In 1982, when the Sweetie and I moved from rainy-day Vashon to semi-arid Los Angeles, we were amazed by the abundance of green, manicured lawns in front yards and the popularity of full, azure-blue swimming pools in back yards. In Westside LA neighborhoods, the grass—a David Hockney still-life of wealth and status—looked like it had escaped from a well-tended golf course. The daily hiss and sprinkle of lawns started up early each morning, along with the aggressive spray of professional hosers cleaning the sidewalks on the UCLA campus near our apartment. Run-off cascaded over the concrete, along sidewalks, down gutters, into storm drains, and out to sea. Yards were green, pools were full—there seemed to be plenty of water.
We were surprised by this mindless waste. In most of Puget Sound, by the end of June the grass is brown, with yellow dandelions and their dark green leaves the only sign of life. But by the first of October, the dormant season is over and Fall rains bring back the green grass.
David Hockney, Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles, 1980
David Hockney, A Lawn Being Sprinkled, 1967
Our four-year stint in San Diego found front yards sporting the same Hollywood green. In Eugene, Oregon, however, a green lawn was a sign of thoughtless indulgence and if a bike-riding, tree hugger caught you watering your lawn, you were likely to receive a scolding. In Portland, Oregon, old neighborhoods with charming bungalows, flaunt frowsy, weedy, dried-up lawns. In Tacoma, not known for its ecological drift, we scoffed at lawn sprinklers and wore our summer brown grass as a badge of honor.
We currently live in a green-grass-in-the-front-yard zone—not by our own plan or hard work. Community wisdom chooses green, trimmed front lawns kept tidy and manicured by mowers, blowers, weeders, and trimmers. Now, don’t get me wrong—I am pleased as punch to forego the grind of a weekly mow but given the option, I’d prefer Portland blowzy, frowsy or Vashon it’s-July-so-of-course-the-grass-is-brown landscape design.
Chile Verde With White Beans Serves 4
1 lb. tomatillos, husks removed, quartered
2 avocados, peeled and pitted
4 jalapeño chiles
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
4 Tbsp. lime juice
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
4 cloves garlic, divided
2 Tbsp. sesame seeds, divided
3 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. olive oil, divided
Salt to taste
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 Tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 lb. cooked cannellini beans (If using canned, rinse off canning liquid.)
2 cups water or vegetable stock
Juice of 1 Lime
In a blender, combine tomatillos, avocados, jalapeños, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, 2 garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, 2 tsp. olive oil, and salt. Purée until smooth.
In a heavy soup pot, heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Slice remaining 2 garlic cloves in half, and cook for 1 minute. Add onions, Mexican oregano, cumin, red pepper flakes, and remaining 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds; cook until onions are translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatillo sauce, beans (if using canned beans, wait until the last 10 minutes of step 4 to add the beans; otherwise they will fall apart) and water or stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for for 30 minutes, stirring often.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to write a post this week but silence didn’t feel right. I don’t have words that might inspire or illuminate, but I do want to acknowledge the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I have lived a long life of safety and comfort; I was born to caring parents, taught by generous teachers, and have been in a loving relationship for forty years. I have no idea how it feels to worry about what might happen to my son when he leaves the house, or to understand the the accumulated rage it takes to light a car on fire. I do feel sadness, despair, and the imperative to recognize lost lives and share the pain. I will try to be kinder and vow to work toward seeking leaders who will unite us with compassion.
On a much less important and more mundane note, I am currently on my second day of the dread colonoscopy preparation—leading to a procedure that ranks with having a root canal or watching The Bachelorette. Included in the complicated, four-page, particularly severe set of gastroenterological instructions, is the mandate to stop eating solid food two days before the day of the event. Seems unnecessarily unkind to me.
I am surprised how often I think about food. What no cream in my coffee? No peanut butter toast after my morning walk? No afternoon Dorito snack? No dip into the pickle or olive jar? Not even a rice cake? Food marks time, rewards my efforts, celebrates the end of the day. Countless times I think, “time for a snack” only to remember.
I also miss the ease and focus I experience when I cook. I can remember working behind the line in restaurant kitchens when time disappeared in a dance of effort, practiced skill, and teamwork. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this state of mind “as being in the zone—the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
Stepping into the routine of cooking is always a stress reliever for me. For the most part I can control what happens: the water will boil, the onions will caramelize, the pork shoulder will become tender, and something eatable will emerge. Just throw in the occasional scorched peppers, salty potatoes, and overcooked salmon to keep my pride in check.
So, if I could go into the kitchen and cook something to eat, would it be scalloped potatoes, sweet potato panang curry, a tuna melt? Maybe I’d try Mark Bitman’s recipe for Ribollita.
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and ground black pepper
2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans
1 15-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1 fresh rosemary sprig 1 fresh thyme sprig
1 pound chopped kale or escarole
4 large, thick slices whole-grain bread, toasted
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add onion, carrot, celery and garlic; sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, 5 to 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 500 degrees.
