Monday, November 24, 2014

Chili Today, Chili Tomorrow

I have a troubled relationship with chili.  I have fond memories of rich luscious spicy bowls of deliciousness, and yet no matter how many of the chili cook-off winners I cook, the results don't measure up to my memories.

My mom made chili with canned kidney beans, hamburger, and Gebhart's chili powder.  I have fond memories, but I was looking for something richer and fuller, something with no beans.  

My friend Maddy, a fantastic cook and the most gracious hostess, introduced me to Chicken and White Bean Chili.  It's fabulous, and I make it often, but just now I'm having a craving for a bowl of red. 

I have invested in a dozen kinds of chili powder, I have cried over countless onions - and I have cried over countless batches of sub-par chili.  

So when I took out some frozen meat left over from a meatball making marathon (hint: use an ice cream scoop to form the meatballs.  And freeze them on a cookie sheet, then dump them in a zip-lock and back in the freezer.  More later on spaghetti and meatballs, I promise.)  

But back to the chili:  It was a bottom of the fridge improv with low expectations.  Onions and garlic, beef and pork.  Chili powder.  Tomatoes from a can. A few weird and wonderful spices. So when it turned out to be the Best Chili Ever, I looked at my notes on the back of an old grocery list and wrote down the recipe.

I'm making it again this week.  For when I get heartily sick of turkey.  And here, thanks to a mild case of OCD is the Best Chili Ever.  Finally.  Now if it would only get cold and rainy again...

Best Ever Beef Chili

I made this with what I had on hand in the fridge and cupboard, and very low expectations…it was fabulous.  The chili recipe I’ve been looking for for years.  Simple, easy, addictive.…

1  1/4 pounds hamburger
1/2 pound ground  pork
1 can crushed tomatoes
butter and olive oil
1 minced onion, any color
3 cloves garlic, minced

1 t oregano
1/2 t cayenne
big pinch allspice
1 1/2 t cumin
1 T chipotle chili powder
1 T regular chili powder 
1 cup water
1  generous  Tablespoon Better Than Bullion beef stock

(Note: Spice quantities are estimates - I shook them out, I didn’t measure...except for the chili powder.  Feel free to adjust them to your taste, but don’t leave something out just because it sounds weird.  You'll need them all, even the allspice.  No cheating.)

Brown meat in olive oil and butter.  Yes, butter.  Trust me.  

Add onion and garlic cook till soft.  Add spices, cook stirring constantly for one minute.  Add tomato, water, BTB beef.  Cook on lowest heat for about an hour, stirring occasionally and adding more water if the chili gets dry.  

Serve with grated sharp cheddar, diced shallot and sour cream on the side.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Flower Power

Thinking about flowers and about Thanksgiving, these inspire.

Amy Merrick.  Wouldn't you love to take a class from her?  Or have her do flowers for your house for the holly daze?

Me too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thank You, Thank You

I have a friend who is so good with thank-you notes that I swear they get home before you do.  I think she even has a deal with Santa to drop off the presents and her thank-yous at the same time.  She practically beats him down the chimney.  

Hand written.  On beautiful paper.  She even has birthday postage stamps for birthday cards.  

I am reasonably good at thank-you notes, thanks to my mom (we were not allowed to use our gifts until we had written a thank you note), but now I find out from Have Some Decorum that you are not supposed to use the words "thank you" in your thank you note. Who knew?  

Okay you probably all did, and I'm just late to the party, but I have been scrupulously and purposely saying those words in each and every note for years, and now I find out I'm - I'm what, out of touch?  tacky?  misinformed?  or, with a nod to Nancy Mitford, heaven help us, Non U?   Or is she wrong?

I'm thinking here about how our founding fathers used ain't in conversation and correspondence, and our grammer school grammar teachers had a cow if we said ain't.  Grammar changes.  Afraid of being mistaken for someone fresh off the farm, we conformed.  But really, what's wrong with being fresh off the farm?   With being who you are?

