Feels Like Summer, Smells Like Fall

A few rainy days in the first week of October had folks putting away patio furniture and calling the chimney sweep.  Stepping outside the house into one of our first chilly, cloudy days of Fall, I caught the aroma of a working fireplace in the air.  Senses awakened, taste buds tingling for Fall fare.  Though the preemie cold snap didn’t last, and we were soon back to daytime temperatures that hovered around 80 degrees, it hinted at things to come.

Along with the changes in temperature, two critical indicators tell me it’s officially Fall: The annual college road trips are in full swing and the butternut squash are crowding out spent tomato plants in gardens everywhere.

Fall is all about labors of love.  Just as the first credit card bills from late Summer back-to-school shopping sprees are arriving in mailboxes, so begin the annual college road trips that are bittersweet and exhausting — mostly for the parents.

To celebrate Fall’s arrival — and to escape the endless, mind-numbing job hunt I’ve been on for what seems like an eternity now — I recently accompanied my niece and nephew on one of their college road trips, complete with walking tours of several sprawling university campuses.  Beats cruising the information superhighway any day.

The experience was as thrilling for me as it hopefully was for them.   What is it about being on a thriving college campus that makes me want to buy books and tablets and pencils; to go to the campus book store and max out a credit card with logo sweatshirts, day planners, and coffee mugs; to grab a class catalog, find a comfy spot on the lawn, crunch the numbers in my bank account, and chart my educational reinvention?  It’s like Disneyland for the knowledge junkie!  Which ride do I want to go on first?

Back home, in my Fall kitchen, the marine layer hovered over our city about 90 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  The weather not only tells us what to wear, it also tells us what to eat, and my mouth began to water for roasted root vegetables as I reached for a warm sweater.   Thankfully, I was able to meet that craving head-on, preparing an overgrown butternut squash for a trip to the oven.

Meet the Butternuts.

If you’ve never cut up a butternut, let me tell you the chore could almost do away with a gym membership, if you do it right.  My prolific neighborhood gardeners, Angela and Andre, had generously bestowed upon me not one, not two, but 11 beaming butternut squash fresh from their warm, raised beds.  I was in for a workout, as I plunged in with my biggest kitchen knife to cut them all up into large cubes to be flash frozen for future culinary delights.

A couple of hours later, my kitchen countertop was a mess and my hands were aching from forcing the knife’s blade through the tough-as-granite outer skin of the butternut.

Who's going to clean up this mess?

But my freezer now gave off a nice orange glow (and so did my cutting board).

Labor intensive as the afternoon was, it beat the heck out of reading job listing after job listing, interspersed with heavy sighs of frustration, of course.

And just like that, the house smells delicious with the aroma of roasting veggies floating throughout.  Just as Fall intended.

ROASTED ROOT VEGGIES featuring BUTTERNUT SQUASH

If you’ve never tasted a butternut, I have to say you are missing something special.  Depending on how it is prepared, the Halloween-orange vegetable is creamy and filling, with a uniquely blended flavor punch that is both sweet and savory.  Though it resembles the inside of a pumpkin at first cut — complete with linen-white colored seeds tethered together with orange pulpy strings — it is best served as a vegetable side dish rather than a pie.  Think baked butternut halves with cornbread stuffing, or roasted cubes with other colorful veggies.  But be careful.  This dish could pull the grand focus off the big bird on your Thanksgiving table.  (But that might take the stress out of your day if the bird ends up a little bit dry, as they have been known to do.)  This recipe is equally delicious alongside a roast chicken or barbecued tri-tip.

