Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things that are scary but great

1. This movie*

2. Teaching a group of ten fourth and fifth graders to cook a multi-course Halloween feast in under three hours.

In both cases, the surprise ending is totally worth it**.

On the heels of my adventures with the Clueless Dads, another friend wondered if her daughter and a couple of friends could do a cooking class one afternoon. Picturing a version of making dinner at home with my kids without the annoying bickering and backtalk, I eagerly agreed. Next thing I knew there was an e-mail blast to the class, and I somehow found myself in a strange kitchen*** amid a sea of spastic tweens, armed only with my red apron, some mixing bowls, and a bag of mini chocolate chips****.

Oh boy. What in the world had I gotten myself into this time?

The Menu

We went in reverse order, making dessert first*****. Judging by the boys fighting over who got to lick the bowl and the dive bombing for spare chocolate that broke out, I was doing well so far. We moved on to working with bread. The crouton crew was on the "one for me, one for the pan" program, while the bread crumb group was mesmerized by the whirl of the food processor. There was general enthusiasm for dumping ketchup into a pan, followed by a dose of brown sugar. I barely held their attention through the chicken course******, as the lure of the play structure was strong, but when we moved on to squishing raw meat and grating piles of cheese, I had them back. Then the sprinklers went off. I couldn't compete with that.

Dark fell, and their parents arrived. There was a veritable feast of food on the table. Wine was poured******* and the chefs proudly stepped forward to describe the dishes and all the work they had done. As the crowd dug in and the delighted sounds of "Yum!" and "I made that!" and "Can I have another meatball?" filled the room, I heaved a huge sigh of relief and wondered what on earth I'd been so afraid of.

I was thrilled.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dying young is looking pretty good to me

I wasn't looking for the fountain of youth, but I found it the other day at a nail salon* in a Studio City mini mall. The woman next to me, it turned out, was 105 years old. She looked amazing, and it was not just the beautiful new coat of red polish, either. We had to know how on earth she did it**. Her secrets?

As relayed cheerfully by the woman and her daughter:
  1. Treat yourself like a queen. Every single week of her life, she got her hair and nails done. She wore gorgeous clothes and jewelry, and her make-up was impeccable. Looking good was her number one priority.
  2. Never lift a finger to help others. Instead, this woman made sure that those around her (children, various men, etc.) catered to her every need and spoiled her rotten.
  3. Be super mean. According to her daughter***, she was a witch to her kids when they were growing up, and had recently locked her great grandchildren in a closet.
  4. Get yourself a younger man. She had just dumped her 90 year old live in boyfriend because, "he was too much trouble." She is now in the market for someone in his 80's.
Suddenly, she didn't look so fabulous. Who wants to be 105 anyway?

* Yes, this is firsthand information. I was actually in said nail salon on purpose, sitting in a big cushy leather chair with my feet in a swirling tub of warm silky water awaiting some kind of salt scrub. And, heaven help me, I liked it.
** I was hoping it involved a lot of bacon and red wine. I was wrong.
*** An unbelievably patient and tolerant cancer survivor getting a set of acrylics for herself.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 8

It was obviously some kind of illusion. A mirage. A repudiation of the effectiveness of progressive lenses in women who are clearly too young to need them. Perhaps a misprint of some kind. It couldn't actually say "John O'Groats Coming Soon" on the side of that completely nondescript new apartment complex a block and a half from our house. Could it?

I asked my husband to report back after one of his morning runs past the building.

Him: It's not a misprint.
The kids: Why is Mom down on her knees praising the Lord*? It's embarrassing. Make her stop.
Him: I'm going to take a shower. You deal with her.

I was beyond their help. This was a job for the Foodie Girls.

Episode 8: The Hope of O'Groats

I was not alone in my ecstasy. Witness this incoming email from FG3:

"John O'Groats has just opened a new location in Encino and it's fabulous! (Sharon can walk here**.) Best breakfast in the valley! And they have a beautiful patio under old live oaks. It's awesome. I predict lines next weekend."

When my son and his friends started hyperventilating*** as we drove by on the way home from school, I knew it was time to bump this to the top of our list. On a breezy Monday afternoon, we met to put this shimmering fantasy to the Foodie Girls' test.

Outside on the patio, we ordered hot tea to combat the oddly cool weather and an assortment of breakfast and lunch dishes. Almost as soon as we had surrendered our menus, the biscuits arrived. A whole pile of them.

