Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The trouble with Christmas trees that they can take over your life. And you garage, and your closets...

I have a friend who puts up eleven trees. She starts the day after Thanksgiving and has a crew.They are beautiful (the trees, not the crew), and the ornaments are so thick that you almost can't see the trees.

I'm not in her league, but I do have three trees and I'm contemplating a fourth. The main tall tree...
a kitchen tree (in the kitchen, of course)
with food-ish ornaments. Don't laugh, this is the season of ish. 

and a garden tree, of course.

I wonder how this guy really trims this tree? I'm guessing a much taller ladder...and someone to climb it.

 All just out of camera rangeWhen I first saw this shot, I thought the tree was on the table and he was a really tiny guy. 

And you think I have a Christmas tree problem!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Christmas Party, or Thank God for Ron Morgan

We had a Christmas Party. I had a blast planning the table, going to the San Francisco Flower Mart with Ann at dawn. Leslie of The Three Pinks is right, the magic that is the Flower Mart disappears when the sun comes up.

I think all those Monday mornings spend watching Ron Morgan work his magic are paying off. Ron always says "Just play and have fun!" and I did. I think it turned out well...but you can see for yourself.
The reindeer and silver leaves are from Ron Morgan's shop in Lafayette, Loot.
The hollow birch logs and the glass vases are from the Flower Mart. Beads and balls from Target.
And the inspiration is from Ron, from Cathy, from Ann. Thank you for making my life more beautiful...and more fun. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

cooking up a storm

Cathy and I made butter toffee for our friends, and I just keep making it. Some of it I even give away.
So here are the secrets, and the recipe.

First secret: A really heavy pan. This is Bourgeat French copper, 2.7 quart size. I got it from PCD and altho it is hard to hold the pan with one hand and use a spatula to scrape out the goodies with the other, it is the pan I use most. For candy, for soup, for just a little popcorn...and for toffee.
Butter and sugar, salt and a little water...and you don't have to take notes the recipe is below.
First the butter will melt...
...then the whole thing will foam up. Note the candy thermometer - more on that later.
While the toffee is cooking you chop the roasted almonds. You have to have roasted them before you start the recipe, there is not enough time to roast and let them cool and chop. 

About the chopping: you can't do this in a Cuisinart. Not even the new Elite Cuisinart (fabulous but takes up a lot of space in the cupboard and in the dishwasher). If you use a food processor you will end up with some pieces too large, some pulverized, and a few just the right size. So get out your Henkels or Wusthoff knife and chop. By hand. You can do it. Some almonds will spit out from under the knife and onto the floor, to the delight of the dog. Some will refuse to be chopped and just skittle around the cutting board. Be firm. If you cut them in half (yes one at a a time) they are much more cooperative.
Cook the toffee to 285 on your  candy thermometer. If you are really good and comfortable with sugar you can do this by sight, but I highly recommend a thermometer at least the first few times. If you don't have one and think this all may be just too much trouble, borrow one. Soak it in warm water to clean it - don't scrub. I scrubbed all the numbers off my last thermometer. Not good.

At 285 it will look like this:
Remove from heat and stir in 3/4 cup chopped almonds (put down that pen. I told you the recipe is at the end of the post.)
Then pour onto the buttered parchment which is sitting on a rimmed baking sheet. Spread the toffee with a spatula - I like it about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick, and I hold up the left side of the parchment as it's cooling to keep it from turning into an amoeba and having one very thin side. But you don't have to - I like even thicknesses and square pieces, but my therapist says they can medicate for that.

My original recipe said to let the toffee cool, melt the chocolate in a double boiler and then spread the melted chocolate on the toffee. I think that is too many dishes, too much work, so I take a 250 gram (8.82 ounce) bar of Valrhona chocolate, 68% or 61%, break it into squares, and just drop the squares onto the hot toffee. I used to chop it...
...but I discovered you don't have to. I'm the person who will break fingernails, tweezers and nail clippers trying to tighten a screw in the bathroom rather than just walk out to the kitchen and get the darned screw driver. So maybe you shouldn't be taking advice from me - but if there is a simpler way that is just as delicious I am there. This is one. 