  • 2 to 3 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into large, two-inch cubes
  • 4 to 6 red potatoes, unpeeled, and cut into a size similar to the butternut cubes
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut into two-inch pieces
  • 1 large yellow bell pepper, cut into two-inch pieces
  • 1 large red onion, cut into eighths
  • 2 to 3 large parsnips and/or carrots, cut into two-inch lengths
  • 2 to 3 large zucchini and/or yellow squash, cut into large cubes
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, slightly smashed with a knife and peeled
  • Two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • One heaping tablespoon dried seasoning blend, such as Italian or Herbs de Provence.  (I suggest using dried herbs here because fresh snipped herbs would end up bitter at this temperature and cook time.  Use any dried herb combination that you and your family like, then just before serving the cooked vegetables, garnish with your favorite fresh snipped herbs for a beautiful and delicious presentation.
  • Salt & pepper  (don’t leave out the salt, it enhances the flavors of the vegetables)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place all prepared vegetables into a large bowl; drizzle with olive oil and dried herbs; season with salt & pepper.  Toss well, ensuring all veggies are coated.  Spread out in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for 35 to 45 minutes, depending on your oven and the amount and size of vegetables used.  Transfer cooked vegetables to a platter, garnish with fresh herbs if desired, and serve.  Yumm!

Posted in Comfort Food -- Savory, Uncategorized, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Before the Parade Passes By

I’m starting to have a funny relationship with Mondays.  The longer I am out of work the more uneasy I am with Monday — the unofficial beginning of the work week, especially for nine-to-fivers like I was.  It means, in concept, that every other person in the world has a place to go on Monday morning, a purpose to fulfill, a job to do, a salary to earn.  Every other person, that is, except for me.

Being out of work for an extended period of time, the weeks begin to fly by so fast I don’t have a chance to experience all five days.  Monday comes around in a snap and before I can blink the uncertainty from my eyes, it’s Wednesday.  What happened to Tuesday?  But before I have a chance to solve that mystery, I turn around and it’s Friday!  What the heck?  Did Thursday jump ship?  The five-day work week has turned into three days, and if my math is correct, that’s two less days of productivity, two less days of job board checking, two less days before the next Monday.

But on the other hand, Monday can be a rejuvenator for me.   If the bad news is that it’s Monday again and I have nowhere to go, then the good news is that it’s Monday again and I get a brand new start — a new start to rejoin the life that is going on all around me.  Like every birthday that rolls around, every January 1, or each new school year, Mondays mean a do-over, the start of a whole new parade.  And it’s a reminder to get moving before it passes by.

Before the parade passes by.  Suddenly, I’m remembering the inspirational song from the 1969 film Hello Dolly.  I start to sing out loud, but the words catch in my throat . . .

Before it all moves on, and only I’m left
Before the parade passes by
I’ve gotta get in step while there’s still time left
I’m ready to move out in front
Life without life has no reason or rhyme left . . .
 

The lyrics hit a little too close to home, and it makes me want to shake my head to erase the image of hopelessness that tries to creep in and set up its tent.  I turn my gaze from the computer screen to the backyard and my potted plants on the deck.  I notice my tomato plant is beginning to show signs of wear, signs that the parade of tomatoes is about over.  While the plant has nearly fulfilled its narrow purpose here on Earth, I, unfortunately, am still flitting about like a honey bee who can’t find a flower to save its life.  I’m struggling to find my way back to a world I once knew, where I was marching in the parade along with everyone else, instead of lost off course somewhere straining to follow the sound of the marching band.

With the rest of them
With the best of them
I wanna hold my head up high
I need a goal again
I need a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by.
 

On Mondays, I typically begin my energetic and enthusiastic review of job website after job website — all morning long.  My goal is a paycheck.  My drive?  Not so much my desire to rejoin the parade route as the mounting stack of bills beside me.  My energy and enthusiasm are soon deflated, though, as I begin to calculate that for every million or so job postings out there on the Information Superhighway, there must be about a gazillion job seekers like me speeding along after them in the fast lane.  What’s that old motivational definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing and expecting different results?  That sounds like me.

To calm my rising anxiety level, I switch gears and move into the slow lane to rethink my route.   I need to refuel and refocus.  My life, my future, my job hunt, my heart and soul need a definite kick-start.  And it’s a bit early for tequila shooters.  Instead, I grab some just picked tomatoes off the counter.