Drain the beans; if they’re canned, rinse them as well. Add them to the pot along with tomatoes and their juices and stock, rosemary and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat so the soup bubbles steadily; cover and cook, stirring once or twice to break up the tomatoes, until the flavors meld, 15 to 20 minutes.
Fish out and discard rosemary and thyme stems, if you like, and stir in kale. Taste and adjust seasoning. Lay bread slices on top of the stew so they cover the top and overlap as little as possible. Scatter red onion slices over the top, drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with Parmesan.
Put the pot in the oven and bake until the bread, onions and cheese are browned and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. (If your pot fits under the broiler, you can also brown the top there.)
Divide the soup and bread among 4 bowls and serve.
In case you decide to go to the effort to make that pot roast from my Saturday blog, here’s a slight revision. I forgot to mention that my neighbors did not put the potatoes and carrots in with the meat—that would be just silly. Instead, add the root vegetables about two hours into the cooking. Here’s a corrected recipe.
1 3 to 5 pound beef roast chuck, round, or brisket
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cloves minced garlic
1 to 2 cups red wine
2 cups low sodium beef broth
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 large white onions cut into 2 inch chunks
1 pound baby carrots
1 pound red potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks
1 sprig fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat a large dutch oven pot over high heat.
Season both sides of chuck roast with salt and pepper. Add vegetable oil to pot and sear roast until browned, about 3 to 4 minutes each side.
Remove roast from pan and set aside briefly on a plate or cutting board. Add garlic to pot and sauté 60 seconds. Deglaze pan with red wine and beef broth. Add roast back to the pot.
Pour Worcestershire sauce over roast and place the onion chunks on top of and around the meat. Place rosemary sprig on top.
Place a lid on the pan and transfer it to the preheated 350 degree oven. Cook 2 hours, then add potatoes and carrots and cook for another hour. When meat is tender, shreds easily with a fork, and vegetables are tender, it’s ready.
I made pizza for dinner the other night. There was pizza fallout from one end of the kitchen to the other—flour, semolina, caramelized onion/mushroom, pepperoni slices, tomato sauce, shreds of cheese, a floured rolling pin, parchment paper, olive jars, sliced tomatoes, and a hint of desperation—vaguely reminiscent of my La Jolla Sushi Burrito adventure. I’ve eaten great homemade pizza, but not at my house—eatable yes, but great, no. Ginny and Ron make killer pizza (on the grill even), Karen makes a delicious pie using a special pizza oven stored in a handy location for snack emergencies, I see Instagram pizza made by my nephew, my niece, and my grandchildren, so it can be done at home, just not by me. Sometimes when we cook, the results aren’t equal to the effort.
I remember Thanksgiving a few years ago—it was the Sweetie and me, so a turkey breast was just the thing. I brined, minced, stuffed, rubbed, roasted, and basted with lukewarm results. The gravy was grayish, the stuffing dry, and the meat had to be consumed with a glass of water, wine, or milk. The time and effort were there but the results were disappointing. Cooking can be like that—it always takes effort to make a stir fry, soup, stew, pie, or cookies, but sometimes the results don’t shine.
One summer in the 70s, I put falafel on the menu for a Sound Food ethnic dinner. During a trip to Israel a few years before, I had eaten as many as I could and wanted to reproduce the experience—how hard could it be? At the time, falafel was not readily available and could be found only at the Phoenecia in West Seattle. Ginny was working at Sound Food then and we soaked, ground, mixed, diced, and rolled falafel for one hundred. The afternoon before the event, we filled up a pot with oil, heated it to 375°, dropped in a few guinea pigs, and stood over the pot watching with dismay as the balls dissolved into crumbs, turned black, and sank to the bottom of the pot. After a desperate call to the Phoenecia, we added flour, squeezed falafel dough in kitchen towels, reshaped the balls so they looked like hockey pucks, and aired them out on bakery racks in the parking lot. On the second run the hockey pucks held together and the day was saved—unfortunately, they tasted like hockey pucks. But, oh well, after stuffing them into Baker Bob’s soft, chewy pita rounds and stuffing them with pickled vegetables, hummus, lettuce, tomatoes and tahini sauce, no one could taste them anyway.
Then there are those times when the knives align and everything is just right. My neighbors were telling me of a recent pot roast dinner they prepared. Now, they have made pot roast many times before and always with effort, time, and good results: the browning, the braising, the simmering, the waiting—but this time, the pot roast was perfect. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, the gravy brown and silky, the carrots sweet, the potatoes perfectly soft. Hard work paid off.
Years ago when I was a cube rat in Seattle, I came home from my grey, drizzling, two-hour commute to the smell of dinner in the oven. The Sweetie followed a Gourmet magazine recipe and made French lamb stew—tender cubes of meat, slender batons of carrot, a few rosemary branches, and garlic. All the result of smart shopping, effort, and a dose of good luck. I’ve tried over the years to reproduce that dish but haven’t come up with a lamb stew that good.
