Of Twins and ‘Tinis

It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins. –Chinese Proverb

when cowboys wore snow-boots on horseback

There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present.Ogden Nash

mellow martini with a view

Twins and martinis are an interesting study of compare and contrast. 

I’m married to an identical twin. He is ten minutes older than his brother. They learned to speak the mother tongue on the normal developmental curve, but retained a private language from the time they were infants until four-years-old. 

Look at identical twins. When you get closer, you start to see the small differences.Brian Swanson

still flying united

Placed in different classrooms in elementary school, their interests and friends diverged. One gravitated toward sports, fishing, and camping, the other to art, music, and drama. As adults, it is easy to identify who is who because hair parts are on opposite sides and voices differ, but they use identical hand gestures and are both creative leaders in their respective professions.

Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences and their brains are not wired the same way.John Medina

There are significant differences in food and taste preference in these twins. My husband’s brother eats coriander, both raw and cooked, while my husband vehemently pushes away any dish with a hint of it. In childhood, one twin developed a food allergy to shellfish, the other to fish with fins.

And then I stumbled onto the great martini divide, placing them firmly into polarized camps…

I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire, and ice, surgical cleanliness, insight and comfort, redemption and absolution. I’m talking MARTINI. –Anonymous

with a Capital “M”

In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law joined colleagues after work at a bar conveniently located on the ground floor of their office building in New York City. Martini culture was popular, and an architect he knew always ordered one. The bartender used a small aerosol bottle to spray vermouth inside the glass. Then he added a 50/50 ratio of gin and vodka. It was a memorable first martini because my brother-in-law despised it. Later, when he decided to try again, there was the same essence of vermouth spray followed by chilled vodka only. Thereafter, his go-to cocktail was born. 

During the same time period we were living overseas. My husband never drank distilled liquor, preferring wine or beer as a social beverage. Then, last summer in Colorado I began experimenting with “dirty” vodka martinis as a late-in-the-day-cabin-cocktail. He turned up his nose and stuck with wine. Dabbling with other recipes, I mixed vodka and gin. He agreed to taste, but only tolerated a few sips before a decided, “No thank you”. Several months later, experimenting again, I offered a pure gin concoction and substituted Lillet [a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux] for vermouth. He surprised us both by saying, “This could be my martini.” He is also big on multiple green olives as garnish.  

And so, with ongoing research, I discerned a new difference–to each twin, his own base spirit.

The iconic martini is never completely out of style. Yet it could be the most argued about drink in history because it comes in such a variety of variations. Amazing for a cocktail with only three parts:

  •  1. Base alcohol
  • 2. The ratio of spirit to vermouth
  • 3. Garnish 

Seemingly simple, yet every martini must be carefully created. Often it’s better not to order one in public. Most bartenders, unless you instruct them carefully, don’t have the time or inclination to make it to personal specifications. There is no right or wrong recipe. It’s just that the best martini is one made the way you like to drink it. Begin mixing at home.

home mix up line up

If someone says they hate martinis, it’s possible they never had a proper one. The disgruntlement is most often not with the gin or vodka. It is usually with the concentration of vermouth. 

A perfect martini should be made by filling a chilled glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. –Noël Coward

For many martini lovers, the “right” proportion of vermouth to spirit is more art than science. An exact measurement can be difficult when it is more like a hint or a suggestion. Like the spritz my brother-in-law sprays inside his glass. Or the way Dukes Hotel Bar in London pours vermouth in and out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.

Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.

The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.

It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:

“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

–Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”

the vesper dressed to kill

It was in Dukes Hotel, on tiny St. James Place, Mayfair London, where Fleming regularly consumed vodka martinis while writing his infamous 007 spy stories. Today, Dukes’ bar is an institution with an established reputation for creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass. 

alessandro palazzi and the dukes’ vesper

There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.

A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another. –Somerset Maughan

If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards. 

Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served extremely COLD.

The real key to a great martini is it should be all arctic, deliciously crisp… –Victoria Moore

Glassware can be freezer chilled or let ice cubes rest inside while ingredients are assembled. Also, consider the allure of the glass. A long stemmed V-shaped martini glass looks better in your hand than any other drinking receptacle. [Except for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.  

This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud.Herman Wouk

a cold cloud on a hot day…

Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.

Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.

Mr. Ketel One mixing his way

Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.

There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:

I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature.M.F.K. Fisher

Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with these twins…then, better make it a double.

4 MARTINI RECIPES

[Shaken or stirred, or eliminate ice with frozen gin or vodka & a very well chilled glass]

THE 007 VESPERTINI

[Disclosure: Impossible to replicate exactly as Bond created. Why? Gordon’s gin in 1953 was not the same gin as by that name now. Kina Lillet is no longer made either. Use a strong rather than a soft gin, Stoli vodka, white Lillet and a dash of bitters for the closest approximation.]

  • 2 shots gin of choice
  • 1 shot vodka [100 proof Stoli preferably]
  • ½ shot white Lillet
  • Optional: 2 dashes bitters
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with large twist of lemon peel

THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTELTINI

  • Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
  • Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
  • Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
  • House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
  • Served with olives and snacks on the side
  • Customer has table rights all evening

THE MARK GINTINI

  • 3 shots Fords Gin
  •  ½ shot white Lillet
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
  • Float ice chips over the top

THE ERIK VODKATINI

  • 1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
  • 3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
“The Boys” back then…
and several years later…

There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings

Hack #6: Quarantine Comfort Food

It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway. 

We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.

Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet. 

The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.

All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand. 

Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking Grilled Cheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach on hearty rye or sourdough bread.

It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.

GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • Good Butter, European if possible
  • Grated mix of cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
  • Thick sliced bacon, if desired
  • Fresh baby spinach
  • 4 slices hearty bread such as rye or good sourdough

Preparation:

  1. Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
  2. Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is to caramelize those onions!
  3. Place grated cheese in bowl. 
  4. Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
  5. Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
  6. Top with bacon [optional] and spinach [if you have it].
  7. Press sandwich halves together.
  8. In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
  9. When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.

Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice. 

Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap. 

Quarantine comfort eating is complete.

Colorado sunshine, blue skies

Why cast iron cookware rules in our home: care-about-cast-iron

Ode to My Paris Kitchen

I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.

With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.

A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house. Michael Ruhlman

The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. Joy Harjo

Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.

From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.

Good kitchens are not about size.Nigel Slater

My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.

informal dining
courtyard from kitchen eating area

To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.

During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.

By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.

olive tree view
window meditation

I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what.Alice Waters

During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.

My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things. 

There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful.M.F.K. Fisher

During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.

chopping block with a view

This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.

adam, anna, and leila in paris for the holidays, 2017

You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens. Trisha Yearwood

Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. love-and-layers-of-lasagne She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.

The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.Laura Esquival

Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development.Laura Esquival

People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup.  Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.

True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal. Mehmet Oz

These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.

Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.

I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment.M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food

Ingredients:

  • Good Olive Oil
  • 1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
  • 4-5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 C. dry red wine
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1# dry pasta, any kind
  • 1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
  • 1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
  • 1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
  • Fresh parmesan

Assembly:

Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.

Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.

Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.

Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

My Favorite Kind of Teenager

My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one.  Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter

Prune Restaurant, 54 E. 1st St, New York, NY

Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a winter holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.

The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.

waiting for train on NYC day

The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in NYC balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching reruns of a favorite TV series.

Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites that teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.

On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.

It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!

When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.

Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.

In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”

I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.

The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in bold italics:

m.f.k. fisher, 1908-1992

“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”

Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look  at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.

“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’” 

Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”

“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.

It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’

I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.

 ‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’

I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too. 

 And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **

It doesn’t necessarily matter when a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way. 

showtime!

That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered. 

where we sat

Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. “Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!

Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.

But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, integrated with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.” 


**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.

Becoming a Casual Animal

Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times, to start a new lifeto embrace one possibility after anotherthat is surely the basic instinctBarbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

IMG_0621

In 1989 Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define an essential zone separate from home and the people you live with [“first place”] and work [“second place”]. Third place is your hangout, an informal social space with no dress code and a welcoming vibe that invites you to return again and again.

A third place is also one’s anchor to community life. You are drawn to it because it is socially fun, playful, and light-hearted. It’s where you go to chew the fat, discuss issues, ventilate, play games, or get to know someone.  It is “…where you relax in public, encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”

Third place is like pitching a tent in your back yard. It is home away from home.

When life opportunities create a geography change and your third place is left behind, it’s important to find a new one. And if what you are looking for can’t be found after searching, a creative instinct might emerge “…to start a new life…to embrace one possibility after another”.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 11.55.14

This is Kyle’s story. He grew up in Kansas, in the heartland of America. From the age of five, he began drawing images–people, animals and made up characters. Riding in the car during family vacations, he drew the storylines from books-on-tapes while the rest of the family listened. While still a high school student, Kyle knew he would pursue an artistic course of study at university. He graduated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.

In 2006, Kyle’s first job took him away from home and long-term friends to Fort Collins, Colorado. He started out living in the basement of a relative’s house. It was isolating for a young man. He needed friends his own age and a place to socialize with them.

A booming craft beer industry was the catalyst for many microbrewery openings in Fort Collins. Kyle found his “third place”, along with a friendly social circle, in the evolving scene.

Later, in a widening circle of mutual friends, Kyle met Lara. They enjoyed camaraderie in the breweries, but also shared a strong sense of community service. Together they coached Special Olympic basketball and softball for disabled adults.

When Lara accepted a new job in another state, Kyle’s mother said, “I thought he would never leave Colorado. So when he followed Lara to Kansas City, I knew she was the one he would marry.” They did.

In 2014, the craft brewery scene in Kansas City, Missouri was not as mature as the one left behind in Colorado. Lara and Kyle searched but couldn’t find the informal, social environment they were looking for in their new hometown.

Creative “can do” instincts took over. Kyle had experimented with beer making in the past. Now he became serious, bought equipment, and began home brewing in the basement. He went to weekend fairs, gave away samples, and won some tasting competitions, too. Feedback was consistent and positive.

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He read book after book about the chemistry of beer making, industrial brewing equipment, hops and grains and flavor additives as well as how to open a small business. He enrolled in the American Brewer’s Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program. The final weeks of coursework were on site in Vermont.

Kyle befriended local KC brewers by cold calling them. He volunteered to work one day each week to help them brew commercial batches. He gained knowledge and a warm welcome into the community of micro-brewers. By now an idea was actively fermenting.

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logo designed by kyle

Over the next couple of years, Kyle and Lara drafted a business plan, found real estate property to buy, cultivated investors, and a bank loan. In a former commercial garage space, Kyle designed a back-of-the-house brewery with a front-of-the-house taproom. Doing most of the interior construction, alongside family members who pitched in time and expertise, Lara and Kyle founded a craft brewery on the principle of creating a social community space and then giving back to it.

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kyle and his dad building the deck
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lara after new equipment installation
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In early February 2018, Casual Animal Brewing Company opened its’ doors at 1725 McGee Street in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their signature motto is: “Laid back beers that tap into your wild side.”

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1725 McGee St, Kansas City, Missouri

Casual Animal runs eleven full taps. Each has its’ own beer style, name, and an original logo of Kyle’s design. Animals are a recurring theme. Names are metaphorically linked to the style of brew. Customer favorites include Chaos Monkey [a banana cream pie ale], to Honey Wheat light ale, Nomo Rhino IPA, Branch Out Stout, and Hop The Fence IPL.

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one “flight” is 5 tasting choices
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menu changes by popular requests and brewer’s creative recipes
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full house
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front door open, weather permitting
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casual animals hanging out

Tying into Kyle and Lara’s commitment to community service, Casual Animal taps into the ethic of “giving back” by designating a rotating beer called Local Motive. The beer style changes quarterly along with the charitable organization the staff votes on to support. Two dollars of every pint of Local Motive sold is donated. In-house events promote the spirit of the current charity.

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brut IPA featured for one local motive promotion
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designed by kyle–graphics and artwork for quarterly local motive tap

The most recent charity promotion was the Kansas City Pet Project, a nonprofit pet shelter that guarantees every stray animal a home. Kittens and puppies were brought into the brewery for customers to play with and cuddle. A completely contagious combination–adorable baby animals plus eleven beer styles equals fun AND donation success!

Unless you are a real brewer, all there is to know about the process of grain and hops and water turning into deliciously drinkable beer is the basics of what happens in Casual Animal’s back room. Inside a series of huge shiny stainless steel tanks,  Kyle’s chemistry know-how is mixed with the help of fermentation, time…and recipe magic.

Hot Liquid Tank water is piped into the Mashtun Tank where grains are mixed together and cooked. Next, this mash up is transferred to the Brew Kettle where hops [and sometimes other flavors] are added. After time in the Kettle, the liquid is piped into the Fermenting Tank, leaving behind all the grain residue. Now yeast is added and fermentation begins. This takes approximately two weeks depending on the kind of beer. From the Fermentation Tank, beer is transferred to the Brite Tank for carbonation and clarifying. And finally, kegs are filled and stored in the massive walk-in refrigerator that feeds the taps at the front-of-the-house. 217 gallons of beer per brew.

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walk in refrigerator with full kegs
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keg feed from refrigerator to taproom
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looks like this on the other side

Cycle complete. As for the magic? Well, every time I sip Casual Animal’s velvety dark nitro stout, it’s easy to believe in magic.

When I asked Kyle to talk about his favorite beer tastes, he said, “Well, it depends on the day. On cold, snowy days, I would say smooth, slight malty sweetness, and roast-y to describe a tasty pint of Nitro Stout. Other days it might be an IPA with resin-y, fruity, and bitter characteristics imparted by the hops. Now, is anyone thirsty?”

There is passion and precision in Kyle’s word selection that describes every beer Casual Animal makes. That same passion speaks of a man who dreamed of possibilities and pursued them with intense preparation. And labor. And love.

The truth is, when Kyle couldn’t find his “third place”–he built one.

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…Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

Casual Animal Brewing Company, 1725 McGee St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108

www.casualanimalbrewing.com

Instagram and Facebook: Casual Animal Brewing Co.

On 10-10-18, Lara and Kyle produced a new brand of casual animal sweetness and introduced her to the world. Welcome Sloan Kasey!

Hack #4: Care About Cast Iron

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cast iron skillet with lid–before seasoning

A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life. –Anonymous

Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.

An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.

Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.

There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful.Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food

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vintage cast iron, seasoned to the sheen of glass

Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.

Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses only two.

Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.

Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.

Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.

Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.

Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.

Back in Michigan, Cast Iron Don has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.

Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.

After cleaning, the important next step is to season iron correctly.

  1. Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over, so no olive oil.]
  2. Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
  3. Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.

Cast iron needs to be cleaned in a specific way.

  1. Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
  2. A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
  3. Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
  4. If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.

Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…

Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:

DUTCH BABY, SWEET – serves 2

  • Start with ingredients at room temperature.
  • In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
  • Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
  • Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
  • Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.
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with confectioner’s sugar topping

DUTCH BABY, SAVORY

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dutch baby savoury ingredients in kitchen window with a view
  • In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
  • In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
  • Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
  • Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
  • Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
  • Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
  • Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!
  • Perfect brunch or hors d’oeuvre dish.

Max and the Beanstalks

Our friend, Max, has spent a lot of time with his hands in the dirt. That is, when he wasn’t a student athlete, coach, husband, father, and Athletic Director for two universities in the mid-western United States. Since retiring [as AD] from Kansas State University, Max keeps an active hand as consultant and mentor to athletes, coaches and directors. He is a man who is wired to pay it forward by giving back to his profession as well as devoting boundless time and energy to his family and friend relationships.

Max also likes to get his hands a little dirty–by tending the soil.

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the hands of max

He grew up in Troy, Ohio in a family of three boys. Every spring his parents planted a large “truck garden” outside of town. A truck garden is larger than a backyard or “kitchen” garden. A pick-up truck is often used to haul things back and forth to the plotted site. His parents worked the fertile Ohio soil without motorized equipment, using only hand tools. Each summer they grew the fruit and vegetables their growing family would eat for a year.