The best part of a meal at John O 'Groats. Although it looks like FG11 is grabbing for them, I believe she was just showing us how big the pancakes might be.

When topped with the delicious apricot preserves and berry jam that are on every table, these are 100% validation of the hype. Loved every last bite.****

Then the rest of our food arrived. It was interesting to see the slight deflation go around the group as the plates circulated. The salmon hash was light and tasty. The huevos o'groats were delicious, but awfully heavy after several bites. The bacon and cheddar waffle was fine, but nothing to write home about. A tostada was over run with spinach greens and so bone-dry that it was hard to finish. Sweet potato fries were soggy and unappetizing. Alone among our orders, the fish and chips was a standout. The batter was crispy, perfectly fried, and the fish was melt-in-your mouth fresh. The french fries were fabulous. Even the home made tartar sauce was yummy. If you aren't having breakfast, have the fish and chips!

Meanwhile, it was clear that the place had yet to fully hit its stride in terms of service*****. A side of bacon was forgotten. Drinks took time to be refilled. The staff is beyond friendly and is trying hard, but it's not quite there yet.

But I think it will be, and as long as they keep making biscuits, flipping pancakes, frying fish and turning out fresh, hearty home cooked meals under the oak trees, my prayers, at least, will have been answered.

FG final verdict? John O' Groats is ON the list, by unanimous consent!
Pricing information: Breakfast items, $7.95-$12.95; salads & sandwiches $8.95-$14.95; other entrees $9.95-$16.95.
FG Value Rating: Fair deal

* If you have lived in Encino for long and even thought going out to eat in the neighborhood, you, too, would have bowed down in thanks.
** I can, and I do.
*** Per my son, "The pancakes here are about FIVE TIMES better than anywhere else in the world." This comment was met with general agreement amongst the teenage boys in the car.
**** The plate was empty within minutes.
***** I have heard that service is much better inside the restaurant, but on this and all my other visits I've been unable to resist the patio. Especially because they allow dogs to join their owners out there. At night they have beautiful strings of twinkling blue and white lights in the trees.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flat Out Daring

Begin odd, but by now at least familiar, intro: "The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe."

When I saw this month's Daring Bakers challenge about a month ago, I was excited. As you can see by the intro, above, it was cookies. Cookies? I'm all about cookies! Plus, these were cookies with frosting in the middle!!! The last two challenges were tough, but this one? In the bag. Oh yeah.

I then promptly forgot all about it until about 9 pm this evening. Yes, this evening, the 27th of October. Reveal night. 3 hours, 2 kids with homework that needed to be checked, and 1 suddenly intimidating recipe* stood between me and the holy land of the completed challenges forum. Sure, it looked hopeless. But I had to try.

Printout in hand, I scrambled to get my egg whites warmed up, my almonds ground, my mixer dry, and my kids to bed. Soft peaks? Check. Stiff peaks? Looks good to me. Definitely going chocolate here. Pull out cocoa powder. Hmm. Recipe has no salt in it. Not a good sign, but I'll go with it. Ovens set. Ziploc bag snipped**. Piping onto baking sheets.

Uh oh. In printout, piped dough looked like mini perky breasts. In kitchen, piped dough looked like mini mud puddles. It's 10:45. Mud puddles it is.

As cookies go from low oven to hot oven, I look for the magic "foot" referred to lovingly in challenge recipe. No dice. Mine are amputee macaroons. As a bonus, they proceed to deflate when cooled, returning to their original mud puddle state.

That's right. I had spent the better part of the night creating amputee mud puddle macaroons...

...with peanut butter buttercream middles. Oh yeah!***

It is 11:28 pm. I am on a major sugar high. Deflated, but not defeated****, I survive to Dare another day.

* Fine print: they were French cookies. Damn.
** Note to self: Get a pastry bag, for heaven's sake!
*** Skippy to the rescue! Appearances aside, the cookies had a lovely, chewy texture and dense rich chocolate flavor. However, without salt, they were entirely too sweet for my taste. The filling (from the Great Cookies cookbook by Carole Walter) was a good idea, but also needed a serious reduction in the sugar department. But there is real potential here, folks. I will keep working on this one, and post a recipe when I get it right
**** The cookies were de-feeted (ha ha!). I was not.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I do find I'm eating alone more with this schedule

My two favorite messages of the week from October so far:

1. "Smile at everybody."
It's either catching, or incredibly annoying*. Either way, you feel great.

