Hershey Bar

It was a summer camp field trip and I’d been eating crummy food for what seemed like forever; I must have been about 10 or 11 years old. It may even have been the year I ran away from camp, an ill-fated adventure that ended with several of us renegades walking a very long way back to the camp in the dark. Scary. And who knows, maybe the candy bar started it all.

On the field trip we’d gone to a swimming pool, and after our swim we were all hungry and no doubt craving sugar or carbs. Two young counselors had a Hershey bar that had melted in the heat of the day, and they sat on a bench in front of us—I can still see them in my mind, lanky wet hair hanging over their faces—wiping melted chocolate off the paper and licking their fingers til every drop was gone, as we wee things stood salivating.

I don’t even like Hershey bars, but to this day I remember those girls every time I see one. This must be a little taste (sic) of the way those who don’t have enough to eat constantly feel. They see people all around them living well-fed lives, and they are struggling just to survive and feed their children. Are we all those mean girls?

Et Voila Salsa Dinner

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I used to play the salsa lottery. When you buy salsa in the market, you just never know what you’re going to get. Will it be too hot or too bland? Will the tomatoes be tasty, sweet and organic or mealy and flavorless? Will there be enough onion and cilantro? I like plenty of cilantro. Once you realize how easy it is to make your own salsa, you may never buy it again.

Ingredients:
• At least two fabulous tomatoes, chopped into small pieces. The best are organic heirloom, but they aren’t always available, especially in winter. So in winter I usually buy organic cherry tomatoes, which they even sell in Trader Joe’s, or Italian plum tomatoes. Don’t waste your money buying hot house tomatoes—I’ve yet to find one with any flavor.
• About 1/4 to 1/2 of a medium-sized yellow onion, chopped fine
• A bunch of cilantro, leaves stripped from stems for the most part, and chopped
• 1/2 jalapeno chili, seeds out, minced (you have to taste a tiny bit, see how hot it is, to know how much to add)
• 1/2 one of those smaller, dark green hot chilis, seeds out, minced (ditto, but very, very tiny)*
• 1/2 ripe avocado, cut into small chunks
• salt to taste (shouldn’t need much)

You’ll notice the emphasis on small pieces. That’s so you can get a little bit of everything into each scoop.

Mix all of these things together, get out a corn chip, and taste test. Then you can add more of whatever seems to be needed.

If it’s good to go, pop open a tall one et voila, you have a light and delicious chips and salsa (salad!) dinner.

* Be very careful to wash your hands thoroughly after working with chilis. If you happen to rub your eyes and have chili oil on your hands, it really feels nasty.

PS I don’t know why this program flipped my lovely photo on its side. I’ll try to find someone who can help me fix it.

Et Voila Berry Custard Pie

Sometimes Mondays can be difficult. You’ve had a lovely, relaxing weekend, good times with friends, not a care in the world, and suddenly it’s back to being focused and getting things accomplished. Of course you feel great when you do that, but the process of putting one foot in front of the other and getting the energy moving takes a big push. For that you deserve your just desserts, including this ridiculously easy berry custard pie.

You’ll need:
One frozen unbaked pie crust,* defrosted (look for one that has no hydrogenated fats if possible)
One package vanilla pudding mix, preferably from a natural foods store so it has less sugar and no chemicals
2 regular or 3 small containers fresh blueberries, raspberries, blackberries or combo** (organic if possible, natch)

Follow the directions on the package of pudding. Low-fat milk works fine, and unsweetened coconut milk would probably work fine, too. After the cooking part (which involves just stirring over heat), while it’s chilling and getting more firm, you can put together your pie crust.

Hopefully you’ve taken the pie crust out of the freezer about an hour before you started. If you haven’t, do not microwave! You can always roll the pieces together with a rolling pin if it breaks apart when you unwrap it, and I like to roll it anyway so it’s a little thinner on bottom, a little thicker around the edge. If the pie crust came between two pieces of wax paper, leave the paper on while you gently roll it a couple of times. If no wax paper, lightly sprinkle a breadboard or marble surface (your kitchen counter would also work) with flour. You have mom’s marble rolling pin, and if you chill the actual rolling pin before you roll, it helps it not to stick. Press the edges around the edge of the pie pan. You can make a cute design by pressing the prongs of a fork all around the edge.

When the crust is cool and the pudding is firm, fill the crust, scatter berries on top, et voila! Everybody will want a second slice.