To get my motor running — and my taste buds jumping — I make an early dinner of Grilled Polenta with Spicy Tomato Sauce — my little spike on a basic marinara and pasta dish.  Just the sort of thing to shake up a plain ole’ weekday.

Maybe it’s wasting valuable time, this knack I have for playing in the kitchen when I should be hitching a ride back to solvency and sanity.  But there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take in a day.  Besides, there’s another Monday right around the corner.

GRILLED POLENTA WITH SPICY TOMATO SAUCE

This meatless sauce is fresh, bright, and warming, with its kicky little spark of crushed red pepper flakes blending with the sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes and onion softened in butter and olive oil.  Try it and see if it doesn’t jump start whatever nagging, uphill battle you’re currently fighting — and kick you right back into the parade where you belong.

  • Three to four large garden-fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • One half yellow onion, diced
  • One half sweet red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (depending on your taste for heat)
  • One small can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar or red wine
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Fresh oregano leaves
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar or red wine
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 to two tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • One pre-packaged tube of prepared polenta (or feel free to make your own)
  • Slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, room temperature (one slice for each polenta slice)

With a sharp paring knife, carve a tiny X in the bottom of each tomato and gently drop into just-boiling water.  After 30 seconds or so, remove and set aside on a paper towel to cool to the touch.  (This step will allow for very easy peeling.)

Open polenta and drain liquid from package; slice tube into 3/4-inch-thick slices and blot dry with a paper towel.  Lightly brush both sides of each slice with olive oil, and season lightly with salt.  Place slices on heated grill or in a heated grill pan — medium heat; cook until grill marks are visible on both sides and slices are firm and crispy to the touch.  Remove from heat and place one slice of cheese on each polenta slice; tent with foil so cheese will soften.

Meanwhile, melt butter and one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add diced onion and red bell pepper and cook for a couple of minutes to soften; add garlic; sprinkle with a little salt and red pepper flakes.  Cook for another minute, stirring.

Gently peel skin from tomatoes and chop; add to the onion mixture and stir; add another light sprinkling of salt and simmer about 10 minutes; add the tomato paste and kalamata olives and allow to simmer until sauce has thickened somewhat, about 10 minutes more.  Add the splash of balsamic or red wine and two tablespoons chopped fresh basil and one tablespoon chopped fresh oregano; stir to combine flavors and simmer a couple of minutes.   Spoon on top of mozzarella-covered grilled polenta slices.  Can be a tasty little appetizer or first course — and it looks darn cute on a small hors d’oeuvres plate.

Posted in Cocktails / Appetizers, Comfort Food -- Savory, Entrees, Meatless Meals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Heroes

I remember vividly where I was the moment the World Trade Center towers in New York were hit by terrorist-piloted planes 10 years ago today.

I was lying in bed trying to shake the sleep from my brain and get up and get ready for work.  I was watching The Today Show.  When their cameras suddenly showed an airplane hit the tower, I bolted upright and stared at the television in complete disbelief.   I said out loud to no one in particular, “Oh, my God, oh my God.”

One year later, on Sept. 11, 2002, I had been at a week-long conference in San Diego, and was scheduled to fly home that morning.  Now, I’ve never been a comfortable flyer.  Ever.  I know some people who get on a plane and relax so much so that they fall asleep before the flight attendant has had a chance to hand them a bag of peanuts.  I’ve seen them do it.   Astounding.  Good for them; I’m jealous.

I don’t like heights, and I don’t like it when I’m not in control — two issues I can’t ignore when flying a commercial airline.  That said, I will add that I don’t let my fears keep me from traveling, and a jumbo pre-flight cocktail helps — no matter what time of day it is.  Still, I know I’d be more comfortable if the crew would just let me hang out in the cockpit to make sure they’re doing it right.  No, I have no formal training whatsoever in flying, yet I can’t help but think I’d feel better if I could just watch from the front row.  Since that isn’t likely to happen, I usually head for the bar.

