Monday, December 5, 2011

Gratitude and Granola

Today I found a penny on the pavement. I picked it up and made a wish. It made me happy.

I tossed the rusty brown coin into my purse, fumbled for my keys, wrangled myself into the car and shut the door. Immediately, I was enveloped by the sun-baked, silent squishiness of my mobile cocoon. 
Ah, silence, solitude…I took a deep breath and thought to myself, no one can find me here…at least for the next few minutes.
Click. I locked the door, put back my head, closed my eyes and let my mind drift freely, for just a minute or two, beyond the gallon of milk I forgot to buy, the dentist appointment I just remembered, and the distinctive aroma of soccer socks and four day-old lunches wafting from the nether regions of my SUV.
I started to think about that penny.
Would my wish come true? What a gift to just sit for a minute, there alone in the middle of the mall parking lot, and think good thoughts…all for the price of someone’s lost penny. “It’s the little things”, I thought, "those little injections of emotional B-12 that transform ordinary days into a string of bite-sized extraordinary moments…if we let them."
I began to rewind my day, my week, my month…focusing less and less every second on my marinating car and that forgotten gallon of milk and more and more on the penny and some of the countless other opportunities someone or something recently gave me to smile. I thought about…
The rumpled stranger just minutes ago in the check-out line who said “God Bless You” when I sneezed…and really meant it.

An old school-mate I ran into at my reunion and our conversation about my Mom and the cardboard costumes she made for our second grade Christmas play.

The fact that Mom still lives down the street and helps me with every costume I make to this day.

The distinctive humor of an 8-year old boy aptly demonstrated when he is given a set of markers and asked to decorate his sister’s birthday gift wrap...

..and a teenage sister still sweet enough to sit with him and his buddies and help them decorate gingerbread houses.

The smell of coffee drifting upstairs and the confidence that every morning, without fail, Charlie will grind me a fresh batch of beans and perch them atop my favorite cup, ready for me to brew when I eventually stumble down.

This morning's milk in reindeer glasses and knowing we get to use them for a whole month.

Christmas ornaments made from macaroni.

A perfect pear plucked from a friend’s tree.


Gratitude is a powerful elixir and I felt quiet and full from its effects. I slowly lifted my head. It was time to go. My groceries were melting, I needed to call that dentist before his office closed for the day, and it was my turn to pick up the kids from the Dojo. I would probably be late. I should call.

I looked down at my phone and realized that my outdated Star Trek mock flip communicator-style phone had died...again. Now I’ve really gotta go. I looked back, began to pull out and caught eyes with the woman who had been waiting for my parking spot. She glared back at me, raised her hands in frustration and tapped on her steering wheel as I pulled away.
"Someone needs a penny," I thought. So I shot her a sincere smile and said a little prayer that her day would get better.
I started to think more about the little things I try to do to create bright moments in friends and strangers’ days and challenged myself to work consciously toward creating more of them.
Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll sneak out to Charlie’s frosty car-sicle a few minutes early and blast the heater for him. Perhaps I’ll pull my neighbor’s garbage cans in from the street for her today before she gets home from work. And, for sure, the next time I drop a penny on the ground, I’ll leave it there for someone else to find. I hope their wish comes true.
With the holidays here, it is no surprise that one of my favorite ways to spread good cheer, so to speak, is through the gift of something yummy. Although I don’t always have my act together, I try to almost always have, on-hand, something homemade to bring to friends' homes when we go-a-visitin’.
There’s something so retro-licious about the whole "hostess gift" thing. Nothing big…just a few little hand soaps, a set of taper candles or a jar of Farmer’s Market local honey; it’s a lost tradition for the most part, it seems, but one of those little niceties that is worth bringing back...don't you think?

So, here’s an idea for you to chew on: homemade granola. It doesn’t get much easier (note my four-year-old jammie-clad assistant in the photos below) and makes for a fun and unusual presentation. I grabbed some cool little jars at the new Dollar Store in town (OK, I admit it...I'm excited) whipped up a crunchy batch and set it aside to bring to Mike and Lib’s party this Saturday night.
I’m guessing they won’t be getting a jar of homemade granola from any of their other guests and I’d like to think it will bring a smile to their faces Sunday morning when they push aside the half-empty bottles of wine and find it on their counter…that’s the effect I’m going for anyway!
Here's what you will need...most of the items are simple pantry basics...

Sprinkle the nuts over the oats on a rimmed baking sheet (no need to butter or oil the pan).

 ...then drizzle the decadent goo over the oats and nuts...

...and toss to coat.

