Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Cool Supper for a Hot Summer Evening

Ah, the high days of summer--that time we've been waiting for when we can go off to a farm stand and fill our bags with glorious fruits and veggies, all newly picked and often only transported as far as it takes someone to carry them in from the field.  Or to put them in a pick-up and drive them to a farmers market.  Bins of baby cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers.  Heaps of ripe juicy tomatoes.  Light purple or black elongated eggplants.  Green and yellow summer squash.  And a goodly number of lettuces--leafy reds, tiny compact Tom Thumbs, light-green buttery heads.  After bringing my purchases home and spreading them out to admire, I store some in the fridge and set others in a bowl as if they are a colorful still life.

Great juxtaposition of colors and shapes here.  (For those savvy enough to spot it, no, this isn't my new countertop.)

Not all that long ago, inspired by what I'd bought, I set to work constructing supper for myself.  It turned out pretty well, I must say.

First, pour yourself a glass of chilled white wine to sip as you work.  One of those Portuguese vinho verdes would be good.  Light and crisp.  A jazz CD or some classical guitar would be fun, too.  You might even want to put on a pretty apron if you still have one.  (Obviously, adjust amounts for the number of people being served.)

1.  Chicken.  Use a boneless, skinless breast.  Marinate all day in a little olive oil into which you've mixed a bit of turmeric.  (Keep it covered in the fridge.)  When ready to cook (that's when you put on the music, the apron, and pour that glass of wine), finely dice one shallot, saute lightly, then set aside.  Add chicken breast to the same pan and brown a couple of minutes on each side.  Turn down the flame, add a little water to the pan, cover, and cook slowly, maybe 25 minutes, adding a bit more water only as necessary.  Let rest.  To serve, slice.  For a sauce, warm up the sauteed shallots in the pan juices, then add a little mayo.

2.  Cold cauliflower soup.  Saute 1 diced vidalia onion.  Then add a touch of turmeric and saute for only a minute more.  Add 3 c. of chicken stock, the florets of 1 small cauliflower, 1 t. vinegar, some salt, and maybe 3 T. couscous.  (The couscous acts as a thickener.)  Let cook partially covered for maybe a half hour.  Puree and serve at room temperature.  If you like, you can add a splash of half-and-half when serving.  (This is my tweaking of a Julia Child recipe for a cold cucumber or zucchini soup which I haven't actually followed for many years but do want to give credit to.)

3.  Filet beans (haricots verts).  Blanche by dropping into boiling water.  Test frequently to get the timing just right, then remove when cooked but still a bit crunchy.  (This won't take very long.)  Cut into pieces.  Add very thinly sliced or diced red onion.  Dress with a vinaigrette just before serving.

4.  Easy ratatouille.  Slice and briefly saute 3 very small zucchini in olive oil.  Remove from pan.  Do same with 1 onion.  Do same with 2 small elongated eggplant.  (Do them last.)  Then mix all three and spoon in some tomato-basil sauce.  (I used a bit of left-over pasta sauce, but fresh tomatoes and basil could be added quite simply.)  Serve at room temperature with a wedge of lemon.

5.  Dessert.  Any berries now in season!!  Add a spot of cream to the bowl.  Or a bit of vanilla ice cream.  Or nothing at all and just savor how lovely they are.
It's great that berries don't all ripen at once ... first strawberries, then raspberries, then blueberries.  Yum!
Even if you're dining alone, take along a pretty cloth napkin, a fresh glass of wine, and carry everything out to the picnic table if you have one.  Afterwards, in the summer evening's late light, sit down with a fan and that good book you're reading.  Or whatever DVD is next in line.

What Makes July July

Electric fans
Swimming suits drying on the line
Fresh raspberries ...
And good people who let you go pick theirs
Weekend company
Music festivals

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Keepin' Cool

It's heat wave time.  This isn't a part of the country that usually gets all that hot.  But when it does, it does.  I've never lived in a house with A/C--or a ceiling fan.  I do have a portable electric fan.  I also have a collection of those cute little hand fans--though they're not that much help in the sort of heat we're now having.  But they do have the distinction of being green.  And good if the grid goes down.  Mine include a sandlewood-scented fan from Thailand and another from Bali.  Two Balinese woven straw fans.  A paddle fan from Hawaii.  And two mini paper fans made in China

However, when the days get really hot, such as they are now, I sometimes need to turn to my one source of A/C--my car.  Like yesterday when I simply had to drive around for awhile to regain my equilibrium.  I didn't have a destination; I just drove out into the countryside, along a pretty river, then turned around and came back.  It helped.  

