Mexican Shingles and Tiles

  As I write this, it’s a balmy 45 degrees outside, and there’s snow on the way.  I’m not a winter person … don’t ski, don’t like fighting the icy roads, and I feel genuinely claustrophobic not being able to drive “over the hill” or down to the Bay Area for several months each year.  But such is life when you live in this land of four seasons that we call Central Oregon.  So it was a conscious effort to find a place to go for a brief vacation that was warm and sunny.

We hadn’t taken a real vacation since 2005, which was to the Big Island of Hawaii.  So this one needed to be researched and planned carefully.  And it was.  This was to be not only a get-away vacation, but also a fact-finding mission for a potential place to move or retire someday.  Via multiple books that are specialized resources, as well as countless hours on the Internet, I’d definitely done my homework on the subject of potentially living as an expat.  And this led to a single standout; La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico.

La Paz is a small town on the east coast of the southern Baja peninsula, about 100 miles north of Cabo San Lucas.  Other than being neighbors on the south end of Baja, the two towns are like night and day.  While Cabo is a fast-paced night-life driven vacation destination, La Paz is smaller, slower and much more civilized.  Cabo is also much more expensive in virtually every regard, so it’s not the best place to consider for retirement.  The whole peninsula is also quite vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature, and specifically … hurricane season.  The “big ones” are rare, but they definitely materialize every now and then, both via the Pacific, cutting across the peninsula, and shooting right up the Sea of Cortez.

Finding a flight to La Paz proved to be a challenge.  We ended up changing condo bookings to coordinate with our air travel logistics.  Getting anywhere from Bend can present a challenge, as our little Redmond airport only has a couple airlines that serve us, and most flights require a trip to Seattle or Portland first, as well as a change of airlines.

On the day before we left on the trip, I had an itch in the middle of my back, which looked odd when I checked it out in the mirror.  Several little bumps dead center on my spine, that weren’t there the day before.  My next door neighbor is an RN, and I decided to ask her what she thought.  Ah!  You’ve got shingles!  Being a consummate researcher-type, I of course looked up all the details of what I already knew to be a not-so-fun condition.  I grew up in the age when pretty much everyone got measles, German measles, chicken pox, and mumps, which were all referred to as “childhood diseases.”  There were no vaccines, and these were actually things you wanted to get while you were young, because you’d never have to deal with them again.

Shingles can affect anyone who’s ever had chicken pox, which lives in your body forever.  They’ll commonly start in a central nerve area (like the center of your spine, somewhere) and erupt into a band of uncomfortable rash-like patterns that usually follow a group of nerve endings.  What makes them so painful is the “nerve ending” reference … it’s not just a rash, but also a connection to your nerves, and therefore they can cause you lots of accompanying pain.  For weeks.  I debated whether to go on the trip at all, but since it had already been paid for and we were totally looking forward to getting out of Dodge for a week, I opted to brave it.

It was in the mid-thirties at 4 AM when we drove to little Redmond Airport and boarded the first of the two flights to Cabo.  Seattle was a little warmer than Bend and Redmond, but the real eye-opener was getting off the plane and being treated to a gorgeous ninety degree day on the Mexican Riviera.  Having lived in St. Thomas in the late 70’s, I know and love this weather.  La Paz (and a good portion of Central America) tends to verge on unbearably hot during the summer months, but in late October, it was incredible.

We definitely weren’t prepared for the long wait at Immigration and Customs, however.  I’ve traveled to and from The Bahamas and all over the Caribbean, and this is the worse bottleneck I’ve ever seen.  The serpentine lines looked like the wait for an “E Ticket” ride at Disneyland, and in fact took us over an hour to get through.  Apparently, four planes all landed almost concurrently, causing the big delay.

We spent the first night in Cabo San Lucas, having been told that neither route between there and La Paz was particularly advisable at night.  My brother in law treated us to a nice room at the Mar de Cortes, half a block from Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo club.  After a couple beers and some killer fresh guacamole and chips at the hotel bar, we took a walk around the downtown area, and ended up at Pancho’s for dinner.  I ordered for the chicken tamales, which were steamed in banana leaves and served with an unbelievable mole sauce.  I’m beginning to think I’m going to like this “real” Mexican food!

After walking off our dinner in the downtown Marina area, we hit El Squid Roe for a beer and to watch the tourists let loose.  Very fun spot, great entertainment.

Back to the nice room at Mar de Cortes, the initial shingle area was no worse, and possibly improving, but the appearance of a patch under my right arm, accompanied by shooting pain, does not please me. I woke up the next morning with a slightly larger patch, but still feel fine overall.  I surmised that the shingles were spreading, though nothing major yet.

Breakfast downstairs at Red Peppers and an absolutely amazing burrito. Of course I had to add a small amount of their hot pepper sauce, and my conservative application proved to be a good call. Very good, VERY HOT, and this is from someone who routinely abuses my senses with dollops of Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Sauce.

A quick jaunt around the Marina, then it’s off to La Paz, which is a couple hour drive north.  The drive from Cabo to La Paz on the “new” highway is quite an experience.  Not a tremendous amount of scenery, other than Todos Santos, which is a quaint little artist and surfing community about half way up the 100 mile drive.  The recently completed road still left a lot to be desired.  Several “washouts” which would have been ridiculous to navigate at night, still quite a bit of construction, and long distances between anything resembling civilization.  And to add insult to injury, we were given a ridiculous excuse of a car from Alamo Rent-A-Car in Cabo.  It was a Jeep something-or-other SUV with 170,000 kilometers on it, and the engine light was on the entire way.  Not the best way to be traveling in a remote region of Baja where Triple-A is not an option and we don’t even speak the language.  It also had a peculiar habit of the alarm going off randomly when it was parked and locked.  Not at all amusing when this happened in the middle of the night and the condo guard had to come and wake us up … several times!

  But we did in fact make it to La Paz, and the directions to the La Concha Condos were excellent, as was the condo itself.  These are beautiful ocean front units, with ours being a nicely appointed, privately-owned residence on the second floor overlooking the pool, and directly out at the Sea of Cortez.  We let my sister and brother-in-law have the ocean view room, while we opted for the one next door, which was a little bigger and had a private bathroom attached.  After assessing all the condo amenities, we drove into town for a few necessary supplies … breakfast stuff, munchies, beer, rum, and what became one of our collective favorite beverages, Coke Light.  This is very different than our Diet Coke, and pretty much tastes exactly like original Coca Cola, which they also make and sell exclusively in Mexico.  Total treat, and we went through lots of it in the week we were there.  Why can’t we get that here?  Costco carries the “real” Mexican Coke, why not Coca Light, as it’s commonly called?

After returning to the condo, it was pool time (heaven), followed by some beverages and munchies at the Palapa bar, which was adjacent to the main hotel and restaurant.  I had a sip of my Corona, and while the nachos were being prepared, I took a little walk into the adjoining Sea of Cortez water.  The ocean water is a balmy bathtub-like eighty-six degrees, and stays that way pretty much year-round.  Nothing short of amazing, particularly for someone who grew up surfing in the 52 degree Pacific of Pacifica and Santa Cruz.  I could get used to this.

  For our first full day in La Paz, we decided to go into town and do some walking around and exploring.  We wanted to check out the newly-updated Malecon, which is a beautiful several-block long walkway, right off the ocean and marina.  The Malecon is across the street from lots of shops and restaurants, and is the perfect place to walk and watch the sunset over the bay.  Lunch, extensive walking around downtown, a little more grocery shopping, and it was back to La Concha for some more pool time.

That night, we had dinner at a great spot across from the Malecon, called The Tailhunter.  I realize I was in Mexico and I absolutely love Mexican food, but I felt like a cheeseburger, and I’m glad I did.  It just seemed right, with the baseball playoffs being shown on the big screen in the third floor dining area.  Gigantes!

I was the last person to go to bed on Sunday night.  I had left a light on in the living room, and went back in to turn it off, as this one didn’t work via a wall switch.  While walking back to the bedroom in the pitch black room, I managed to trip on a hard-to-see step up to the dining room, and fell flat on my left knee on the hard uncarpeted Mexican tile.  It hurt, but didn’t seem too terribly bad, and I went to bed.

 On Monday, we took a ride to Tecolote Beach, which faces Isla Espiritu Santo, a popular day-trip, kayaking and snorkeling destination.  This is a long, beautiful beach which reminded me of the St. Thomas beaches that I used to work on in the late 70’s.  Very different than Pacific beaches, and they’re all virtually flat and waveless.  And warm!  We had some fish tacos and beers from the beach front restaurant, met some great locals and tourists, and thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon.  I think I drank more beer during this one week in Mexico, than I’ve consumed for the past couple years.  I’m usually good for about one beer, and that’s generally when I’m cooking Mexican food at home.  But Mexico seems to lend itself to consuming cold beers, and I had several.

With the combination of driving and walking around both the beach and in town, my knee was really starting to hurt.  Dinner that night was at the hotel pool-bar, with a big Mexican wedding going on right next to us.  We left a couple hours into the festivities and it was just getting started.  On the walk back to the condo we spotted an expensive “sport fisherman” boat cruising a few hundred yards offshore, that really stood out as somewhat ostentatious.  While much of Mexico is relatively poor, there’s a genuine middle class here in La Paz.  No begging, no hawkers trying to lure you into a shop full of fake Cuban cigars, nobody sleeping in the streets, and certainly not an over-abundance of the afore-mentioned fishing yachts.  Most of the residents, as well as the visitors, would be considered middle-class.  And I mean this in a very positive way, as it’s not the norm in many parts of the country.

Tuesday. After a virtually sleepless night and an agonizingly painful knee that I quite literally could barely walk on, we decided to visit a small hospital on the other side of town. X-Rays were taken first, and confirmed that nothing was broken. The X-Ray tech’s initial recommendation was to drink lots of whiskey, and then follow up with tequila, if needed.  But the second doctor said it was likely something that should be seen by a specialist, and prescribed some Celebrex and asked me to come back in a couple hours to see an orthopedic. Following a great waterfront meal of pizza and Caesar salad (and Margaritas) we returned at 6:00 to see an orthopedic specialist.  The doctor diagnosed a fairly extensive hematoma, and prescribed an analgesic and an antibiotic, in addition to Celebrex prescribed earlier. Total cost for X-Rays, initial doctor and orthopedic specialist was about $75.  Fortunately, by the time we left, it was much better.  But what an unbelievably painful three days when it was virtually impossible to walk, and I was pretty much house-bound.  Great way to spend a vacation!

The drivers in La Paz are unbelievable, and not in a good way.  ALTO (Stop) signs are commonly ignored, with most locals going right through them.  The police apparently don’t mind, as we never saw anyone pulled over during this trip … and we saw a LOT of people run Stop signs.  Speed limits seem to be optional, and it’s not uncommon to see people going dramatically over and under the posted KPH limits.  In California or Oregon this would provide a lot of local revenue.  Not in Mexico.  It seemed that unless someone was doing something very wrong, the police are inclined to leave you alone.  Big Brother is not watching you here, and it’s actually a pleasant change from the U.S., where stepping out of line in any way will net you a fine.

