Archive for September 2010

Ship Ahoy

September 29, 2010

After a couple of windy, seasick days, we pulled quietly into San Diego, where it was a mind-boggling 100°.  Actually, that was two days ago and its hotter today here in Cabo San Lucas, and San Diego is already a bit of old news.  However, to our utter frustration, I haven’t been able to get to the Internet from on board ship.  Shel, yes, me, no.  I’ll spare you the details of this major annoyance, suffice it to say that I’m typing in a little mercado in Cabo on a Spanish keyboard where it’s 38° out, also about 100, with Mexican rap music blaring in my ear, and I’m all damp and sticky.  Bienvenidos a Mexico!

But back to San Diego.  We had half a day to spend, and we chose to spend it aboard the USS  Midway, looking at the WW II vintage aircraft carrier and its planes and helicopters.

Coming aboard, you’re reminded that there was a time of pure patriotism in America, without any shadows or doubts. 

Up on the flight deck, a gazillion tons of steel baking in the sun, jet blasts were the least of our worries,

although I can just imagine how it felt to see this guy flying toward you.

Although the Huey was clearly a formidable death machine in its time, the ammunition arrangement is so eccentric-looking that it seemed more curious than terrifying.

What did really scare me was the way all of the planes were plastered with Rescue Here stickers.  Imagining being trapped inside and relying on those arrows gave me the shivers even on such a desperately hot day.

This helicopter with its then-revolutionary hover-mastering downswept rotors is from the group that pulled the Apollo capsule out of the ocean.

This is the closest to having a halo that Shel will ever get, but you can sure see how hot and wilted he was.  And believe me, if you could see him right this minute, he looks a whole lot hotter!

Here’s another view of the gigantic Midway, dwarfed by a towering replica of the famous kiss,

right next to a pretty park with a statuary tribute to the role Bob Hope played in encouraging the troops.

That’s our ship there, docked right next to the Midway, as huge as half a skyscraper.  Time to get back into her air-conditioned comfort.

Our sailaway party was brightened by two dancing Jamaican bartenders

and we were escorted past the Coronado bridge and out to the open ocean by the Coast Guard, who stayed between us and any other vessel on the water.

Back on our balcony we collapsed into a beautiful sunset

and felt that we were in the right moment, in a place where we had absolutely nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.  The night before we’d seen the spouts and dim traces of whales, swimming quietly off our bow,

but tonight it was a flock of pelicans that escorted us across the border into Mexico.  Next stop, Cabo San Lucas.

Sailing Away

September 23, 2010

We’re off!  Tomorrow we’ll be sailing away from our familiar waters, our mountain, Beppo and Zazou, and most of our daily routine. The one part of our regular life that’s going with us is the magical Chinese herb tea, which I’d love to show you right now.  Two huge stock pots of it are boiling away on the stove, boiling over actually, so that we can take 26 ziplock bags of tea with us for Shel’s daily dose. We’ll be trusting to the good will of our cabin steward to keep them frozen for us, so that Shel may continue his Great Leap Forward toward health.  And although at the moment I feel like one of Macbeth’s witches, haggard and frazzled, stirring my unruly brew as it spits and scatters twigs and thick brown droplets all over the stove, I expect that it’s nothing that a good day at sea and a couple of martinis can’t eventually fix.  And by eventually I mean tomorrow.

When I booked this cruise several months ago we never thought Shel would live to travel through the Panama Canal with me.  The booking was a leap of faith, an “if I book it he will live to sail” moment of sheer folly that is about to pay off in spades.  He’s so much better now than he was just a few months ago that when a guy called yesterday from Blue Shield to talk about Shel being approved for the Hospice program Shel sputtered “I’m not going into hospice, I’m going cruising through the Panama Canal.”  Well all right then!

Although normally our ferry feels like quite a big ship, tomorrow we’ll board one that holds 1800 passengers, a virtual small town that will float us away from life as we know it, heading south into waters neither of us has seen before. We’re happy as can be, and we hope you’ll come along for the ride.  Next stop, San Diego, California.  See you there.

