in at their local multiplex. Perhaps heard muttering in French, "Merde! We just recovered from Bedtime Stories! Now this???"
*** I am hoping that this spokesperson for guinea pig kind felt it unnecessary to say that they are unable to use blowtorches in real life either. But maybe she was thinking that the threat of violent outbursts would be a deterrent to the clearly gullible American (and international!) pet-buying public.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The NY Times agrees wtih my Mom

I submit the following excerpt from a recent article in that august publication on Nora Ephron and Julie & Julia:

"Hollywood movies about vibrant marriages are rare. There is “The Thin Man” (whose main characters, it should be noted, are Nick and Nora). But most often film unions are dreary and painful, a chore that must be slogged through en route to the real story line: divorce or an affair. Enter “marriage” as a keyword on the Internet Movie Database ( and the results are almost uniformly negative: “unhappy-marriage” (150 titles), “forced-marriage” (140 titles), “marriage-as-hell” (37 titles).

But happy, relaxed, rolling-along-together marriage? “It’s like spotting a unicorn,” Ms. Ephron said."

Mom's take: "Those two couples were like a breath of fresh air." Cue music from The Twilight Zone.

Or, better yet, cue Dan Akroyd:

I promise, I am not going to post another word on this topic. It's just a movie. But seriously? The NY Times? And I found the link via the Huffington Post? I know I should never underestimate how much my Mom has her finger on the pulse of the nation, but I was was just so thrown by having Judge Judy tossed into the mix.

Yet another perspective

I thought my Mom would have the last word on the subject (she usually does), but the front page of today's LA Times food section featured an "inside scoop" from Russ Parsons on what Julia really thought of Julie. Apparently, she (Julie) was a bit of a whiner, something she (Julia) did not put up with in the least. Amen to that!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The best thing about "Julie & Julia"

According to my Mom, her favorite part about the new movie was not the beautiful food, the wonderful writing, the spot-on acting, or the compelling parallel stories of two women finding joy in finding themselves through cooking*. Nope.

"What I loved most was seeing two people in committed relationships. You know, I've just started watching Judge Judy in the afternoons, and those people get into a fight over a piece of paper. Between that and Dr. Phil, I'm telling you the couples in that movie were just a breath of fresh air."

She may have a point**. Which would you rather see?


* All of which were my reasons for enjoying the movie, as well as the book.
** It is more likely, however, that this is a sly part of her campaign to get a new TV for her birthday. When I asked why in the world she was watching Judge Judy, she said, "Well, you know I have to watch the little TV since my other one broke, and I can't get the channel that I used to watch when I didn't want to watch Oprah at 3." Other recent salvos in this campaign have included putting the phone down for 5 minutes when my sister called her, coming back to the phone and saying, "Sorry about that. The little TV doesn't have a remote, so I had to walk over and turn it down by hand." As in, walk the 10 feet across the carpet of her studio apartment. This after asking if we could get her old TV repaired for her birthday. Sly like a fox, I tell you. She's getting the TV.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Madam's Ribs

I like to think of myself as a progressive, post modern type of gal. Marriage as a partnership of equals*. Bringing in my own paycheck, and paying my own bills. Go Sonia. Boo Sarah. Call me ma'am and I'll deck you. I am woman. Hear me roar. That sort of thing.

It's a lie.

When the cat brought the mouse into the bedroom, flung its mangled body on the carpet at the foot of our bed, and left, guess who was under the covers squealing, and who was in his bathrobe confronting the still writhing gift with a giant dustpan and a plastic bag?

When the telemarketers call, guess who says in a sweet trembling voice, "Gosh, my husband makes all of the financial decisions in our house. Can you call back later?**"

And guess who was convinced that barbecuing ribs was a "guy thing" and therefore required some y-chromosomal skill set that was far beyond my reach?

That's right. Me.

Or at least, it WAS me. In a small but critical step toward regaining my place among the pantheon of the liberated female class, I conquered ribs tonight. I am griller. Wimp no more***.

Baby Back Ribs with South Carolina Barbecue Sauce
Another winner from the Grilling Class at New School of Cooking

For the ribs:

3 racks of baby back pork ribs
3 tsp. salt (I used 2 tsp. of a hickory smoke flavored salt, and 1 tsp. regular)
1 heaping tsp. black pepper
1 heaping tsp. each paprika, ground cumin, dry mustard, ground sage, and chili powder
2 heaping Tbs. brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 325. Remove the thin membrane from the back side of the ribs by separating it at one of the bones and using your fingers to pull it off. It will make the ribs cook evenly and infinitely easier to eat. Combine the dry seasonings in a bowl, and rub all over the ribs. Place on large sheet pan, and bake for 1 hour.