Which is what I did on Sept. 11, 2002, before my flight out of San Diego.  You see, I was just sure that the West Coast was the next target for the hateful monsters who killed more than 3,000 people in one horrific day exactly a year earlier.  And in my fearful mind, I thought these evil doers would be just nasty enough to do it on the same September day.  Many people disagreed with me.  That day, Sept. 11, 2002,  they assured me, was probably the safest day of the year for air travel.  Still, I found myself in the airport bar with a jumbo fruity cocktail, silently reciting prayers to get me home safely to my little house and my dogs.

I can’t begin to comprehend the hatred that flows through a body and mind so violently that it makes human beings want to kill so badly that they use themselves and loved ones as weapons.  I will never understand it.  What I do know is that whether I’m flying or safely on the ground, I am thankful to be an American and to be among so many people who accept and welcome the differences around us and live their lives as such.  Let the haters be damned.

The late American anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Thank God for the many heroes of our nation, heroes of 9/11, the ordinary people who acted in extraordinary ways to save total strangers from certain tragedy.  Indeed, our world has changed.

With gratitude and compassion, I raise my glass toward Heaven’s blue skies in their honor and in memory of all the victims of that dark day in American history.  On this day, I am easily humbled away from a self-pity party over my current anxious state.  Today, my worries are few.

BLUE SKIES            

This cocktail reminds me of one I had at the airport, as I nervously waited to board a plane for home on 9/11/02.  When we landed, the pilot, after welcoming us to our destination, paused before saying proudly, “God bless America.”  I will never forget that moment.

 

  • One healthy shot of premium vodka
  • One shot Blue Curacao (an orange-flavored, blue-hued syrup)
  • 1/2 shot Grand Marnier liqueur
  • 1/2 cup pineapple juice
  • One orange slice

Place first four ingredients into a chilled cocktail shaker with a couple of ice cubes and shake gently to blend; pour into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a quartered orange slice.  Don’t forget to toast those you love.

Posted in Cocktails / Appetizers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Falling Leaves, Delta Breezes, and Pie — Oh, My!

Leave it to the nightly news — and Mother Nature —  to give me friendly reminders of just how great I’ve got it and how truly lucky I am in the grand scheme of things.

My heart goes out to all the folks on the East Coast who are fighting against the fury that Mother Nature recently unleashed on them.  As Hurricane Irene rages and howls like a scorned lover 3,000 miles away, some of us on the other side of the continent are still trying to beat the heat with air conditioners and ceiling fans running day and night.

August is typically very hot in this part of sunny California, but this year we’ve been spared the usual brunt of a heat wave on steroids.  Though she seems to have missed her annual stride, it is indeed still Summer, so the calendar assures us.  And, it’s supposed to be near 100 degrees here today, which doesn’t mean a thing to me as long as my air conditioner maintains its dedication to my comfort.   I am happily cool as a cucumber inside the house, typing away at my dining room table below a humming ceiling fan, while a homemade pie crust chills itself to the proper temp in the fridge.

But note this: a change is coming.  Last week, I saw it firsthand — the sure sign that Summer is getting her hat and coat and is about to leave the party.  Every year in late August I witness the first falling leaves from my ginormous silver-leaf maple tree off the back deck.   The fragile foliage isn’t exhibiting the typical Autumn colors at this point, but the leaves are dry and crumble easily to the touch — a sure sign that Fall is on his way.

As if that wasn’t sign enough, my visit this week to Costco clinched it.  The Halloween candy display is already stocked to the ceiling, and the Christmas ribbon display — oodles and oodles of colorful, festive wire ribbon — is out front and center in the middle of the store, right before you get to the wine section.  Holiday Party Central!  Everyone knows that Costco is the definitive barometer of seasonal fluctuation.

The switch from Summer to Fall is a special time in this geographic zone.  With much gratitude, we fling open our windows and patio doors and allow the punctual, cooling Delta breeze to work her magic.  It’s a time when air conditioners hang Gone Fishin’ signs and take their much-deserved break from duty.  If we’re lucky, our heaters and air conditioners can stay quiet for many weeks at one point in the year, as the day-long temperature outside hovers somewhere between Pleasingly Pleasant and Just Right.