We traded cars on Wednesday night, at the Alamo agency in La Paz.  We were promised a newish sedan of some sort, but by the time we got there they’d already rented it out, and we were given a big Chrysler Town and Country minivan.  And once again, the check engine light refused to go out.  And to make it even more fun, the air conditioning wasn’t working, so we had to contend with warm air blowing in on us for the trip south on Thursday.

We drove the “other” road south to the airport.  Highway 1 takes you through some beautiful mountain areas, as well as along the coast for a good chunk of the 100 mile trek.  We stopped briefly in the little fishing village of Los Barriles to see if my sister and brother-in-law were still at the hotel, but they’d already checked out.  The town seems to be comprised of lots of expats driving around in dune buggies.  If you ever wondered where all the dune buggies went from the 70’s and 80’s, they’re all in Los Barriles!

Other than the warm air issue, the trip south on Highway 1 was actually very easy, and nothing resembling the collection of potholes and cows strutting onto the roads that we’d heard about. The “new and improved” highway 19 that we drove earlier was actually loaded with potholes and road washouts. Highway 1 was great.

Checking in the car, the short ride to the airport, and customs check-in were painless, and the couple hour wait for our flight will be just fine. Lunch, a couple shots of Jose Cuervo Gold, and Corona Light’s in a can (stays way cooler!) will pass the time.  People-watching at the airport is always interesting, and this one was no exception. Tans, poseurs, young and old, beautiful, recently married, just came for the fishin’ … all paraded by.

My knee was actually healing nicely, and I could finally walk half-way normally, after hobbling around or sitting with it elevated and iced for the previous four days.  I opted to only take one analgesic for the flight home, vs. the two that the orthopedic recommended. And what to do for the four hour flight back to civilization (and snow, we hear)?  A little reading, some writing, and of course music.  Might just as well crank up the iPod Shuffle and start the Rush playlist at the beginning. Clockwork Angels, here we go!

I came away from La Paz feeling negative about the whole experience, but in retrospect this was mainly due to the fact that I was incapacitated much of the trip, and didn’t get to see much of anything other than the hotel room, the pool, and a little bit of the town.  The shingles never materialized into a major case, but my knee caused me four days of excruciating pain.

But I will go back, I will visit my friend Deborah who lives there, and who I got to see all of ten minutes the first day we were there, I’ll do lots more driving around, and sample the smaller restaurants in the heart of the city.  And with any luck I won’t get injured next time, or have to contend with shingles making me uncomfortable.  It’s a beautiful area, the beaches and Sea of Cortez are amazing, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered, the food is incredible, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip.  And there’s no way I’m waiting seven years between vacations ever again!  Life’s too short!

The Only Cat

This piece was originally published on March 22nd, 2010, and unfortunately, now requires an update. 

I now have to say that for the first time in eighteen months, and only the second time in 26 1/2 years, I’m down to an only cat, and a different one than I wrote about last March.  The newest member, and current “Only Cat,” is Emily. 

Emily was acquired after our return to Bend, as a result of my somewhat questionable theory that cats should have roomies.  I’d been watching the ads for available kitties at our local Humane Society here in Bend, and one kitty’s looks and description seemed like a perfect match for what I was looking for.  She was staying at the PetSmart store at the north part of town, so we decided to take a little ride up there and check her out.  As luck (and fate) would have it, the kitty I wanted to meet was in quarantine, having “freaked” a little after the floor cleaners made an unpleasant amount of noise that morning. 

But in one of the other cages was the cutest little gray and white girl, who they’d dubbed “Dana” for her stay at the pound, and subsequently her visit to PetSmart.  We asked if we could have a visit with Dana, and they were totally accomodating, letting us come into the meet and greet area and spend a few minutes with her.  We both fell in love with this little girl, but my lovely wife wasn’t sold on the idea of yet another cat in the house.  The last four (see below) had all had their ups and downs, and the biggest “down” was when you lost one of them.  And the count was three losses in less than three years, at that point. 

The “Only Cat” at the time that this was originally published was our Penny, who I always used to refer to as my “Special Cat,” because she was.  Penny was unique in so many ways, and was the only cat I’ve had over the years who truly got along with all the other cats that have come and gone during her stay with us.  She wasn’t necessarily passive with her room mates, and actually took the lead in chasing both Annabelle and Abigail around the various places we’ve lived, but the claws never came out with any of her house buddies.  She even got along with the two “problem children,” my giant 28 pound Maine Coon, Cody, and little Annabelle, who we affectionately dubbed the “bitch kitty from hell” for her sometimes snotty behavior towards the others. 

Over the 15 1/2 years we had her, Penny endured some nasty illnesses and somehow managed to bounce back.  Before our two year return to the Bay Area in 2008, she’d lost a ton of weight, stopped eating, and consequently had to endure force feeding through a tube in her neck for a couple of months.  Not pleasant for her, or us.  But we made the decision not to do an expensive no-guarantee surgery, and simply pull the tube out and see if she started eating.  Amazingly, she did, and initially put all her weight back on (and then some). 
But over the last six months, which haven’t been the best of times for her, she was once again on a fairly obvious decline.  In addition to the ongoing digestion problems, I think there was some senility creeping in, and she may not have even realized that she wasn’t using her sandbox like she was supposed to.  And for way too much of the last 5 years she had the recurring issue of not being able to keep food down.  Not a good quality of life for her, and definitely not for us or our house. 
So the decision was made to bring her into the Humane Society, and allow her to move on to greener pastures, much to our displeasure.  It’s never easy losing a pet.  They become members of your family.  I’ve used this phrase way too many times over the years, but it’s true … unfortunately, most of us will outlive our parents and our pets.   

So if there’s a kitty heaven (and I can only hope there is), she’s probably engaging in one of her favorite activities, which included finding an elusive ray of sunlight to lay in, or a warm lap, or her favorite dining chair.  She’s undoubtedly talking a blue streak, and begging for her next meal, which she always looked forward to.  Hopefully someone managed to sneak a laser light into kitty heaven, and is moving it across a big area of floor, providing hours of endless fun for her.  And of course there has to be catnip filled socks … this is after all Kitty Heaven.  Rest in peace, little girl. 

The Original “Only Cat”, below …
For the first time in about 25 years, I find myself with just one cat in the household. For the bulk of this afore-mentioned period, I’ve had anywhere from two to four. Two’s fine, four’s ridiculous, in my opinion. Although the four of them were as different as night and day from each other, and each had their own distinctly unique personalities and moods … they are after all, cats.
I’ve had several dogs over the years, and it’s an ongoing thought to get another one, but as wonderful as they are as companions, and obviously polar opposites of felines, they’re also a lot of work. Cats use a sandbox, eat and drink from large containers that only require occasional refilling, use their scratching post religiously, sleep twenty hours a day, and basically go about their business with very little fuss. They don’t require walks, you don’t have to follow them with plastic bags, they give themselves their own baths, and if you keep them inside, they usually live relatively long trouble-free lives.
But of course nature being what it is, things do come along that cut short the lives of the healthiest of cats and dogs, and when they leave your household, it’s a sad event. They become members of your family. You talk to them, listen when they talk back and pretend to understand, try to diagnose their occasional woes and mood swings, and generally integrate them into your family situation. You’re protective of them, just as you would be of a child or spouse. You’re allowed to yell at them or throw some verbal barbs their way on occasion, but nobody else better do it, or there’s likely to be trouble.
My life of cats began with a little orange creature named George. I believe I was about eight years old when he joined our household on Grandview Avenue in Daly City. George was my cat, as opposed to a family pet. There seemed to be a special bond with us, quite likely because of the overwhelming number of females in the house. I had four younger sisters at this point, and that would soon become five. My dad worked two jobs, so it was usually me and George vs. all of them! George would of course sleep at the foot of my little twin bed, like all my subsequent cats would do over the years. We got George as a tiny kitten, and I believe he was about three or four when an unfortunate event cut his young life short. It was Christmas morning, and my newly-converted Catholic parents demanded that we all go to church. Pulling away from the curb in my dad’s baby blue Ford Falcon, we heard an unmistakable thump. George had been sleeping in a rear wheel well, on top of the tire. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a quick and painless way to go, but for an eight year old, to lose my beloved buddy on Christmas day, it was a minor disaster. But it was also a good leaning experience, as most of my cats that followed over the years have been relegated to indoors. Outdoor cats average two-to-three years, indoors are up around fourteen. If you intend to keep your pets safe and alive, statistics favor letting them live in the house.
During my junior high and high school years, we had a very different variety of pet in the house, which precluded us from having cats or dogs. My mother decided she liked monkeys, so we had a string of them. The first was a skinny little spider monkey, which was given away fairly quickly. Then a squirrel monkey which lasted a little longer, but ultimately met the same fate. Then we got Shoo-Shoo the owl monkey, and she would prove to be a member of the house for about ten years. Owl monkeys have sort of a lemur-look about them and they’re very nocturnal. Translation = she ran the treadmill in her cage all night every night, much to my dad’s dismay. Shoo-Shoo got out of her cage and ran away at one point, and after about a week of searching the neighborhood, my heartbroken mother went out and bought another owl monkey, which she named after her father (a sort of backhanded thank you for them naming their Boston Terrier after my father, I believe). We then found the wandering Shoo-Shoo a couple blocks away, so for a few years we had two owl monkeys. The younger one died fairly young, and we were all hopeful that Shoo-Shoo would be the only monkey in the house. But no … my mom wanted something closer to a chimp, so she bought a capuchin. This one was a pain to have around, as I recall, and didn’t last long. The last in the line of monkeys was a wooly monkey, which was kind of like having a two year old. This one was very tame, fun to show off to friends, but unfortunately the source of a major allergic reaction with my mom. So this guy once again was given to someone who could tolerate his fur, and shortly thereafter, Shoo-Shoo went to monkey heaven. We were finally free of monkeys. This was a happy day.

I had several cats during my high school and early college years. Most were a combination indoor-outdoor variety, likely strays or “pound cats” that we took in, sometimes a couple at a time, but occasionally, “only cats.” The only one I remember as being particularly special was a solid white cat named “Cat,” who was an absolute lover, and we had her for several years. Nice kitty.