* Homemade pie crust is surprisingly easy too, just takes a little longer. We’ll talk about that another time.

** Berry washing anti-crush hint: Fill a bowl with cool water and drop them in, then gently drain in a colander.

Et Voila Pesto

Basil is the easiest thing in the world to grow, you can even buy a small plant in the grocery store, just needs sun and water. If it starts to bolt (get little flowers on the top) just pinch them off. I like to sprinkle the pinches in the garden in hopes a volunteer will spring up, but so far, hasn’t happened. But whether you grow your own basil or buy it in the produce section, pesto is the perfect summer dinner over pasta, with a salad and warm baguette.

Mix together in a blender or Cuisinart:
• 2 cups of clean basil leaves
• 1/3 cup olive oil
• 3 to 4 peeled* and chopped (!)** cloves of garlic, depending on their size and how garlicky you like it
• 1/3 cup lightly toasted pignoli (pine) nuts***

Blend only as long as necessary. Do not heat.

Cook about half a pound of pasta for two people—read directions on the box and test it at about a minute before they say is enough time. IMHO De Cecco is the best grocery store pasta. I prefer spaghettini, not too thin, not too thick. Cappelini is too thin for this sauce, and spaghetti and linguini are too carby for my taste. Do not rinse the pasta after it cooks, no matter what any well-meaning person tells you.

Drain the pasta and put it on plates. Spoon about a tablespoon of pesto sauce on top (a little goes a long way), sprinkle with parmesan cheese**** and perhaps red pepper flakes (especially for your dad), et voila!

Serve on the porch!

* The best garlic peeler I’ve found is a soft rubber tube. You insert the clove and roll it on the counter, then shake it out et voila, the skin comes off.
** Chopped is important because a blender won’t chop it fine enough and you could end up with big gag-me chunks of garlic in your pasta.
*** Pignoli nuts can be toasted in the toaster oven very briefly, watch closely cause they burn quickly. If you can’t find them at a market near you, you can substitute walnuts or experiment with other nuts. You can also make pesto without nuts, but that added flavor and texture is yummy.
**** Reggiano is the best parmesan cheese, pricier but worth it.

Et Voila Pancakes

Weekend mornings are perfect for sleeping in, taking the dogs for a walk (or a roll in Cedric’s case), and making a big pancake breakfast. Maple syrup is essential in my book,* and this does not mean maple-flavored syrup, so throw out any Aunt Jemima or similar that may be lurking in your cupboard. You want what is known as “real maple syrup,” but that is a misnomer. It’s just “maple syrup,” the other stuff should be labeled “fake maple syrup.” (Is milk “real milk”? Are apples “real apples”? I rest my case.)

Get out your maple syrup (the container should be refrigerated after it’s been opened) and pour some into a small saucepan so it’s all ready to heat up as the pancakes get close to being done.

Also, if you have half of a very ripe banana, you can mash it thoroughly and add it to the batter. You’ll want to add that to the wet ingredients before you combine them with the dry ingredients. Or if you have fresh raspberries or blueberries, wash some (maybe half a cup), dry them thoroughly, and toss them in just before putting the batter in the pan.

Most of the time we prefer thin pancakes that are more like French crepes. The recipe I’ve adapted from The Joy of Cooking (my copy’s covers are off and it is falling apart from repeated use since college) is as follows:

* Sift 3/4 cup flour (I like to use half whole wheat pastry and half white, but you could also experiment with spelt)**
* Resift with 1/8 tsp salt and
1 tsp double-acting baking powder (look for a brand with no aluminum!)

* Beat 2 any-size eggs (preferably free-range, meaning the chickens weren’t cooped up and probably had a happier life)
* Add and beat
2/3 cup any kind of milk
1/3 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (much better than vanilla “flavor”)

Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients with just a few swift strokes of your whisk, getting out the big lumps. But don’t overstir!

** Turn on the syrup now, on low to medium heat.

Heat a medium nonstick buttered pan (best to use unsalted butter), heat should be moderate, you won’t want the butter browning before you put the batter in. You can test it by sprinkling a few drops of water on the pan, if they bounce it is ready. Pour about 1/4 cup of batter in and swirl it around till it makes a nice big circle. It cooks pretty quickly since it is so thin, so keep an eye on it and flip it over when it starts to turn golden on the bottom.

Serve with plenty of warm syrup.

