August 30, 2011

Cleaning Up: My Postprandial Grace

I gave up saying grace at the table some number of years ago. I didn't like how the practice could unintentionally appear sanctimonious by excluding others or cause them to feel awkward; other family members grew reluctant; and for a while I was angry at God for how things turned out and didn't feel like talking.

My earlier orientation toward thankfulness and gratitude hasn't changed, only the way in which I express them. Frequent little toasts, "To you," "To us," "To the beautiful evening," "To your big day tomorrow," "To the garden and the gardener," are minor prayers of sorts, linking my simple thoughts, appreciations and thankful awarenesses to the grander concepts of gratitude, abundance and community. But it is when I'm at my kitchen sink where the expression of my thankfulness takes a more intimate turn.

Some of the most sacred moments of my life happen amid a dim hushed house, warm soapy water and a dishcloth. After all guests are gone I stand at the sink like a flamingo (right foot firmly placed on inner thigh above left knee, my signature genuflect since childhood) thinking through the time we've just spent, flooded with the sense of connectedness and in awe at how my life has been touched by such wonderful people. The higher the stacks of plates and glasses and the more baked-on the schmutz in the pots and pans, the more time to settle into these private devotions.

During these times my hopes silently join in again with those of our companions for health (our own and those we love,) prosperity, and acceptance. I remember and swallow up more of the lingering good medicine of our earlier laughter. I'm grateful that our table contains far more than enough to share. And, in all reality, I'm often blessed by the fact that our friends and family most often come 30, 40 or 90 miles to our countryside home to share a meal.

All alone, these private check-ins have a way of pointing out my earlier angry short-sightedness and the truth that things turned out pretty great after all, even far greater than I had imagined. My former crossness melts away to humility.

So, if you come to our house for a visit, please don't think I'm rushing your exit if I decline your kind offer to help clean up. It's just that when you leave, I'll be saying grace.

Wine for Each Course = A Happy Heart and Lots of Glasses

August 23, 2011

Be Nice To Your Cheese

Once we hit forty, women only have about four taste buds left: one for vodka, one for wine, one for cheese, and one for chocolate.  ~ Gina Barecca
Cheese. Even though I'm not scholarly on the topic, it is an incredibly fun world to explore. I find myself regularly purchasing cheeses just because the name sounds interesting as well as some that became early favorites. While Oregon has its share of really spectacular, award winning cheeses, there's also no better way to learn about far away places than to taste their cheeses with place-matched wines. And, while imported cheeses can be expensive, a chunk of cheese and a bottle of wine are far cheaper than plane tickets for two and can provide a lovely moment of transport.
The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton
I love the freebie cheese papers that are sometimes offered at finer cheese purveyors, and if available, always take one in which to wrap my investment. At first, I admit that I felt a little sanctimonious over using a shi-shi product like cheese paper. But, cheese stored in plastic wrap, I've learned the hard way, is a kiss of death to our fine cultured treasures.

Plastic wrap suffocates the living cheese, trapping in its exhalate (gas and moisture just like breath and sweat) thereby encouraging bacteria growth on your precious bundles of joy.  Plastic wrap then traps the off-odors that cheese produce naturally (like ammonia) from being dissipated. It doesn't take too much imagination to see where the term "cutting the cheese" comes from when you unwrap a nice cheese after a couple of days in plastic. Let's put it plainly: BO and bad breath do not a fine cheese make.
Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. ~ M. F. K. Fisher
Cheese paper can be purchased in too-large, wastefully sized sheets a dozen or 15 to a package, at the high cost of anywhere between $6 and $11 dollars. In my household ledger, this adds to the overall cost of the experience and is money I'd rather spend on yet another fine cheese or a toward a nice bottle of wine to go with it. Cheese paper that doesn't come in tear-off rolls, allowing me to properly portion a piece to fit my remaining cheese and containing the costs of my home kitchen has been something of an annoyance, and for about half a minute, even enough so to be an idea for a new business venture.
Cheese - milk's leap toward immortality. ~ Clifton Paul Fadiman 
Desperate times; desperate measures, as they say, caused me to recently rip off a sheet of baking parchment as an experimental wrap on a really nice cheese. Viola!! Parchment can be found for under $3 for a 30-square foot roll at the grocery, and I always have it around. My cheese paper dilemma has been solved. No extra clutter, no exorbitant prices, and really nice, fresh cheese.

Give the parchment wrap a try and let me know how it works for you. And I'm also interested in your comments about what cheeses are your favorites, where they come from, and what wines you prefer as pairings.
For centuries, people thought the moon was made of green cheese. Then astronauts found that the moon is really a big hard rock. That's what happens to cheese when you leave it out.  ~ Unknown

August 20, 2011

Just Like Bourdain?

 A review of Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, along with a photolog of a wonderful evening I had at the restaurant Piccolo in Minneapolis on a short stop last year. It was a phenomenal experience that I never got around to writing about, but is definitely worth pointing out. 
I've been hanging out with Anthony Bourdain this week, having read his smart, intriguing f-bomb-filled memoir, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. This is not a man short on sharp opinions, self indulgence or back-handed compliments. Actually, since the definition of a back-handed compliment is an insult dressed up to look like a compliment, that is not true: Bourdain's way leans more to compliments dressed up to look like insults. Would that make him the king of the back-handed insult? (If my arm-chair psychology has it right, it also belies a teddy-bear heart hidden somewhere down in him.) His expressions are wired with angry negativity, but he is clever and sassy, and smart enough to know a good thing, so out it comes... A very bloody valentine.

