Saturday, January 29, 2011

search me!

My friend Leslie set me up with a new gadget and now you can search my blog! so if you're looking for a recipe or a rant...or a plant, now you can find it. 

She came over because her router was down. I know it is serious but really I am the plant and cooking person not the tech weenie and I have only a vague idea what one is. But it was great to have her in the house, and I learned some things.

1. It's great to have someone you love in your house. Even if you're not talking, if you're doing separate things. Note to self - do this more.

2. Ask for help. 

3. Repetitive tasks go faster with conversation. One that bounces all over the universe (planet not big enough) and makes you laugh and think. I was making Limoncello at the time...

...zesting four dozen lemons...
thank goodness for the Microplane zester!

and shaking the zest into a big jug...
of Everclear. I made Limoncello with vodka last year but apparently vodka lends some flavor - the purists disapprove. 

Wonder what they will think of the 5 vanilla beans I plan to add to the next batch? 

It is resting peacefully in the pantry for 45 days...and it looks like a jewel. The rest of the recipe to follow.

Thank you Leslie - I will think of your intelligence and wit and gentle spirit ever time I sip Limoncello. And as I know there is another fan in your family, you can expect regular infusions of Limoncello.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Letters Between Friends

With the exception of The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Society I don't like books in the form of letters. And books of actual letters? don't get me started. I tried to read the letters between Winston and Clemmie Churchill, and I think I've found a cure for insomnia.

So I was surprised to be so enchanted by not one but two books of letters - In Tearing Haste, letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor...
...and As Always, Julia, letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. 

Two stories of remarkable friendships, asides about events then current, other books, interesting people of those times.  Great reads, both. And thanks to them I have a pile of books on my nightstand. Mani and A Time of Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Counting My Chickens and Home To Roost by Deborah Devonshire, several cookbooks by Julia - and I have ordered some of Bernard DeVoto's books. And subscribed to Atlantic.

We don't write anymore. Well, Des does, mommy does, Aunt Ruby does - and I do. But letters like these? Between two fabulous writers, witty and funny and flowing? No more.

And I bought carbon steel knives. Sabatier. On line. Deliciously sharp and a joy to cook with. I got the 10 inch chef's knife (a bit big) and a paring knife.

Onion soup recipe later. 

Monday, January 17, 2011


This is the cookbook I turn to the most:
Cold Weather Cooking by Sarah Leah Chase - who used to be a Butterfield and Robinson bike trip guide. Check out the price - think there's a typo? I do... She is quite simply the best cookbook author ever. And no I have never met her, but I cook from her books all the time. Her Scallop Puffs are so good! I had a friend who called me for the recipe every time he was having a dinner party. Warren: I still miss you.

I made the Christmas Truffle Tart for my friend Migs' birthday last night. Don't panic - recipe to follow.
First: Use the best ingredients you can find. Strauss butter...
and Valrhona Chocolate...
Farmer's market or Clover eggs...
and Medaglia d'Oro coffee.
Put the chocolate cookies in the cusinart and process to fine crumbs. Dump them out, make fine crumbs of the toasted almonds.  She uses hazelnuts: I cannot find any that are not rancid. So I've been using almonds and I find I prefer them.
Mix the chocolate crumbs, ground almonds and sugar...
A flat whisk works well. Add the melted butter and press into a tall ten inch tart pan with a removable bottom. 
I have the best luck if I press the crumbs firmly up the sides first...
...then across the bottom.
I use a spoon and my (clean) fingers.

Refrigerate the crust and melt the chocolate, coffee and butter in a heavy saucepan.
Use a very low heat. Eventually it will look like this:
Remove from heat and set aside.  
Separate the eggs with your built-in best ever egg separator - 
 - and beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar. At first it will look like this...
...but eventually it will be light and lemon colored. Like this:
Beat in the cooled chocolate mixture...
...and Sarah recommends saving 1/2 cup for piping stars on top. I was feeling lazy so skipped this step in favor of a little cocoa - but it is beautiful with the stars...
Spread half the chocolate mixture in the chilled tart shell. 
Carefully so you don't pull up the crumbs.

Beat the cream to stiff peaks. It beats better in a chilled bowl, and since I hadn't put the bowl in the fridge I cheated.
Dry the bowl before adding the cream. Stiff peaks - 
Fold the whipped cream into the remaining half of the chocolate mixture...
slowly and carefully.
WHen fully folded it will look like this:
Spread over the previous chocolate layer of the tart...
smoothing the top...
 and chill. Just before serving I put a doily on top and sieved cocoa over the top. Not as elegant as the piped stars but sooooo much easier.
And with all the candles who can tell?
Happiest Birthday Migs. You are so loved!