Et voila! Yummy pancake breakfast!

* If you prefer, you can alternatively make a sauce out of berries mashed with a little water and sugar and heated till it thickens. Or use good quality fruit jam.

** Notes about purchasing flour: Since it is a grain, it can go rancid. Buy any whole grain product in a place where there is good turnover and it’s likely to be fresh. If the health food store, ask them! I keep all my flour in the refrigerator in their paper bags within a plastic bag, so I can just open the top of both bags at once and dig in with my measuring cup.

Et Voila Cooking — Roasted salmon with balsamic raspberry jalapeno sauce

Et Voila Cooking* is based on the concept that you can pull together a few high quality ingredients and make a dinner that is, if not magnificent, at least reasonably tasty and nutritious. It is a work in progress that I am creating for my lovely niece, Caroline Grace Williams, who has requested some cooking guidance. My food preparation is very simple, and once she realizes exactly how simple, she will, as my daughter has done, leave me in the dust on this front. She’ll also realize how often I repeat the things I prepare and get so bored that she’ll want to create her own unique dishes (or, perish the thought, grab something at Mickey D’s).

So the first rule of good cooking and good eating is high quality ingredients. You can make a much more delicious meal in your own kitchen than you can get in 90 percent of the local eateries just by buying good quality food. We’ll talk more about this as we go along.

Tonight, for example, I’m preparing salmon roasted with balsamic raspberry jalapeno sauce, with mashed potatoes and salad. The salmon is wild caught and hasn’t been frozen, so it costs a little more (but still way less than it would in a restaurant, about $11 for two people). The sauce is made by combining my favorite balsamic vinegar (and there is a wide range of quality in balsamic, you want aged and my favorite brand is Napa Valley) with raspberry jam (I use Bonne Maman) and chopped jalapeno (about half a teaspoon, maybe 1/4, depends how hot it is). Place the salmon (half to 2/3 pounds) in the center of a piece of foil, poke a few fork holes in the fish, spread the sauce on top, fold over the edges to close it up, and pop it in the toaster oven at 375° for about 15 minutes (you’ll notice I’m very approximate in my timings, bad quality for a chef!).

If you don’t like salmon, this would also work fine with chicken breasts, but they would have to cook a bit longer. Slice them in half across the flat side so they don’t take forever and get crunchy on the edges while still raw in the middle.

Meanwhile, cut up some potatoes, preferably small red or Yukon gold, into chunks and put in boiling water. When they are tender, drain and add milk and/or butter and mash to perfection. Tonight we have only buttermilk in the fridge so that’s what I’ll be using. Plain coconut milk or almond milk also works fine, but not vanilla flavored… too sweet for a savory dish.

We’re also having salad… chopped up lettuce, carrots and green pepper with a dressing made of olive oil and… here it is again, balsamic vinegar (love that stuff). But you could use something from a bottle just as easily, at least til you start to get the hang of this.

Et voila!

*The name Et Voila Cooking is based on a frequent comment by my esteemed brother-in-law Richard Williams, MD.

What Is It about Breasts?

As the proud owner of a pair of thankfully healthy and intact, very average size though definitely feeling the force of gravity breasts that seem to coordinate reasonably well with the rest of my body, I have to confess my complete confusion over why 296,000 American women had cosmetic breast augmentation last year. What is it about breasts? Who decided bigger is better?

Yesterday on my Southwest flight from Oakland one of the flight attendants had almost certainly undergone augmentation and it was nearly impossible to notice any other part of her being. I think she was in her 40s or 50s—I can’t be sure because she was wearing a yellow shirt and with the light reflected off those gigantic knockers I could hardly see anything else—which is why I’m pretty sure she’d had help, because nobody over 40 has huge bosoms that are that perky without help. And I think she was nice but I can’t be sure because I was trying so hard not to stare at her gigantic protuberance that I couldn’t really focus on our conversation.

You may think I’m sour grapes but I’ve been there, done that, and it wasn’t my idea of fun. I went on birth control pills for a short time back in the day before they had perfected the chemistry (at least as much as they have yet) and my breasts suddenly jumped two cup sizes. I did not enjoy having to buy dresses two sizes larger to accommodate my ample bosom, and I certainly didn’t enjoy the fact that nobody looked me in the eyes for a couple of years.

Surgical reconstruction? Definitely. Raisins on a breadboard? Sure, I can see it. But for the average-sized healthy-breasted woman? I just don’t get it.

