Friday, August 29, 2008



This is a doctored version of a rather bland recipe in the current Saveur magazine, worthy of sharing in its present form. If the blackberries are too tart, try blueberries or raspberries, and if you'd like a bit of crunch, chopped walnuts would be a nice addition. The texture is very smooth and rich, something like an English winter pudding but with a bit more chew. It's pretty straighforward and easy to make--just take care to do all the greasing and buttering of the pan called for.

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus more more greasing the pan
1 ½ lbs. fresh blackberries (about 6 cups)
1 tbsp. dark brown sugar
3 fuji or gala apples, cored, peeled and quartered
1/3 cup apple brandy
2 ½ cups cake flour
2 ¼ tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. un-iodized table salt
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
¾ cup whole milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9” springform pan with butter. Line bottom with a parchment paper circle, grease parchment. Wrap outside of pan with foil to prevent drips, set aside.

In a small bowl, toss 2 cups of the blackberries with brown sugar, set aside to macerate.

Cut each apple wuarter into 1/8” slices, toss with apple brandy in a bowl, set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg into a bowl and set aside. In another bowl, stir together milk, vanilla and lemon zest and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating 15 seconds after each addition. Reduce beater speed to low and add flour and milk mixtures in thirds, beginning and ending with the flour, until just incorporated. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula and gently fold in apple-brandy mixture.

Transfer batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. Scatter remaining blackberries over top of the batter. Bake until golden and wooden toothpick comes out clean, about 90 minutes. Remove from oven and let cake cool in pan on a rack 30 minutes. Unmold, then cool completely.

Mash macerated blackberries through a sieve into a bowl, discarding seeds. Serve cake drizzled with blackberry juice and dolloped with whipped cream, if desired.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Even Shorter Ramble

I'll be rushing a bit this morning to get all the Thursday chores done before we head for Delaware at around 10:30. I should say I've already been rushing, doing some odd stuff before settling down at the computer to take care of more odd stuff and fit this into the rest of my computer time.

Labor Day weekend is upon us, the last big blast of summer, so there should be crowds at the beach and many, many jet skis on the water, disturbing the peace and scaring way the ducks and herons. Of special interest this trip is the condition of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the 4-mile span which is the only practical route for anyone on this side of the Bay to get to the other side, and thence to the Delaware and Maryland beach towns. (Unless you want to drive north three hours out of your way and then retrace your way south for another three hours, going around the Chesapeake instead of across it. But who would want to stretch a 2.5-hour trip into 6 hours?)

The bridge is actually two spans, one older, eastbound and with only two lanes, and the other a new three-lane span for westbound travelers. Sometimes, usually at off-peak hours, there is roadwork being done on the wider span and traffic is diverted to its narrower, two-lane counterpart, making it one lane each way, with opposing lanes coming at each other. People with height and space problems don't like the bridge under the best of circumstances; those occasional opposing one-way conditions make it even worse for them.

A few weeks ago those peoples' worst nightmares came true: somebody going east fell asleep at the wheel at 4 AM and veered into the opposing lane, causing a semi tractor-trailer to cross into the wrong lane, break through the bridge barrier and fall into the water, killing the truck driver. This catastrophic accident was bad enough, but now the integrity of the rest of the barrier wall is under investigation. Wouldn't you know a need for emergency repairs has been discovered, and those repairs will take place this very holiday weekend, one of two times in a year (Memorial Day is the other) when the bridge carries its heaviest load of traffic. Gargantuan tie-ups are contemplated--the cleanup for the tractor trailer incident caused backups of 16 miles in each direction. We're hoping getting an earlier than usual start will inoculate us against the worst, but a friend who was thinking of driving down to see us on Friday has tentatively cancelled. That's a huge disappointment because we see this friend too seldom as it is, but we'd probably do the same thing if we were in his shoes.

We'd go, of course, come hell or high water, and this weekend will be an important one: we will be signing a contract with the builder we've been dealing with; the contract will enable us to shop the building plans around to other builders searching for a possible lower price. (We like the guy we're dealing with but owe ourselves that due diligence.) We'll also be personally submitting papers to the county requesting a zoning variance so we can build a full deck on the waterfront side of the house.

I'll post my songs and leave you for now. I hope you Yank buddies have a get holiday weekend!

P.S. I broke down and watched as much of the convention as I could last night. Caught Bill's speech. You go, guy! He "loves" Biden and merely respects Barack, but heck--looks like maybe all the Dems will be on the same page after all! Love, respect, all adds up to unity. I heard a bit about the Republican platform this morning on the radio. They're still seem to want to divide the country, still haven't learned the lessons of the last 8 years. I'm fired up! (Have to be careful about that!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dream Jeopardy Category Tag

Mr. Eclectipundit challenged me and I bit fast! My dream categories are:

1. Homo heroes of the Roman Empire
2. Capitals of Peace Corps countries
3. Languages of Ghana
4. Everything Rufus Wainwright
5. P.D.Q. Bach favorites
6. Hits of the Ray Conniff Singers

I tagged Kat, Peewit, and two non-bloggers but regular readers and commenters with great Jeopardy potential, Michele and Linda. Visit E's site to see what we come up with!

A short ramble

The promised cooler air has finally arrived, but the rain that heralded it elsewhere didn't reach us. Things that are supposed to be green at this time of year are brown. The maple tree in the back is always the first to show stress by losing its leaves--we're having autumn-like leaf-drop at the moment. It was miserably hot and close on Monday but they kept forecasting this cooling trend "any minute now," so I never turned on the air conditioner. Monday night was like one from my memories as a kid--hot and sticky, bedclothes a nuisance, impossible to get comfortable. I could finally sleep last night. Good thing. Yesterday I was all mental cobwebs and fog.

I have nothing about which to wax nostalgic, poetic, philosophical or even political today. Of course, I'm paying attention to the Democratic primary, pre-scripted, enormous non-event that it is--although I suppose Hillary's supporters see it in a very different way. My only hope is they GET OVER IT (sorry, ladies!) and save our dear country from more Scalias and Alitos on the Supreme Court, among numberless other things.

We will be moving around quite a bit over the next couple of weeks. To Delaware tomorrow, back Monday, then off again on Thursday, first back to Delaware for the night, then off to North Carolina for a week. Then back, here, again via Delaware. My posts will be erratic, but I'm planning on re-posting some of my favorites while I'm away, about vacations and some of the great trips we've taken. I hope old-timers don't mind the repeats--I want the newbies to enjoy them. There will still be Food Fridays--a couple of worthy re-runs from the earliest days I want to make sure people see and try. There will still be new stuff till we leave....