Sprinkle and mix with brown sugar, cinnamon and kosher salt.

Bake at 350° for about 5-10 minutes until the nuts begin to turn very light brown, checking and stirring once or twice along the way. Remove from the oven, add the coconut, stir well, return to the oven and bake for another 5-10 minutes or so, making sure nothing scorches and the coconut toasts just right.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle in your dried fruit (I used golden raisins and cranberries this time), toss and cool.

Honey Almond Granola

Preheat oven to 350°.

Mix on a rimmed baking sheet:
  • 2 1/2 cups oats
  • 1 cup slivered almonds (or other nuts)

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter

Add to it:
  • 1/4 cup honey
Drizzle mixture over nuts and oats, mix well.

Sprinkle over, mix in and bake, stirring often, until lightly browned:
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • cinnamon to taste
  • kosher salt to taste
Sprinkle over, mix and bake until golden brown:
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
Add, mix in and toss to cool:
  • 1 cup dried fruit to taste (try raisins, cranberries, apricots...)

Makes about 4 cups

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Formerly Feathered Friend

Fall is here.

First day of school...check. Umbrellas and rain boots pulled out of storage...check. Gutters cleaned...check.  First runny nose of the season...check.

Yep. It was Typhoid Willy and I must say, I felt a little ill-prepared.

It seems that just last week we were wearing floppy hats, dangling our feet off the back of the boat and sucking down snow cones.

But suntans gave way to sniffles last week so I found myself running to the trusty medicine basket only to find that our anti-viral arsenal was pitifully depleted.
A couple lingering Airbornes rattled in the plastic vial, an oddball Emergen-C poked itself out of a re-purposed sippy cup with some calcium chews stuck to the bottom, and a dusty tub of assorted Gummy-Vites snuggled up against a vat of Kirkland Ibuprofen...this isn't gonna do it, I thought...this calls for the big guns: chicken soup...STAT!

Time to drag out the cauldron and start brewing my witchy elixir...good old Grandma's penicillin...guaranteed to cure what ails ya.

I don't really know what it is about chicken soup but somehow, just putting it to simmer on the stove, makes me feel like I've got the answer. The answer to what, you ask. Well, I'm really not quite sure. Every time I plop a roaster into a pot filled with veggies and herbs, it just feels like I'm doing something right...something healing, something nurturing...unless you're the chicken, I guess.

Every year it seems I start to "soup up" sometime around Halloween only to hoist the big copper stock pot back onto the garage shelves shortly after the last spring sniffle.

During those months, you'll likely find a pot of stock simmering on my stove most murky Sunday afternoons. Generally I find motivation in my crisper drawer as I clear out for the week's fresh produce.

Ahhhh...a few floppy celery stalks, a carrot or two that have seen better days, a a couple of onion halves shoved toward the back of the drawer, wayward remnants of Tuesday's stir fry and Thursday's spaghetti sauce...together with the chicken-sicle I usually keep handy in the freezer, the dregs of my pantry are mere hours from transforming into something magically delicious.

So, into the pot it all goes: a decent-sized bird, about four stalks of celery or so, a few carrots, and an onion. If I have a bunch of parsley in the drawer, I rip of the stems and throw them in for good measure too. If you've got organic goods, all the better, but this time, I'm using the good old pesticide-ridden, hormone-laden stuff I have.

Next, fill the pot with water...enough to cover the chicken and veggies but not so much that it will boil over when your brew starts to bubble. At this point, I toss in a few peppercorns and a bay leaf or two.

Now, let the games begin. Turn the heat up to high until it starts to boil.  Skim off any yucky stuff that starts to float to the top then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 45 minutes or so (or until your chicken is cooked through). This will depend on the size of your formerly feathered friend.

Carefully remove your chicken from the broth and place it in a bowl to rest until it is cool enough to handle then pick all of the meat from the bones and return them (the bones) to the pot. Reserve the meat for your soup.

At this point, the house should be filled with the smells of homey goodness. Look to the couch and find whatever loved one happens to be stretched out at the time and snuggle on up. Doze off to the muted sounds of cartoons, football or trashy TV and take deep breaths of the warm, steamy air wafting from the kitchen.

Now, let that stock simmer for at least a couple more hours or so on low heat to complete it's transformation from bath time for chicky to rich chicken stock.