Around 1974 I was living in a house in Pacifica with a group of friends, when my buddy Bob and I decided we should get a couple cats for the house. Apparently, it wasn’t “cat season,” as there were almost no cats to choose from at either the humane society or through the newspaper. We did lots of looking, saw some “ok” cats, but it was several weeks into the search when we paid a fateful visit to a house in the Sunset District in San Francisco. The people advertised that they had a whole bunch of kittens to choose from, which had come from a couple different parent pairs, which they also had in the house. Golden opportunity to both meet the parents and see what their demeanor was like, as well as have the pick of two big healthy litters.
Walking into this house, you couldn’t help but think that these were “cat people.” The center of their living room was dominated by a huge cat tree, where no less than 15 kittens were climbing, jumping, sleeping, and generally having a wonderful time. Bob spied a little solid black kitty, which immediately took to him. One down. I was looking around the room and scouring the cat tree when I spotted a little tabby furball at the very top of the tree, curled up and hanging by herself. A loner, possibly, but something about her was appealing enough to get her down. She curled up in my arms and started purring immediately. Sold. We had our cats.
Bob came up with the name Tinkle Butt immediately (no idea what correlation this had to the cat), but it was a couple days ’til I came up with a name for my little girl. As fate would have it, I went to a movie in the City called “The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man In The Moon Marigolds.” It was a relatively small artsy film which was directed by Paul Newman and starred Joanne Woodward and their real-life daughter Nell. Nell played Tillie, whose full name was Mathilda. The movie left an impression, the daughter’s character was uniquely interesting, and I had found a name for my new kitty … Tillie.
Tillie was my buddy for close to fifteen years, moving way too many times to various locales around the state. We had ups and downs, but she ate well, twice a day. If I was down to my last couple bucks for dinner, I’d have a can of chili so Tillie could have her daily dose of Purina Tuna. She’d greet me when I came home each night, and follow me from room to room, shadowing my movement around the house or apartment. I’d commonly wake up in the mornng with her standing on my chest, looking down with her sweet eyes, waiting for her morning meal. Tillie had four litters, producing two, five, five, and five kittens. The only ones that hung around were the two from the first litter. She had a beautiful Siamese looking kitty which we gave to the family of Leo Ryan (the Congressman who was slain at the Jonestown massacre). The other was a huge solid black cat named Pamplemousse (or Moose, for short). It means “grapefruit” in French, and for some reason I liked the word. Big, nasty cat that nobody but my sister Colleen could even approach. Lived a few years and succumbed to feline leukemia (and this was an indoor cat). But Tillie was a great cat in every respect, and I miss her to this day. Geez, we went through a lot together!
At several points over Tillie’s tenure, I lived with people with cats, so she was rarely an “only cat,” unless I happened to be living alone. But she was totally friendly and got along with any of the other kitties that happened to be around for varying periods of time. In retrospect, this was probably the beginning of the multi-cat trend I’ve had ever since.

After Tillie, I briefly had a little Himalayan named Elizabeth (which was also Tillie’s middle name, but more on middle kitty names later). Beautiful cat, but she had a tendency to pee when and where she wanted, which quite commonly was in a closet or on a piece of wall to wall carpeting. This would not do, and she was given away to a friend of my mother’s who had another Himalayan. From what I heard, she was fine in her new house, and lived a long life.
Another fateful moment came while I was working at Sequence Systems, and was invited to a BBQ at a co-workers. Their cats had just had a litter of kitties, and they were all just the nicest cats and kittens I could imagine. Totally socialized at a very young age, obviously destined to be great family pets for some lucky people. My friends said this would probably be the last litter, but if they had one more, I could have my pick of the group. Well there was another litter, and on a warm spring day we were invited over to take our pick of six beautiful little kitties. And although any of them would have been great pets due to the wonderful lineage of the parents, one stood out to us, and Annabelle came home with us that day.

Annabelle (Annie) was a small cat, who probably never went over ten pounds. And she was both a lover and a complete terror. One of her favorite kitty tricks was to run from one end of the house to the other, scurry to the top of the curtains, and hang there by her claws. Not the best thing, considering this was a rental house and the landlord was very picky about this kind of mayhem. Annie wouldn’t be an only kitty for long, as she was soon joined by another little tabby we found in a local pet store. Beautiful kitten, loving, cuddly, but unfortunately she had Elizabeth’s bad habit of peeing here and there, and pretty much everywhere. Gone, quickly.

I’d always wanted a Maine Coon Cat, and the search for my dream pet was about to begin. These are the largest domestic breed, and males commonly range from 16-18 pounds.  We began going to all the cat shows, traveling a hundred mile radius in search of the perfect cat. We settled on a couple who ran a cattery in Davis (near Sacramento), who we met at a cat show and we really liked both them and the cats they were showing. Our order was placed, and a couple months later we drove to Davis and picked up Ben. Ben was a gorgeous Maine Coon, and just the nicest cat in the world. Friendly, smart, not overly-talkative (this can be a challenging trait with Maine Coons), and a joy to have in the house. But Ben wouldn’t be around for long, as he developed a fairly severe case of diabetes at a little over a year old, and we took the vet’s recommendation to end his young life, vs. deal with inevitable complications for the next 15 years. I was so bummed.

Right after losing Ben we moved to our first big new house, in Gilroy. It was the middle of August, 1997, and typical of Gilroy summers, it was about 150 degrees out and the air was filled with the pungent odor of garlic.  Gilroy prides itself in being the “Garlic Capital of the World” and it’s obvious why, during the hot summer months.  Within the first week, we started visiting the local humane society in search of a companion for Annie. Once again, it was apparent that this was not the best season for kittens, as the humane society and newspaper didn’t have much to offer. But on one warm early September morning we wandered into the local pound and right in the entry way in a big cage, like it was their “featured kitten” for the day, we spotted a beautiful little tabby. I sought permission to take her out of the cage, and reached in and picked her up. She crawled up on my shoulder and started rubbing and purring. Jackpot, was my immediate thought. We looked over the other kittens, but it was pretty clear that this one was going to come home with us. We did the required paperwork, agreed to bring her back in a week to be spayed and microchipped, and Penny became the newest addition to the house. She was probably about 8 weeks old, already sandbox trained, and an absolute gem of a kitten. Her quiet early demeanor would eventually disappear as she’s gotten quite verbal over the years, but at least as a kitten, she was very passive, vocally.

So Penny settled in nicely, and Annabelle, who we called the bitch kitty from hell because she almost NEVER gets along with other feline roommates, actually tolerated the new kitten. We took Penny back to the humane society the following week, to get her work done, and made the mistake of walking into the kitten room while we were waiting. My wife spotted a cute little black and white fluff ball that seemed to be beckoning us. She was much smaller than Penny, and literally fit in the palm of my hand.  We figured she was closer to six weeks old, but she and Penny were close enough to almost be sisters, and eventually we’d refer to them as just that. The black and white kitty came home with us, as with Penny, she had to go back for her spay and microchipping session. She’d become Abigail, or Abbie, and she’d spend the next 13 years with us.

But I still wanted a Maine Coon, and once again we began the long search, via cat shows and websites.  We settled on a little cattery up in Burney Falls, near Mount Lassen.  The “parents” were both show cats, with his dad being a Supreme Grand Champion and mom being a Grand Champion.  Good lineage and VERY big cats.  We placed our order and waited for his arrival.  It was about eight AM on Father’s Day in 1998 when I received a phone call that began with … “Larry, you’re a father.”  Hmmm … let’s see here … OH, my kitty’s been born!  Six weeks later we took the two hundred mile trek north, and brough our little furball of a Maine Coon home.  Little did we know that he’d grow to 26 pounds in a little over a year.  But Cody was a strikingly beautiful cat and people totally loved visiting him. 
The four of them were all very different, and didn’t necessarily always get along.  Cody quickly grew into a monster sized cat, and I think his size alone was intimidating to the other three.  Penny in particular, was petrified of him.  Annabelle was the tiniest of the group, never getting much over ten pounds, and amazingly she got along fine with him, sometimes sleeping like bookends in front of the fireplace.  And Penny got along with all of them. 
After moving to San Jose, and subsequently to Oregon, Cody developed diabetes.  I was now two for two with this disease, with my Maine Coon Cats.  As much as I love them, it’s unlikely that I’d get another one.  The heartbreak of losing such a magnificent animal is just not worth it.  Cody required testing and two shots a day, and lasted about eighteen months with his disease before developing some major complications.  He faded fairly quickly, and we lost him in January of 2007.

A move back to the Bay Area proved to be the last one for Annabelle, who lived a long and healthy life.  But at eighteen, she clearly was on a downward spiral, and we had to do what was best for her. 

Still in the Bay Area, but now on the Peninsula, Penny and Abigail were the remaining two.  The two little pound kitties had the run of the house, and were of course the best of friends.  But the eighteen months we spent in the house was not the best of times for Abbie, as she lost a good half of her weight.  The last month of her life, she had almost completely stopped eating or drinking any water, and it was painful to watch the little girl morph into nothing more than black and white fur over skin and bones.  We tried feeding her everything from the best cat food to pure tuna, made sure she alway had water close by, but nothing was going to turn her around.  We’d been planning our move back to Oregon, and it became clear that little Abigail would not be up for the trip.  So last week, I made the painful decision to take her to the local humane society, and once again put an end to a cat’s downward spiral.  You know in your heart that it’s the best thing to do, that she lived a long and relatively nice life, always had food and a clean litterbox, etc., but it doesn’t make it any easier.  They’re members of your family, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.  All you can do is live with it. 
Which leaves us with Penny … Penny was “Penny Ann” for years, but lately has been dubbed “Penny Portly,” since she obviously hasn’t missed many meals.  Oh … I mentioned they all had middle names … Tillie was Mathilda Elizabeth, Annie was Annabelle Lee, Cody was a purebread and was technically “Wild Bill Cody of Burney Falls,” and little Abbie was Abigail Lee O’Day.  Same middle name as Annie, and had a last name too, for some reason. 

Penny was sick a couple years ago and couldn’t eat or keep anything down, and consequently had to be fed through a tube for a month.  She’d gotten down to about half her normal weight (always a big girl) when we made the decision to remove the tube and hope for the best.  It’s almost as though a little light went off in her head and she decided she’d better start eating again.  She did, she bounced back, and now seems to be on a mission to keep a little extra weight on … just in case. 

Penny’s my buddy, and I’ve always called her my “special cat.”  Noisy as all get out, doesn’t like to be picked up, but she’s a total lover and will sit on your lap and purr for hours.  She’s always been the friendliest of the four, and will make friends with whoever comes to visit … particularly people who don’t like cats (seems to be the case with many cats, actually).  But she’s now an only child.  I’m not sure when or if I’ll get another kitten, but I’m sure there will come a time when I break down and once again add to the brood.  I’ve always had cats, and undoubtedly always will.  But for now, Penny is The Only Cat, and will soon have the huge house in Oregon all to herself.  Hopefully, climbing the stairs to get to her food and sandbox will help with some of her portliness … I’d like her to be around for a good many more years. 

Sixteen

I have a young friend who’s turning sixteen, and it sort of dawned on me last night as I was trying to fall asleep, what a significant date this can be when you’re living the experience yourself.  My friend Daina’s wonderful daughter is turning sweet sixteen on June 2nd, and the thought of this lofty experience brought back some memories from my youth. 