While the ribs are cooking, make the sauce****:

2 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped (I didn't have one, so left this out)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp. salt (I used the hickory one again)
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. chili powder
1 Tbs. dry mustard, preferably Colman's
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. ketchup
1 c. Dijon mustard
1/2 c. molasses
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
1/4 c. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs. cider vinegar
2 tsp. hot sauce
2 c. beef stock (I didn't have any beef stock, so I used chicken stock)

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Put in the onions, peppers (if you use them. I thought it was great without them), garlic, salt and pepper. Cover the pan and cook, stirring from time to time, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. Mix the dry ingredients (chili powder through brown sugar) in a small bowl, and then stir into the vegetables until they are well coated. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well blended. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water if the sauce gets too thick (mine didn't). It should be thick but easy to pour. Taste and adjust seasoning. The sauce will keep in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to a month.

To finish the ribs, heat your grill to medium. Place the ribs on the grill and cook about 5 minutes on each side with the lid closed. If you want to cook with the sauce, after each side has been grilled, baste the ribs with the sauce, turn and cook for another 5 minutes. Then baste the other side and grill for a final 5 minutes. Total grill time will be 20 minutes, 5 on each side without sauce and 5 on each side with sauce.

NOTE: We decided to baste two racks with sauce, and cook one rack for the same amount of time without because the sauce is tasty but SPICY and we were feeding kids. We passed the sauce on the side. Turns out that both ways were absolutely delicious.

I have no idea what I have been thinking all these years! Guy stuff is totally doable. Maybe I'll try to wire up the DVD player next...

ANOTHER NOTE: The side dish in the picture is fresh corn and scallion risotto. To make it, follow the recipe for Pesto Risotto. At the end, instead of folding in pesto, fold in about 1 1/2 -2 c. of fresh corn kernels that have been blanched for 3 minutes, 1/4 cup of finely chopped scallions, 2 Tbs. finely chopped basil, and 3/4 c. of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Summer in a bowl!

*He knows his way around the grocery store. I know my way around home depot. We both know our way around the nicer restaurants in town and the liquor cabinet in our house.
**Actually, this line is a huge inside joke around here:
Kids (giggling so guy on the phone can't hear) : Daddy making financial decisions for Mommy!? Good one!!
Husband (snickering): Nice! Did he ask for Mr. Graves again, too?
(More snorts and guffaws)
Me (shushing them all, putting on my wispy voice): I just leave all that to him, you know? He's so much better at it than I could ever be. I'll be sure to tell him you called!
(Hanging up quickly, I explode into laughter and we high five all around.)
*** I also cleaned up all the mouse guts on the carpet, and killed a spider with my bare hand. I think equality has been restored on all counts.
****This is a really long list of ingredients, but I gotta tell you, I was so impressed with the result that I heard echoes of my son and the corn dogs as I was chasing people around the house with my tasting spoon. ("Seriously. You HAVE to try this sauce! It's RIDICULOUS! I'm not even kidding!)

Friday, August 7, 2009

An evening in Liguria

What was in the blurb from the cooking school about last night's class:

"The beautiful strip of Mediterranean coast called Liguria is home to some of the best seafood, wild herbs and olive oil in Italy. These raw materials help inspire a cuisine which features exceptional pesto, focaccia and pasta dishes. With summer in full swing here, now is the perfect time to introduce the specialty items and dishes from this marvelous region."

What was not in the blurb from the cooking school about last night's class:

"When the instructor is pairing up the students that night, the oddest couple of the bunch will be an older woman from Honduras*, in a well worn chef's coat with a few strands of hair escaping from the loose knot she's hastily tied up, and an awkward spiky blond surf kid, perhaps 15 years old, with a freckled nose, and skinny, deeply tanned legs peeking out from beneath his baggy shorts. You will share a table with these two. As they begin the steps toward making some of that exceptional focaccia, poring over the recipe, divvying up the work, consulting with each other with their heads huddled close over the dough, watching this unlikely duo interact over the course of the evening will completely make your day."

Oh, and the food will be marvelous, too. Especially that magical wonderful bread.