2. "Get a bunch done by lunch, and you're a winner by dinner."
A fun way to remember that starting the day strong can make all the difference. Implementation of this one has been a little tricky for me. So far the only way I've been able to make it work is by having lunch around midnight.

* They were stressing the infectiousness of happiness. I added the alternative benefit of driving grumpy people crazy.

Cheesy Pennies, Where art thou?

I know the silence has been a bit deafening. That is not to say that there has not been much blog-worthy activity. Fear not, I shall return anon*.

* Later this evening maybe!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The kindness of strangers

I recently listened to a fantastic episode of This American Life. If you're familiar with the show, you know there's usually a prologue that sets up the theme, and this was a great one:

"Brett Leveridge was standing on the subway. A guy comes walking down the platform, stopping in front of each passenger and delivering a quiet verdict: "You're in. You're out. You, you can stay. You—gotta go." Most people ignored the guy. But Brett found himself, against his will, hoping the guy would give him the thumbs up, and when the guy does, it's thrilling in a very small way: a tiny kindness from a stranger."

I so get that. Being approved and embraced by people who don't even know you is a pretty nice feeling. "Thrill" is exactly the word.

I'm that kind of thrilled about the book clubs I joined this year. These were long-established groups of women who welcomed me so warmly that I felt as if I belonged from the beginning. Getting together and bonding over wine and novels we all found preachy and manipulative* or old favorites revisited** just plain makes me happy. Especially because almost before I knew it, the welcoming strangers had become familiar friends*** and meeting nights a much anticipated highlight of every month.

Familiar friends or not, I did experience a significant amount of performance anxiety when my role shifted from "attendee" to "host" this week****. First of all, I had to pick the book. Then, there was the matter of the snacks. I had been paying close attention at prior gatherings and it was clear I would need a savory appetizer, a cheese plate*****, fruit and a dessert at a minimum. Hmm.

For the book, I decided to go with City of Thieves, by David Benioff. I'd just finished it, and was still in the afterglow that comes from discovering a truly special book. It was unexpectedly funny and moving and wise, with characters and a story that were completely absorbing. If you haven't read it yet, you absolutely should. Don't be deterred by the basic plot outline:

"During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible."

It might sound like yet another depressing WWII novel but it is thrilling and wonderful. One big reason? In the midst of a horrible war, two boys found, in each other, the kindness of strangers.

Book? Check. I was stuck on the snacks. Then inspiration hit. I needed to serve...

Deviled Eggs for Lev and Kolya
From a recipe on Chow

1 dozen eggs
1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. finely chopped capers
1 Tbs. minced fresh tarragon leaves
3 Tbs. minced fresh chives, divided.

Hard boil the eggs.****** When cool, peel and cut each egg in half with a sharp knife. Put the yolks into a medium bowl, and set the egg white halves aside on a serving tray. Add the mayo, mustard, capers, tarragon and 1 Tbs. of the chives to the egg yolks. Using a fork, mix gently until smooth and fluffy. Take a heaping teaspoon of the yolk mixture and carefully spoon it into each egg white half. Use the spoon to round the filling and make it look nice. You can stash these in the fridge at this point if not serving immediately. About 20 minutes before serving, remove the eggs from the fridge. Garnish with remaining minced chives.

* My Sister's Keeper
** The Wizard of Oz
*** Getting to know people (or at least their names) was really easy in one of the book groups: There were two Amy's, three Jody's and another Sharon already. In the other, there were bonus outings to have Chinese food.
**** It didn't help that the construction project we started this summer that was supposed to be completed by September was still in full swing. I had a dumpster in the driveway, no living room to speak of, and a permanent layer of dust and debris everywhere. Plus, on the night of the group meeting it was pouring rain. In Los Angeles. Naturally we had a leak.
***** This explains, in part, why I feel so comfortable with these women. I love cheese plates!
****** A tried-and-true way to do this is to put the eggs in a pan, cover with cool water, then turn on the heat to medium high. Put the pan on the stove and set the timer for 20 minutes. When time's up, put eggs into ice water to stop the cooking, then remove and cool completely. They come out perfectly (none of that gray stuff on the yolk) every single time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

He needed that

The other morning, I asked my mom what she thought about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize:

"Well, you know I'm religious. And when I heard that news I just thought here is this poor man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's getting old in front of our eyes with the things they are saying and doing to him. So God said, 'Here. Have this prize. Hang in there. You're doing just fine.'"

