Monday, November 22, 2010

The shortcuts you can live with

You might be chopping onions or celery, or making pie crusts or wondering how to keep this in-law from boring that distant cousin or carefully selecting apples or thinking about table linens or any of a million pre-holiday things at your house. Or you may be thinking about picking things up at Publix. Or thinking, This holiday thing is bullshit: why am I worrying about this? Or getting ready to travel, or...there are as many possibilities as there are each of us. Inspired, as so many of us are, by Ms. Moon, here are some thoughts about how it works for me, along with love and hopes that the whole holiday/family/expectations thing works out well for you, too.

Africa is the starting point this year, or more accurately, returns from Africa. Having Katie home for the holidays took on a whole new importance when she was NOT home for them last year. But as big as that was, it was unexpectedly small by comparison. If you have a child of your own you know the simple pleasure and occasional heart-bursting, breathtaking, profound JOY of homecomings. We are missing one fine son for this year's feast but welcome the other home with exactly that breathtaking joy. You may have caught glimpses of him now and then, working hard just offstage to keep embarrassing typos and subtle inaccuracies out of Eat Here Eatery. He's home. In local parlance, The Baby Is Home from Africa. We have lots to be thankful for, but nothing touches this. Nothing comes close. The fuschia-bright basket of "Christmas" cactus on our back deck sings our happiness for us and connects us to the family of my dear old person, whose mother tended the ancestor of this cactus in her own garden. Dylan is home, and his grandmother's seasonal reminder of love is in bloom.

Job One for Dylan has been helping us figure out the menu, that list of dishes upon which the success of the Thanksgiving meal depends. And that list depends greatly on a delicate equation balancing what we want for Thanksgiving dinner against the shortcuts I can find a way to live with in order to get all those things on the table for one meal. If we must have pumpkin pie, what shortcuts can I take? I could make the whole thing from scratch (too time-consuming). I could cheat with a pre-made pie crust (not as good, not as good for us but work-reducing). I could cheat with a pie made by the nice ladies at Publix (not quite as good, certainly not as good for us, but opening enough time in my day to allow something else - perhaps homemade Meyer lemon meringue pie?) So: how discriminating ARE we? Can we tell the difference? If we have homemade whipped cream, will we really notice that it's a store-bought pie? And then the whole complex formula has to be applied to the other menu items. Each has its own variables. The solution to each equation is different, and each changes from one year to the next.

This year, the equation will work out something like this. The pumpkin pie will come from Publix; the lemon meringue will be made by hand down to the smallest detail, including juice and zest from lemons grown right in our own yard. The turkey and gravy will be strictly homemade. So will the stuffing. But the yeast rolls? Frozen. I have tasted Ms. Moon's Angel Biscuits and there is NO substitute. But if expectations are adjusted, no one is expecting the Angel Biscuits. Everyone will wait in reverential anticipation until the next time we're all together, when things are less hectic and the Angel Biscuits can be made without stress or heartache. (Don't tell my family, but this probably means the next time we share the table with Ms. Moon, whose hands hold the magic, here.) The macaroni and cheese will be made from scratch, but assembled on Wednesday evening. No one will mind if the pasta is just slightly overcooked. It's worth it.

And so it goes. The shortcuts I can live with as a cook whose ego is slightly overblown in the kitchen are the ones that make some downtime possible. The downtime looks a bit like watching the reflections of blue skies and drifting clouds in the shining sand on a beach where a man, a woman and a dog walk in peace, quietly savoring the joy. The Baby is home from Africa, and there is much for which to give thanks.

This may not be the last Eat Here post of Thanksgiving week, but just in case, love and blessings and thanks to all of you. I am more thankful than I can possibly put into words for the enduring generosity of each of you. Taking time to read each post, sometimes even spending more of your valuable time to share comments, opening your hearts to me this year: all these kindnesses have wrought gentle changes for me. I'm setting a place for all of you at the table this year. You're always welcome. Eat Here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Have you eaten?

