Customer Service: Oxymoron? Curried red lentils with sweet potato and spinach

Sade, Smooth Operator

Not long ago I ranted about my inability to open almost any new purchase, from eyedrops to garden snippers, without drawing blood. Today’s rant is about customer service. To begin with, I think ad men should come up with another name—customer service is a contradiction in terms: customer is factual, service is not.

I remember that in the olden days, you thumbed through the Sears or Montgomery Wards catalogue, dog-eared your choices, and dialed a number. A human answered, took your order, and in a week or two your new underwear showed up on the doorstep. Today, there’s online, six-hour Amazon orders, airline ticket, sporty event, and concert reservations, prescription refills, and old-school mail order stamps. But if you should need assistance with a return, a flight problem, your phone service, computer, printer, medical care, television, wireless network, health insurance, or social security issue, you jump down the black rabbit hole of customer “service.” Heaven help you if you need assistance from the IRS.

Answering bots yap on how much the company values your business, then apologizes for your inconvenience, warns you to pay attention as “their options have recently changed,” flings you back into menu and puts you on hold, prisoner to whatever God awful sound mix they choose or even worse, subjects you to loud, non-stop sell about new products and services. If you do fall for their suggestion to leave a “call-back number,” sometime in the future you may (or may not) receive a call from a robot who will fling you back into the menu options.

If i could track down a CEO, sit him/her in a straight-backed chair, and tell him what we want, here’s what I’d say:

  • Hire enough people to man the phone lines.
  • Hire employees who have some slight interest in people.
  • Impress on them that they are the face and voice of the company.
  • Get rid of those auto-answering, robocalling, menu-driven, “Customer Service” lines and put a person behind the desk.
  • Stop lying about your “recently changed menu options.” We know that you don’t want us to keep pressing “0” in hopes that we’ll reach a human.
  • Kill the, “We are currently experiencing higher-than-normal call volumes.” Just hire enough people to man the phone lines!

Here’s my new favorite New York Time’s recipe:

Curried red lentils with sweet potatoes and spinach 

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes 
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 
  • 2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste 
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 1 seeded serrano chile, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 
  • 1 cup red lentils, rinsed 
  • 4 cups chicken stock 
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste 
  • 1 (13-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk 
  • 1 (4- to 5-ounce) bag baby spinach 
  • 1 lime, juiced 
  • Garnish with chopped cilantro, toasted unsweetened coconut flakes

In a Dutch oven or pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high. Add the sweet potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned all over, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the browned sweet potatoes to a plate and set aside.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pot and set the heat to medium-low. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the curry paste, garlic, ginger, chile and turmeric, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. 

Add the lentils, stock, salt and browned sweet potatoes to the pot and bring to a boil over high. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are just tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced and the lentils are creamy and falling apart, 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the spinach and stir until just wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the lime juice and season with salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro and coconut flakes.

Posted in Rants and Raves, Recipes | 4 Comments

Dive bar or neighborhood tavern?: Iowa tavern sandwiches

You’ve just gotta listen to this week’s music video. 

Blake Shelton Garth Brooks, Dive Bar

I ate my first enchilada in the late 60s at the Half Moon Inn. The Half Moon, three dramas short of a dive bar, was a neighborhood tavern across the street from the stockyards in Sioux City, Iowa. Somehow children were allowed, so we took our son and daughter, two and six, and met high school friends who brought their nine year old son. The kids played on the floor among the peanut shells, with the ruckus of pool cues, loud voices, and jukebox rock and roll playing in the background.

Giddyups, in Austin, Texas, is difficult to box in. Is it a music venue, a honkey-tonk, a neighborhood tavern, or a dive bar? A trusted source told me that it’s a mix of the best parts: listen to Speedy Sparks, Rusty Traps or The Pearl Snaps, sing a little karaoke, play some shuffleboard, sit on the back patio, eat a bucket of Austin’s best fried chicken, sample a few Texas IPAs, compete in a gumbo cookoff—all possible at Giddyups.

Like $10 haircuts and vacuum cleaner repair shops, authentic dive bars are in danger of disappearing as gentrification spreads. Even the term “dive bar” has been appropriated by those who would buy a hole in the wall, spiff it up by sweeping the floor, and install a large, cheesy, juicy menu. Genuine dive bars have gruff old bartenders, gruff old regulars, the sour smell of desperation, no eatable food, condom vending machines, at least one patron asleep on his or her arm, and a slight sense of danger. What’s not to love?