Christmas Truffle Tart

For the crust:
1  1/2 cups chocolate wafer crumbs
1/2 cup ground toasted almonds (she uses hazelnuts - I don't)
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter

Toss together the crumbs, nuts and sugar. Mix in the melted butter and press the mixture over the sides and bottom of a ten inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.

For the filling:
1 cup butter
2 tablespoons instant espresso granules
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup sugar
6 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped to stiff peaks

cocoa powder for garnish

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter, chocolate and coffee granules. Set aside to cool.

In an electric mixer fitted with whisk, beat sugar and egg yolks until light and lemon colored, about 4 to 5 minutes (mine were done sooner). Beat in the chocolate mixture, then the Grand Marnier. Measure and reserve 1/2 cup for piping stars if you are so inclined.

Divide remaining chocolate mixture in halves. Spread one half over bottom of tart shell.

Fold remaining half of chocolate mixture into whipped cream and spread on top of chocolate layer in tart shell. Refrigerate until ten minutes before serving, but at least one hour.

If you're into stars, put reserved 1/2 cup of chocolate mixture into pastry bag fitted with star tip and pipe stars around rim of tart. I put a doily on it and sift cocoa over - it's still yummy. I'm not a good piper.

Cut into small wedges - this is very rich - and serve. Have a copy of the recipe handy; everyone asks for it.  Joni still doesn't believe I made it - she thinks I bought it. Not. Here's proof. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I spoke to the Lafayette Garden Club today (no pictures of the talks - sorry - I ran out of hands) and to Walnut Creek Garden Club Monday. The topic? Color in your garden.  All year. The big secret?
Foliage. Or as Liz calls it, Foilage.

Annuals help...
as do plants with bold textures. There's a great story about Russell Page, the famous British garden designer. He was asked to help Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller in her garden, and after refusing many times finally agreed. It happened to be raining that day, and he happened to be rather tall. She was not. She held an umbrella over his head as he paced the length of her borders, again and again, switching arms as the one holding the umbrella gave out. Finally Russell Page stopped, turned to her, and said, "I see your problem, madam. All your leaves are the same size."

He was right. She fixed it.

Put some bold colorful foliage in your garden. Spiky things, big-leaved things. Electric pink and chartreuse. Yellow striped and purple leaved. Bold, medium and small textures. Chose a few plants that look good together and repeat, repeat, repeat.

And I find a quick trip to the nursery to pick up some color cheers me up. I found daffodils...
...and primroses.
English daisies and more primroses...
...and some kale.

 I'm feeling perkier already!

So here's the Cliff Notes version of my talk:

The Ten Biggest Mistakes You Can Make In Your Garden:

1. Forgetting about The Big Three: Comfort. Function. Humor. Every garden needs these. Think about it. Function. Comfort. Humor. So simple, so wonderful when you get this one right. So disturbing when you don't.

2. You don't Line Things Up. This doesn't mean everything has to be centered on a door or mirror-image symmetrical, but it does mean if a path is outside a window and stretches into the distance, line it up with the window. If the path curves, line up the beginning of the path with the window. The edge of your house, a get the idea.

And the thing that spends the most time in the garden: your eyes. So there should be something to look at outside every window, and I'm not talking a primrose or a pansy here. A far away urn at the back of the garden (but lined up with the window!), a birdbath, a fountain, a sculpture, an especially lovely tree. Go look out your windows. Now go move some stuff around.

3. The Dreaded Fringe Garden: A row of shrubs all along the fence. A big lawn in the middle. Yawn. No mystery, no romance. Dull Dull Dull.

4. The Rule of Three. Use no more than three hardscape materials (walls, patios, paths, arbors). More makes it look like the demonstration area at the local home improvement center. Don't try to talk your way out of this one - it looks awful and you know it.

5. Forgetting The 50% Rule - everything needs to be bigger outside. At least 50% bigger. Patios, paths, walls and fences. Hedges. Everything. Leave plenty of room to navigate around the tables, benches, chairs. More room than you leave inside - forget all those guidelines about how much space you need behind a chair so you can walk by. Outside you need more.

6. This is my pet peeve - and it is an expensive mistake to fix: Lining up the pool or patio with the property line, not the house. Don't do it. I understand why it happens - when you're looking at a blueprint the property line is as prominent as the house lines. It is not so in the real world. Line. Things. Up. With. The. House.

7. Skinny paths. Especially to the front door. Do you want people to feel welcome? Then make the walkway to the front door five or six feet wide. Or more. Mine is seven. It's very welcoming - just ask the neighbor kids who are ringing my doorbell right now. 