Focaccia with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Sea Salt

4 1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
2 c. warm water
2 tsp. active dry yeast
1/4 c. fruity extra virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling

1/3 c. fruity extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. coarse sea salt

In a large bowl, mix the flour with the salt. Pour the water in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast in it, stirring a few times until it is incorporated in the water. Let it rest ofr 5 minutes, then add a 1/4 c. of the olive oil. Start mixing on low speed with a dough attachment and slowly add the flour mixture. Increase the speed to medium high and keep mixing until you obtain a smooth, sticky dough. The dough should be rather wet and loose and will stick to your fingers a little. It's almost more like a thick batter than a dough.

Oil a large clean bowl, scrape the dough from the mixer into the bowl, cover it tightly with oiled plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425.

Oil a half sheet pan and spread the dough with your hands to cover the surface of the pan completely. Oil the fingers of one hand, and dig a few random dimples on the surface of the stretched focaccia dough. Cover it with oiled plastic wrap and let the dough rest in the pan for another 30 minutes, until it has risen and doubled in size once again.

Before baking, top the dough with 1/3 cup of olive oil, spreading it gently with your hands to cover the surface evenly. In particular, make sure it gets into the dimples. At this point, your dough will look very oily, but don't worry, the oil will get absorbed while baking and it will make the focaccia soft and delicious.** Sprinkle the dough with the sea salt and bake 30-35 minutes, or until it turns a nice golden brown and is cooked through. Cut into pieces and serve.

* You will later discover as you devour the results of the class over a glass of white wine that she is Rob Reiner's personal chef. You do not get a back story on the kid.
** It does. I can vouch for that.

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade – Episode 3

I might be getting carried away, but I think this Foodie Girls thing may have legs (as well as, of course, teeth). First of all, we have nearly cleared that notorious 30 day hurdle that would qualify these meetings as a habit, as opposed to a whim, an odd coincidence, or a delusion of friendship on my part. Add to that the fact that the list of places we want to go next is growing exponentially, as is our international correspondence*. Therefore one could certainly be forgiven for characterizing our most recent foray as “an important business meeting” when asked by one’s spouse what one was planning to do that day, as opposed to the possibly more accurate but less official sounding “another lunch with my friends that you don’t get to eat.”

It is, however, a dead giveaway when this spouse asks where your meeting is and the words “The Oinkster” come out of your mouth.


Episode 3 – “Meeting” at the Oinkster

There is chicken on the menu. Salads, too. Even burgers that are reputedly quite tasty. But let’s get real. We’re here for the pork. Here being a converted vintage fast food joint in Eagle Rock that is hand-smoking their own pastrami and slow cooking pig until it falls off the bone to make vats of flavorful pulled pork. Layering these things with tangy red cabbage slaw and a meaty jus that squirts out of plastic bottles in a glorious stream that turns the robust French roll in your hand into a drippy mush of meaty goodness**. Where a Reuben comes on rye bread that must have been baked that day, grilled in some form of butter with loads of that peppery pastrami, briny sauerkraut, melted Gruyere cheese and a killer thousand island dressing in all the nooks and crannies. And you know, before this, I didn't even LIKE Reuben sandwiches.

It’s almost unfair that they also make some of the best french fries in town: Belgian style, cooked twice from thickly sliced spuds, with a side of smooth garlic aioli and house made chipotle ketchup. We hit pay dirt, my friends.

Foodie Girls Final Verdict: The three little piggies went "whoopee! whoopee! whoopee!" all the way home***, and you will, too. It was all really good, but our favorite was the Reuben with a side of those incredible fries.

* Going from zero to one is technically an infinite growth rate, but I didn’t want to brag.
** I believe a quote was "they should serve this with a spoon."
*** Where they will be taking a much needed break and having leafy green vegetables and water for the next week or so.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade – Special Edition

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook and the gratifying interest in the antics of our little lunch brigade, we have our first dispatch from a Foodie Girl abroad. A big welcome to HFG1*, chiming in all the way from Europe!

"OK, I have a really cool place. It's in the middle of nowhere in the middle of France in a tiny village with a huge medieval abbey called La Chaise Dieu (literally the seat of God). I was with Sarah and the kids and we steered away from the 3 very boring looking tourist restaurants in front of the abbey. I saw a sign saying "Broc et Croc*", for "brocante" (second-hand store) and "croquer" or "croquante" (bite or crunchy). My translation would be "(Bric-a-)Brac 'n Snack". It was the best of French home cooking served like American comfort food. Suzanne had a Croq Monsieur (ham sandwich with a grilled batter of cheese and egg on top), Clé had spaghetti with Bolognaise sauce, Sarah had steak and fries with bleu cheese sauce on the side, and I had a traditional Auvergne meatloaf called Pounti, made with ground pork, beet greens or Swiss chard and prunes. It was slightly baked and crispy, which is very delicious and highly unusual because it's normally served cold. For dessert, tarte tatin (apple upside down pie).

