Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Comfort of Home

Among the tall trees, long before Google and Facebook moved in, even before the terms “dot-commer” and “Silicon Valley” were invented, we lived here.  Bicycles outnumbered automobiles and the few restaurants that existed downtown or on California Avenue were mostly closed on Sundays, with the exception of Peninsula Creamery and Jim’s Coffee Shop.  We ruled those bike lanes as most of us didn’t yet own cars zipping our way up and down the bike lanes, doing our best to avoid Officer Banks, who drove around town in his beige Ford Pinto (the local police department’s vehicle of choice) spending his time busting everyone’s chops, including my brother Lawrence, “Bags” and a few others whom I won’t reveal here.
Some weekends when we weren’t attending football games, basketball games, or dance and piano lessons our weekends were spent at Frost Amphitheater swaying and singing to the music of Tower of Power, The Chambers Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Sly And The Family Stone, The Sons of Champlin and a host of other rock bands.  God, those concerts were SO fun and, believe it or not, only about $11.00 to $17.00 for your ticket!

I recently spent a few days back in my home town of Palo Alto for a gathering of school friends.   It’s funny, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years, but I often feel terribly home-sick .  As soon as I disembark from my blue limo (Super Shuttle) and inhale the crisp clean air I feel a sense of peace.  I am awash with joy and that “coming home” euphoria only those of us who really grew up somewhere can feel.   I savor the cracks in the sidewalks.  We don’t have cracks in our sidewalks in Las Vegas we keep everything looking brand new here.  The old U.S. Post Office on Hamilton Avenue, designed by local architect Birge Clark, with its humongous and ornate light fixture in the foyer hangs today as it did in 1932.  In Vegas we pretty much implode everything that is old, preserving only a few remnants of signage at our Neon Boneyard museum.    
Not much has changed along our streets
 Today Palo Alto is a financial hub.  The amount of money and affluence present is obvious in the shoes and watches worn by the IT and Technology residents who now live there.  While the streets are lined with the same quaint, uniquely-styled homes we were raised in they are now well above the million-dollar mark.
One of those million dollar homes
It’s true, parking has become impossible and the number of people milling around downtown is almost overwhelming.  Back in the ‘70’s, Palo Alto was a far quieter, practically boring place on the weekends.  There was the annual art and wine festival, now Palo Alto hosts a myriad of art festivals and events almost monthly.  Even the well attended Saturday morning farmers market with its abundance of ripe fruit, organic vegetables, artisan breads and cheeses didn’t exist back then.

Which brings me to the food segment of this week’s Blog.   I should be focusing on a seasonal food/herb/ingredient that begins with the letter Qq.  That would be quince.  But quince isn’t actually in season until next month, so I will write about quince for my next entry.  This week I’d like to share with you the details of my experience and delight in a homey-heartfelt meal prepared for a mere 140 or so of us old Palo Altons.

I pulled into the parking lot at the Palo Alto Arts Center on Newell around 6:30 p.m.  Oh my gosh, there’s Mark Macres, and he’s wearing a suitI thought this was supposed to be casual!  A feeling of diminished confidence seeped into my pores.  Fortunately it lasted only a moment.  When I pulled into my parking space, another car pulled in next to me and there were my wonderful and beautiful friends, Janis, Terri, Jill and Jill’s little sister.  Terri was wearing jeans, white, but they were jeans none-the-less.  As we made our way into the Art Center, I hadn’t been there since my family hosted Lawrence’s funeral service, I felt a small gasp of breath catch in my chest.  But the feeling immediately dissipated as I was met with smiles and hugs from Judy, Allyson and Skeeter.  It was funny to see how some of us change while others are essentially the same.  Most of us have gained a few pounds and wear the wrinkles of worry and joy over our children or bear the badges of loves known and lost, or for many here, badges of honor for sustaining the love of a still intact marriage.   Wine glass in hand, I had to only look into the eyes to recognize those I competed against in track in, or who I missed the bus with on our way to summer school science class, or one who sat next to me in the car for Driver’s Education with coach “what’s his name.”

Conversations abounded;  “You look great,” “Are you still living in the Bay Area?” “Are you married?” “How many kids do you have now?”  Sometimes needing a quick peek at the name tag before inquiring.  I struggled to find my friend Sue.  “Where’s Sue?” I asked.  “She used to have long dark hair I lamented but I can’t find her.”  “Well didn’t you used to have long dark hair too Deborah?” someone asked.  Good point. 
As the sun went down, Sandra decided it was time to serve dinner.  Sandi is married to her high school sweetheart, Vince.  Actually I’m thinking they were Jr. High sweethearts.  He played football, very well and as I recall, was always kind hearted.  Sandi was rather tall and had the best pair of long, shapely legs in school.  And she loved to laugh.  My most memorable recollection of her infectious laugh involved our beloved Tony Rodriquez, Dickie Gould (I think), and our drama teacher Mrs. Atkinson, who possessed her own flair for the dramatic.  

