Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Hungry Dog

Frannie in Santa Cruz, May 2010

Last Thursday, we lost our sweet Frances. She would have been 15 today.

I'm not sure I can convey exactly how heartbroken the husband and I are. We are devastated, numb, anchorless. 

I have been trying very hard to think of how wonderful her life was, from the moment I picked her out of a litter of wiggly chocolate lab puppies in March 1996. She was eight weeks old.  I was 22 and had just lost my dad. I was looking for something good to focus on.

In a rare moment of life giving you exactly what you need at the right time, I found Frannie. She was happy, curious, sweet, and instantly loving, all the things a puppy should be. She was also highly destructive, chewing shoes and insoles, table corners, remote controls, and computer discs. She ate everything in sight and was unstoppable at the beach, at the park, anywhere she could fetch, run, chase, or swim. She was the friendliest dog on the planet, introducing me to countless people throughout our life together. She was also fiercely loyal and protective. She made me feel safe.

I loved these things that were part of her from the very beginning. But as she got older, I discovered all of the other lovely qualities she had that were even better. She was extremely sensitive, and when I was sad, she would come sit next to me and just stay there quietly. She was generous, welcoming other dogs into the house by dragging out her toys for them to play with, letting them lie on her bed and drink out of her water bowl.

Perhaps above all, she was brave. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time, she went through surgery and chemo with her tail wagging. The staff at the vet's office were amazed by her resilient spirit and cheerful nature. When she had vestibular disease, extreme vertigo which can last for days, she stayed courageously in the hospital for several nights, and afterward put up with wearing a little harness so we could help her navigate slippery spots in the house. Toward the end, we carried her up and down the stairs, which she also put up with, grudgingly.

When the cancer returned in July 2009, when she was 13, we knew we couldn't put her through any more and we decided to all live exuberantly together for as long as she had left. We thought maybe a few months. A year and a half later, she was still going strong.

In fact, Frannie propelled through life full-force until the very end. She enjoyed every single day, going on walks, visiting friends, eating roast chicken and hamburgers. Over the last few months, I started to feel like a short-order cook, frying up a little burger in our cast iron pan every night and then breaking it over her kibble. She would stand very close to me, waiting impatiently, and then wolf down her dinner the way only a labrador can.

And, in spite of how absolutely broken I feel now, I know that she had a wonderful life, and I am proud that we played a part in it. Not because of the surgeries or medicine or all the chickens we roasted for her, but because of the attention we paid to her. Every day of her life, and in particular in the last four and a half years, we showed her we loved her, by petting her soft head, talking to her, taking her places, helping her when she needed it, and letting her do things on her own when she needed that too. If there is one thing I am proud of, it is that I did not squander one single day I had with her. And ultimately, all you have with those you love is time. You cannot save or stockpile days to cash in later; you begin with the clock running, and no matter how valid your reasons or good your intentions, you are losing every second you're not with them.

So I guess I feel grateful, not just to have been with her for so many years--nearly half my life--but that somehow my little pea brain grasped early on that every day was special. 

I don't believe in heaven, but I do like to believe that Frannie's essence is still somewhere in the cosmos, leaving a trail of happiness wherever she goes. She certainly left an indelible mark on this world and on me.

Thank you to my mom, my sister, our dear friends Liz and Neal, Stephanie and Scott, Kami, Amy, Claire, all of the guys at the office--Martin, Randy, Michael, and Earl the hound dog, and everyone at Mission Pet Hospital, not only for making these last few days bearable with your kind words and gestures, but for making Frannie's life so happy. Mostly, thank you to Alby, who just may have loved Frannie as much as I did, and who got me through the worst day of my life. I love you all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Good soup, fussy cook

Now here's a nice little soup for y'all, to get you through the workaday week. Who couldn't use a comforting soup right about now? January always feels long to me. Sure, some of you just had a long weekend. But for those of us punching our own clock, Monday was a work day like plenty of others.

I'm feeling beaten down a bit by the routine, in spite of the fact that my routine is not routine, that it's a heck of a lot better than a lot of people's day-to-day.  But I still have to work to survive, a concept I suspect I will struggle with until the day I exit this world, seeing as I will probably have to work until I drop dead. 