From an early age, Max played alongside the garden patch as his parents worked. He learned the rituals of tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting. It became natural–this annual cycle of producing fresh food with your own hands. And feeding people you love from the harvest.

He carried the tradition into adulthood while raising a family and growing his career. Certain veggies are a mainstay. He always plants asparagus, beets, cucumber, green beans, leaf lettuce, onions, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini squash. He sometimes plants bell peppers, hot peppers, garlic, peas, or yellow squash.

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We are among the fortunate beneficiaries of the abundance that grows from Max’s hands and heart, in the friendship he shares with us. Visiting his home in Kansas or when he and his wife drive to our cabin in Colorado there is always a gift…fresh and delicious from the garden.

Two summers ago, Max brought something different. Green beans in a jar, packed in seasoned brine. It was a new thing–pickling the extra beans from a bountiful harvest.

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Admittedly, at first glance, these beans deserved some skepticism–pale and limp in liquid–I wasn’t sure whether I could even try them. That’s because I grew up in a household that served beans only from cans. At the family dinner table, my learned behavior was to move them as quickly as possible from mouth to paper napkin to garbage can.

Max’s proffered jars were placed in the cupboard and overlooked until later in the summer. I finally took one as a dinner hostess gift to a neighbor on our mountain hillside. She called me a few days later and RAVED about the pickled beans. She said they were BETTER than any other kind of pickle, especially for hamburgers. Did I have more jars to share?

Our daughter came to visit. She likes almost everything and is creative about ways to present food. I cracked open a jar of pickled beans and added them to a tray of small bites to have with drinks. At her suggestion, we placed them in icy martinis to sip on the shaded front porch.

I tried my own hand at pickling beans purchased from the local farmer’s market. It was a little trickier at the higher altitude of the Colorado Rockies, [see notes for high altitude processing at end] but they turned out fine. Now I’m hooked.

This summer I drove back for a lesson from the source–Max’s plot of land in the Manhattan, Kansas Community Garden. We awakened early, Max, Lynn and I, to pick beans before heat, humidity, and biting insects overtook us.

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Max and his beanstalks
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morning produce

In the afternoon, we pickled our harvest from start to finish, ending the day with wine and unwind time–featuring, you guessed it, pickled beans.

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wine and unwind time starring beans, etc.

Our Latvian daughter-in-law comes from Russian heritage that pickles any and all kinds of vegetables. Current nutritional trends suggest that fermented or pickled food should be included daily in healthy diets. Preserving food this way is an easy activity to do at home. Everyone reaps benefits.

Pickled beans can be eaten as a low calorie snack or as a garnish to any food where pickles are used [Barbara’s hamburgers!]. They can be added to drinks such as Bloody Marys or vodka martinis. Let the beans stand as green centerpiece to a tray of rainbow colored hors d’oeuvres. They make a unique and perfect homemade gift to a friend, tied with a ribbon and a sprig of herbs.

Max–here’s to you. Keep your hands in good soil and your beans in brine.

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max and lynn urick

MAX’S PICKLED GREEN BEANS–Makes 4 Pints

INGREDIENTS:

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green beans washed and sorted by size
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pickling salt, spices, vinegar, garlic, fresh dill
  • 2 pounds green beans–washed, trimmed and sorted by size
  • ½-1 tsp cayenne pepper [optional, if you like a bit of spice]
  • 4 heads fresh dill weed or 4 tsp dill seed
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 ½ C. water
  • 2 ½ C. 5% white vinegar
  • ¼ C. pickling salt
  • 4 tsp pickling spices

METHOD:

  1. Sterilize pint sized canning jars and lids by boiling for a short time in a water bath. Place lids first in bottom of pot to keep jars off the bottom.
  2. Tightly pack same-sized beans, lengthwise, into sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. [Stem end goes on top [Max style], unless you trim both ends of beans, which I like to do.]
  3. Make pickling solution by combining the vinegar, water, salt and pickling spices. Bring to a boil.
  4. Pour hot liquid over beans, leaving ½ inch headspace.
  5. Place one clove garlic, fresh dill weed or dill seed on top of beans before sealing lids. [Can also garnish with a strip of red bell pepper or red onion.]
  6. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids securely but not overly tight.
  7. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Water should cover jars by 1-2 inches.