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tomatoes in a pot: dénouement

Behold the grand harvest. So goes my experiment with growing tomatoes in a pot. All in all, it didn't turn out too badly. There's one more tomato on the vine still ripening, and the squirrels got away with three or four green ones, so the attempted output of the single plant was really pretty good. By the size of these you'd never guess they were "Better Boy" slicing tomatoes, but their flavor sets everything else right. The tomatoes above were chopped into a salad with basil and garlic last night, and it was nothing less than tomato ambrosia--better, even, than neighbor Paul's Jerseys. Such intense flavor! That richness is probably due to the fact that the vine was in a pot and therefore could never entirely quench its thirst. The pot limited the space into which the roots could expand as they searched for moisture. I didn't water every single day, and during times when we were away for extended periods the plant admittedly got pretty sad looking. But it survived, and the fruit resulting from this "neglect" was small but very intensely flavored.

Will I do this again? I think so, but next time I'll put out a lot more plants in order to multiply my harvest. It was a great advantage to be able to move the pot around to find whatever sunlight I could in my tree-shrouded yard. Unlike plants in the ground, this one remains entirely disease- and pest-free, and the regular course of tomato food I gave it in the spring paid off in a surfeit of blossoms. (Somehow the plant being in a pot made fertilizing easier to remember to do. Maybe I was extra conscientious because of the experimental nature of the whole endeavor.) It was too bad that the unseasonable heat wave we had in June caused early blooms to die before they could turn into fruit. What fruit I did get came from blossoms that formed after that June blast of heat. I first blamed this smaller and later harvest on the fact the vine was in a pot, but now I know it was just because of a quirk of this season. So yes, I look forward to doing it again, on a larger scale. The bottom line is flavor, and this they had, in spades. I'll even remember not to water too often!

In other plant news, friend Frank Zipperer has posted his cereus pictures and you owe it to yourself to click on over there to see them. Here's a teaser:

Monday, August 25, 2008

One more job done!

Well folks, the famous bathroom project is over! The tile guy will be coming back while we're away over the coming weekend to do a bit of minor touching up, but for all intents and purposes we are ready to move on to the next project, which is mere painting.

To refresh you memories, here is is what the vanity area used to look like:
and here's what we have now: The pink and gray are replaced by this soothing wheat color, and the sink no longer sits there like a sore thumb, but blends right in, its brightness muted by the surrounding lighter color.

As for the tub platform, before is over here to the right:

And here is after: The overall effect of the wheat color is soothing. That bare oak trim has also been covered with the same material, so everything is uniform. The interior of the shower, which I don't have pictures of, is also done in the wheat color, including the floor.

Again, if you have outmoded tile but not necessarily the money or inclination to tear it out and replace it, this re-glazing is a very good alternative, and so much cheaper. Look in the yellow pages under "bath tubs: reglazing." It's those people who have branched off into tile re-coloring as an outgrowth of their tub work. If you just look under "tile" you'll find installers.

This is a short post but it's taken me all morning to place the pictures as well as I could, fooling around in the html code. A fun challenge (we'll see what the published veresion looks like!)

I'll post some happy-day music and then go see what this day has to offer. It'll be hot--summer's last blast before autumn cooling tonight. Have a good one!

Friday, August 22, 2008

What do your bubbles look like?

E-friend the eclectipundit came up with this Myers-Brigg-ish exercise to see where you fall on various polar "this-or-that" scales. I'm fairly satisfied with my outcome except I know I'm more balanced between extraversion and introversion than this shows. I know I'm a borderline case (boy is that a mouthful--I mean between "I" and "E"), and the best explanation I ever had was from my first M-B trainer, who asked me, "Do you think before you talk or talk before you think?" The former, no doubt, off the chart. "You're an I." She said. End of discussion.

E wants to start a meme and I don't remember how to do it. But this is fun and I'm nosy enough to be curious where you might fall. Give it a try, and if you can get the meme going tell the rest of us how.

You can capture your bubble pattern with this: Scroll down to "Screen Hunter 5.0 free." It'll take one or two tries to get the hang of it but it's a useful little tool.

Steve's painting the bathroom today and I'm cooking.

Happy Saturday!



The story of the tomatoes pictured on the plate above is one of those jigsaw-puzzle tales that complete themselves totally at random, justifying a good memory for trivia, if you happen to be so blessed. You never know which bits of trivia will coalesce into actual knowledge.

They're Jersey tomatoes up there. I had never heard of them until Maureen, a beloved boss of mine, started waxing rhapsodic about the exquisite fruit she was looking forward to gorging on as she headed off for a vacation in her home state, about 10 years ago. It was one of those random factoids I filed away until just last year, as we took our first drive to the North Carolina Outer Banks from Delaware instead of the usual route from here in Arlington. The new route took us in a straight line south down the entire Delmarva peninsula as we headed for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. In the Virginia part of the peninsula we saw tomato farms, acre upon acre of vines uniformly tall at about knee height, with uniform globes of bright red fruit, millions of tomatoes ready to be picked from what looked like factory-produced vines in all their regimented, knee-high sameness. I filed that factoid, too, in the "tomato" drawer and moved on. Some months later, enter my friend Dennis, a tomato farmer from way back. I described this Virginia tomato phenomenon to him and he said, "Right. They're Jersey tomatoes. That's about all they grow in that part of Virginia." Aha! So that's what the vines look like, I thought. A hole in the picture was filled. Then, two weeks ago, our Delaware next door neighbor, Paul, showed up with a bag filled with uniformly red tomatoes, of a uniform size and shape somewhere between a tennis ball and a softball. Circle closed! "These are Jersey tomatoes!" I exclaimed. Paul said no, they were from right there in Delaware--he was obviously as ignorant of the Jersey connection as I had been. Since it took me 10 years to complete that picture, I didn't stop to explain things to Paul. He looks like he has at least a good 10 years left on him. I decided to let him enjoy his own discovery if he's so inclined.

Anyway, I bit into one of Paul's beauties right away and finally knew what Maureen had been talking about in the office back in 1998. They taste exactly the way you want a tomato to taste. Firm to the bite, sweet, with just enough acidity to give a little interest, and very juicy. There was only one way to honor a load of deliciousness like this, and that's what today's recipe does. It's a simple and delicious vegetarian main course, with the beans adding some texture and completing the protein.