I grew up in a time when being from another country was embarrassing.  Something to be ashamed of.  You ate canned food and TV dinners and not the delicious healthy varied stuff of your homeland.  And our family recipes and traditions got lost, all but a few.  But unless you were a Native American (and that wasn't a good thing to be at that time either) you were an immigrant.  So were you supposed to look down on yourself?

Now is a huge deal, people chat away with great pride about where their people came from, every family seems to have someone digging into their roots.   We compare steerage horror stories and recall with pride those who had the courage to believe there was something better across the sea.  We search for and make with pride recipes from the old countries.   So much got lost, so hard to find.  

I am writing down my mom's stories of growing up during the depression, and going to college during WWII.  Of working as a bicycle messenger at a shipyard during the summers.   Of saving seeds and raising chickens.  Of summer rainstorms and dances at Foster Hall.  I wish I had known her then.  I know we would have been great friends.  I am so happy to know her now, so proud to be her friend and her daughter.  I love you mommy - so much.  You are my hero.

So how  did we get from thank-you notes to immigration?  I have no idea.  I'm off to write a thank you note to my dear friend who came for breakfast this morning and made me laugh.  And I promise not to use those two little forbidden words.  Or maybe I will, and just continue to be myself.  Whee!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November In The Garden

Okay, once again thanks to Dustin and all the smart folks at Sloat Nursery in Danville (and other places), here is your to-do list for November.  Have fun, and don't forget to shop at Sloat!  

November: What to do in your garden this month

  • Look to plant cyclamen in early November. It’s also a great time to plant ground covers and sweet peas.

  • Think fall & winter color: Violas and pansies are perfect for creating mass color in containers or flowerbeds. Available in a variety of hues, they are a terrific ground cover to plant over bulbs in pots or in the ground.

  • For a hardy alternative, consider planting ornamental cabbage and kale.

  • Prepare planting beds for winter. Clear weeds and rocks. Till soil and add soil amendments.

  • Fall is for planting! Get shrubs, perennials and trees into the ground this month. Winter rains will help develop a strong root system.

  • Select bulbs for spring bloom and winter forcing such as hyacinth, paperwhite & tulips.  Refrigerate hyacinth, crocus and tulips 4 to 6 weeks prior to planting.

  • Apply a lawn fertilizer and pre–emergent to control and prohibit annual bluegrass, crabgrass, and other weeds in your lawn and flower beds. Also, aerate and fertilize the lawn with E.B. Stone Nature’s Green.

  • De-thatch lawn if necessary

  • Top-dress perennial beds, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons with Sloat Forest Mulch Plus and feed with 0-10-10 fertilizer monthly until bloom (E.B. Stone Organics).

  • Divide the roots and rhizomes of perennials such as agapanthus, yarrow and iris.

  • Store away and clean any unused pots and containers that can be used as hiding places by overwintering insects, slugs and spiders.

  • Lightly prune Japanese maples while still in leaf. Select and plant maples for fall color.

  • It’s time to fill your bird feeders for winter. You can also try a suet feeder!

  • Clean up dead leaves, deadhead flowering plants- diseased leaves should go in the garbage, the rest can go in the compost pile

  • Mulch with compost or Forest Mulch to amend the soil and keep down weeds

  • Pull weeds before they have a chance to drop seeds.  Apply a pre-emergent after fall rains to stop germinating weeds.  Concern Weed Prevention Plus is a safe product derived from corn gluten.

  • Move perennials and shrubs between now and January-prune back lightly first

  • Continue to bait for snails with Sluggo

  • Strip roses Dec-Jan, prune in Jan-Feb

  • Fertilize cymbidiums with 6-25-25 food

  • Fertilize blue hydrangeas with E.B. Stone True Blue now for bluer blooms

  • Fertilize winter color with a blooming plant food (primrose, cyclamen) such as Maxsea 3-20-20.

  • Continue to fertilize citrus with E.B. Stone Organics Citrus Food or Greenall Citrus and Avocado food.

  • Clean and store tools- rub down with alcohol after each use. Grease with white lithium grease to prevent rust. Store shovels and saws in a bucket of sand with a little oil (5 parts sand-1 part oil)

  • If frost is imminent, be sure to water your garden (if it hasn’t rained recently).