There are leftovers on the stove, as there often are at Eat Here. Tonight's are good enough to write home about, except as I'm already home, I thought I'd just write to you instead. Vegetarian friends, I love you dearly but you may want to skip this menu and its associated how-to.

The center of the plate is a variation on a recipe for Boeuf Bourguinonne. I'd always avoided this dish because it was Difficult. Julia Child said so. But I read the recipe and as usual adapted it to my own skill level and intuition, and this is more or less how I made it.

I am the very proud owner of a vintage cast iron Dutch oven, given to me by my menfolk (see how smart they are?) several years ago as a Christmas present. I considered this amazing piece of cookware carefully while opening the first bottle of the season's beaujolais nouveau. Full stop, to allow for the wine tasting. This is always an interesting taste for me because I am NOBODY's wine connoisseur. Some years I think it's a pretty good tasting wine, immature even to my decidedly undiscriminating palate. Some years I think it's too awful to drink. This year, I thought it was good. So I dove in. To the recipe, I mean, not the wine. Well, okay. To both.

I had a bit more than a pound of round steak, and 6 slices of good quality bacon. Cook the bacon to the delightful crispy but not overdone texture you know it should have, then remove it from the pan and add about 2 tablespoons of oil. Contrary to direction, I used XVOO. While the bacon is cooking, cut the round steak (or London broil or whatever cut of lean braising beef you're using) into 1-inch pieces. Dredge in flour seasoned with salt and pepper (I added some ground cayenne and dried thyme to the flour, too). After the bacon is set aside and the oil you added is hot enough, quickly brown the floured beef in batches small enough to maintain an even temperature in your pan. Set this all aside as each batch is done - it took me 3 batches to cook the 1-1/2 pounds of beef. Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan. The traditional recipe seems to ask for a dozen or so small pearl onions but I didn't have any. I quartered a red onion and half a sweet onion instead.

Toss the onions into the cast iron Dutch oven (or whatever pan you're using) and cook them slowly until they're softened. Add some finely minced garlic (I used about 2 tablespoons, but I'm a bit Emeril Lagasse on this topic - use your own instincts for this). Cook for a few minutes until the garlic is nicely browning but not close to burning, which can happen pretty quickly. Deglaze the pan with red wine (this year's beaujolais nouveau isn't a bad choice at all, but you can use any red wine you wouldn't be afraid to drink, I think). From here, I added about 2 cups more of the wine and another 2 or 3 cups of beef broth. Add the beef back to the pan along with any juices that have collected. Chop the bacon into a very fine dice (or crumble it with your fingers) and add that, too. I used 2 small bay leaves, dried marjoram and dried thyme. The recipes seem to call for the fresh versions of the herbs but I didn't have them on hand and they were really expensive at Publix. Dried herbs can be our friends. I added a bit of kosher salt and some pepper but not too much on the theory that I had time to correct the seasoning later. And here again, the recipe calls for sauteed mushrooms, but since my people just pick them out I skipped this. Julia Child calls for tomato paste, but I left that out, too. Cover the cast iron pot with a tight-fitting lid and bake at about 325F for...well, for awhile.

I put a couple of sweet potatoes into the oven at the same time, having scrubbed them and poked them lightly. After all, a roasted sweet potato, as we've discussed here, is just flat good for you and needs very little help to be ready to eat. So. Easy. And I had fresh green beans so those went on the stovetop to simmer with a couple of peeled, quartered potatoes and one of the extra slices of bacon, to make the peeps happy. Seasoned with a little kosher salt and a lot of pepper, these pretty much cooked themselves. I keep a blend of basmati and brown rices on hand always, because the basmati has that lovely popcorn fragrance as it cooks and the brown rice lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor. After the meat had been cooking for about an hour, a big handful of baby carrots when into the gravy to simmer and I put the rice on to cook. Dylan finished the meal with a few rolls - they were frozen (Alexia focaccia rolls) but pretty damn good. The final plate is what you see above.

