Preparing for St. Paddy’s Day

While grocery shopping yesterday,  as  the world would be honoring St. Patrick in one day, I bought corned beef and red potatoes and cabbage. I told my family it would be Irish fare on the 17th, and so my husband picked-up a special horse radish cream he loves with corned beef while driving home from work. What would make the meal perfect? I had already bought the rye bread, but for me, St. Paddy’s Day is perfect with Irish soda bread. Last year I brought home a loaf from the local market’s bakery, but it was disappointing. I can make it. I figured I had flour, so I bought a new baking soda while shopping. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I pulled-out “buttermilk” but dismissed it, so I paid for my items and left the store.

Once home, my son put away the groceries for me and I pulled out my Irish cook book and immediately realized that the little voice in my head was right. I did need buttermilk. I cooked all day yesterday afternoon, not only making my St. Paddy’s day feast with corned beef and red potatoes and carrots and cabbage, but I also made a chicken dish with medium-grain sticky rice and more carrots and stock and fresh sage leaves from my garden. I pan-grilled fresh green beans, and made a double batch of my chocolate brownies to be given as gifts to friends this week.

This morning, after a quick cup of coffee, and after feeding and playing with our freshly-shaven, gussied up dog, I took off for the market. I came home with the buttermilk. I was measuring out the fourth cup of flour, and I was so happy that I had just enough, when I saw a speck of what looked like a tiny piece of packaging in the flour. Hmmmm.

On closer inspection with my magnifying glass, I decided I had better buy some fresh flour. So I tossed the just-measured four cups of flour, baking soda, salt and sugar from my orange mixing bowl into the waste basket. I also discarded the remaining flour package (which I had stored in a zip-lock plastic bag in my pantry). Grabbing my keys and purse, I let my husband know I was off to the store again.

“Why don’t you pick up a loaf of soda bread at Whole Foods?” “Oh,” I answered. “I don’t want to drive to Campbell.” He looks at me and laughs. “Whole Foods is down the street.”

O-H-H-H-H! Right! It opened recently and I toured the market before it opened. They gave each of us a great bag of goodies, too. It’s close enough to walk. He’s chuckling. I’m chuckling.

Not to be deterred, one more run to the store, and now I have new flour – not wrapped in paper, but already sealed in a zip-locked bag, and a fresh sugar.

Four more measured cups of new flour into my washed and dried orange bowl, a teaspoon of baking soda, the sugar, salt, and the baking powder. Baking powder? In a soda bread? Gee, that’s weird. But it’s not a lot, so oh, well.

Wait. Now they want me to add whole wheat flour? They also want me to use rolled oats? I’m perplexed.

My son walks in and I tell him how weird this recipe is.

“Are you sure you’re looking at the right recipe?”

Well, on the left page is a recipe for Irish brown bread. On the right side, bottom, is my recipe for “Nora’s Best Soda Bread.” Oh well. It’s an honest enough mistake. I’ll just forget that I added baking powder and keep making the bread. At least I don’t have to run to the store for whole wheat flour.

My son looks at me. “Did you get enough sleep last night, Mom?” “Yes! I feel great!” My husband steps into the kitchen and realizes I’ve goofed. He says to our son, “She forgot that Whole Foods is down the street!” We’re all laughing now.

The loaf came out pretty well, but you can taste it’s not a pure soda bread. What the heck; I have more buttermilk and flour and everything.

In addition to cooking and running to the store today, I’ve been submitting Hal Roach Irish jokes to my Facebook page. There’s this one Hal Roach joke that really makes me laugh. I’ve been hearing it in my head all day, while walking around the house, and driving, and tossing ingredients into the trash, and walking through the aisles of my grocery store, and waving to the staff who have seen a lot of me these past two days. I’ve been laughing and chuckling all day.

The widow had her husband laid out for the wake, and he had the biggest smile on his face that was ever seen in Ireland. I said to her, “I never saw a corpse with a smile like that. What happened to him?” “Ah, dear God,” she said. “Twas terrible. He was struck eight times by lightning, and he thought he was having his photograph taken.”

“He was struck eight times by lightning, and he thought he was having his photograph taken”? HA! I’m positively guffawing.

So now as I’m waiting for my next loaf of Irish soda bread to come out of the oven, I’m thinking of the punch line, and I can see and hear my husband and son laughing, sure, at my expense, but it was pretty funny, and I’m remembering how the staff at the grocery store looked surprised when they saw me yet again this morning, and I can’t believe I’ve just spent hours making a loaf of bread that I could have picked up down the street and that my whole morning and a chunk of my afternoon has been a fiasco, and I realize that I really do have the luck of the Irish today. I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.

And besides, I can “gift” the first loaf along with the brownies. Who’s gonna know?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Kathleen O’Galagan (Just for today!)

March 17, 2015

HOMEWARD BOUND – Thanksgiving Part II of III

I enjoyed inviting friends over to dinner, and my confidence level had grown dramatically having sliced and diced for our chef turned engineer friend so many times over the years. I grew up in a family that shared regional cuisines of Eastern and Southern Europe, and I gravitated to the Italian recipes.