While I find this rather depressing, it's reality. Meanwhile, the husband and I continue to daydream about our inevitable our move to Hawaii, where we will develop a taste for poi, shiver in weather that dips below 70, have dogs with unpronounceable Hawaiian names, and flaunt year-round tans. Please don't tell me that people have to work in Hawaii, or that sometimes they are unhappy: I will surely cry.

So, yeah. I need a vacation. Big time. For now, though, I can take comfort in simple dishes like this one, which was stress-free to put together and delicious to eat. Despite its pedestrian ingredients and rather dull name (sausage, chickpea, and potato soup), this was a hit. I shall certainly make it again, although next time I plan to add some kale or chard; it cried out for a bitter green, both in taste and appearance. Even without it, though, it did the job of soothing my fussy nerves and getting me through another day.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chicken adobo

In keeping with my non-resolution  for the new year, I made something brand new this week, something I have been meaning to make for ages: chicken adobo.

I got the tip-off about this article in the Times from my cousin Joaquin a few days before I saw it in print. By the time that rolled around, I was already committed to making the recipe.

I've made soy sauce chicken dozens of times, which I always think of as similar to adobo--both have that winning sweet-salty combination. But adobo leans heavily on the vinegar. While it does mellow a bit through simmering, you can still taste a little sharpness. I like it.

One thing I left out of this recipe was the chilies. I actually meant to include them--at least one or two--but the store I went to only had big chilies, like anaheims. I actually bought one of these, shrugging to myself in the grocery aisle that what difference would it really make (a lot? none? who cares? I was feeling cavalier), but strangely, when I got home, the chili had escaped my grocery bag. Ran for its hot little life, I guess. So I made the adobo chili-free, which, I have to confess, was fine for me and the husband, as neither of us really goes for the hot food too much.

I loved this recipe. It ended up being a combination of soy sauce chicken and fire and smoke chicken, another favorite. It was my first time working with coconut milk, if you can believe it, and I was a little appalled opening the can. I had neglected to shake it and it stared up at me in a giant clumpy paste. But I turned it out into a bowl and whisked it up a bit which helped considerably.

Not only did I enjoy the flavors of this chicken (marinating for a few hours does wonders), but I have to say it beat my soy sauce chicken in the texture department. After you simmer the chicken for 30 minutes or so, you pull it out and broil it while reducing down the sauce. You may notice that I got a little distracted and let the skin get a bit darker than I might recommend. I forgot how rapidly the broiler can take something from crispy to burnt.

In any case, the chicken was delicious served with plain rice and stir-fried bok choy. The next night it was even better, though, in part because the flavors had further developed, and in part because I made fried rice with the remaining rice, and it's hard to beat any dinner that contains homemade fried rice. I'm sure you'll agree.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Auntie Al's apple cake

This morning, I woke up thinking about apple cake.

It was one of those good wake-up moments, where various good things converged: I'd had a great night's sleep, after several restless ones.  I could tell that it was sunny outside, a welcome change from the recent gray skies. And third, I knew we had no plans for today.

I popped up, leaving the husband to sleep in, stepped over the snoring dog, and tiptoed out to the kitchen. Got the coffee going and set about making my Aunt Alice's apple cake.

Auntie Al, as we all call her, is one of my dad's four sisters. She is in her 80s and lives across the bay from me. She is smart, sensible, and practical to the core. But underneath is a deeply loyal and loving heart. I know this because I have seen it many times in my life. As the husband might say, she has a soft and chewy center underneath her tough, no-nonsense shell. 

Auntie Al has been through a great deal, health-wise, in the last few years. She has persevered and survived, almost as if she just set her mind to it and made it so. She and my Frances have something in common (although I would not tell her this for fear it might offend her to be compared to a dog), which is a relentless spirit. I find the quality incredibly admirable, in part because it's something I'm not sure I possess.

Recently, Auntie Al made a remarkable gesture to me. I was shocked by the overture, and both in the moment and in the days following have found myself experiencing the simultaneous swelling of happiness and sadness that great generosity sometimes elicits in me. I can't explain the feeling any better than that. Perhaps you know it.

In addition to being very generous, Auntie Al is also a excellent baker. Her apple cake is golden-crumbed, sweet, and cinnamony, with just the right amount of crunch to balance out the pillowy cake. It's a classic, and one you should definitely consider adding to your weekend brunch.

