My Beloved makes a big deal out of birthdays. I never know if he's planning a surprise, or taking me out for dinner, or sometimes even away for a whole weekend. Yes, I'm pretty spoiled. But, he doesn't just do it for me, he also does it for his daughters and sons-in-law.
Last fall, he was the main mover behind a wonderful birthday weekend to celebrate the three main guys in his life, s-i-ls Jim and Andre, and grandson Owen. He rented a big house for us all to share and we had a splendid weekend together, walking the beaches of Point Reyes, playing games in the paved courtyard, and sitting down to family meals together.
Most recently, he invited his daughter Sarah and her husband to join us for her birthday celebration at Boulevard, a wonderful San Francisco restaurant decorated in Art Nouveau style that none of us had tried before. Despite having been in business for more than 20 years, a reservation at Boulevard is still hard to get. Between Sarah's busy schedule as a working mother and Boulevard's popularity, we only just got around to this celebration of her July birthday last weekend!
It was worth the wait. We all ordered different meals and each was perfect in its way - salads inventive and delicious with unusual ingredients, meats cooked exactly to order and imaginatively dressed, fish cooked perfectly and plated beautifully.
The service was personable and prompt without ever rushing us. Our server was knowledgable about the menu and helped us with wine choices as well. He was also charming and welcoming and very, very San Francisco. And we enjoyed the ambiance of the exposed brick ceiling and the Art Nouveau touches of the decor.
For dessert, we all shared the intensely flavorful berry crisp with sugared hazelnuts and both plates came with a lighted candle and a birthday wish. After dinner, we strolled over to the Embarcadero to watch the Bay Bridge light show, pleasantly full and happily grateful to My Beloved for yet another memorable birthday celebration.
My Dad frequently quoted Bob Hope's line from an advertisement, "Now, you're cooking with gas!" It meant, "Now, you're on the right track," or "Now, we're making progress." I thought of him when I fired up my brand new Viking stove for the first time because, literally, now I was cooking with gas!
When I turned on the oven to roast its first chicken, it went from cold to 400 degrees F in about five minutes flat - it uses the broiler, which is like a mini-inferno - to preheat. This in contrast to my old oven, which might or might not be ready to roast in about 30 minutes.
The burners on top melt butter right now, and boiling water for pasta is immediate rather than eventual.
The racks glide like skates on ice and the light inside really lights!
Needless to say, I'm in love.
This is the little, two-burner electric, countertop stove I've been using for the past six months. It's about to be replaced, come Thursday, by a four-burner gas stove that will be slid into the empty space to the right in this picture. After Thursday, I can say "goodbye" to this little beast.
It has not lived up to its billing. It promised to be fast and efficient, and it is neither. It takes at least ten minutes to heat a skim of water to boiling and, if you want to boil pasta in a big pot, you have time to read a chapter in a weighty book before it will come to the boil. And I actually spent the extra $10 to get the high-performance model! I can't imagine what the cheaper one would have been like.
I thought about offering this little gem to the workers who have been helping us through our project, but I decided that would be doing them no favors. I think it will end up being recycled.
And I expect I will be burning a few dishes before I get used to the instant, intense heat in my new stove. No more wandering away to do little chores or check Facebook while I wait for the pan to heat up - it's going to be "all hands on deck" from the get-go!
Now that the end is near, am I feeling just a little nostalgic for my trusty little hot plate?
No. Not at all.
Yesterday, we passed inspection from the company that comes to install the appliances. It's a different arm of the company from which we purchased the appliances, and coordinating with them has been a real challenge. The actual appliances won't arrive until next week. *sigh*
But we are almost there.
This is a photo of what we are calling the "transition" area, between the working kitchen and the dining area. Lots of storage, as you can see, and good lighting. (The extra piece of wood on the counter shouldn't be there - I just forgot to move it when I took the picture) All the doors and drawers are on "soft close" hinges, so they whisper shut, and the two appliance "garages" on either end of the counter have plugs inside them for coffee pot, toaster, etc. The left one is open. The very top cabinets have glass doors for display. I can't decide which things to display, or if I should put some art work in those. It's exciting to have the decision to make - or maybe I'll change them seasonally!
