Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When Winter Trees Begin to Fall

While typing an email to a friend via facebook earlier today, an unexpected message from our housemate, Amy, flashed on the screen.

"A tree branch fell through the guest bedroom window. Please call me when you get this message."

It wasn't exactly the Christmas present I expected, to say the least. I immediately called Amy, who gave me the complete picture, including a couple of actual pictures that she posted on facebook so I could assess the damage from my current location in Phoenix (isn't technology great sometimes?). Broken glass shards on the floor, butt end of a douglas fir branch with the diameter of horse hoof resting on the sill, poking through the blinds a good four inches or so - yep, a branch had indeed fallen through. The recent snowfall, it seems, was too much for this branch to bear, and the weight of this heavy load had sent it crashing down.

But look on the bright side: no one was hurt, and with Amy home to hear the crash and feel the house rattle, the situation was under control in a mere two hours or so. With the help of lovely neighbors and friends who came to the rescue, the glass was swept up, the branch cleared away with the help of a chainsaw (hey, I can't say it didn't have it coming, cheeky branch! the nerve!), and the broken window was even removed and replaced with insulating foam to protect the guest room from the elements. Michael and I are incredibly grateful for such support and hard work.

And in the end, this is no great tragedy. We'll order a new window when we get back home, and in the meantime, the guest room will simply be out of commission. Sorry, potential sleepover pals! We can still make room for you if you need a bed.

Speaking of which, it's time I head for bed myself. By the time I post this, it will be Christmas day in Arizona. So merry Christmas to all, and safe slumbers, free from falling trees!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas

In about three hours or so, we'll be leaving Las Vegas, and I have yet to set foot inside a casino. I must be just about the only person to visit Vegas who can honestly say that. The truth is, casinos have never really interested me, although it would be something to see the spectacle that is the Strip. There will be other times for that, but the main purpose of this brief trip was to visit Michael's brother, Ryan, and his fiancee and future step-son, so we mainly stayed close to home.

Not that staying home can't produce the unexpected - I was standing in the middle of a Barnes & Noble yesterday, taking care of some last minute Christmas shopping for our southwestern relations, when I heard a voice exclaim, "Ruth Haggard?!" OK, so my name used to be Ruth Hagglund, not Haggard, but this was close enough to make me look up and take notice. I found myself staring across a display at a woman who, I realized after a second or two of sheer blankness, was a former high school classmate of mine.

"Kelly?" I said, thanking God that I remembered her name. I have been thrown for a loop several times in the past when meeting people from an earlier stage in my life unexpectedly. It's a little embarrassing.

"Yeah!" was the response. And I got to hear the brief synopsis of what had transpired in her life since high school, as well as a few other people who had been with me from kindergarten through graduation. None were part of my little circle of friends (I wasn't one of the popular people, but in a small town, you still know everyone), but it was still exciting to hear what they are up to, and, from the sound of it, to know that they are doing well. This is the first news I've heard of just about any of my classmates in years, and to think it would happen in a bookstore in northwest Las Vegas!

Besides catching up with old schoolmates, yesterday also introduced me to two wonders of the modern world: Guitar Hero and Lee's Discount Liquors. After an initial struggle getting used to the game, I now rock the bass as a Guitar Hero goddess, alongside Michael or Ryan on the guitar. Michael is now convinced we need our own Guitar Hero game at home, and while I can't say I don't like the idea, I'm not eager to spend the money quite yet.

One thing that cannot be brought home, however, is Lee's Discount Liquors. I laughed when Michael told me the name of this "Costco of Beers", as he put it. Red Neck, much? But this is Vegas, and Nevada has possibly the loosest liquor laws in the nation, although I'm not sure that they can beat the drive-thru daiquiri stands of Louisiana.

Red neck name or not, Lee's is pretty cool if you're into any kind of semi-obscure alcohols; they sell everything, and are certainly not limited to beer, which takes up only a small portion of the massive store. But beer is why we went, so that Michael and I could exclaim over the many Belgians, wheat beers, and other imports both familiar and unknown. We took home a variety to try: the one and only quadrupel ale in the store, a Belgian trippel, a six pack of Flying Dog's In Heat Wheat, which Michael was ecstatic to find, apple lambic, and blueberry oat beer (yeah, that's right - blueberry oat beer; I'd never heard of such a thing, either).

Of course, we did not drink all these beers last night! We saved the In Heat Wheat for later. We drank the Belgians, discovering that the La Chouffe Trippel was an IPA and intensely hoppy, not something Michael or I have really developed a taste for. The Urthel Samaranth Quadrium, my first quadrupel, was so rich and heady (this beer is 11% alcohol!), that I couldn't stay awake for long after finishing my glass. As for the blueberry oat beer, Ryan loved it, but I had a couple of sips and am still not sure what to think of such an odd mix of flavors.

So in the end, I did get to experience one Vegas institution, although I'm not sure that tasting "specialty" beers at home is a very Vegas thing to do. It actually sounds more like a Seattle thing, where, in truth, we could probably find all of these beers at a shop such as Bottleworks. But Bottleworks wouldn't sell about fifty varieties of vodka and cognac for $1400.00 per bottle alongside the beer, and therein lies the real Vegas difference.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Off Into the Sunset

It is a strange thing to be driving in a snow storm one night, then spend the following morning driving down a clear freeway with the air conditioner on. On Saturday night, as the snow that had begun early that morning continued to fall, my brother, Sam, drove Michael and I to the Portland Airport to catch our flight to Phoenix. Sam, dad, Michael and I piled into Sam's two-door Toyota Echo, and neither Michael nor I felt we were off to a great start when Sam began skidding left and right as we made our way slowly down the hill.

"I have to let up on the breaks in order to steer the car," Sam explained. Ah. I feel so much better now.

Thankfully, getting down from the hill seemed to be the worst of it. Sam got us to the airport in a mere two and a half hours (only about an hour longer than usual), and never once resorted to putting chains on the Echo. He is a braver soul than I, but perhaps the fact that I trusted his driving is indicative of my own bravery (or foolishness, I'm not sure which). Although, as Sam himself stated, he trusts his driving without chains in the snow more than most people's driving with chains, and I think he has a point.

We were fortunate, too, to catch the last flight to leave the Portland Airport that night. After about a half hour delay to de-ice and prepare the plane, we were on our way, leaving the snow flurries far behind. Driving in the car on our way to Michael's dad's church in Scottsdale this morning, it was disorienting to be surrounded by vast stretches of dry, mud-brown earth dotted with endless adobe houses. My skin, already uncomfortably dry from the severe winter weather we've been having in the Northwest, felt even more parched.

Our stay in Arizona was brief, however, and this afternoon we were on the road again, driving Michael's dad's old Rav4 to Las Vegas, the home of Michael's brother, Ryan. As we drove, the desert landscape changed from sagebrush and saguaros to Joshua trees, looking for all the world like the spindly, spiky flora of a Dr. Seuss tale. I half expected to see some desert relation to the Sneeches peer out from behind a branch.

As we drew nearer to the Nevada border, the sun painted the wispy clouds to the west in glorious, glowing oranges and pinks. The dull brown of the daytime landscape disappeared in the sunset, so different from the whites and greys that were all that had been visible on the road to us only 24 hours before. And I count myself incredibly lucky to have been able to experience both.

Snow Day, Take 2

"Keep your feet up!"

I pointed my toes skyward as I sped down the hill, then WHAM! For a second I was airborne, and scarcely had I touched back down when I found myself in the air for one last split second before landing and spinning backwards into fresh snow.Oh yeah, this was a snow day.

Michael and I made it to my parents' place in Oregon Friday night, having driven down from Seattle. Most of the trip was a breeze, with little or no snow on the roads, but about ten miles out for our destination, the scenery changed. Michael fishtailed the car for the first time that day just as my mom called to check on our status.

"We'll put chains on before we drive up the hill," I told her. About a half hour later we received another phone call, just as our car struggled to make the ascent up the narrow snow-covered dead-end road that leads to my parents' home, literally at the top of an actual hill, behind the tiny town of Sheridan, Oregon.

"How's it going?" my dad asked.

"Not too well, to be honest," I could feel my teeth clench as the wheels of our Pontiac Vibe spun, thankful that I wasn't the one driving.

"We'll be down," my dad replied.

As it turns out, we had lost one of the chains, and despite Michael backtracking a full mile - twice - to look for it, the chain was nowhere to be found.

"Don't worry," said dad. "It's like when they find the bodies on Everest after the snow melt. It'll turn up then." Thank, dad. What a lovely thought.

With the help of the tractor winch, and then from my Uncle Dan in his four-wheel drive pick-up equipped with chains, we were towed easily up the remaining mile. My family's home had indeed been transformed into a winter wonderland, with snow weighing down the branches of the fir trees and illuminating the lacy shapes of the bare oaks. On Saturday morning, there was only one thing that could be done - inner tubing!

Being as they live on the top of a hill, there is no truly flat land on my parents' property, and one of the steepest hills is behind the house, overlooking the valley below. Here we created the ultimate inner tube run, complete with two jumps, and Michael wanted me as the guinea pig.

Fun as it may be to slide down the snow into unknown consequences, it's possibly more fun to watch your dad and brother fly of their inner tubes after the final jump, doing a full three barrel rolls in the snow. The end of the run skirted dangerously close to a couple of rather large wild rose bushes, and since the land never actually flattened out, each tuber tended to go a little father than the one before. Lucy, our dog, was unable to contain her excitement at this point, and would pounce the moment someone landed, covering faces with desperate licks and wiggling as if her life depended on it.