 It was the end of the school year and Mrs. Atkinson was sitting in her “director’s chair” facing the stage  directing a small ensemble of students in the art of projecting.  Tony, Dickie, Sandi and I were bored and for some reason decided Mrs. Atkinson’s dramatic flair needed some taming.  Every day of our ninth grade year, Mrs. Atkinson wore colorful silk scarves to accent the tailored suits she wore.  One of her more dramatic behaviors was the way she would toss one side of the scarf around her neck to her back whenever it would fall forward.  On this particular day Mrs. Atkinson was so focused on the kids on stage she left the rest of her students to fend for ourselves.  But there was nothing to fend for, nothing to do, no scripts to rehearse so Tony deferred to his most high of talents; making us laugh. 

 Mrs. Atkinson threw her the one side of her scarf back over her shoulder for the twentieth time during that 40 minute class, Tony came up with an idea, a wonderfully, awful idea.  This scarf was just long enough to extend a bit down the back of Mrs. Atkinson’s upholstered chair.  As Sandi, Dickie and I watch in silent horror and mischievous glee, Tony crept up behind her and with a few pushpins he pulled from one of the classroom bulletin boards tacked the end of her scarf to the back of the chair, thereby securing our drama teacher to her seat.  So intent on her task, Mrs. Atkinson wasn’t the least bit aware of Tony crouching down behind her and pinning her scarf.  Tony was very careful as he worked.  It was amazing to all of us, as now every student observed his movements that our teacher couldn’t feel or sense what was going on behind her.  No one uttered a sound.  Then sloowly he crept back to his seat on the drama room couch with the rest of us to watch the drama unfold.  All we had to do was sit and wait for Mrs. Atkinson to jump up from her chair in heated passion, as she always did, to correct the actors on stage.  It didn’t take long, within minutes she was lunging out of her seat towards the stage only to be bounced back by the pinned end of her scarf, which promptly brought her back down into her seat like Ricochet Rabbit.  We howled with laughter, every one of us.   Sandi and I laughed so hard, we ran, holding hands, to the girl’s bathroom.  Of course no one confessed or ratted out the tacking down of our teacher.  Now I know this may read like a sick, adolescent joke, but that’s just what it was.  Because we were adolescents, but we weren’t sick, just rather bored.  And it really was so funny!
Here's The Original

So Good!!

Now that we’re grown we no longer play pranks on teachers, but Sandra and I do stay in touch due to our mutual love of cooking, especially cooking for others.  It was Sandra who prepared the beautifully presented crudités in glass, for our little gathering.  The jambalaya with shrimp, the pasta and salad with homemade focaccia bread on the side.  And for dessert Sandi’s Cobbler Cups.  Now if you’re lucky enough to live in the San Francisco or the Bay Area, then you’ve probably enjoyed one of her Cobbler Cups while attending a Giants or 49er’s game.  But since we all went to school together and this was a special event Sandra shared her talents and showed us the love by providing us with two versions of her Cobbler Cups, peach and mixed berry.  She also does one with apricots.  Sandi’s Cobbler Cups offer a hearty serving of fruit tucked into a flaky, buttery pastry then it’s all topped with a generous scoop of rich and creamy vanilla ice cream.  It’s obvious by the taste and texture Sandra uses wholesome ingredients.  I’ve seen on FB Vince’s expansive garden and the effort he puts into canning his harvest of fruits and vegetables.  Sandi’s pastry is sweet but overly so, yielding but hearty enough to stand up to a cup brimming with fruit.  At first bite your mouth is greeted by a provocative play of homespun goodness.   It was hot that weekend and spooning something so symbolic of summer was the perfect finish to a meal that made us feel more like members of Sandra and Vince’s family rather than just an eclectic group of friends.  Thank You Sandra!!

I can’t give you the recipe for her Cobbler Cups, you’ll have to go to Levi Stadium or AT&T Park for her original version  (or I believe you can order them and she’ll ship to you).  But I can share with you my go-to recipe for fruit cobbler.  

*Cobbler Recipe to Follow . . . . .

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pp Is For Plum

What grows in clusters is dark in skin color, round in shape and comes in as many varieties as apples?  Why it’s a Plum!  Though, as I mentioned, there are hundreds of varieties, Plums are divided into two distinct groups, Japanese Plums (these actually originated in China) and European Plums.  The difference being European Plums are sweeter and the more delicate Japanese Plums tend to be juicer.