This picture is of the other side, and with a long view into the kitchen. You can see the spaces where the stove and fridge will go, should the company ever deign to deliver them. The colors are off a bit in this photo, as the wood panel that separates the working kitchen from the "transition" area matches exactly the alder wood of the drawers in that storage cabinet.
The other thing that's hard to see is that the black quartz counter tops have flecks of the same golden tan as the wood and little bits of what looks like mica to me, so they sparkle gently.
And, lastly but importantly, this strip of tiger-colored accent stone separates the two areas and pulls together all the colors. Once we have the brushed steel appliances in place, it will all come together and even the gray wood floor will make sense. I can see it all in my mind's eye - if only I could see it in reality!
Patience has never been my strong suit.
But, God willing and the creek don't rise, by this time next week it will be finished and I can begin to move all my dishes and pots and pans into place and actually cook a meal in my splendid new kitchen.
It has been a long, long, slow process but, people, we are almost there!
As you know, we've been eating out a lot since the remodel began. Most meals have been fine and we have enjoyed sampling all kinds of places around our area and in our little town. It's fun to walk along the sidewalk reading menus until you find one that sounds appealing for that day, then fill the wait for your selection with anticipation.
If you go before 6 or 6:30pm, you usually don't need a reservation, even in relatively fancy places. You're welcome.
One or two have been rather disappointing, as was the one where I snapped this picture of their subdued table setting. The ambiance was better than my dinner in this Tiburon restaurant, which has been in that spot forever. I won't name it, as you might find you liked it, and people's livelihood depends on it, so I never rat out my least favorites in this blog. Instead, I just talk about the ones I enjoyed. The anticipation of this meal was better than the reality, but that's okay. What's one sad meal in a lifetime of good ones?
But, I like the simplicity of the photo I took before dinner even arrived, so I'll share that with you instead of my possibly mistaken opinions. And I'll look forward to the next one.
I have loved popcorn all my life - it's one of the best foods on earth. Tender kernels freshly popped with a little snap of crispness, coated, if you wish, with buttery goodness. What's not to like? Even in France, where corn is pretty much reserved as animal feed and food trends from other countries are viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, popcorn rules.
When I was a girl of 16, I was dropped into a girls' boarding school in Cannes, France for a year while my mother, older sister, and brother swanned around the Mediterranean following my Dad's fleet to exotic places like Capri, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Athens, viewing great works of art, eating in amazing restaurants, and absorbing marvelous cultures. I was homesick and miserable for about a week, but then I made friends and had a fabulous time despite being envious of their experience.
The school was regimented and strict, but there was room for fun, too. We ate very well four times daily, including Gouté, afternoon tea with dark chocolate melted in our cups and smeared on slices of baguette. There were art lessons, French lessons, and the usual subjects, plus a few I had never encountered before such as Rédaction and Dictée. I was very good at Rédaction and Dictée, although now I can hardly remember what those terms meant. I even learned geometry in French. Hypotenuse is the same word in both English and French, thank heavens!
Rarely, we boarding girls would escape the school as guests of the day students. Being Navy Juniors, we had access to the PX in Villefranche where we could get all kinds of American things that we had missed. One of the things I bought was a bag of popcorn.
Stepping into my Wayback Machine, I should explain that in the olden days when I was a girl, we didn't have popcorn in convenient little bags already loaded with flavorings that you just pop into the microwave for a few minutes. In fact, microwave ovens hadn't even been invented - maybe even microwaves themselves hadn't been discovered - 'way back then. Instead, one poured a thin layer of oil in the bottom of a saucepan, added a measure of kernels, and heated it on the stove until the kernels popped open, finely coated with oil, ready for salt and munching.
I carried my prize back to school before I realized that, while the school had a kitchen, I didn't. So, I approached Madame Palet, the ancient, wizened mother of the school's headmistress, for permission to use the kitchen for making "le popcorn." We had to describe popcorn to her - she had literally never heard of such a thing and, being French, scoffed at the idea of eating corn - "Corn is for farm animals!" - but we begged and she reluctantly agreed, watching the whole process with bright, skeptical eyes.
