Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Do You Know?

How do you know when your aging parents need help? You can't look to them - Wally's parents refused help until Wally's dad broke his back falling off a ladder (I know, I know, he had no business being on a ladder), and that was several years after they should have had help. The torturing question: If we had insisted on help would he have not broken his back? Would he still be here?

Preserving the remnants of their independence, they refused help at night or on Sunday when their caretaker was off. It used to be an all-day project for the two of them to get Wally's mom into her pantyhose - imagine one person with Parkinson's and a broken back, and one with Alzheimer's. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

The crowning moment came when Irene (Alzheimer's) awoke in the middle of the night convinced that company was coming and they needed to move into the guest room. The first couple of times she woke him Wally's dad kept his cool, but about the twelfth time he barked at her "For God's sake, Irene, go back to sleep! No one's coming!"

Not happening. Hurt, she took his walker away and went to sleep in the guest room. Alone. He was stranded until the help came at 9 the next morning. He was not amused. We are. You have to see the humor in these things or you will lose your mind. But they got to stay in their home, it was a promise made and kept by their sons. I have made the same promise to my mother. 

I asked my sisters when mommy was in the hospital how you know when someone needs help. If there was ever a clear-eyed view from the inside, it's mommy. Carol said, "Well, her house is spotless, her clothes are clean, and she cooks interesting food."

Not the standards I would have applied but so sensible. Crisp and clear. And as I get older I see we all have good days and bad days. When I was younger the bad days were someone else's fault. Now I see - not so much.

I have a favorite saying: "If I die in a rest home every nickel goes to the SPCA." And I mean it.

We should all be allowed the dignity of passing our declining years in our favorite familiar place, our home. Four tiny letters, such a lot of emotion. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vanilla, or why the neighbors think we drink

5 beans for every 8 ounces of alcohol. That's what the guy who answered the phone (!! they have a phone! they answer!!) at Beanilla recommended. 

I ordered organic Mexican, Madagascar and Tonga beans. He said the Tonga beans are very rare and smell of figs and raisins. I told him I don't like dried figs and I hate raisins. But he had me at rare. 

When I opened the plastic envelope I smelled dried figs. And raisins.

He also said don't use good vodka, it imparts its own flavor. Smirnoff, he said. 
So I have three big jars of vanilla extract macerating. Different kinds of beans. And neighbors who think not only are we lushes, but we're cheap.

Ah, the joys of the suburbs. Bet they'll be happy when holiday time rolls around and home-made vanilla shows up in their stockings.

Home made Vanilla Extract
For every cup of extract you will need:

5 vanilla beans 
1 cup (8 ounces) vodka - Smirnoff works fine, Ketel One is the gold standard. Whatever.

I make it at least a quart at a time. Makes great gifts, and you'll be surprised how fast it goes. More is better than "oh rats I'm out!"

In a clean glass jar with a sealable non-reactive lid (not aluminum, silver etc) place whole vanilla beans.  Pour vodka over, seal jar. In smaller jars you may need to fold the beans - no biggie. If you want grainy vanilla you can slit the pods; I love it but it some people think it looks dirty.

Shake well and place in a cool dark spot. The bottom of the pantry, behind your shoes in your closet, or you can try to sneak them into the wine cellar. That's what I did and I am listening for the howls of outrage.

A couple of times a week give the jars a shake. Leave for at least three months (October, November, December...see why I'm blogging about this now?) The longer it steeps the more delicious. 

After three months you can:

 - pour into pretty jars and give as gifts
 - put a quart in your cupboard and go baking crazy
 - leave it in the pantry until you're ready to part with it. This may take some time.
 - make warm vanilla apple cider. Or vanilla bean cream soda. Or vanilla pear sorbet. Check out the Beanilla web site for these and more recipes. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Treasure Hunt

If you don't like dogs, go read something else.

Right, everybody cozy? So Leeann and Dan were over for dinner, and of course we were wandering around the garden with wine in hand, and I was apologizing for the - ahem - whiffy-ness in the garden beds, and explaining while I am happy Ally has finally learned to do her business outside, I wish she would do it a bit farther from the outdoor dining room. And not in the areas where I plunge my hands into the soil. And Leeann told me about The Treasure Hunt.

