“Salad, Please…Sunny Side Up!”

The first time someone brought me leafy greens with scrambled eggs for breakfast I thought, “Has the chef taken leave of his senses?” This before I remembered I was at Twin Farms—a little slice of heaven located deep in the Vermont woods, and consistently rated one of the top small hotels in the entire world. Gastronomically and otherwise, they cater to your every whim there. The chef is veritable Toscanini of the taste buds. And if he thinks a pile of greens goes well with scrambled eggs (and, oh yes, smoked salmon), well far be it from Jo Bracken to question him.

I dug in, and must say the combination was delicious.

So I started sniffing out this salad for breakfast fetish and discovered that it has a small but growing fan base, particularly among dieters and triathletes.

 Eschewing the typical American breakfast fare of sugar-laced cereals or fat- and sodium-laden cured meats, eggs and cheese, those seeking to lose weight have discovered that a morning salad really helps. Chock full of filling yet calorie-light foods such as legumes, fruits, greens and just about any other leftover vegetable, it’s very flavorful; and many find it keeps them full till well in the afternoon. It’s also a great nudge toward the five servings of fruits and vegetables we’re all supposed to be consuming daily.

The bodies of triathletes, on the other hand, need to be constantly stoked with carbohydrates for fuel. Plus, they lose such huge amounts of vitamins and minerals through sweat, that a salad built on iron-packed leafy greens makes a lot of sense. Interested readers might want to check out Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run.

Me, I’m neither a dieter nor triathlete. And I tend to look for the path of greatest speed and least resistance when it comes to breakfast. But unlike my mother, Peg Bracken, who loved doughnut holes as her wake-up meal, I do try eating somewhat sensibly.

My advice for those tired of cereal or Pop Tarts or that hideous stuff you get at the drive-through. Serve up your favorite eggs with wedges of sour dough toast, plus a handful of arugula lightly coated in vinaigrette. Or make up your own offbeat combination. Then write and tell me what you think.

November 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm Leave a comment

Ralph to the Rescue

Dogs heal.   (That’s no typo.)  An insufferable pet parent and longtime dog owner, I can tell you that—for my money, having as furry friend waiting for you at the tag end of a long, crappy day can keep both the blues and booze at bay.

My devotion to dogs began with our family’s first, a lovable Saint Bernard named Ralph.  When we had Ralph I was a young girl living with my mother and cat lover, Peg Bracken, in a hippie town called Bolinas—right on the beach, south of San Francisco, and miles away from reality.  (Proof positive:  Jefferson Airplane used to summer there, jamming, getting high and engaging in unabashed free love.) 

Among their many other talents (e.g., drooling and shedding) this ursine breed were, of course bred in part as rescue dogs.  Though he never aided a stricken alpinist, Ralph did save me many a time from eating food I did not like—notably lima beans and a few disgusting kinds of the Birdseye Vegetables Mom got by the truckload.  (Was their Carrots and Marshmallows not some science experiment gone horribly wrong?) 

I will never forget Ralph, nor the many other dogs that became part of my life—my Blue Dane, my Australian Shepherd, and my sweet but scary Rottweiler.  Each left an indelible stamp on me.

Currently, our main Rover in Residence, Genghis, is a purebred Chinook (think sled dog) possessed with a Zen-like quality that puts him forever “in the moment,” whether running a 10K or laying on the couch all day.  We lost our big, beautiful three-year-old Irish Wolfhound, Winston, to cancer earlier this year, and I thought I was going to die, but am starting to heal with the help of our new Wolfhound puppy, Maggie.

I watch documentaries showing prison inmates transformed when given cats to care for.  I cheer when seeing the same phenomenon on the new TV show Pit Bulls and Parolees.   Then I imagine all those thousands of dogs similarly “jailed” and condemned to shelters across America and think, just how hard would it be to give every prisoner a pooch? 

Naïve and wishful?  I wonder.

November 7, 2010 at 9:09 pm 5 comments

Living, Loving and Letting Go

Call it a twist of fate, but on the anniversary of my mother’s death (October 20th) I was feeling blue and leafing through a binder of her poems.  This one caught my eye:

A Matter of Storage

Life is a matter of getting and losing,

Or leaving or giving or throwing away:

Youngsters or kittens or husbands or lovers;

No one was ever intended to stay,

In your orbit forever (enough of such gloom!)

Otherwise, wouldn’t you run out of room?