Auntie Al's apple cake
Originally from Sunset, 1986

For cake
2 c. flour
1 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 large egg
1 c. milk
2 T. vegetable oil
2 large apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced (recipe calls for Golden Delicious, I had Galas on hand)

For topping
1 c. brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/3 c. butter, melted
1/2 c. chopped walnuts (or whatever nut you prefer)

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9x13 baking pan.

Whisk dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, beat egg to blend, then whisk in milk and oil. Add to dry ingredients and stir until combined, but don't overmix. Spread batter evenly in pan. Arrange apples in rows on top of batter.

To make the topping, in a small bowl, stir together brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter; distribute evenly over apples. Sprinkle topping with nuts. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a skewer comes out clean. Let cool at least 10 minutes in pan before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Four cheese penne, and a year without resolutions

I'm not one for resolutions, but that doesn't mean I don't set out to do things. To me, resolutions, at least the ones I've tried to make (do sit-ups, write a novel, learn a foreign language), start out as proclamations far too lofty to be achieved by someone like me.  In addition to being lazy, I chafe against expectations. Saying I resolve to do something makes me feel anxious.

The things I really want to do I simply end up doing. The biggest decisions in my life so far-- adopting a puppy, shacking up with the husband (when he was the boyfriend) after a very brief courtship, getting married, starting my own business--have been easy for me. I guess I have a strong will, underneath my laziness.

Anyhow, that's all a digression from the point of this post which is to say, I have one thing I want to do this year which is to cook some new things. I am in a food rut, and there is no reason for it.

The rut became clear when I realized I hadn't posted in a little bit, in part because of the holidays, and in part because I haven't been cooking much. When I have cooked, it's been the same old suspects: roast chicken, simple pastas. I only had one new recipe to post about, something I made a few weeks ago, which was very delicious, but seemed kind of like a lot of other things I make: four cheese penne with wild mushrooms and thyme-scented breadcrumbs.

This was a recipe I got from the baking class I took last month; in addition to the sweets, we also enjoyed a savory lunch, including this pasta as well as a fennel and persimmon salad. I thought the pasta was divine and since I'm a mushroom fiend, I added even more mushrooms, an extra half pound on top of the original pound.

Admitting this now, it seems ridiculous. I'm not sure what got into me. But I remember eating the pasta during the class and thinking how wonderful it was and wouldn't it be even better with more mushrooms? Liz, my partner in crime for the day, agreed, as did the husband, when I ran the idea by him, so blame them for my madness.

Although the husband and I enjoyed the dish overall, my revised version left us each with a pile of mushrooms at the bottom of our bowls. So, too mushroomy. But don't let that dissuade you from the actual recipe, which was perfectly proportioned. I couldn't find one of the cheeses--Crescenza--but our teacher had warned us this might be tough to locate and mentioned Fontina would be a good substitute. The resulting pasta is creamy but not heavy or gooey--you would almost be surprised to learn that it contains four cheeses.

The breadcrumbs, of course, are what brings the dish home. Crunchy, golden, and infused with thyme--brilliant.

So hopefully this will be my last pasta recipe for a bit; I really do want to branch out. I won't resolve to do it, though, which just might increase the odds of it happening.

Four cheese penne with wild mushrooms and thyme-scented breadcrumbs
From Tante Marie

2 T. butter
2 T. olive oil
1 lb. mixed wild mushrooms, sliced
1/4 c. sliced shallots
1 T. minced fresh thyme leaves, divided in half
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lb penne or pennette
1/3 c. fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 c. mascarpone (4 oz)
1/4 c. Gorgonzola ( 2 oz)
1/4 c. Crescenza (2 oz) (can sub Fontina)
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Regiano

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add butter and 1 T. olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the mushrooms with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, 6-8 minutes. Add the shallots and half the thyme and continue cooking until the mushrooms release their liquid and the liquid evaporates, 4-5 minutes more. Sprinkle the mixture with salt and pepper and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta.

In a small saute pan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs with a pinch of salt and pepper. When the breadcrumbs begin to lightly brown, stir in the remaining thyme. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Add the pasta to the pan with the mushrooms and place the pan over medium-low heat. Add mascarpone, Gorgonzola, and Crescneza and stir until the cheeses begin to melt and coat the pasta, adding a bit of the reserved pasta water as needed if the mixture is dry.

Transfer the pasta to a warm serving dish and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and grated Parmigiano. Serve immediately.