Still, I think the most unexpected gymnastic feat of the morning was when I lost my bearings after the second jump and did a BACK FLIP before landing slightly dazed, and unharmed, in the snow. No kidding, I saw my feet pass over my head, and before I knew it I was lying on my back, gasping a little in shock.

"That was awesome!" Michael laughed from his viewpoint by the first jump.

Yeah, that was pretty awesome. So awesome, in fact, that it was the last trip I made down the inner tube run that day. Sometimes, it's best to quite while you're ahead.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow Day!

The phone rang around 9:20 this morning, jarring me from my peaceful slumber.

"I'm on Boren," Michael voice came over the receiver. "This is horrible! James is closed. How should I get to the freeway?"

"Wait - it really snowed last night!?" I was a little incredulous.

"Yeah, this idea to take Boren was a bad idea. Oh, it looks like I can take Cherry."

I cringed inwardly, thinking of Michael driving down the dangerously steep hill on Cherry Street to get to the freeway entrance. The truth was, I really hadn't expected this. Walking home for the bus stop at 1:40am, what little snow there had been in Lake City had mostly melted, and the U District where I had just been was completely snow free. Unlike the previous few days, the temperature was now a solid couple of degrees above freezing.

But when I peered out the bathroom window this morning, a white world greeted me. Being as I was scheduled to work the late shift from noon to eight at work today, I called to see if the office was even open. Keith answered the phone, "We're open, but stay home if you need to. They said only to drive in if you feel comfortable."

Thankfully, Michael made it home safely. But he didn't recommend my going anywhere, and frankly, I knew there wouldn't be much to keep me busy at work today if I did make the effort. It looks like this would b e a snow day, after all!

Still, a snow day sounds much more glamorous than it actually is. There will be no sledding for me, no steaming mugs of hot chocolate waiting when I return from the cold. Instead, I will be cleaning out the refrigerator, vacuuming, doing laundry, packing for our trip tomorrow, and wrapping presents. Snow day, indeed!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Way the Marshmallow Melts

Thing I Learned Last Night: Yes, marshmallows can be too old for rice krispie treats. If you are in doubt, just throw them away. Should you decide to chance it, your first clue that the spongy sweets are, in fact, beyond hope, would be that that, rather than melting, the marshmallows first begin to turn a toasty brown, despite the low heat of the burner. At that point, cut your losses; it is only going to get worse.

Fortunately, after making this crucial discovery, our dreams of green rice crispies studded with cinnamon candies were not shattered. With a couple of bags of new marchmallows that beautifully transformed into a snow white cream, we were back in business.

The rice krispie wreaths are something of an annual tradition. Every year, members of our loosely named "young adults group" at church come over to help decorate more than hundred cookies that I bake in advace (this year, gingerbread was the cookie of the day), and maybe make a few other varieties while we're at it, which usually means rice krispie wreaths. When Amy came home that night, she was relieved to see that the green rice krispie wreaths, unappetizing as they may sound, did not look look as bad in practice as in her imagination.

The cookies were a hit at church this morning, too. It's not out of sheer madness that we make so many, but rather so that we can share them for the weekly fellowship hour following the service. And despite the snow that descended on Seattle last night, all cookies, candies, and zucchini bread made it to their final destination this morning. The kids' Christmas pageant may have been postponed due to inclement weather, but the nothing could stop the cookies from fulfilling their destiny.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ongoing Saga of Dishwasher DIY

When it comes to home improvement, Michael and I are pretty firmly in the DIY camp. OK, so more accurately we're really in the DID (Do It Dad) camp, which, considering my dad is a professional builder, is not hard to understand. But sometimes we manage to go it on our own. Or at least we try. Hence, we did not want to pay an additional $100 for someone to install our new dishwasher. How hard could that be, anyway?

Good question. And I still don't know the answer. Oh, the dishwasher is up and running, all right. And, no, we don't need to go catch it. Although we do, apparently, need a pan to catch drips from the leak that unexpectedly reappeared yesterday.

But let's go back to the beginning.

The dishwasher arrived, a fully formed box with a slick black metal face, on the cusp of a very busy weekend.

"Don't try to install it on your own," I had told Michael. "We can work on it together on Saturday."

After sleeping in following a late Friday night, we found ourselves with a severe time shortage on Saturday morning. This was compounded by the fact that the dishwasher did not, in fact, come with all parts needed for installation. Specifically, we needed a 3/8" elbow with exterior threads. No problem; we'd have time to stop by Ace to get one on Sunday. In the meantime, I attached the dishwasher handle and Michael cut a piece of wood to raise the floor under the new dishwasher an extra inch. Progress had been made.

Sunday found us huddled over the plumbing fixtures at our local Ace Hardware, perplexed as to which size elbow we actually needed. Sure, it was 3/8" where it attached to the dishwasher, but what about the hot water pipe? What size was that?

"Well, let's get a couple of sizes, then we can just return what we don't need," I suggested. Michael agreed, and picked out two options.

Neither option was the right one.

Back at Ace (after all, we needed to take the dog for a walk, was it really such a big deal to head back to the store?), Michael picked out the correct fixture. Soon, we were back at home, ready to roll the dishwasher into place.

OK, that was easy enough. With the dishwasher in place, we reached underneath to fish for the drain pipe and wiring. Where was it? And why was it so hard to reach under the thing, anyway? How did they expect humans over the age of six to be able to reach an arm under there?

Take two. We rolled the dishwasher back out. "Let's tie some string to the pipe and the wires so that we can pull them out that way after we move the dishwasher," I said brightly. And this would have been a bright idea, too, had the string not been too slippery for my double knot, and we lost the wiring behind the motor once again.

Take three. Out came the dishwasher. This time, Michael had the even brighter idea to tuck the wires under the cardboard we had laid down to protect the floor. Success!

At this point, it was time for me to head out for Julfest, but despite a few stressful moments, I was feeling confident again. Maybe I would even come home to a working dishwasher!

Ah, such innocence. When I came home, little had changed. The stacks of dirty dishes and dusty tools that were slowly taking over all available counter space had not budged. Michael pointed out a new spanner in the works: the existing copper hot water pipe could not be bent to attach to the dishwasher. We were at a stalemate until we could determine what to do next. And, of course, the dishwasher would need to be rolled out once more.

Late that night, I brought my dad up to speed about the situation over the phone.

"You can bend the pipe," he told me matter-of-factly.

"With vice grips?" I asked, a little incredulous. "I can't bend this pipe, period, Dad. I mean, I can move it up and down, but it doesn't bend."

"Not with vice grips!" he admonished. "That could cause a leak. You can definitely bend it by hand."

A that point, with Michael at work, I wasn't about to test my dad's assertion by pulling out the dishwasher on my own. The whole situation made me tired. I went to bed and tried not to dwell on it.

Over a quick phone call while at work the next day, Michael explained that he'd discussed the matter further with dad, and wound up buying a special, flexible dishwasher hose instead. Dad, he said, understood.

But come Monday night, the dishwasher was still not installed, although it did get some more exercise as we rolled it back and forth multiple times. Tuesday night, work began again, not made any easier by the fact that the longer the process took, the shorter our tempers grew.

But finally, after the leaks were seemingly fixed, and all attachments firmly attached, we loaded up the washer, pushed the button marked, "heavy duty" (after all, those dishes had been sitting out for days), and marvelled at the pretty blue glow of the LED as the dishwasher almost silently came to life.

"No leaks!" I proclaimed to Michael the next day. "And the dishes are sparkling!"

Gleefully, I reorganized the cleaning supplies and put them away under the sink. Only to have Michael, an hour later, inform me that my celebration was premature. Out came the cleaning supplies from under the sink, and down went Michael, towel and wrench in hand.

Now, tonight, the second load is currently in operation. And the leak, cross our fingers, appears to have abated. Of course, I now have to finish this post and go upstairs and actually test this theory. Let's hope the Ongoing Saga of Dishwasher DIY will finally come to a happy conclusion.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gud Jul!

While many were out last Sunday fulfilling Christmas shopping duties, my friend Kristina invited me to join her and her husband for a traditional Swedish Julfest service at Seattle's First Covenant Church. Never having been to a Julfest celebration despite a strong strain of Swedish running through my blood, I jumped at the chance.

It turns out that 2008 is the 50th anniversary of the Julfest at First Covenant. From the balcony of the traditional pastel and gold painted sanctuary, I could see bright spots of red amid the congregation, as many came dressed in one of Sweden's most popular traditional colors (and if anyone has wondered why I love red in home decor so much, now you know it's in my blood). For this special occasion a choir of beautiful young Swedes had even traveled nearly halfway across the globe to join the celebration. Their clear voices filled the church with the lilting music of Swedish Christmas carols.

A cross between a concert, church service, and Santa Lucia celebration, the service was filled with music, sung almost entirely in Swedish, along with lessons read from a Swedish Bible. My tongue stumbled over the words of my ancestors as I attempted to recite the Lord's Prayer and join in on the congregational hymns. Thankfully, translations were provided in the bulletin, and a few of the words, with their similarities to German, didn't appear completely unfamiliar. Also thankfully, the homily and announcements were in English.