Neighborhood bars (think “Cheers”) are boisterous watering holes with functioning toilets and real food. In Olympia, The China Clipper, open since the 50s, is the downtown dive bar/karaoke hot spot/neighborhood tavern/incidental Chinese restaurant of choice. I heard a story about a gruff, old bartender who, in the 60s and 70s, would rouse a patron, asleep on their arm or face-down in their chop suey, by rubbing ice cubes on the back of their neck.

Parkway Tavern


Look familiar?

Tacoma has some great neighborhood taverns and probably some great dive bars as well. In the Stadium District, there’s the Parkway Tavern; in the McKinley District, it’s the Top of Tacoma. The Top has characteristics of both a dive bar and a neighborhood tavern. It’s in a gritty part of town, has cracked flooring, original neon, plenty of street parking but also, great food, young, hip, web-conscious patrons wearing black and sporting tattoos, rows of draft IPAs, and a full menu of strong specialty drinks. Didn’t see a condom vending machine.

Look familiar?

Last weekend, three mature ladies (wearing black, not sure about tattoos) in the neighborhood buying yarn for a baby hat, stopped by for lunch. The place was packed to the wooden rafters with twenty to thirty somethings, wearing black—men sporting facial stubble—everyone with tattoos, phones at the ready. One television was showing a Bonanza marathon, the Golden Girl Betty White giggled on the second TV, and at the end of the bar polar bears roamed the frozen tundra on the Nature Channel. We chose gleefully from a large juicy menu: one pork belly banh mi, one pork belly Cuban sandwich, one lamb gyro, passed on roasted cauliflower this time, and had a side of fries instead. What’s not to love?

Ruth Fitzpatrick’s Heelan High Taverns

  • 1 lb ground chuck, ground round or ground sirloin  
  • 1 Tbs. lard or Crisco (if meat is round or sirloin)  
  • 2 tsp. salt  
  • 1 onion, chopped fine  
  • 1 Tbs. yellow mustard (not Dijon) 
  • 1 Tbs. cider vinegar (not Balsamic) 
  • 1 Tbs. sugar (not Stevia) 
  • Water to cover  
  • Salt and fine ground black pepper (not coarse ground), to taste 

Melt fat over medium heat and lightly salt bottom of cast iron skillet. Break ground beef up in skillet and start crumbling it with the back of a wooden spoon. Add chopped onion while browning meat. Keep working with the back of spoon to break up meat. When meat is cooked and lacks any pink, drain off any fat. Add mustard, vinegar, sugar, and enough water to cover meat Simmer until water has evaporated–30 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve on warm hamburger buns with pickle slices, mustard and Lay’s Original Potato Chips.

Posted in Restaurants, Travel | 2 Comments

Sound Food, the beginning: Chocolate Mousse Pie

Crosby, Stills, Nash, Teach Your Children

A girl can always use a little money of her own. It was 1973, I was bored, new to Vashon, and wanted a job. Choices were slim—my previous work history consisted of picking currants for Mr. Chomie, car-hopping at the A&W Root beer stand, and selling Christmas ornaments as a Trim-a-tree salesclerk. Classified ads in the Beachcomber listed these “Employment Opportunities:” LPN at the Vashon Island Nursing Home, production worker at K2 Skis, and bookkeeper at Wax Orchards. But wait, here’s one: “Lunchroom aide at Vashon Elementary.” I knew how to cook, I had two kids that went to school, I could make a ham sandwich. 

Apparently there were not many applicants because I was hired immediately and started in a week. The work was hard, the kids were noisy and ungrateful, my feet ached, and the Supervisor was mean. Who knew? I did learn how to make lunchroom rolls, vats of green Jello with fruit cocktail, sheet-pans of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, and eatable tuna noodle casserole. I lasted a school year and was back on the job market that summer. My options were still the same: nursing home, ski factory, Wax Orchards. 

On a weekly shopping trip to Minglement, the local “Health-food store,” I told the owner I was looking for a job, “Want to work at our new restaurant?” There you go: I knew how to cook and, not only could I make a ham sandwich, now I could operate a steam kettle. Again, lack of applicants paved the way, I was hired, and started in a week. I spent that week reading Julia Childs, the Time Life series of international cooking, practicing boning whole chickens, and filleting fish. For the first two weeks at my new job, I painted bar stools, unpacked Rykoff orders, and scrubbed floors. We—the braless, sandal-footed, loose-haired, apronless cooks—eventually got into the kitchen where we chopped onions, diced tomatoes, sliced turkey breasts, simmered sauces and began the Sound Food adventure.