In fact, few houses around here do have A/C.  One friend hies himself off to the public library for a few cool hours.  Another carries around a spritzer and, rather like moisturizing a plant, she spritzes her face, arms, and hair.  One has a secret spot where she goes skinny dipping.  Families buy a seasonal pass to swim in a nearby lake.  Or they get out their little plastic pool in the backyard.

I used to make what I called sun tea in the summer--simply 3 herbal-blend tea bags dropped in a container of water and set out in the sun to steep.  Then I heard a program advising against doing that--that that can produce yucky bacteria.  Better to let it steep in the fridge, it said.  So instead of sun tea, I now make fridge tea.  It's a pretty color and is wonderfully refreshing.  And it has the advantage of having no real sugar, no fake sugar, and no high-fructose corn syrup. 
Fridge tea with its three tea-bags

So while the heat lasts, I take it as easy as possible, turn on my electric fan, keep that iced drink at hand, and read a good book to take my mind off things.  Right now I'm reading The Twin by the Dutchman, Gerbrand Bakker.  I recommend it.  Anyway, just reading about the protagonist going for a good long ice-skate on a frozen lake can be cooling, too!  Of course, getting back to reasonable temperatures would be even better.
My stand-by


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Street Fun and Fireworks: Bastille Day in Avignon

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon

Let me set the scene.  It's a high summer day, the sky blue, the air hot and aromatic with the scent of pine, laurel, lavender.  If a wind rises--and the wind can blow!--it flips over the leaves revealing their soft silvery side.  White doves coo; cicadas sing.  The honeyed heat empties mid-afternoon café chairs.  But diners reappear under the plane trees at dusk.  In one restaurant where we consume spring rolls with mint sprigs and fish sauce served on delicate Vietnamese plates, a caged bird whistles the Marseillaise.  We climb up to the park above the Palace of the Popes, the Palais des Papes, and feed bits of bread to the pigeons, ducks, and swans.  Sometimes, we go there for picnics taking along baguettes of fresh crusty bread and rounds of goat cheese, slices of ham, plump apricots peaches cherries figs, a bottle of red wine, paper cups.

My sketch of the swans and ducks

It's July and we're in Avignon during its maybe two-week-long film, arts, and theater festival which coincides with Bastille Day celebrations.  The city then becomes its own al fresco theater--the Palace walls, steps, stonework, the streets and sidewalks are all part of the set.
A "bird cage" (which children love to enter) covering much of the sidewalk.  (Note the two towers at this particular gate in the city walls.)

Same sidewalk, on up a ways--a maze to walk through if anyone is so inclined.
A square in the middle of town with a set of drums in the upper right.

Out in the square by the Palais des Papes, ZouZou, the mime, either commits hara-kiri twice a day (for stealing his mother-in-law's jam) or he becomes Tarzan, dividing those of us in his two-hundred-plus audience into groups of animals.  When he gives his jungle call, the elephant group bellows.  The lions roar and show their teeth.  The monkeys (our group) chatter and scratch.  The snakes hiss and flick their tongues in and out.  Then Jane appears, combing her hair.  Tarzan's eyes roll.  He sidles over and strangles a troublesome lion on the way.
ZouZou outside the Palace of the Popes

Elsewhere, a puppet grandmother keeps liquor in her teapot and smokes a pipe.  A three-legged man and two girls on stilts maneuver the streets.  A dwarf tap dances but never walks because his hands belong to one man and his feet to another.  A green girl with hair hanging down over her glass eye hands out leaflets.  Peruvians play pan pipes and drums.  Someone with his eyes shut pretends that a folding ruler is a saxophone.  (The actual saxophone player is underneath a large piece of plastic.)  A goat balances on a platform the size of a teacup.  A man wearing roller skates and a tall crown of advertisements carries a chair, sets it wherever he pleases, and sits awhile.  A man follows people imitating their moves.  Someone sells bird whistles that fit inside the mouth.  We get a silhouette cut and two caricatures done.
The man with his roller skates and tall crown of advertisements

With evening, everyone drifts down toward what remains of Avignon's medieval bridge over the Rhône, the same that inspired the well-known song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon."
Avignon's medieval Pont St-Bénézet that no longer spans the Rhône River

There, on the bridge, costumed boys toss flags.  Girls in Provençal dresses hold hands and dance a serpentine.  Letters spelling "liberté" light up as red smoky flares seem to engulf the whole bridge in flames.  Then to the soundtrack of electronic squeaks and boops, combined with French folk tunes and a hint of something Japanese, fireworks sizzle up over the river like climbing golden insects to fall and climb again in white sparkles.  Some wiggle like colored worms.  Some zoom up like the trunks of trees and then shoot off like branches.  Some seem to hang in the air like great golden jacaranda blossoms.