The children's choir sang about pepparkakor as three little girls dressed as the titular gingerbread cookies, danced in a circle. Another of the children's songs told of the mysterious, tiny Tomte who come at night to eat the Christmas leftovers, as the smallest of the boys made his way throughout the congregation in a long grey beard and red cap, carrying his lantern.

The highlight was, of course, the Santa Lucia procession. With only candlelight to show the way, the Lucia bride serenely made her way to the front of the altar, her crown of five lighted candles tied firmly in place with a wide chinstrap. One by one, the Lucia attendants made their way to join her, also dressed in red-sashed white robes, but without the crown of candles. Finally the star boys came to the front, although the pressure of standing still was apparently too much for one of them, who soon abandoned his post and ran down the aisle as the young women sweetly sang "Santa Lucia" to an enraptured audience.

Once the service ended, the crowd of hundreds squeezed into the tiny narthex, packing around tables offering Christmas cookies and buttered bread or rye krisp with cheese. I grabbed a rye krisp on my way out, reminded of the late dinners of rye crackers and cheese my family sometimes has around Christmastime. It's good to see these traditions live on, and to feel, maybe just a little, what my great-great grandparents may have felt themselves each year at Julfest.

Monday, December 8, 2008

And the Winner Is...

I'm sure you've all been eagerly anticipating the follow-up to my chili experimentation. The suspense is killing you, no doubt. So, please excuse me as I momentarily brush modesty aside to toot my own horn and say... I did it! Jerk chicken chili was the surprise winner, capturing the title of Tastiest Chili for the Fifth Annual Shimoji Chili Cook-Off, ousting the former champion (who had won for at a least a couple years running, and still won Saturday's Hottest Chili prize). I am now the proud owner of a beautiful poppy red Le Creuset stockpot, the prize for the winning chili. Thanks, Tony and Heather!

Fourteen chilis made it to the competition (plus a fifteenth that missed the voting), and they were really all quite good; I honestly did not expect to win (although - is this bad? - I ended up voting for my own chili, too, but only because at the end of the day it really was my favorite one).

So, without further ado, here is my recipe:

Ruth Ann's Jerk Chicken Chili
(yeah, I'm not bragging or anything)

for the jerk seasoning paste:
1 T allspice berries
1/2 t grated nutmeg
6 large cloves garlic, chopped
2" piece chopped ginger
4 large green onions, thinly sliced
2 habanero peppers, minced
2 T brown sugar
2 t dried thyme or 1 T fresh thyme
salt to taste

for the chili:
approx. 3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, excess fat removed
cooking oil as needed
1 medium/large onion, diced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 T minced or grated ginger
2 28 oz cans chopped tomatoes (I used San Marzano from Italy - believe it or not, this can make a difference)
1/4 packed brown sugar
~1 C chicken broth
1/4-1/2 C dark rum
3 or 4 14 oz cans black beans
1 14 oz can coconut milk
generous pinch nutmeg
salt to taste

To make the jerk seasoning paste, crush the allspice berries with the nutmeg in a large mortar and pestle. Add the chopped garlic, ginger, green onions, habanero peppers, brown sugar, thyme, and salt one at a time, mashing the paste with the pestle after each addition. You will probably have at least a couple of table spoons of leftover paste after following this recipe.*

Mix the chicken with two to three tablespoons of the jerk paste overnight in a larger covered bowl.

To make the chili, saute the shopped onions, garlic, and ginger on low heat for about 15 minutes until soft. Add two to three tablespoons of the jerk paste and saute for another five or ten minutes. Add the cans of crushed tomatoes, brown sugar, and a half cup of chicken broth and simmer gently for about an hour, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes have completely broken down. You may choose to add more chicken broth and cook the sauce down further if you like.

Meanwhile, saute the marinated chicken thighs until barely cooked through, then remove them to a platter. Deglaze the pan with the rum and a quarter cup of chicken broth, and simmer until reduced by half. Pour the reduced liquid into the tomato sauce, being sure to scrape in the browned chicken bits from the pan. Add the black beans to the pot with the sauce and continue to simmer.

When cool enough to handle, tear the chicken into chunks. Add it to the tomato and bean mixture along with the can of coconut milk. Simmer until somewhat thickened and heated all the way through. Add salt to taste. Add up to a quarter cup more rum to add depth of flavor, and a good pinch of nutmeg.

*For people who like their chili hot, give them an extra spoonful of paste. Habaneros may be small, but they are HOT. Be very careful when cutting them or touching the inner part of the pepper. In general, it's best to handle them as little as possible, and DO NOT touch any part of your face before washing your hands thoroughly. This paste, on its own, is very hot, but this recipe will make only a moderately spicy chili, nothing that would be too hot for most.

Note: When I made this chili, I made no measurements, so the only measurements listed that are absolutely accurate are the canned items, since they were already measured for me. As always, you should adjust things to your own taste and available ingredients.

Also, chili tastes best when made a day or two ahead of time. It will also thicken over time, so don't worry if it seems a little bit thin when you first make it.

Finally, while this recipe is one that I (to the best of my knowledge) uniquely created, I did get the ingredient list for the jerk seasoning paste from an online website. Unfortunately, I don't recall where I found it, I did alter it slightly, and the mortar and pestle is also my own way of doing it - but I highly recommend a mortar and pestle for this task!

Celebrating Monday

The past weekend was a whirlwind of events - I'll get more into it later - and now, late Monday night, I feel that the weekend has finally come to a close. Each year at Europe Through the Back Door the individual departments have their own small Christmas parties, and the Tour Department is no exception.

Tonight, the eight of us headed out to Arnie's on the Edmonds waterfront, sticking pretty close to home this year. (A couple of years ago we drove through a windstorm to get to Palisades in Magnolia, during which Tara and I saw a stop sign uprooted and blown across Aurora Avenue, and Lisa and Heidi got locked out of Lisa's house where they had stopped before heading to the restaurant, leading them to break down her front door. Comparatively, tonight's event was pretty mundane.)

After three and a half hours of food, wine, conversation, and exchanging gifts, I'm still finding it a bit hard to wind down.Of course, coming home to a spectacularly dirty kitchen is something of a wake-up call. But for the moment I'd rather think the about the laughter (and even a few tears, although thankfully not for any tragic reasons) and bask in the afterglow of what was, perhaps, just a little bit too much to eat - good thing I don't do this every night!

Tomorrow it will be back to the daily grind, but at least Keith got Tara some new 80s music in the gift exchange, and I'm sure the addition to our work soundtrack will keep us going strong.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Night at the Nutcracker

If there is a Seattle Christmas tradition that is more beloved than the Pacific Northwest Ballet's annual production of the Nutcracker, I'm not sure what it might be. Sure, some may look forward to the lighting of the tree at Westlake following Thanksgiving, but that is a more casual affair, while the Nutcracker is a true "event". And there are those who go to the Nutcracker almost every year, perhaps to see their children or friends' children join the company on stage in a real professional production, or because of the enduring charm of the Maurice Sendak-disigned sets, the fairy-tale costumes, or Tchaikovsky's inspiring music (although Tchaikovsky himself would take issue with that last one - he felt that the Nutcracker was possibly his worst composition, and was terribly disappointed by it).

Years ago, Michael and I saw PNB's Nutcracker for the first time. We had splurged on second tier box seats, and I was almost as excited as one of the six-year-old girls who flock to the Christmas ballet dressed in their best holiday party dresses and clutching a favorite doll or stuffed animal. And it truly was magical; the Christmas tree grew to the size of a monster, snowflakes drifted down from above as snowflake ballerinas danced below, and dolphins jumped through the waves as Clara and the prince sailed off to his exotic kingdom where we would all be feted by dancers ranging from peacocks to a playful, typically Sendakian monster.

This year was our first back, as we joined a group of more than 40 people from our church in the upper balcony. Sure, the view wasn't as good, but the magic was still there. To be sure, a couple of the teenage boys who had come looked less than thrilled at the prospect, but hopefully even they enjoyed it, just a little bit.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Time Is Here

Tonight I came home to find two packages waiting for me. Ah, Christmas! Never mind the fact that I had been expecting these packages and had even ordered them for myself (not so much in the spirit of giving, I know), I still felt a little like a kid on Christmas morning.

This boost of holiday cheer was doubtless due in part to the fact that the contents of the packages were undeniably Christmas-themed. From the Crate & Barrel outlet I received a myriad of Scandinavian straw ornaments, and Amazon had sent several Christmas CDs, including soundtracks to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Handel's Messiah. There was one other goody, but since that will be a Christmas surprise for my husband, I'll not mention it on the off chance he actually reads this post.

As a kid, like many of my generation, December was the month when I could look forward to weekly, sometimes nightly, Christmas "specials" on the TV. I'd eagerly anticipate the annual viewing of Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and others. Rudolph was a particular favorite, and even as an adult the clumsy stop-motion animation and lo-fi sound quality hold an irresistable charm. I particularly empathized with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. "I'll take you home, spotted elephant!" I'd silently plead. Who wouldn't love an elephant with polka dots?

As I got older I appreciated the melancholy and simple beauty of A Charlie Brown Christmas more and more, and the sound track is well-loved for good reason. And as often as we listen to some of these songs at my job this time of year, Vince Guaraldi's music always puts a smile on my face. Listening to the original version tonight was the perfect accompaniment while I busied myself in the kitchen.