Since you're using such good tomaotes, it goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the rest of the ingredients should be just as good. Don't scrimp on the olive oil or the cheese.

Peel and seed tomatoes as you wish. I don't bother and see no detriment.

If you don't like onion, leave it out. I like to bite down on something sweet and crunchy.

2 pounds good, summer tomatoes
1/2 cup sweet white onion, coarsely chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed, peeled, and finely chopped
A handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon non-iodized salt (kosher or table)
1 teaspoon sugar

1 15-oz can canellini beans, drained and rinsed thoroughly

1 pound string-type pasta: spaghetti, fettucini, linguine
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup grated parmegiano-reggiano cheese

Halve tomatoes pole-to-pole, then cut halves into quarters, then halve the quarters, to make uniform bite-size pieces. Put tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, salt and sugar in a large bowl and stir to combine. Pour mixture into a wire mesh strainer and place strainer over the bowl. Allow to drain for 2 hours, collecting juice.

Give a final stir to tomato mixture in strainer to remove as much juice as possible, then move tomato mixture to a serving bowl large enough to hold cooked pasta. Stir in drained canellini beans and set aside.

Pour accumulated juice into small saucepan, bring juice to a boil and reduce to 3 tablespoons--start checking after about 5 minutes. Remove juice from heat and whisk in olive oil. Pour over tomato mixture in bowl, stir to combine.

Cook pasta according to package directions. When done, drain and pour, still very hot, directly over tomato mixture and toss to combine thoroughly. Serve immediately, passing parmegiano-regianno.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Night of the cereus

Last night was a special occasion: our night-blooming cereus chose to put on a rare show, and we stayed up as late as we could to savor the one-night extravaganza. This flower of this incredible plant, epiphyllum oxypetalum (a member of the cactus family) is as big as your hand when it is fully opened and has a fragrance you must experience to fully comprehend. A mix of citrus and clove with a hint of vanilla comes close to describing it. The flowers are growths from leaves that are attached to a woody branch. We were especially blessed this year because the plant gave us an extraordinary six blooms; in previous displays we have never seen more than two, and they were on leaves far removed from each other. These six were on two adjoining leaves on the same branch, creating a pendulous, globular effect.

When we notice that buds are forming it is always an event. We never know when the plant is going to bloom, or even if. We've had this plant for about 10 years and have had only 4 or 5 displays, and as much as we've read about its cultural needs, how it decides to send out flowers is still a mystery to us. It is much earlier than usual this time--previous shows have been in mid-September. Perhaps the cooler temperatures we've been having recently encouraged an early bloom. Why six instead of one or two? We'll never know, we're just grateful.

During most of the year, the plant is a leggy, ungainly assemblage of woody branches and leaves that you are tempted to throw away because of all the space it takes up and, frankly, its general ugliness. During winter in the house, it sends out enormously long green tendrils that I evenutally have to cut back--I've let one get to over six feet with no signs of stopping. It prefers to be extremely pot-bound in very poor soil. This plant has never been repotted or touched in any other way the whole time we have had it. It starts like its cousin the Christmas cactus, with a single leaf stuck in loose, sandy soil. As the flowers open, their weight, especially that of these six, tends to pull the whole imbalanced affair over on its side. This one has branches propped between the slats of the deck seat behind it to hold it up.

Our friends Frank and Rick (Frank is the one in the black shirt) are always part of these occasions. They're the ones who gave us our first plant (of which this one is an offspring), and Frank is a gifted photographer with a special fondness for flower studies. If you click here or go to the link on the left (Frank Zipperer photography), you can search "cereus" and see some formal portraits he's made of our flowers, among many other beautiful specimens. No doubt more will result from last night's foray.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bucket baths and other delights

Who'd have guessed 40 years ago that the bathing arrangements I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana would have any bearing on that humdrum, yet so important, part of my daily routine today?

While the new finish on the tile in our shower cures, we have had to reconsider our bath tub, a rather large but seldom used appliance that takes up space beneath the window in our bathroom. (I suddenly realize that statement makes no sense unless you know the layout of the room: our shower is a self-contained little room, not part of a bath tub. The tub itself is a separate entity, sitting on its own platform. It has jacuzzi jets and is really made to lay back and relax in, not necessarily bathe.) We are so out of the habit of using the tub that when the tile guy told us we had to stay out of the shower for three days, we were momentarily taken aback. "But how will we bathe?" I asked. Suddenly an old skill recalled itself to me, like riding a bicycle. Bucket baths. Steve never thought of it and still doesn't know how to do it. He was living the cushy life on a Navy carrier in Viet Nam while I was taking bucket baths. Tsk. The things you can miss out on!

The thing about "taking a bath" the way it was done for the millenia before modern showers were invented is that I never understood how you can possibly get clean doing it. The water gets progressively soapier and dirtier the longer you stay in it. By the time you get around to cleaning the last bit --your hair, for instance--that water has seen much better days. A shower, on the other hand, provides a steady stream of clean water that washes soap and dirt down the drain.

Enter the bucket bath. In its most basic form, it consists of a bar of soap, a bucket of water (unheated in Ghana) and a large container with a handle--in Ghana I used a huge plastic coffee mug. You begin by filling your cup from the bucket and then pouring the water over yourself for a thorough soaking. Then lather up with the soap--use an applicator such as a cloth or sponge if you want--(we grew our own loufas in Ghana)--and then soak again to wash the soap off. Repeat with shampoo if you're using it on your hair. (In Ghana, I didn't. I had some springy hair back then!) You become very adept at using the water efficiently. By the time I was through my Peace Corps training and got a house with a proper shower, I was a bucket bath efficiency expert. I actually had water left over in the bottom of the bucket. Now, in this hour of need, the bucket isn't necessary, but I'm using the same principle. I have a one-quart pyrex measure that I hold under the faucet of the tub, and proceed as described. And the water is warm!

Compared to a bucket bath, of course, a shower is a luxury, hot, cold, or in-between. Once I got into my own house in Ghana, though, I learned of another luxury: the self-contained shower room. The shower and toilet occupied the same enclosed space in the house (I had no tub), but the Ghanaian sense of cleanliness and propriety dictated a separation of the two, thus creating a small self-contained room-within-a-room for the shower. And the shower head in Ghana was a revelation: an old-fashioned oversize flat disk that hung from the ceiling directly overhead instead of from the wall. It was like standing in fresh rain falling directly down on you, one of the favorite parts of my day. Both of these features, the separate room and the overhead shower, are in the bathroom we designed for ourselves here and will be in our new house.