For me, sixteen was huge for so many reasons.  First, my experience in grammar school included a “grade skip.”  I started kindergarten at the normal age, but early in first grade I found myself being yanked out of class for what seemed like an endless battery of tests.  My teacher was somewhere between delighted and concerned (for both herself and yours truly) that I was teaching my fellow first graders to read and write and do simple math, faster than she was.  So the testing that I thought everyone was being subjected to, was actually a thorough I.Q. exam on both educational and social levels which would determine if I should “skip” second grade, and go from first to third.  Apparently I aced the tests, as about three-quarters of the way through first grade, I found myself ousted from Room Six of Westlake Shool, and sent next-door to Mrs. Van Valen’s second grade class in Room Seven.  This is where I’d spend the final couple months of my first / second grade year, and if their assessment of me was on target, I’d go directly to third grade. 

Being both the “new kid” and the one who was a full year behind the rest of the class chronologically, was sort of like diving into the deep end of the pool for your first attempt at swimming.  But amazingly, there were some great kids in this class, and I became fast friends with several, and am still friends with a few of them today.  Kids tend to hang with other kids in their grade at this stage of life, and while the third graders (and up) were known as “big kids,” the younger ones (like me) were considered beneath them.  But my friend Geoff Becker (who I still see a couple times a year) came to my rescue, and several others followed.  Geoff proactively came up to me and introduced himself and asked if I wanted to have lunch with his group.  I’ve not only never forgotten this moment of kindness, I embarass him and remind him of it every couple of years.  He doesn’t seem to mind, I still appreciate it, I’ll continue to do so. 

Being a year younger than my classmates always seemed unfair.  The milestones of turning 10, 13 (becoming a teenager!), 16, 18 and of course 21, would be experiences that all my friends would experience a year before I did, although we were all in the same grade.  I turned 17 a few weeks before graduating from high school, while everyone else was already 18 (and able to vote!).  And sixteen was the biggie.  I’ve always been fiercely independent, and I had to wait an extra year, which seemed like an eternity, before I could get my driver’s license.  All my friends had licenses, many had cars, and the fact that I had to either “bum a ride” from one of them, or ask my parents to take me places, was miserable. 

The places this manifested itself the most was with regard to dating, and surfing.  Any dates other than going to a party or “meeting up” somewhere, meant that I had to double date with one of my friends who had a license and access to a car.  Even if they had to borrow their parents’ car for the night, the difference was huge … they got to drive, I was a passenger in the back seat. 

And surfing was the killer.  I started surfing at about eleven or twelve, and had initially depended on my parents, and later friends to get to the beach.  The other alternative was to hitch hike the 10 miles to Pedro Point with a wetsuit and forty-five pound nine-foot-seven surfboard in tow, so I obviously bummed rides more often than not.  And as all my surfing buddies got their licenses, drove around with surfboard racks permanently affixed to their cars, and were able to make the trek to the beach whenever they wanted, I was still bumming rides. 

 It seemed like the longest wait in the world, and that I’d never reach the lofty age of sixteen, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and after counting the days forever, it finally arrived.  I attended Westmoor High School for my freshman and sophomore years, but had to spend my junior year at El Camino High when the family moved out of the district (just barely out, as I recall).  Fortunately, there was something called “senior priveleges” which made it possible for me to spend my senior year back at Westmoor with all the friends I’d known since grammar school.  But it was at El Camino where that huge April 7th finally arrived, and I was going to get my California driver’s license … assuming I passed both the written and behind-the-wheel tests.  I believe I was in second period (Shirley Axt’s social studies class, I believe) when a messenger came to the door and handed a note to the teacher.  Mrs. Axt said that someone was asking for me at the Principal’s office, and I was to go there.  That “someone” was my dad, who apparently fashioned some sort of family emergency to drag me out of class … and escort me to the DMV.  It was license time! 

I passed both the written and driving tests handily, and as a birthday gift, I was granted use of the family car.  The old blue Valiant station wagon would be MINE for the evening, and I already had big plans to attend what would surely be an awesome concert.  At the risk of dating myself here, the concert was the Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young, Steve Stills, Jim Messina and Richie Furay all in the same band!) opening up for the Jefferson Airplane.  The Airplane had just released Surrealistic Pillow, and were at the top of their game.  I believe this concert cost all of $2.50 apiece, and was held in the gym of the University of San Francisco.  My girlfriend Kitty was my date, and friends Tim Pappas and his girlfriend Vickie joined us.  Great show, awesome night, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. 

Turning sixteen was an incredible event that I thought would never happen.  The “big birthdays” of 18 and even 21 were somewhat anti-climatic, although it was nice to be able to order a glass of wine at dinner or make a purchase from a liquor store (legally).  But while getting “carded” and being able to produce valid proof of being twenty-one was initially a thrill, the subsequent milestone years are mostly forgettable.  The “left digit rotation” years of 30, 40, and so on, tend to be dreaded, vs. something anyone looks forward to.  I imagine it’s going to be the achievements of hitting something like 80 or 90 when I’ll want to start bragging about my age (or even admitting it) again.  Interesting how that works. 

But sixteen was indeed sweet, and I remember it like it was yesterday.  And while this blog entry consisted predominantly of my memories, I wish Rhys a wonderful day that will be filled with great memories for many decades to come.  She deserves it. 

Happy Birthday Rhys!

Three Soup Week

Gazing out of the window of my upstairs home office, I’m watching some huge snowflakes settle in our little cul de sac, only to melt on impact.  I love watching the snow fall silently to the ground, each flake unique to itself, even though this winter has only provided us with a couple brief glimpses of our more typical winter wonderland here in Central Oregon.  For now, the “balmy” 40 degree temperature is still too warm for anything to stick.  So maybe it’s this wintry mix of a little snow, a little rain, chilly days and chillier nights, or maybe it’s just a life long affinity for all things soup that’s gotten me into such a soup mood this week.  Regardless, it’s turned out to be a three soup week, with leftover soups filling the in-between miscellaneous lunches and dinners as well.  And very UN-typically, none of them made it to the freezer!  Everything’s been consumed by the two of us, as well as an assortment of friends who’ve apparently enjoyed it as well. 

Loyal readers know I love soup, and always have.  I’ve written three long blogs on Asian noodle soups alone.  I think my pho article has gotten the most views and comments of anything I’ve written over the past three years that I’ve been doing this.  But apparently I’m not alone in my love for a big bowl of warm tasty soup, fresh out of the big 16 quart stainless steel soup pot. 

My love of soup dates back to my childhood, and I have a few very vivid memories of that time.  The first was our family visits to my great-grandmother’s house in San Francisco.  Grandma McKinnon, or “Old Grandma” as we all used to call her, was seemingly always very old, but amazingly she was around until my early teens.  Old Grandma was born in Denmark, and the most common lunch that she’d prepare for us when we were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with her, was her special potato soup (likely a potato leek, in retrospect), and Swiss cheese sandwiches.  Maybe it’s because I liked this combination so much, or perhaps it’s just my old mind getting the best of me, but I really can’t recall eating anything but this specific combination at her house.  And I recall her house vividly … big, lots of wood, somewhat dark, long, wide stairways, and always that wonderful smell of home cooked soup coming from her old kitchen. 

Second was the soup at Compton’s Cafeteria, which was located next to Vern’s Ice Cream, two doors up from the Westlake Delicatessen, and three up from what would become my favorite clothing store by the time I reached junior high school; The New England Shop.  Compton’s had three phenomenal things on their menu, and I don’t recall eating much of anything but these three things.  Their hamburgers were awesome, and always came with a big pile of fries.  I remember slathering Heinz (not French’s) mustard on the toasted, buttered buns, and drowning the fries with ketchup.  They also made an amazing custard, which was some of the best I’ve ever had.  I love custard, and Compton’s had one that I can still picture and almost taste, and that was a long time ago.  But their vegetable soup is what I remember the most.  It would come in a porcelain soup bowl, brown on the outside, white on the inside, with a couple packs of soda crackers that were immediately crushed and sprinkled on the soup.  This was simple, comfort food at its best.  Very inexpensive, consistently good, and like the restaurant that would eventually be built across the street, packed every day of the year.

But as the shopping center “matured,” and new stores replaced old ones, the venerable Compton’s eventually gave way to a pizza parlor, and the days of fulfillment via a burger on a toasted bun, a bowl of vegetable soup, and a dessert of their delectable custard, were ultimately history.  But there was certainly “hope,” and a lot more, as the vacant lot across the street, on the corner of Alemany (now John Daly Blvd) and Lake Merced was about to acquire a new building next to the Flying A gas station.  Joe’s of Westlake opened for business in 1956, and the lives of the lucky people of Daly City and beyond would never be the same. 

Joe’s is legendary, and lots of people including myself have written volumes about it.  I’ve been going there since I was a little kid, the first visit being a late night snack after attending the live play of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” with Zero Mostel, at the Berkeley Community Theater.  All compliments of my friend John’s lovely mom.  On this first visit, I ate a cheeseburger, as recommended by John.  It was, and still is among the top two or three burgers anywhere.  A huge patty is cooked on the wood fired grill, served on a third of a loaf of San Francisco Sourdough, with a heaping mound of thick steak fries as the preffered side dish.  I’ve had hundreds over the years, and it’s always a top choice when I visit Joe’s.  This is a restaurant where most of the regulars (myself included) have stopped looking at the menu several decades ago, and have in fact committed every item on it to memory.  It’s the kind of place where you start thinking of what you’re going to order, days in advance.  And other than the sweetbreads which John maintains are excellent, I’ve eaten just about everything on the menu, and you can’t go wrong with any number of dishes.  I draw the line at innards …

It wasn’t long after my first visit to Joe’s, when I had the first of hundreds of bowls of their minestrone soup.  Joe’s minestrone is simply the best, and as you may have gathered, I’ve eaten a lot of soup.  It’s consistent in the extreme, never varying one bit from the last bowl you had, whether that was a week, a month, or five years earlier.  It’s a huge bowl of vegetables in the best broth, with the optimal thickness, served steaming hot and ready for the hungry diner to devour.  In addition to the ever-present generous baskets of sourdough bread, Joe’s leaves large shakers of grated parmesan cheese on every table.  You’ll of course want copious quanties of both, with your soup. 

I almost always order a bowl of their soup before my main meal, as it’s guaranteed that you’ll get this course almost immediately, but you’ll still have plenty of time to digest it and prepare for your main course … which could range from a simple plate of rigatoni or “half and half” spaghetti and raviolis, to a huge portion of veal parmigiana with a side of pasta or vegetables, the roast lamb, pot roast, or roast beef, or maybe the ultimate … veal scallopine sec with button mushrooms (and a side of rigatoni – it’s the law).  I’m making myself hungry, and alas, I now live 500 miles north of this mecca in Daly City, so I’d better move on.