It's good to know that after all these years, Christmas can still bring out the kid in us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No Spilling the Beans

I can tell that December has rolled around when two things happen: strings of blinking lights appear around my cubicle just as poinsettias pop up on our desks, and at back at home I become preoccupied with chili.

This preoccupation is not, in fact, due to the fact that I am especially fond of chili. In fact, this is one of the only times of year I make it. Our friends Satoshi and Heather, however, began the tradition of a holiday chili cook-off several years ago, and each year there are those who try to outdo each other with the meatiest, spiciest, or just plain most unusual chili they can concoct. This year I've found myself getting more in the spirit of the event, and even determined to create a unique chili completely of my own making.

In the past, I admit to succumbing to the dull idea of following a recipe, generally one that included no tomatoes and no red meat, as I don't generally eat red meat, and I tend to prefer white beans and creamy sauces over the kidney beans and tomato sauce found in more familiar versions. The lack of red meat has really been a detriment to my winning any of the prizes, however. Last year, for example, the winning recipe featured generous use of bacon grease.

This year, all bets are off. Oh, I don't expect to win. I'm still steering clear of the red meat. But I have come up with something a little more, let's say, exciting. "What's that?" you ask. "Do tell!" Oh no, you're not getting it out of me that easily. This is a competition! My recipe must remain top secret. But I promise, if it goes well, I'll publish it here on Rutabagastories.

Tonight I began work on my creation, and stage one of the chili is now complete. Stage two will commence tomorrow evening, following which Michael and I will test the results at dinner. Finally, stage three will take place this Saturday, when I make any final adjustments deemed necessary. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My First Crush

Sunday night we splurged for one last $30 three course dinner with Dine Around Seattle. My choice was Crush, the darling of Capitol Hill's dining elite. Why not go somewhere with a standard menu beyond our reach? At Crush, the entrees are typically over $30, so getting a three course meal for that price felt like a bargain. One of Michael's co-workers, John, who is of the foodie-inclined, joined us. It's always more fun sharing an elegant meal with someone else whom you know will appreciate it.

Crush sets a mood right from the start - the decor is stark white and sparse, but without feeling cold. We took our seats in swoopy, snow white molded chairs and perused the menu. First up, a cocktail, although this was in addition, of course, to our $30 dinner. I've lately come to feel that when dining at a high end restaurant, a cocktail provides better value than wine. There's such a high mark-up on wine, and yet all the restaurant has to do is pull the cork. With the recent trend for finely crafted cocktails, however, it's not uncommon for even a somewhat average place to infuse their own spirits and experiment with novel flavor combinations. Chances are I would never make the "Perfect Pair", featuring house infused vodka and Oregon's Clear Creek pear brandy among other ingredients, at home, but I can easily find bottles of wine I enjoy for under $10 at Trader Joe's.

We sipped our drinks slowly and nibbled on the bread that arrived artfully arranged on individual trays. The first course arrived on stunning white dishes. I had ordered the leek and celery root soup, and found a small pool of creamy leek soup set before me, pretty as a picture, topped with a dollop of celery root puree, some perfectly places snippets of chive and miniature croutons, and a few precise drizzles of what I mistakenly believed was olive oil. To my surprise - and delight - it turned out to be an incredibly vibrant lemon reduction. The combination of the bright lemon with the rich leek soup and the clean tasting celery root was amazing. Michael enjoyed succulent pork belly, probably his favorite dish of the night.

The scallop with chowder vegetables made a rich, satisfying second course. I still think that the most perfect scallops I have tasted were at the Wild Rose in Bandon, Oregon, but this would be a close second.

While John and I both enjoyed the scallop dish, Michael was a little disappointed in his trofie pasta with braised short ribs. The meat, as one would hope, was meltingly tender, he told me, and the pasta was good, it just lacked the fuller flavors that he had expected.

The waitstaff at Crush is quick to discreetly remove your dishes once you have finished, leaving you with a splarkling clean table over which to converse as you await the next course. Enjoying the leisurely pace of the meal, I hadn't even noticed that our desserts were late in coming, when we were brought a complimentary tray of three housemade chocolates along with an apology for the delay. Thoughtful gestures like these helped put our experience above the ordinary.

Dessert was a decadent homemade marshmallow topped with a chocolate sorbet of sorts (I'm really not sure what to call it) served alongside a choclate cookie with a cup of rich European style hot chocolate for dunking. John chose the somewhat less decadent cranberry bread pudding. As a final surprise, we were brought two quartets of tiny treats with the check, including chocolate candied almonds, pomegranate marshmallows, miniature shortbread squares, and poppy seed madeleines.

As we left the restaurant and headed to the car, I was surprised to learn that we had spent more than two hours enjoying our meal. I also felt pleasantly full even though none of the courses had seemed large. Perhaps this is one benefit to a leisurely meal; since it takes time for your brain to register that you are, in fact, full, eating at a slower pace is a good guard against overeating, in addition to providing a more pleasureable experience.

Our meal at Crush was definitely worth the $30 (plus drink, tax, and tip) price tag, although I still don't think I would go there and pay full price. I'm just not interested in spending that much on food, and even the Dine Around Seattle dinners are a real splurge for us. I do get a little irritated when I read articles online about what a great deal Dine Around is because, yes, it can be a good deal, comparatively, but for many people this is still completely out of reach and a purely frivolous way to spend good money. And, as cool as Crush's chic white decor may be, the somewhat more casual feel of a place like Restaurant Zoe is more my style for a big night out. But for one night, it felt good to experience the incredible attention to detail - from the specially designed plates for each course, to the beautiful and surprising food, to the gracious service that made me feel immediately welcome - and savor a great meal at Crush.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Always Turns Me On...

The Skylark Cafe and Club sits in an inauspicious spot, just off the West Seattle Bridge in the Delridge neighborhood, a neighborhood that seems to split the difference between West Seattle proper on the hill above, and the industrial area surrounding the south end of Elliott Bay. This does not mean that the Skylark isn't well worth the drive - how many other Seattle bars offer free live music almost nightly, and even provide their customers with a free parking lot? There are advantages to Delridge.

Tonight's crowd appeared to be made up of many of the oldsters of the Seattle music scene. And I mean no disrespect by the term oldsters - these are people who know their stuff, who were making music and writing about it before grunge ever hit the big time. I can't claim any personal connection to this scene, but had the benefit of some coworkers giving me the lowdown on who's who.

First up on this Saturday's line-up was the mighty good Mighty Shiny. This happens to be my coworker Rhonda's band, and it was her open invitation to our office that brought me in. Seeing a coworker having the time of her life belting out her own rock songs on stage is, in a word, awesome. And the band that followed, Slippage, also put on a strong show, with fierce vocals and powerful guitars.

After Slippage's performance, my other coworkers who had come decided it was time to head home. Being as my housemate, sadly feeling somewhat under the weather, had already driven home, I made the presumably wise decision to accept a ride from one rather than hang out for the last hour on my own and attempt the bus ride back. Man, people are getting old when we'd rather head for bed once 11:15 rolls around! While I don't regret the comfy car trip back and getting in well before 1:30, I was disappointed to miss out on hearing the Green Pajamas, the final band of the night. Those guys are classic Seattle psych rock! Am I the only one who remembers Kim the Waitress? I wonder if there's anyone now who'll save us.

But as for the Skylark, I'm sure I'll be back, Green Pajamas or no. Good, free music in a cozy, laid-back pub is always a turn on, no matter who serves your coffee (or beer).

Friday, November 28, 2008

Quietly Thankful

As a nurse, Michael has no guarantee of a work-free holiday. Generally, each year we'll decide well in advance (most likely a full year in advance, when the current celebration is fresh in our minds) which holiday(s) Michael will request off and where we will travel - Oregon for my family, or Arizona for Michael's.

The remainder of the holidays will most likely be spent at home, with Michael working in the wee hours of the morning, then coming home to retreat to our room, shrouded in black-out curtains, and sleep until evening. I'll spend the day on my own, leisurely making a dish to take to take to Michael's grandparents' place for dinner and going out for a long walk with Lucy.

This Thanksgiving followed the usual pattern; Michael came home to find me just starting to awake, and I wished him a good night as I heated up a bowl of leftover rice for breakfast. A little later I headed out to get my hair cut, where I was utterly surprised to see my friend Leena getting the finishing touches on a her own haircut. Who would have guessed that she had booked the appointment before mine on Thanksgiving Day, of all days?

It is little things like that that make my holidays at home so dear to me. Left to my own devices, I can relax without feeling guilty (it is a holiday, after all) - watching old movies on Channel 9, napping with the dog on the sofa, and enjoying the ever changing clouds on a beautiful late autumn day in Seattle. The city I live in always seems particularly beautiful on a holiday. Is it just the good will I feel? The sense of peace to have a day to myself, free from any major responsibilities?

These quiet holidays will not last, I'm sure, and perhaps that's part of the reason I treasure them. Some day, other obligations and different schedules will mean an end to my own private Thanksgivings, Easters, and Christmases. For now, I am simply thankful - for family and friends, of course, just as everyone professes this time of year - but also for these quiet times, and the chance to savor life outside the rush of everyday living.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Black Wednesday

Black Friday is well-known throughout the retail and bargain-hunter communities as The Day of Shopping. While also promoted as Buy Nothing Day by the Adbusters organization, that proposed holiday doesn't seem in any danger of taking hold, even in light of the drastic downturn in our economy.