Of course, we offered her a taste and she did try it, with some hesitation. Her eyes went round with surprise and she smiled. She ate more of our popcorn than we did and, as a bonus, whenever she wanted popcorn after that, she would invite us to watch the school's only television with her - if we would make "le popcorn" again!
So, you can see that I'm a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to popcorn. I have my favorite microwaveable brand but I still love it when I see a machine like the one above, one that still makes popcorn with hot oil. We found this one in a tiny movie theatre (and what's a movie without popcorn? Hardly worth going!) in Tiburon, CA where they have cushy seats, reasonable prices (!), and delicious, fresh, real popcorn. I hadn't had popcorn that good in many years so, like Madame Palet, my eyes popped open with delighted surprise.
I could ramble on for a bit longer on the subject of popcorn but wouldn't we all rather I stopped so we could go and pop our own? Bon Appetit!
Guest Workers And House Guests
Get ready: the following is mostly bleeding-heart liberal propaganda from a tree-hugging Californian hippie freak, brought on by buying a flat of strawberries from a guest worker who was selling them from a cart on the street outside our favorite outdoor restaurant. My soapbox is in place and I'm feeling spouty. If you want to come back tomorrow, that's okay by me.
Here in California, we have an entire economy built on guest workers, hard working people who come north to work in our restaurant kitchens, to help with gardening and building projects, to tend our (baking hot) fields and orchards, and to pick our strawberries. They come sometimes with their families and other times they come alone and work to send money back to their countries - that is so common here that there are multiple ways to wire money, and most are described in Spanish. That money represents a huge, informal form of aid to developing nations. And, without our guest workers, California's economy (and, increasingly, the United States' economy) would grind to a halt.
There are those who maintain that we'd have higher wages and better conditions for these types of labor if we kept them out, as Americans would never do this back-breaking work for the low wages our guest workers earn, and there's probably some truth to that. We'd pay more for vegetables and fruits, too, and building projects, and gardening, and restaurant food, to name just a few. But we'd also lose a part of the diversity of California without the lively Latino influence they bring, and that would make us poorer. It's just my opinion, but I think we should welcome our guest workers as enthusiastically as we welcome our house guests. That Lady with the Lamp welcomed half of my ancestors from Ireland; I would wish the same for today's immigrants.
Instead, we make it hard for them to even get a driver's license, they live with the daily threat of deportation, and families are broken up when that happens. How can any good come out of such a hard system? I wish I knew. One of the children I tutor lost her mother to deportation - the child was seven years old at the time. If that doesn't wring your heart, you must be a potted plant.
And we turn away mothers and children who are coming across our borders, fleeing conditions an American simply can't imagine. If we could imagine it, we wouldn't be so unwelcoming and harsh with people who are so desperate that they have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles just to have a chance of life in this country. They leave behind everything that is familiar - land, families, even their language - for the whisper of a chance.
I wish those dolts in Washington would read this and do something to help the folks who give us so much in their labor. Okay, I'm stepping down from my soapbox now, feeling a little better for having gotten that off my chest.
On to the house guests!
We invited, many moons ago, our Florida friends to stay with us when they come for their annual visit their daughter, s-i-l, and two year old granddaughter (who live in an apartment only big enough for them). As you know, the room we offered them is in the house that is still in full construction mode.
It just so happened that My Beloved's daughter is away with her family this week visiting her husband's family on the East coast, so we and our house guests are bunked in Marin county for the long weekend, thanks to their warm generosity. My Beloved and I awake each morning to powder blue, stencilled on one wall with the Eiffel Tower, and a little crystal chandelier that hangs from the ceiling of our granddaughter's bedroom. Cora is enjoying having a back yard to roam around in and friendly neighborhood dogs to sniff butts with. We are enjoying our friends in congenial new surroundings.
If I'm a little late with Monday's fresh post, chalk it up to house guests. Gotta enjoy 'em while we can, before they head back to Florida for another year. And those other guests - I wish we gave them a good welcome, too.
The Last Straw
I think we are losing it. This late into the remodel, we are starting to be crabby with each other and our patience for delays is definitely wearing thin. We think of ourselves as, more or less, the ideal clients for a builder - willing to spend pretty much whatever it takes for a quality outcome, happy to run errands when they need running, cheerfully forgiving of the inevitable mistakes and delays, making a coffee run for the workers each day, and generally being genial at all times.