It takes some patience, you have to wait a minute for the chocolate to begin to soften, spread what you can with a rubber spatula, wait for the hard bits to get all melty and spread again...but it's faster than the double boiler and requires less pulling out of pans and washing of rims and edges smudged with chocolate. I'm a big fan of less clean-up. 
After the chocolate is all even you dump about a cup and a half of those skittish chopped almonds onto the chocolate. You have to do this while the chocolate is still soft enough to grab the almonds but not too soft or they will sink into the chocolate never to be seen again.
I let it cool, then try to cut it into squares or diamonds. In reality it has a mind of its own (remember those recalcitrant almonds?) and it sort of half cuts/half breaks. 
Bag it up, put a ribbon on it (you're on your own in the ribbon department - I'm not Des, the Queen of all things ribbon).

Give it to your friends...if you can. Save the little crumbly bits to go on top of ice cream, with or without Maida Heater's Hot Fudge Sauce (recipe later, my arms are tired form all that chopping).
And no, the pill bottle in the background is not to help me with my desire for square-cornered toffee of even thickness. So here it is - the recipe for:

Butter Toffee
2  1/4 cups sugar
1  1/4 cups good butter - I use Strauss 
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup water

about 2 cups whole almonds, roasted (see below) and divided
one 250 gram (8.82 ounce) bar Valrhona chocolate, either 61% or 68%

Preheat oven to 375. Roast almonds on rimmed sheet pan until darker and fragrant. Watch carefully - you want them just a few shades darker and they will get a bit darker after you take them out of the oven. 

Let cool, then chop. I prefer a medium chop, you can make it finer or coarser according to your taste or you patience. Or your arm strength.

Butter a sheet of parchment big enough to cover a rimmed baking sheet.

Place sugar, butter, salt and water in a heavy saucepan. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring to a boil. Do Not Stir!

Cook to 285 on the candy thermometer, swirling occasionally if the edges are darkening faster than the center. Again, in case you weren't paying attention the first time: Do Not Stir.

Remove pan from heat and stir in 3/4 cup of the chopped almonds. Immediately pour the toffee onto the buttered parchment and spread with a rubber spatula. I like it even and about 1/4 inch thick but this isn't brain surgery so don't get too stressed.

Now take the chocolate, break it into squares, and sprinkle it over the hot toffee. Wait until you see signs of melting, then spread what you can with a rubber spatula. There will be big lumps, you will be thinking I steered you wrong and you will never make toffee again - or anything I recommend. Be patient. Spread again - and again. Eventually all the chocolate will melt, there will be an even shiny layer on the toffee and you will feel like a star. 

Wait a few minutes for the chocolate to set a little, then lightly sprinkle the nuts evenly over the still-soft chocolate. It they are not sticking you can press them in gently with the palm of your hand, but use a light touch. We're looking for adhesion here, not submersion.

Let cool (this can take a few hours) then cut into squares about 1 by 1 1/2 inches (or diamonds if you're feeling frisky). Toffee keeps airtight for more than a week. Okay, that's the theory. The reality? In my house it rarely lasts more than a day. And not because it spoils. Hey, who ate the last piece? 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town, or All's Well That Ends Well

Stephen (of Stephen Saiz Salon, a magical place of miraculous transformation in San Francisco) was just blowing my hair dry when a loud "Woo-err! Woo-err! Woo-err!" filled the salon.

"What's going on?" Stephen, Dwight and several patrons said in unison, looking at each other and around the salon. "A car alarm?"

"Not on the tenth floor" I said. "I think it's the smoke alarm."

Stephen said to Michelle, his assistant, "Honey, look out in the hall and see what's going on."

Michelle came back very pale. The noise had stopped, but you could see a bright flashing light through the door to the hall. "It smells like smoke out there" she said.  We could hear people coming out of the other salons on the tenth floor, hear their excited chatter as they gathered in the hall.

Stephen nodded, and picked up his blow dryer.

"Stephen" I said, "I think we should get out of here."

He looked at my thoughtfully and felt my still damp hair.

"Are you alright going out not quite dry? It will only take a minute to finish."

I thought about the Titanic and said "I'm fine!" as I leapt from the chair and grabbed my purse and coat. I was heading for the door when Stephen asked Michelle "Have you collected?"

Oops. Not. I threw my credit card at Michelle and pulled the smock off before I even hit the changing booth by grabbing a handful of the front and pulling hard. I yanked my sweater over my head, scribbled my name on the charge, stuffed the credit card in my pocket and ran for the door.

There were so many people streaming down the stairs I had to wait for a break. I slipped in behind a woman still wearing a smock and foil in her hair, and just ahead of a very handsome (and unhappy) hairdresser. We spiraled down ten flights of tiny narrow stairs. A man ahead of us said "You should have been here for the earthquake - we did this in the dark." Sobering thought. Note to self: Put tiny flashlight in purse.