Our fearless leader, Jeffrey, radiated cool and exotic. He was slender and lithe with a Sikh-like beard and dressed in flowing white clothes. His tongue was as sharp as his knives and no culinary indiscretion went unnoticed. “Only careful attention to every detail will produce the desired effect.” We were to mince onions with care, tear (not cut) lettuce, peel garlic mindfully, simmer soups slowly, and bone chickens thoughtfully. Jeffrey introduced his staff to tofu, nori, steamed black cod, knobs of ginger, bulbs of garlic, daikon, a proper stir-fry, tamari, shiitake mushrooms, tempura, and the concept of serving fresh, regional ingredients. I was in heaven.

I started in the kitchen as a lunch cook. My friend (and one of seven owners) Rae Anne and I manned the line—she had a Batchelor’s Degree in Nutrition and I had three years of English Lit. It took us three weeks working the lunch shift before we used the grill (not a wood-burning grill but an electric, hot-top, truck-stop grill) instead of a sauté pan to cook hamburgers.

The restaurant filled with hippies and their children, long-haired musicians, long-skirted waitron units, an incidental bluish cloud of smoke (who knew where that came from), laughter, live music, a few curious Spinnaker regulars, and an occasional straight local in for a good bowl of soup and a sideways glance at the freaks.

The Sweetie juggling on the Klinks’ front porch


Me, Bob the Baker, Sue, Jeffrey and other Sound Foodies

Bob the Baker was the Master behind bread racks that he filled with crackling French baguettes, whole wheat loaves, giant cookies, cheese and apple danish, and amazing brownies. Every day as he walked out the back door, he would turn around, and look back approvingly at the efforts of his early morning labor. Not only could Bob bake, he was charming, guileless, generous, and could dance the patent leathers off Fred Astaire.

Our numbers were certainly not of Woodstock proportion, but there was good will, warmth, radiant spirit, and friendship. This charmed circle could get a bit tight, however. One day a waitron friend came back into the kitchen, sighed and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She had been waiting tables on an eight-top that included her soon-to-be-ex husband, his new girlfriend, the new girlfriend’s ex-husband, that ex-husbands new girl friend (who recently ended a relationship with the ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and her new boyfriend (who was her ex-husband’s new girlfriend’s ex-husband). Everyone at the table had slept with everyone. My friend quit that day and took a job in the city baking cinnamon rolls.

Anyways, Sound Food introduced me to my real self. Frank Miller and Jeffrey Basom invited me in to a world of good food, hard work, controlled chaos, uncontrolled daily drama, and infinite rewards. I can’t thank them enough.

Sound Food Chocolate Mousse Pie

  • 1/3 c. maple syrup (I have used Mrs. Butterworth’s in a crunch) 
  • 1 t. cream of tartar 
  • 3 egg whites 
  • 1 c. chocolate chips 
  • 1⁄4 c. strong coffee 
  • 1 pint heavy cream 
  • 1 t. vanilla 
  • 1⁄2 t. almond extract 

Melt chocolate chips in hot coffee. Whip egg whites and cream of tartar to firm peak, adding maple syrup after soft peak stage has been reached. Stir melted chocolate chips into egg whites. Whip heavy cream to soft peaks. Add vanilla and almond. Bring back to soft peak

Don’t whip the heavy cream to a stiff peak or it will be difficult to incorporate the chocolate chip/coffee mixture without loosing the fluff. 

Fold whipped cream into chocolate chip/whipped egg white mixture. Chill.

 

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes, Restaurants, Sound Food | 2 Comments

Moving toward the light: Braised short ribs


Ignore the grey skies, never mind the cold stream of rain that trickles down your bare neck, go ahead and order those lettuce seeds—we are definitely leaning toward the light. It’s been a month now since the winter solstice, there are signs of light at 7:00 am and the shades don’t go down until 5:00 pm. 

It’s been our routine to celebrate this inexorable march toward spring with our Seventies friends but the weather is so often horrid with attending ice, snow, and miserable driving conditions that we no longer do that. But around the first of the year, my mind automatically turned toward menus, visiting, and friends, so last Sunday, before you could say “short ribs”, we had some people over for dinner. Ginny and Ron drove down from Vashon, Bill and Glenda walked over from next door, we turned on the fireplace and set six places around the dining table. 

The weather cooperated, the ferries sailed on time, the stars aligned, and we didn’t burn anything—a delightful time was had by all. As Ginny said, “What could be a better way to spend a rainy, cold Sunday than eating good food, drinking good wine, and watching a few football games with friends.”

We missed seeing our old Olympia friends—one pair in Australia, one pair in Palm Desert, and one pair hunkered down on Hood Canal building a new house—but we’ll hear their adventures in May.