Then there was our January dinner party based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Oh Jerusalem. There was definitely hard work: dicing, boning, mincing, blending, roasting, basting, stuffing, creaming, baking, and whisking. This time, the results were equal to the effort: feta beet salad, tabouli, roast chicken with clementines—all reflective of the time spent in the kitchen.
Now, both Steve Jobs and the Buddha said that the journey is the reward, but when I spend hours over a hot stove, I’d like the results to match the effort—just sayin’. Here’s that pot roast recipe and a Mark Bittman vinegar chicken Ginny told me about that both return brilliant results. Skip falafel, buy them at Trader Joes or Costco.
BTW, foxglove season is with us, they’re beginning to bloom here and there along the walking trail. One year, the foxgloves bloomed tall and purple throughout Nikki’s property. It was a special event—every May we waited for it, but it never happened again.
Foxgloves near the walking trail
Mark Bitman’s vinegar chicken
2 olive oil
1 3-pound chicken, cut up for sauteing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup minced shallots or scallions
1 cup good red-wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Set a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; when it is hot, place chicken in the skillet, skin side down. Cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes, or until chicken is nicely browned. Turn and cook 3 minutes on the other side. Season with salt and pepper.
Place skillet in the oven. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until almost done (juices will run clear, and there will be just a trace of pink near the bone). Remove chicken to an ovenproof platter. Place it in the oven; turn off the heat, and leave the door slightly ajar.
Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking juices out of the skillet (discard them)(I never discard pan juices). Place skillet over medium-high heat, and add shallots; sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, and raise the heat to high. Cook a minute or two, or until the powerful acrid smell has subsided somewhat. Add ½ cup water (I added chicken stock) and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring, until the mixture is slightly reduced and somewhat thickened. Stir in butter, if desired (I will always desire the addition of butter).
Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet, and turn the chicken in the sauce. Serve immediately.
1 3 to 5 pound beef roast chuck, round, or brisket
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cloves minced garlic
1 to 2 cups red wine
2 cups low sodium beef broth
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 large white onions cut into 2 inch chunks
1 pound baby carrots
1 pound red potatoes cut into bite-sized chunks
1 sprig fresh rosemary
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat a large dutch oven pot over high heat. Season both sides of chuck roast with salt and pepper. Add vegetable oil to pot and sear roast until browned, about 3 to 4 minutes each side.
Remove roast from pan and set aside briefly on a plate or cutting board. Add garlic to pot and saute 60 seconds. Deglaze pan with red wine and beef broth. Add roast back to the pot.
Pour Worcestershire sauce over roast and place the onion chunks around the meat. Place rosemary sprig on top.
Place a lid on the pan and transfer it to the preheated 350 degree oven. Cook 2 hours, then add potatoes and carrots and cook for another hour or until meat shreds easily with a fork.
These days, everyone is cooking—not so much for the sheer joy of it, but because, other than take-out, they are the chosen feeder of the family. Wish I had what it takes to bake bread. I had a grilled cheese sandwich the other day made with Ginny’s home-baked sourdough bread that was, without a doubt, the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever eaten—I’d gladly stand in line and pay $6.00 for a loaf, but make my own, not so much. Pork shoulders are a no-show at the grocery shelves, chicken is scarce, eggs are expensive, and where is all the tahini? Celebrities are elbowing their way onto BuzzFeed, eager to share their latest home-grown kitchen culinary delight: rappers making lobster-laden grilled cheese sandwiches (not as good as Ginny’s, I’ll bet), Kristen Bell deep-frying Oreos in her air fryer, Ina Garten beaming with her waffles, Cindy Crawford tackling her grandmother’s brisket recipe.
Back in The 80s, the Sweetie and I watched Great Chefs of the World on PBS—some travel, some exotic scenery, always ending up in the kitchen of a world-class hotel restaurant, the camera focused on toque-wearing men making soufflé tarts, frenched lamb chops with demi-glace, ballottine of braised poultry, beef tournedos filled with foie gras, tall cakes frosted with Italian meringue, chanterelle-stuffed poussin with raspberry vinaigrette—astoundingly complicated dishes with no easy tips, shortcuts, or substitutions and not even a hint of “If I can do it, you can do it” baloney. We knew, that they knew, it was far beyond our skill level. There were no wry comments into the camera, no yelling, and little commentary.
I stopped watching cooking shows on television after the first season of Iron Chef America. “Let the battle begin!” marked the start of an hour that featured Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay or Mario Batali trying to out cook Masaharu Morimoto, Cat Cora, or Rick Bayless. How did this showcase of extraordinary culinary techniques, palates, creativity, and ingenuity become a parody starring “the sexiest chef in Asia” slinging hash with “the worst cook in America?” Or even worse, a two-year old with his own YouTube cooking show?