In addition to the restaurant, there was a small shop filled with interesting antiques and old furniture. The patio was already full, so we sat inside, which was weirdly dark until the waitress came and turned on about 10 little lamps all over the room. Turns out our waitress spent the first 14 years of her life in the US, then went back to France and settled there. She spoke English with a real American accent, and admitted that the never wanted to leave but had to follow the orders of her father."

How much do I want to go to that place now? A lot.

Now, all you other Foodie Girls and Boys out there, don’t be shy. Drop me a line and I’ll get your edible adventures up here, too. And if you are local and want to join the crew or make a suggestion for our next outing, we’d love it. Either way, just e-mail or leave a comment here anytime.

* Honorary Foodie Girl #1
** Correction from HFG1, the place is called "Croc & Broc".

Cutting Back

My mom informed me today that she had talked with the kids about drastically reducing the amount of sugar that they eat. Then, she immediately put the new regimen into place. She baked an entire platter of sugar cookies, but pointedly left off the rainbow sprinkles.

The kids took the cutbacks in stride. So much so that my sugar intake was drastically reduced by the fact that there were none left when I got home.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The gourmand of Disneyland

I have, with some basis, developed a distrust of my son's culinary recommendations. So it was with a healthy level of skepticism that I listened to him begin to wax rhapsodic about our lunch options during a recent visit to the Happiest Place On Earth*.

8:30 am
Him: Mom, we HAVE to get these corn dogs for lunch! You don't understand. They are SO GOOD. They are the best corn dogs EVER created. It's unbelievable how good they are.
Me: Really?
Him: I kid you not. You will be amazed. I'm SERIOUS.

10:30 am
Him: I could totally go for a corn dog right now.

11:47 am
Him: I say, we take a break and go get corn dogs.

OK, I think. Let's see what you got, boy. I get in line. The rest of the kids are absolutely convinced they are in for the meal of their lives. My sister, master of the back-up plan, is scouting for alternative food just in case. It is a grim picture, so we are forced to go all in on the corn dog option, completely at the mercy of a thirteen year old food critic who is salivating on my shoes in anticipation.

The sun beats down. The line crawls forward. Strange. This is probably the longest I have waited for anything all day**. Maybe he is on to something after all***. At last, I reach the window and place my bet (I mean, order). 5 corn dogs. 4 with chips. 1 with apple slices.

What appears is unexpected. Deeply browned, misshapen, almost glossy things in plain white wrappers****. Not very Disney to have this level of non-conformity in a food item. We settle in at our table and I take a bite. The crust is almost shatteringly crisp on the outside, giving way to a thin and only slightly sweet honey corny layer around an absolutely top notch, thick juicy all beef hot dog. The ratio of that delicious batter to the dog itself is perfect. No wading through dry mealy cornbread, this is almost like a great fish and chip batter, tender, light and just excellent all around. It is truly a revelation.

My son is beyond vindicated, and his chest is puffed out accordingly.

Him: (between bites) See, I TOLD you they were the BEST!

Pretty cocky for a guy batting 50%. But I gave him the high five he was jonesing for anyway. These incredible corn dogs can be found in Disneyland at a little red cart on the corner of Main Street and the circle in front of the castle, just outside the Photo Palace and the Carnation Buffet.

* I use this phrase while waiting for a ride with my daughter. She looks at me like I am crazy. "Mom, how can it be the Happiest Place on Earth? Have you seen the number of kids here who are crying?"
** Despite it being a notoriously crowded day in August, thanks to our highly efficient strategy of leaving home at 6:45 am, arriving just before the park opens, and hitting Nemo first, going single rider on Indiana Jones, fast passing Splash Mountain and getting lucky with a late closure and timely reopening of Space Mountain, we have not spent more than 20 minutes waiting for anything thus far. The corn dog line took 14 minutes. By the way, another excellent food stop is the fruit stand just outside the Jungle Cruise. Ice cold pineapple spears!
*** I later discovered these have a rabid following on yelp and chowhound as well, but at the time, I had only his word to go on.
**** As you can see from the photo, the white wrapper soon showed tell-tale signs of the hot grease these puppies are fried in.