Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We need a bunker

This is a terrible story. 

As longtime readers may recall, we used to let our chickens range freely through our fenced yard. But in October a dog broke in and killed five of our hens. After that, we built a protected chicken run where we enclose the birds when we are not around. 

Like yesterday. Yesterday, my sister and I took care of business related to the upcoming memorial for our mother. For instance, we bought a casket, paid for the chapel, and went to meet the deacon who will be officiating at the funeral.
We were discussing biblical readings with this nice, grandfatherly man at his office when my cell phone rang. A neighbor reported that two terriers had broken into our yard and somehow penetrated our locked chicken coop.
When I got home shortly thereafter, the police, a representative of the Humane Society, and various appalled neighbors were standing around in our sideshow of a yard. The dogs had been sent home and onlookers had very courteously stuffed the ten -- ten -- dead chickens into bulging Hefty bags. Our favorite chickens all died. Alberta Einstein (see above), whom Owen was going to show at the Marin County Fair in a few months, perished; so did July; so did our two cuckoo Marans. It's a mystery how the terriers got into the coop. The only breach in the perimeter was a strip of chicken wire ripped off an impossibly tiny gap in the elevated main door of the hen house. But then they're tiny dogs. According to onlookers, they showed remarkable teamwork, one of them herding, the other killing. And, of course, the chickens had nowhere to fly, nowhere to hide, stuck as they were in their coop.

We have legal options which I am seriously considering this time. I don't want to be a nasty, vindictive neighbor, but the owners of the dogs broke the law and as a result we lost not just property, but our much loved pets. The dogs didn't dash out and do this while the owner was looking the other direction. According to one neighbor, they'd been running around loose for three hours. They had plenty of time to strategize and storm that coop. 

We have a handful of chickens left. When I picked him up after school, Owen wept furiously and said he wants to get more as soon as possible. I loved our chickens, but I'm deeply discouraged and unsure whether I can stand more heartbreak.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My mom

Although she couldn't eat and was frequently incoherent after she came home from the hospital 10 days ago, my mother often asked for a tiny cup of coffee. Overjoyed that she actually wanted something, we made the coffee, even knowing she wouldn't drink it. She'd clutch the hand-made mug (she was a potter) in her bony, jaundiced fingers and attempt to bring it to her lips, usually hitting somewhere in the middle of her chin. Then she would just lie there, fingers laced around the warm cup, eyes shut. I worried she would fall asleep, spill the hot coffee and burn herself. I would try to extract the mug from her hands. The other day when I thought she was dozing, she said, "I'm going to do this for 45 minutes just to drive you crazy."

I would say she was as funny as ever in her final days, except it's not precisely true: She was funnier.

On Tuesday, she again requested coffee. Then she mumbled, "newspaper." I brought in the day's Wall Street Journal (she was an obsessive WSJ reader) and propped it up on her tented legs. She tried to put on her owlish red glasses, but had lost the ability, so I did it for her. For 20 minutes she sat there absolutely still, clutching the coffee, newspaper propped up, sunken eyes closed. It was pitiful, but it was valiant, and it's the last image of my beautiful, exuberant mother that I will remember with any pleasure. After that, all I saw was the cancer.

She died early Friday morning, my aunt and sister holding her hands. She was ready to die -- she'd said it many times -- and I am glad for her that she is free.

I am not glad for myself. I used to call her every day, often more than once. I keep having the urge to pick up the phone, an urge I think is only going to get stronger as everyday life starts up again. Talking to my mother was my everyday life.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An update

My mother's health, already shaky, took a precipitous and irreversible turn for the worse this week. If my flight to Israel had not been canceled, I would have been there these past few days, not here. The cancellation of that flight, so disappointing at the time, was a blessing in disguise, one of the biggest blessings of my life.

This is a very hard time, but my mother is surrounded by people who love her -- my sister and me, my aunt, my grandmother. And countless friends. No one has more friends than my ebullient and warm-hearted mother. She will go home later today. I probably won't post again until it is through.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oh well

I was correct about the traveling weather. My flight to Israel was canceled last night, as was every other flight out of JFK, which made for the gnarliest airport scene I've ever witnessed. The fact that we'd all traveled to the airport through the raging storm made it impossible to lay all the blame on Delta, tempting though that always is. They couldn't book me on another flight until Tuesday, which was too late. Meanwhile they lost my brand new suitcase, which contains all my brand new traveling clothes.

I was ridiculously excited about this trip. It was a tour arranged by the great Jewish food writer Joan Nathan and it was designed for American food writers. Everything but the airfare was paid for by an Israeli agency. Sometimes when I was stressed this winter, which was often, I would lie down on the sofa and reread the itinerary and think, well, this may be sad and hard, but soon I will be touring a Tel Aviv spice market.

The trip just wasn't meant to be. There were signs all along, and after pouting for 12 hours, I've accepted this. I have a nice place to stay in NYC until I can retrieve my suitcase and get a flight back to California. Today, I'm going to buy a toothbrush, see Inglorious Basterds, finish The Help, and take the train to Brooklyn to finally eat some Di Fara pizza. Just typing that last sentence, I'm all cheered up.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Up in the air

I've been in New York for some meetings, which always requires a big mental readjustment. I used to find NYC agitating and overly intense, but now I find it deeply restful, as all my most pressing obligations are on another coast. The other day, when I was in the middle of a meeting, I got a call on my cell phone from a neighbor telling me that seven of our chickens were running around on the street back in California. My heart sank. I love those silly chickens. I explained my situation to the neighbor and she agreed to catch them and toss them over the fence into our yard. Her exact words: "It will be an adventure." We have very nice neighbors.

Two hours later my husband called and bellowed, "I came home and our yard is full of chickens that don't belong to us." He sorted it all out, returned the wandering chickens to their rightful owner. He's not a fan of chickens, but he's a very nice husband.

Today, I ordered an obscenely large pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli. It was sort of raucous and fun and touristy, but I just can't eat that much pastrami anymore. I would have wrapped up the pound-and-a-half of leftover fatty pink meat and rye bread and carried it cross-country to the chickens, but I'm actually supposed to fly to Israel tonight. It's a food-oriented trip, so I'll try to post daily about goat farms and spice markets, and will resume Pioneer Woman when I return.

Although. This weather. It's raining and gusting pretty violently out there and I have a hard time believing that a plane can take off into this muck.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chickens are such attention hogs

I had been neglecting our bees. For the first time in a few months, I went into the hives yesterday afternoon and found gallons of honey, but not a single bee. I had been scrupulously leaving the honey for them to enjoy over the winter, but apparently that was unnecessary. So I removed a frame and manually extracted the honey by scooping the comb into a cheesecloth and squeezing it into a bowl which was, as you can imagine, a colossal, sticky mess. I did manage to extract a pint and a half and it's delicious honey. If the bees were alive, I'd be disgustingly smug.

Given our substantial investment in bee infrastructure, I'm going to order more bees and try again this spring. If I can keep them alive for an entire year, maybe I'll buy a honey extractor. 

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Meat & ketchup

I'm not going to ding the Pioneer Woman for adding sugar to her ketchup-based comfort meatball sauce because yesterday was long and hard and these soft, fluffy meatballs were the nicest part. Not just super-easy to make, but delicious. I have been hard on Pioneer Woman. I realize that I don't find bland, creamy foods (chicken pot pie, chicken spaghetti) tasty or comforting, I find them silly. But give me some slow-cooked red meat in a sweet tomato sauce and I care a lot less about nutrition, calories, and fake ingredients. Inconsistent, I know.

Not for everyone, this recipe, but we loved it.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Maybe I'm just jealous

As Azure Song pointed out in a recent comment, Pioneer Woman aims straight at the taste buds of American men. She's the dream wife who never scolds, nags or serves brussels sprouts, never drags her spouse to a Cambodian restaurant, Romanian movie, or the ballet. Instead, she fries him up some battered chicken and nicknames him Marlboro Man. 

I like Pioneer Woman, like her lack of pretension and her humor and heart. But sometimes she bugs me. Here's the foreword to her breakfast burrito recipe: "If you're looking for fancy chipotle-asiago-chorizo poblano-fancy-o breakfast burritos, you've come to the wrong wife and mother. And I've tried that route; believe me, I've tried it. The problem is, my family -- my husband and four children -- just don't like chipotle-asiago-chorizo-poblano-fancy-o stuff."

Wait a minute. Chipotle, asiago, chorizo and poblano aren't really "fancy-o stuff," they're inexpensive Mexican/Italian staples you can find at Safeway, and while you wouldn't want to eat them all together, each on its own is, in my shrewish opinion, more delicious and nutritious than, say, cream of mushroom soup. Moreover, I'd sooner put poblano and chorizo in a burrito than frozen hash browns (per PW's recipe), not because I'm "fancy-o" but because I think the burrito would taste better.  C'mon, Pioneer Woman, lead your timid family into some new culinary frontiers! You're making the rest of us look bad.

I'm not sure Pioneer Woman's rustic flat apple pie, which I baked the other night, was as man-pleasing as her usual fare. It's essentially apples and sugar folded in a free-form crust. PW seems to realize this is rather austere and elegant, maybe even healthy, and offers a suggestion: "For extra sweetness, drizzle on jarred caramel topping after removing the pie from the oven."

This chick does not fight fair. 

Friday, March 05, 2010

Pioneer Woman vs. Thomas Keller

Since both Pioneer Woman and Thomas Keller have published recipes for chicken pot pie, and given they occupy opposite ends of the culinary spectrum,  I thought it would be illuminating to bake their pies and compare. So we held a pot pie party the other night. One Safeway rotisserie chicken yielded enough meat for both pies.

Unsurprisingly, the pot pie from Pioneer Woman Cooks was a breeze to make, as Ree Drummond is all about the breeziness. You saute vegetables (frozen peas, carrots, celery, onion) in butter, toss in some flour, shredded chicken, broth, a bouillon cube, and cream. Briefly simmer, then pour into a pie plate. Pioneer Woman calls for just a top crust, which she makes with flour, shortening, and an egg. I did not enjoy working with this sticky, unwieldy dough  and would not use her crust recipe again.  Total number of pots, bowls, and other cooking vessels PW calls for: 3.  

Unsurprisingly, the pot pie from Ad Hoc At Home was painstaking, as Thomas Keller is all about the pains. You blanch vegetables (potatoes, carrots, celery, pearl onions) in four separate saucepans, then make a bechamel that reduces for 40 minutes (an eternity when you're trying to keep milk from boiling over) and requires much subsequent pot-scouring.  The all-butter double crust, however, was very straightforward and user-friendly. That recipe is a keeper. Number of pots and vessels Keller calls for: 10.

For fun, I also heated a bunch of frozen pot pies.
Sadly, I forgot which was which after I took them out of the boxes so we couldn't really rank them, though it hardly matters. My husband and brother-in-law got all misty gazing at the boxes and reminiscing about their bachelor days, but the frozen pies? Universally nasty. In isolation, I'm sure they taste fine, but sampled side-by-side with homemade pies, they were noisome. As Isabel said, "It's like they have water in them."

That sounds weird now, but in the moment, tasting the storebought pies, I knew exactly what she meant.
She used to wear that little purple suit.

So, both of the homemade pies were hands down more delicious than any of the storebought pies. Deciding which of the homemade pies we liked better presented more of a challenge.
 The crust on Thomas Keller's was flaky, almost like a croissant, very buttery. Everyone loved this crust. There was also unanimous agreement that a pot pie needs a bottom crust, which his has and PW's doesn't. The interior of his pie was firm and cohesive so you could actually cut it into neat slices, though some critics thought the filling lacked flavor.
Certainly, by contrast with PW's brashly seasoned pie, Keller's was a bit bland. There was nothing subtle about the flavor of PW's pie, thanks to a bouillon cube, chicken broth, and dried thyme. Whether this was good or bad depends on who you ask. Her pie was also exceedingly runny, called for a ladle rather than a knife. I'll let the tasters speak for themselves:

My mother: "I liked the potatoes in the first one (Keller's), and the crust was unbelievable. But I liked the second one (PW's) very much. They both needed more vegetables."

Justine: "I want the two pies to get married because Thomas Keller crust is fantastic, but I wish it had fewer potatoes and more flavor and was maybe a little runnier." 

Fastidious Isabel, gesturing in disgust at the soupy Pioneer Woman pie: "This is why I don't like chicken pot pie!"

Owen had a similar reaction and refused to even touch the PW pie: "You know I don't like soup."

However, the two adult males at the party, both of whom consider themselves pot pie experts, praised Pioneer Woman's pie.
Brother-in-law: "The critical issues with both of these is they're not in individual portions! They're not supposed to be actual pies, they're SUPPOSED to be soup in a crust."

My husband agreed. I don't have any quotes from him because he was to busy shoveling pie into his mouth. You know what word I detest and can't even use except to say how much I detest it? Pie hole.

We held a vote. Keller got four votes, though Justine was a pretty wobbly supporter. Pioneer Woman got two votes, and there was one abstention. Given that he is Thomas Keller, I think this is a win for Pioneer Woman. Or at the very least, a tie. 

For the record, I was staunchly in the Keller camp. But I was thinking later how very little I love chicken pot pie, even an elegant Thomas Keller pie that involves ten cooking vessels and a 40-minute bechamel. I'd rather consume empty calories in the form of potstickers, cheeseburgers, BLTs, potato chips, manhattans, or blue Shropshire cheese. I'm just not that into chicken pot pie. 

Still, it was a fun party.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mmm mmm, not bad

To make the chicken spaghetti from Pioneer Woman Cooks, you poach chicken, pull the meat off the bones, then boil spaghetti in the broth. Drain spaghetti and mix in a big bowl with pimentos, onions, cream of mushroom soup, the chicken, and a mountain of shredded cheddar cheese. Top with more cheese. Bake. Growing up, I enjoyed many such soft, mild, cheesy casseroles at the home of my paternal grandmother. I always wished my mother, who eschewed processed foods, would take some pointers.
Of course, I have grown up to be just like my mother. Covering that warm, freshly poached chicken with canned ecru sludge made my skin crawl. Did you know Campbell's mushroom soup contains MSG? Until yesterday, I did not.

Everyone liked the casserole, as Pioneer Woman promised. But my husband loved it. He informed me that he's having the leftovers for dinner tonight, which is nice, I guess, though I find his zeal for this foray into old school American cuisine just slightly disconcerting, like I put on a naughty schoolgirl outfit for kicks and now he never wants me to go back to grown-up clothes.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Read this book. Try this chocolate.

I recently read Katharine Weber's excellent new novel True Confections (my review is here) which is narrated, very unreliably, by a woman who works for a fictional New England candy company. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is walking through a candy convention and a representative of Green & Black's offers her a sliver of white chocolate. Her response:

"I said, No thanks, I don't like white chocolate, and he laughed at me, holding out a small square on the tip of his knife, which I took. I put it in my mouth. Ecstasy! Revelation! Incredible mouthfeel! Creamy vanilla pleasure flooded through me. The intense chocolateness of this ambrosial substance was hidden in plain sight. He laughed at me again, holding out another square on the tip of his knife."

This epiphany inspires the narrator to invent a disastrous new candy. This epiphany inspired me to search for Green & Black's white chocolate everywhere I went for almost a month. In vain. I started to doubt its existence until I found a bar at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco last week. I was so happy. Seriously, finding that chocolate made my boring day. Never underestimate the non-trivial pleasure of even a trivial quest. 

And the chocolate? It's not waxy or yellowish, like so much white chocolate, but a rich beige, visibly flecked with vanilla bean. On the flavor of this stupendous chocolate, at least, the narrator of True Confections can be relied: Ecstasy! Revelation! I should have bought ten bars when I had the chance.