 Plums don’t often find their way into my grocery cart.  Probably because too many times I’ve bitten into one that has resulted in my making an involuntary sour face similar to when I’ve eaten a Sweet Tart candy.  However, I chose wisely this week and my Black Plums are extremely sweet and juicy.  Whenever I come across a Plum “spin-off,” Plumcots and Pluots, I do buy them.   I have yet to find the Aprium, another Plum hybrid, which is predominately apricot with some Plum edging its way in.   Apriums are shaped like apricots and have fuzzy skin.  Pluots are more Plum than apricot, round in shape and the smooth skin of its Plum parent.  Plumcots were created by American horticulturist Luther Burbank, and are the sweetest of all the Plum spin-offs. 
Not too many ingredients - oh, eggs too. 
 Being it’s still summer, fruit remains the strong hold for my seasonal alphabet of foods.  Plums are in season from late May to early October.  Look for Plums that are firm but not so hard they don’t give a little when you apply a bit of pressure.  Avoid picking those with cracks, soft spots or brown discolorations.  Once home, keep them in your refrigerator for up to four or five days.  This is when you can enjoy their juicy, sweet slightly spicy flavor.  Beyond that time frame, your Plums would best be served up as an ingredient in a sweet or savory dish such as a galette, crostada, jam or sauce reduction.  Notice I didn’t include Plum Pudding.    
During the late seventies I worked as a waitress and cook in a small restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, called the English Tea Room.  It was here I learned to prepare good chicken and beef stocks from scratch and how to boil and prepare beef tongue which we used to make sandwiches on the thinnest of bread slices.  As a college student, I enjoyed my supervisor’s tutelage.  I learned the differences between Bass Pale Ale, Watney’s Red Barrel and Guinness Stout (to this day my favorite beer).  Of course I am well versed in the proper English preparation of Welsh Rarebit and English Trifle.  But we never did prepare Plum Pudding.  Though we did sell it proudly encased in tin containers decorated with patterns of traditional Tartan prints.

Our staff did everything, from waiting and bussing tables to cooking and keeping the bar.  Where, of course, there was always a good game of darts going on.  While working at the English Tea Room my skill at playing darts finally exceeded my skill as an archer.  One night, after hours, the son of the owner sat and enjoyed his Guinness as I wiped down tables and tended to general cleaning.  Looking up from his stein of beer, a bored Steven decided to challenge me to a game of darts.   I was more than glad to set down my mop, wipe my damp hands on the front of my bar-maids apron and fetch my personal set of darts from my locker.  My set was not nearly as ornate and opulent as the one Anne Boleyn reportedly gave to King Henry the Eighth in 1530, but they were the right weight for my hand, had slim barrels for tight groupings and the flights were really pretty.  Steven poured himself another beer then trickled a bit of his serving into a small glass for me.  I was still under 21. 

Holding my dart at eye level, right foot in front of the left, weight forward, and holding my body upright, careful not to lean forward, I released my first dart smoothly and with only a minimal amount of push.  My dart landed in the Red Bull of the 18, doubling my score from 18 to 36.  My next two throws were comparable.  Steven grunted a “pretty good for an American girl,” then grabbed his darts.  Two were tight in the middle, 50 points for the Red Bull, 25 points for the Green Bull, the third hitting the metal break causing it to fall to ground.  Steven, who hated looking stupid in front of American girls, mumbled something about the number of Guinness he had consumed.  Surprising Steven I beat him at his game.  A testament to what American girls can accomplish. 

Another English favourite - Herring Pie. 
 We put away our darts at the urging of my supervisor, Valda.  Wiping her own damp hands on the bar towel that hung from the ties of her floral printed apron, Valda pulled up a stool and announced we were done for the evening.  She meticulously brewed a cup of Earl Grey tea for herself as Steven poured himself a small glass of port.  I was still nursing the small amount of beer he shared with me earlier.  The three of us continued the conversation Steven and I had started before our dart game about other English traditions such as cricket, the Edinburgh Festival and of course British foods, such as Bangers and Mash, Bubble and Squeak, Hot Cross Buns (there’s even a song about them and it’s the only tune my little sister learned to play on the piano) Simnel Cake (a spicy cake layered with marzipan and served on Mother’s Day) and Spotted Dick (another pudding-like cake prepared with currants), which brought me back to wondering way no one has bothered adding Plums to Plum Pudding.   It was Valda who explained that “Pud,” as it’s affectionately called by many Brits, why there are no Plums in Plum Pudding.  Apparently during medieval England times, when this dish was created, the word Plum was used when referring to currants or raisins, which Plum Pudding is filled with.    
To celebrate the Plum in its own right I’d like to partake of the wealthy Brit’s tradition who enjoyed French cuisine by preparing a French dessert,  clafoutis.  Originally created in the Limousin region of France, clafoutis is a custardy, cake-like batter topped with fresh fruit.  Traditionally made with black cherries, but this week Plums!
Smells so good while baking!

A very easy and a most forgiving dessert for those of who are pastry challenged. 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter – room temperature              1 ¼ cups half and half
6 tablespoons granulated sugar  + extra for dusting pan       1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract                                                         zest of one lemon
4 whole eggs                                                                                  ¾ cup all-purpose flour
2-3 plums, sliced thin                                 
Confectioners and crème fraiche for garnish

Preparation                                                                          Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Generously grease a cast iron skillet with butter and dust with granulated sugar.
In mixing bowl add sugar, eggs, almond extract, vanilla extract, lemon zest and half and half, blend until well combined.
Mix in flour, batter will be thin.
Pour batter into prepared skillet and scatter sliced plums into batter.

Bake in oven for 30 minutes

Cake will be puffy and golden brown, but deflates quickly.  Sprinkle finished cake with confectioners sugar.  Spoon a dollop of crème fraiche ( or vanilla ice cream) on each serving. 

Light, sweet and oh so simple!