Archives for posts with tag: family

Do you have rice phobia?

According to a recent article in the New York Times Dining section, it’s “a thing” (actually, rice phobia is a thing according to someone quoted in the article; see “Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice.”).

I don’t think I have rice phobia but I don’t cook it often, either. That’s not because I am afraid of rice or even that I don’t like it. It’s just that I prefer pasta on those relatively rare occasions when I eat a big plate of carbohydrates (and, to me, potatoes fall into a different category).

When I do eat rice, it is usually a variation on risotto, a dish whose traditional preparation technique—standing by the pot, constantly stirring—suits my temperament (what can I say? I like boring and repetitious). Also, I’m pretty good at it (although most Italians would likely disagree).

On those rare occasions when I do cook standard rice (by which I mean American white, long-grain rice), I follow the “recipe” that my mother taught me many, many years ago, before I even realized I was learning to cook: one cup rice, two cups water; bring to a boil; cover and reduce to a simmer; remove from heat 20 minutes later. No rinsing the rice beforehand, no butter, no salt (my mother almost never added salt during cooking).

Prepared this way, the rice has never burned. Nor has it ended up gummy (at least, not exceedingly so; rice is by its nature somewhat gummy). Every once in a while the pot has boiled over because I didn’t reduce the heat enough but after I have corrected the gas level, the rice resumes normal cooking and comes out more or less the same.

Most likely, my rice is not the perfect rice that Kim Severson is striving for. It’s probably not even good by her standards. For me, it is good enough.

But, really, what can you expect? I grew up on Minute Rice.

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When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

The only leftovers from the holidays are some unfinished thoughts that are still sitting in a container in the icebox of my mind.  I could try to make them last until the next appropriate holiday but they might spoil by then.  Putting them into the freezer might also work, but I’d probably forget about them.

Traditions are important to me.  Whereas Michael Chabon would say that to follow them too closely or rigidly is to deny that things change (see “Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is” in the November, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit), I would counter that traditions provide grounding, a fixed point of reference.  I agree that change occurs frequently—if not continuously—but having a tradition to come back to can be very reassuring, especially when a change is sudden and unexpected.

In the fall of 2001, things were definitely changing.  We had all just been through the attacks of 9/11 and everything seemed unsettled.  That Thanksgiving was not the time for anything new and I fully embraced the traditional meal and its preparation.  Rachel’s parents were here with us and we spent the first half of the day in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, sautéing and mixing.  By early afternoon, the turkey was roasting aromatically in the oven and all of the side dishes had been prepped.  This is probably the calmest time of the entire Thanksgiving weekend and that year, it was particularly restorative.

But then our oven decided to mix things up.  With at least an hour left before the turkey was done, the oven beeped, displayed an error code, and shut itself off.  We all converged in front of it and, in shock and disbelief, attempted to get it cooking again.  Turning it off and then back on did not work nor did resetting its circuit breaker.  Tenaciously, the oven clung to its error code and would not let it go.

We next tried calling repair services in the hopes that someone could provide emergency troubleshooting.  One repairman actually answered his phone—we were simultaneously impressed by his commitment and sorry to have disturbed his holiday—but he could not help us.  Our other calls were similarly in vain.  If we had needed advice on how to dress the turkey or wanted to know to what internal temperature to cook it, we would have been all set.  But instructions on how to revive our oven?  That would have to wait until the next day at the earliest.

Our turkey, on the other hand, could not wait.  Even if we had decided to postpone our meal, there would be no way to get a half-baked bird back into the refrigerator.  So, we decided to pack everything into the car and drive two hours south to Rachel’s parents’ house.  Almost all of the dishes were already containerized—waiting for their turn in the now non-working oven—and the turkey, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil, retained much of its heat.  Traffic on the roads was light (who would be crazy enough to be traveling at dinnertime on Thanksgiving?) and we made the trip in good time.  Our meal was back on track by late afternoon.

We had more than our fair share of change that year but in the end, we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was as successful—and otherwise traditional—as any other.  In spite of the turmoil, both locally and globally, it felt good to have something that seemed permanent and enduring to fall back on.

In an article in this month’s (i.e., November’s) Bon Appétit, the writer Michael Chabon describes his family’s Thanksgivings as having never been bound by geography (“Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is”).  His clan has no permanent host or default cook and each year they do something different (and non-traditional in the strictest descendents-of-the-Mayflower sense).  That got me thinking about the nature of the Thanksgiving holiday and the roles of Guest versus Host in its celebration.

Lately, I consider Thanksgiving to be a stay-at-home holiday, a day when I would need a very good reason to go someplace else.  For many years now, we have been hosts to a small number of guests and we cook a fairly traditional meal.  After much trial and error, we’ve gotten to a point where we can get several dishes on the table, most of them still hot (sliced turkey, for instance, cools off very quickly), at more-or-less the appointed hour.  It is heartwarming to be able to say that for a few of our friends and family, when they travel over the river and through the woods (quite literally), it is to our house that they go.

But this has not always been the case.  When I was a kid, hosting the Thanksgiving get-together was shared primarily by my parents and by my maternal aunt and uncle.  The venue would alternate between our house and theirs but the guest list remained fairly constant and large:  my family’s six, my aunt and uncle’s seven, and my maternal grandparents.  As my siblings and cousins got older, the crowd swelled with the addition of new spouses and—a few years afterwards—nieces, nephews and cousins once removed.

When I left home for college, I continued to be a guest at the Thanksgiving meal although when it was located at my parents’ house, I would assist in its preparation.  This remained true after I met Rachel (being at Cal at the right place and time is something I am eternally thankful for!) with each of us visiting our own family for the holiday.  (One year, Rachel celebrated with the family of her then-boyfriend, but let’s speak no more of that!).

My last year as an undergrad, though, my two roommates and I took our first stab at hosting and cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  We scheduled it for about a week before the actual holiday—when most of us would be traveling elsewhere—and planned a menu based on our collective family traditions (there was a good deal of overlap).  We gathered our recipes, made several shopping trips (we probably never had so much food in that apartment) and spent the entire day cooking.

I don’t remember where we got tables and chairs we needed to seat the eight people who joined us that night (all of whom brought a dish to add to the menu) but we managed to fit everyone in a diagonal arrangement crossing the kitchen and living room.  The meal was a huge success, everybody ate and drank until filled and all were happy they came.  We were thankful to have them.  We all ended up guests at our respective families’ formal dinners but we got a healthy taste of what hosting the event felt like.

I didn’t try hosting Thanksgiving again until a few years later when Rachel and I were living in Oberlin, Ohio (Rachel was a professor at Oberlin College).  The first year we were there, we spent Thanksgiving with her parents (it was a welcome dose of the familiar during a period that was marked for us by tremendous change, both cultural and personal).  But the next year, Rachel’s parents and brother came to us—a road trip of at least eight hours duration—and we spent the holiday and most of the weekend together.  Once again, we planned, shopped for and cooked a traditional dinner.  It was a very satisfying—even if stressful—experience.

When we moved to New York City, the following year, we spent the first few Thanksgivings with Rachel’s parents.  At first, we assisted with the meal preparation—making us both host and guest—but soon, we had commandeered the kitchen and were cooking the entire meal.  We were on our way to becoming the traditional Thanksgiving hosts even if the meal was not always completely traditional (for the several years that we ate vegetarian, our menu included everything you’d expect except a turkey).  The only thing we needed was our own home in which to do the hosting and that followed after a few years (the story of which is fodder for separate posts).

And so, fast-forwarding several years, we have become one of the more constant elements of the Thanksgiving holiday.  But we have no delusions that this is any indication of stability or a resistance to change as Michael Chabon might fear.  For one thing, while our menu is usually based on a traditional template (turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and something green), it is different every year.  And although we usually act as hosts, we can be enticed to experience the holiday as guests and to partake of—and be enriched by—what constitutes tradition in other families’ homes.

The only thing that is truly constant and will never change is that we are thankful for our wonderful families and friends and grateful for every opportunity we have to share a meal and a few moments of togetherness with them.

The farmers’ market in my boyhood home has become quite an elaborate affair.  It is located in the town’s Central Park, the southern half of which was a vacant lot when I was in school (my brother tells me the former Central School was located there until just after my family arrived in the early 1960s), under a large steel canopy erected solely for the market.  The structure resembles a long, open barn—such as would be found on a dairy farm, for instance—which I am sure is no coincidence.

The market runs the year ‘round (yet another advantage of the mild valley climate) and attracts many vendors.  The Saturday morning gathering, which we visited during our visit (I’m a bit out of sync here) in anticipation of a later picnic with my brother, was crowded and bustling with more stands than could fit under the canopy.  At least half a dozen stalls extended beyond the north end.  Luckily, the weather was clear and warm (also auspicious for our lunch) and no one seemed to mind being out in the sun.  The market also operates on Wednesday evenings; in the summer, local restaurants set up booths and sell picnic dinners.