As the climate changes, so, too, does my appetite.  My eyes see a dried-up leaf and just like that my taste buds are lobbying for hearty soups and stews, roasted root vegetables, and pumpkin pie.  OK, maybe I’m rushing it a bit, but is there some rule that says to roast the butternut squash only in months whose names end in ber?  Or, no pumpkin pie before Thanksgiving?  No, I thought not.

My grandmother used to say, “Don’t ever look back, something might be gaining on you.”  Well, as long as my tomato plants are still producing their ruby red jewels — and Mother Nature does the Hokey Pokey with the temperature gauge — I will go back and forth from Summer to Fall in an effort to appease my finicky food cravings.  Yesterday: fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil salad.  Today: a beautiful, bronze Pumpkin Cheese Pie with Nut-Crunch Topping.  Tomorrow: who knows?

PUMPKIN CHEESE PIE with NUT-CRUNCH TOPPING

This is your standard pumpkin pie — but in Jimmy Choo stilettos!  It’s Comfortably Familiar meets New & Exciting.  In other words, for the pumpkin pie lovers around your important dinner party table, it is the Holy Grail of show stoppers.  It’s from my mother’s recipe file, and is fairly new to our family gatherings.  For as far back as I can remember, Mom made a delicious standard pumpkin pie — with homemade crust, of course.  But when she found this recipe (origin unknown; possibly a Martha Stewart gem), it quickly became our Fall family favorite.

  • One 8 oz. package of cream cheese — softened to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar  (I used dark brown sugar for emphasis!)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • One 15 oz. can Solid Pack Pumpkin (not Pumpkin Pie Filling)
  • One 5 oz. can evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed milk)
  • 3 large eggs
  • One 9-inch unbaked pie crust (I made mine from scratch, in case Mom was watching from above, but any prepared crust will also work fine.  Just don’t ever tell her I said so.)
  • Nut-Crunch Topping — Recipe follows

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In a large mixing bowl beat together the first 7 ingredients; add pumpkin and evaporated milk, and blend; add eggs, one at a time; beat until well blended.  Pour into pie crust and bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare nut-crunch topping and set aside.  After the pie has baked for 30 minutes, carefully spoon nut mixture over the top of the pie and return to oven to bake an additional 15 minutes, or until a knife inserted one inch from the edge comes out clean.  (Total baking time: approximately 45 minutes.)

Thoroughly cool pie on rack before cutting.  Serve at room temperature.  Refrigerate any leftovers.  (Also very good the next day.)

NUT-CRUNCH TOPPING — In a sauce pan over low heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter; stir in 3/4 cup coarsely chopped nuts, such as walnuts or pecans; add 1/3 cup packed brown sugar.  Mix all together and remove from heat.

Posted in Comfort Food -- Sweet, Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Long Live the King!

Congrats and many hip-hip-hoorays to the newly-crowned success story of the immensely popular cable television event, The Next Food Network Star: Jeff Mauro, a charming and chummy 32-year-old private chef from Chicago with a penchant for sandwiches.  Last weekend’s finale produced FN star number 8 in the series that over several weeks tests the cooking skills, patience, and personality of 12 contestants hoping for a shot at food celebrity status.

Sandwich King Jeff got my attention fast, as sandwiches is by far my favorite food group.  Not only do I love to eat sandwiches — for breakfast, lunch, or dinner — I love to make them and remake them as well.

What with the popularity of Italy’s answer to the sandwich — the panini and its press — it’s no secret that sandwiches have come full foodie circle.  It’s no longer just a PB&J (peanut butter and jelly) or boring-turkey-on-white-with-iceberg-lettuce world.  As King Jeff said in the Food Network Star finale, he will show us how we can “turn any sandwich into a meal and any meal into a fantastic sandwich.”  It’s a challenge we’ll be learning more about as Jeff’s prize package — a Food Network show of his own — develops and subsequently enlightens home cooks everywhere.  I’ll definitely be watching.