Still, lower sales are forecasted for this year's holiday spending. You wouldn't know it, however, from the throngs flooding Seattle's U District today to get in some pre-holiday shopping. Do we now have a Black Wednesday as well? I think this is the first time I've had the day before Thanksgiving off work, but seemingly I was far from the only one with time to spare. Cars were backed up, sometimes for blocks, waiting to get in and out of the posh University Village shopping center, and Trader Joe's was as crowded as always. Well, OK, since Trader Joe's truly is always crowded, that's no news. But U Village? Does everyone just want to go window shopping or comb the clearance racks, or are we really still shopping these days, perhaps even when we shouldn't be?

Of course, I got sucked into it, too. But I did have specific items in mind - ingredients for soup for tonight's church potluck, for mashed potatoes for Michael to bring in for a Thanksgiving morning (make that four in the morning) potluck at work, and for tomorrow's canned-food free green bean cassarole. Practicalities, right? But then I bought pretty red "nesting tables" at Pottery Barn and a turquoise top at Anthropologie, hardly some of life's requirements.

Now, in my defense, the items I bought were on sale. And furthermore, I have planned for months on buying these tables, and first tried on the top a couple weeks ago before going back today to see if I could find it in the size I wanted. In other words, nothing I bought was truly an impulse buy. (What does it say about me that I have a hard time even purchasing a shirt unless I've though about it for a few weeks, or, more likely, a few hours at least?)

Perhaps I am a little more particular about what I buy than the average person in my situation. But still, I buy. Black Friday, however, will not find me at the mall, or even Trader Joe's. Is this because I plan to be one of those brave souls who honor Buy Nothing Day? Well, maybe, but... it probably has just as much to do with the fact that I'll be working that day.

And in the end, we'll all head to the stores at some point this holiday season, whether on Black Friday or not. At least, those of us who are lucky enough to have the means to do so will. With all the lay-offs, forclosures, and even abject poverty around us, we cannot ignore the fact that we are privledged. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful to be one of the lucky ones, but am also mindful that could change in an instant. Even more than attempting to bolster the economy by spending our cash and credit, I hope we can put some - dare I say most? - of that money where it has the chance to truly help someone. Let's give everyone a reason to be thankful this year.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Peanut Butter Days

Guess what? Yep, I am still sick. Oh, goody! I've reached the point where I am very tired of feeling tired, and very tired of staying home. Over this brief illness I have missed two days of work, one pub night, one pub crawl (not on the same night, of course), one important church meeting, and I haven't cooked or baked nearly as much as a normal weekend. After a long morning nap, however, I did manage to make one thing today, so thought I'd share it with you all before I go down for another nap.

Ruth Ann's Peanut Butter Balls


Please note that all measurements are only a rough guideline - I never measure when making peanut butter balls, and you should just add however much of whatever feels (and tastes) right to you.

Generous 1/2 C. Natural Peanut Butter
4 T. Honey
1/4 C. Dry Oatmeal (any kind - but I prefer instant or oat bran for this)
1/4 C. Unsweetened Coconut (again, I prefer finely shredded, but today used big flakes because that's what I had; you can also use sweetened)

Mix all ingredients in a cereal bowl. Form into balls - about golf ball sized - and put back into bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze for about half an hour.

If you don't like coconut, add extra oats instead. If you have it, powdered milk is also a great addition, but I never have it and don't consider it worth buying just for this. You can also refrigerate them if you aren't going to eat them right away; freezing just hardens them for consumption faster. Other fun things - like chocolate chips or dried fruit - can also be added.

Eat and enjoy! This recipe will make around five or six peanut butter balls.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Sickness and in Health

I've been talking quite a bit about seasonal issues of late. It's the season for comfort food, and the Christmas season is fast (perhaps too fast) descending. Now I feel that I should also add that it is the season for colds, or, if you prefer (or more likely, if you have no choice whatsoever in the matter), the season for the flu.

I am now in my third day of sharing company with a cold. It's a relatively benign illness, really, that leads me to sniffle, drink copious amounts of rooibos tea, and lounge around the house in pajamas feeling vaguely sleepy and heavy-headed. While on Friday I stayed home from work, on Saturday I had previously invited many girlfriends, about seven of whom ended up coming, over for crafts and a visit. The idea was to work on some of those crafty things that many of us say we want to do at Christmas time, such as making our own cards, but never get around to.

In light of my cold, I opted for procuring Saturday's snacks from Trader Joe's rather than making my own, but I was still happy to have people over. Even when sick, company can provide a welcome rush of adrenaline that pushes you to flit around chatting to everyone and maing sure everyone gets a drink (although yesterday, all anyone wanted was water - boring!). This morning, however, I woke up in a fog, wondering if perhaps I had overdone it a bit.

Now that I've had a brief afternoon nap and more rooibos tea I feel better, but still not fully up to snuff. It looks like it will be another evening of watching TV from a horizontal position on the sofa, and, of course, eating. My body seems to take the saying, "Feed a cold, starve a fever," at face value, because when hit with a cold I also get hit with a serious case of the munchies. Now, nothing tastes as good as it should when I do indulge while under the weather, but still there's always a gnawing hunger in the background.

In fact, I'm feeling it now, so perhaps I should see what else I can find in the refrigerator.... That, and I could really use another mug of tea.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Auld Lang Syne

Last night I had dinner with a former co-worker at Orrapin Thai on Queen Anne. It was lovely to catch up on each other's lives and chat in a way that we typically didn't get to do at work.

It also made me think about the sad fact that several of my co-workers, specifically those in my own department, with whom I work far more closely than others in the office, have left in the past half year or so. That's life; people move on, but when you work in a small group in a close environment, there's a real sense of loss when someone leaves. Right now I'm looking forward to our department's annual Christmas dinner in a couple of weeks, but also remembering those who were there last year for what turned out to be the last time.

In short, I miss you all! But I'm sure we'll all meet again, and let's not forget, we'll always have Europe!

Lucy Puppy, You're the One; You Make Bath Time Lots of Fun...

I am now the proud owner of a clean dog... for the moment. We'll see how long this lasts. Being a house dog, thankfully Lucy stays relatively clean, but it doesn't take long for a dog to start smelling like, well, like dog. And that breath! Let's not even go there.

Lucy herself would probably rather stay a dirty dog than go through the monthly bathing ritual. But she really does put up being sprayed down with the shower nozzle while standing in a slippery tub admirably well, all things considered. We try to boost her interest by saying all kind of silly things like, "Yay! It's bath time for Lucy!" in high sing-song voices, but I'm not sure if that eases her underlying anxiety. I'm sure she long ago gave up on anything we do actually making sense.

After the bath, we always offer her a treat, again in the hope that she might develop some Pavlovian complex where she associates the bath with tasty goodies. I'm not sure that this is having any effect, although if she starts salivating while being showered we'll know why.

Tonight, however, she will get quite the unexpected treat - a brand new dog bed. While I bought it at Costco last week to replace the old one, which has doubtless become quite the local hot spot for a myriad of mites (Ew! Did I actually just say that?), I just couldn't see introducing a dirty dog to a new bed. For one night, at least, I'll enjoy knowing that this is as close to squeaky clean clean as it's ever going to get.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Night at Restaurant Zoe

November in Seattle is not known for wonderful weather (something I believe I've noted before on this blog), but for those who enjoy dining out, it is indeed a month of plenty. Some of the city's finer dining establishments join together for for Dine Around Seattle, offering three course menus for $30 from Sunday through Thursday. Considering three courses at some of these restaurants can easily add up to forty or fifty dollars on a regular night, the $30 offering makes for a somewhat more affordable splurge.

Tonight Michael, our friend Lewissa, and I visited Restaurant Zoe in Belltown, and found it well worth the $30. Well, in reality it was more than simply $30 - tax and tip aren't included, and we each ordered a drink (also not included). But the food was fantastic, the service smooth and gracious, and it made for a lovely, leisurely evening together.

Michael and I started off with the ricotta gnudi, which can be objectively described as small ricotta dumplings with fried sage leaves and a balsamic reduction and cream sauce, but are best subjectively described as "little pillows of heaven." Yep, that about sums it up. Michael decried the fact that we had no more bread (he found them too stingy with the bread, saying "It's so good! Why did they take it away?", but I think it's better that we didn't fill up too much before the meal) to sop up every last bit of the sauce, which was sweet, tangy, and creamy, the perfect complement to the rich, buttery gnudi.

Entrees were uniformly excellent. My arctic char was served rare on a bed of roasted cauliflower with chopped marcona almonds, capers, and a golden raisin puree. I ate it skin and all - I loved the contrast of the thin, crispy skin with the silky meat. Michael raved about his braised beef in a beet sauce - yes, while he didn't go for last week's beet salad, he does, in fact, generally like beets - which was meltingly tender. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of Lewissa's dish, but will attempt to describe it. Hers was made of extremely finely shredded pork flavored with herbs, formed into a small brick, and very lightly breaded and sauteed. It was like no pork dish I have ever tasted, and was incredibly flavorful. In fact, that's what stood out to me most about all of our dishes; the flavors really popped, sometimes in unexpected, yet immediately pleasing, ways. Nothing was bland or boring.