Her friend had a similar problem and it was leaving brown spots on her lawn. So every day she'd take a big handful of kibble, yell "Treasure hunt!" and fling the kibble across the lawn. Dogs won't do their business where they eat, so problem solved.

Ally and I have been going out with treats (yeah, she's spoiled) at first every morning (altho since she's begun to nag while I'm having breakfast I'm mixing up the time) and having a treasure hunt. And the last few days when I've gone out to have breakfast in the garden, or a glass of wine at night, I've noticed something missing. A distinctive and unpleasant odor is gone. I can smell the jasmine and the roses...and the wine.

I don't know where she's going now, and like the parent of an unpleasant teenager said, "I don't care! It's not my problem." Come to think of it, that's what the unpleasant teenager said too.

So please excuse me, I'm taking my tea and toast out into the garden. And I will stop and smell the roses. Finally.

Friday, August 12, 2011

My life in 36 feet, my life in Provence

I have been reading about life in warm sun soaked stone houses. In Provence, in Umbria, in Tuscany. Charming Carol Drinkwater.  The fabulous Ferenc Mate. (get his Tuscany book!! It is hysterical.)
 Francis Mayes and Peter Mayle again. 

We are going to Ostau de Baumaniere near Les Baux, and Crillon le Brave near, well near nothing really...
...but not far from Avignon. And Mt Ventoux. (Not that I'm riding up Ventoux with a broken foot. Not me.)

And I was feeling envious - of the level and neatly trimmed gardens, of the inviting pools lying lazily in the sun. Of the dramatic terraces. Of the golden stone and blue shutters. Of the vineyards.

Then I looked at the pictures in Carol Drinkwater's book, The Olive Farm. There are weeds gone to seed in the olive grove. I have weeds gone to seed in the vineyard and under the big oaks. Her pool is crowded on a terrace, the seating up some stairs and off to the side. Mine too. 

I covet the pool at Ostau de Baumaniere, level with the building...
...until I look at the dramatic terraces at Crillon le Brave
And the fabulous pool. 
And then I realize I have a pool on a terrace...
...a warm golden house with blue shutters...
...and a huge mountain just outside the back door. And since swimming is about the only thing I can do (other than eat and sleep and I've gotten really good at those) I have been spending a lot of time in the pool. Back and forth, 36 feet at a time. And I realized: I love it.  I don't want to live in Provence, or in Tuscany, I love it here.

How lucky am I?

Monkey see, monkey do

"Wanna see a really cool way to peel a banana?" Wally asked. "Dave showed me, and it doesn't smush up the end. You don't have to use your thumbnail, and you don't have to fight with the stem. Wanna see?"

Who could resist?

Wally turned the banana stem down and button up, and peeled the banana starting at the button.

"Pretty cool, huh?"

Yeah, if you like bananas. Zoey does not; I only like them if they're slightly green.

Intrigued, I asked "Where did you say you learned this?"

"From Dave" Wally said.

"And how did Dave learn about it?"

"From watching monkeys!"

Something about having too much time came to mind, and then I thought we could all probably learn a little from slowing down and watching the monkeys. With a broken foot slowing me down I'm seeing the world differently.

I watch the hummingbirds dive-bomb in formation over the pool and hover to feed on the lemon blossoms, their wings buzzing softly, their voices scratchy peeps. I watch the hollyhocks tip over and reach for the sun again, all the while throwing out frilly pink skirts of bloom. I hear the baby birds - last crop I hope - peeping for dinner. And I watch Ally play ball by herself, dropping the ball on the stairs, then leaping and dashing after it as it bounces down toward the pool. I swear she grins.

So excuse me, I'm off to check the garden for monkeys. And hummingbirds. And my monkey dog.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tastes of Summer

Coconut cupcakes from Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa.  World's Best All-American Potato Salad from inside the back cover of an old Gourmet. The original recipe called for 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, the revised version says 1/8 cup. Not enough. Jack it back up. And only Best Foods please - mayo is not health food. If you want health food eat tofu. Don't screw up my potato salad.