Look at a three foot wide walkway to a front door and see how chintzy it feels. Be generous. Skinny is for jeans. (And it takes a four foot wide path to allow people to pass comfortably in the garden. Five is better.) 

8. Divide to Conquer. It's a paradox, but dividing your garden into rooms makes it feel bigger. And cozier and just all-round better. You can see from one space into the next, but there should be distinct spaces. Rooms. This is the cure for #3 above.

9. Stairs. Can't tell you how bad some of these are. We've all been up stairs where you have to take little mincing steps, or where you take a step and a half and sort of limp up the stairs. That's because they don't fit your natural stride! There is a formula (don't freak out it's not hard) - twice the rise plus the tread should equal 28 inches. (It used to be 26 inches but we are taller and have longer strides than in Napoleon's time when the formula was developed). 

So if you have a 6 inch tall step (the rise), the tread (flat part) should be 16 inches - 6 times two is 12; 12 plus 16 equal 28.  If you have a 7 inch rise, you should have a 14 inch tread - because twice 7 is 14, and 14 plus 14 equal 28. You get the idea. 

10. This is my favorite: Gardens are for noses and ears as well as for eyes. Plant something fragrant next to your front door. Put something fragrant outside your bedroom window and leave the window open a crack at night. 

Plant something white outside your kitchen window, because white is the only color you can see at night. Something white by the front walk. Tuck a softly burbling fountain into the garden - the sound will draw you in. Watch your dinner guests as they go hunting for the source of the sound, and listen to them exclaim as they find the fountain. Put up a bird feeder and listen to the squabbles and the chatter. 

And take time to stop and enjoy. I don't know what the weather is like where you are, but here, just today, you can feel spring is coming. You can smell it in the air. It will be nasty and cold and wet again before it is finally really spring, but today you can smell the earth, and it wants to grow. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Entertain Like A Gentleman

If you know anything about me you know I am the queen of Cocktail Party food. Not that we throw a lot of cocktail parties (a condition I plan to remedy thanks to the book MixShakeStir and St Germain Elderflower Liqueur) but we do have a lot of parties...and I firmly believe there are three cardinal rules for cocktail parties:

RULE 1. Finger food. If you have to cut it, plate it, wrestle with it, or might end up wearing it, forget it.

RULE 2. Libations. With and without alcohol, for your friends who go to meetings and your friends who go to grammar school. Just because they don't drink doesn't mean they can't pretend to be grown-up. Just like the rest of us. Shhh. Don't tell.

RULE 3. Music. I first learned about this from the Barefoot Contessa - she introduced me to Pink Martini. I learned more from Laura Cunningham - when she opens her restaurant pay attention. Make a reservation. Make several. She brought ballet to the waiters at the French Laundry. She brought Jobim to me.

So I opened the new book, Entertain Like A Gentleman by David Harap, and it fell open to the chapter on Cocktail Party Finger Food. He got me before I read a word.

He has  recipe for a cocktail called Death in the Afternoon. Even if you're not a Hemingway fan this is intriguing...

Next, the book opened to the shopping list section in the back. Brilliant! How many times have you forgottent he hazelnuts for the Christmas Truffle Tart because you forgot to write them down? Me too.

If you don't entertain a lot this is a great starter book, and the recipes (well some of them) are quite sophisticated.  The Duck Prosciutto, for instance, or the Beet Grapefruit Salad. I won't be trying the Chipotle Marshmallow Crispy Treats any time soon, but he has 25 rules for stress-free entertaining that cover the basics, definitely geared toward guys. How many women need to be told what to wear to their own party? Or that it should be neat and clean? (Disclaimer: I am not a gentleman. I am not a guy.)

So if you are looking for a few hints for a party, get this book. If you are looking for a completely planned out party right down to the shopping list, get this book. If you are an experienced party giver this may not be the book for you, and I'm not sure I would recommend it as a hostess (or host) gift, but as a birthday or a housewarming gift? Yes.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Green Knowe, or a gloomy day

Have you read the Treasure of Green Knowe? It's a children's book, surreal and weird and of its time (that's a nice way to say it's dated) and today my garden looks like the picture of Green Knowe I have in my head from my long-ago childhood. 
I have great respect for this hoary old oak. A town arborist says it's one of the oldest trees he's seen, and it is so huge three of us clasping hands cannot span it. But it is stern, foreboding, not friendly. I've spent a lot more time near it at night (new dog). It's a bit creepy. Just like Green Knowe.