  • Use Bonide All Seasons Oil when roses and fruit trees have lost their leaves

PLANT IT NOW! October & November are truly the most advantageous months of the year to get perennials, trees, vines, shrubs and cool season vegetables into the ground. 

Planting now will allow roots to become well established for much stronger, more vigorous plants come springtime. Fall and winter rains mean nature does the weekly watering for you, plus most gardeners see fewer pest and disease problems in the fall.

Happy Gardening!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Music To My Ears

She was determined to give us the benefit of a classical music education...whether we wanted it or not.  

She was the principal violist (and no, that's not a mis-spelling, it's a different instrument) in a symphony in a town in the shadow of San Francisco.  We were the unfortunate few who had taken up string instruments, cello, viola and violin.   

Looking back I wonder if she was looking for the next Yo Yo Ma (altho at the time he wasn't a famous cellist, but really, how many of you have ever heard of Pablo Cassals?)  Or if she was hoping we would eventually feel the joy she felt from playing.  

I had taken up the cello quite by accident.  I wanted to play the guitar, it was Peter Paul and Mary days, the heady summer of love, and although I was too young to participate in the love part, and lived in the suburbs, not San Francisco, those currents blew thru my life.  I was thrilled by the daring, the thought that you could defy your parents and live.   That being young didn't mean being subservient.  That we didn't have to wait to think, that we could make a change.  Heady stuff.  

The local private music teacher knew just enough guitar to stay ahead of me, no more.   I think she was studying the same book I was, just a few pages ahead.  But she knew a great deal more about the cello, and about manipulating children, and so I was shunted coerced convinced propagandized browbeaten into playing the cello.  And eventually into buying more and more expensive cellos from her.  No cello sold in this valley for fifty years without passing thru her hands.

Consequently I found myself, at age twelve, in the District Orchestra.  We were horrid.  Unlike the piano, a string instrument needs to be tuned each time you play it, and sometimes in the middle of playing.  And if you can't hear if you're sharp or flat or right on pitch, then you can't tune it.

Violins and violas and cello also lack frets.  Those are the little crosswise ridges that tell you where to put your fingers.  So we not only  had to hear if we were in tune to tune up, but we had to hear - and adjust - while we were playing.  

Now imagine half a dozen of these twelve year olds (who'd much rather be sleeping in, or playing with their friends, but were too polite or too intimidated to say so), sawing away for an hour before school.  Twice a week.  Frightening.

We gave concerts.  Only the parents came, and it was painful to watch their faces.  

This was at a time when schools had music programs, closets full of instruments to lend, music for us to play, space to practice and perform.  And music teachers.

A few of us kept going, partly because we were obedient children, partly because we got better and began to enjoy playing.  By high school we were pretty good, and having fun.  I wonder how many are still playing?  

I can still distinguish the sound of a clarinet from an oboe, a French horn from a trumpet.  I can pick out - and hum - the cello line in almost anything.  I know what the open strings are tuned to (and yes I know you do not end a sentence with a preposition.  Deal with it).  Heck, I know what an open string is.  I know which instruments are tuned to A, and which to B flat. 

I still love Vivaldi and Bach and Mozart, and pretty much any music up to and including Beethoven.  I have a mad pash for 
Medieval music , the stern structure and the complicated harmonies.  

So I did get a gift from her, just not the gift she thought she was giving.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Troubled Relationship With Napkin Rings, or How Not To Set Your Thanksgiving Table

I have a troubled relationship with napkins.  Not that I don't use them - I do, lots of them, and only cloth.  Those little paper squares?  Please God, no.  Like trying to dry off after a shower with a kleenex.

Washing?  I'm a fanatic.  Every time they're used.  Ironing?  Not so much.  And my staff is not much help.  (That would be Ally the dog who, while willing, is lacking opposable thumbs and consequently is not adept at ironing, and Wally, who, while he is not deficient in the opposable thumb department has zero interest in ironing, or anything to do with laundry other than how his is folded - by someone else, natch).

And here's the crux of the problem:  Napkin rings.  