Cooking was never scary. Well, not in the way you think. My mom and dad were adept in the kitchen and dad especially enjoyed the process, and we kids were expected to pitch in and help. Dad loved to play-up a mannerism that my mother and I found maddening. Dad talked while holding a knife. He would be telling us a story, and inevitably my dad would stop slicing or dicing or carving and start walking around the kitchen, swinging his arms and making his point, drawing circles in the air with the small razor sharp paring knife, or full-sized carving knife. I knew Dad used keen-edged blades; I watched him sharpen them on a stone before every cooking session.

“Carl,” my mother would call with exasperation. “Put down the knife!” Dad would be wandering around the kitchen, fully engaged in his story. My mother and I focused our eyes on his dominant, knife-wielding right hand as it cut through the air like a magician’s wand. He gesticulated wildly while nonchalantly forging ahead with his humorous story. He reacted to his own yarn, and smiled and laughed all the while seemingly unaware of the momentary kitchen angst he created. How Dad loved to tease! In his defense I have to say he never once dropped the knife; Dad’s grip was too strong to let that happen. My mother and I would look at each other and shake our heads as Dad wandered over to the sink, where I might be rinsing iceberg lettuce, or strolled the few steps to the stove to check out the pots my mother was stirring, still talking and waving his hands. At the conclusion of his story, Dad would return to his thick wooden cutting board wearing a broad smile, and dive into his work with great skill. We’d still be shaking our heads and he always pleaded innocence. Dad would look up at us and say, “What?” “What did I do?” My mother and I would sigh, maybe even roll our eyes in exaggerated exasperation, and then Dad would pull out his signature expression, contorting his mouth downwards to reveal his ridiculous “look ashamed” visage. Laughter erupted.

So while I’ve never been afraid to dive into a culinary project, I don’t remember recreating our friend’s fabulous Coquiles St. Jacques, those sumptuous scallops he made for us one Sunday night years ago. It was the first time I had ever eaten scallops, but I wasn’t going to confess that to our friend as I washed and cut vegetables. Nor did I tell our host and hostess that I had never before tasted barbecued ribs, let alone purchased them at the supermarket. I worked on the salad that night. The ribs were great and I became a fan. My comfort zone was in roasts and pastas and meatballs and chicken and fresh water fish and potatoes and vegetables in season and soups and stews. My mother was allergic to seafood, and we just never ate ribs; barbecues were for hamburgers and hot dogs and sausages. Pesto was a dish new to me, as well. My Italian grandparents hailed from Southern Italy, and pesto, traditionally a Northern Italian recipe, was not part of my family’s legacy. But I liked cooking and I liked my food processor and my gadgets, and so I dove into new recipes with enthusiasm.

I prepared dishes for our family of friends, and for loved ones who visited from the East Coast. I remember making homemade linguine for pasta Carbonara. One evening I spent a long while at a bookstore, searching for just the right cookbook. I purchased it and a paella pan and tried my hand at the dish I had enjoyed while living in Spain for a summer when I was in college. That book also taught me how to make Spanish tortillas; those potato and egg skillet dishes that can be eaten alone, or put between two slices of fresh bread for a great sandwich. When my study-abroad group took weekend bus excursions to tour different parts of Spain, the kitchen staff in our dormitory made these tortilla sandwiches for the ride. I loved them. I also tried my hand at my dad’s fabulous rolled steak, an Italian dish that takes a fair amount of prep time. The results were satisfying.

Frequently I called home and chatted with my folks, asking them how they seasoned or cooked different things. When I called for clarification of my father’s recipe for potatoes (all these recipes are passed to us by doing and watching – nobody writes them down), my mother bristled at my request. I wasn’t surprised. Dad made these roasted potatoes with fresh parsley and garlic and cheese. “The Good Kind Of Potatoes,” we called them. The cheese would crust on the edges of the roasting pan and we’d love picking out the charred pieces. How tasty! Mom used to ask, “What about all the other kinds of potatoes?” She made delicious cabbage with boiled potatoes, and dumplings stuffed with a potato mixture, and fried potatoes and yams and roasted ones. And she made tasty mashed potatoes. “Are those the ‘Bad Kinds’?” Again, there was the familiar head shake back and forth and accompanying sigh. Dad did his playful best to keep this recipe name game alive. “Kids,” he’d yell upstairs to us in the house on Sundays, “Do you want me to make ‘The Good Kind of Potatoes?’”  Naturally, the phrase, “The Good Kind of Potatoes” received particular emphasis. Our response was always an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” I just knew my mother was wincing. If Dad or we kids said the phrase “The Good Kind of Potatoes” more than a couple of times, inevitably, Dad would catch my mother shaking her head or sighing, and then would don his trademark expression, and we’d all laugh as he looked ashamed again.

The California chef turned engineer friend taught us how to make roux. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that this technique was better than hers for making gravy. No more stirring and stirring the pan drippings, trying to attack each little lump of corn starch or flour with the back of a spoon. This was a revelation, as was white pepper. A bowl of mashed potatoes seasoned with white pepper was beautiful.

