Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Favorite Things

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
-And these would be the key lines for me, considering my heritage. My kitchen is a room heavily influenced by my mother, who was a wonderful cook, and German (obviously, considering her personality, I'd much rather associate her with Julie Andrews, rather than the Nazis of The Sound of Music).

I did not truly learn how to cook until I moved far away from home -- to California -- where I had to make my own Greek food, and tackle things like preparing Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. That was many years ago, and I've since built my own repertoire, and garnered habits that are special to me and my kitchen.

First of all, I start each day with a cappuccino made by my husband. This is a two-part favorite thing, for it is my cappuccino in a beloved vessel: my NYC ceramic "paper take-out" cup. If you watch any film or TV show (especially involving cops) set in NYC, you will inevitably see someone drinking coffee from a cup like this (the paper version). Or holding it. Or it will be sitting on the chief's desk at the station, or in the newsroom. So this fits in with both my love for coffee and my love of cinema. I appreciate the NY archtype it represents.

This is, of course, Lucky, who is never far from me. If I am in the kitchen, Lucky is in the kitchen. Or parked very nearby so that he does not miss a flying crust of bread or chunk of banana. Or chicken. Or steak. As a Working Dog, he is also very helpful to me, and regularly heeds the call, "Lucky! Clean up on aisle five!" if we spill or drop something on the floor. I don't know what I would do without him.

My latte and cafe au lait bowls. I got the yellow latte bowls at Anthropologie, a great store, and I found the Cafe Au Lait bowls at an even greater store: Watson-Kennedy in Seattle. I always loved the French idea of drinking coffee out of a bowl, but wondered if it was something that the French *actually* did (I wasn't even convinced by Ludivine Sagnier in "Swimming Pool"). However, when Terry one day mentioned she'd just finished her bowl of coffee, I wasted no time in emulating her, and the next day enjoyed drinking my morning cap from one of these white bowls. It makes me feel closer to the Riviera.

This clay baker is something I found, and was going to give to my mother-in-law, Gina, one year for Christmas -- but I was afraid she wouldn't like it. So I kept it, and it became my perfect baker. It just seems to be the perfect size for my style, and I use it all the time, for roasted vegetables, potato gratins, lasagne, enchilladas...everything. One handle is broken off, showing how well-loved it is, and how often it is used. Meanwhile, every time I bring it out when Gina is here for dinner, she remarks on how fantastic it is and how much she loves it. You never know, do you?

This blue & white bowl just came to live with me last week, after I sorted and packed up some things at my mom's house. I have great memories of a wonderful period of life when I look at this bowl, because, although it is (I think) a pasta bowl, my mom used to make a huge salad every night for dinner and serve it in this. She ate a Mediterranean diet of fish or roasted meats, soups, pilafs, and salads, and this bowl was part of her daily life with my step-dad, Manny, who was Greek. This represents, to me, the good times of my mom's life, when she was happiest.

My kitchen serves also as art gallery, and I love to see what my sons are going to bring home each week. This spider piece speaks to me. I love the avant-garde white web treatment on the black paper, but I find the spider, with his googly eyes and fuzzy pipe-cleaner legs, positively charming and irresistible.

This is a Greek icon of Saint Anna, pictured with her daughter in her arms. I'm neither religious, nor Greek, but my mother was Greek Orthodox (by way of conversion) and had these type of Greek icons in her house. This was not my mom's, but was sent to me by Anna, after my mom died, as a tribute to the love between a mother and a child. For a while, I had it in my bedroom, but it found it's true place in my kitchen, which is the heart of the home. Its presence provides me with feelings of love and reassurance.

Ahh, my tray. I pull out this tray whenever I want to take food up to my bedroom, either for myself, or to someone who is ill. Usually, what I do is make a pot of hot tea, and put a teacup and saucer on the tray along with the pot, and a pretty napkin. Then I carry it upstairs and get situated on my bed with a good book, and I pretend I am a British aristocrat, who is served tea on a tray, and that I don't have a care in the world. Then I daydream, in between bouts of reading, about all things English and very Brideshead-y. A well-timed rainstorm leads to feelings of pure glee.

A simple favorite thing: San Pellegrino fizzy water. I am addicted to it. Secondary role played by my red bubble glass. I love bubble (sometimes called seed) glass, and I love the color red. Therefore, the red bubble glass and the fizzy water are the perfect mates for me.

And lastly, my favorite spice: red pepper flakes. Some like it hot, and I cannot imagine my kitchen without this kind of heat. I feel panicky if I don't have red chile flakes in the house.