I have been re-reading some of the books I loved as a child. And some I have discovered as an adult. 
Have you read The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy? I first read it when I was at Green Valley Elementary a hundred years ago, and it's one of the reasons I love the wild birds. 

Have you read Al Capone Does My Shirts? Al Capone Shines My Shoes? Is there a web site called Have You Read? Should be...what have you read recently?

Oh oh oh. My mom just gave me back my old hardback copy of Five Quarters of the Orange. One of the  best books I've ever read. Get it! Go to Rakestraw Books and ask Michael for a copy.

What are you reading? What do you remember fondly from childhood? (books, you silly person, not sleeping in and Christmas morning. Everyone loved that.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

A new iphone, or it seemed like a good idea at the time...

It's a lot easier to blog when your iphone works, especially if you take all your blog photos with your phone. That would be me, not you.

I got a new G4 for Christmas. Well, not really for Christmas, for on Christmas day FedEx called and said they had my phone (ordered some time before, predicted delivery 12-23) and I could come and get it. No delivery that day. Or the next. I don't know what your holiday was like, but I had better things to do on Christmas morning than drive 45 minutes to pick up something that I thought (still think) should have been delivered days ago. Should have known we were off to a bad start.

It finally arrived. On the 27th. Late. I started it up - it died. I started it up again - it died again. We went through this dance for a long time, for though not particularly tech savvy I am dogged.

Finally I called the Genius Bar for an appointment. I was told to make it on line - but as at the time I was:
1. Driving and
2. In possession of a dead phone incapable of making a simple phone call, much less anything internet, I convinced the very reluctant tech weenie to sign me up. Finally. By using Wally's phone.

The Genius (he must be, he was at the Genius Bar) was kindly patronizing - he restored my phone, told me to set it up as a new phone as my backup was clearly the problem, and sent me packing. I tried to call Wally to tell him I was on my way home - dead phone. I almost threw it out the window, but the cold air when I rolled down the window brought me to my senses and I drove home grinding my teeth and swearing.

Two phone-less days later (you try living without a phone for two days. No cheating. Then let's check your vocabulary) I finally got another Genius. He figured out my dead phone was indeed dead (genius, remember?) and gave me another. So far so good. And my blood pressure is coming down, thank you. And there is no longer steam coming out of my ears. I have made phone calls, checked e-mail, taken photographs, all without a crash.

So far so good. Do I love it? Not yet - I'm still pissed. You don't have to be a genius to figure out a phone is dead. And don't they have some fizzy little things on the back room that tells them what's been going on inside your phone? The first guy assumed I was the problem, never checked inside my phone. So I have learned - again - never assume. Ask the questions even if you think they will laugh at you. Let them laugh - it's less trouble than a second trip to the (ahem) Genius (?) Bar.  And test drive it before you take it home.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Sometimes it's hard to concentrate with a dog yipping in your ear. She's part Basenji - she didn't get the barkless part. Darn. Still she gets us out on gloomy days...
...and I am amazed at all the color. 
Cotoneaster horizontalis (it's pronounced coe-tone-ee-aster, thank you)

The common privet, Ligustrum lucidum. Horrible weed, reseeds all over the place. Still, those might be worth a lifetime of weeding just to have those luscious berries.
Cotoneaster lactea. Don't plant it! It is worse that the privet about reseeding. And remember, it's not pronounced cotton-Easter...are you paying attention? There will be a quiz.
And mistletoe. Bad for trees, good for kissing people who otherwise wouldn't let you near them, but we still love it at Christmas. Even when we are on the receiving end of that dreadful kiss. You know who you are. 
The masses of cotoneaster are hazed pink and purple and melancholy under the gray sky.
I came home thinking I would make some major changes in my garden. Rip up the front bank and plant berries, tear out the flax and put in flowers. And then I came home to find daffodils...
...and summer snowflakes.
Hellebores in white, green and deepest pink...

...forget-me-nots and paperwhites - still. I have been cutting paperwhites since before Halloween, at first just a few; today thirty stems. They smell divine. My mother hates them. Apparently it's genetic. 

Beverly Nichols, the hysterically funny and poignant English garden writer (available at Rakestraw Books in Danville) tried to have something blooming every month. Not a fair contest - he lived in England, I live in California. Still it is surprising what's just outside the back door.

If you haven't read his essay about the champagne-fueled holly hedge removal, the resulting fire that almost removed his house, and his tipsy encounter just as the flames were dying down with his disapproving busybody neighbor, you are in for a treat. He is not always funny but he is always entertaining, and his books make great gifts. Not for me, I already have them. All. Sorry. But I am a bit short on large diamonds should you be in a gift-giving mood...