For dessert, I think Lewissa and I picked the best options. Lewissa's chocolate dessert was a dense, fudgy square of dark chocolate served with cocoa nib brittle. For a dark chocolatre lover, this would be heaven, for it had the intensity of 70% dark chocolate, with only enough sugar to enhance the chocolate flavor. My pumpkin pie sundae consisted of spicy pumpkin ice cream topped with lightly candied salty sweet pumpkin seeds, whipped cream, and a salted caramel sauce. Zoe got the salty/sweet balance just right - enough salt to bring out the flavors and make it interesting, but nothing overwhelming. And I could eat those pumpkin seeds by the handful given the chance. Michael chose the panna cotta with candied pecans and cranberries, which was quite good in its own right, but unfortunately came across as a little bland when compared with the other desserts. He kept stealing bites from my sundae, which was fine by me since I was feeling pretty full by that point.

We returned home fully satisfied and probably a little bit fatter. And as I sit hear yawning, I look forward to sleep, and perhaps the chance to dream of another meal at Restaurant Zoe.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

'Tis the Season

Why are the stores already playing Christmas music? WHY, I ask you? Dear God, why? Tonight we went to Sears to buy a dishwasher, and on the way home Michael started singing Winter Wonderland.

"Stop, just stop," I cut in, as he sang about the frightful weather (it looked pretty clear outside to me). "No Christmas songs!" Sears, of course, had been broadcasting Winter Wonderland over their loudspeakers. Once it's in your head, it's stuck like a broken record.

Maybe the economy is a driving force behind the all the premature holiday displays this year. Perhaps this is seen as a way to drum up sales, which are expected to lag far behind the norm. Christmas shopping, after all, is what pushes many a shop's year end profits from the red to the black - Christmas shopping is, quite literally, serious business.

We all know this. It's nothing new, yet every year people I know complain vociferously about the crassness of it all. And, as one woman in my church said recently, "Whatever happened to advent? That used to be such a special time." It's true; advent has been trampled under the stampede of Christmas commercialism. Rather than a time to reflect and anticipate our Savior's birth, it's a time to scramble for last minute gifts and overfill our schedules much as we overfill our stomachs at Thanksgiving. From Halloween until New Year's, it becomes one long orgy of excess.

Now I have to admit that my schedule is filling up rapidly, too, and like most Americans my holiday season will be busy with concerts and parties and, yes, shopping. The fact is, I really enjoy this time of year if I can stay focused on the aspects I love: more time spent with family and friends, beautiful music, meaningful worship, the smell of fir trees, and reminiscing with old movies like It's a Wonderful Life. I even look forward to Michael's and my annual shopping trip downtown to pick up items for those on our gift list. But one afternoon of shopping is just about enough for me - and it's definitely not where I find the true so-called "Christmas spirit". For that I look no further than the advent wreath that will grace our coffee table in a few weeks, as we count down the days to Jesus' birth.

P.S. - Please note that I did say in a few weeks. In other words, NOT YET! Sheesh, let's enjoy November for November's sake, shall we?

You've Got to Know When to Hold 'Em

Roulette is a game of chance I was sure I would never try. Tonight, however, I hardly batted an eye when Michael informed me he decided to bet all his chips - left from the $10,000 worth he had started with - on black and lost it all. Instead, I let him convince me to dole out some of my chips on three card poker, and it turns out we have much better luck with that game. Michael even got a straight flush on one hand - odds 40 to 1! - and that's as good as it gets for three card poker.

In the end we turned in our winnings for almost 50 raffle tickets, although we still didn't end up walking away with any raffle prizes.

Obviously, this was no ordinary casino. Considering it was in a church basement, I'm sure that would hardly be legal, let alone ethical. But, for the second year in a row, our congregation, with the help of neighboring University Christian Church, who lent us use of their basement, hosted a casino night fundraiser. The funds raised went to support Elizabeth Gregory Home, the women's shelter we began a few years ago. To keep the congregation involved and drum up support, we now have the unique opportunity to see staid Lutherans gathered around little game tables, puzzling over how to place bets, and what exactly is craps anyway, and do I really want to bet all my chips even when no real money is involved? These are perplexing questions, and the average Lutheran will put more time into pondering these questions thoughtfully than actually placing any free bets. Maybe if the booze was free (as I hear it is in Vegas), people might get a little bit crazier, but I'm guessing that would also be a church basement no-no.

Still, once you loosen up a bit, it's actually pretty fun. And I'm sure I'd never run into so many people I know at any real casino even if I closed out every Saturday night with hand at poker. Tonight I spent most of my time chatting, snacking, and discussing what was up for silent auction. I even came home with a lovely original watercolor painting after my bid (the only bid, I must admit - there were so many auction items and not so many bidders) won.

And if I ever were to put down money in a real casino? You can bet I'd pick three card poker over roulette!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In Praise of the Mushroom Primo

Dare I say that one of the best things about living in Seattle is delivery from Pagliacci Pizza? When we're having one of our famously rainy days, I'm not so sure that's an exaggeration. And just in time for the annual deluge comes Pagliacci's annual mushroom primo pizza.

Wild mushrooms are something I anticipate eagerly each fall. Chanterelles and porcini are undoubtedly the favorite local specimens, and both can be found topping the mushroom primo, along with mozzerella, onion, capers, thyme, and olive oil. Driving home from a small church group gathering tonight, all I could think about was the mushroom primo (not a very spiritual topic, I admit). And then, right behind me, who should pull up to our house but the pizza delivery guy? Talk about perfect timing! But lest you think that Pagliacci just magically appears when you crave their pizza, take note that Michael was home and had placed an earlier order. They're not that good.

But then you taste the pizza... and, oh yeah, it is, in fact, that good. Thanks, Pagliacci, for giving us waterlogged northwesterners something to look forward to each November besdies election day! Long live the porcini and savor those chanterelles!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's the time of the season...

...for comfort food. What was an exceptionally beautiful October in Seattle has turned into a typically dreary November. By the time I leave work darkness has already descended, with only dim streetlights reflecting off a patchwork of puddles under a starless sky. Huddled under an awning, awaiting the bus, I strain my already myopic eyes attempting to read. I need something, after all, to keep my mind off the damp evening chill. Ultimately, it's the thought of a warm meal at home that makes it all worthwhile.

Tonight, after a quick stop at Fred Meyer, I had everything needed to make a comforting batch of pasta e ceci - pasta and chickpeas. While I hate to plagiarize Jamie Oliver again, I do have to give credit where credit is due, and this recipe is adapted from his Italy cookbook.

Gently sautee finely chopped celery, garlic, onion, and rosemary in a pot. When soft, add two cans of drained and rinsed chickpeas (or, as I did tonight, you can also substitute beans - such as cannellini - for some of the chick peas) and 2 1/4 C. broth. Simmer very gently for about half an hour, then use a slotted spoon to scoop out about half of the chick peas. Puree the remaining chick peas and broth, then add the whole chickpeas back to the mixture along with about 3-4 oz. of soup pasta such as ditalini. Continue to cook, stirring frequently and adding more broth as needed, until pasta is cooked. Season to taste, and drizzle over some olive oil if you like.

Mmmm.... Food like this almost makes November worth it (and Michael was much happier to have pasta e ceci to take to work rather than beet salad, let me tell you).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sweet & Savory

"I don't like sweet and savory." -Michael Rouse, amateur food critic

I'm not sure how many times I've heard the quote above. If I had a dollar for every time, well, I could buy a tank of gas - at last month's prices! Tonight, Michael brought out this familiar protest once again, his explanation as to why he does not like a particular dish, in this case a salad of raw beets and Asian pears cut into matchsticks dressed with lemon vinaigrette and topped with feta, mint, and sunflower seeds. And yes, I do realize that someone out there reading this has probably just thought, "What the @$&!? That's a salad!?" Yes, it is a salad - and a darn good one, at that. Don't judge it until you've tried it.

Many are the times I've puzzled over what Michael defines as sweet and savory, and why this partnership is, in his opinion, a dining taboo. The fact is, he has raved about mango chutney (a mix of mango, peppers, and onions) and sweet and sour eggplant relish that I've made in the past. If that's not sweet and savory, what is?

As it turns out, there is a simple answer to this conundrum: cheese. As with many things in life, cheese is the answer. In this case, it refers specifically Michael's aversion to cheese paired with anything hinting at sweetness. This distaste extends to cheesecake (possibly Michael's least favorite dessert), cheddar paired with apples, and Pagliacci's seasonal pear pizza. Although I have seen him make an exception to this rule for baked brie with figs. Hmm...

In this case, Michael did admit that the salad was not terrible, but the combination of feta and tossed with crunchy beet strips cleverly hiding slivers of pear was just not quite his thing. Since we had enough salad left to feed about six more people, however, he valiantly offered to eat some of the leftovers at work tonight. Aw, what a trooper!

And for those of you more adventurous eaters, how about making a little seasonally appropriate beet salad of your own?

The following recipe is courtesy of Jamie Oliver's Cook with Jamie book:
Cut about four medium large beets (a mix of colors is best - I used chioggia and golden beets, which have the advantage of not staining anything) and two or three pears into matchsticks. Toss with lemon dressing (10 T. olive oil shaken with 3 1/2 T. fresh lemon juice, seasoned with salt and pepper - use what you need and save the rest for other dishes). Top with 7 oz. feta cheese, a handful of sunflower seeds, and a scattering of small mint leaves. Season to taste. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Trimmings & Trappings

Last Wednesday I received an unexpected message from my mom (or Mums, as I usually refer to her). Would the family be able to come up some time soon to do some of the trim work in our house? After all, the weather looks like it going to be pretty crummy, and dad and Sam need clear days to work on their various jobs...