Thanks go to Mara for the lovely idea of the Favorite Things!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blueberry swirl

Once upon a time, we had white slipcovered sofas.
I've always loved Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic style, and, still adore that crisp, clean look. But Troy and I just found a photograph of our former living room, and Troy looked at me and said, "Lisa, look at the couch we bought. Were we insane?!"
Interior decorators are always proclaiming the slipcover as the solution to keeping a pretty environment despite the ravages of children and dogs. I'm not so sure. Truth be told, even before we had children and a dog, it was very difficult to keep the white slipcovers white. Coffee spilled, wine spilled, soup spilled. I don't consider us particularly messy people, but by the time Wyatt came along and spit up a few times, things were looking truly shabby, and not so chic.
Now, however, I have found the answer that really works for me: blue and white paisley. I love it. It's refreshing, soothing, and just confusing enough. Add a little Dupont fabric protection spray, and it cannot be defeated, even by four boys, a dog, two cats, and two adults who like to drink dark beverages.
This morning, I found Cooper happily sitting in the living room, eating blueberries. I realized that I didn't bat an eye. The scene, which previously would have freaked me out, did not bother me in the least, and I realized that it's because of the blue & white scheme. But more importantly, I realized that I've finally started to know what's best for me. What suits my life, and what's important to us.
And that, I believe, is what style is really all about.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Some Enchanted Pepper

New Mexico is called "The Land of Enchantment," and is a place unlike any other I've ever visited. It's home to Roswell, which claims to have had more than one alien landing/encounter, and the landscape is truly Western, with vast and wide open spaces, and mountains. All this, and the food is amazing.
Several years ago, Troy and I went to Santa Fe and Taos, to ski. My happy memories from that trip are still fresh and distinct. While the Taos ski valley has a European alpine atmosphere, Santa Fe is all Southwestern. Being a hot pepper enthusiast, I was really excited to try the green and red chiles while visiting. A typical Santa Fe dish would be a perfectly grilled steak, served with red or green chile sauce, and warm corn tortillas on the side. For those who want it all (or can't make a decision), there is the option to order red and green chile sauce with any of your food. That, my friends, is what the natives call, "Christmas" style, and it's the winning ticket.
There is a little town in New Mexico that is famous for its chiles: Hatch. Hatch is a mecca for pepper-lovers, and at the end of every September, harvest time culminates in the Hatch Chile Festival. Whole fresh chiles are roasted over flames, and people stock up on bagfuls of chiles that they freeze for use throughout the coming year. It's truly an event, and these fresh chile roasts take place not only in Hatch, but all over the Southwestern United States, including Southern California. Imagine the scent of the air during this time!
My friend Barbara is a wonderful woman who often half-jokes to me that she loves to feel needed. She's actually serious about that, and so, when she told me she was going to New Mexico to visit her son and daughter-in-law, in September, and asked me if there was anything I needed, it was like the planets had aligned! I said, "Well, if you happen to come upon some fresh, roasted chiles, and can somehow get them home, I would love a bag!"
She immediately accepted this idea as a mission!
Two days later, she called me from her cell phone and told me that she was standing in the County Fairgrounds, watching some guys roast the chiles for me! She said she ordered "hot," and she said the air smelled fantastic. The best-known variety of Hatch chile is called the Big Jim, and it grows mild, medium, hot, or super-hot. Barbara made the perfect choice for me.
I was so excited to hear the news, but I still wondered if she could actually get the peppers back home. In order to fly out of Sarasota at a specific time, Barbara had ended up having to take a route tha trequired five plane changes. Five. Who knew how many security checks she would have to go through, and she not only faced Homeland Security neuroses about food and bags, but also could encounter some nefarious guards who recognized a roasted Hatch when they saw one. Therefore, I calculated an extremely high risk of pepper confiscation (code orange)! I wasn't going to count my peppers until they...Hatched.
In the end, however, no one could stop Barbara, and a few days later, this packed cooler was delivered to me.

Five bags of freshly roasted hot Big Jims! She wrapped them up so nicely in freezer bags and newspaper with ice packs. I transferred them to my freezer.

I was really excited to use them, and decided to make a green chile pork stew. I got a pork loin from Whole Foods, sliced it up, and marinated it in crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stews are my forte, as they are hard to mess up, but I was still nervous about mucking up this pot of food containing the precious chiles!
I sauteed an onion, browned the pork, and then added diced potatoes, chicken broth, a tin of tomatoes, some corn, and the chiles, of course.
I thought polenta would be a good accompaniment, and used my favorite, Bob's Red Mill corn grits (same thing as polenta). It's a high-quality, organic product. Here is the final dish, which, I'm relieved to say, lived up to the star ingredient.