So it’s been a week of soups … three to be exact.  As I mentioned, winter in Central Oregon lends itself to soups and stews, and other warm comfort foods.  As much as I enjoy barbequing for the other three seasons here, the snow and ice in the yard just don’t provide the encouragement necessary to go out and brave the elements and fire up the ‘Q.  My old Lodge cast iron skillet gets lots of use this time of year.  All three of these started out as someone else’s recipe, but I’ve done a lot of modification to all of them.  I’m not sure where I found the basics for the first two, but the tortilla soup is based on a recipe from Fine Cooking Magazine, which is one of my favorites.

My first soup of the week, which was last Sunday’s meal, started out as a beef vegetable barley, but was modified somewhat for a low carb diet that one of my guests was striving to maintain.  Instead of barley, I substituted a cup of my “grain mix” which consists of a bunch of whole grains that I usually have in the pantry.  When I buy new grains or replenish one that’s low, I always take about a half cup out of it, and combine it with the other mixed grains.  At any given time, it probably contains some combiation of red and green lentils, Israeli couscous, wheatberries, barley (with hulls, not pearl barley), some small beans, spelt, etc.  And it makes for some great soup.  Here’s how I made it:

Beef, vegetable, whole grain soup
Ingredients
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (sweet onions work great, if you have access)

3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (including any leaves)
1/4 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of marjoram
1 lb. of eye of round, sliced into 1/2″ cubes
1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil
1 large can of diced tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons of dried parsley flakes
1 large bay leaf
8 cups of home made beef broth, OR
8 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of beef broth concentrate (such as “Better Than Bullion”)
3/4 cup of mixed whole grains, uncooked

Technique
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a soup pot, and brown the beef over medium heat, stirring to coat all the sides
Remove the meat to a bowl, dump any liquid out of the bottom of the pot
Warm a second tablespoon of oil, add the onions, celery and carrots, cover and cook over medium heat for about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add the tomatoes, spices, stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer
Add the grains, cook on medium low for about an hour, or until they’re tender

Two days later, I opted for my second soup of the week, which was a creamy chicken with white and wild rice.  This recipe started out as a cream of chicken soup, but I’ve found that adding some pasta or rice to it makes a huge difference in texture and overall taste.  You can also opt to omit the cream at the end, and the taste is still awesome.  It doesn’t add a tremendous amount of fat calories to a big pot of soup, but if you’re watching and counting all of them, leave it out.  I also scaled the amount of butter down to about half of what the original recipe called for, and it doesn’t hurt the taste at all. 

Creamy Chicken and Two Rices
Ingredients
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked, diced
Large can of Swanson’s 99% fat-free chicken broth
4 cups of water
1 tablespoon of “Better Than Bullion” (chicken stock concentrate)
1/2 cube of unsalted butter
1 med-lg white onion, chopped
3 ribs of celery, sliced thin (include leaves)
4 carrots, peeled, sliced thin
2/3 cup of flour (any kind will work)
1 tablespoon of parsley flakes
1 lg bay leaf
1 tablespoon dried thyme (Penzey’s French Thyme is best)
1/2 cup of heavy cream (optional)
2 tablespoons of sherry (dry or cream both work, don’t use “cooking” sherry)
1 cup of uncooked white rice
1/4 cup of uncooked wild rice (optional)
Salt / pepper to taste

Technique
Melt the butter over medium heat in a soup pot
Stir in the onions, celery, carrots, cover and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Sprinkle the flour on top, mix in thoroughly
Cook the mixture for another 2 minutes, stirring often
Add the broth, slowly at first, stirring to combine with the vegetables
Add the water and chicken stock concentrate, stir
Add the spices, bring to a boil over med-high heat
Add the chicken, wild rice, white rice, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender
Stir in the sherry and cream, simmer on low for 5 minutes
Remove the bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste, serve

For some odd reason, I didn’t feel like anything resembling the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.  We were having a few friends over, and I opted for another one of favorites, tortilla soup. Purists will want to make their own tortillas and cut them into small pieces, I generally don’t have the time or patience and have found that decent store-bought chips work fine, particularly since the flavors all come from the soup itself, not so much from the chips.  This is yet another recipe that calls for concentrated broth, this time chicken.  Most stores now carry the “Better Than Bullion” brand on the top shelf of the soup section, and you can also get larger containers (for less cost) at Costco or Cash and Carry.  I buy the large sizes and use it constantly. 

Tortilla soup
Ingredients
2 lbs of chicken breasts and/or thighs, diced
2 #2 cans (the big can) of diced tomatoes, with the juices
Small can of tomato paste
8-10 cups of home made chicken stock, OR
2 lg cans of 99% fat free chicken broth (Swanson’s is best)
1 tablespoon of concentrated chicken broth (can substitute granulated bouillon)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon of good chili powder or a combination of chili powders (New Mexico, California, etc.)
1 teaspoon of powdered cumin
1 pound pkg of frozen corn
1 can of black beans, rinsed & drained

Garnishes
Avocado, halved, sliced thin
Sour cream (real, or light works best – not imitation/non-fat stuff)
Salsa fresca, or a chunky salsa of your choice.  Make it yourself with some cilantro, half an onion, a jalapeno, and a couple diced tomatoes
Tortilla chips

Technique
Combine the chicken with 1 teaspoon of the chili mixture in a bowl
Sweat the onion in 1 tablespoon of oil (5 minutes, medium heat, covered)
Add the tomato paste, 1 can of tomatoes, the remainder of the chili mixture, the cumin, and simmer for 10 minutes – Stir occasionally, don’t let it boil or burn
Add 2 cups of broth, and the chicken, return to a simmer, reduce to low heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally
Add the remainder of the canned broth, the chicken concentrate (or granules / bouillon cubes in a pinch), the other can of tomatoes, ½ the cilantro, the corn and beans, bring to a boil on high heat
Reduce to Med-Low heat, simmer for an hour, partially covered

Serve with a garnish of a couple chips in the middle of the bowl, topped with a few avocado slices, a teaspoon of salsa, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkle of cilantro.

Best with a Margarita and a bonus is a fresh key lime pie for dessert.

And tonight?  Out to dinner to a restaurant I haven’t tried before, in the nearby community of Sisters.  I cook almost every night, and every now and then it’s nice to let someone else have the kitchen duties! 

Christmas 2010

Several generations back, the Sullivan side of the family settled in what was then a very rural Sonoma County, in what’s now Guerneville and Sebastopol. A couple of my sisters and I have always been interested in our family history, and have both individually and collectively done quite a bit of research into our past. Peggy, who now lives on the big island of Hawaii is our resident champ at the family’s genealogy, and has really done some quality digging. Both my dad and grandfather (his father, Grandpa Gene) told us a bit about the Sullivan lineage in and around Sebastopol, but the details beyond my grandfather’s generation were kind of a blur. And unfortunately like a good many people I know, I didn’t have the common sense to ask enough questions when I was young and they were still accessible. There were some bits and pieces, broad strokes of information, but the nitty gritty about the day to day life of earlier generations were sort of a blur, in the grand scheme of things. Risa lost her uncle recently, and his daughter Katy did something I wish I (and a lot of people) had thought of; she “interviewed” her dad and dug out all the little bits and pieces, prior to his passing. Great idea, and it makes for a priceless piece of journalistic information to have around for posterity.

Grandpa Gene was an outdoorsman all of his life. Hunter, fisherman, and involved in some very early efforts at conservation and preserving nature for future generations. He was a master carpenter, and among other things he built the Pacific Rod and Gun Club at Lake Merced, as well as the now-defunct Milerick’s Hunting Lodge in Cazadero, off the Russian River, near Sebastopol. His father Cornelius was the namesake for my middle name, Neil. I’ve been thankful all my life that my parents didn’t opt to call me Cornelius! It was Cornelius’ father Isaac who was the focal point of an incredibly valuable piece of history titled “The Patriarch of the Valley, Day to Day Life in Early Sonoma County,” which was written by his granddaughter Emma Street-Hively and published in 1931. The book (which is the subject of a whole section of my book) provides a wealth of information about the life and times of the Sullivan clan, several generations back. And it’s a valuable tool for providing a clue to why the generations since then, and specifically my generation of Sullivans, celebrates holidays such as Christmas, the way we do.

Christmas has always been a fun day filled with family and friends, for us. It seemed to be the time when everyone put any sort of differences or issues behind them, and simply enjoyed the day. I imagine our family was like many, inasmuch as our two sets of grandparents never particularly got along, other than at Christmas and major family gatherings. Something along the lines of “your daughter isn’t good enough for our son,” or “your son isn’t good enough for our daughter” depending which set of grandparents you were talking to. But one particular Christmas shortly after Grandpa Gene died, there was a very unique gathering at our house on Grandview Ave, in Daly City. My mom had prepared traditional Christmas fare of a big turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and her incredible gravy, green beans, and undoubtedly canned Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, the only kind she’d eat or serve. On this night, we had my dad’s mother, and my mom’s parents, and of course my parents, me, and my five younger sisters all at the big dining table. And it was at this Christmas gathering that we decided to do some digging into our history and find out whatever we could about our lineage.

With a name like “Sullivan,” you’d think we’d be predominantly Irish, but we discovered that this isn’t the case. Our grandfather Gene was mostly Irish, with some Scotch and English mixed in along the way. My grandmother Phyllis (my dad’s mother) was from a combination of English and Welsh stock, both a mere generation back. Her grandfather was in fact a Welsh sea captain with the last name of Minor. My mom’s side is mainly Danish, with her grandmother McKinnon (who we used to call “Old Grandma” when I was growing up) being from Denmark, making my mom’s mom the first U.S.-born generation. But Old Grandma’s husband was Scotch and Welsh, adding more of the latter to our backgrounds. Grandpa Dean (my mom’s dad) also had a Welsh background, with a little American Indian mixed in a couple generations back. So the Irish that we all took for granted was minimal, and it seemed that we were mainly Danish and Welsh, with a little this and that mixed in along the way. Truly, American mutts!

Back to the present and this year’s Christmas, where we once again find ourselves back in our wonderful home in Bend, with access to all that the Central Oregon high desert has to offer. Although we’ll always miss our friends and family in the Bay Area, this is where we chose to move in 2005, and we love it. We’ve made some incredible friends here, and we seem to be luring more people up here, as well. Our friend Rich and his lovely fiance’ Patty just bought a house in Bend, and I think it’s going to be tough for them to remain in Sacramento and use this as a vacation home, once they get a taste of what all of us have discovered as a great place to live. I suppose time will tell.

Although it’s been a tough year financially, we’re so happy to be home in Bend. This year’s festivities will be relatively “easy” for me, as we’ve been invited to both Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners at friends’ houses. I cook every night, and that commonly includes most holidays, so this is a total treat. I’m doing a couple side dishes for tonight’s dinner at Lynda and John’s, and for tomorrow’s feast at Barb and Chuck’s, I was ordered to bring “nothing, other than your lovely wife.” I couldn’t go empty-handed, so I’m “cooking” a bottle of Grey Goose and some fancy martini olives as my little contribution.