As we went down the last flight of stairs we could hear the fire engines pulling up outside, their sirens  grinding down. "Hurry!" I said. "There's not room for us and the firemen on these stairs." True - they were so narrow some people were going down sideways, like crabs.

We dashed down the last few stairs and slid through the tiny lobby into the cold night air, and almost into the arms of the charging firemen, in full battle gear armed with extinguishers.

I stood in the dusk and watched for Stephen and Dwight. Nothing doing. Finally I called.

"Stephen Saiz" a calm cool voice said.

"Stephen, it's Jill. Firemen are charging up the stairs, there is smoke coming out of the top of the building. Grab your dog, grab your man and get the heck out of there!"

I got an e-mail from Stephen a day later.  "The HOT Firemen said it was a tiny electrical fire on the top floor. No flames (except for the hairdressers!) No fire sale today."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Our dear friend Jane, in from NY, suggested a walking tour of Chinatown. So we did. It was great fun.
This site has self-guided walking tours of other neighborhoods - we live here and there are places we've never been (Alcatraz, Musee Mechanique) and places we'd like to explore more. (Coit Tower, North Beach)

There were ice skaters in Union Square...
...and a ginormous Christmas tree,
there were festive windows...
...and some artsy displays.
A bit disconcerting to discover the twin to my treasured sewing machine among this display of the antique and obsolete.
The view from our hotel was spectacular -
especially looking down.

Even the Police horses were decked out...

...and the pigeons looked better than usual. Feathered rats, we call them. But they do match the planter. They reminded me of a Ron Morgan flower arrangement. Only he would not use something as plebian  as a pigeon.
Union Square blazed at night. There was magic in the cold night air...
And one raging disappointment. We used to love the Clift Hotel - the beautiful and historic Redwood Room, the elegant lobby...
Eric told us it had been redone and was supposed to be fabulous. Not! It looks like a cross between a disco on acid and a prison. It is cold and ugly and creepy. We could not get out of there fast enough!

We also went to Cavalia with Wally's grandson. It's a cross between the Spanish Riding School and Cirque du Soleil.  We had wanted to take him to Disneyland; his mother said he didn't want to go to Disneyland but he wanted to go to Cavalia. So after the performance I asked him "Lincoln, why did you want to see Cavalia?" and he answered "What are you talking about? Because you made me!" 

There are no secrets with eight year olds. This one is a treasure. We had a blast. If you go, take a kid. Although now that I'm thinking about it, many things are better when experienced with a kid...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Road Kill Turkey

Eric brined it - in orange and tangerine juice, spices and alcohol. I am waiting for a copy of the recipe - I will post it when I get it.

He roasted it on the spit on John's multi-gazillion dollar barbecue - a friend gave him the barbecue as a gift; they had to re-design the back yard to install it, and it cost the earth and took months. But it is fabulous and has changed the way they live in their garden.

One leg of the turkey kept hitting the grill as it went around, so Eric nicknamed it the road kill turkey.

It took both Eric and Zack to muscle it in the house. How much have we really evolved from when we lived in caves? Did a cave man ever have a more satisfied smile? I have heard the Pilgrims really ate eel - so are we celebrating a more ancient tradition?
It was very brown...
and so delicious we picked at the parts that didn't show and nibbled and giggled. I'm not usually a turkey fan but this was fantastic. 

I saw a friend and her daughter biking as we were heading out to turkey dinner - she told me her mother-in-law had been ill and the thought of her MIL's son and daughter and their families sitting down to dinner at her table while her MIL was in the hospital was too sad to contemplate. So she made a reservation at a restaurant. As it turned out her MIL was well enough to join them, and they had a very relaxed and thankful Thanksgiving. Not cooking for three days and then contemplating a mountain of dishes, some in need of atomic powered cleaning, some that you only get out once a year and have to wedge back in the back of the cupboard like a chinese puzzle - if you look at it like a foreign anthropologist this holiday is one weird event. 

So I have a Thanksgiving resolution. To use the things I treasure every day, pots and pans, platters and silver, truffle salt and strainers

And to tell the people I treasure that they are the reason I cook, breathe, talk, smile, get up in the morning.