One of my favorite sandwiches from my past was a triple-decker delight that I ordered at a local coffee shop my grandma and I used to frequent when I was a teenager. You know the kind of place, where your milkshake comes to your table in a tall glass — with a bonus serving still in the frosty metal container that created the frothy goodness.

This typical diner was a colorful but casual spot where we went once a week so we could catch up and she could get out of her small apartment for awhile.   Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of what we discussed at our early evening dinners, but I do remember what we ate.  Grandma always ordered a hamburger — and when its preparation took more than six or seven minutes she always threw out the same joke: “What’s taking so long?  Did they have to go out and kill the cow?”  I always laughed.

And I always ordered the triple-decker grilled ham and cheese with fries.  I remember my sandwich came in four beautifully cut triangles, standing on end like little sandwich soldiers, pointing the way toward the towering pile of thin-cut fries in the middle of the plate.

My sandwich was made with plain white bread griddle-toasted golden with butter, and thinly-sliced ham and American cheese.  Sounds a bit boring, but it was thick and hot and gooey with plenty of melted yellow cheese, and the triple-decker presentation more than made up for any lack of creativity in the sandwich fixins’.

Today, I tried to recreate that delicious sandwich of my past, searching for that familiar taste of home and family — with a little bit of tweaking here and there.  The finished product still had the ham, but for the cheese I used a combination of Swiss and sharp cheddar, and for a little extra zing I added sliced grilled red onion, pineapple tidbits, and honey mustard.  Oh, and I put it all between toasted sourdough rye bread just to bring it all together.

Sadly, I didn’t quite get there.  Something was missing.  I tried to update the sandwich to give it more of a trendy, over-the-top decadence, trying to pump up the volume on a Plain Jane lunchbox usual.  But it didn’t work.  Oh, it was a good sandwich, but it didn’t take me back like I thought it would.  Maybe I should have stuck with the basics — white bread, American cheese, ham.  Period.

Or, maybe what was really missing was Grandma.  Maybe that’s what made the meal so memorable for me so many years ago.  It wasn’t the triple-decker delight or the pile of fries.  It was the person sitting across the table making the same old joke about her tardy hamburger.  Who knew memorable could be so simple?

TRIPLE-DECKER DELIGHT

Grilled sandwiches can run the gamut from simply cheese to a pumped-up panini with a Mediterranean flair.  That’s the beauty of the gem that is the sandwich food group.  Like a big bowl of undressed pasta, it is a blank canvas.  Here is one of my versions of a grilled sandwich; have fun creating yours.

  • 3 slices extra sourdough rye bread  (regular sourdough bread works very well here also)
  • 6 very thin, round slices of deli ham
  • 1/3 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 2 tablespoons canned pineapple tidbits or crushed pineapple, thoroughly drained
  • 2 slices red onion, lightly coated with olive oil and grilled until softened and aromatic
  • Honey mustard
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Melt the butter in a large, non-stick pan or griddle over medium heat; place the bread slices in the pan to start toasting.   Sprinkle half of the cheddar cheese over one slice of bread and sprinkle half of the Swiss cheese over another slice of bread.  (The third slice of bread is there just to toast on both sides.)  Lay the ham slices in the pan for a few seconds to heat up, then divide them between the two bread slices, covering the melting cheese.  Next, place the grilled red onion rings on one slice of bread, atop the ham, and follow with the pineapple.  Then place the unadorned single toasted bread slice on top of the pineapple, spread a desired amount of honey mustard over the blank bread slice, and sprinkle the remaining cheese over that.  Finally, carefully turn the other half of the sandwich over onto the taller half and press down slightly to bring everything together.  Continue to grill another minute or two to make sure all cheese is melted.  Remove from the pan and allow to set for another minute before cutting and serving.

Posted in Comfort Food -- Savory, Entrees, Sandwiches & Paninis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments