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.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

Foodie Tuesday: All Good Things Must Come to an End

That, my friends, is how the old saying goes. But it’s not, ahem, the ‘last word’ entirely. Many such good things are followed by other good things, after all!

And there are some, like the end of summer, that not only presage the arrival of such genuinely fine things as, say, autumn, but also can be celebrated at their conclusions with festive eating and drinking and other kinds of pleasurable activities that do much to ameliorate any pain of loss.

Some such celebrations are marvelously simple: when the summer is waning, it’s time to indulge in a last gleeful feast or two focusing clearly on the seasonal joys of fresh produce. It needn’t be any more complicated than a marvelous unfussy riff on classic Caesar salad, a glass of sparkling mineral water, and maybe a slab of rustic peasant bread decked out with cool sweet butter or a nice grassy olive oil.Photo: Great Caesar's Ghost!

One little notch upward might give you a Tex-Mex picnic, also uncomplicated and fresh and easy to eat. My recent one took the Southern familiar pimiento cheese and gave it a slight T-M twist when I blended Tillamook’s four-cheese combination of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadero and Asadero cheeses with chipotle salsa and a little butter to hold it all together smoothly. Then I layered this cheese spread with sliced smoked turkey breast between soft white corn tortillas into a little stacked torta. This little goodie makes a nice treat of a light lunch with some equally Tex-Mex pickled okra and a batch of fresh vegetables and other finger foods like black olives, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot and celery sticks, and so forth. All washed down with some cold iced tea or fresh-squeezed lemonade, it helps take the edge off of losing summer for the year.Photo: Tex-Mex Pimiento Cheese Torta

If that’s not quite enough, there is always the warm glow that comes from indulging in the most perfectly ripe and gorgeous late-season produce in all its naked glory. Really, is there anything more soothing and refreshing and lovely than biting into a peak-ripe pear or apple or peach and letting its juice just slide down your throat like a mystical elixir of life?Photo: Peaches

Well, okay, there is that possibility of punching up the effect just a tiny bit further by letting slices of that sweet, juicy fruit swim lazily in a pool of lemon- or limeade, a light and sparkly soda, or (as pictured) a marvelous chilled—even, if it’s as hot outside as it was on the pictured occasion—gasp, iced! rosé or white wine. Sipping the very slightly infused drink until those lovely, tender bits of fruit are easier to catch and eat; that is a mighty nice way to bid a fond farewell to the tag-end of summertime. And if you’re a mom or host who appreciates kids’ need to fish out the pieces of fruit with their already sticky hands, that’s great, but you can always put the fruit chunks on skewers, freeze them into fruit-sicles, and use them first as drink chilling stirrers, then as dainty fruit pops. All quite in keeping with the background music of the sprinkler running one last time and the neighbors’ lawn mower getting one last bite out of the grass. Photo: Iced Peaches in Rosé

Unexpected

To my beloved husband with great love and affection on our eighteenth anniversary: you continue to surprise me, all of these years after your initial unexpected appearance as the love of my life!

Digital illustration from a photo: The Base of the WallSnowing Amethysts

At evening, summertime holds breathless sway

When even crickets wait before they’ll sing,

And birds to roost go silent; everything

Takes pause because the lengthy heat of day

Has drawn a shawl of stillness down to lawn

And flowerbed and hedges, ’til a breath—

So shallow it could scarcely ward off death—

Is difficult to breathe ’til the break’s gone,

Until the night resumes its stealthy crawl,

Exhaling with a stirring wind that flies

Up, stirring blossoms upward to the skies,

Their petals dropping, ash-like, down the wall,

Crape-myrtle petals drifting down below

In waves of amethyst, a summer snow.Digital illustration from a photo: Amethyst Snow

Foodie Tuesday: Pie Eyed

photoSince we don’t always make a big deal out of holidays, my husband and I, and even when we do get the urge to celebrate we’re not huge sticklers for partying on the officially designated day or with the popularly traditional foods and events. This year we’re being a little more predictable, perhaps, by having a Thanksgiving gathering with eight musician friends. We’re doing our dinner on Wednesday rather than Thursday to accommodate schedules, but otherwise we’re being more predictable than not. There’s a big pastured turkey, spatchcocked and dry-brining, in the fridge and it’ll be accompanied by plenty of at least somewhat traditional sides and garnish treats, and most fittingly of all for this particular American holiday, we’ll have US-dwelling friends from the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Canada and yes, stateside gracing our celebration with their presence. A great way to remember part of what’s best about this country and what I’m most thankful for–and not just on this holiday.

I’m going with pies for dessert. That’s the real reason for today’s post title, not that I’m planning on getting plastered to celebrate, if that’s what you were wondering. Ahem!

Apple pie, as any of you who’ve been around here for any length of time know, is not just a supremely suitable dish for the season but my spouse’s first choice for dessert any time there’s the slightest possibility of having it. Easy choice, clearly. Another thing that’s wonderfully fitting for the season and my tastebuds is maple syrup, and since we have a jug of gorgeous dark Grade-B-heaven maple syrup, a gift from another friend, just beaming at us with its heavenly come-hither look from the pantry, I deemed it a sign that I should get around to trying my hand at another pie I’ve long wanted to make, Tarte au Sucre. Here goes!

Meanwhile, there’s other stuff to get ready. Spiced apple cider is in a big pot, infusing at room temperature overnight until I heat it tomorrow. Potatoes are [literally] half-baked and will get finished on the day as well, smashed with cream and butter and a little salt before going to table next to the chicken-white wine gravy I put up last week and am storing. The appetizers of Gouda, homemade beef pate and crackers, nuts (including some Marcona almonds I set a-swim in olive oil a couple of weeks ago) and pickles–homemade beetroot pickles along with southern style pickled okra, green beans and green tomatoes–are all ready to set out as we sip some bubbly and cider for a start. Since the turkey’s ready to roast all I have to do is take that big, handsome bird out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature right in the pan it’s in now and roast it on the rack of celery, carrots, apple chunks, cinnamon sticks and lemon pieces it’s been resting on overnight.photo

I’m using store-bought bread but will hope to have time to make our friend Jim’s southern corn bread and sausage dressing, so ridiculously tasty that when he made it for me the first time we two ate most of the batch which I later learned from the written recipe is meant to serve twelve. Not kidding you.

I’m keeping the vegetable sides exceedingly simple, serving steamed green beans with bacon I crisped up and froze earlier, plus sweet coleslaw, so those will practically make themselves, being so easy and quick. What the others bring, if anything, will be entirely a surprise, with the exception of one person saying she was likely to bring some pureed squash and cranberry sauce, either or both of which would be deliciously appropriate. All of this, regardless of whether anyone does bring more, means that we will very likely have heaps of leftovers, one of the true treasures of the occasion and certainly one of the reasons we give thanks!

I will share pictures after the fact–not much to show for the process that will thrill or impress you for now–but first I would like to share with you my wish that whether you are planning to celebrate this American holiday this week or not, you will all be blessed with immeasurable reasons yourselves to be thankful. As I am, indeed, thankful not only for my many other privileges and joys, but most of all for the wonderful people filling every corner of my life, including you, my friends in Bloglandia. Thank You!photo montage

Foodie Tuesday: A Touch of the Sun

Mediterranean-style foods bring with their ingredients and flavors a joyful dose of the sun that nurtured them into being. Eating Mediterranean-inflected foods almost makes me feel I’m giving my insides a solar power retrofit. I rather wish that this meant I would become the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine, but at least I hope there’s a noticeable mood enhancement in the short term when I indulge in such deliciousness.

A characteristic I’ve seen in the foods of sunny climes is that many of their indigenous cuisines have built-in traditions of hors-d’oeuvre style dining. Given warm temperatures, lighter meals of smaller portions can often be a grand way to ward off feeling overcooked as an eater. Many of these same food cultures are characterized by wonderfully intense flavors, and somehow the right combination of heightened spicy, zingy, smoky or, say, tomato-y tastes tends to make foods seem slightly more-ish to an extent that the nibbles make a perfectly fulfilling and lovely whole meal.

The treats of this occasion light up with some of that bright, vivid deliciousness and make for a nice nibble or snack, or when combined with a few more of their kind, a pleasant summery version of complete dining. No matter what the season or the weather.

A good sunshiny plate-full:

Stuffed grape leaves (homemade would undoubtedly be grand, but I’m not above choosing ready-made ones as I did here), marinated artichoke hearts, pimiento-stuffed green olives, sun-dried tomatoes rehydrated in red wine, and soft boiled egg, with a dip made of whole-milk yogurt seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and salt to taste.photoSparked-up Three Bean Salad:

Three bean salad is a longtime favorite of American picnickers and lunchers, and there is a fairly classic style of making it: green and wax beans and kidney beans combined in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, sometimes with minced onion and even, occasionally, with added chickpeas–and often, using all canned beans for convenience and the traditional texture. There’s no law, however, that this already delicious old recipe can’t have a few surprises added. My latest combination was the simple three-bean version with only two small additions, canned (not marinated) baby corn, and for a contrasting splash of sweetness, some more of that minced sun-dried and red wine rehydrated tomato. The sun is inherent in the salad, but if I’m going to tweak it anyway, I couldn’t resist garnishing it with the first tender dandelion sunbeams that came my way.photoEven adding any of these individual items to a menu can heighten the flavors of the other foods in the meal and bring some of the same cheering pizzazz to the occasion. Think of serving the pickled-tasting salad alongside a deeply roasted leg of lamb, or trimming a magnificent platter of rosemary-scented pork roast with the plate-full at the top of the post, and adding a few fat-roasted potatoes; methinks there might be a whole number of diners that would feel sunlight pervading their innards and their spirits when presented with such taste treats. I know I wouldn’t mind even just repeating this part of the menu, and you never know when the rest might follow.

Hanging around in Trees

photoThere are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.

Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.photoBut if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.photo

When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.

photo

The titular king of Finca Drácula is a dramatic orchid that can haunt your dreams . . .

Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!photoFor one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety,  was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.photo