Nor Reason Nor Rhyme

September 20, 2010

Recently I was asked to put pen to paper, yes, real pen and paper, something I scarcely ever use, and not lift the point for 10 minutes, writing automatically and without stopping.  This is what came out then, and I happened upon it today while tidying my desk.  I hope it speaks to you as it does to me, but if it’s too far from what you expect, just tell me so.

When floating in the stream of consciousness you must not try to swim, must not worry about your straps slipping off, leaving you half naked afloat, far from any known shore.  Instead you surrender, raise both hands, in white gloves if you have them, and let yourself sink down into the muck and mire that nourishes the spirit.  Lilies are we all, white and fragrant, and oh isn’t it springtime that brings this wild longing to be free, to burst from our shells and hives and burrows and run like the sap in the warming sun?  Because running isn’t my way I sit like one of the more reluctant plants in the garden, resisting the warmth, trying to be sure that another foot of snow isn’t lying in wait for me, waiting like a coyote for a cat, to gobble up all that is soft and tender and leave only a faint scent of bones where once life blossomed.  Some flowers are poisonous, and we discover this too late, already intoxicated by their beauty, falling deep under their spell, like the gentlest of witches who come to us as we sleep, soothing our temples as they whisper deathly rhymes in our ears and we awaken in tears, not knowing why.  And we run to the shower to wash away the night and stumble over the rug on the way to the teapot that’s followed us from home to home for lo these 30 years, floating in a stream of memory and impossible to jettison.

And there you have it, a ten minute window into a part of me that has nothing to do with either food, wine, or France.  But on a more regular note:

News From The Mixing Bowl – We Have a Winner! The winner of the absolutely fair and random name-drawing for From Our House To Yours is Melissa.  I’ll be contacting you for shipping information, and my thanks to the rest of you for entering.

“From Our House To Yours”

September 18, 2010

The weather’s crummy, school’s started, can cold and flu season be far behind? The whole premise of From Our House To Yours: Comfort Food To Give And Share is that you can be a better friend by bringing homemade treats to people who need them.  And really, isn’t that all of us?

This book is a compilation of recipes from, as the cover says “more than 50 leading chefs and authors, including Marion Cunningham, Gerald Hirigoyen, Loretta Keller, Flo Braker, and James McNair….recipes that are as soothing to make as they are to give…..easy to make and transport, and simple to reheat and serve.”

Do recipes like Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls, French Shepherd’s Pie with Celery Root and Potato Topping, Italian Risotto Frittata, Baked Conchiglione with Spinach-Ricotta Filling, Tajine of Lamb with Prunes, Mom’s Meatball-Stuffed Peppers, Autumn Rice with Red Peppers and Pine Nuts, Erna’s Make-In-Your-Sleep Raspberry Rice Pudding, and Mile-High Lemon Angel Food Cake with Lemon Glaze appeal to you? Know someone who loves and needs slightly upscale comfort food?  Then this book was written for you.

So if you’re ready to get comfortable in the kitchen, just leave a comment saying so.  If several people would like this book, I’ll put your names in a mixing bowl, give them a good stir, and draw one.  I’ll send it to you and I’ll ask you to pay for the postage, if you can, via PayPal.  For security and anti-spam reasons, please don’t put your email address or snail mail address in the Comments section.  When you comment I see your email address and I’ll contact you soon if I draw your name.  Give this book a good home, make something delicious from it, and I’ll be happy.

Orcas In The Mist

September 15, 2010

Here’s a little photo essay for you about our day of whale watching, lots of it spent in a pea soup fog, some of it sculpted.

Our friend Barry is visiting from France and had never seen whales, so we decided to head up to Port Townsend to try to see some orcas.

Our first couple of hours out on the water we could barely see our own wake.

Even the birds couldn’t see to fly in the fog.

Our captain was piloting by instruments alone, with perhaps a little help from the hula spirits.

There had been reports of orcas around the west side of San Juan Island, and as we approached the fog began to lift a little.

Finally a couple of orcas surfaced, not too near us, paying us no attention at all.