So, here’s my pitch for a new competitive cooking show: three contestants crowd into a small, dark corner, known as a hotel-room kitchen, to prepare dinner for two. They have one glass-top burner that stops at warm, a microwave with two settings, a stubby refrigerator that opens the wrong way, with vinegar, black pepper, and breakfast room bacon and eggs as the “surprise ingredients.”
Watch the fun, enjoy the mayhem, cheer for the cut-throat competition. See the tears as “Chef” number one is whacked in the face opening the microwave; share the hilarity as “Chef” number two struggles to dice an onion on a towel with a cheap, dull knife; laugh with delight as “Chef” number three spills his finished soup on the floor; thrill with the drama as “Chef” number two melts down, jabs number three with the cheap, dull knife, slips on the spilled soup, and is “fired” for taking an unauthorized rest break. “Good”, mutters number one, “More counter space for me.” Winner gets an eight-week stay in a hotel. Should be a winner.
Ina Garten’s Waffles
1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1 package (¼ ounce) active dry yeast, at room temperature
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cups lukewarm whole milk (90 to 100 degrees)
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for the waffle iron
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 extra-large eggs
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Sliced bananas, toasted coconut, warm maple syrup, and crème fraîche, for serving
The night before, combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a very large bowl (the batter will expand enormously). Allow it to stand for about 5 minutes, until the yeast dissolves and the mixture has started to foam, which tells you the yeast is active. Stir in the milk, butter, honey, vanilla, and salt. Add the flour and whisk until the batter is smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow it to sit overnight at a cool room temperature.
The next morning, heat a Belgian waffle iron according to the manufacturer’s instructions and brush the top and bottom with melted butter. Beat the eggs together with the baking soda and whisk them into the batter until combined. Pour just enough of the batter onto the hot waffle iron to cover the grids (⅓ to ½ cup each, depending on your waffle maker), close, and cook for 5 to 6 minutes on medium heat, until the waffles are golden brown. Cut them apart with a small knife, if necessary, and remove them with a fork. Repeat the process until all the batter has been used. Serve the waffles hot with sliced bananas, toasted coconut, maple syrup, and crème fraîche and let everyone help themselves.
If we’re lucky, the loss of an old favorite leads to a new delight. Take tubs of Marantha crunchy peanut butter at Costco, for example. First we assumed they had moved it again, then we desperately searched, then we asked—only to find out that the product “was no longer available.” What now? Trader Joe’s blue label ”Crunchy Salted” to the rescue: smaller, easier to mix, cheaper, and crunchier. When Parenthood jerked its last tear, who stepped in to offer a weekly hug? This is Us. When I could no longer find root beer popsicles, what should magically appear but Mocha Mochi Balls; but there will never be a acceptable substitute for TJ’s Salted Caramel Gelato.
Anyways, swimming is my favorite mode of exercise. I had a brief fling with a Lifecycle, but I don’t like to get hot and sweaty. Ten years ago, I didn’t consider regular exercise as something I would ever do. No one exercised in the 50s, 60s, and even 70s. You never saw an adult or, for that matter, anyone over thirteen riding a bike. Gyms and barbells were for boxers, jumping jacks and squats were for Phys Ed class, organized sports were for boys, and you ran only if you were on the track team or if someone was chasing you. Although in the late 60s my friend Sally and I decided to jog around the Methodist Church parking lot. We dropped it quickly though, and returned to a third cup of coffee and the daily crossword puzzle.
This March, after my pool closed due to the virus, I did nothing. Then my life coach said, “Time to get out of the couch and go outside.” On my first few walks I grumbled—about the rain, about the sun, about the silence, about the noise. Then one day I didn’t grumble anymore, it was all enjoyable. I heard the ordinary brown sparrow’s beautiful song, I watched Buffleheads in the pond across the street, I saw the sun shining through the wet trees, I followed the gradual blooming of the daffodils, I chatted with Dorothy, waved at Alan, praised ponytail girl’s big black poodle, remembered to step up to avoid the tree root growing under the path, and said a quick “Good morning” to black-haired girl in white jacket as she strode past me every day.
So will I continue these lovely walks when the pool reopens? Probably not. That bad angel who perches on my left shoulder, wearing pajama bottoms and slumped in the couch, will moan, “Oh, you don’t really need to walk, a quick swim is good enough.” Cheerleader angel, the one on the right, with letter sweater and pom poms, will cartwheel and cheer, “Come on, you can do it.” But in the end, knees will vote no, stomach won’t want to wait for the daily peanut butter toast, and I”ll quit walking.
BTW, if I see one more commercial by a billion-dollar, publicly-traded, hard-sell corporation murmuring that they have my back, that we’re all in this together, reminding me to wash my hands, urging me to stay safe, and soft-selling me their product with fuzzy warm shots of dancing families, precocious tots, and furry pets, I may throw the TV into the backyard—being sure to maintain social distance.
Peanut Butter Cookies
1/2 cup room temperature butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cup flour
Preheat oven to 350˚ and position 2 racks in upper and lower thirds.
In a medium bowl, beat butter with the sugar until creamy.