Our visits encompassed two Bastille Days.  July 14, 1980 and 1984.  (Followed by other non-Bastille Day stays.)  It's a favorite spot that I always remember this time of year, along with its blue sky, honeyed air, and that crusty bread.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Typhoon Bordeaux: A Story Set in Stone

My contractor who helped plan all this out

I hadn't planned to go the new granite countertops route.  Or even do a kitchen upgrade.  ("Face-lift" is what my contractor called it)  But the lighting was bad, the formica countertops were stained, the cupboard doors didn't close, the drawers got stuck.  And after fifteen years (when I first moved in and had some work done), it did seem time for that face-lift.  It started out when a family member suggested I have the bathroom re-done so that if I stayed home in the winters, I'd be able to have some spa moments that might lift my spirits and warm up my core (which alternative health practitioners were always telling me was cold).  But after getting an estimate, I decided the price was too high and the bathroom too small for effective change.  (You know, spa tub, that sort of thing.  But then no room for a shower.)  So somewhere along the line, I turned my mind to my kitchen.  It needed work and wouldn't cost so much.

But to get back to the granite countertops, I'd been watching a lot of programs on HGTV, the home network channel.  (No violence, no miserable news, no pundits already hashing out the 2012 race.)  Seemingly without fail, buyers looking at a house would go into the kitchen and squeal, "Ohhhh, granite countertops."  Or, "We'll have to tear out these old countertops and put in granite."  So what's the big deal, I wondered.  Did I even know anyone with granite countertops?  Wasn't it all rather extravagant?  But when it got to be kitchen face-lift time, I teased myself with the thought of putting some in.  Then my new contractor said that if I ever wanted to sell the house, granite countertops would be a big draw.  By now, I'd watched enough programs to know that was true.  (The "bang for the buck" thing.  Yes, there's even a program by that name, though their make-overs run in the mid- to high-five-figures.)

So I went for it.  There was a granite supply place about a half hour away.  My contractor and I got in his blue pick-up and drove there early on.  I needed to decide that morning.  I couldn't waffle around--I was paying him by the hour, the order needed to go in (even at that, it took some three weeks), and we needed to know the colors so that he could bounce off them to repaint the kitchen.

What a choice.  Huge slabs here, there, and everywhere.  But after narrowing the choice down to four, we picked Typhoon Bordeaux.  My contractor kept calling it "a lovely stone."  A bit dramatic (I figured that was the typhoon part), it had vibrant golds and a few black streaks that would match my current golden wood floor and black stove.  It also had a wide area with softer greys, creams, and drops the color of red wine. (I figured that was the Bordeaux part.)  But what struck me was its topographic look, as if I were flying over France, looking down on valleys, rocky outcroppings, a river now and again.  And occasional shiny spots like tiny strips of silver foil or sunlight glinting off distant lakes.  I could definitely live with that!

It took four weeks exactly with the kitchen in an upheaval the entire time.  Fortunately, the gas stove was still hooked up, so I could cook.  But finding things was a problem since I'd hauled everything out of my cupboards and drawers and set it all on the dining room table or floor.  Cutlery was in a paper bag under the table, phone books were mashed under something else, pots and pans were higgledy piggledy.  Some mornings, not wanting to haul out the toaster, I fried my bread in a little iron skillet.  I'd get the day's lettuce washed before my contractor arrived (early) each morning so that when lunch-time came around, I could slip by and rustle up a salad without getting in the way.  And when my sink finally disappeared, having already used the last of my paper plates, I piled my dirty dishes in the fridge so little critters wouldn't get to them.  (There were already those rather large summer ants exploring every room in the house.)

Then:  voilà:  there were the new cupboard doors and knobs, better runners under the drawers so they'd open more easily, some new construction around the fridge, a handsome paint job that turned all the woodwork a soft white and the walls a light buttery color.