We'll be back in the shower on Friday and my old bucket bath skills will be put to rest again. Our shower design has always been a conscious memorial of mine to my days in Ghana. Until Friday, my bucket baths will be, too. Thanks to the Peace Corps for one more coping skill!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Good Weekend

Of course I can't blog while I'm away. Can't you see how busy I am? Eating crabs without even shelling them....

We're back home again for another ten days or so, taking care of big business here--especially finishing the bathroom!--to return to Delaware for another weekend, and only a few days after that, take off for ten days with our friends in Nags Head. I realize many of you have already had your vacations and your new "work year" has already begun. Since we take our big vacation so late, in September, it's only after Nags Head that the sense of a page turning comes upon us. By that time it really is the end of summer, there is little more sun and fun to look forward to, and thoughts turn to the chores and delights of autumn and winter. I am grateful for the change in seasons.

In Delaware, we are getting deeper and deeper into planning for the new house. We invited the two sets of neighbors on either side of us over to show them our plans and get their blessings...this will be a much larger structure in their midst than they've ever dealt with before, and they'll have to look at it, and us, forever! We wanted to assure them we will be as kind to the surroundings as we can be, saving as many trees as possible, and using muted colors that will blend into the landscape. (No jarring white PVC trim for us.) We will have to ask the local county for a zoning variance because of the width of the deck we want to build towards the water; a variance always involves impacted neighbors' input, meaning they will get letters from the county asking for comment. We wanted to give them a heads up so they wouldn't be blindsided by these requests. They are good people all, seem to love what we are planning and assured us we'll get no roadblocks from them. They are oldtime residents there, big business owners. They were full of advice and warnings about dealinng with the county, and offered help if we need it. (I hope we won't, but it's nice to know we can call on them.)

We are trying to push things along because change is coming to Delaware. Many are promoting a mandatory 100-foot setback for any new building along waterways--a rule that would automatically prohibit us from constructing anything on our tiny lot, which is only 100 feet square to begin with. We hope to get our plans approved now, while more congenial regulations are still in place. I have to say that I'm sympathetic to any rules that help preserve the purity of the local waterways, but still, I hope they're put in place after we do what we want to do! (And of course, we'll be perfect stewards of nature's bounty if given the chance.)

Aside from that business, we did the usual fun things. The air was cool and extremely clear on boat rides, with distant landmarks in high relief. We found a couple of small byway coves and explored them--there are several small, high-end waterfront communities hidden away in those parts. I caught the last crabs of the season. Among the crabs this time was this fish, astroscopus guttatus, or "one who looks at the stars"--a stargazer. It gets it name from its strategy of burying its body in the mud with only its eyes and mouth exposed, pointed up, ready to lunge at some tasty morsel that may swim by unawares. We had never seen such a creature before; it's listed as an "occasional" visitor to Delaware's waters. There is nothing at all beautiful about it, but I suppose other stargazers love them. (We set this one free to gaze some more after its modeling session.)
Duties of the day await. Have a good one.

Friday, August 15, 2008



Here it is only 8:30 in the morning and I've had enough drama for the entire day, thank you. I got up at my usual 6 AM so I could go out for a newspaper and have a few quiet minutes to go through it before the day began. The only place I know around here that sells the Washington Post is a quickie-mart about 3 miles away. I padded around in here trying not to awaken Steve, but saw that the car keys were nowhere to be found. Steve woke up in spite of my careful quiet, and I asked him if he knew where they were. He suggested I try the car, remembering that I had gotten into the car late last night to close the windows against the rain. And there were the keys, all right, in the "on" position in which I had inexplicably left them. All night. The battery was dead. I was going nowhere,
I had the immediate and normal reaction: "who can give us a jump?" But it was Steve to the rescue once again: I forgot that we had a battery charger. We had bought one for the boat, used it once, and it had been sitting in the garden shed all these years since in pristine condition. We hooked it up to the car battery and the car started within minutes. So I got my paper. But now I notice that my silver and turquoise money clip is not where it is supposed to be. I've done due diligence looking for it to no avail, and have decided to put thoughts of my total stupidity and inadequacy out of my mind. The clip will turn up. The car battery is re-charged. The rest of the day, which is filled with house building consultations, will be fine, by God!
On to food.

Here is a dead simple and delicious way to use orzo, the Greek rice-shaped pasta. It makes for a different side dish and is something good to do with orzo besides (for me, at least) the usual salad. This is a direct lift from the most recent issue of Cooks Illustrated. The only note of caution I would add is that this cooks up very much like risotto; fairly frequent stirring is necessary as the liquid is absorbing, or the orzo will stick. (But unlike risotto, all the liquid is added at once.)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
table salt
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 pound orzo
3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine
10 ounces frozen peas (about 1 3/4 cups)
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
pinch ground nutmeg
Ground black pepper

Heat butter in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; when foaming subsides, add onion and 3/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until onion has softened and is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add orzo and cook, stirring frequently with heatproof rubber spatula, until most of orzo is lightly browned and golden, 5 to 6 minutes. Off heat, add vermouth and chicken broth.
Return skillet to medium-high heat and bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until all liquid has been absorbed and orzo is tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

With rubber spatula, stir in peas, Parmesan, nutmeg, and pepper to taste. Let stand off heat until peas are heated through, about 2 minutes; adjust seasoning with salt and serve.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Headed Out

We're leaving in a couple of hours for an extra-long "weekend" in Delaware as Steve works down some "use-or-lose" hours of annual leave. The tile refinishing should be done while we're's exciting to think what the room will look like when all the work is completed.

I can do no better today than to draw your attention to this lovely piece which was featured yesterday on Eclecticity's blog. (I realize there is a core group here who read each others' postings so I run the risk of making too many self-closing loops, but for any newcomers, or those who don't know Eclecticity, this is worth the read.)

The writer, "Fred," is one of those guys who proudly calls himself a curmudgeon and enjoys poo-pooing current hot air, some of which you may agree with; some of which you may not, but the poo-pooing is always needed. He may think he is among a select few in this overheated culture of ours who long for what he describes; I think there are more than he gives society credit for. Whatever, it is a beautiful piece of writing that stands entirely on its own and resonated deeply with me. I hope it will with you, too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


We've been having ridiculously gorgeous weather lately for Washington, DC. It feels and looks more like late September these days than August, with clear skies, all the way down to the low 60s at night and the very mild low 80s during the day, with comfortable humidity. I'm looking for jobs to do outside just for the sake of being there. And sitting in the deck with the paper or my audio book is certainly something I wouldn't usually be doing at this time of year.

The bathroom project has been stalled since we decided to re-glaze the tiles. It's taking forever to find enough people who do the work to get an array of estimates. So far I've had only two guys come. The first seemed very good, easy to work with, and offered what we thought was a reasonable rate. The other guy took one look at the scope of the job and shook his head. He was the polar opposite of the first, full of reasons why the project would be difficult and time-consuming. He wouldn't even give me a tentative price while he was here--said he had to run it all by his boss. That was last week and I've heard nothing back since. I'll not go chasing after this company's business!

We finally found another contractor this past weekend at the Arlington County Fair. (Aside from guaranteed great food from all the ethnic vendors who set up there, the county fair here is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you might turn up.) A friendly young woman with a couple of kids had a table with brochures about the family business: tub and tile re-coloring! Right here in Arlington! Her husband is coming at 10 this morning to give me an estimate. If he's reasonable and doesn't do a number like the second guy, at least we'll feel we've done due diligence and can make a choice. (And if not, we'll just go with the first guy, whom I liked anyway.) It's been nice for us to have some time not completely dominated by some house project, but time's a-wasting if we want to have this painting work done by the fall. There will be plenty more to do during the winter.

No news on the employment situation--we're just waiting to see what Steve's company and TSA decide to do about the transition to the successor on the contract. We do know that the project's landlord requires two months' notice for the space to be vacated, so there would have to be that much of a grace period if and when the company finally pulls the plug. Steve's circulating his resumé but is not taking any concrete steps until he knows for sure that he will not be able to stay long enough for vestment, that is, until the end of March 2009. At this point anything is possible, and we continue with our plans.

Monday, August 11, 2008

And what are you reading?

Lately I've been on a Roman history binge. It all started with a book lent to me by a friend, The First Man In Rome, the first book in the 7-volume Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. McCullough is an Australian novelist best known for The Thorn Birds, but this series may well be the work that assures her place in literary history. The books are comprised of deeply researched history, which McCullough then novelizes and brings to vivid life for readers like me, who are interested in this ancient culture whose influence is felt today virtually everywhere on the globe, but have neither the means nor the inclination to delve into the original Latin.

The books keep your interest simply by virtue of the river of history that they navigate. They cover the period from the fall of the old Roman republic to the rise of Empire, roughly 110 BCE to the 20s BCE. I now know who Marius and Sulla were, and what military and political maneuvers of theirs kept Rome together; this period also covers the entire life of Julius Caesar, the love affair between him and Cleopatra, his assassination and the subsequent rise of his adopted son Octavian, who styled himself Emperor Caesar Augustus and became the first of the Caesar emperors. You get a strong feel for the the political chaos left in the wake of Caesar's murder, and also Marc Antony and his connection with Cleopatra--all very juicy stuff.

For all the excitement, the books can be something of a slog at times. McCullough adopts a stentorian "Masterpiece Theater" voice that takes some getting used to, and the prose can be a bit thick in places. For authenticity's sake, and because she is taking the reader to the streets and houses of Rome as a contemporary visitor, she uses only the ancient place names when describing the various battles, for example, by which Rome either fought off invaders or extended its influence around the known world. This for me was a minor but constant irritation that often sent me to a gazetteer to get a better idea of where, exactly, some pivotal historical event occurred. Such shortcomings are more than compensated for, however, by McCullough's rich observance of everyday life for the Roman ruling class. A detailed glossary at the end of each book is a handy reference, and extensive illustrations, including contemporary maps, and even pen-and-ink portraits by McCullough herself of the main characters, add texture to the narrative.

After reading all seven novels over a period of about two years, I was left bowled over by McCullough's tenacity and scholarship, and hungry for more. I've just finished a very readable factual biography of Caesar: Caesar: the life of a colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, 2006. Goldsworthy is at pains to present the facts as they have been handed down to us and then offer insightful commentary and context. Despite the subtitle, there is no hint of hero worship.

I'm now digging a bit deeper into the details by reading the life of the great orator Cicero, whose patronage was sought by all factions of the Rome government and who was more often than not a thorn in Caesar's side. Cicero, the life and times of Rome's greatest politician, by Anthony Everitt, is another extremely readable book that gives yet more context to my McCullough-based prelimary knowedge. It provides an excellent overview of the basic flaws in the Roman constitution, flaws that gave rise to the political mayhem that ruled toward the end of Caesar's life and after his death.

All of these books are filled with characters and events that resonate strongly with the follies of our own time: the foolishness, the hubris, the venality--and the very occasional heroism--that frustrate or inspire us today have direct antecedents in these ancient intrigues of two millenia ago. For better or worse, the characters of he two eras would feel very much at home with each other.

I'm also in the middle of another bit of really fun contemporary history: Postively 4th Street, by David Hajdu. It is the ultimate insider's account
of the rise of the 60s folk movement seen through the careers of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Richard and Mimi Fariña. It's full of intimate detail and a must read for anyone enthralled with the music of the time and its various kings and queens. The book has been a sensation for several years now and I know I'm a little late to the party--if you are, too, I urge you to pick up a cheap used copy or check it out at the library. It's a very fun read. (I happen to be listening to the book, actually--my library only had the audio version. This is a new experience for me. I miss holding the book in my hand and all that leads to, but I'm an excellent listener and am enjoying the ride.)

Happy reading.

Friday, August 8, 2008



It's shaping up into a rare perfect day for DC in August: a dry breeze and coolish temperatures that invite me outside to some tasks I've been avoiding because of the enervating heat and humidity. That's where I'll be (or will have been) when you read this.

Today's recipe is one of those casseroles I always like to run across for something easy and different for a weekday. It's from the most recent Washington Post Wednesday Food section, from a story with suggestions on how to use the summer harvest in interesting ways. The original recipe is from a farm family nearby, but I made some changes to it and took their name off.

I know an oven casserole is not something you automatically think of for the summer. But the basic recipe is very tasty, and the possibilities for variations are as endless as your imagination, so I regard this recipe as a place from which to launch my own creation, and offer it as such, good for any time of the year. I'm already thinking the next time I do this I'll use Italian sausage instead of ground beef, much more cheese, a little cayenne and, if I have the time, my own tomato sauce.