This will be our older kitty Penny’s 14th Christmas with us, the first of which was in Gilroy in 1997. I remember her jumping from the top of a ladder, over to the upper branches of the big Noble Fir, which was about half decorated. Surprisingly, she’s never messed with a tree or any of the ornaments since then. However our new kitty Emily, who’s spending her first Christmas with us, is a total maniac. She has a tendency to have long involved conversations with her toys, and these now include many of the tree ornaments, which she somehow has managed to get down from the tree that’s gracing the front window. It will be the first year without Abigail (she was 13), and the second without Annie (18) and my big Maine Coon, Cody (10). One of life’s unfortunate realities is that we tend to outlive our pets and our parents.

We feel lucky to be back in our home this year, to be relatively healthy, to have two healthy kitties, to have access to all of our friends up here, and to be able to experience everything that makes Central Oregon such a special place. Financial times are tough everywhere, but I have faith in both the economy and our collective ability to get through it. Wars are taking too many young lives and a ridiculous amount of our tax dollars, and none of them are even remotely “winnable.” But there are some positive signs that the powers-that-be in Washington are being to cooperate with each other, and there’s hope. In the meantime, we feel blessed to have the life, family and friends that we have around us, and we’re looking forward with optimism to a brighter 2011.

Risa, Penny, Emily and I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a much better 2011!!

Thanksgiving In Paradise

This is a short excerpt from my book, which will be called “Out Of My Kitchen.”  It’s mostly a memoir, and it covers the bulk of the kitchens of my life (mine, family, friends’ kitchens, and then some) and related experiences that have come out of them.  This piece is about the year I celebrated Thanksgiving with a group of friends while I was living and working (if it could be called that) in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Very fun time, and a memorable holiday, as you might imagine.  This is a raw, unedited piece, so the version that you’ll see in the book will undoubtedly undergo some additions and deletions (mostly the latter, from what I’ve heard from fellow authors).  But this will hopefully convey the flavor of celebrating a holiday in the Caribbean. 

Caribe, Mon!

It was while I was living at the house in the Sunset District in San Francisco during one of our weekend dinner parties that an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years approached me about a job opportunity in St. Thomas. Yes, that St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean. It didn’t take much convincing for me to give my two week notice as Head Clerk at Byrne’s Fine Foods on Polk Street in the City, pack up, and head to the Caribbean. St. Thomas and the whole Caribbean area was a phenomenal experience. I worked for a company that was based out of Orlando, Florida called RPM, Resort Pool Management. The gig was that we took care of three different resorts’ pools, and in return we got to have a concession on the beach where we sold suntan products (Panama Jack, pictured above), diving, fishing and sailing tours, and rented snorkeling equipment and sailboats for use in the harbor in front of us. I worked at Pineapple Beach, and my day would start by putting on a bathing suit and T-shirt, going to work and taking off the T-shirt, cleaning and managing the chemical levels in a couple pools, and either working on the beach or sailing to nearby St. John and back. I returned to San Francisco three days before Christmas with the best tan I’ve ever had.  Amazing what six months on a Caribbean beach will do for you in that regard!

But the time I lived in St. Thomas was amazing. Not always easy, and we had some real clowns around us from Tennessee and South Carolina, but we certainly had some good times. I arrived first, and my sister Colleen and friend John T arrived about a month later. As it was still technically the off season for tourists when I first got there, I was told to do two things over the course of my first two weeks … get a tan (we were after all selling suntan products), and explore the island and surrounding islands. St. Thomas is small, measuring a whopping 4 by 13 miles, or 32 square miles of tropical splendor. Like many of the Caribbean islands, it’s flat near the ocean, but rises up quickly. The Danish had control of the island until 1917, when America bought it as a precautionary measure against any potential German invasion of the area. The Danish divided the island into Estates, and I lived in Estate Wintberg, which sat high on one of the hilly areas in the middle of the island. We had a 360 degree view from the several decks of the small house, and could see Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Virgin Gorda, Tortola, and nearby St. John, as well as several smaller islands and “cays.” The several of us who lived in the house were fairly poor at the time, so we didn’t have much … but we had that view, and it always seemed that we had plenty of Mt. Gay rum in the house. The best rums cost all of two bucks a fifth in Charlotte Amalie, which is the only real city on the island. That same rum cost about $15.00 in the U.S. at the time, meaning the government(s) were tacking on about thirteen dollars a bottle in taxes by the time it hit your local liquor store. And to be fair, Mt. Gay cost sixty-seven cents a bottle on Barbados, where it was produced. So the price was tripled by the time it made it to Charlotte Amalie … but only to two dollars.

Our days were spent at one of the three resorts we managed; Pineapple Beach (where I worked), Lime Tree, and Sapphire. Sapphire was the biggest and arguably the fanciest, Lime Tree was small and somewhat hidden away, and Pineapple was somewhere in the middle. Point Pleasant was on the bluff to the right, and Coki Beach (and the best snorkeling on the island) was just to our south.

I made quick friends with Jay and Carla, who owned a beautiful 36’ ketch called The Feather, which was moored in the small bay in front of Pineapple Beach resort. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to “work” on The Feather on my days off, and managed to make the day trip to St. John and back about a dozen times. We’d take six couples, plus Jay and his girlfriend Carla, and myself, and set sail around 10AM for beautiful Honeymoon Bay, which was a leisurely four mile jaunt across the Pillsbury Sound. We’d commonly zig-zag around some of the smaller islands and cays to make it a little more scenic.

Once we were out of the Pineapple Beach harbor, it was an open bar for the rest of the day. Tropical rum concoctions, blender drinks, beer, wine, and soft drinks were only a shout away. We always tried to drop anchor in Honeymoon Bay, because it was a big, open area with some amazing snorkeling, but was rarely “crowded.” More than four boats equaled crowded, and we’d sometimes make the decision to go around the island to another spot, or on a couple occasions all the way around to Virgin Gorda, where the guests got to experience The Baths.

Lunch was prepared on the boat, while Jay and I guided the guests to the best snorkeling spots. We would inevitably be asked if there were sharks in the water, and our stock answer was that “yes, there are 55 varietites of sharks in the Caribbean, but attacks are exceedingly rare.”  I never saw a shark while living there (and we were in the water every day), but you could count on seeing a variety or rays and barracuda, as well as the usual array of colorful tropical fish.  Carla would put together amazing meals using fresh local ingredients, and always received a round of applause and lots of “ooo’s and aaaah’s.” One of her favorites was stuffed christophines, which we call chayote in the U.S. She used a very simple technique, which I use to this day for a variety of types of stuffed squash. Simply cut them in half, dig out the center, chop it up and mix with some bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a spice or two (try herbs de provence or just a pinch of thyme). Bake for about 30 minutes at 350, and voila.

After lunch, the guests could do some more snorkeling, or just be lazy and hang around the deck of the Feather for another hour or so, after which, we’d zig-zag back across the four mile stretch of Caribbean, returning to Pineapple Beach by mid-afternoon.

Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving celebration in St. Thomas was quite an experience; somewhat surrealistic, verging on magical. Our company got together with another one that performed the same function as ours, and we jointly prepared a huge feast for about twenty, all of whom were relatively new to St. Thomas and a long way from home and family. The local grocery store in Charlotte Amalie is far from comprehensive compared to mainland standards, but we managed to come up with virtually all the customary food items for a great Thanksgiving dinner. A huge turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the “bean casserole thing,” mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pies were prepared for the hungry group.  Everyone helped cook, and of course the whole affair took place in or near the large kitchen at our friends’ big rental house. The view from the decks was of Charlotte Amalie, the St. Thomas harbor and Submarine Island, and included a great view of the cruise ships that were docked. There were usually five or six ships in the harbor, and on this day there were at least that many, meaning many thousands of travelers were going to experience Thanksgiving in paradise just as we were. This was truly a memorable holiday, far away from my home in California.

I returned from St. Thomas a couple days before Christmas with the afore-mentioned incredible suntan and about twenty dollars to my name. The only answer was to spend a few weeks with my parents, who were now living in a little townhouse in Parkmerced. Something about living here felt like I’d come full-circle, but not necessarily in an ideal or predictable way. But here I was.

After a brief stay in the room downstairs where I lived before going to St. Thomas, my life and subsequent professions were about to change in a huge way.  Next stop … Chico.

One not-so-perfect meal

Paella pan on the stove … ready for action!

As some of you know, I’m working on a book.  One of the early chapters includes a story of “One Perfect Meal,” which details the preparation and serving of a party I threw to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a group of us meeting at Body Therapy School.  It was on April 4, 2004 that a half dozen of us bonded immediately, and have remained the very best of friends ever since.  I thought I’d let them know how much their friendship made by doing what I like to think I do best … cooking for them.  And the multi-course meal came out great. 

And while that chapter was actually written almost a year ago, a little meal I prepared a couple nights ago seemed like a perfect follow up to the perfect meal, since it was a very imperfect meal, and it made sense to illustrate that any cook has the capability of screwing up a meal every once in a while.  I throw out about two meals a year, meaning most of what I prepare comes out somewhere between good and very good, with an occasional excellent, along the way.  But the process below is a clear illustration of what can go wrong in anyone’s kitchen. 

This is an actual (although un-edited) cut from the book “Out Of My Kitchen!”

One, Not So Perfect …
So, lest you think that all of my meals turn out perfect every time, let me tell you a little story about my first attempt at paella. My sister and brother in law gave me a beautiful sixteen-inch round, non-stick paella pan about five or six years ago. I’ve moved it several times, stored it in both upright and flat positions in the different cabinets it’s lived in, but alas … I’ve never used it. That is, until a few nights ago. There are several reasons for this, although none of them are particularly good reasons, other than I sort of had a phobia about making paella for some unknown reason. I have two excellent, authentic books on the subject, which I’ve read cover-to-cover. Penelope Casas’ “Paella!” and “Paella Paella” by Maria and Natalia Solis Ballinger are both definitive works, but they weren’t inspiring to the point that I had to actually make the stuff.

But it was a recent issue of Fine Cooking Magazine that changed that. They featured a step by step guide to Authentic Paella, which seemed to remove a lot of the mystery around this traditional Spanish dish. So I made the decision to give it a try … to finally break in the six-year-old new paella pan that’s been taking up cupboard space for so long. And the one final step in the process would be to consult my brother in law John, who makes some absolutely awesome paella, and is a master at the process. I told him that I was planning to use chorizo, chicken and shrimp for the proteins, and would draw from a number of different recipes for the vegetables. He totally concurred, and told me how he puts his paella together, paying particular attention to the creation of the “sofrito,” which is the tomato, onion and garlic base for most paellas. John’s technique called for making the sofrito first, then the meat and chicken, but a couple of the other recipes and the Fine Cooking article said to brown the meats first, then tackle the sofrito. So I opted for John’s sofrito technique, but decided to brown the chorizo and chicken first.