The menu was hearty and comforting: braised short ribs, mashed potatoes, roasted butternut squash, Caesar salad, and lemon panna cotta with blueberry sauce. I learned about roasting butternut squash from Lara and may never cook it any other way again. Karen is master of panna cotta and gave me her recipe which I posted a few years ago. The braised short ribs are from Mark Bittman, but the mashed potatoes are all me.

Braised short ribs

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6-8 boneless short ribs 
  • 2 teaspoon kosher salt 
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper 
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced 
  • 1 large carrot, thinly sliced 
  • 2 ribs celery, sliced
  • 6 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 4 cups beef or chicken stock 
  • 1 cup chocolate stout or other dark beer or red wine

   

Grind seasonings together, season short ribs on all sides. Wrap each rib in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 

 

Preheat the oven to 325°. 

 

In a large enameled cast-iron pan, heat the oil until shimmering. Brown short ribs in two batches, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

    

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and mushrooms and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add tomato paste, sauté 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Deglaze pan with beer/wine. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Return the ribs to the pan, cover and braise in the oven for about 2-3 hours, until the meat is very tender.

   

Transfer the ribs to a platter and tent with foil. 

 

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to a blender. Strain the sauce into a heatproof measuring cup and skim off the fat. Add the sauce to the blender and puree until smooth. Return the sauce to the pan with the short ribs and simmer until reduced to 3 cups, about 8 minutes. 

 

Season sauce with salt and pepper. 

 

Return the short ribs to the sauce and simmer 30-45 minutes over low heat. Serve ribs topped with sauce, mashed potatoes or soft polenta, and extra sauce on the side

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes | Leave a comment

Adventures: 2005, 2020

Roberto Griego Arriba, Musica Nuevo Mexico

Fifteen years ago, the Sweetie and I took a long, circular drive from Eugene to San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, New Orleans, Savannah, Myrtle Beach; then turned left and went home through South Carolina, Tennessee, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Las Vegas—whew. One of our favorite stops was Albuquerque, New Mexico. This year we’ll be able to visit family there. New decade—new adventure.

We had a great time in 2005, loved the city, and wrote stories along the way. Here’s my remembrance of Albuquerque.  

March 2005, Albuquerque, NM—“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow”

When you’re on the road, the basic responsibilities are the next meal, the next bed, and what’s around the next corner. Bob drove every inch of our trip, cheerful and steady through sun, rain, snow, and the dead of night. I rode shotgun: folding and unfolding maps, providing snacks, and uncapping water bottles—it works for us. The drive through the Arkansas hills to Albuquerque wound up hills, around long S-curves, local highways and small towns—perfect conditions for a small, red sports car or (as it were) a large, green, four-door sedan.  

Our colds were well developed by the time we reached New Mexico—Bob was red-nosed and teary-eyed, I was hoarse and prone to prolonged coughing fits. We blew through each box of hotel Kleenex and begged housekeeping for more. By the second day in Albuquerque, I was ready to submit and stay in bed for the duration—but the sun beckoned, Bob insisted, and we had the best shopping experience. 

The day before, as we were driving through downtown to the hotel, we noticed a small souvenir shop near Albuquerque’s Old Town and returned for a closer look. The Palms Trading Company was a nondescript stucco building with a packed parking lot. A light, dry snow had begun to fall, but it didn’t look like it would stick. Once inside, we saw plenty of possible mementos. We separated—Bob to the jewelry, me to the pottery/rug room. There was a surprising absence of threatening signs. No “If you break it, it’s yours”,  “You’re being watched”, or “Touch it and you’ve bought it”; instead only a mild “Children at loose will be sold into slavery”—perfectly understandable.

We found each other almost immediately. Bob had seen a lovely bangle—$300; I had picked up a small vase—$750.00. We chose $2000 bowls, $800 dishes, $2000 baskets, $3000 bracelets: obviously we were in the wrong place. The Palms Trading Company is a wholesale market for New Mexican Native American potters, jewelers, rug makers, and basket weavers and the shelves were crowded with exquisite examples of their art.

We watched in awe as a trio of art dealers spent at least $100,000 stocking up for their toney Santa Fe gallery. Undaunted, we picked up a $40.00 basket and some “On Sale” placemats. Walking out, we tried to rationalize the purchase of a $600 Hopi Wedding Vase, took one last look at the turquoise, and went to M&J’s for lunch. The dry snow continued, it did stick, and we got stuck. 

M & J’s Sanitary Tortilla Factory: Carne Adovado 

Red Chili Puree:

·         2 cups water 

·         8-10 dried red chile pods

·         Tear tops off of chile pods and use knife or finger to clean out seeds and veins inside of each one. Place pods in large pot and cover with water. Bring to boil and cook several minutes until pods are soft. Place drained pods (save water) in blender container, then pour 1/2 of liquid into blender and blend until smooth, add 1-2 cloves garlic if desired. Add more water as needed. Strain thru a mesh sieve to remove any skins that did not blend up in the blender.