After explaining that Michael had four days off right at that moment - so would it be possible for them to actually come up Thursday? - mums and dad were quiet on the other end of the line.

"Well, we'll see," mums was apprehensive that they could be ready and make the four hour drive up to Seattle the very next day. "We're very busy."

Now, if you know my mom at all, you should know that she is ALWAYS too busy. Or rather, my dad and brother are ALWAYS too busy. And there is never enough time. This state of business will, I am sure, never change, but in actuality no matter how busy things are (and they are ALWAYS busy), somehow they still manage to squeeze in time to help Michael and me out. And for that I am truly grateful. Our house would not be what it is today without their unwavering support and hard work.

So it was that Thursday night the three arrived with a pickup load of Oregon white oak trim boards just as I was starting to cook a butternut squash curry. For the next two and a half days they worked, and the result is that our entryway, living, and dining room now are decked out in beautiful solid oak baseboard where before there was only a bare strip of sheetrock showing above the crack where the floorboards meet the wall. The windows, too, were fully trimmed out in oak, and it looks just as fabulous as I had hoped.

Of course, the project is not finished - isn't there always more to be done? We are left with the hall and a few other spots still in need of trim, as well as the rails above the stairwell, where the existing dingy woodwork looks like the proverbial forgotten stepchild when compared with the new, freshly oiled oak. I'm holding out hope that we can finish it off this winter - provided, of course, that we aren't all too busy once again.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Road Trip Day 4, Oct : Mission: The Mission

After spending the night with Michael's godparents in Redwood City (about miles south of San Francisco) and attending church with them in the morning, we heading to San Francisco for our first real taste of the town. To me, that didn't mean Fiherman's Wharf or Ghiradelli Square - it meant the Mission District, home to an ethnically and economically diverse population, and also home of the Mission burrito.

The Mission burrito, like the neighborhood from which it comes, is down to earth and bursting with flavor. We parked across the street from Taqueria Cancucn (burritos in the Mission are sold from taquerias, just to confuse those not in the know), a garishly painted place sandwiuched between thrift shops and corner produce stands. Customers waited in the narrow corridor at the back of the taqueria to place their order, then wedged themselves onto a bench at one of the long pine tables after picking up a plastic basket containing foil wrapped goodness.

Supposedly these are the places that inspired chains like Taco del Mar. But I can tell you first hand, Taco del Mar has nothing on these burritos. Michael took one bite and let out a groan of happiness. "This is the best burrito I have ever had," he simply said, and I couldn't put it any better.

But what made these burritos so good? Michael's was brimming with carne asada, while I chose pollo asado, which is, to many burrito and taco aficionados, the most boring option. But the chicken in my burrito was, well, succulent is the best word I can think of. It was juicy and slightly spicy, studded with hearty chunks of avocado (which I love, love, love), not too much rice, and wrapped in a flaky tortilla.

Now, I have read reviews of various Mission taquerias online, and seems there is much contention as to which taquerias are really authentic and truly tasy. Some rave about Cancun while others respond with a resounding, "meh." I guess that maybe the people who live there are just spoiled for choice and have to find something to argue about. All I can say is that Michael and I, as Seattleites, just devoured our burritos and couldn't have been happier. And at around $5 apiece with chips and house made salsas included, these burritos are also a great deal.

There is more to the Mission than burritos, however. We stopped for a look at the beautiful Mission Dolores. Tours to see the interior of the mission are offered, but we declined in favor of seeing more of the neighborhood on foot. We passed through a diverse mix of historic San Francisco Victorian row houses, some freshly painted and well tended, others crumbling under peeling paint. Small shops and restaurants lined the ground floors of many of the buildings, randing from pawn shops to trendy tapas bars.

Tempted by the sight of a line snaking out the door of a shop advertising fresh made organic ice cream, we got dessert at the Bi Rite Cremaery. Back on the street we enjoyed toasted cocnut and malted vanilla with peanut brittle and milk chocolate ice cream. Thick and creamy, the ice cream was a real treat (although we both agreed that we favor our own local organic ice creamery, Seattle's Molly Moon's).

For science fiction and fantasy lovers, Borderlands Books is a must. This little shop is crammed with new and used books spanning the full breadth of these genres. While we didn't buy anything, I was tempted by a lovely illustrated edition of the complete tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

We also managed to spot a few of the murals for which this area is famous, including the exceptionally colorful paintings that line the San Francisco Women's building. There are many more we unfortunately did not have the chance to see.

If You Go:
Taqueria Cancun
1003 Market Street, San Francisco
415-864-6773

Mission Dolores
www.missiondolores.org
3321 16th Street, San Francisco

Bi-Rite Creamery
www.biritecreamery.com
3692 18th Street, Sand Francisco

Borderlands Books
www.borderlands-books.com
866 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Road Trip Day 3, October 4: San Francisco Here We Come!

South of Redwoods State and National Parks, the 101 leaves the coastline and heads inland, full of twists and bends. With redwood trees still towering on both sides, this road just screams cross-country motor race. The smooth curves in the asphalt just beg for speed... oh, wait! Did I just say that? What I meant to say was speeding is VERY dangerous and you should ALWAYS follow the posted limit and take corners with caution. Yes, that's it - that's what I really meant to say. And now that we've relived that flashback to Driver's Ed, let's move on, shall we?

So, after hours of cruising (but always following proper following distance and never, ever exceeding the speed limit, I'm sure) through forested hills and dales, it was getting late and we were still hours away from Redwood City. Not knowing where to find a good spot to eat, we pulled off the highway in Ukiah, heading into Old Town. After scouting out the streets we settled on dinner at the Ukiah Brewing Company. A low-key place in a historic building with amazingly high ceilings, it looked like the best bet.

Michael ordered the pulled pork sandwich while I chose the fried fish sandwich (what can I say? I know I just ate fish & chips the day before, but I'm a sucker for the fried fish; I ate fish & chips three days in a row once while in England). And since this was a brewing company, of course we had to try the beer.

All in all, the food was very good and fresh, if not exceptional. Michael's pulled pork was tender and smokey, while the fish sandwich was fresh and enhanced by red onion, tomato, and red leaf lettuce . The only complaint I have is that the batter, which was rather delicate, couldn't quite stand up to the tartar sauce and lost most of it's crunch.

One thing of note, however, is that the Ukiah Brewing Company uses almost all organic ingredients. Because of this, the fare is perhaps a couple of bucks more than similar food might be at some pubs (although I've certainly more expensive pub grub elsewhere, too), but as a proponent of using organic, and most importantly local, ingredients when possible, I found this to be worth the price.

Of the half dozen or so beers on tap, we tried the Pilsner and the 10 Guilder, a red ale. Now, I do love a good beer, but I mainly focus on wheat beers and different Belgain styles, so I don't feel I'm the best judge of hoppy beers like the ones served at Ukiah. But I did enjoy the 10 Guilder, and think it's a good choice for those who like a full flavored beer that isn't too heavy on the hops.

By the time we finished with dinner the sun had set and we were in a hurry to get back on the road. After not quite two hours of driving, I called out excitedly to my sleeping husband, "Look! Wake up! It's the Golden Gate!"

Across the Golden Gate we came - maybe not back where we started from, but I was bubbling with excitement. As were crossing the bridge, Michael commented about a toll, but I sure didn't know what we was talking about. We were here, San Francisco straight ahead, and - wait, what was that up ahead? Could it be - ? Were those, just possibly, toll booths?

Sure enough, as somehow every person we've told this to since seems to already know, the Golden Gate is, in fact, a toll bridge. And not only that, but they only take cash, six dollars to be exact, which, funnily enough, was the amount we had already spent (well almost) on parking at Redwoods State Park earlier that day.

"Do you accept credit or debit cards? A check?" I hopefully asked the woman at the booth.

"I'm sorry, cash only," she informed me. But what was I to do? We'd already crossed the bridge; there was no place to pull off or turn around.

The woman was actually very pleasant about the whole thing, saying we may get a notice in the mail requesting we pay the $6.00, but if we did we should just contest it since we were from out of state and knew no better.

In short, in our first day in California we managed to smuggle in fruit, stiff the State Parks nine cents on their parking fee, and just completely cop out on paying the toll to cross what is possibly the world's most famous bridge. And, yeah, I did speed a little - just a little, mind you - driving through the redwoods. I guess California must just bring out the renegade in the Rouses.

If You Go:

The Ukiah Brewing Company offers good organic food and beer (a true California experience) and sometimes live music, too!: www.ukiahbrewingco.com

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Road Trip Day 3, October 4: I Remember Redwood Trees


Our day got off to a good start with breakfast in Bandon at the Minute Cafe. I got the giant cinnamon roll I'd been craving and proceeded to slather it with butter (hey, I was on vacation - time to go all out, right?), while Michael enjoyed a plate of corned beef hash, hashbrowns, and a buttermilk biscuit. I took the fall and ate the eggs that came with his meal - incomprehensibly, that boy just doesn't like eggs.