She smiles.

"He needed that."

Then she adds, "It didn't hurt that it came with $1.4 million either. God is really good."

So is Jon Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Super Prize Me
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In-Law In Log

Here are some highlights from the latest edition of the Carmel Pine Cone Police Blotter.

BONUS QUESTION: My father-in-law was intimately involved in ONE of the incidents below. Can you guess which one?*

September 20, 2009

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Units responded to a reported verbal domestic dispute on Dolores Street. Officers contacted the female party, who advised her husband would not give her vehicle keys back to her. The husband stated he was holding her keys in return for Jazz Festival tickets that she was keeping from him. Both parties counseled and exchanged the desired property with each other.**

September 21, 2009

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Fire engine dispatched to a residence for a reported smell of smoke in the area. Crew made contact with a resident at the address and notified the occupant of the situation resulting from a fire in the fireplace.

September 23, 2009

Carmel-by-the-Sea: A Crespi resident reported finding a small portion of a cat and advised the officer of the location of the remains. The officer responded. It appeared it was involved with some type of wildlife and was transported to the department. No owner information could be found.

Carmel-by-the-Sea: A citizen found a loose dog on Santa Rita and attempted to contact the dog owner from the I.D. on the collar, but met with negative results. Person brought the dog to the Carmel Police Department for safekeeping. The owner was later contacted, and the dog was returned to the owner with fees paid and a warning given.

September 25, 2009

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Person reported that she wanted the police to talk to her guest and have her expedite her move out of her house. The person allowed the guest to stay in her house, and she has been there for about seven months. The person had told the guest that she wanted her out of the house by Oct. 1. Resident added that the guest said that she would try to get out by Oct. 1. Officer spoke with the guest and asked if she would be out of the house by Oct. 1. She said that she would try and showed that she had very little to move. Officer advised her to move something to her car every day. Officer told the resident to be patient and that the guest would try her best to get out. The resident accepted this and said she would be patient.

Pebble Beach: Two residents reported their home was burglarized, and 13 pieces of artwork worth $27 million, $3,100 in cash and a computer were taken.***

ANSWER: If you guessed "dog owner contacted with negative results", you win!! Sofi escaped by chewing through a locked gate, and proceeded to enjoy an afternoon out on the town. She reportedly had treats and a lot of attention at the station while waiting for a ride home. My father-in-law was out $52 in fines, plus the cost of repairing the gate.

The perpetrator, at home with my father-in-law.

*Clue: His incident does not involve part of a cat or $27 million worth of art.
** Red Herring alert: Although this sounds like it could have been me and my husband on our recent trip, it is not.
*** This particular incident was front page news, with the headline: "Art Heist Seems Fake, Cops Say". Read the full story here. There's even a bogus ransom note!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Foodie Girls Lunch Brigade - Episode 7

When we last met, the brigade agreed that we ought to make sure our outings were truly varied, and not just by the type of cuisine. So, for example, if we went to a place that had waiters, tablecloths, and cappuccino one week, next time we should be standing in a line at a metal counter, eating off of greasy waxed paper, and getting our condiments out of communal squeeze bottles. After all, 9 times out of 10, that down and dirty meal would seriously kick the little bistro lunch's butt.

Unfortunately for us, on Tuesday we found the 1 out of 10 that sucked.

Episode 7 - Spoc's Not So Hot Dogs

Seemingly eminently qualified* as our diamond in the rough, Spoc's Sausages looked and smelled like the real deal. Great puffs of meaty smoke billowed up into the clear blue sky. The menu listed subs and sausages that all sounded great, creating an agony of indecision among our group. Guys trapped behind a mesh screen took our order then turned around in the cramped space to slap meat and dogs down onto a grill a minute later. We waited on our vinyl stools in the sunshine, starving and almost weak with anticipation. We had opted to try the hot link, linguica, and cilantro dogs, all with fries, and a carne asada sub.

The food came out. It looked pretty darn great. The hot dogs were on the small side, both absolutely and relative to the crusty bread, but the sub was huge. A few fries were missing from our order, but we merrily piled on the sauerkraut, onions and other accessories, lined everything up on the counter and dug in.