4-6# Pork Butt:

·         Cut pork butt into four sections by slicing once horizontally through the pork loin (with the grain) then once vertically down the middle (across the grain).

Marinade:

·         4 cloves smashed garlic

·         1 T. salt

·         1 T. Mexican oregano 

·         1 cup of the Red Chile Puree

·         1 cup red wine vinegar

Put the pork into a plastic or glass container and cover completely with marinade and let it marinate in the refrigerator at least 24 hours.

Chile Colorado:

·         2 T. shortening 

·         2 T. flour

·         2 C. red chile puree

·         2 C. chicken broth 

·         3/4 t. salt

·         1/2 t. garlic powder

·         Dash oregano

Heat shortening in medium-size saucepan on medium heat. Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Add red chile puree and cook for about another 5 minutes. Gradually add chicken broth and whisk to remove lumps. Add seasoning to sauce and simmer at low heat for 10-15 minutes. 

After marinating  pork for a minimum of 24 hours, remove the pork from the marinade and cut into cubes approximately 1″ square, put into a shallow pan (about 3″ deep) and cover with all the Chile Colorado. Simmer in 300˚oven for two hours. About 10 minutes before you’re ready to eat, add layer of shredded Mexican cheese over the top and heat until the cheese is fully melted. Serve with warm flour tortillas, pinto beans and Spanish or Mexican rice.    

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes | 1 Comment

2019, the Year of the Baby


On our block, 2019 was the year of the baby. In July, my great granddaughter Jane was born, then came our friends Bill & Glenda’s grand nephew, and in November, Ginny’s daughter Claire had Eleanora. They are all healthy, happy, and adorable.

On another note, I read in the Huff Post that Oxford English added the word “listicle” to its official dictionary. Apparently we love to read lists: they tell us which movies to see, what our new favorite food will be, where and when we should retire, the best ways to find a man, the United States’ worse airports, New York City’s best ramen shops, the grocery stores we love, the top twenty signs that a relationship is doomed, the ten things every child should know before they go away to college, which breed of dog suits us the best, and the worse financial mistakes we are currently making.

I am certainly not about to tell anyone what to do or to give any advice, but here are a few of my favorite things, my not so favorite things, and the ones we miss.

Here are a few of my favorite things: swimming with music ears, sleeping in a cold room with a warm Sweetie, strong morning coffee, salt in a wooden box, my new warm, wooly bathrobe, quilting like a miner, good neighbors, the NHK network, the New York Yankees, a gas fireplace, the full moon’s light in the middle of the night, morning chats with my sister, Newman’s fish & chips, Claire’s focaccia, our new Bob/Norm trellis, my beautiful Linnae calendar, peanut butter/cherry jam toast and TJ’s buffalo ghee.


Not so favorite: customer service, our current President, robocalls, on-demand water heaters, the Washington Nationals, the red-headed weather girl on Channel 13, Alabama football, gluten-free, driving to Seattle, hard-to-open packages, an appointment with a new dental hygienist, visual field tests, Facebook, neon orange street lights, al dente pasta, selfies of me, and  Gordon Ramsey.

Ones we lost in the 2010s and will always miss: Tommy, Nikki, Tracey, Ted, Rita, Mary, Dinah, Jack, Gracie, Bodie, Sadie, and others.

Posted in Family and friends | 2 Comments

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: Sugar Cookies

Hal Kemp, A Boy, A Girl, A Lamplight

There must be a lobe of my brain dedicated to song lyrics. I may not remember where I parked the car at Costco, but I know all four verses of Joy to the World. Obscure tunes from the 1940s, like A Boy, A Girl, A Lamplight, roll off my tongue like the Pledge of Allegiance and right
 now, I could belt out the chorus of Ragtime Cowboy Joe (I used to know the verses, but they’re lost in Costco’s parking lot.)

I know Muth had a collection of 45 records she played during the day and that Daddy listened to big band concerts on our RCA Victor console radio at night. As a pre-teen, I sat as close as I could to Nikki’s bedroom, leaning up against her slammed door listening to Elvis, Jerry Vale, and Peggy Lee coming from her transistor radio, until she yelled, “Mom, make her get away from my room!”

This twisted talent comes in handy at Christmas parties. Want to sing Frosty the Snowman, Up on the Housetop, Winter Wonderland? I’m your man. My preference, however, is for wistful, almost sad, holiday tunes about blue snowflakes, merry little Christmases, skating away on a river, gleaming love lights, and little drummer boys par um pa pum pum.