So it just seemed natural that I would host Thanksgiving dinner for however many friends and family would be joining that day. What was the big deal?

Stayed Tuned for the third and final part of Homeward Bound!

Kathy Galgano

November 13, 2013

Homeward Bound – Thanksgiving Part I

The tradition started years ago, when we were out of college and making our way in the world. On that special Thursday in late November, with so many of us 3,000 miles away from family and home, it was the one holiday that proved a bit tough. Yet we had established a network of friends – our new family of friends — and one among us was a chef.

We spent many a Sunday afternoon at the chef turned engineer’s home, first in Silicon Valley and later in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. Always on the menu was a spirited game of Trivial Pursuit which we played in teams, and some California wine, cheeses, crackers and bread, and fruit. Wine was a new foray for many of us and it was sitting around the board game table or stretching in front of the fire with the cat on cool, rainy winter afternoons listening to music that we began to appreciate the nuances of the varietals and blends. White zinfandel was a favored choice at first; the sweet, crisp taste was perfect for wine tasting neophytes, but in time, we uncorked bottles that were less sweet and more complex. Buttery chardonnays were in vogue and that became a favorite.

Sometimes we took a little hike, not always successfully avoiding the poison oak on the hillside, or visited one or two of the many wineries tucked in the steep hills of the local coastal redwoods. Or we could complete the drive in the Santa Cruz mountains “over the hill” and check out the sea lions in the pilings of the wharf in Santa Cruz. The sea lions barked that loud, deep, raspy call of theirs, and we playfully called back to them. Mostly, though, we enjoyed the company of good friends, and spent Sunday afternoons just relaxing together.

There was never any question as to where everybody would go for Thanksgiving. We all showed up at the chef turned engineer’s house on Wednesday evening after work and the process would begin. As more friends arrived, we would spread out from the kitchen into the dining room and even head to the coffee table in the living room, setting up shop, mincing onions and celery and parsley, slicing and cubing bread for stuffing, dicing carrots and preparing turnips and butternut squashes, and peeling potatoes, stroking downwards, so that the peels would drop directly into the brown paper bag placed under our hands. We would sip wines we brought to share, and work and talk and listen to albums while our host and hostess prepared a pasta feast for the crew. When word from the kitchen came, we’d clear the dining room table and enjoy a wonderful spaghetti dinner with homemade rolls and salad. After dinner, we’d wash up and put the final touches on our peeling, slicing and dicing, and lastly prepare the pumpkin pies. It might be close to midnight when we pulled the pies from the oven, but dinner prep was in great shape.

Early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, as we walked through the front door, the aromas from the kitchen welcomed us. The scent of turkey and stuffing and vegetables and rolls brought each of us back home for a moment. There were smiles and waves and hugs as we made our way in and tossed our jackets in the bedroom and uncorked our wines, donned aprons and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Many of us had already telephoned home and spoken to our families who were dining or preparing to dine at home three hours ahead of us. We all shared a similar story; family members were always happy to hear that their Silicon Valley “transplants” each had someplace to go for Thanksgiving. We understood. While it would have been nice to share the holiday with our families, there was something very special about embracing our own tradition.

Back then, we called ourselves “homeless.” That phrase hadn’t been coined yet to mean what it means today. Sometime during dinner our host would play “Homeward Bound,” by Simon and Garfunkel. While a bit melancholy, it was a fitting acknowledgment of our families back East. That mood didn’t last, however, as we enjoyed seconds of this amazing meal, and another glass of wine and great conversation with dear friends. Dinner was never hurried, and we laughed a lot. After a long while, we would gather up the plates and carry everything back to the kitchen. Somebody would make coffee and our hostess poured heavy cream into a stainless steel bowl. We’d unveil the desserts we had brought and the pumpkin pies we had baked just hours earlier, and again sat down at the long table. As we stirred cream and sugar into our cups, our hostess clasped a whisk and expertly turned the cream in the bowl. After a spurt of high-powered whisking, she turned, smiling broadly to the guest sitting next to her and hung her apron around his neck announcing it was his turn. As the bowl and whisk and apron made its way around the table, we cheered as each person worked a little whisking magic, and we each posed for the camera with that frilly apron wrapped around our necks. When the stainless bowl returned to our hostess, it was filled with perfectly whipped cream. Then, people sitting nearest to the pies and cakes began to cut slices, and we passed dessert plates around, filling each one with the tastes of the season, apple and sweet potato and pumpkin pies, and always something chocolate, with our hostess adding a heaping dollop of fresh cream onto each plate. It was fabulous.

One day, however, our dear friend, our host, told us that his job was taking him to Europe.  This was a great career move and of course, we were very happy for him, and offered our heartiest congratulations. Still, how could we not be saddened?  We were a tight group and our friendship was strong, so we knew that staying in touch would not be a problem, but this nearly weekly tradition was coming to an end. And then there was that big unanswered question hanging in the air … What about Thanksgiving?

End of Part One