There's the heart of Eat Here Eatery, my loves: had we a real restaurant, this is what we'd have plated up for you tonight. We'd have had a vegetarian option, and perhaps a non-red-meat option, but this would have been the blue plate special, as it were. But don't worry: there are leftovers on the stove and it's early, yet.

Pre-season greetings from the MadriGalz

Have I mentioned The MadriGalz to you at all? Stop me if you've heard this. Oh. You have? Of course you've heard it. And for what's not likely to be the last time this holiday season I beg your indulgence once again so I can share our December performance schedule.

We're excited to begin the holiday season in downtown St. Augustine at At Journey's End Bed & Breakfast for the 17th Annual Holiday Bed & Breakfast Tour. (I'm including more links than usual so you can see more about the places and events for yourself.) We'll be caroling for visitors to At Journey's End from 2-5 pm on Saturday, Dec. 11.

That same evening we're honored to sing in for the second year in the comfortable dining rooms of a true local favorite, Saltwater Cowboy's, where we'll be caroling from room to room from about 5:30 until about 9:30. If you can't join us on December 12, we'll also be at Cowboy's on December 17 for the dinner hour.

Last but especially dear to our hearts, we'll be caroling twice this year at Creekside Dinery, on Sunday, December 12 and finally on Sunday, December 19, from about 5 pm until 9. If you've been to Creekside, you'll know about the delightful fire pit out on the deck overlooking the water, complete with marshmallows for toasting. And if it's too chilly for outside dining, we'll sing from room to room and bring a touch of The Season of Light right to your table. And if you haven't been to Creekside...well, come see for yourself.

If you're not separated by too many miles or other social obligations we would love to welcome you. If you are, we hope you'll be able to support live music this season in your own locale, where you probably have a talented local group performing The Messiah or The Nutcracker. Maybe it will be a group of kids singing The Dreidel Song, or perhaps something completely different but just as wonderful. From the hearts of the MadriGalz to the hearts of you, may the music and traditions of the season bring you peace.

Monday, November 15, 2010

P.S. Roasted sweet potatoes

'Tis the season: all sorts of expectations and window-dressings will be suggested or applied to one of our most perfect foods: the sweet potato. For the holiday meals, you gotta do what you gotta do (or what your mother did, or his mother did, or grandma get it)

Before (and after) the holidays, sweet potatoes are easy to cook, amazingly good for you, and about as easy to dress up as runway models, though admittedly not as glamorous on the outside. The easy part: choose 2 or 4 sweet potatoes of roughly similar size and shape. Scrub them clean and puncture in a couple of places as you would for baking potatoes. Place in a glass pie plate or baking dish or on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Oven roast until tender (usually about an hour).

While the potatoes roast, focus on toasting sliced or chopped almonds or chopped pecans. Pecans have a great flavor, but they're higher in fat. Almonds are one of those perfect foods, defying reason, nutritionally speaking. Toasting really brings out the flavor of nuts, so whether almonds, pecans or walnuts (or any other variation) you'll want to to toast them in the oven, or on the stovetop in a cast iron skillet. For the latter, use a clean skillet. Toast the nuts carefully over low heat. Nuts have lots of oil in them, which is why toasting is a good idea, but it also puts them at risk for burning so you have to watch carefully. The good news? You can use less almonds, pecans, walnuts or whatever, because toasting dramatically enhances the flavor. Toast until you have very lightly browned nuts, with much deeper flavor. Set these aside to cool.