As many did over the course of Mom’s long career, I read the lines once and chuckled, again and, well, nearly shed a tear, then thrice and started waxing philosophic.  Was she talking to me, in the here and now, as I dealt with my lingering sorrow over her death?  Was the deeper message in this supposedly light verse that everything is ephemeral—things, animals, people and ideas—even life itself?  It certainly seemed so. 

Moving from the poetic to the prosaic:  I say ‘twist of fate’ because that very weekend my husband and I finally admitted our garage had become overloaded, and spent a Saturday morning trucking our accretion of stuff to a self-storage locker.  As Mom had written, we’d run out of room.  But instead of throwing away our supposed treasures we just stashed them nearby and signed a monthly rental contract so we could come visit and play with them.

Okay, yes—definitely:  A Matter of Storage is really about the concept of coveting.  And it describes my mother’s ideals to a tee.  Though well off my most measures, she was far from materialistic, took pleasure in simple things, and was philosophical about the marriages, friends, acquisitions, successes and failures life ushered in and out of her life.  She lived, loved and was happy.  She knew how to let go. 

In so many ways, I guess I’m still learning.

October 31, 2010 at 8:14 pm 4 comments

Sweet Surrender

Confession time.   When it comes to dessert with dinner, I am a pushover.  A sucker.  The one chefs and restaurant managers pray for when selling that most profitable portion of the evening’s epicurean entertainment.  The waiter chimes, “Did you save room—?”  And my yes rings out long before he finishes the sentence.   No shame from this dame.

Now some folks want coffee after their meal.   Others want a digestif like brandy, grappa or limoncello.  Even I like a good cheese plate now and then.   And I’m sure there are still places on Earth where a man with enough money, influence or wanton disregard for others can light up a cigar.  But for my money, a fine meal is simply not complete without something sweet.

Some of my front runners include:  crème brûlée; a good chocolate soufflé (not too sweet) filled with molten hot chocolate magma; bread pudding; and tiramisu, and Italian cake-like creation dipped in coffee and layered with a whipped mixture of egg yolks and mascarpone.  Yum!

My mother, Peg Bracken, loved sweets, too—at home or away.  Never a big eater, toward the end of her life she was relatively inactive and had a tiny appetite.  So dinner out would witness one of more rounds of drinks, a half-hearted foray into the main course, and much attention paid to dessert.

One of her favorites, and mine, was floating island, a delicacy made of meringue floating on crème anglaise (a vanilla custard)   Recipes vary around the world.  Yet here is the one Mom used with great success.   A note of caution, though:  preparing it demands some skill, which is why the dish never wound up in the I Hate to Cook Book.  But believe me, brothers and sisters, this dessert is to die for.

Floating Island

For the custard:

Beat slightly 3-4 egg yolks.  (Store whites in the fridge to make the meringue later.)

Add ¼ cup sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Slowly stir in 2 cups of scalded milk.

Place the custard over a very low flame (or simmering water) and stir constantly until it begins to thicken.  Do not let it boil.

(Note:  this is not a firm custard, but more a custard sauce.  Still, if it does not seem thick enough to you, firm it up by slowly adding a paste made of 1 teaspoon of corn starch and 4 teaspoons of water.)

Strain and cool the custard.

Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Chill the result thoroughly in the fridge.

For the meringue

Whip until stiff:  3 egg whites and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

As you do so, slowly add 3 tablespoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract.

For the final assembly

Pull the chilled custard from the fridge and place in small baking dishes suitable for serving.

Heap the whipped meringue on top, making artful peaks here and there.

Place the result in a very hot oven, or under a broiler, and don’t take your eyes off it!

Remove immediately when the tips of the meringue start to brown.

Bring to the table.  Bask in the applause.  Devour till every last trace is gone.

October 25, 2010 at 1:10 am 4 comments

Kitchen Gadget A-Go-Go

A devoted I Hate to Cook Book fan, Michele Bartlett, recently wrote about a trek through Target where, in what she cleverly calls the “culinary distraction aisle” she spied what has to be the end-all of kitchen gadgets:  an egg cracker.  

According to her, you put the egg in what looks like one of those old meatball scoops, squeeze the handles and voila!  Your egg is neatly cracked and the insides slip out sans any sign of a shell.  It also has a separator attachment, she reports.   Truly amazing.

Michele’s missive sparked a recollection of my mother, Peg Bracken, as being quite enamored of time-saving kitchen devices, as you would expect.  (Once, before concerns about Salmonella, I actually saw her eat an egg raw to save time).  And with all this rattling in my brain I went off looking for some of the weirder kitchen conveniences available today. 