The stock will look pretty ugly at this point: tired old veggies, chicken bones and all. Time to strain everything out and reserve the broth. I used a cheesecloth to remove any sediment this time as my stock was a little more murky than usual. Note: try not to let the pot boil beyond the initial heat up as this can make your stock cloudy.
Toss out the gross stuff (veggies and bones) and place the stock in the fridge. Most of the fat will rise and solidify on the top so you can easily scoop it off. Feel free to reserve the fat for's good stuff! In Jewish cooking, it's called schmaltz and is a key ingredient in making matzo ball soup...rumored to be a more potent cure than penicillin! If nothing else, save it just cause it's fun to say the word schmaltz when someone asks what the gunk in the fridge is.

So, you've got your skimmed stock and your beautiful poached chicken...time to make some soup.

For a big pot of soup, I use about 2 cups of celery, about the same of carrots and about one cup of onion (all fresh...not the droopy stuff). Sometimes I like my veggies chunky but lately I've been in a small dice kind of mood. I find that if you plan to freeze your soup, the veggies can get a little rubbery if they are too big.

Saute your diced veggies in a combo of olive oil and butter until they are tender.

Add your yummy stock and the reserved chicken. I usually like to shred it into irregular pieces but feel free to cube it or whatever suits your taste at the time.

Time to season. I like to add a handful of finely minced fresh parsley, about a half tablespoon or so of dried crumbled thyme and lots of salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste (you'll be surprised how much salt it takes).

A couple of notes about seasoning: 1.) Under-salt the soup at first. Put a little in a bowl and let it cool. Taste it warm, taste it cool and go from there. I find that after smelling soup in my house all day, my taste buds are a little off...easier to add salt when you serve it than try to remove it later (no can do). Also, if you are making this for sickies, their taste buds are probably off too so they may need to adjust as well 2.) Feel free to experiment. I like my soup simple...just parsley, thyme, salt and pepper but you may have other ideas. 3.) I generally add noodles or rice at serving time. Boil them separately and add to the bowl as you serve. That way, you get an even distribution of the goodies and they don't soak up all of the broth during cooking or storage.

This recipe is the perfect base from which you can create a million different meals. In our house, we pour it steaming hot into a bowl filled with a big mound of shredded cheese (just like my Mama does).  Eat the first batch like this, then freeze some for later and try these add-to's:

Matzo Ball Soup: add parsnips, dill and matzo balls (use that schmaltz)!

Tortilla Soup: toss in some diced roasted Ortega chilies, diced tomatoes, a little cumin, chili powder, some tortillas strips, shredded Mexican cheese cilantro and diced avocado to garnish

Chicken and Dumplings: grab a box of Bisquick, mix up some dumplings, plop them in to steam and yum!

Asian Noodle Soup: throw in some rice noodles, cilantro, fresh ginger, bean sprouts, a splash of fish sauce, soy sauce, chopped scallions, maybe some chili paste and a squeeze of lime

Minestrone-Style Soup: add big fat rigatoni, white or kidney beans, diced tomato, oregano, shredded Swiss chard or other veggies on hand,chopped garlic and lots of Parmesan sprinkled on top

Last Sunday, I just happened to be going to see a friend who was down for the count so I thought I'd fill a Mason jar, steaming hot right off the stove and bring it on by. This time, I had some ABC pasta on hand and decided to toss it in...I thought it might make her smile. It did.

Chicken Soup
Place in a large stock pot and cover with water:
  • 1 roasting chicken
  • about 4 stalks of celery
  • about 4 carrots
  • about 1 onion
  • maybe a handful of parsley stems if you have them
  • a few whole peppercorns
  • a bay leaf or two
Bring to a boil, skim off scum, reduce heat to simmer until chicken is cooked through (about 45 minutes). Remove chicken, cool, remove meat from bones, reserve meat, add bones back to pot and simmer for a couple of more hours until stock is rich and concentrated. Strain stock, chill and skim fat.

Saute in a large pot:
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • about 2 cups of diced celery
  • about 2 cups of diced carrots
  • about 1 cup of diced onion
  • about 1/2 Tablespoon dried crumbled thyme
  • reserved shredded chicken
Season with :
  • a big handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste
Enjoy in good health...L'Chaim!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dear Food Diary...

Dear Food Diary,

I am proud to report that today marks Day 7 of Gluten–Free living for Carly and me. Not a speck of wheat has touched our lips: no wayward crust off a trimmed PB&J, no nibble off the edge of a lone McNugget, no cookie, no cupcake, no cream puff…no way.

Why gluten-free? Well, we’re not quite sure. To be honest, it seemed like the trendy thing to do and we both wanted some sort of framework to help thwart our inborn gravitational pull toward anything toasted and slathered with a cube of butter. Perhaps cutting out wheat would be the first step toward some sort of self-discipline come feeding time at the zoo.