Having already come earlier on to measure and cut out a thin plywood template of my two old countertops complete with a hole for a new sink, two men arrived one morning and hauled in the finished products.  "The stones."  They maneuvered them off their truck, across the yard, up the steps, then set them in place, used some sort of compound to adhere them (along with the new sink), bore a hole for a new faucet, told me to reseal them once a year, presented me with a bill, and advised me to keep off such acids as lemon juice and wine spills.  And there the new countertops lay--polished to a high hue with rounded corners so little grandchildren would not bump into sharp edges.  They did look splendid.

"They're the first thing anyone will see who comes in the kitchen," my contractor said.  "You picked a lovely stone."  He was beaming.

Here's the Before and After:

Before:  sink side (obviously)
After:  including a new faucet

Before:  opposite side

Oh, and here we are in the middle of the whole shebang:

And the dining room--when things were still pretty well organized

So with a spiffed-up kitchen, I dare say I'll stick around and stop going on line to look at Houses For Sale.  But I'll still watch the home network channel which (besides its de rigueur granite countertops) likes to show off a kitchen's stainless steel appliances.  I skipped that one.  Even if one is black, one cream, and one almond, my appliances are just fine.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Harking Back to the '40s: One Middle-of-the-Night List

For some reason, when I awoke in the middle of the night recently, I began thinking about those three-lane highways we had back in the '40s.  This was before the interstate highway system was built.  Roads, especially in the countryside, often had a middle passing lane.  No restrictions as to who used it--you or an oncoming car.  One family member related how a friend sometimes used that middle lane for passing on a curve, quipping that no one else (including an on-coming car) would have the nerve, so it was quite safe. 
The open road then, though not one with three lanes

As I lay in bed waiting to get back to sleep, I began to make a mental list of things we took for granted then.  Here's what I came up with.

  • If we were sick, a parent phoned the doctor who soon showed up at the front door with his little black bag.
  • Before penicillin came in, we took sulfa drugs.  
  • Gas stations provided ready attendants (now called fuel transfer technicians) who pumped your gas, checked your oil, and washed your windows.
  • On trips, we passed signs shot up with rusting bullet holes.
  • And Burma Shave signs--six small consecutive signs posted along the highway advertising shaving creme.
  • On a car trip, we children sat in the back seat where we sometimes tickled each other.  No buckled booster seats.
  • We'd pass steam trains with lots of smoke.  (See below)
  • And, on the outskirts of the Southern California town where we lived, we'd pass a hobo camp by the tracks where we could see the smoke from their cooking fires.
  • Our toys were made of wood or metal.  No plastic ... or molded plastic.  There weren't even any plastic bags.
  • We children amused themselves by playing Robin Hood with bows and arrows, or riding a tricycle on the sidewalk (see below), or attaching metal roller skates to our shoes.
  • There was no television!  (Heaven bless us.)  We made up our own amusements.
  • In town, we sometimes stopped off at a drug store where we'd sit on stools at the soda fountain and order a chocolate ice cream soda or a lemon or cherry Coke.  The Coke came out of a dispenser with separate dispensers for the flavorings.  To make an ice cream soda, the soda-jerk (as he/she was called) put ice cream in a tall glass, a few squirts of chocolate sauce, some fizzy soda water (from yet another dispenser), and whipped cream on top.
  • Relatives drank beer (never wine) and smoked.
  • No one had heard of pizza.  And there were no fast food places.  The first I remember was McDonald's where a hamburger cost 15¢.  But that was in the '50s.
  • Women wore skirts.  Hats in town sometimes.  Stockings and high-heeled shoes.
  • Clothes needed ironing.  No double knits or drip-dries. 
  • New clothes often shrank during their first washing.  Or they bled colors into the laundry.  Especially red things which turned the entire laundry pink.
  • Houses had one bathroom.
  • Movies were always double features.  We listened to the Oscars on the radio.  
  • We played 78 RPM records when we wanted to listen to music.  Because they could break (or crack), if a chunk was missing, we'd have to set the needle down in the middle of the record.
  • To calculate numbers, my father pulled out his slide-rule.
  • With no such batteries then, wrist-watches had to be wound each day.
  • Maybe a week or two before Christmas, the postman came twice a day.
  • Most of Southern California's iconic orange and lemon groves were still extant.
Now, that's a tricycle!

 Those good old steam trains

What do you remember from those days?