Note: the squash gives off a lot of water as it bakes, but thanks to the breadcrumbs, the result isn't soupy. (The dish doesn't slice; it scoops with a spoon, and as you can see from the picture, it spreads a bit on the plate. But it isn't unappealingly runny.) Between the dissolved bread crumbs and all the veggies, there is a pleasant, natural sweetness that I find appealing.

1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 ribs celery, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup 1/4-inch diced green bell pepper
6 cups homemade or store-bought spaghetti sauce
2 teaspoons dried basil or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-pound mix of summer squashes, such as pattypan, yellow and zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 cup plain or Italian-style dried bread crumbs
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (may use low-fat)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9- by 12-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.

Brown the ground beef in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally to break up any large clumps. (The meat does not have to be cooked all the way through.) Drain off as much of the fat as possible, then add the onion, garlic, celery and green bell pepper to the skillet. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened. When the mixture has browned, add 2 cups of the spaghetti sauce and the basil; mix well, pour mixture into a large bowl and set aside. Wipe pan clean with paper towels.

Heat oil in pan over high heat until it shimmers and add chunked squash in a single layer. Quickly sear squash without stirring to carmelize surface but not to cook through. Remove squash to a separate bowl, repeat as necessary until all squash is has been carmelized.

To assemble: Pile all charred charred squash in the bottom of the baking dish, then layer in the following order in even amounts: the meat-vegetable sauce, the bread crumbs, some of the remaining 4 cups of spaghetti sauce and the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses; repeat twice to use all the ingredients, ending with a sprinkling of bread crumbs over the remaining cheeses. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the cheese and bread crumbs have started to brown. Remove from oven and cool on a rack 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I remember the day I took this picture. I was 12 1/2 years old, and Peanuts was 3. The picture was developed in April 1958, but it was taken in March, on the first day we could go outside after a major snowstorm had closed everything down in Falls Church. We'd had no power for a week. It got so cold we could see our breaths in the house if we weren't in front of the fireplace, and we had to take perishable food out of the freezer and put it on the side porch to stay properly chilled. On this first bright day, Peanuts was warming himself in the sun on the front porch, trying to muster up a dignified look for the camera but mostly looking just comfortable and slightly dopey. When I think of Peanuts, he has that look on his face.

Nineteen fifty-eight was long before the days of near-universal obedience training for animals and daily walks on leashes. Dog ownership was not yet a cult. As much as my mother liked Peanuts, I'm sure the only reason she agreed to owning such a large dog was that he could be outside on his own most of the time and not constantly underfoot in the house, shedding fur all over it. The expectations placed on Peanuts and all the other dogs in the neighborhood were pretty much the same as those on us kids: we should spend most of our time outdoors playing with our friends, but stay close enough to home to hear when we were being called. Peanuts's main pals were Archie, a purebred springer spaniel, and Major, a lumberingly overweight black lab. You could watch as the three of them met up in the morning and jaunted off somewhere to do dog things--including, I fear, making little Archies, Majors, and Peanutses, since neutering in those days was not a required condition for pet ownership. Even in those fairly "modern" days, we still felt a bit closer to nature than we do now. Many of our parents were just a generation or two off the farm. When we first moved to our neighborhood, we had the modern convenience of trash and garbage pickup, but it was by an ancient man named Henry who did the job from a wagon as old as he was, drawn by two horses, Salt and Pepper. The unquestioned assumption was that animals would be animals and they had to live mostly outside for nature to take its course, nature being thought of as, if not benign, then uncontrollable by the average human and best simply worked around.

Peanuts wasn't a completely untrained slob of a dog, of course. He could "shake," and "roll over," and at the command, "box," he would automatically get up from wherever he was and go to the basement, where there was a box with a blanket in that was all his. (We'd think of it as his "kennel" now, although it had no wires or doors.) And as you can tell just from his looks, he had his goofy charms--he was a loveable dog. But he was a dog and he did do dog things.

He hated motorcycles and was virtually uncontrollable if one should churn its way down our street, Meadow Lane. One morning he and I were sitting together on that same front porch when the peace was broken by a loud chopper racing down the hill of othe street. Peanuts became an unknown creature. It was all I could do to hold him in place by the collar as he struggled to protect hearth and home from the loud intruder. And there was a time or two when we did learn where his wanderings took him and would rather not have known. There were twin girls across the street who went to Falls Church High, which was a 10-minute stroll up the road. We learned much later that Peanuts regularly walked with them to school and went right in with them. The twins thought this was all great fun but the school, naturally, had a different take.

Peanuts was capable of acts that were both unbelievably brave and stupid at the same time. There was a pony ring in a park about five miles from our house, the route to which was a heavily traveled artery that had cars speeding past each other in both directions. My parents decided to take me there one, and only one, time. When we were halfway to the ring, in the midst of the fast-moving traffic, my father looked in the rear-view mirror and cursed. There was Peanuts, running his heart out between the speeding cars, trying to catch us! I shake my head the sight of it to this day. We had no choice but to stop on the side of the road, wait for Peanuts to catch up with us, and take him back home. As far as Peanuts was concerned, he had accomplished an important mission and was all joyful greetings as he hopped in the car. He didn't understand the recriminations piled on him at that moment or, more likely, ignored them. For me it was a pony ride that ended before it even began.

It was clearly just a matter of time before Peanuts would get into real trouble because of his wayward nature. It was more than mere trouble, though: it was the inevitable fatal injury. One late fall afternoon in 1960, a stranger knocked on our door and asked if we owned a big brown dog. When we said we did, he told us we needed to get him, up at the top of the Meadow Lane hill. Peanuts had been hit by a truck as he headed home for the night. By the time we got to him, he was already gone, lying on the grass at the side of the road. It looked like he was trying to get home but couldn't finish the trip. We loaded him into the car--I remember being amazed at his weight--and helped him finish his journey. Peanuts was loved in the neighborhood, and my father decided he deserved a funeral. The neighbors came to pay their last respects and sadly watched as Peanuts was laid to rest under the apple tree in our back yard. I suppose the ceremony was meant partly as a learning experience for us kids, but there wasn't a dry eye in the crowd, no matter the purpose of the occasion.