When the potatoes are done, remove from the oven and allow to cool slowly. Meanwhile, whisk together in a small bowl 2 tablespoons of softened butter, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, ground cinnamon to taste and ground ginger to taste. When you're ready to serve (and these along with a nice green salad CAN constitute dinner) split the potatoes. Top with the butter mixture, and garnish (sort of; you're actually going to eat this garnish) with toasted nuts. Finish with a drizzle of maple syrup OR tupelo honey. And on this last touch, seriously: do not skimp. Pay the breathtaking $10 for good maple syrup at your local grocery, or the same amount for your local honey. I'm not sure you can get tupelo honey in say, France, but you have to get the local equivalent. And of course maple syrup is preferred. It's a food group of its own, almost, and is the perfect companion to those plain and prosaic sweet potatoes.

Which really won't be plain OR prosaic when you serve them. Let me know how you like them. Do you have a better way of serving them between the holidays, avoiding the de rigeur things like tiny marshamallows? I know, I know: I have to do those things, too: they're Expected. But you guys are completely UNexpected. So do share. Love, love.

Celebration, understated

When your age changes from XLVIII to XLIX, you take notice. After all, you're looking at L. You gotta take stock, think it over; reflect. Dress up, go out, have a party?

Or maybe your XLIX isn't the kind that comes with a tux or a suit, or fancy reservations. Maybe you mark the ultimate or penultimate mileposts in your own way, and I hope you do, whether or not fancy dress is involved. Here's my Dear Old Person, marking XLIX in an unforgiving 15-knot northeast wind, his face turned into the blue Atlantic. He's wrapped in layers of cotton tee shirts and fleece, carrying a rough picnic lunch courtesy of the Publix deli in his backpack. Despite the chilly wind, he's looking into the stunning blue of the sky, watching beyond the breaking waves for any sign of early-arriving whales and giving thanks without fanfare for the anniversary of November 13.

The cycle of high and low tides didn't match neatly to the warmest part of the day, but we found the mark of the most recent high tide to have left fascinating fingerprints. Where only a few days before the dunes undulated gently between the shoreline with its persistent breakers, and the higher, more permanent dunes, anchored by beach grasses and sea oats, the Great Mother showed a wholly different face on Rod's birthday. Overnight, the relentless tide carved out sharp cliffs standing in relief against the level of the ocean itself. Some of them were 4 or 5 feet tall. Some were even taller. Just out of perfect focus, any of them might have passed for images of the Grand Canyon, right down to the striations and layers of rock and sediment which in this case were likely composed of a visible layer representing each tidal passing. In this photo, the high point at the far right is about 6 feet above the breaking waves below. And those white bundles on the sand are sea foam, further illustration of the water's astonishing energy, churning each wave into beautiful clusters of bubbles, each casting itself into the windward motion, disappearing on the wind.

(A note about sea foam and Boxers, or maybe Dogs Generally, without regard to breed: our Meg finds chasing sea foam almost as satisfactory as chasing birds, which is forbidden to her. April, a foster dog much beloved of us who is now happily beloved in her Forever Family despite issues with breast cancer, had more fun chasing sea foam on the beach than I can put into words. Take your dog to the beach in a northeast wind if you can. And if you can't, curl up together and tell her stories about the beach. If you're telling stories you can even tell her about chasing birds. I'll never tell.)

The shoreline drew us onward, as it always does. We walked up to the northernmost edge of Guana's beach-facing Eastern border. At the very edge of the protected land just south of the sign marking the border we spotted several turkey buzzards; some were in flight and others seemed to be rotating in and out of a certain spot. When we got close enough, we could see what had attracted them. A mature loggerhead turtle, dead, had washed near the high tide line and was nestled against the sheared-off dune line. The shell was easily 2 feet from the back of the turtle's head to the posterior edge. How old was this turtle, we wondered? How did this turtle compare to the tiny baby hatchlings from this year, whose small bodies would fit neatly into the palm of your hand? I'm not sure, but I can tell you I'll be asking the Turtle Superhero guys for their insights; stay tuned. The edges of his shell were carefully covered by Rod to protect the body from encroachment by the buzzards - we called in the find and were hopeful someone would be able to analyze the remains for useful information.