Nostalgia is always present at Christmas. Commercials with Marines returning home, children gazing out the window, and Clydesdales trotting proudly through snowy fields are as likely as jingle bells and ho ho hos. Maybe the yearning is for past Christmases or Christmases that never were, but for every play of Holly Jolly Burl Ives, there’s dewey-eyed Judy Garland and the dreaming crooner, Bing Crosby.

For my money, the most wistful Christmas sound comes from Vince Guaraldi’s music in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I challenge any holiday humbug to sit through this without at least one misty eye episode.

Here’s one for “poor lonely people.” I Wonder As I Wander, The Cambridge Singers

  

New favorite, Sufjan Stevens Sister Winter

Can’t seem to leave this one out—what’s not to love; this year we’ll listen to Sarah Mclachlan’s version. When I was a kid in Nebraska, the creek behind our house froze solid (we hoped) in the winter. All the neighborhood kids skated up and down the creek until spring, when the ice started to crack. The high school boys built roaring bonfires along the way to keep us all warm. Ah, those were the days. I’m not kidding, those frozen river shots in the video must have been taken along our creek.

River, Sarah Mclachlan

So turn off your device, turn on the Christmas tree, snuggle the baby, gather the near and dears, throw a cashmere wrap or cotton quilt over your collective knees, warm your hands around a mug of cocoa, listen to Christmas songs, and watch the day fade away.

This recipe must be good, I copied it off the back of a C&H sugar sack. We used to help Muth make Christmas cookies: snowmen, evergreen trees, snowflakes, candy canes. You could always tell the ones we made, they were grayish, with too many sprinkles and too much pink frosting.

Sugar Cookies

  • 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift flour before measuring)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups C&H granulated Sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Icing:

  • 4 cups C&H Confectioners Sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon extract or flavoring (optional)
  • food coloring (optional)

BTW, hope you didn’t make that peanut butter pie from last week’s episode. I did, and the recipe I wrote is incomplete and frustrating. I must have made that pie a hundred times at Sound Food but did a bad job of remembering the recipe. Not only is the pie steppy, but be ready to use at least four bowls, three pans, and the mixer twice. It makes a darn tasty pie though. Here’s a better recipe.

Sound Food Black Bottom Peanut Butter Pie 

  • 1 1/2 c. chocolate chips 
  • 1⁄4 c. coffee 
  • 1⁄2 # cream cheese (Be sure it’s room temperature)
  • 1⁄2 c. honey  (I used agave)
  • 3⁄4 c. Jif-type creamy peanut butter (Don’t use natural or crunchy)
  • 2 t. gelatin (One envelope is 2 1/4 teaspoons, so measure out two from the envelope.) 
  • 1⁄4 c. milk 
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons sugar 

Separate eggs.

Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Do not dump it out in a pile, as the granules in the middle won’t dissolve. Let stand for 5 minutes. Heat gently, stirring until dissolved. 

Melt chocolate chips and coffee over hot water. Spread chocolate over bottom of baked pie shell.

Using paddle attachment, blend cream cheese, honey, and peanut butter.

Bring milk to a simmer, temper egg yolks with half of the hot milk. Add egg yolk/milk mixture back into remainder of milk. Add final egg/milk mixture to cream cheese/honey/peanut butter mixture. 

Add gelatin/water mixture to cream cheese/honey/peanut butter mixture. Combine until smooth.

Beat egg whites to soft peak.

Stir 1/3 of the soft peak egg whites into the cream cheese/peanut butter mixture. Then fold remainder of  egg whites into mixture just until lumps are gone.

Pour mixture into baked pie shell. If the entire mixture won’t fit, refrigerate for 10-15 minutes then pour remainder on top. 

Refrigerate for at least four hours.

Whip one pint of heavy cream until slightly thickened, add 1 teaspoon vanilla and 2 tablespoons sugar. Whip to medium peak. 

Top pie with whipped cream. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings.  

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Elvis: Black bottom peanut butter pie

Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock, 1957

Elvis, Run On, 1967

Elvis, Are You Lonesome Tonight, 1977



I’ve been to three concerts in my life: the Avett Brothers in 2019, Lyle Lovett & Bonnie Raitt in 2004, and Elvis Presley in 1956. On May 23, 1956, Elvis Presley and the Jordanaires played one concert at the Sioux City Auditorium. Most of Sioux City’s white, middle class parents saw Elvis as a threat to the moral fiber of the community, so Daddy’s willingness to be an accessory made me a “cool kid”, at least for a night.