Could we have done better by Peanuts? Could we have given him a longer life by curbing his wanderlust, neutering him, taking him to obedience school? Yes, there's no question about it. But those things just weren't done in the 1950s. Dogs were still creatures of nature who had their rightful, honored place in the world, as honest-to-God dogs. They were not yet designer organisms created to be more convenient for people. Peanuts's life may have been too short, but there is no doubt in my mind that he enjoyed every moment of the time that he did have, just as, in spite of all the trouble he caused us--and maybe even because of it--we enjoyed every moment of his time with us.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Cat Chronicles

As I grew up, my parents were all for pets. There was a dog in the family when I was born, a brindle-colored Boston bull terrier named Daisy. Apparently, Daisy bit me when I was a baby, and that made me afraid of dogs, but my parents made it their business to make sure I didn't retain that fear. I don't remember Daisy biting me, but among my earliest memories are my mother and father assuring me that any dog I might encounter was cute and loveable and wanted to be petted. By the time I was able to think, I didn't understand what all that active encouragement towards dogs was about, but by around 10 or so I loved dogs. We ended up adopting a wonderful beige mutt, Peanuts, who lived with us for about 5 years, until he was cut down chasing a truck (there being no leash laws back then). (I clearly remember deciding to call him "Snoopy" in the car on the trip home from the farm where we picked him up. But for some reason, after that one time in the car, I could never remember "Snoopy." I just knew it was the same name as the dog in the "Peanuts" cartoon. So by default he became Peanuts.)

There were never any cats in our house. My mother had an irrational, deathly fear of cats--she'd go into panic mode if one got near her. There were never any explanations for this phobia, and at the same time nobody ever tried to talk her out of it. We all just knew that a cat was out of the question as a pet for the family. When the neighbors across the street went on vacation, I'd feed their outdoor cats, an experience that did nothing to encourage any affection for the critters. Cat food in those days was mostly smelly ground up fish. I fed the cats outdoors, where flies could attach themselves to the food and lay their eggs--more than once I'd go to fill the food bowls only to find maggots swarming in the leftovers. For a long time I thought anyone who enjoyed the companionship of a cat just might have a screw loose.

As I came into my own and started thinking about furry companionship, my thoughts eventually did turn to cats. I still loved dogs, but I knew that as an apartment-dwelling office worker, I could never give a dog the kind of attention and exercise it would need, and friends I'd made along the way showed me the other side of cats and I had learned to enjoy them. My first cat was named Aida--what better name for a coal-black, beautiful princess who screamed a lot? Aida soon had a companion, a tabby named Elizabeth, Bessie for short. I don't know why I settled on royalty to name my cats, but when Steve and I settled in together in 1979, the tradition stayed alive. Aida and Bessie died, and we knew we had to have cats--always a pair, to keep each other company. Soon we had Chat (which became "Shah"--get it?) And soon we were joined by Squeaky, the only non-royal in the bunch. Her manner of speaking left us no choice.

Shobby and Squeaky had a nice life together. They
produced a litter of silky black kittens--all of whom found good homes--before we bowed to the greater social good and had them both fixed.

Squeaky had a definite mind of her own, and once we started our big remodeling job and her lovely home became a construction site, that wasn't for her. We were still letting our cats outdoors in those days, and Mrs. Ridgeway, a neighbor lady two doors up, liked to put food out for strays. Squeaky discovered this inexhaustable feast and soon decided she liked it better outside--she would fight and hiss if we tried to bring her in. Occasionally she would come and visit us on the deck, always her old self, sitting with us and conversing in her non-voice, but it was clear she no longer considered herself part of the family. Once the house work was done and she still refused to stay with us, we decided, with heavy hearts, to adopt her to a farm family with a lot of ground for her to roam in. We hear she thrived.

Shobby, Mr. Personality that he was, couldn't be alone wasting all his kitty charm just on us, so soon a big yellow ball of fluff named Napoleon moved in with us. Nappy was the original cuddle cat. He did all those things you hope a big furry fluffball will want to do: lick your hand, curl up in the crook of your arm, go to sleep in your lap. He was an equal-opportunity lover, instant friends with anybody who profferred a tentative scratch. He and Shobby were buddies from the start, palling around famously until Shobby suddenly disappeared on the evening of July 14, 1989, our 10th anniversary. We remember the occasion because of the date; he had been with us and our friends on the deck that night. The next day, he was gone, and he never came back--we never knew what happened to him, and of course have imagined the worst over the years. We hope that lively and trusting little spirit was "adopted" by another loving family, but the circumstances of his disappearance, nearly 20 years ago now, will always be a mystery.

Shobby's disappearance was what finally made us realize that if we wanted to keep our little friends with us for a long time, they would have to relinquish their outdoor privileges. For all those years, we had nourished the myth that our cats stayed in our enclosed back yard when we let them out, even though more than once we'd seen Napoleon and his guilty conscience slinking across the street to our back yard when he was discovered in places he knew he shouldn't have been. Stuck permanently inside without Shah, the only buddy he'd never known, we knew Nappy would need new companionship quickly. And so, along came Nicholas.

Judging by external appearances, Nicky was
Nappy's yellow fluffbal twin, and we made that choice on purpose, believing that something about the "breed" of yellow tabby (not that there really is one) made them extra affectionate. But as we've learned in spades over the years, all cats are not created equal. Nicky has been a tricky curmudgeon for most of his 14 years. He's very talkative, one of those cats who will greet strangers vocally at the door. He makes himself at home in a large group of people, doing all of his come-on tricks, like lying flat on his back inviting you to scratch his belly, or playing with your hand asking for a scratch. But unless you're part of his immediate family, beware! He'll enjoy the exchange only until some bulb switches on in his brain. He suddenly realizes, "Hey. I don't know you!" and then all you get for your trouble is a nasty hiss. With us he's all sweetness, and Nappy's personality allowed him to make his way with any companion, so within the family things were fine. But our friends, tempted as they are by his come-ons, knew to stay away frim him, and still do.

Nappy became extremely ill very suddenly less than a year after Nicky came on the scene, and he died. The hole he left behind was and remains huge--there will never be another Napoleon, and we are grateful for the sweet memories of him that remain. Nicky would probably have been just fine on his own, but we know what's good for him better than he does. In 1996 we met Ivan, the black and white sprite talking to Steve at the top of the page, and it's been cat heaven for us ever since. Ivy was a farm kitten, one of a litter of 8, the only male. The day we went to get him we were greeted by a bevy of tiny gray tabby charmers, literally running up the sidwalk to greet us. It turned out they were all females, and as cute as every one of them was, we knew we'd had our best luck with males. We asked the couple of there were any boys in the litter, and they pointed to a sleek black and white number sitting by himself, grooming in the sun. He locked eyes with us and that was it. He was 12 weeks going on 10 years old. On the cold trip home I held him against my chest as Steve drove. He never took his eyes off mine, and he hasn't since. Ivy is the only cat we've ever known who absolutely engages you. He looks you straight in the eye and talks--if he spoke English you know he'd be full of stories. At dinnertime we sit in front of the TV downstairs, eating on the couch. That's Ivy's special time with us. He divides his time between the room where we are and the rest of the house upstairs. Sometimes he finds a toy to bat around and chase, sounding as if he's tearing the place apart, then he'll bound back down the steps and jump up to tell us what all he's seen, full of excitement, nearly jumping for joy. He bows his head to look deep into your eyes, reaching out a paw to tap you for your undivided attention. He'll plop himself down in a way so that some part of his body is in contact with yours, always. We have never known such a joyful and communicative creature. He is fearful of strangers, so our friends seldom see this constant show, which is sad for our friends but somehow makes us feel that much more special. Ivy is a wonder cat.