Add egg, peanut butter, and vanilla.
Combine flour, salt, and baking soda.
Mix in to butter, peanut butter, egg, and vanilla mixture.
Roll tablespoons of the dough into 24 balls. Set the balls on 2 baking sheets, and using a fork, make a crosshatch pattern on each cookie.
Bake for 15 minutes shifting sheets from front to back and bottom to top, until cookies are lightly brown.
Chicago, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
I was hanging out the sheets the other day when I realized that it wasn’t Saturday, I was a day early. Before the lockdown, I knew it was Saturday because I swam at the pool early. Sunday was John Miller on afternoon baseball, Monday was my day off swimming, Tuesday was questionable, Wednesdays were for groceries, on Thursdays we went vegetable shopping at the Farmer’s Market, and Fridays were David Brooks/Mark Shields night. I obviously don’t work anymore; these days, it seems like every day is Saturday. When we start school or enter the workforce, we march to the tick of the clock, to the pages of the calendar, and are at the beck and call of time. When you have a job, Tuesday and Thursday may be drifty, Wednesday has its own nickname and everyone knows when it’s Monday and Friday.
I have adhered to Saturday clean-sheet day since I was a kid. My mom taught school so housework revolved around her schedule—Saturdays were for clean sheets, vacuuming, and grocery shopping. In fifth grade, days of the week underpants were a big deal. My friend Barbara Kilzer got a set for her birthday, setting off a chorus of must-have pleas among my circle of friends. Muth wasn’t convinced, but one day the underpant package from Sears showed up in the mail. I stuck faithfully to the weekly plan and tried my best, given the fact that laundry day was Saturday, to wear the correct day. I forgot all about DOTW underpants until the late 80s when I saw When Harry Met Sally.
If you work in a restaurant, there are no weekends. Cooks don’t look forward to Friday, only the servers, who fatten their wads on the busy weekends, are glad to see the end of the week roll around. Saturday and Sunday bring on the crowds and dreaded brunch, Monday will be your day off, if you get a day off, Tuesdays add checking in the orders to the already packed day, Wednesdays mean a spirited meeting with the manager about food cost, Thursdays are a bit of a breather, and you’re back to Friday.
When we lived in the 501, I knew it was Tuesday because the garbage collectors clanged us awake, Thursdays announced themselves when Rai, our flight attendant neighbor, returned from a scheduled trip. I could hear his call-out, “Cat, I”m home” and the metallic thump and roll of his suitcase as it hopped up the stairs. Julia, our next door neighbor’s granddaughter, announced Saturday mornings with, “Gramma, I’m ho ome” and it didn’t take long to remember that lawn guys mowed early on Monday morning—I could hear the groans from upstairs guy.
These days, it seems like every day is Saturday. In the stay-home-stay-safe mode the sun comes up, the sun goes down, we walk our daily walk, vacuum the rugs any old day, watch sporting events from the past, and there it is, time to change the sheets again. But if it were all to be taken away, the things I’d want back are the mundane, the every day: chipmunk viewing, morning chats with my sister, sunshine visits with my neighbors, snuggles at night with the sweetie, and hanging out the sheets. The rhythm of daily life—what could be better.
Here are a few morning-walk shots of Spring flowers.
Incidental beauty in the woods
And, incidental visiting frogs
Our Army green frog is back for the summer
Smokey Chicken and Green Onion Quesadillas
Flour tortillas—lightly buttered
Cooked, pulled chicken (canned chicken is just fine) mixed with barbecue sauce (my fav is Jack Daniel’s Original BBQ)
A couple squirts of Mexican crema, sour cream, plain yogurt (what the heck, strawberry would work), cream cheese, mayonnaise, bottled Ranch dressing—anything white and gooey will do
Diced green onion (I seldom find green onions in the bin and usually resort to finely diced white onion)
Diced green chilies in those little cans are a great addition as well as canned, sliced black olives
Chopped cilantro (use the stems too, they’re crunchy and sweet)
Grated cheddar cheese (or a shredded mix in a bag—who’s to know?)
Combine chicken and white gooey stuff.
For one quesadilla, spread a bit of cheese, ¼ c. chicken mix, ¼ c. green onions, chilies, black olives, cilantro, and more cheese on one buttered tortilla. Top with second tortilla—press firmly to seal edges. Cook over medium-low heat until down side is golden brown in heavy skillet, turning once. Finish in 350° oven for 10 minutes.
Another method, which is easier to flip, is to spread toppings on one half of tortilla, fold the empty half over the full half, slide into buttered skillet, brown bottom side, butter top side, flip over and finish in the oven.
Serve with black beans, fresh tomato salsa and more white gooey stuff.