I was fourteen in 1956 when Elvis played at the Sioux City Auditorium. The notion of being a “teenager” was new: there was being a kid, there was waiting to be an adult, and there was being an adult. No age definition or marketing segment separated us as a pack. There were no self-help books or columnists to advise parents about the “teenage years.” There were, however, the first glimmers of something different, something special, and something apart. Elvis Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as being distinct—the first “teenagers” in America to feel the power of a youth culture.

Our Elvis, the Memphis Elvis, the pre-Las Vegas, before-sequins, thin Elvis, looked dangerous, wore a perpetual sneer, dressed in black leather, sported a greaser’s DA with a forehead lock that refused to stay in place, and invented the pelvic thrust.

Our Elvis set a bad example and, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly, offered teenagers an alternative to the “more appropriate” teen idols like Fabian, Ricky Nelson and Paul Anka—boys you could take home to Mom and Dad.

Our Elvis also loved his Mom, grew up singing gospel music, favored peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and served in the Army for two years. 

A week before the concert, our principal called a mandatory school assembly to warn us of the dangers to be found in attending the upcoming Elvis concert. Letters were sent home to uneasy parents advising them to keep their ”children” at home. My parents were born, educated, and married in South Dakota but didn’t seem locked within the limitations defined by their Midwestern upbringing. Muth read books, smoked cigarettes, and played her records too loud. Daddy was a Mason, smoked a pipe, and played Donkey Baseball in the summer.

Those traces of being out of place came to my aid when Elvis surfaced in Iowa. Most of my girlfriends were forbidden to go see him, but my Dad bought two $1.75 balcony tickets, dropped me and my girlfriend off in front of the Auditorium, and said, “Now you girls have fun.” And fun we had—there was screaming, there was moaning, there was bawling. When Elvis began to play A Whole Lot of Shakin, the roof blew right off.

Our cheap seats—top row in the nosebleed section—were miles away from the stage but the power of his personality brought us right down into the action. Two hours later, or it may have been two minutes or two days, he was gone. He came back for three encores and wouldn’t come out again. I’m not kidding—the next thing we heard was, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

Sound Food Black Bottom Peanut Butter Pie 

  • 1 c. chocolate chips 
  • 1⁄4 c. coffee 
  • 1⁄2 # cream cheese 
  • 1⁄2 c. honey 
  • 3⁄4 c. creamy peanut butter 
  • 2 t. gelatin 
  • 1⁄4 c. milk 
  • 3 eggs 

Separate eggs.

Sprinkle gelatin over room temperature water. 

Melt chocolate chips and coffee over hot water. Spread chocolate over bottom of baked pie shell.

Using paddle attachment, blend cream cheese, honey, and peanut butter.

Bring milk to a simmer, temper egg yolks with half of the hot milk. Add egg yolk/milk mixture back into remainder of milk. Add final egg/milk mixture to cream cheese/honey/peanut butter mixture. 

Add gelatin/water mixture. Combine until smooth.

Beat egg whites to soft peak.

Fold egg/peanut butter/gelatin mixture into egg whites. 

 

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes | 3 Comments

This chicken came home to roast: Mark Bittman’s roast chicken

Little Feat, Dixie Chicken

When I was growing up, Sunday dinner meant a 1:00, after-church, elbows-off-the-table, no-TV, meal of roast beef, roast pork, or roast chicken, with an occasional ham. Now before you wax all nostalgic, may I add that all roasted options were predictably dry and over-cooked. Muth accepted her role as food provider—dinner only, please—but didn’t seem to embrace it. Somehow, eating (and cooking) didn’t have the cachet then as it does today. There were no Kalamata olives, fresh mushrooms, artisan home-made pizza, avocado toast, coffee beans, Greek yogurt, Yukon gold potatoes, Trader Joe’s focaccia, or, for that matter, expectations of steppy, delectable “gourmet” meals. 

Anyways, I assumed that a large glass of water was a mandatory accompaniment to any roast chicken until the 1980s when Judy Rogers became famous for her version at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Thomas Keller and Jacques Pépin weren’t far behind to jump on the restaurant-version roast chicken bandwagon and food critics are now quick to say that the quality of a world-class restaurant’s roast chicken is the acid test.

Since 2009, Costco has provided home cooks with a readily available, inexpensive—still $4.99!—solution for that I-just-spent-$200.00-at Costco-and-don’t-have-anything-for-dinner dilemma. Now there are those out there who do not enjoy the taste of a Costco, Safeway, or Whole Foods rotisserie chicken (the Sweetie among them) and who can spot the culprit whether hidden under a sea of gravy, tucked inside an enchilada, or nestled in the leaves of a faux Caesar salad but there are occasions when a home cook has to seize that rotisserie chicken by the wings and serve it anyway—every day can’t be a banquet.