Well my dear diary, I am not so pleased to report that our results have been less than glowing. After one week of deli sandwich deprivation, our cheeks are not rosier, our teeth do not shine with the brilliance of a thousand suns, our skinny jeans remain too skinny and if Miss Frizzle and her Magic School Bus took a field trip through our lower intestines, she’d travel a windy path still fraught with just as many road hazards as before.

Were our expectations too high? Perhaps. But you know what I’m guessing? I’m guessing that our lack of promised physical, spiritual and emotional transformation has something to do with the fact that both of us have found every wheat-free way to crush our carbohydrate cravings.

Oatmeal is a proven cholesterol-fighter, is it not? Dark chocolate…how else would we get our anti-oxidants? Frozen yogurt…Doc says we gotta get that calcium.

Of course, we might have overlooked the fact that our oatmeal is generally topped with brown sugar and cream, we buy our dark chocolate in Trader Joe's "pound-plus" bars ,and nonfat, soft-serve, frozen yogurt has become a daily obsession, slathered with scoops of crushed Heath Bar, Gummi worms and hot fudge.

Oh, dear food diary…do you think we may have missed the point?

None-the-less, we've been having a little bit of fun with it anyway…trying to cheat the system by creating tasty concoctions sure to fool even the most discerning of palates. Recipe resources are plentiful: the Internet, cookbooks, the lady next to me in line at the grocery store…all of a sudden, it’s a gluten-free world!

It’s funny. You know when you get a puppy, then, like magic, it seems that everyone you know has a puppy too? I remember, that’s how it was when I was pregnant; never noticed all those full-bellied girls before then low and behold, I join the club and I feel like I’m, living in the land of Oompa-Loompas. This past week it seems that everyone from the mailman to the goalie on Carly’s field hockey team considers wheat to be the devil’s grain.

But, back to our adventures in baking…

A few days ago, I finally got to Good Earth in search of a few wacky ingredients I would need to make a zucchini bread recipe I found on the Internet. Why not? Gotta use up that giant mutant zucchini from our garden. The recipe suggested peeling it in stripes which I thought was cool-looking if nothing else.

Perusing the aisles, somewhere between the seaweed snacks and the soy milk, I found the baking section.  “Let’s see…sorghum flour? Check. Tapioca flour? Check. Xanthan gum…seriously? Sounds like something you would use to remove rust from a marine propeller. By golly there it is! Check.”

Thirty nine dollars and eighty-eight cents later, I had everything I needed to make that loaf of bread. It better be good.

Guess what…it was delicious! I even had some left over supplies so Carly whipped up a dozen vanilla cupcakes for a gluten-free gal pal who turns “Sweet Sixteen” today. She found this recipe on the same site noted below.

I must admit, they were yummy too! We had our doubts as the batter was weirdly gummy but when the timer buzzed, we eagerly pulled those funny-looking little cakes steaming hot out of the oven and waived one around for a few minutes until it was cool enough to slather with homemade butter cream before sending it down our deprived gullets. So what that it was 11 pm at night and we were eating cupcakes…they’re gluten-free!

Here’s the recipe for the zucchini bread if you ever feel the need to hop on the wheat-free love train. Me and Carly? Not sure how long we’ll be along for the ride but at least we’re having a few laughs along the rails and learning some new stuff while we’re at it.

First grate the zucchini, squeeze it with a paper towel until it is as dry as you can get it, then set it aside.

Cream the wet ingredients, mix the dry in a separate bowl, then add them to the wet. Mix into this battter the zucchini and the walnuts (say "yes" to Omega-3s).

Spread into an oiled loaf pan into which you have previously placed a sheet of parchment like this.

And, voila...gluten-free goodness: sweet and moist with a crisp but tender crust!

After all of this baking, maybe next week we’ll go Atkins…bring on the bacon!

Gluten-Free Zucchini Bread

Cream together:
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil
Add in:
  • 2 egg whites
  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • 1 tps lemon juice
  • 1 tps lemon zest
Stir together in a separate bowl then add to wet ingredients:
  • 1 cup sorghum flour
  • ½ cup tapioca flour
  • 2 tsps baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¾ tsp xanthan gum
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
Stir in to the batter:
  • 1 rounded cup fresh grated zucchini (really squish out as much moisture as you can using paper towels then fluff with a fork to measure)
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until tester comes out clean.

