Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Foodie Tuesday: Master the Tricks & Enjoy the Treats

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Life is crazy busy these days for the average Jane and Joe. Makes it all the more important to take care of ourselves and even, when we can, enjoy a little something special. When the holidays hit, not least of all that treat-centric spectacle we call Halloween, it’s good to fortify ourselves for every day of intense living with something that makes us happy to be in the midst of it. Here, a simple day-starter of a glass of sunshiny smoothie (juice-preserved apricots blended with whole milk yogurt, coconut water, honey and a dash of cardamom) and some roasted, salted almonds.

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An uncomplicated roasted chicken will suffice to get some tasty protein and warmth into the belly and the day. I roasted this beauty simply with salt, pepper and butter and a quartered lemon stuffed inside, but if you don’t have time to roast your own, you can always do as I happily do in those circumstances and grab a ready roasted bird at the grocery store. Anything that makes the day easier while keeping us well fueled through it is a good help.

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Any Halloween without plenty of orange is no Halloween at all. But pumpkins are far from the only orange wonders we can enjoy on the occasion, so I am happy to get my Vitamin H (for happiness) from other sources, too, and on this of all days, why not *sweet* orange-ness? Here, I made the carrots from my broth cookery into a not-just-for-babies mash just by adding ginger juice and maple syrup–another great autumnal invocation to the spirit of good taste.

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Put that roasted chicken and carrot mash together with some green vegetables and broth-cooked rice, and you have a filling, cheering meal that will keep you fit and friendly even through the longest Halloween wanderings of the neighborhood in search of chocolate.

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Unless you’re feeding a large number of people, you’ll have enough chicken left over for another meal, perhaps–as here–a sweet-and-spicy curry made of the cubed meat, ghee-sauteed vegetables, coconut milk and masala and served over fragrant Basmati rice cooked with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves and garnished with toasted coconut flakes, pistachios and cashews and diced dried apricots or mangoes. Quick, economical and just as flavorful as the chicken was the first time around.

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My old standby of peach fluff for dessert can keep you from craving too much of that pan-handled candy at the end of a Halloween outing. It’s easy to make, using either soft ripe peaches or juice-canned ones pureed and blended with something nice and creamy and vanilla-tinged and sprinkled with cinnamon. Want it fat and sweet? Mix it with whipped cream (no, do *not* puree ME and mix me in!), or pour the puree over vanilla ice cream. A little sprightlier? Use yogurt or ricotta or mascarpone. Or skip the fluff and just revel in the juiciness of peaches. They’re orange, they’re fabulous, and they’re probably a tiny bit better for you than a two-pound bag of Kandy Korn poured straight down the gullet, though candy *is* dandy!

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And if your holiday happiness can use the enhancement of a bit of adult-beverage encouragement, there are plenty of wonderful cocktails out there full of orange-y joy. Me, I might choose a more *thematically* suited drink, like perhaps the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, which has a faintly orange tint too but even better, has the ability to refresh even the undead on a late, late Halloween night. Treat your boys and ghouls so kindly and they may even refrain from eating your brain.

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I’d like to squash you in a big holiday hug with some great traditional Halloween recipes, but really, who needs that when you can easily make treats of any sort with zombie-like gusto and not be sorry. So I hope we can all embrace whatever best satisfies our inner monsters without too much effort or expense, and spend more of our time and energies on just being happy little hobgoblins all!

Foodie Tuesday: Pizza & Beer

photoOurs is a household that both embodies and defies sex stereotypes. I am a female homemaker whose male partner is the sole income producer for us both. I wear dresses at least come of the time, and aside from academic gowns I’ve never known him to wear one. Though he has great legs and would look pretty cute in any old frock he threw on, I’m quite sure. It’s really not his style, all the same. He can get all misty over a sad movie just as well as I can, but he’s a pants-wearing guy. In food terms, we’re generally fairly well set into the expected tastes of our respective sexes. I like a frou-frou salad with baby lettuces, goat cheese in an almond crumb crust, fresh figs and mint-basil mandarin vinaigrette. My guy is mighty fond of meat and potatoes.

On the other hand, the second time this man who tends to avoid onions and garlic, sour cream and frou-frou salads–whose supertaster status leads to overwhelming visitations from sour or bitter hints in foods that to most others are relatively benign–asked me out to eat, it was for delicately crafted, raw fish and wasabi and pickled ginger filled sushi. And though hops make ‘manly’ beer unpalatable to my beloved, another loved one of mine taught me to appreciate a good beer, and I learned that it was a dandy companion to another famously male-craved food, pizza, and that together they could make this female pretty happy.