Now that my research is complete, all I can say is, “Wow, people really buy this stuff?”   Here are some of the highlights:

  • A quesadilla maker for those who can’t bear the agony of spreading cheese between a tortilla and pressing Start on the microwave
  • A motorized, self-twirling spaghetti fork, apparently designed for chronic carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers
  • A microwave s‘mores maker for those who abhor campfires

And perhaps the most absurd:

  • A so-called toaster kettle, which boils water and toasts bread simultaneously.  I presume this is sold with its seemingly mandatory companion:  a contraption that dips tea bags and spreads butter

Am I naïve?  Or has it simply been too long since I darkened the door of Target, Williams and Sonoma and other stores of that ilk?

 I invite fans to talk about their oddest kitchen doodad on the newest IHTCB Facebook® discussion board.

October 17, 2010 at 7:44 pm 1 comment

The Lowly Lobster: Laid Bare

I just returned from a trip to Maine where, one suspects, if lobsters did not lurk offshore the state would lack a single restaurant.  Indeed, from what I saw, lobsters are to New England what the sacred cow is to Texas and the elephant to Hindus.  (Key difference:  unlike here in the States, Hindus do not dine on what they adore.)

It’s true that animals have always held mystical qualities for many of the world’s religions.  But in Maine, the only mystery is how any lobster can avoid being netted and either thrust naked before hoards of hungry diners from across the land, or put into all kinds of everyday menu items. 

Mainers seemingly lay into lobster like it’s some kind of Holy Communion.  I’m talking about lobster omelets, lobster rolls (their answer to the tuna sandwich), lobster salad, lobster bisque, lobster tacos, lobster mac and cheese and—if you can believe it—lobster martinis!

Now I’m no lobster apologist.  I love the occasional clawed creature dipped in butter.  Yet, while I would never tinker with the food chain, I do consider one custom quite beyond the pale:  putting live lobsters on display, to be picked out before being whisked into the gastronomic great beyond.  This just seems so incredibly cruel.  Do we herd cows to dining tables before slaughtering them in the back room?  Of course we don’t.

You should know that my mother, Peg Bracken, was far less fond of lobster than I, preferring clams, shrimp and crab.  (You’ll find these dishes throughout the I Hate to Cook Book.)   And, if you think about it, fresh lobster is not really part of the IHTCB ethos, which is easy meal preparation using common economical ingredients. 

Nevertheless, Bisque Quick (p. 31) calls for a can of crab meat, shrimp or lobster.  And I suppose if you were adventurous you could substitute lobster in Little Crabmeat Casseroles (p. 101) along with many other IHTCB recipes.  That or hop the next plane to Maine.

October 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm 1 comment

If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

Many consider Southern California one of the nation’s hotspots.  And after suffering from record 113° degree heat last week I am inclined to agree.   Yes, life here on Planet Mercury can seriously shake your chakra when you’re naturally a cold weather gal, and the A/C’s on all night to quell hot flashes.

Now, overall, So Cal climate is just fine.  I love the sensational summer evenings with wine and nibbles on the patio till eight-ish, plus the freedom to frolic year-round in the great outdoors.  Still, I miss the change of the seasons, and can’t wait for the first signs of fall in L.A.  Temperatures plummeting to—OMG—sixty-five degrees!   A Presto Log® casting its faux glow and effete heat across the living room.  That sort of thing.

How I yearn for the incessant rain, cold and ever-grey skies of Portland, Oregon, where I was born and my mother, Peg Bracken, lived the majority of her life.   I am so her daughter!

Born in Filer, Idaho, and bred in Missouri, Mom married and soon made her way out to the Pacific Northwest, commencing a life-long love for the City of Roses.  Though she did—at the urging of her then husband—move to Hawaii, she ultimately inflamed a case of island fever with a loathing for the heat and moved back to her beloved town.  There she lived happy as a clam in the Columbia River till her final days.

Crank up the fire!  Curl up on the couch with a cat, comforter and e.e. cummings!   The worse the weather got the more Mom liked it.  Perhaps it was because of this, and Sixties sensibilities, that so many I Hate to Cook Book recipes are hearty autumn and winter “belly timber:” perfect for warming one’s cockles, and easy to make when you arrive home after sundown. 

I suggest trying Philosopher’s Chowder, Honest John’s Clam Chowder, Chilly-Night Chili or the now-iconic Stayabed Stew.    And while you’re at it, won’t you please crank down the thermostat?

October 3, 2010 at 11:21 am 1 comment

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