Maybe it was their fault?

 First step was the chorizo, which I’ve never cooked before. I tried cutting it into thin slices, but quickly discovered that this meat wants out of the casing, as it was literally falling out during the cutting process. So fine … out of the casing it came, and into the paella pan for a “quick browning.” And thus begat my first clue that this was not going to be an easy process. The chorizo began popping and spattering fat and grease everywhere. I’d just cleaned the big six-burner stainless steel stove that morning, so I wasn’t pleased with this at all. But I persevered, wiped up the splattered grease as the meat cooked, and cooked, and cooked, but never browned. It had in fact remained with the same greasy consistency throughout the cooking process, and just looked awful. Ok, no chorizo … tossed it into the garbage disposal and wiped the pan out.

The cut up boneless, skinless chicken breasts had been marinating in a combination of Spanish (smoky) paprika, cumin, dried rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper for about an hour. The browning process went fine, and the chicken was put aside to rest while I prepared the sofrito.

The sofrito begins with sweating some finely chopped onions (or shredded on the largest holes of a box grater), garlic, and a couple chopped tomatoes. To this, I added some additional paprika and a little salt. At this point I was flying blind, as I had no idea a sofrito is supposed to look or taste like. My brother in law said it should take about an hour to get it to the right consistency, the magazine article said thirty to forty minutes, and the book recipes made it sound like a quick “sweating” process that wasn’t any different from the base of a pasta sauce … something I’ve done several million times. So in an attempt to strike a happy medium, I opted for about thirty minutes of low heat simmering and occasional stirring for the sofrito.

From here, I added three peppers, one red, one green, one yellow, which were cut into fine slices. Then came two cups of Arborio rice, which was folded into the mixture along with a little olive oil, similar to how I’d prepare a risotto. Next came a few saffron threads (thank you Lisa!) five and a half cups of chicken stock, which you’re instructed to minimally incorporate (don’t stir it up), and pretty much let it rest and cook as it absorbs the liquid. All the recipes had a common theme at this point, which is to not disturb the rice. And this is also the point where all the fun begins.

The recipes in the books and magazine are pretty evenly divided as to whether you should bake it in the oven at this point, or cook it on the stovetop. I opted for the latter, and I’m thinking that the oven might have been a better way to go. The problem is simple … although I have a “big” big burner on the stove, the paella pan is sixteen inches round, meaning regardless of how you vary the flame, it’s going to cook faster in the middle than around the edges. The liquid on the outside was in fact cold, while the stuff in the middle was at a vigorous boil. And you’ll recall that any kind of stirring is akin to heresy to stir the mixture, so your only option is to move the pan around and position the various edges directly over the flame, enabling the whole mess to cook. Tedious and time-consuming, but hopefully the final product would justify the effort.

After twenty minutes or so, I added the pre-cooked chicken and uncooked shrimp to the mixture … of course being careful not to disturb it … God forbid I disturb the rice! I wanted the shrimp to cook evenly, but not overcook, so I opted to place the pieces around the sides, and turn them a couple of times. The chicken was left on its own to “stew” as the outside sections of the paella pan were rotated over the heat. And while this was truly a tedious process and produced splatters on the stove and floor throughout, it seemed as though it was in fact cooking.

I buy plastic tasting spoons in the economical 500-pack size from Costco for just this type of dish. I made sure to taste small amounts from the middle and edges throughout the process, as this was something I’d never made before and I really had no idea how long it would take to cook correctly. But after about thirty minutes of cook time with all the ingredients seemingly in a state of perfection, I pronounced it “done.” As I scooped it into a couple of large soup bowls garnished with the traditional wedges of lemon, I noticed that I had a thin layer of light crispy “socarrat” on the bottom. This is what you want to see on the bottom of your paella pan, and is considered both a delicacy and the sign of a perfectly cooked paella, it its native Spain.

But sitting down and actually eating this stuff was quite an unexpected experience. I already knew that I didn’t like the cooking process or the mess, but it was the dish itself that caught me totally off guard. I didn’t like it, and after three or four spoonful’s, I’d had enough. My wife said she liked it, and in fact finished the whole bowl she’d dished out. I did not, and tossed about three quarters of my bowl out. She said she’d eat leftovers for lunch the next day, so I put some in a plastic container in the fridge … and then dumped out the rest. Into the garbage it went, directly from the paella pan to the trash. I knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d eat any more, so after my couple hours of prep work, cooking, and constant mopping up of splatters, it was all over. And the leftovers I saved for her lunch? Sat there for three days and subsequently got dumped down the disposal.

So I’m not quite sure why this was such a cataclysmic failure on so many levels, but it definitely was. Prep work doesn’t bother me, lots of ingredients are always fun, and I definitely like making new things from every part of the world. But this one just didn’t work, and on so many levels. The chorizo looked awful and had the consistency of mud. The mess and splatter from all the ingredients as they were being added to the mixture, was ridiculous. The tedious cooking process where you have to spin the sixteen inch pan over the burner to cook everything, is not something I’ll do again. If I ever make this again, it’s going in the oven. And it’s unlikely I’ll ever make it again. The end didn’t justify the means, as I didn’t like the taste, and it ended up in the garbage. Does paella mean garbage in Spanish? Maybe I actually did do it right, and I just don’t know it!

Meatfest Returns To Bend

Judging from the attendees’ comments, the thirteenth installment of my little summer barbeque was once again a hit.  The food always seems to range from great to amazing, and it never ceases to amaze me that the guests seem to come up with wonderfully tasty new creations every year.  I vary the meat and what I make from year to year, but I really think it’s your contributions that make it such a memorable event.   
After two years in the Bay Area (our last two years there, if there’s a God in heaven), we’re once again back in our beautiful house off the river in Bend, Oregon.  We have two guest bedrooms, and can easily accomodate a couple more by putting inflatable beds in one of the offices or the massage room.  Risa’s bedroom served as my sister’s room for the first night of her stay, and she then moved into the bigger guest suite after Angela, Nicole and Rebecca headed home to the Bay Area and North Carolina, respectively.  So our guest count varied from three, to four, to one, over the course of a week.

I’ve written extensively about the unpredictable nature of our weather up here in the high desert of Central Oregon.  While it’s mainly a moderate climate with four distinct seasons, it can and has snowed on the fourth of July.  The snowfall is generally close to the published average of thirty-two inches a season, but in the five years we’ve lived here we’ve seen it range from fifteen to over seventy inches.  Like sharks, the only thing that’s predictable about our weather is that it’s unpredictable.  Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise that there was a little wind and chill on the day of the annual big barbeque.  It was a hundred degrees a week earlier, and just over sixty on Meatfest Sunday.  Typical, as always. 

Meatfest was always a Memorial Day event in the Bay Area, and we continued this tradition our first year in Bend.  But given the fact that it snowed the day before the BBQ, and was pretty chilly and drizzly on Memorial Day Sunday, we opted to move it to the other end of the summer in the subsequent years, where we assumed we’d have a better chance at good weather.  Sometimes we luck out, and sometimes we don’t.  I’m thinking seriously of moving it to a non-holiday weekend in late July next year.  Maybe the law of averages will swing in my favor and I’ll actually have some sunny summer weather!

But the weather never makes a huge difference in my guests having a good time.  And this year was no exception.  The house is big enough for people to come inside if they’re cold, so we had pockets of people all around the yard searching out the elusive patches of sunshine, as well as in the living and family rooms, and of course in my kitchen.  Many of you know I’m working on a book titled “Out Of My Kitchen,” and this event is a good illustration of the duality of the title.  It documents all of the meals, friendships, and experiences that have come out of my time in the kitchen, and of course emphatically requests that people generally refrain from being in my kitchen while I’m preparing their meals. 

A notable exception during this year’s event was my friend Nicole, who completed pastry school last year.  It must become second nature for anyone who spends time in a kitchen with multiple chefs, to learn how to do your thing and maneuver yourself around the other chefs.  Nicole managed to prepare a tray of cheescake, which she transformed into the most delectable “chocolate cheesecake lollypops,” and an amazing apple pie with a perfect homemade crust.  These went quickly, and there were no leftovers. 

Our guests brought some incredible side dishes this year.  Very inventive salads seemed to dominate … pastas, chicken, fingerling potatoes, orzo and more.  Several people brought desserts, and these too were total hits.  Nice to see people cook, particularly the ones who don’t do a lot of it.  Good for you! 

Meatfest meats are usually my contribution, but this year also featured Chris’ incredible Spice Crusted Salmon.  This is a dish that she graciously let me borrow several years ago, and I make it many times a year.  She cooked two huge salmon fillets, and they were devoured.  Once again … no leftovers. 

I cooked tri-tips, a whole pork tenderloin, chicken, and a huge pot of chili.  The tri-tips were tenderized with the Jaccard tenderizer (couldn’t live without it!), marinated in my Rubbit dry rub, and cooked on the charcoal BBQ with a mop of Rubbit, apple cider, Lea & Perrins, and tomato paste.  The pork tenderloin was marinated in Penzey’s BBQ 3000 dry rub, smoked in the Big Chief smoker for 2 1/2 hours with four types of wood chips, then cooked off-heat in the BBQ.  The chicken was marinated overnight in tandoori spice, and I wasn’t thrilled with the outcome.  Kind of bland, probably needed some liquid marinade. 

The chili was a tad spicy, but it got rave reviews.  A combination of Anaheim, pasilla, jalapeno, serrano, and habanero chilis (only two of the latter) were sweated down, along with a couple Walla Walla onions.  Spices included several chili powders, cayenne pepper (in moderation), oregano, and of course lots of cumin.  Early in the process, it seemed like this may be too spicy for the general population, but it mellowed just enough over the course of the day, and turned out perfect.  It’s sometimes difficult to gauge what “spicy” means to a large group, but I didn’t see anyone running for cold water, and people were highly complimentary.  Successful batch of chili!

I do something that’s arguably a tad strange, when I put on events like this.  After spending the bulk of two days doing the prep work, then testing the chili and meats as I go, by the time I have the meats cut and placed on platters, I’m commonly ready to park and enjoy a martini.  I eventually had a small bowl of chili (because it really was good), but I almost never prepare a full plate of food for myself.  I imagine everyone put on a little weight during the event … I lost three pounds.  Interesting.

This event is always fun, and the biggest reason is the guests who grace us with their presence.  The crowd varies from year to year … some people have been to many of these, and there’s always a few newbies.  This year was no exception; we had visitors from California and North Carolina, and a good many of our local friends from the Bend area.  I believe the count was around 35 this year, which is about average.  I had 75 one year in San Jose, and all three of my current bands also played for the entire event.  Thirty five and no band was nice, as it gave me a chance to spend some quality time with each of these wonderful people. 