We tend to choose sides when it comes to nature: baby hippo over crocodile, chipmunk over hawk, fiddlehead fern over blackberry, round and furry over slick and scaly. When I’m standing on the edge of our slope with a jar of Roundup in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, I decide who lives. That blackberry whip that wraps around my ankle and bloodies my cheek is an easy target; the slowly unfurling, hesitant fern, wins my protection. We’re always glad to see the chipmunk eating the bird food but I just read an unsettling NextDoor post about a screen door left ajar, an intrusive squirrel, and the ensuing drama. Same with mice, if they keep to themselves, we are at peace. Just stay in your own yard!
I do remember one battle where the good guy/bad guy line was blurry. In the 1980s I stood with the herd of nightly Seattle/Vashon walk-on commuters waiting for the boat to ease into the island’s north end dock. An eagle swooped low over the water right in front of the boat, dipped his talons into the Sound, and snagged a huge salmon. (Now could there be anything more Northwest?) The salmon was having none of it—he flipped, wriggled, and dove deeper in the water taking the eagle with him. The boat’s captain, watching the mashup from behind the wheel, tooted his horn as the boat closed in on the pilings, the eagle, and the salmon. The audience was divided: some cheering for the eagle, some rooting for the salmon, but everyone holding their breath hoping that the deadlocked pair wouldn’t be churned up in the propeller.
The eagle, wings heaving and straining, gathered all his might and pulled both himself and the salmon out of the water just before the boat leaned into the dock’s timber dolphins. The walk-ons cheered, arms thrust in the air, the captain laid on his horn, the crew, caught up in the drama, hurried to ready the chains for landing. We all watched as the eagle turned sharply in the air with the captive salmon; the big fish gave one last flip and plummeted back into the sound. The eagle looked down, straightened course, and went back to his search for food. I wish there was a picture but, you know, back in the day few of us had a camera at the ready. This one, poached from TripAdvisor, will have to do.
Thai Panang curry with salmon and red yams (the salmon is incidental. The curry is just as good without it.)
4-6 ounces skinned, boned salmon cut in 1” cubes
1/2 peeled red yam (or sweet potato, butternut squash, or pumpkin), peeled and cut into 1” cubes
2 tablespoons coconut oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 small onion, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons Panang red curry paste
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 can thick coconut milk (if you use TJ’s coconut milk, you will open the can to a thick, almost solid coconut fat layer on top of the thinner coconut milk. Don’t worry, just remove it all from the can into a bowl and whisk until smooth. You can also blend to smooth.)
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup Thai basil leaves or sweet basil
1/4 cup finely diced cilantro stems and leaves
zest of one lime
juice of two limes
Place a Dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat. Add the coconut oil. Once the oil melts and shimmers, add the garlic and ginger. Season with sprinkle of salt, sauté 2-3 minutes, add onions. Season with a sprinkle of salt and sauté until onions are translucent.
Move the garlic/ginger/onions to the side of the pan, add the panang red curry paste and peanut butter to the center of the pan. Sauté the paste/peanut butter for 2-3 minutes to intensify the flavor, stirring with a spatula.
Add half of the can of coconut milk, simmer for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer, add sweet potato cubes and remainder of coconut milk, fish sauce, and brown sugar. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt, sugar, curry paste, or lime juice to balance salty/sweet/spicy/tart flavors, simmer 15 minutes, or until sweet potato is soft.
Remove from heat and stir in the salmon cubes, turn off the heat, let sit for five minutes. (You can also brown salmon in coconut oil at the beginning of the preparation, reserve until this point, then add to sauce/sweet potato mixture.)
Add basil leaves, cilantro, lime zest, and lime juice. Taste for balance.
As I get older, I continue to learn that things change. Children grow up and begin new lives, babies are born, loved ones die, body parts ache, energy dwindles, and relationships grow richer. What I didn’t count on is the potential for permanent changes in the outside world. Post coronavirus, the global economy may alter drastically, new social concepts may evolve, familiar cultural habits may change. However, the reliability of nature gives me great comfort. Drab sparrows sing their little hearts out, green leaves open, Mt. Rainier towers majestically, dandelions thrive, and Scotch broom is on the warpath again. All we can do is to enjoy the old normals and expect that new normals will nudge their way in.
Swallows: sleek, iridescent, and joyful, these aerial acrobats must have some sort of genius connection in their little bird brains to return to us every spring. My neighbors and I, lounging on the back patio the other day, marveled at their swoops and glides. My sister hosts an annual Spring swallow fest just outside her kitchen door. She watches them fly in with twigs to shore up last year’s home, position themselves to lay eggs, and nestle down to hatch the brood. Mom sits, Dad hunts and gathers, and both feed the gaping mouths of their new family. Ginny waits outside the door and looks up at the eaves, hoping to witness the minute the nestlings unfurl their wings and fly; but so far, all she has seen is a full nest, then an empty nest—maybe this year.