The longer you live, of course, the more you become aware of mortalilty--both your own and your loved ones'. It is just the nature of things that people usually live longer than their animal companions, and we have had to bid adieu to our share--there are ones I haven't even mentioned in this story: Hannibal, the longhair who didn't know how to groom himself, and Manette, the calico Manx who was terrified of everything, including her own shadow, poor thing. We've learned that cats are every bit as individual as people, and can easily extend that lesson to all sentient beings. I have no doubt that if I were to know a herd of cows or a flock of chickens, they'd all become individuals to me. Much as I think spareribs are manna from heaven, I still think pigs are cute and wish I could have one in my life. Even our blue cichlid in his 5-gallon tank does a little dance when he sees me.

Some day, a dog may enter our lives, but thanks to all the meowing friends we have had for 30 years, we know our family will only be complete with cats.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Off to a slow start

I am moving in fits and starts so far today. Two days of not typing (and a full week of not really doing very much at all) have rendered my already negligible keyboard skills close to non-existent. I seem to have a thing for the letter "i" this morning. It's showing up in places it just doesn't beliong. Andwhere'sthedamnspacebarwhen I need it?

My week in Delaware was extremely quiet, and not really livened up by Steve's arrival from Nevada Friday morning. An outing planned for Saturday--a trip to a pick-your-own peach farm--didn't happen because the day dawned stormy and stayed muggy and uncomfortable. We decided to go see "Mamma Mia"--as much for the air conditioning as the for mindless escape--but couldn't get in because the show we wanted was sold out. It was the kind of day that sapped you of any sort of ambition at all--even the breeze by the water, usually a guaranteed balm--was too calm to appreciate.

Yesterday was as gorgeous as Saturday had been unpleasant, the kind of day that makes you want to be outside. Dry and cool, the water breeze was a downright gale at times, chopping the water into whitecaps and making for bouncy boat rides.

The most unusual thing about the weekend was that Steve, fresh from grueling travel home, had no projects planned whatsoever. Totally out of character, he did what I usually do: swing in the hammock and read a book. It was good to see him take advantage of the beaitiful weather yesterday, and I admit I liked the company in my lack of ambition. We can't always be that way, of course, and his usually frenetic (by my standards) activity does spur me on to important tasks that need to be done. But a little rest, both physical and from thinking about the issues on our plate, was welcome.

But now there's today. It feels like a Monday at work; I'm trying to make the harness fit. (I know. It's Tuesday.) I'm starting slow, here with you, exercising my brain as well as my fingers. There are plenty of other things for me to do now that I'm somewhat limbered up. I'll go choose from my list.

Friday, August 1, 2008



I had this dish for the first time just earlier this year, and my immediate reaction was, "where have you been all my life?" Generally, I think soup is OK, but when I'm hungry it isn't the first thing that comes to my mind. When I think of this wonderment, though, my mouth waters. It's one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. It's billed as a soup, but it's really more of a thick chowder.

I learned of it purely by chance from Frank and Rick, our haircut guys. One of Frank's daughters-in-law, a relative newcomer to the family, is from Peru and an excellent cook. She is making it her business to introduce her new American clan to the culinary specialties of her country. At haircut time, the four of us generally just blab away, laughing a lot, at nothing very important. Like just about everything else we talk about, Frank mentioned this soup purely in passing, on his way to something else, but I stopped him. "Shrimp soup? Peruvian?" This I had to learn about. When I got them to land on this subject for a minute or two, Frank and Rick went on and on about how good it was. They left, and I headed straight to google. I came up with this recipe and passed it by Frank, who in turn showed it to his daughter-in-law. Bingo. This is exactly the way she makes it. (Oh. She leaves out the cheese. I don't know why. Believe me, make it with the cheese.)

NOTES: Aji panca, aji amarillo and queso fresco can be found at Hispanic markets and at well-stocked supermarkets. In the supermarket, look for the pastes in glass jars in the foreign foods section. Even though they are "chili pastes," they pack very little heat, so fear not if you don't like spicy food. Again, in the supermarket, the cheese will be in the specialty dairy case. If you can't find queso fresco, American cream cheese is a reasonable facsimile, though richer. Unless you make this dish constantly (you may!), or prepare Latin American cuisine regularly, the pastes will last you a very long time. Refrigerate them after using.

2 lbs. shrimp with shells (and heads, if possible, for stock)
4 cups water (more if necessary)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon aji panca chili paste (can substitute tomato paste if necessary)
1 teaspoon aji amarillo chili paste
1 cup peas either fresh or frozen
1/4 cup long-grain white rice
1-2 ear of corn, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 lb. queso fresco (mexican farmer cheese), cut into small dice
1 tablespoon fresh oregano chopped
3 eggs
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Remove heads and shells from shrimp, and refrigerate the shrimp. Make a shrimp stock by putting shells and heads in a medium saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes.

While shells are simmering, heat the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Stir in the aji panca (or tomato paste) and aji amarillo pastes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring often, for 10 minutes, or until onion is softened.

Purée shrimp shells and cooking liquid. Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and reserve the liquid (discard solids). Measure out the liquid and add enough water to make 4 cups.

Add shrimp broth to onion mixture and bring to a boil. Stir in peas, rice and corn chunks. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add potatoes and salt. Continue cooking until potatoes and rice are just tender (approx 10 minutes more). Add shrimp, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until shrimp is just cooked through, about 4 minutes (shrimp should be pink). Add evaporated milk and cheese, stir until cheese melts. Taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if needed.

With the soup at a low simmer, crack the eggs into it, spacing them so they remain separate. Simmer until eggs are firm.

Leave pot on burner but turn off heat. Stir in cilantro, cover pot and allow flavors to mingle before serving.