FG1: (Mouth shriveling instantly, all saliva evaporated) This hot link is a little --ack!-- too salty, even for --cough-- me.
FG7: (speaking through oddly pursed lips): It is unbelievably salty. How's the linguica?
FG1: (Guzzling her diet coke) The --gasp!--same.
FG5: I am a known oversalter, and even I can't eat that.
FG8: (chewing sheepishly after acknowledging a salt addiction) I actually can tolerate this, but I agree it's not something a normal person would eat.
FG1: It's beyond not normal. It's like a crime against hot dogs.

All four pause to drink deeply and then try the fries. These are sadly undercooked and also a bit heavy on the you-know-what. The group concedes the sub is fairly tasty, but decides there is no reason to come to a dive hot dog bar in Westwood to get an OK Mexican sandwich. We make the best of it by going back frequently for drink refills and soaking up the sun as we talk.

We then retire to F8's house for a much needed palate cleansing raid on the extensive stash of ice cream in her freezer**. Spirits and tummies refreshed, we pronounce the afternoon redeemed. Thank you FG8!

FG Final Verdict? Spoc's is OFF the list!
Pricing information: Dogs $2, Subs $4, add $2.50 for combo with fries and a drink
FG Value Rating: Fair deal

* Hot dog menu had come out of a home printer, with magic markers covering up items they were out of. Also a homeless guy stopped by to chat while we were eating.
** Proving yet another FG axiom: 10 times out of 10, ice cream can fix anything.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Happy Birthday Blackjack!

Peanut Butter Bonanza Bowser Birthday Extravaganza
An original recipe by my daughter

4 Trader Joe's Natural Dog Treats, Peanut Butter Flavor
1/4 jar of peanut butter of your choice
1 birthday candle

Slather 1/2 of peanut butter between 2 treats to form sloppy, sticky sandwich. Set on counter without a plate, then turn around and touch a lot of other things in the kitchen. Repeat with other treats and remaining clean kitchen surfaces. Reach into cupboard without washing hands and get out a dinner plate. Arrange cookies precariously on the plate, add candle. Sing loudly to the bewildered but salivating dog, while camera flashes in his face. Remove candle before serving. Wipe hands on dog. Leave peanut butter covered knife somewhere in the sofa.

The cure for what ailed me

It's probably 90% due to my daughter being a clingy ball of mucus-spewing misery and 10% due to my stubborn refusal to believe she was contagious, but I've been 100% totally sick for a week. Not only did I have the normal signs of disease (103 degree fever, aching body, nasty cough), but I was manifesting every single one of the Sharon signs of the apocalypse:
  • Crawled into bed and slept while the sun was out.
  • As pain relief, opted to pop Advil into my mouth instead of popping a batch of cookies into the oven.
  • Did not eat.
Needless to say, my family was extremely concerned.
  • My daughter checked my temperature every five minutes.
  • My son plied me with ginger ale.
  • The dog drooled on me.
  • My niece called every day from Michigan.
  • My mom prayed. Hard.
  • And my husband kept the place stocked with chicken soup.
It was 110% all that love that made me better.

Homemade Chicken Stock for Chicken Soup
from The Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Hermann Loomis

1 Tbs. butter
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
1 Tbs. olive oil
3-4 lbs. chicken pieces
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 rib of celery, with leaves if you like, sliced
6-8 cups of water
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
a few black peppercorns

In a large stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. When it's hot, add the onions and saute until they are soft and pale golden, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions and set aside. Add the oil to the pot and heat over medium heat. Add the chicken pieces and lightly brown them, about 5-8 minutes. Add the carrots, celery and the cooked onions to the pot, then add enough water to comfortably cover everything. Tuck in the herbs. Cover and bring to a boil. Skim any foam that comes to the surface. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the chicken has completely fallen from the bones, 2 to 3 hours. Strain the stock several times, lastly through a fine sieve*. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate. Before using or freezing, skim off any fat that has solidified on the surface.

To make medicinal chicken soup quickly from your stock, get a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and pull off or chop up some pieces for your soup. Chop up a carrot, some celery and some onions. Heat up some olive oil in a stock pot. Saute the veggies to soften them, then stir in the chicken. Add some kosher salt, pepper and whatever homey herbs you have on hand, and cook until the flavors have blended a bit. Pour in the homemade chicken stock and heat gently. About 5 minutes before serving, I like to add some thinly sliced fresh mushrooms, green onions, soy sauce, a few drops of sesame oil and fresh ramen or soba noodles.

* You can discard the chicken and veggies, but since I have a huge hungry dog who gets diet dry food all the time, I save that stuff (without the bones) to mix into his meals for a nice treat.