Adapted from recipe found at

Friday, September 2, 2011

Grandpa "Cheese"

I've been thinking a lot about my grandpa lately...which is a little odd since we really never met.

Maybe it's that we were just in Tahoe and I think of him every time we drive by the old King's Beach bar he built with his own hands in the 30's. That's him chopping down the trees...

And here is the finished product! Over the last 80 years it's lived through many incarnations and today, us young folk know the spot as Caliente.

Maybe it's that my Mom just had a birthday and each year I am reminded that, that day many years ago, he welcomed his third baby girl into this world while, sadly, he watched his wife leave it forever.

Here is my beautiful Grandma Alice with her first two girls, my aunts. When Grandma Alice passed in childbirth, her sister Josephine (we called her Grandma Finy) would leave all she knew back home, come to America and raise Mom as her own (and that, my friends, is another story)...

Maybe it's that I heard on the news that the old building in Alameda that housed their dairy and soda fountain in the 20's and 30's is being restored and, under layers of siding and stucco, they found a faded sign touting their State Fair-award-winning cream.

Maybe it's that everyone in the family called the old Swiss dairyman "Grandpa Cheese" and sometimes the thought of that just makes me smile.

Growing up in my family, you probably wouldn’t have found it odd to have a Grandpa named “Cheese.”

Every morning, his daughter (we called her Mom) served our toast with a slab of butter as thick as a deck of cards. "Special" occasions, from Arbor Day to Hanukkah, were frequent, and always warranted a free pass to top anything with a Matterhorn of whipped cream.

The freezer was always jammed with at least four flavors of ice cream and when we’d unwrap the mystery square of waxed paper in our lunchboxes, we’d often find a hunk of Swiss cheese partially covered by an afterthought of two thin slices of Roman Meal wheat bread posing as a sandwich.

French Brie, Danish Blue, Irish Cheddar, Greek Feta…Mom did not discriminate. A United Nations of cheese products always filled our fridge, hurriedly wrapped in a waif-like sheet of Saran and crammed into one of three dedicated drawers like dairy delegates waiting their turn to represent the motherland.

Why would we not have a Grandpa named “Cheese?” He was a huge part of our lives.  He had everything to do with who we are today. But, the funny thing is, us kids never really knew him. We were just babies when he died...

Grandpa Cheese was born in 1889 in the Kanton of Uri Switzerland. His given name was Ambros Furrer and he thrived as a young man along with his brothers and sisters in his mountain home along with the other real-life mountain-dwelling, cow-herding, lederhosen wearing dairymen. Here is the mountaintop village where he was raised, complete with cow.

Here's the way up...

And here are my cousins who operate the this day...yikes! That's Mom in the black jacket visiting them a few years back.

This is where they live. Come on...does it get more Swiss?

There he met the beautiful and adventuresome Elisabetha (she came to be known as Alice in the new country). They married in 1922, set out to America on their honeymoon...and never looked back.

Doesn't this photo taken on the deck of their honeymoon cruise ship remind you of a scene from The Titanic? A little spooky, I think, until you peer through the mist and notice the sweet smile on my grandmother's face and the proud posture of her loving groom. 

Two little girls soon made a family of four.Together, they settled in Alameda and opened a creamery on Webster Street. Along with making and delivering milk, cream and cheese, word has it that their soda fountain was the place to meet! Grandma ran the business, Grandpa worked the dairy and my aunts were the coolest cats in town.

Even though my mom was never a part of their lives together, I like to think about those days and imagine that somehow they are a part of ours.

So, by now, you've probably figured out that my thoughts and feelings usually manifest themselves eventually into something edible. I've been wanting to experiment with making cheese for a long time, and given my recent need to get in touch with my milkmaid roots, I thought it would be fun to finally make it happen. I got my hands on the ingredients, dug up a recipe on the Internet, and dove in without a whole lot of forethought. Mom stopped by so I handed her the Flip camera and we documented our journey through curds and whey.

I'm pretty sure that the laughs we had along the way were more delicious than the actual end result but, for our first try, I'd have to say that the cheese wasn't half bad. We're looking forward to our next go at it, with modifications, but know that "Grandpa Cheese" would have been proud to see two generations up to their elbows in the family business.

So, here's my thought for the day...take a minute to think lovingly about the ones who came before us...the ones who came from so far away, some by choice, and some by need, to make a better life for themselves and their families. Dig out Auntie Nora's old Irish soda bread recipe or the closely guarded formula for Uncle Guido's famous Bolognese and fill your home with the tastes and smells that bind families across generations.

Bon Appetit, Buon Appetito and Guten Appetit!