Whereas the produce at our market at home is becoming limited to fall staples like squash, potatoes and hardy greens, the fruits and vegetables here are still of the spring and summer variety.  There were strawberries from Watsonville, grapes from Fresno and berries from a variety of towns I didn’t recognize (one complaint about this market is that the vendors are not restricted in the distance between here and their farms).

The grapes in particular caught our eyes both for their freshness and spectrum of vibrant colors.  This bounty also produced similarly multi-colored raisins that were delectably plump and moist.  We purchased a few bunches of grapes for our picnic as well as a bag of raisins to take back home.

Also of note were the nuts and dates.  The nuts arrived from some of the nearest farms—there are large groves of almond and walnut trees immediately to the west of town—and were probably harvested only days ago.  We bought a bag of roasted almonds (with olive oil and salt; yum) for snacking and resisted the urge to buy one of every other variety (our suitcase can only hold so much).

The dates, on the other hand, probably traveled the farthest, having been grown in the Coachella Valley in the southern end of the state (at Leja Farms).  I have no idea when they would have been harvested and only know that they take a while to ripen after picking.  After tasting a few samples, we picked out a large container of large medjool dates.  They were the largest I’d ever seen and had a smooth, velvety texture and intense sweetness.

At most, I think I could eat only one or two at a sitting (yes, that sweet) but they will be a wonderful basis for sweetbreads and milkshakes (a favorite, but maybe that’s another post) and a nice addition to salads (particularly with spinach and fennel).

As we were paying, the farmer asked where we were from and when we responded (New York), she threw in another small container of dates as a reward, I guess, for coming from so far away just to buy her dates.  It turns out that she grew up in an Amish community in northwestern New York and spent a lot of time traveling between there and other Amish enclaves in northeastern Ohio (she was growing apples at the time).  We lived in Oberlin, Ohio for a couple of years and mentioning this fact only strengthened the spontaneous (albeit temporary) bond between us.

We thanked her for her act of (near-random) kindness and vowed to pay it forward by sharing the dates when we returned home.

With a bit of free time between visits with family—a beautiful picnic in the park with my brother yesterday, breakfast with my sisters this morning and dinner with Mom tonight—we decided to take a leisurely Sunday drive.  We’ve been renting cars from Hertz for many years and sometimes, they give us a free upgrade.  Usually, they offer us a larger car than we asked for, a full-size sedan, say, or an SUV.  And usually, we decline it.  We don’t like to drive large vehicles and they are harder to park.

But on this trip, when we arrived at the lot, we found a 2013 Ford Mustang waiting for us.  What a treat!  Zero to 70 in no time (it is powered by an eight-cylinder, 420-HP engine, my sister later informed me) with very responsive handling.  Attractive, too.  It is the only car I’ve ever driven which draws admiring stares from the people we pass (young men, mostly).  Of course, it is not very practical (with only two doors and no back-seat legroom, it does not accommodate a large family) and probably guzzles gas.  A nice car to rent but I wouldn’t want to own one.

We pointed the car in the direction of the coastal foothills between the Central and Napa valleys.  As we passed through the eastern edge of the vast alluvial plain that is the agricultural heart of California and began our ascent into the Vaca Mountains, the terrain became increasingly rugged and dry.  Farmsteads and croplands gave way to rolling slopes of buff-colored grasses (parched after a long, hot summer) dotted with scrub oak and sagebrush.  It is a landscape of austere beauty that only a native son (or daughter) could love.

It is not until several miles beyond Lake Berryessa that the woods thickened, the topography steepened and we got the feeling of being in the mountains.  The twists and turns of the narrow highway posed a test to my driving skills and the car’s handling.  The road felt more closed to the sky and sections extended beneath a canopy of outstretched tree branches, many of them draped with thick strands of Spanish moss (apparently, this was a good year for the bromeliad).

But this is wine country and wherever the road left a space between its shoulder and the foot of the adjacent slope, some enterprising winery had installed a vineyard.  I like the appearance of vineyards—especially the newer, strictly rectilinear variety with their regularly spaced rows of carefully pruned vines—and delight in finding vest-pocket versions in seemingly unlikely places.  Based on the prices of land in the valleys, however, it is not really surprising that some growers have chosen to invest sweat equity into small plots with difficult geography.