I love you. You know who you are.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

winter days and nights

My mom called me last night as I was trying to get the groceries in the house and not let the dog out.
"Oh, honey -have you seen the sunset? Go outside, it fills up the whole sky!"
It did. It was spectacular, and the harbinger of a record-breaking cold night. Some plants took it in stride,
this pansy, for instance. Some died.
We have had record-breaking cold. Not expecting a lot of sympathy from those of you who live in Montana - Helena had a high of 2 and a low of minus 7 yesterday, and we are complaining about a little frost. But the bird bath was frozen this morning, and the goldfinches were confused.

Ann and I spent the day with Pam and Nora decorating for Thanksgiving. Last year Pam and John hired movers to stash all their furniture in the garage, put three long tables end to end in the living room, with a hundred votives and zillions of fall leaves down the middle. Everyone at one long table - brilliant. Gorgeous.

This year there is a smaller crowd. The furniture stays, the table is colorful (and set) and in the dining room. We cheated a bit - Ann and I bought a flower arrangement from the divine Ron Morgan, one of the creations from his last Monday class. We fizzed it up a bit with some burlap ribbon, then spread more leaves and persimmons and berries down the table that Pam had covered with a colorful rug. 

No white china and napkins for us this year. The table looks like a celebration. It has all the colors of last night's sunset, and  the art in the dining room.  Couldn't have planned that - well, maybe you could have, but it is a happy accident for us.

At the first Thanksgiving where Ian was old enough to talk, the family was going around saying what they were thankful for - good health, peace (at least here) and prosperity, the usual thoughtful outward-looking stuff. When they asked Ian what he was thankful for, he said "Parmesan cheese! -the kind from Italy."

Gotta love that kid.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Edible Valley

The Santa Ynez Valley - Intimate, still unspoiled (despite the movie Sideways). Check out Longoria and Alma Rosa for wines made with great attention and some unusual grapes (and yes they still make your old favorites, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).  Rick Longoria makes a great Albarino and a Tempranillo from the Clover Creek Vineyard and they are incredible. Albarino is like a cross between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo is a strong dose of Spain. Red.
Went for a hike thru the vineyard with Mr and Mrs Clover Creek...
...and up the hill behind. 

There are not many places in the world I could live happily - this is one of them.  I was talking to my mom about this today - your heart has to feel at home or you never will. When I come over the hill to my house I feel peace settle on me like a blanket. I feel it here too.

There is a great new restaurant, Root 246. Bradley Ogden was there taking a victory lap in the very urbane dining room. There is a huge covered patio with a fireplace, heaters and inviting chairs, just perfect for an after dinner curl-up with a brandy and a good friend.

I was surprised by the amount of food in the landscape. This is a dry area but there were pomegranates - 
and olives. Lisa's dad, Renzo has promised to teach me how to make home-made olives. His were the best I have ever tasted and I am an olive hound. (I even wanted to name our new dog Olive after the book Olive The Other Reindeer but I was overruled).

One of the pomegranates was even smiling... an I need an Orthodontist sort of way.

And of course the grapes. Bread may be the staff of life but you need something to wash it down with. Of course you could always try this instead - recommended by Ellen's Danish Pancake House in Buellton. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Flower Market

Long before dawn we were at the San Francisco Flower Market, my neighbor Leslie, one of the Pinks (thing one) and I. 
It is one of only 5 grower owned flower markets in the US. It is ginormous. It is fragrant, frenetic, breathtakingly beautiful and occasionally strange. Worth getting up at O-dark-hundred? Leslie probably has something to say about it on her blog, The Three Pinks. Take a look below - you be the judge.

Thing one fell in love with these cockscomb.
We looked at baskets and vases, ribbons and huge packs of tissue - a lifetime supply for any normal person. It feels a bit like being in a kid's storybook. Long musty aisles in dimly lit stores full of antlers and ostrich eggs. Next door are brightly lit cages stuffed with branches and blossoms. 
Thing one was thrilled with her loot.
The gorgeous pink and green bag did not come from the Flower Market, it is from Mixed Bag Designs. The best thing about them? They stay open when they're empty, so you can load them without a fight. If you've ever tried to hold a bag open with one hand while trying to wrestle your purchases into it with the other you know what I'm talking about. I use them at the grocery store, at the farmer's market, at the department stores when I remember. And at the Flower Market.

Wrapped up our treasures... 
Left the weird and wonderful behind...
And came out of the huge warehouses just as the sun was coming. up. I don't know about The Pinks, but I had a blast.