So: how old was this beautiful old turtle? Female loggerheads begin to reproduce, I think, when they're about 15 years old. They are long-lived as a species and as ancient amphibious denizens of the planet. Perhaps this one had long passed his or her L birthday; perhaps the sighting was a kindness from the Great Mother of the ocean. Happy birthday, Rodney: thank you for helping as a steward of the planet. Take joy in every moment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Turtle Superheroes

See that guy? She (or he) is a large gopher tortoise, living la vida loca at Guana Reserve, which you know perfectly well by now to be one of our most favorite places. Saturday afternoon we went for a beach walk in what had turned into a very warm late October day. It was also, of course, Florida-Georgia football Saturday, a day when most folks here are at the game, at a party, or home in front of the TV. (It's never blacked out, of course, because not only does it sell out every year, I think somebody has to die for you to inherit tickets.)

So it was quiet at the beach, relatively speaking. There were a few surfers, scanning the horizon hopelessly, and one guy walking along the beach carrying some odd-looking radio equipment. This last guy disappeared up into the dunes, which troubled Rodney a bit: the dunes constitute a discrete, delicately fragile eco-system of their own, and are protected from humans, for the most part. Since Rodney and I were guilty of much violation of this kind of protection in our misspent youths, we're watchful now, perhaps hoping no one will remember our families spending whole weekends in the 1950s and '60s, gleefully driving through these same dunes, wreaking ecological havoc out of pure ignorance and human thoughtlessness. The guy didn't reappear on the beach. "Maybe he had to pee," I said, but I thought Rodney was making a mental note about it.

As we walked toward home around 4 in the afternoon, we spotted movement in the grass around the burrow Rodney'd identified that morning. Warmed by the sun, the large tortoise moved with surprising speed to take shelter in the cool burrow. We got some photos, but they weren't great. Still, we had the pleasure of watching her eat some wildflowers and grass, sun herself, and finally move toward home, even catching sight of flying sand as she either opened or closed her burrow entrance.

Because the tide was low in the morning, we headed back in the cool of the early Sunday for a wordless worship I find immeasurably soothing, and walked up the beach. Whatever your own religious beliefs or internal language of spirituality, there can surely be no more glorious sight than this one, or the one Nature offers you wherever you live. When we arrived, there was the gopher tortoise, her neck stretched into the bright sunshine, her body perfectly still as she warmed for her daily constitutional. Perhaps she had a vague sense of pleasure, as we did, in the lingering warmth of the autumn days. We photographed her quietly and moved on. The water is still warm enough for me to walk in the shallows, bait fish skittering out ahead of me and diamonds of light dancing on the surface. Near the northern boundary of the beach, we ran into our Sea Turtle Superhero, Scott Eastman, and a helper, who seemed to be clearing away the land markers of one of the last sea turtle nests of the year. (In case I've forgotten to mention this, the number of nests this year, for reasons that are not yet understood, are nearly TRIPLE the annual average. Have I already told you this? ;))

Scott stopped for a quick word, and I told him the location of the gopher tortoise. He's the sea turtle guy, of course, and not the land reptile guy, but he said, "There's a University of Florida biologist out here, noting the nesting locations..." and about that time, my dear old person said, "Would he be carrying radio equipment?" Scott nodded, "That's him." He's marked about 20 gopher tortoise burrow sites, and of course this explained why he'd disappeared into the dunes and not returned to the beach: He's a Turtle Superhero. As, of course, is Scott, and as are all those folks like our friend Louise and many others, who get up REALLY early, take long walks looking our for the turtles, and who take stewardship of the glorious, beautiful earth and its denizens to heart. Thanks, Scott. Thanks, Louise. Thanks, U of F Biology Guy. And thanks to the daughter of my friend Jack, who takes time to observe and notice the most prosaic details about turtles and the world around her, which is slowly settling into her hands, and those of her peers, in hopes their stewardship will far exceed our own.