Every article about cooking for Thanksgiving has advice about setting the table, and they're all hip-happy about napkin rings, talking about how they make the table much more elegant, and show how much you care.  Puhleeze. 

You know the history of napkin rings, right?  They were invented so you could tell your napkin from other people's, and use it again.  For a week.  Since laundry was only done once a week.  The mind reels. 

While I appreciate that I'm not wiping my lips with someone else's greasy used napkin, probably crawling with germs, I'm not keen on wiping my lips with my own greasy used napkin, either.  

Now that you know their history, when you put napkin rings on your dinner table, what message do you think you're sending?  Are your guests thinking "Hmmm, I wonder if I'm using someone else's old napkin...or if someone else will use mine after I'm done?"

It's not about decor, darlings, it's about decorum. 

You can read a history of napkin rings here.  Not a scholarly discourse, no citations, and I'm not sure how much is fact, how much conjecture, how much rumor. 

So much of what we take as truth is not.  Remember the story of the newlywed woman who cut the ends off her ham before she put it in the oven?  When her newly minted husband asked her why, she said, "Oh, but that's the right way to do it!  It's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom (his mother-in-law), and she said, "That's the way my mom always did it."

So he asked her mom, his wife's grandmother, and she said, "I had to cut the ends off.  My pan wasn't big enough."

Moral: be careful what you take for granted,  what you take as truth.

Oh and please don't get me started on vintage napkins.  Some are beautiful, well bleached.  Clearly clean.  Some are full of stains and gross.  

New napkins: polyester?  No thank you.  It's like trying to mop something up with a plastic bag.   100% cotton please.  Or well-washed linen.  And for God's sake don't starch your napkins, they are for dabbing your lips, not exfoliating them.  

Some yahoo recommends in his Setting The Thanksgiving Table article (in a fancy decorating magazine that really should know better) that you use paper napkins in napkins rings to save on laundering.  If you really want to save time and effort at Thanksgiving, tell people to stay home.  

But if you're having guests, treat them like guests.  Real napkins, real smile, real joy in your heart.  Really.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Dog Days

If you read the last post about our dog Ally, you're hoping when you come to visit she doesn't go ballistic upon your arrival.  That would besmirch your character in ways from which it's hard to recover.  (No dangling participle!)  No, you're hoping she will lick your outstretched hand, and snuggle up to your leg.

Not bloody likely.  

You may be able to touch her - briefly, and only under the chin - when you've known her for half an hour.  Like an old society matron, she has her own notions of what is appropriate, and she's not afraid to tell you when you're overstepping.  Although I would not advise chuckling an old society matron under the chin, no matter how long you've known her...

But here's the weird thing:  Wally can open the garage door (it rumbles as it goes up, so loudly you can hear it in our bedroom, about half a mile away).  He can open the back door (beep! beep! that's the alarm that tells us when a kid is heading for the pool.  Or for freedom, but that's another story) and not a peep out of the dog.  She doesn't even raise her head.  

In contrast to a rat climbing the drainpipe who gets the entire anvil chorus in barking, or an amorous squirrel who really must be out of the mood after listening to Ally carry on, Wally gets the silent treatment.  Just a wag of the tail.  Nope, he can walk right into the bedroom and she won't even come out of her house.  

Is it scent?  Or sound?  How does she know it's us?

And here's the other weird thing:  Ally rarely wags her tail.   She's not unhappy, she snuggles up to my leg and demands petting at breakfast, and she can be quite demanding.   Many mugs of tea and spoonfuls of cereal have landed on the rug thanks to her shoving me with her nose because I got engrossed in the newspaper and forgot to keep scratching. 

She hops up on the bed in the morning and burrows into the warm down comforter, pressing her back against me, then turning over to wash my face.  So as you can see she's not intimidated, or unaffectionate.   But that tail?  Mostly reserved for other dogs.  I'm feeling a bit like I'm in the cheap seats, at least where the tail is concerned.

Maybe she knows we don't know the code.  Maybe she's noticed we don't have tails.  Apparently our noses are not the only parts that are not up to snuff.