So when the opportunity for a really fine piece of pizza is not just sustenance but a great treat, I’m happy to dig in and eat. Especially if the pizza is one that doesn’t have a bunch of bitter or sour or Weird toppings, but rather the much-loved supreme deliciousness of good pepperoni and cheese and a slick of only a well-balanced ripe tomato sauce, the way my excellent spouse likes it best, so I can share it with him. And if I can wash down my tasty pizza with a good beer, then I will happily raise my glass in memory of Granny, who taught me to appreciate that the old-time stereotypical American image of men enjoying their beer and pizza in estrogen-free splendor was far from exclusive. And in memory of Gramps, whose sole-wage-earner retirement money paid for the beer and pizza Granny the homemaker bought for us while I was out with Gramps’s sons and grandsons, my uncles and cousins, practicing the ‘manly’ arts of working in construction as he had done for years before us. Keeping tradition and breaking with tradition. There’s always room in a good family, or a good stomach, for both.photoAll of this being said, with the help of my perspicacious, pizza-loving spouse and some research he’d read, I’ve recently discovered that avoiding wheat, of all things, seems to greatly reduce the hot flashes that have been the bane of my middle-aged existence since well before I was middle-aged. What to do? Wheat is the basis of the traditional pizza crust. Not to mention a key ingredient in lots of tasty beers. What!!! Is the universe spinning out of control???

Fear not, my good friends. I am finding that where there’s a hankering, there’s a way. Besides the existence of a number of flour mixes and recipes for them that substitute quite neatly and directly–and generally must more tastefully than in gluten-free days of yore–for wheat flour, I am also learning that there is an ever-expanding universe of alternatives for those who are forbidden wheat, whether by choice as in my case or perforce as in the lives and kitchens of celiacs, allergy sufferers and others who must avoid the offending grain. Stay tuned for the experiments that are sure to follow: rice and potato and nut crusts, vegetable stand-ins and stunt doubles, and more. Meanwhile, I will not shy away from a cold beer, just check to be sure that it’s a wheat-free variety. And of course there’s always a nice cold cider or lemonade or iced tea, or perhaps a fresh and icy strawberry-cucumber mojito, as they also make quite the dandy accompaniments to a slice of pizza, gluten-free or not, don’t you know. I’m quite certain Granny would approve.photo

Wild Wings

 

photoI’m blessed to have ‘peeps’ that do, in fact, peep to me. Sitting at my desk and looking out the window at avian neighbors that stop by to enjoy the all-you-can-peck buffet I keep full just across the patio for our mutual enjoyment. I’ll let them do all of the actual dining, as despite my occasionally nibbling seeds willingly, I don’t often lust after hot pepper infused suet and desiccated mealworms garnishing the grain-and-nut munchies. Shocking, I know.photoThe birds visiting are mostly permanent and part-time residents of our backing greenbelt, and there are regulars and also unique and unexpected friends making occasional appearances to brighten the day here. We see plenty of the common local Bewick’s wrens and chickadees, softly hooting mourning doves and robins and the like, and every one of them is a delight to see and hear. I love even the ones soaring high enough overhead that they never come close enough to snack at our feeders, too: floating vultures, keening hawks, and a majestically flapping heron or two pass by on occasion. The hummingbirds, mostly Black-chinned and Ruby-throated little charmers, buzz around, chittering and bickering over the deep blue blooms of the blue sage, and make my heart flutter almost as ridiculously quickly as theirs.photoBut I think perhaps my shallowness is evident in my taste in birds as much as anywhere. I’m especially taken with those that are showy and exaggerated, all the more if they’re full of mischief and play. The cardinals that spend a great deal of time here, one mated pair in particular, are a bit shy and skittish but when they settle onto the feeders they are a show no matter what, between the female’s magnificent airbrushed-looking feathers with their blush of coral and red, and the male’s brash scarlet suit. And more recently, our patio’s been adopted as the dining place of choice for some mighty splashy jays. The blue jays I grew up with in the Northwest were much more often the darker (though also dramatic and gorgeous) Steller’s jays, but what we see here are the more brightly bold black, white and Blue Jays, and they are a grand entertainment indeed.photoThe jays that visit us are prone to squabbling and banging around in the feeders, eating like winged pigs and strewing seed hulls and detritus all over the place, flying heedlessly around as though they hadn’t a care in the world, and then taking fright at the slightest shadow, suddenly veering up in an explosive launch and leaving the feeder swinging. I can’t often get to my camera in time to freeze their fantastical and pretty foolery for later enjoyment, but I never fail to find them immensely entertaining and wonderful to see. Each moment spent watching them cavort in the sun and shade makes me feel a bit more as though I myself could take wing and burst across the wild blue sky.

Rare Beasts & Royalty

Sunset over the Serengeti & a Slight Belch from the King of the Beastsgraphite drawing

It happens sometimes on the plains, where Splendid Starlings and the strains

Tok-tokkie knocks create a song that’s just as rhythmic as it’s long,

Where Shongololo rolls and runs ‘tween rise and setting of the suns,

Where the hyenas sing their tunes betwixt midnight and morning’s moons:

It’s there the leopard’s race was lost–surprise–at noon, and at great cost,

To one old lion whose good luck dovetailed with leopards run amok,

To the degree that one loud crunch announced the end of it at lunch.