I meant to buy a rotisserie chicken on our trip to Costco last week, but when faced with the ordeal of walking all the way to the back of the store, fending off the snack-seekers along the way, I thought, “I’ll just buy a raw one when we stop at Trader Joes.” Now here comes the sticker-shock aspect of my story: $14.69 cents for an raw, organic, (Who cares if it’s organic? At my age, it may as well be a caged chicken that gets me.) 3 1/2 pound bird. I had the sniffles (an inadequate word for my misery), so chicken noodle soup sounded like bliss.

I recently forked over the price of a New York Times Cooking subscription and have come to trust their recipes, so it was my first stop. The ease and simplicity of this recipe made it a sure choice. I’ve made that roast chicken three times since and may never go back to the Costco alternative. There is a turkey version, so that will be on the table, so to speak, for the next turkey holiday. After the bird rests for a half an hour, I save a breast for dinner, strip the bird, make a strong stock out of the bones, and have at least four dinners. Even at $14.69 a bird, that pencils out to be a bargain.

So without further ado, here is Mark Bittman’s recipe for roast chicken, thanks to New York Times Cooking.

Mark Bittman’s roast chicken 

1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, trimmed of excess fat

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper 

 

Put a cast-iron skillet on a low rack in the oven and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Rub the chicken all over with the oil and sprinkle it generously with salt and pepper.

 

When the oven and skillet are hot, carefully put the chicken in the skillet, breast side up. Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees. Continue to roast until the bird is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh reads 155 to 165 degrees—30-35 minutes.

 

Tip the pan to let the juices flow from the chicken’s cavity into the pan. Transfer the chicken to a platter and let it rest for at least 15 minutes. Carve and serve.

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes | 5 Comments

The joys of adult children: Carrot cake

The Avett Brothers, February Seven


The Avett Brothers, No Hard Feelings

I wish they lived down the block, but I’ll take what I have: two wonderful adult kids, an extraordinary daughter and son-in-law, five granddaughters, one grandson, one grand daughter-in-law, and, dun da da dun, one great granddaughter—all on the Eastcoast.

I just returned from a whirlwind family visit—drives through the Tennessee and South Carolina hills (they call them mountains), delicious meals that someone else made, cozy, comfortable guest rooms, shopping in vintage stores, thrift stores, fancy stuff stores, lunches in tiny Berea, Kentucky and Greer, South Carolina, night walks in downtown Knoxville, Mexican food at Babaloo, morning coffee with my favorite people, Syd’s famous cinnamon rolls, soft doggie ear rubs with Louie, Lucy, and Layla, football games, and…thanks to Ronnie, a rousing surprise: an evening Avett Brothers concert for the whole family.


The concert goers gather at the UT campus before the event.


Noodle Nirvana, Berea, Kentucky


Aunt Katie with Jane


Grandpa Ronnie with Jane


Downtown Knoxville

My dears also threw me an official, present-opening, carrot cake-eating, candle-blowing birthday party. All in all, it was a best-ever week with the ones I love. They gave up their time, let me have their too-cool, kookaburra drink bottle, drove to see me, told me their best adventures, showed me their latest kitchen improvements, fluffed my pillow, made my morning coffee, gave me a portable white-noise machine and a warm quilted shirt, took me on a guided tour of their new factory, dropped me off at my departure gate, introduced me to their boss, made me cinnamon rolls, cooked dinner for me, and made me miss them even more. 

Bob got sprung from his Sacramento project, so a week after I returned from the East Coast, here we are at the airport, ready to go home. I’ll miss the sunny weather and our 11th floor view, but will be so glad to be home again.

Sound Food Carrot Cake 

  • 4 eggs 
  • 1 c. oil 
  • 1 c. brown sugar 
  • 1 c. white sugar 
  • 2 c. flour 
  • 2 tsp. baking soda 
  • 2 tsp. baking powder 
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon 
  • 1 1⁄2 tsp. nutmeg 
  • 3 c. grated carrots 
  • 1 c. walnuts 

Beat eggs until lemon colored in large bowl. Add oil, brown sugar, white sugar.

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and spices together in separate bowl. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in large bowl. Mix in carrots and walnuts.

Pour batter into one 9×11 or three 9” greased and floured cake pans. Bake 40 minutes in preheated 325° oven. Cool before frosting.

 Cream Cheese Frosting 

  • 1⁄2 c. butter, softened 
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened 
  • 1 # box powdered sugar 
  • 1 Tb. vanilla 

Beat butter and cream cheese together. Add vanilla.

Posted in Family and friends, Travel | 6 Comments