Cheers to the intrepid Barbara, and to the great state of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment for many fine reasons.

The Fast and the Furiously Disorganized

Like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," I like to proclaim that, "one of these days, I'm gonna get organizized."
Yesterday I was forced to face how very far from being organized I actually am. I was pulled over for speeding, and when asked to present my driver's license, car registration, and proof of insurance, I discovered a gaping hole in my attention to detail. When peering at my driver's license, the sheriff's trooper began to expose my shortcomings.

Sheriff's Trooper: Is this your current address?
Me: Um, no. I have moved.
Sheriff's Trooper: When did you move?
Me. Ah, about two years ago.

The trooper explained that your driver's license address needs to be changed within 10 days of moving. He also said that, God forbid, if anything were to ever happen to me, he would mistakenly go to my old house.
I didn't bother to tell him that that would work just fine, since Troy's mom lives there now.
While searching for my proof of insurance (which I do have!) and my registration (which I have, but don't know where it is), I discovered a treasure trove of items in the glove compartment. I found hand sanitizer wipes, a car manual, a large bottle of Motrin, a UPS shipping receipt, tampons, sunscreen, a small pack of tissues, lip gloss, pens, and some Chanel No. 5 body lotion. It seems I'm prepared for everything but actually getting pulled over by the police. It was embarrassing. And it only got worse when trooper pointed out that my license plate tags were expired. Argh!
So. Today, I will make a colorful envelope file and fill it with everything a sheriff would ever want. And I will change the address on my driver's license. You don't even have to go into the DMV anymore -- you can do it online!
Oh well, at least I wasn't taken into jail. Although if I had been, I could have applied a little Chanel No. 5 under the cuffs.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Barry's Mom's Balls

When I was engaged to Troy, I was given a revered recipe for an hors d'Ĺ“uvre called, quite simply, "Turkey Balls."
The Turkey Balls originated in California, and were reportedly an amazing treat. At their very mention, family members raved about how wonderful they were. And then, inevitably, the conversation would turn to...Her.
The source of the Turkey Balls recipe: Shari's former mother-in-law.
A little over a decade ago, Shari had a somewhat brief marriage to a chap named Barry. As a couple, Shari and Barry might have stood a better chance at longevity had Barry's mother, The Dragon Lady, not interfered quite as much as she did.
Made of steel, The Dragon Lady bossed around everyone, and did not like her new daughter-in-law, which she let her know in no uncertain terms. Most intriguingly to me, however, was that The Dragon Lady had a specific code of femininity that called for the wearing of high heels, always. Better to tower over people, no doubt. She wore high heels with dresses, high heels with her bathing suit, and high heels with her apron, whilst scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees. Well into her 70's, The Dragon Lady was very proud of her alma mater, a fine university in upstate New York known for its culinary program, as well as her affiliation with a national sorority. She ruled her roost -- and her son -- with an iron fist.
Indeed, to say that The Dragon Lady and Shari did not get along would be an understatement. Yet one positive thing Shari could say about her nemesis, was that she was an excellent cook. And the Turkey Balls were a stand-out party bite. So, before the divorce, Shari made sure to secure the winning formula for the Turkey Balls. It was one of the few good things she took away from that marriage.
Having bought some ground turkey at Whole Foods yesterday, and feeling the first stirrings of the holiday season, I decided it was time to make some Turkey Balls.
I also suggested to Troy that we think about renaming them "Barry's Mom's Balls." While the name "Turkey Balls" has an undeniable ring to it, I can't help feeling that The Dragon Lady deserves a tribute to that certain spirit she had, which she no doubt now uses to torture other poor souls.
Whatever you choose to call them, they are delicious. Here is the recipe.

Barry's Mom's Balls
1 lb. ground turkey
1 egg
6 Tbl. chopped water chestnuts
1 Tbl. soy sauce
1 Tbl. sherry
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 Cup minced scallions
3/4 tsp. salt
1-2 Tbl. fresh ginger, chopped
2 Tbl. cornstarch

Mix and shape into 3/4" balls (wet hands and use spoon). Brown in butter, put in baking dish, cover with sauce.

A few drops sesame oil
1 Tbl. brown sugar
3 Tbl. pineapple juice
1 Tbl. soy sauce
1 1/2 Tbl. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. ketchup
2 tsp. vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 slice fresh ginger, chopped
1/2 Cup plum jelly

Bake for 10 minutes in a preheated 350F-degree oven.
Serve barefoot.