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.