Take for example, the chapter titled "Go Ask Alice" in which Bourdain takes to task the Green Goddess herself, the "Mother of Slow Food", the Orator of Organic, the High Exalted Alice Waters. In one of many castigating stories he tells about her, Alice Waters, who hadn't voted since 1966, suddenly became political to the point of nominating herself and a cadre of influential foodie friends to the newly elected Barack Obama as "a small advisory group-- a 'Kitchen Cabinet' if you will-- to help with your selection of a White House chef. A person with integrity and devotion to the ideals of environmentalism, health and conservation..."

Bourdain is aghast that Ms. Waters had assumed the worst about the White House and its kitchen, an assumption that, according to him, even a token Google search would have dispelled. "It's all about Alice," is Bourdain's cry. In the end, though, he finds common ground with her and tips his hat to her misaligned (his opinion) work for having made a difference, and opts to accept the messenger if not her precise message. Happy Valentine's Day, Alice Waters.

On the other hand, Bourdain's latent teddy-bear self shows through with his deep respect for Justo Thomas, the unknown and unsung hero of his chapter called "My Aim is True". This chapter/essay couldn't be more beautiful. Mr. Thomas is the fish butcher at Le Bernardin, the Michelin-starred,  three consecutive New York Times four-star reviewed restaurant which Bourdain deems "probably the best seafood restaurant in America." The reverence in which Bourdain depicts Mr. Thomas' swift, meticulous, professional work all but glows, along with his respect for Eric Ripert and the management of Le Bernardin for their committment to social justice. This gorgeous essay moved me to tears, and I learned so much about the restaurant industry at the same time.

His vitriol and self-indulgence has rubbed off on me, so allow me, for a moment, to depart from my usual sunshiny self to blather about things in the world of food and wine that annoy me. Here I go, channeling my best, most disagreeable, inner Tony Bourdain:

  1. Cologned service staff. If I were the God of Restaurants, this would be cause for immediate dismissal. I hate it when Pinot Noir tastes like Eau de Pew or when Syrah tastes like Essence of Sunday School Teacher, which happens all to frequently while dining out. This goes for those pouring at wineries, too.
  2. Restaurant cell phone chatterers. Put. It. Down. "They" will not miss you for the fricking hour it takes to nourish yourself and enjoy your meal. If they can't wait, please keep you phone on vibrate and step outside to take your call.  Your louder-than-table-talk phone conversation is seriously diminishing my enjoyable experience, and next time, if my stink eye isn't enough to make you end your call, I may even tell on you to the waiter.
  3. Cheap-ass tippers, and you know who you are. The people who accommodate and anticipate your every need, take all the crap that comes their way both from their management and from thoughtless patrons should be treated nicely. Come on, have you ever met a wealthy waitperson?? Once you do, you can become stingy with your tips.
Well, that's about it for my terrible rant. I can see that I'll have to leave the intense, entertaining and intelligent vociferations to Mr. Bourdain.

August 7, 2011

A Little Love Story

Even though I'd been promised a breakfast of lox and bagels with the works, while lying awake in bed in the wee hours, thoughts of lemon buttermilk pancakes kept popping into my head. I tried to push the pancake thoughts aside in between thinking and fretting, contemplations both anxious and excited. We've not been sleeping well at night here lately. Yes, there are lots of exhilarating future possibilities bubbling below the surface, but the thing that mostly keeps us awake is sorrow. Our beloved Murray the Amazing Wonderdog is slipping away from us with cancer and we are preparing ourselves.

Lying awake with so much on my mind makes me hungry, so I bumble out of bed before sunrise and gather pancake ingredients from the pantry. This is so unlike me, whose internal clock tends toward the night owl setting. My vigilance over Murray has heightened other thoughts and observations about this morning, too. I notice the cool morning air which pours over the hills outside our east-facing door and windows, filling the house with a subtle pressure before its escape out the westerly door and windows. I notice that Murray, who pants and breathes hard at night, has a little wag to his tail this morning as he joins me in the kitchen, a hopeful sign that our days together aren't yet ready to end. I walk out on the east deck to see golden and pink sun rays reach over the hills. I notice a softly lit wispy layer of low-lying fog puff around the huge hay bales in our farmer-neighbor's field out our north-facing front door, and hear the intense low buzz of a hummingbird gathering its dawn breakfast.

I know My Baby hasn't slept much either, and after putting the kettle on the stove for tea, walk back to the guest room bed where we are sleeping (our bedroom is up a flight of stairs which Murray-Dog is having trouble negotiating so we have temporarily moved to the guest quarters for him) to kiss his forehead and ask if he wants pancakes and tea before trying to capture a little more rest. Yes, he drowsily says, if you bring them here and we have some together.

Back in the kitchen the teapot begins singing softly, its bubbling contents awaking Darjeeling leaves. My 32-year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is pulled from the shelf and nearly flips itself open to the stained pancake page. I reach into the refrigerator for buttermilk, an egg, and a lemon and only now notice that I've purchased low fat buttermilk, and wonder how that will work in the pancakes. (Note to self: Make optometrist appointment. Label reading has become impaired by outdated Rx.) I smile when I pull the cast-iron skillet from its hook and appreciate that My Baby had just seasoned it yesterday. Perfect timing.

Even though it's early and we are sleepy and heavyhearted, I take the time to dust the pancakes with powdered sugar and drape a lemon slice across both platefuls, because life is just too special to not make it special.

We sip and nibble in the quiet, then are able to fall asleep in each others arms, Murray the Amazing Wonderdog settling in near the foot of the bed. When we awake, there will be lox and bagels and strong black coffee. And whatever else the day brings.

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