This is when I discovered that my sexy new camera really needs a telephoto lens, but still.  An orca is an orca, even dimly seen in the mid-distance. The whooshing ruffle of their breathing is one of the best sounds in the natural world, and fog didn’t interfere with that a bit.

Leaving the orcas to their own meal plan, we headed into Friday Harbor for lunch.  Shel and Barry wanted to have the chocolate whale on a stick, but they were all sold out for the season.

It was gorgeously sunny by the time we got into Friday Harbor.

It’s a bustling harbor with craft of every shape and size

but it retains a lovely tranquility.

I think it’s one of the prettiest spots in the northwest,

the kind of place where anything might happen.

By the time we pulled back into Port Townsend the sun was shining there too, and we got to show Barry its trademark quirky architecture,

although they really need to underground those utility lines.

The architecture’s not the only quirky thing about Port Townsend!

And so our day on Puget Sound’s beautiful waters came to an end,

but we had no regrets, because the next boat we board will be taking us on our great adventure through the Panama Canal.

High Hopes

September 13, 2010

Cats are generally inscrutable, but I have a suspicion that Beppo is thinking that he and Shel’s guitar are going on a cruise together through the Panama Canal, nestled cosily against the blue plush lining that’s held up so well for the past40 years.  Or maybe he thinks that if he stays in Shel’s guitar case he’ll get the place to himself and travel far and wide sans guitar.  But alas for Beppo, and Zazou, it’s the guitar that’s going to be doing the cruising, whilst they cool their furry little heels at home.

Of course we wouldn’t let the guitar go on such a long journey all by itself, so we’re going with it.  We’ve never been on a cruise, we’ve both always dreamed of seeing the Panama Canal, and we’re taking the plunge. In less than two weeks we’ll be sailing southwards, visiting tiny bits of Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and then spending a long sweet day locking through the mighty canal.

I plan to bring you all with me.  Not in the guitar case, of course, because Beppo has first dibs, but through the magic of satellite communications. Out there above the star-sparkled skies of the tropics are the satellites that will keep us in touch, as we discover what it’s like when dreams really do come true.  I hope you’ll be along for the ride.

Chile Verde, Muy Delicioso!

September 10, 2010

It takes a whole day to make this pork chile verde, the best I’ve ever tasted in my life.  Plus, if you can manage it, another day to let it rest.  Or, if you’re like me, it might even take a couple of weeks.

You start by making homemade chicken broth, and although I always have a bag of roasted chicken bones in my freezer, sometimes it takes a while to accumulate enough to make a really good broth.  I’m almost convinced that the broth is the secret of this dish, so don’t skimp on the bones, don’t add any sort of vegetables or herbs, just make the richest, most chickeny broth you can.  And don’t bother skimming the fat from the broth, you’ll get a chance to do that later.

Get yourself a huge pile of tomatillos and poblanos, and the best pork butt you can find.  These days I’m hooked on the awesome pork I get from Rain Shadow Meats in Seattle, but any sort of farm-raised pork will do,

just be sure it is very well-marbled.  Cut the pork into three-bite-sized pieces, as the meat will fall apart as it gets more tender, especially if you choose to chill it over night and reheat it before serving, which I recommend if you have the time. And please, don’t trim the fat.  If fat bothers you you’ll have ample opportunity to remove it later.

When you brown the meat there’s no need to get it really dark, just an appetizing golden brown will do perfectly.  And although I’m normally not a fan of wearing gloves in the home kitchen, this is the perfect dish for gloves. You’re going to be cutting up a lot of peppers, some of which will be hot, and tomatillos are kind of sticky and icky to work with anyway, so go ahead and succumb to feeling like a wuss, don your gloves before tackling the poblanos, jalapenos, and tomatillos, and you’ll be glad you did.

It’s true that this dish is a lot of work, but the recipe serves 12-15 easily when served with a few other Mexican sides, so you can make it for a party and make all of your guests very happy.  Personally I’m planning never to make another chile verde recipe, as this one absolutely thrills me.  And since I’ve made it three times in the last few weeks, I feel pretty confident when I say that this is likely to be the best chile verde you’ve ever had as well.  But if, just if, you have a recipe that’s even better, please post it here.  It’s one instance where I’d love to be wrong, if it would mean that even more stellar chile verde would find its way onto my table.

Heavenly Pork Chile Verde*

6 pounds pork butt or shoulder
3 T canola oil
2 large yellow onions
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tsp whole cumin seed
9 cups homemade chicken broth
8 fresh poblano chile peppers, seeded and chopped
2 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
3 pounds fresh tomatillos, husks removed
1 bunch cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Cut the meat into chunks about the size of three bites each.
Working in small batches, brown the meat in the oil until light golden brown. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, lightly brown the onions, seasoned with the salt and pepper, until onions are tender and golden. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or two. Add the cumin and stir for another minute.
Return the pork to the pot and add the chicken stock. Simmer for 1/2 hour.
While the meat is simmering, seed and chop the poblanos and jalapenos, husk, and rinse the tomatillos.  When the half hour of simmering is up, stir in the poblanos and  jalapenos. Puree the tomatillos and cilantro in the food processor, and add the purée to the pot. Simmer an additional 11/2 hours.
You may serve the chile verde at this point, but it’s even better the next day. If you chill the stew overnight, you can scoop off the fat that rises to the top before reheating the chile verde very slowly.

The Problem with Portland

September 5, 2010

No, that picture has nothing to do with food, or France, but it has a lot to do with fun and frivolity.  It’s the top of an ancient single-cylinder motorcycle engine that powers an equally-ancient single-seat racing car.

Guest blogger and husband Shel here, if you haven’t already guessed.  Abra wouldn’t touch this subject with a bargepole.

But I digress.

For a Seattleite, the Problem with Portland is that it is a very cool city.  Cool but inconveniently located.  It’s about a hundred miles south of Seattle, but there’s so much traffic on the Interstate that it’s at least a three-hour drive. You can fly, of course, but what with the drive to the airport and being there early enough for a leisurely strip-search, it takes as long to fly as to drive.

Then there’s Amtrak.  While a lot of their long-haul trains can be spectacularly off-schedule, the Cascades service that runs up and down the Northwest coast generally isn’t.  The on-board food is forgettable, but it’s clean and comfortable, the price is right, and, best of all, the three hours you spend reading on the train is not spent behind the wheel on I-5 dodging semis and wondering which one has your number.

But I digress.

I went to Portland to see my son and look at some old cars.  Since it was the All-British Field Meet and Classic Races at Portland International Raceway, Eric was outnumbered about three-hundred-to-one by the cars.   He held up manfully, none-the-less.  We both like old British cars.  I like them in spite of my ownership experience; he likes ’em … well, I don’t know why. Maybe he has a secret fear that, unless he has a car that leaks oil, his driveway will rust.

There were a lot of them, cars, that is, both racers, like this Lotus Elan from the ‘sixties…

… as well as daily-driver rarities like this early-seventies MGC …

… or this twenty-first century “Aero” Morgan …

… or, for you Hitchhiker’s Guide fans, this late-thirties Ford Prefect pick-up truck …

Of course, few people actually drive cars like that every day.  That would be completely frivolous.  Almost as frivolous as owning and racing an early-fifties, J.A.Prestwich-powered, methanol-burning Cooper racing car …

… an enterprise requiring dedication that borders on insanity.

As a background to the hundreds of cars on display, there were races. Cars of the same era as those on display, primarily pre-1970, circulated the track in packs, adding a background continuo and the occasional visual flash…

The moral to our story is … is … well, OK, there’s no moral to the story, except that there’s really no problem with Portland that moving it north a hundred miles wouldn’t fix, and that having a day in the sunshine looking at interesting things with folks you love can more than make up for a tepid raceway hot dog and an Amtrak microwaved cheeseburger.

News From The Mixing Bowl – We Have a Winner! The winner of the absolutely fair and random name-drawing for A Taste of the Gulf Coast is Rachel Palmer .  I’ll be contacting you for shipping information, and my thanks to the rest of you for entering.

A Tourist At Home

September 1, 2010

I’m sure this happens to you too.  You live someplace beautiful, but you forget to visit the spots all the guidebooks send the tourists to see. Why? Because they’re touristy.  But really, why are places recommended to visitors? Because they’re cool.  Like how often do you get to see Mt. Rainier peeking out from behind a lighthouse? So, resisting the urge to wear a stick-on name tag proclaiming “I live here,” I recently gathered up family and friends and spent half a day at Tillicum Village, on nearby Blake Island.

Blake Island is a classic case of “so near and yet so far.”  It’s just the next island over from where we live, but you can only get there by boat, and the ferry doesn’t go there, so that means your own private boat, which we lack, or a small cruise boat.  The Argosy cruise boat was pretty fun, not least because the first announcement over the ship’s loudspeaker was “Hi, My name is Todd* and I’ll be your bartender today.”  I was more interested in who was going to be the Captain, but still, it made for a relaxed boatload of, yes, tourists.

Blake Island is a state park, and it’s much lovelier than I expected.  In fact, I really wanted to walk the path around the island, which takes two or three hours depending how much you dawdle to admire the views and the old growth forest.

But you have to make special arrangements with the boat folks to do that, so I had to be content with half an hour to roam about and soak up some tranquility.  It’s nice to veer off the wider path along the coast of the island and plunge into the forest for a few minutes.  Huge old trees and mossy rocks will be your reward.  What more could you ask?

But the main reason people visit the island is to go to Tillicum Village. How to describe it?  It’s not a re-creation of a native village.  It’s not about or representative of any one Native American tribe. It’s a gauzy overview, a generic but interesting glimpse into Pacific Northwest Native American customs. It’s dumbed down, in that it’s not scholarly or deeply authentic.  It’s worth going to anyway, it’s a nice little easily digestible morsel of life as it once might have been in this part of the world, and it’s pretty tasty. It’s expensive. It has a gift shop where there are some things you actually might want to buy. It’s fun.

When you dock at the island you’re greeted by this totem pole, and a cupful of the most delicious clams in nectar that you’re ever likely to taste.  I mean, stupendously good and garlicky clams, and lots of ’em. You sit outside for a few minutes with your clams and the glorious views, and then you go inside for lunch.

The main deal here is the alder-smoked salmon, which comes to the table both juicy and smoky, not an easy thing to achieve. There’s a very nice buffet of fresh salads and side dishes to go with the salmon, and if you ask in advance they’ll make a vegetarian entrée for you.  It’s a good lunch, and copious. When I told the server that I needed a lot of salmon because I don’t really eat carbs, and begged for some of the crispy skin, he piled the salmon cheeks onto my plate.  “The best part” he said to me, and I have to agree.  If you go, ask for cheeks.

Next you see a surprisingly elaborately staged show, which is billed as dancing.  What it really is could better be described as a museum in motion. The Village owns some truly impressive dance masks, and some gorgeous blankets and costume elements.  They put people on stage with these treasures, and call what they’re doing dancing, but it’s more like modeling. The people are there to show you the artifacts, and with all the lighting, elaborate set, narration, and music, it makes a good overall impression.  Just don’t go expecting to see real dancing.

The Village building itself is attractive and attractively decorated

and there’s a small museum room with carvings, masks, and totems.

The allotted time is short, and before you know it you’re back on the dock waiting for the boat.  My advice is, if you want to spend more time on the island, go out at lunchtime.  Take a picnic.  Wander around the island until dinner time.  Go in for the dinner and evening show and go back on the late boat.  You are allowed to do this, but you must tell the boat crew before you leave the boat that you won’t be coming back until later, otherwise they’ll think you’re lost in the wilds of Blake Island.

So there you have it, a fun thing to do whether you’re just visiting Seattle, or live here but have never been willing to be a tourist in your own town. Make a day of it, and don’t forget the cheeks!

*names have been changed to protect the guilty