It’s great being home in Bend.  As I mentioned at the outset, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever move out of this area again.  The mountains, river, relatively slower pace, four seasons (unpredictable as they surely are), and the amazing group of friends we’ve amassed up here, has totally won us over.  I’m so grateful that family members and friends continue to visit from California and elsewhere, and I’m always happy to provide them a place to stay, and hopefully cook some good meals for them.  It’s what I do, and I enjoy playing host.  There still may be a B&B in the future … who knows.  But for now, I’m content to be back in the big house by the river, and able to entertain friends and family in relatively nice style. 

Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the incredible array of food.  We’ll of course see most of you with some regularity, and you can all look forward to next year’s Evite for Meatfest 14 … quite likely in July!

Anniversary Dinner

Yesterday was our twentieth wedding anniversary, and we decided to dine at home and I’d create something special.  We have two friends with birthdays, plus our anniversary, so we’d already made plans to go dinner tonight with them at a new restaurant here in Bend.  Our actual anniversary would be a stay-at-home dinner compliments of yours truly.  To make this even more special, we had a bottle of champagne and a bottle of wine that would be the perfect compliment to what I’d planned to make. 

We have a couple of friends, Gary and Laura, who are Hollywood stunt people.  Gary’s a former stunt guy, and pretty much concentrates on directing stunts now.  This is a business that takes its toll on your body, as you can probably imagine.  Laura still does stunts, including doubles, driving, martial arts, and anything considered too risky for the “stars.”  She’s appeared in Fast and Furious, Coyote Ugly (the one who did the “fire trick” on the bar), Speed, and many more.  Very nice people, and we love having them visit.  Gary and Laura stayed at our house for a couple of nights last year when we were in the Bay Area, and as a thank you, left us a bottle of 2000 Vintage Dom Perignon Champagne.  An amazing gesture, to say the least.  We’ve been tempted to pop it several times, but our 20th anniversary was the perfect time. 

I’d started prepping dinner, and thought I’d open the wine that I’d planned to serve (more on that, ahead).  My wife heard the “pop” and yelled down … “Don’t open the champagne yet!”  I’d already gotten out the Waterford champagne glasses that I bought her for our first anniversary, but I was actually opening the wine so it would breathe … not the champagne.  I assured her that the Dom Perignon was still chilling, and a couple of minutes later she came downstairs with a bag.  “Open this,” she said.  The reason she didn’t want me to open (and pour) the champagne, is that she’d gotten us a pair of beautiful champagne glasses for our anniversary, and wanted to use these instead.  Then, I popped the Dom, and we enjoyed it immensely … in the new glasses pictured here. 
The wine I’ve been alluding to was a gift from my friend Larry Wolff, who visited us last week with his lovely wife Trish.  I met Larry in our seventh grade homeroom class, and we’ve been the best of friends ever since (this was a long time ago!).  He wanted to be a doctor as long as I’ve known him, and is in fact a cardiologist, specializing in cardiac electrophysiology. Larry and Trish made their annual trek to Washington, where Trish’s family has a piece of property that they’ve camped on since she was young.  And instead of going straight down Interstate 5, back to Sacramento, they cut inland along the Columbia Gorge, past beautiful Multnomah Falls, and south on 97 to our house in Bend.  Larry’s also an amazing athelete, currently training for a world class level bicycle race in Portugal.  He could end up number one in the world in his division, and knowing his drive and capabilities, he just may do it!  He had one of his Scott bikes with him during his visit, and of course had to take a little jaunt up to Mt. Bachelor, which is a twenty mile uphill battle that would kill most mortals.  But this is the kind of thing he enjoys, and he totally took it in stride and rode up and back, in the afternoon Central Oregon summer heat. 
Back to the wine … Larry brought us a bottle of Joseph Phelps Cabernet, vintage 2003.  A very nice California red, to say the least.  Although I could have and arguably should have put it in the wine rack and let it be, I decided that it would be the perfect compliment to the 20th anniversary meal (which I promise to get to eventually), and had to pop it on this night.  And what would be the perfect glasses to serve it in?  Of course, I had to go for the Waterford wine goblets that Larry and Trish had given us twenty years ago.  These were in fact our first wedding gift, and a very nice one at that.  Done! 
The Meal …
Grilled loin lamb chops
Marinated for four hours in garlic, olive oil, chopped fresh rosemary, salt and pepper
Grilled on the gas barbeque, 7 minutes per side, turned a couple times, medium high heat
Vodka cream penne rigate
(Variation of a recipe from the Silver Spoon cookbook … the bible of Italian cooking!)
This is a very simple, yet totally tasty pasta recipe.  As opposed to the classic idea of a spice and garlic laden Italian preparation, this one’s pretty much devoid of these expected ingredients.  This pasta, along with the tomato cream pesto rigatoni (also from the Silver Spoon) are two of my favorite pasta side dishes.  And if you don’t have the Silver Spoon in your collection, and aren’t lucky enough to have someone like my friend Angela give it to you as a gift, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy.  Amazing book. 
16 oz. of penne pasta, cooked 11 minutes for al dente
3-4 ounces of proscuitto, chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tomatoes, diced, seeded, strained
3 tablespoons of heavy cream
3/4 cup of vodka
1 tablespoon of dried parsley flakes
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Plan ahead for the penne rigate … the sauce will take about 15 minutes to prepare, the pasta takes 11.  Have the water boiling, drop the pasta in the water about 5 minutes into your sauce prep time.
Heat the oil and butter over medium heat
Add the proscuito, parsley and tomatoes and cook over medium low for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Stir in the vodka and cream, simmer on medium low for another 5 minutes
Drain the penne rigate, combine with the sauce, stir in a couple tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan
Cold Asparagus
1 pound of thin, fresh asparagus
Drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Shaved parmesan strips
There’s a simple trick to trimming asparagus to the perfect length.  Find the place on the “thick end” that breaks easily when you bend it.  It’s usually a couple inches from the end, you’ll know it when you find it.  Save the broken off piece to measure the right spot, and cut the remaining pieces the same length.  You’ll now have equal length pieces to cook, without having to break them all individually.  Looks better cut, vs. broken too!
The technique is to blanch the asparagus, then cool it on a flat pan or plate until you’re ready to garnish and serve it.  Have a big bowl of icewater next to your sink.  Boil a couple quarts of water with a little salt.  Drop the asparagus into the pot, and boil for 5 minutes.  Drain the asparagus in a colander (a pasta pot with an insert works perfect for this), and immediately plunge it into the icewater.  This stops the internal cooking process and keeps it crispy, which is what you want when you serve it. 
After a minute in the icewater, lay the asparagus out on a small cookie tray or dish, cover with foil, chill in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve it.
Serve by laying the asparagus out flat on a serving platter, drizzle a small amount of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with salt (good use for your fleur de sel), and garnish with some Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler.  Makes for a beautiful presentation, and it’s a consistent crowd pleaser.
Dessert?  Couldn’t do any better than chocolate sundaes with Oregon’s own Umpqua Vanilla Bean ice cream. 
Great dinner, plenty of leftovers for lunch today, and tonight we’ll check out the brand new “Bourbon Street” restaurant in town.  Not a bad couple of days and meals!

Asian Noodle Soup

I’ve gotten so many requests for this, and people seem to love it, so I thought I’d post it as a blog piece.  Feel free to use it, copy it, exploit it, whatever you want.  It’s my recipe, but it’s simply the end result of lots of experimenting in an effort to get close to pho flavor without spending all day doing it.  Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients, this is actually an easy soup with a bunch of stuff that you’re probably not used to using.  This is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. 

This soup is good year ‘round, and it takes less than an hour to make. I love making homemade pho, but it takes way too long for a weeknight dinner. This is very close, and infinitely easier. There are a few ingredients you likely don’t have in your pantry (I do, which is sort of scary!). All of these should be available in any good supermarket’s Asian section. If we have them in Bend, you have them where you live. Noodles are a personal choice. I’m using Udon tonight, I also like Soba, or you can certainly use real Vietnamese pho noodles. All are good, and work equally well.
 
The recipe also works with either chicken or beef. This recipe’s for beef, but you can substitute chicken and chicken stock for exactly the same effect. I’ve made it with just chicken or beef broth (and no meat) and it’s still great.  Haven’t tried a total vegetarian version, but the rest of the spices and ingredients are likely to yield an awesome soup as well. 

 
Ingredients:
  • 8 cups of water
  • 32 oz. box of Swanson’s low-sodium fat free beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons of “Better Than Bouillon” beef stock concentrate
    • Note: Both the chicken and beef version of these should always be in your refrigerator. These are indespensible products that you should be using.
  • 1 pound of lean beef, cut into 3 inch, very thin strips (I like eye of round)
  • 1 large white onion, peeled, quartered, slice thin, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
  • 1 bunch of green onions (scallions), sliced at an angle
  • ½ bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • ½ bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon of Thai Kitchen Roasted Chili Paste
  • 1 teaspoon EACH of Thai Kitchen green and red curry pastes
  • Lemongrass, either:
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 2 star anise pieces
    • Note: Don’t be put off by the per pound price of star anise at the market. 10 pieces and it will likely run you about thirty cents.
  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce (light, low sodium works fine)
  • 12 oz of your choice of Asian noodles, cooked according to the package. I prefer Udon or Soba (buckwheat)

Garnishes of:

  • Lemon or lime wedges
  • Thin sliced jalapenos (with seeds)
  • Fresh bean sprouts
  • Thai basil if you can find it, regular basil leaves if you can’t – whole leaves on the stem
  • Sriracha red hot sauce (no substitutes, track it down!)

Technique:

  • In a stockpot on high heat, combine the broth, 8 cups of water
  • Stir in the bouillon concenrate, chili paste and curry pastes
  • Add the lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon, soy sauce
  • Stir in the beef, reduce to medium high heat
  • Stir in the cilantro, basil, green onions, return to a boil
  • Drain the water from the white onions, add to the stockpot, return to a boil
  • Reduce to medium low heat, partially cover, simmer for 45 minutes
  • Remove the star anise and cinnamon, and the lemongrass if you used whole pieces

Prepare the noodles according to the directions (generally, have the water boiling and allow 15 minutes for the noodles.  Some take longer, some shorter, this is a good guideline).

To Serve:

  • With tongs or a pasta server, place some noodles at the the bottom of large soup bowls
  • Ladle the soup over the noodles
  • Serve with the garnishes and chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons

The Vietnamese Way:
A former employee and good friend of mine, Hai Nguyen (just say “when” for the correct pronunciation) introduced me to pho in Sunnyvale about 15 years ago.  He also taught me the correct Vietnamese way of garnishing and eating it.

  • Tear off a few leaves of basil and toss them in the bowl
  • Throw in a handful of bean sprouts
  • Squeeze a wedge of lemon or lime on top
  • Use Sriracha to your own level of heat tolerance (it’s hot, but imperative!)
  • Pick up the noodles with chopsticks, “chew” them off.  This is not a neat process, but this is how you do it!
  • Use the soup spoon for the broth and remainder of the ingredients

Enjoy!