Apparently, our visit occurred shortly after harvest time as none of the vines we observed still bore any fruit.  In fact, the grapevines had started to turn color, replacing the deep red or luminous green of the grape clusters with bright yellow and red leaves.  If we had continued our drive into the Napa Valley, we would have found the air heavy with the yeasty aroma of primary fermentation.  From a sensory point of view, it is a good time to be here.

Deep in the woods and near the peak of the mountain pass, we found Nichelini Family Winery.  The property was homesteaded in the late 1800s and the winery was founded shortly thereafter.  It is still run by the family (currently on its sixth generation) and we enjoyed a tasting and history lesson from Phil Sunseri, a fourth-generation Nichelini.  We had the place to ourselves (one benefit of visiting early on a Sunday) and took a short tour of the property—wineglasses in hand—to see the original 12-foot by 12-foot homestead cabin.

We ended up buying three bottles of wine (how could we resist?) and when we got back into the car, decided to quit while we were ahead.  We turned the car around and headed back towards home wondering how on earth we were going to get our wine back to New York.

We’re visiting my family in California this weekend.  One of my sisters suggested a day trip to Santa Cruz (her daughter is considering a transfer to the University of California campus there) and we jumped at the chance.  Rachel lived there for five years while she got her PhD and I joined her for the last two of those years.  We have many fond—if somewhat fuzzy, after 25 years—memories of the town and campus.

We made an early start, setting off on the three-hour drive a little after 5:00 am (when we travel west, jet lag actually works in our favor).  The first two-thirds of the trip were on Interstate Highways 80 and 680, roads that have become so popular (if that’s the right word) that they are trafficky at any hour of the day.  Still, we made it to San Jose before the morning rush began in earnest and crossed over the Grapevine (California Highway 17) into Scott’s Valley and then Santa Cruz without much trouble (easy for me to say, of course, I was not driving).

We arrived at 8:00 am which was fortunate because that is when Harbor Café opens for breakfast.  We frequented this joint when Rachel lived here—it is just down the street from a former apartment—and we were relieved when a web-search confirmed that it is still in business.  The day before we left home, we spent an afternoon looking things up on the internet and there were some disappointments (our favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants, for instance, closed long ago).

After a hearty breakfast, we made our way up to campus.  It appears to be mostly unchanged—still beautiful and serene, nestled amongst the coast redwood and eucalyptus trees—but it is noticeably more crowded.  When Rachel was attending UCSC, College Eight consisted of one building; now, additional classroom buildings and dormitories have been built around it.  Two new colleges, imaginatively named “Nine” and “Ten”, have been constructed as well.

From there, we drove down the western edge of town—stopping by another former apartment—to Natural Bridges State Beach.  I’ve mentioned it before (see May 27, 2012) and have been thinking about it more since reading some of the recent posts from Late Bloomer (see, for example, “Monarchs and Milkweed—Episode 16”).  A eucalyptus grove adjacent to the beach is the winter destination of Monarch butterflies who migrate from the Rocky Mountains.  They start arriving in October and by late November, there will be thousands of them hanging from branches, clustered together for warmth.

When we first reached the end of the boardwalk which traverses into the heart of the grove, we did not see many butterflies.  There were only a dozen or so early-birds flitting between the limbs of the eucalyptus trees and the occasional laurel.  But as we stood and watched, our eyes adjusted to what we were seeing, not unlike when stepping into a dark room after being out in the sun.  Gradually, we could begin to make out the wings of Monarchs that had alit on the overhanging branches.

When resting, Monarchs fold their wings together so that only the undersides are visible.  The brightly-colored topsides are hidden and the muted undersides blend in with the pale, tan-colored eucalyptus leaves.  The effectiveness of this natural camouflage is increased by the dim lighting caused by dense coastal fog.  When the fog burns off in the afternoon—always a magical moment—the Monarchs should be easier to see.

It’s hard for me to say because my memory is vague (at best) but it seems like the boardwalk (the one on the Monarch trail, not the famous one on the main Santa Cruz beach) is farther from the butterflies than it used to be.  I can recall being practically within arm’s reach but now, the nearest branches are twenty feet away.  Of course, this is probably a good thing.  The Natural Preserve is visited by many people—including busloads of field-tripping school kids while we were there—who could still be a nuisance to the resting Monarchs, even when using their “butterfly voices”.