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water bath boil, cover jars by 1-2 inches
  • Remove from water and set upright on countertop.

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    canning tongs to remove from preserving bath
  • Each jar will have a small rounded dome in the center of the lid. After 15 minutes of cooling time, there is an audible “Ping” sound as the dome depresses and the jar becomes sealed.

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    domed jar in front before “ping”, sealed jar behind–post-ping
  • Let beans stand at room temperature for at least two weeks to allow flavors to develop. Refrigerate after opening.
  • VARIATIONS FOR HIGH ALTITUDE WATER BATH PROCESSING

    If you are preserving at an altitude higher than 1000 feet above sea level, you need to adjust processing time as indicated in the chart below.

    Altitude in Feet                    Processing Time [Increased by Minutes]

    • 1001-3000                                           +5 minutes
    • 3001-6000                                         +10 minutes
    • 6001-8000                                         +15 minutes
    • 8001-10,000                                       +20 minutes

    After removing from water bath, leave undisturbed on countertop for 12-24 hours. Then check jar lids for sealing. They should not flex up and down when the center is pressed. If the lid does not seal in 24 hours, product can be immediately reprocessed or refrigerated.

    Berry Best Summer Sangria

    A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken. James Dents

    Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y! –Terri Guillemets

    Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. –Henry James

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    My husband refers to me as a “late adopter”. This has been true regarding certain forms of technology. I’m not the first to run with the latest innovation when it first appears in popular culture. But when I do jump in, it’s all the way. Then, I can’t remember life as it was before.

    This summer I was surprised with a different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never tried, even once.

    On the July 4th American Independence Day holiday weekend I was with Dietician Daughter, her husband, and his Kansas family. She served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of condensation, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.

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    On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this drink captured my attention. There was thirst-quenching coolness. There was the lushness of summer berries in red wine. I drank a second glass.

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    Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were born. Long a common, informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

    Twice I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank wonderful Galician wines every evening as an accompaniment to the regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.

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    trail marker camino de santiago

    Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood because of its’ dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz.

    That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Dietician Daughter was imaginative in her “berry” form of creativity. Now I can’t drink it any other way.

    For the rest of the summer, I began ordering Sangria in restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Pizzazz and eye candy beauty were nonexistent. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games on a summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.

    My short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit must be plentiful. And FRESH.

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    sangria ingredients: summer fruit, wine, brandy, and a jar

    Here is the very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and refreshing like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the terrace, or in the backyard. Say, “yes” to a berry summer sangria. Then go lie in a hammock under the trees and muse.

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    sangria in the mountains
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    sangria on the côte d’azur, france
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    sangria on a terrace in germany
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    in full summer bloom
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    LARA’S BERRY BEST SUMMER SANGRIA

    • fresh whole berries [or pieces of fruit] for garnish
    • ice to chill
    • 750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Or Rioja.]
    • ½ C. brandy
    • ¾ C. orange juice
    • 3-4 T. brown sugar
    • any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
    • ½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
    • ½ apple, skin on, chopped

    In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler.

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    Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.

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    Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.

    Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.

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    May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.

    Best consumed within 1-2 days.

    Comfort Food for Cal

    My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle for the first time when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin Cal, who turns 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food or by his appetites.

    Shortly after my first story was published Joan wrote, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from his mother is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from you.”

    I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of comfort food.

    Comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

    There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness or happiness can trigger a taste memory of longing or loathing.

    Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.

    For example, he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime something special–Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.

    He also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window. Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”

    In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.

    My food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas to Singapore in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.

    Life became a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.

    As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot] who suffered from a “nervous condition” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.

    Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left and later sent an email, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” 

    You have to love a man who softens when sweets are offered.

    I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the usual gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures and my Latvian daughter-in-law offered more variety in their comfort food desires.

    It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic descriptor:

     “My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.

    My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.

    Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.

    CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING

    • 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
    • 3 T. minute tapioca
    • 2 ¾ C. milk
    • 1 egg beaten
    • 1 t. vanilla extract

    Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.

    WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

    • 1 serving leftover rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Easiest rice cooking recipe: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
    • Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes or fresh chilis [optional].
    • Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
    • Slide eggs and butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With spatula or knife cut into eggs so yolk melts into rice.
    • Garnish copiously with chopped tomatoes.
    • Eat with a spoon.
    • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger browned in olive oil.
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    ginger and garlic garnish

    For a less spicy version, leave out red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

    former location of cal and wendy’s grandfather’s feed store, kirkwood, missouri

    An Egg in the Coffeepot

    There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, written long ago by M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992], speak of the chemistry that occurs with the right combination of people, place and food–a communal spirit shared around the table with family or friends. Bread and wine are not the only catalysts. It can happen around a pot of egg coffee, too.

    Three weeks ago we reconnected with a group of people we have known for many years but not seen in a long time. It was one of those bittersweet reunions–gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there.

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    photo courtesy of marilyn larson

    For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the family home of Dale and Marilyn Larson. The house was thick walled with deep windowsills constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one is standing in the kitchen around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.

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     flea market enamelware, paris

    Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story goes like this.

    A young Swedish girl, named Edla, moved to southern Minnesota in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields late at night to have a little cry. Then, Karl Larson proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove.

    Two generations later, Edla’s grandson, five-year-old Dale Larson, walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparent’s home. To gain his mother’s permission for the trek, he had to hold the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a-half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say to them, “Milk is bad for you. Coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.

    Every time we visited the Michigan stone farmhouse we drank it, too. It was a morning ritual perfected over generations and fascinating to watch. Making egg coffee became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.

    During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, an important message from the Larson kitchen returned. It’s this–spend time with people who bring out the best parts of you, the best version of you. Then remember to go back and get refreshed.

    I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from those Ann Arbor visits. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or easily lured by push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped and the enamel pot became merely decorative.

    These days I’m more patient about the sweet spot of perfecting a ritual. With an enamel coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step practice, I can make a good cup of egg coffee now. And always within this ritual, I’m reminded of friendship and lessons learned first in a kitchen, in a field stone farmhouse, with a broken egg at the bottom of the coffeepot.

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    And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”

    basic ingredients: one egg, one coffeepot, coarse ground coffee, boiling water, and a chopstick

    LARSON FAMILY EGG COFFEE

    1. Determine how many cups [8oz] of coffee your pot makes. Break one egg into bottom of pot, with or without the shell.
    2. Measure in coarse ground coffee–one heaping scoop for each cup plus one for the pot.

    3. Stir mixture with chopstick to combine egg and coffee grounds. Pour boiling water over egg/coffee mix. Stir together with chopstick.

    4. Place enamel pot over heat. When it starts to foam up and boil, turn off heat immediately. Watch closely so it doesn’t boil over.

    5. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Then pour and enjoy. You can use a sieve to strain, but if you pour slowly it is not necessary.

    Egg coffee is as good as it gets for those who love a strong, smooth, mellow brew. What happens is this: The egg congeals coarse coffee grounds into a clump and neutralizes acidity that makes coffee taste bitter. It also acts as a filter, because essential oils from the beans are in the finished beverage, rather than on a paper filter. More oils make better tasting coffee. If you throw the whole egg with shell in the pot, you probably get some added calcium benefits, too.

    Edla Larson kept adding water to the same pot all day long. She was probably frugal with both eggs and coffee. I have used a second round of boiling water, but don’t go beyond that. Just start over.

    Sipping Avocado Margs in Summer

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    Our United States home is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When not in our home overseas, we live in a cabin built on a hillside outside the town of Estes Park. The back of the cabin faces the Front Range of Rocky Mountain National Park–mountains towering 10-14,000 feet above sea level. We gaze at them on a deck in the summer or through picture windows near the fireplace in the winter.

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    There are no streetlights and roads are unpaved. The landscape is native Ponderosa pines, tall grasses, sage shrubs, and wildflowers. The only maintenance is digging up the occasional noxious weed and harvesting fallen pinecones and branches for kindling. We built a fire ring with rocks from the land. Campfires are enjoyed with stories and laughter or the silence of a starry night. This has been our home-away-from-overseas-home since 1991.

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    The annual summer return begins with the first morning wake up. It’s early. The sun rises at 5:30AM. Coffee is started and we pull rocking chairs onto the deck. Mountains and clouds to the south and west are pink-tinged at first light. As the sun makes its’ way upward, the color shifts to yellowish gold. When it finally rises over the eastern ridge line, the sky turns robin’s egg and then lapis blue. Second cup of coffee, still in bathrobes, day begins.

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    early morning pink
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    pink to gold

    There is a different way of “being” in the mountains from our life overseas. Time is simpler, less hurried, less structured. It’s not necessary to “do” much of anything for the first transitional days. We live casually in blue jeans, moccasins or hiking boots, cotton or flannel shirts, depending on the temperature.

    We eat differently too. The thinner air and long days tempt us with food and drink that somehow “belong” in the high country. Hearty breakfasts of layered egg sandwiches [More Than Just an Egg Sandwich] are eaten on the sunny front porch. It fuels the day before re-stacking firewood, trimming dead tree limbs, or hiking into the National Park.

    When it’s time for a break, there is a place downtown we often go. Ed’s Cantina is a 30-year locally owned and operated Mexican restaurant. The sign on the side door says, “Get in Here”. Their logo: “Live Forever. Eat at Ed’s.” You want to see what is going on there. Avocado Margaritas are what we found.

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    Dietitian Daughter, savvy in combining nutrition with great taste and pleasure, showed us the way. We fell in love, one by one. It’s the reason to drop in at Ed’s on a warm summer afternoon.

    For the nutritionally minded, avocados are one of the healthiest food choices around. They are a good source of mono-unsaturated fat, the desirable fat for lowering LDL [bad] cholesterol while raising HDL [good] cholesterol. Vitamins in avocados [E and C among them] are good for skin tone and texture. There is documentation for the avocado’s anti-inflammatory properties including reducing arthritis pain. Even in liquid form, avocados provide a nice range of health benefits!

    This summer, we also ate a lot of avocados in easy-to-make, lime-y, homemade guacamole. Store bought jars, tubs or tubes don’t compare with your own effort. “Less is more” with guacamole. Let the avocado shine with a light touch on ingredients. Use as a sandwich spread [breakfast egg sandwiches!] or, more traditionally, as a dip with tortilla chips.

    Keep your avo margs and guacamole as separate ventures, though. You can have too much of a good thing…

    GUACAMOLE à la Colorado

    • 2 [or more] ripe avocados
    • diced red onion [or shallot]
    • diced or pressed clove of garlic, optional
    • salt
    • pepper
    • juice of fresh lime
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    basic ingredients

    Cut around outside of avocado and separate the halves. Scoop the meat out of the rind with a spoon. Mash avocado in a bowl with a fork or potato masher. Add onion, garlic, S&P. Stir together. Squeeze in as much fresh lime juice as you like, to taste. Adjust seasonings.

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    mash avocados
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    add onion, garlic, S & P
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    add squeezed lime juice

    Will keep in refrigerator without discoloration by covering with plastic wrap pressed down on top of guacamole, allowing no air space.

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    guac with homemade chips

    ED’S AVOCADO MARGARITA  [AVO MARG by order]

    • ½ ripe avocado
    • Jose Cuervo Silver Tequila
    • Agave syrup
    • Limeade [they say theirs is homemade, but frozen concentrate is fine]
    • Ice
    • Lime garnish

    Into blender, scoop one half avocado, a shot [or so] of tequila, a generous squirt of agave syrup, an even more generous pour of limeade and lots of ice. Blend together on high setting. Serve in tall, salt rimmed glass, garnished with a slice of lime.

    • Best when sipped on Ed’s outdoor patio with the Big Thompson River rolling by.
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    the 1/2 avocado
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    the tequila, agave syrup, ice, limeade
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    the blend
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    the pour
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    pouring
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    perfection in a glass

    Live forever at Ed’s…