Shoots and leaves (Can’t type shoots and leaves without thinking of that old joke about commas. “Eats, shoots and leaves—a panda walks into a cafe, asks for a sandwich, and when he finishes, takes out a gun, fires it into the ceiling, and walks out without paying. The astonished waiter asks, ‘Why on earth did you do that?’ to which the panda replies ‘I’m a panda—look it up!’ The waiter looks it up in his dictionary and sure enough finds, ‘Panda: eats, shoots and leaves.’”): Anyways, magic happens every spring when gnarly brown corms, shriveled roots, and ordinary looking bulbs feel the coming change of seasons and slowly erupt. Last summer I nursed along a beautiful pink begonia, cut it back when the leaves died in the fall, stuck it in the garage, and completely forgot about it. Today while I was rummaging, there it was—neglected, left in the dark to its own devices, and ignored, but spring intervened. A small, timid, green leaf felt the urge and broke through—who knows what will happen with water and sunshine! And, we can find Grandpa Otts pushing up through the dirt in our gardens.
Soon-to-be pink begonia
Grampa Ott starts
Shopping: The sweetie and I put on our elder pants the other morning and got out of the door early to try out Costco’s “Senior Hours.” We had our stylish masks (thanks, Ginny) at the ready, a vial of hand sanitizer in the car, and a pocketful of snacks, just in case. We got there twenty minutes before the doors opened—there was a line snaking around the blue pallets at the entrance and down the length of the building. Our patience meter usually goes off at about five minutes, but this time, we needed beer and dirt so decided to take a breath and wait. At exactly 8:00 (What is it about those in charge of opening doors? Can’t they let the “elders,” who have been standing in the cold for at least 20 minutes, in at 7:55?), the doors finally opened. We got in on the first surge and, with the exception of Tylenol, bought everything we needed. Don’t quite see what the advantage is though.
Hugging: The Sweetie is the only one I’ve hugged for weeks now. Will we ever embrace a casual friend again, shake hands with a stranger, touch our faces without guilt, rub a random baby’s soft head, shoulder-brush a fellow sidewalker, sit shoulder to shoulder on mass transit, climb over someone sitting in the middle seat, or share a communal restaurant table?
Anyways, there’s always pork shoulder. Then again, I just read that there may be a pork shortage, so stock up.
Braised, Stuffed Pork Shoulder, Serves 8
Instead of making the recipe’s stuffing (from Simply Recipes by Elise Bauer), I mushed up some leftover rice pilaf with leftover gravy, and used that. Also only used 1/3 of a five pound pork shoulder.
4 pounds pork shoulder roast, boned, untied
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chicken or beef stock, boiling
1 cup dry white wine (like a Sauvignon blanc)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs (can use an herbes de provence, or Italian seasoning blend)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
Marinate pork: Mix together the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add the pork roast and turn it to coat it all over with the marinade. Marinate for several hours in the refrigerator.
Remove from refrigerator 1 to 2 hours before cooking to bring closer to room temp.
Remove pork roast from marinade, pat dry. Reserve marinade.
Make the stuffing: Combine the stuffing ingredients until the mixture has the consistency of a paste.
Stuff the roast: Open up the pork roast to expose where the bone had been. Smear the stuffing onto this surface. Tie up the pork roast to enclose the stuffing. Rub the pork with olive oil. Sear the roast in oven or on stovetop: Either place the pork in a large roasting pan and sear it in a pre-heated 425°F oven for 30 minutes or until the surface is golden brown, OR sear the roast on all sides in a large cast iron frying pan on medium high heat on the stovetop.
Transfer the pork to a thick-bottomed pot with a cover just large enough to contain it. (We used a 2 1/2 quart Le Creuset.)
Deglaze the pan with the strained marinade: Drain off the fat from the roasting pan or searing pan, then strain the marinade into the pan and heat, stirring to deglaze the pan juices.
Add marinade and stock to pot with pork, cover and cook: Pour the marinade over the pork and add enough stock to come one-half or two-thirds of the way up the side of the meat. Heat on high to bring to a simmer, lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer, cover the pot and simmer for about one and a half hours.
OR if you’ve already heated the oven to sear the roast, bring to a simmer and then put it in a 325°F oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove meat to cutting board, reduce liquids to make a sauce: Transfer the meat to a cutting board. Strain the liquid from the pot into a small saucepan, let settle enough to skim the fat, and simmer until the sauce is reduced by half.
Remove the strings from the meat, slice it or cut it into wedges, and serve with the sauce.
I grew up with sports as background. Every summer weekend, Daddy would turn on the console radio and listen to Dizzy Dean call a Yankees game—in the fall, it was a football game, in the winter, it was boxing. So Allie Reynolds, Whitey Ford, Casey Stengel, Bronco Nagurski, Sam Huff, and Ezerd Charles were familiar names. In the early 1970s, I lost track of sports but once I met the Sweetie, I was back in play.
If there’s a ball involved, we watch. Baseball, football, and women’s basketball most enthusiastically, but if all else fails, the Sweetie settles for soccer, golf, or if necessary, tennis. So…today’s absence of sports, other than darts and chess, leaves a big hole. Yesterday we were thrilled to watch the rerun of a 1988 women’s softball game between Oregon and Stanford—but it didn’t fill the gap. What we love about sports is the immediacy of the action and the surprise when unexpected things happen in the moment.