This is the potato salad that's now famous in East Hampton. If you've been lucky enough to be invited to lunch at Jane's. Or to one of her friends with whom we've shared the recipe. I hear it's gone viral.

I do so miss Gourmet magazine. I love the way Ruth Reichl writes, I would turn to her page first. And every issue would be dog-eared with recipes I wanted to make. Many of my favorite recipes came from Gourmet.

Not so Bon Appetit - they nagged you about health food (if it tasted good we'd all be eating it - we're not stupid and we don't have a death wish), they published the simplest of recipes, nothing interesting or surprising. No delicious prose about foreign lands and the smells and tasted of the bazaar, or the mountain foods of the Massif Central. Ho hum slam-it-on-the-table recipes. Why bother recipes. Although Bon Appetit has finally stopped preaching and started giving us really good recipes. And stories! Not easy recipes, we can get those anywhere. Delicious. Are you listening, Adam Rapoport? Way to go. Keep it up.

Watermelon salad with arugula and feta. It's all the rage now, but when Gourmet first published it (and I first started serving it) it freaked people out...until they tasted it. Yum. Fabulous with a grilled steak. Speaking of steak...

Bistek a la Fiorentina. 
This is the simplest most delicious grilled steak. Ever.

       1 porterhouse steak for every two people you plan to serve. Or three if they're wimps.
          (The best you can get, not from the supermarket. From Lunardi's. Or Rockridge Market Hall's Marin Sun Farms).

       Kosher salt. No substitutions.

       Pesto. Preferably home made. About 1/2  a cup.

       Lemons - about half a lemon per steak plus a few more to garnish the platter.

Heat your grill (gas or charcoal) to medium heat. When grill is hot:

Liberally sprinkle the steaks with kosher salt. This will form a crust, a good bit of the salt will come off when grilling, so this is not the time to be salt-conscious. Lay it on. You're eating steak, for God's sake. But don't do this step until just before you are putting the steaks on or it can pull the moisture out.

Grill the steaks to medium-rare to medium. No I don't know how long this will take - it depends on your grill.

Remove from grill and let rest at least 10 minutes. No Cheating!! I don't cover with foil because I like the crispness and I don't mind if it's not hot hot hot. But if you're that kind of person feel free to tent.

Slather the steaks with pesto, squeeze half a lemon over each steak, then slice (about 1/4 inch thick) and arrange on the platter with extra lemon halves and extra pesto in a little dish. Or drizzled over. And the bones! There's always at least one gnawer at our house.

Light some candles, put Pink Martini on Pandora, and relax. It's summer!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Sounds of Summer

Great horned owls calling back and forth, one voice deep and hollow, the answering owl higher pitched and urgent. Sometimes they talk over each other. Just like us.

The cheezy dance music from yet another mediocre wedding band at the nearby country club. Thankfully over by midnight - you can set your watch by them.

The crickets singing me to sleep. When I left for college for weeks I could not sleep without that sound.

The neighbors getting into their hot 2 a.m... to smoke cigars and discuss intimate things. We really don't need to know.

The springtime frogs. When we had a pond we hired the neighbor kids to find, corral and relocate the deep-throated frog singing his love call all night just under our bedroom window. Great kerfuffle and planning in the hunt, great excitement when they caught him. We had been expecting something the size of a brick, fat and mottled, but he was sleek and bright green and not much bigger than a quarter.

The kids down the hill and across the street (they must be in their thirties by now - why are they still living at home?) at 2 a.m. (I'm seeing a pattern here) drunk, in the street, slamming car doors, playing music, swearing. Loudly. Must every f-bomb be at full volume?

The soft ruffle of a breeze announcing the temperature is dropping.

The mockingbird whose clock is off. He begins at 2 a.m. (there it is again) and the cascading liquid notes are so beautiful I am happy to be awake just to hear him.

The hissing of sprinklers. The late night laughter of children up long past their bedtimes. The soft snoring      of the ones I love next to me. Two legs and four - they both snore.

What are your sounds of summer?