Our ultimate goal for the day was to reach Redwood city, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, where we would spend the next two nights with Michael's godparents. In the meantime, we had a lot of driving to do and some real redwoods to explore. The coast was still shrouded in fog, but I was thrilled to see my first glimpses of the southern Oregon shore and northern California. Having grown up firmly ensconced in the northwest corner of our state, I'd actually never made it to this part of the country before. The 101 offered sweeping views of rugged sea stacks fighting a slowly losing battle with the elements around Cape Sebastian and the gorge-like drive around thickly forested Humbug Mountain offered just a glimpse of this incredible region.

Before long we were at the state border.

"Crap!" I exclaimed. "We have Oregon fruit in car, and I hear they ask if you have fruit when coming into California."

Sure enough, they really do ask if you have fruit. We lied. Actually, what Michael said, upon being asked, "Do you have any fruit?" by the border guard was, "Uh, not really, no." The guard looked momentarily confused but let us pass.

So there we were in California, winding through forests of massive redwoods, snacking on peanut butter pretzels and illegal Oregonian plums. We made a detour in Crescent City to pick up some hickory smoked dry jack cheese at the Rumiano Cheese Company store. We then stopped to say hello to my old childhood hero, Paul Bunyan. As a four-year-old, I was enamored of Paul and his blue ox, Babe. I was also under the mistaken impression that the logger's name was really Tall Bunyan, and when I discovered it was Paul my heart broke a little. Tall was the perfect name for this giant! What kind of a wimpy name was Paul, anyway?

I'm not sure what my four-year-old self would have thought of the enormous talking Paul Bunyan that guards the entrance to the Trees of Mystery. Thrilled, probably. I think this Paul was a bit disappointed that we didn't actually stay and pay the $14 per person entry fee to visit these mysterious trees. Maybe another time, Paul.

Determined to squeeze a short hike in, I scoured the little Best Short Hikes in Redwood National and State Parks book I had borrowed from the library. We chose to visit Fern Canyon in the Prairie Creek region of Redwoods State Park.

Perhaps the small lake that covered the road after we turned off the 101 should have been a warning. Turn back, before it's too late! But, inspired by the SUVs and pick-ups ahead of our little Pontiac Vibe, we took the plunge - quite literally - and waded through this small pond of a mud puddle. Oh, what the heck, we're in the land of tall tales, after all! This was a body of water so wide, we had to roll down the windows, grab hold of a passing branch and row ourselves across. And would you believe it, a fish jumped right into Michael's lap! But since he's only a fan of the kind that come battered and fried with tartar sauce on the side, he threw it right back.

After a few miles of winding through pristine redwoods, we reached a pay station for the Fern Canyon area. And although my little guidebook had been published in 2005 and claimed that the day use fee was a measly $2, it had evidently increased to a whopping six bucks! Whopping to us, that is, because we only had $3 in our posession. A thorough search of all pockets, wallets, backpacks, and car crevasses turned up an additional $2.91 in change, as well as a Canadian penny and 4 Croatian kunas. I thought about throwing these last two coins in to make up for our missing nine cents, but thought better of it when I saw that the little envelope stated "no foreign currency". Having already broken California law once that day we were trying to stay on the straight and narrow. "Sorry! This is all we had," I wrote in tiny letters at the bottom of the tiny envelope.

Our trials had only just begun, however. It was at this time that the grey skies decided to let loose and rain. We attempted to drive to the trailhead, but were blocked by another enormous puddle. This time we took the hint from other cars parked on our side of the pond, parked our car, and swam across on our own. After what felt like miles, we made it to the actual trailhead. The rain was pounding down like bowling balls, and this is the reason I took no photos on this hike. By the time we got back we were soaked to the bone through three layers of clothing and mushrooms were already sprouting from our shoulders.

Fern Canyon is gorgeous, though. If you can go on a day when the rain isn't strong enough to send knock over a herd of elk and if you can scrounge up six bucks ahead of time (although by the time you go it may well cost ten), I highly recommend it. The site of a former mining operation, the steep walls that were once scars of the mining industry are now covered with a thick, emerald green carpet of maiden hair ferns. Nearby is a windswept beach and meadows where you can frequently spot elk (we saw a couple of impressive bucks and a doe with her calf).

The rain stopped about the time we got back to the car and forded the lake in our path once more. Soon we were on the road again, winding our way back to 101 and crossing the majestic mud puddle to reach the highway. And although I can't be sure, I think I caught a glimpse of Babe the Blue Ox peering over the tops of the redwoods to see if the rain had really stopped.

If You Go:
For a hearty breakfast in Bandon with great service, go to the Minute Cafe:
145 2nd St.
Bandon, OR 97411

When in Crescent City and in need of some tasty cheese, try the Rumiano Cheese Comapny (unfortunately they don't sell their own cheese pre-sliced for picnicking, and the only bread they had were frozen loaves of La Brea to be baked at home): www.rumiano-cheese.com
511 9th Street
Crescent City, CA 95531

You, too, can visit Paul Bunyan (and even have a conversstion with the big guy) and other sights both tacky and awe-inspiring at the Trees of Mystery: www.treesofmystery.net

Find more information about Prairie Creek Redwood State Park online at: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=415

Friday, October 17, 2008

Road Trip Day 2, October 3: Let the Feasting begin!


Now, you don't think I could possibly talk about one whole day of our trip without bringing up food, do you? No, I've decided that the food is SO important that it demands postings of its own, dedicated to the art of eating while on the road. Let's just say that Buy Nothing Month was now over with a vengeance!

Our first official stop after leaving my parents' place was the South Beach Fish Market. This place should never, ever be confused with South Beach, Florida, or the South Beach Diet (whatever that is, anyway). Ever. One look at this place, pictured here, should convince you that this is the real Oregon deal - fresh seafood, fresh seafood, and more fresh seafood.

I had read that the South Beach Fish Market had the best fish & chips on the Oregon coast. Unfortunately I haven't been able to sample nearly enough seaside fish & chips joints to agree that this statement is objectively true, but I can say what they serve is darn good. The batter is light, almost tempura-like, and the fish really shines. Michael ordered the halibut version, while I stuck with the less expensive traditional lingcod. While both options were good, we both agreed that it was work the extra three or four bucks for the halibut. This fish was so flaky and sweet, with not a hint of the "fishiness" that can plague all but the freshest catch. The fries were crinkle cut, not as good as house-made, but still not bad for all that.

Good as the battered fish was, it was a shame to leave without trying any of the other offerings, which ranged from crab and shrimp cocktails to whole crabs that were cooking in the giant kettles out front. I was simply to full to think about another helping of any kind, but I did buy some canned Oregon line-caught tuna that I'm eager to sample.

While lunch was good but basic, for dinner we splurged on fancier fare at the Wild Rose in Bandon. Only a short drive from Bullards Beach State Park and a few blocks off of 101, Michael and I both agreed that the Wild Rose was a step above any previous camping dinners we'd had. I admit I was a bit shocked when I saw the prices after we were presented with the menu; I hadn't expected cheap, but I had thought there would probably be entrees under $20; not so. However, unlike the Seattle restaurants that are currently our city's "It" eateries, entrees here included your choice of a house salad or soup of the day. This appeased me somewhat, and I reminded myself that Buy Nothing Month was over, after all, and it was OK to go a little crazy.

And once I tasted my soup, and then the sea scallops I chose for my entree, I had absolutely no regrets about the choice I'd made. The sea scallops, in particular, were amazing. Truly, I have never had better scallops in my life. Succulent, sweet, sauteed to perfection so that the outsides were crisp and seasoned while the insides melted in the mouth, I felt that I was in heaven. And the artfully arranged fennel, arugula, and grapefruit on the side were the perfect complement. The only bad thing I could say was that the seasoning on the scallops was just the tiniest bit on the salty side. Michael, meanwhile, enjoyed a lovely dish of gnocchi with blue cheese, bacon, and caramelized garlic and shallots.

But I can't forget our starters - the carrot soup that came with my meal was also wonderful. I had to offer Michael a taste. "Wow," he said. "Why is this soup so much better than the carrot soup you made last week?" Gee, thanks, dear. But I couldn't really argue - this thick, brilliant orange soup flecked with cracked pepper was far more flavorful than the soup I'd made at home the week before. Michael's salad was also particularly good. We each washed it all down with a glass of Oregon wine - pinots, of course - a pinot noir for him and pinot grigio for me.

Now, before you go thinking that this all sounds unbeatably delicious, but a little pretentious, let me assure you that the Wild Rose itself is a pretty humble joint. The food may be fine dining, but the atmosphere is Oregon coastal casual - staff in jeans, simple wood booths that look like they spent time under the open ocean spray, a sloping floor covered with industrial grey carpet, and framed photo prints of black and white nostalgia shots featuring bubble gum factories and beauty queen spaghetti feeds.

Unfortunately I have no photos to share of this meal, as the one nod that they make to a traditional haute cuisine dining atmosphere is to keep the lighting very low, so all my hand-held no flash shots are a bit blurry and dark. Well, we can't have it all; I'll just have to be content with having had perfect scallops once in this lifetime.

If You Go:
South Beach is located just south of Newport. When coming from the north, you'll see it on the right-hand side of 101 not long after you cross Newport's iconic bridge. For more information (and how to order their great products online) see: http://www.southbeachfishmarket.com/

Unfortunately the Wild Rose has no website. It is located at 130 Chicago Street in Bandon, phone number 541-347-4428.