Makings of a Saint

In the Catholic religion in which I was raised, the pope was second only to God, not just here on earth but in the entire universe. Sometimes even true believers wonder if God is really listening to them. They can’t understand why they would be visited by tsunamis, nuclear explosions, and horrible accidents or illness. Fortunately I’ve not had to endure the first of those two, though in California we’ve had our share of natural disasters; still, I have compassion for unreasonable suffering. I also resent the loss of dear friends and relatives long before their time, while others who are clearly unkind, selfish and destructive continue to live full lives. For example, top level employees at BP continue to rake in millions; we hear of no repercussions for those who built the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear facilities; political donors (and the politicians themselves) who steadfastly obstruct natural energy alternatives that wouldn’t cause climate change make fistfuls of dollars, directly or indirectly, from the oil industry.

Now there is a pope about to be beatified, which in Catholic jargon means he’s already being considered a saint and the Vatican is just going through the formalities. There are many who must be incensed by this, particularly those who get no assistance from the uber-wealthy Vatican (only directives about birth control and tithing) and the many who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands and other body parts of the clergy. Pope John Paul ll seemed a nice enough guy, but he was in power throughout all the now-coming-to-light sexual abuse and did nothing to stop it. Let’s be honest: sexual abuse by the clergy has likely been rampant since maybe ten minutes after Peter, ostensibly the first disciple, took leadership of the religion, but it’s difficult to prove with all witnesses deceased. However, in the age of the Internet we know at least some of what John Paul did. We know he turned a blind eye to sexual abuse.

Just as almost everybody born before 1973 knew somebody who died in Viet Nam, almost everybody born before 2005, when John Paul ll died, knows somebody who was abused by the clergy during his reign. You may not know you know that person, but you do. And if you know that person well, you know that beatification of JP ll is completely and utterly wrong. Any good he did is outweighed by the damage he allowed to continue to be inflicted on innocent children.

4-24-11 Annual Shout Out

Hello out there to anybody who happens to stumble upon my blog. I don’t come here very often these days because I’m so busy editing and writing for Whole Life Times, and editing books for Inner Traditions and various individual, fascinating authors. It’s no surprise I’m immersed in reading materials. I was raised in a family that valued books and would never tell me the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Rather, they insisted, “Look it up in the dictionary,” and indeed, Webster’s lay splayed open on the antique reading stand at all times, perhaps in the p’s at pusillanimous or peregrination, or the u’s at ubiquitous or ululate. Funny the words we remember.

To this day I savor finding unfamiliar words in whatever book I might be reading. Last night I started T. C. Boyle’s newest novel, When the Killing’s Done, and was delighted to write down two words to look up in the first 40 pages, along with something called the Lombard effect, which should make me sound extremely erudite the next time I’m in a noisy restaurant. That is, if anybody can hear me above the din.

It’s Easter Sunday, which was more meaningful when I was a child or raising a child, but now is just a lovely day in a backyard filled with geraniums, roses, bougainvillea, and a fragrant lavender-colored perennial that I keep meaning to bring to the nursery for help with identifying. There are even giant golden-yellow shoots from the aloe plants, a favorite of the hummingbirds.

Whatever else Easter may represent in the dominant religions, I perceive it as a time of rebirth, of rising from the gooey, sticky stuff we often find ourselves immersed in as a culture or individuals. New Year’s is traditionally the time for resolutions and new beginnings — often gone down the tubes by April. Perhaps such resolutions would be more successful if we stuck with the natural cycle and spent the colder, darker months devoted to the preparation that would allow us to blossom in the spring.

3-26-10 Spring Comes to L.A.

My friends in colder climes scoff at the idea of spring in a part of the world that seems perpetually April-May, but they haven’t sat on my back patio, pants rolled above the knees to absorb vitamin D and color into lily white legs, gazing out over a lush and vibrant, albeit small, backyard. This is the green that hospitals and mental wards strive for, a tranquil, complex green that simultaneously draws my gaze and returns itself to me — not that pea green that always seems to coat institutional walls.

Somehow we’ve managed to add four trees to the five that were here when we settled in 10 years ago. Our orange tree, which took several disappointing years to grant us any fruit, is now covered with fragrant blossoms. If a strong Santa Ana wind doesn’t blow the baby oranges off again this year, we’ll have a sunny and abundant crop.

These are the days I love living in Southern California.