I think our geniality is starting to wear thin.
Last week, we decided to pick up some paint that we need for a couple of patches in two different rooms. We had acquired, noted, and marked the perfect colors on the paint chips, consulted with the painter as to what equipment he might need and, on our way to lunch, marched off to the paint store for the millionteenth time.
That's when we hit the snag - I laid the paint chips down on the counter and went to consult with our salesperson about a technique and, when I returned, no chips. Gone. Vanished. Disparu! I looked everywhere and even searched through the trash buckets in the store (don't ever do that - you don't want to know!) to no avail. So, we couldn't order the paint. Which meant that we had to collect the blankety-blank paint chips again, take them home to consult again, and come back some other day with paint for the patches.
You can see that this represents, at worst, a minor setback, right?
That's why I say our good humor is wearing thin; we were both seething when we left, our reactions far out of scale with the size of the setback. Shoulders tight, teeth clenched, really, really ticked. I will give us credit that we didn't explode at the sales person, but we each knew we were on our last nerve.
So, we went to lunch. And we each had a glass of wine with lunch. We are not normally lunch drinkers but, by golly, we had wine for lunch that day! And it was a good thing. Between the wine and our excellent meals - My Beloved has mussels and frites, and I had steak and frites - and that blessed glass of wine, we were in a much, much better frame of mind when we left.
Just so you know, the restaurant is a favorite of ours called Rendez-Vous. It's a bistro with inexpensive, standard French fare, nothing fancy but everything cooked just right. They have little awnings over the booths with the names of Paris neighborhoods on them, and fun little French sayings on the walls. And, high above the awnings are "windows" of light with silhouettes, as if apartments were above filled with French folks living their Parisian lives. They even have a scattering of stone pigeons perched for authenticity.
I can recommend it highly when you reach your last straw.
Ready To Roll
All during construction, we have been living downstairs in our guest room. It has been good for me, as I get lots of exercise going up and down stairs, when normally I live mainly on the top floor. When we get ready to go somewhere, be it hardware, paint, or plumbing stores, Cora wants to go with us. She loves riding in the car and would far rather be left in the car (don't worry, we are super careful about the hot days) than left at home. So, as soon as I either pick up my purse or go to the closet for a jacket, she is up and trots upstairs so as to be ready to roll at a moment's notice.
This is the view I usually get of her - she is halfway to the door but peeking back to see if I'm following. Her ears are pricked and her tail is waving. You can almost hear her thinking, "Jeez, lady, what's taking you so long?"
Best. Chicken Breast. Ever.
If this seemingly endless remodel has taught me anything, it is how much I value setting a nice table. I used to love using my real silver and my great-grandmother's china when I had a dinner party. Even every day meals called for nice china and decorative flatware, with cloth napkins and pretty placemats. Even a crummy day can be at least partly rescued by sitting down to an attractively presented place setting.
I miss those days!
Paper plates are all very well at picnics and barbecues, but I miss having a plate stiff enough to carry across the room without risk of collapse and one that doesn't leak through to the oilcloth table covering at each meal. And, speaking of oilcloth. Okay, whatever I thought was charming about that concept has diminished over the months. Yes, you can wipe it off with just water, but I keep imagining the growing colony of bacteria that are thriving between the threads. It's better than a bare table top (the table top being a tired glass garden furniture-come-indoors-for-the-meantime one), but only just barely.
Okay, enough bitching.
As it turns out, a good meal still tastes good, even served on paper. And, even with my limited cooking options, I can occasionally turn out a really kick-ass meal, such as the one we enjoyed last Friday evening. I made Jamie Oliver's chicken breast dish, the one you bash with the bottom of a frying pan to flatten. I've talked about it before on this blog, so I'll content myself with a link to the recipe. It's pretty quick, it's killer-delicious (I'm pretty sure his Italian wife came up with this one), and it has pretentions to elegance, something I am missing just now.
And bashing those chicken breasts goes a long way toward releasing the frustrations caused by collapsing paper plates.