There are, however, several sports moments I would just as soon forget:
2014, Tacoma, Super Bowl, Seahawks vs. Rotten Patriots. The Sweetie is just starting his treatment and the Super Bowl is a welcome diversion. Seahawks build a 10-point lead to end the third quarter. Patriots rally to take a 28–24 lead with 2:02 left in the game. Seattle threatens to score in the final moments, driving the ball to New England’s 1-yard line. With 26 seconds remaining in the game, Seattle passes the ball in a much-aligned play call resulting in a Patriots rookie intercepting Russell Wilson’s throw into the end zone—Seahawks loose, hearts are broken, expletives are hurled, coaches are blamed, the season is spoiled, and the 12s are stunned into silence.
1998, San Diego, NLCS, Game Six, Atlanta Braves vs. San Diego Padres. I’m shopping for a tin-stamped heart in the Old Town Market—all TVs and radios are tuned to the Braves Padres game. In the midst of success-starved Padres fans, I quietly root for my Braves, heavily favored with 106 season wins and a roster that includes Chipper Jones, Javy López, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The game is scoreless into the sixth inning, when Glavine gives up four runs; Bobby Cox replaces him with John Rocker, who promptly gives up another. Everyone around me cheers—I am silent.
1984, Los Angeles, NBA Championship, Game 7, Lakers vs. Celtics. The Sweetie is working in Texas, I’m alone in our Westwood apartment, windows open, following the score by the rise and fall of a united Los Angeles, watching the game together. Lakers rally from a 14-point deficit to three points down with one minute remaining, when Cedric Maxwell knocks the ball away from Magic Johnson. After the ensuing melee, Dennis Johnson sinks two free throws to seal the Celtics’ victory. The Los Angeles voice is silent.
But these agonies of defeat are balanced by one glorious victory:
1988, Los Angeles, Game 1 of the World Series, LA Dodgers vs. Oakland Athletics. The Sweetie, Felix (our upstairs neighbor), and I watch the game in East LA. Sweetie and I have tickets to Game 2 because he entered and won the Dodgers’ ticket lottery. Kirk Gibson, on the Dodgers bench with injuries to both legs, is called upon to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, batting against Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley. Gibson hobbles to the plate, hits a home run, limps around the bases, and wins the game for the Dodgers by a score of 5–4; they go on to win the World Series. The next day, we jubilantly hand over our tickets at the gate and walk up the ramp—Dodger Stadium is still electric with the energy of Gibson’s walk-off homer.
Here’s Vin Scully’s call of that homer: “All year long, they looked to him to light the fire, and all year long, he answered the demands, until tonight when he was physically unable to start—with two bad legs: the bad left hamstring, and the swollen right knee. And, with two out, you talk about a roll of the dice… this is it. He is shaking his left leg, making it quiver, like a horse trying to get rid of a troublesome fly. Gibson works the count to 3–2, Mike Davis steals second base, Gibson hits a high fly ball into right field, she i-i-i-is… GONE!!!”
Scully said nothing for over a minute, allowing the pictures to tell the story, then said, “In a year that has been so improbable… the impossible has happened!”
It’s hard to imagine sports with today’s no touching edict—no LeBron backing into fill-in-the-blank, no Duke crazies linking arms as they jump up and down? Hard to image a soccer goal when the scorer doesn’t jump into the waiting arms of his teammates or a walk-off home run that doesn’t end in a dog pile. Even in tennis, the game’s not really over until Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors meet at the net and shake hands.
For now, we’ll have to wait until the crisis is over and togetherness is back. Until then we’ll remember sitting out on the deck, pulling up a chair, having a beer with my sister and brother-in-law, and listening to Dave Niehaus call a Mariners game.
Sioux City Coney Island dogs (this recipe makes enough for a baseball team)
2 lbs. lean ground beef
4 medium onions, chopped
1/2 Tbs garlic powder
1-1/2 Tbs white vinegar
4 Tbs chili powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1 tsp allspice
2 dashes worcestershire sauce
6 oz tomato paste
1 quart water
This recipe is for the sauce that is one of several condiments that make a right and proper Coney Island hot dog.
Brown the ground beef and drain. Run it through a food processor for a finer texture, if you choose. It seems to go farther that way. Save time by mincing the onions in a processor also, as it cooks down to nothing in the sauce.
In a small Dutch oven, combine all ingredients and simmer. The original recipe says simmer for 3 to 4 hours. I’ve found that about 2 hours is plenty of time. That’s all there is to it.
Makes about 10 cups of sauce. A cup of sauce makes about eight hot dogs.
Coney Island hot dog correct procedure: Place a hot hotdog in a warm fresh bun. Spread a heaping tablespoon of coney sauce beside the full length of the dog, then do the same with an equal amount of chopped onion. Squirt a line of yellow mustard along the full length. Top with two shakes of salt.