A Best of the Besties and a Cure for a Worstie

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The beautifully set table at Chris and Sharon’s – and the delicious gazpacho.  If you’re from Sonoma you may recognize the bread from Mike the Bejkr.

It’s been a while since we published a Best of the Besties.  At a dinner party last week we had a marvelous gazpacho – with avocado as the surprise ingredient; it was the perfect recipe for the late summer garden bounty.  Thanks to Besties Sharon and Chris for the recipe (see it below).

And we bemoaned – in our last blog – about the yucky things that disturb our flower and vegetable gardens, including the water-needy roots from a eucalyptus tree.

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Neighboring eucalyptus tree, enjoying the moisture from our flower garden

Here is one sure-fire cure for those pesky eucalyptus roots.  Just be sure your neighbors are ok with this.


Avocado and Tomato Gazpacho

The easy way to peel tomatoes is to drop them in boiling water for 30 seconds and then into ice water.  Serving the gazpacho in small drinking glasses is a fun alternative to soup bowls. Recipe adapted from Martha Rose Shulman.

  • 1 large ripe avocado, peeled and halved
  • 1 ½ pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and peeled; delicious, peak-of-the-season tomatoes are a must
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, to taste
  • 2 heaped tablespoons coarsely chopped red or white onion, soaked for five minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
  • ½ to 1 cup ice water, depending on how thick you want your soup to be
  •  Kosher salt
  •  freshly ground pepper

Garnish each bowl before serving with one or more of the following:

  • ½ cup finely chopped cucumber(more to taste)
  • ½ cup finely chopped tomato (more to taste)
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil or parsley, or fresh basil or parsley leaves
  • ½ cup finely chopped green pepper
  • ½ cup small croutons

Combine the avocado, tomatoes, garlic, onion, olive oil, vinegar, paprika and salt in a blender, and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Pour into a bowl or pitcher, thin out as desired with ice water, cover and chill for several hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes and add to the each individual dish of gazpacho before serving.

Recipe brought to you by Chris and Sharon and BigLittleMeals.com.

In the Garden

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I should have read more carefully: the first stated requirement for membership in the FCHS choir was “ability to sing.”

Whether a good singing voice is a nature or nurture hand-me-down, I didn’t get one from my parents.  My nerve-wracking try-out for my FCHS’s wonderful a cappella choir was soundly rejected, much to my embarrassment and disappointment, since my Besties had all been granted admittance to that tight and fun – and very talented – group.

My dad’s family were all musical and they credited their Welsh heritage for that. Family get-togethers always involved time around the piano with my aunt playing and singing and the rest of the Hills joining in.  One of the favorite songs of my granddad was “In the Garden” and my dad and he could belt it out in a beautiful duet.

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A typical song-fest – but this time with Edna Griffin on the piano, joined by Hill family and friends

Little did I know that years later that song would be recorded by many singers whom I held near and dear – Tennessee Ernie Ford, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, and Johnny Cash.  But the rendition that reminds me most of my family’s is the duet by Jo Stafford and Gordon MacCrae, recorded in 1962.

Andy may not have happy memories of his family singing that song, but he does have happy memories of Oakley, our Aussie, being in the garden.  See today’s Andy’s Corner.

As for me, hearing “In the Garden” still reminds me that our garden is often an almost spiritual place – butterflies flitting around, hummingbirds searching for nectar, bumblebees checking out the blossoms, a whiff of the sweet salvia, the hint of licorice from the agastache, the gorgeous glimmering iridescent orange in the echinacea ‘Julia’ – and the intriguing scent of the foliage of the coleonema and variegated mint bush when you brush by them.

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But just as often our garden is beastly: gopher mounds, aphid attacks, tomato hornworms, voles uncovered and carried into the house by our sweet kitties, drip system malfunctions, rampaging yellow jackets, eucalyptus tree roots sucking up the moisture.  You name it, we’ve had it happen.

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Our vegetable garden is even more problematic.  Tomatoes, of course, are notorious for having issues.  Even zucchini plants, which notoriously over-produce for normal gardeners, are annoyingly sparse in producing for us for us.  Cucumbers often wither on the bush.  So each little healthy tomato or bean or zucchini or cucumber we find in our garden is an unbounded joy to us.

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Today’s garden bounty

Once you’ve picked these precious veggies you don’t really want to cover up their just-picked flavor with a complex, ingredient-heavy recipe, so here are three minimalist ideas for your tomatoes, string beans and summer squash. Continue reading

Be Nice

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Nice kids from SF’s Mission H.S., eating at T-lish

Tacolicious, our kids’ restaurant, has a new company mission statement – which has been enhanced in a way that only Joe, our son-in-law, could do it.  But I can restate it simply – and family-friendly – as “Be Nice.”

“Nice” is such a plain word.  I’m sure my CC English professors would have winced if we’d used it in our writing.  But I’m thinking that simple – or plain – or basic – is sometimes all we need.   For example, “You can do it!”  Those were words of encouragement shouted to the bicyclists at the beginning of Andy’s famous Tour de Friends bicycle ride.  Even better for this blog, one of the cyclists reminded everyone to “Be nice” (see today’s Andy’s Corner for more).

One simple line that gets me teary every time I read it is the dedication in our daughter Sara’s first cookbook,  Asian Vegetables.


“to Mom, of course”

Or maybe it’s ending each phone conversation with “love you.”  Our grandsons routinely say it as they hang up (obviously from their cell phones), and I love it.  I’ve read that the Scandinavians are famous for being uneffusive, so that may explain why my Swedish mother was not known for lots of “I love you’s,” though those were the final words we exchanged when I visited her the last time at the Fort Collins hospital.

“Peace” is another beautiful word, considerably more eloquent in its monosyllable-ism than “nice.”  Go in peace, my friend.

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But back to “nice.”   When Andy and I are eating out,  we’re total suckers if the waitstaff is attentive, happy, polite, kind, considerate – i.e. nice (NICE!).  Even if the food is just good, we’re still happy campers.

Want to have a nice dinner party?  Of course you’ll be nice to your guests, so I want to focus on how you can entertain – and be nice to yourself.  Sure you can bring food in, but guests really love home-cooking (it’s so “yesterday!”)

Give up the notion that you have to always prepare an appetizer and a salad and a vegetable and a main dish and a dessert, if company’s coming.  And by all means, avoid picking a menu which requires you to do a lot of stuff at the last minute.  Most of us will be so worn out at the mere thought of all that work that we’ll forgo entertaining altogether – or be too frazzled to enjoy the occasion.

Here’s what I recommend for a height-of-the-summer super simple dinner party:

#1: buy good cheese – and delicious crackers.  That’s your appetizer.

#2: make the main dish a one-dish stand and something that can be done hours ahead of time.

#3: bake a really simple summery dessert (recipe follows) and buy the most wonderful gelato or ice cream you can find to go with it (here in Sonoma County I’d pick Fiorello’s).  It’s all so do-able – and so so SO nice.  Have a good one.

My quick and easy summer meal for 4:

Appetizer – Simple Feta Cheese: about a 7 oz block of feta cheese (enough for 4-6) cut into bite-size cubes, drizzled with lemon juice, then olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of dried oregano and a pinch of red chile flakes – if you like spice.  Serve it with lentil or pita chips – and maybe some Greek olives along side.  This simply-marinated feta will improve in flavor if it sits for a while before serving; what more could you want – and easy peasy!

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Feta cheese appetizer


One-dish main dish – Easy Lamb and Lentils with Pita Bread

Dessert – Marion Cunningham’s Fruit Crisp – with ice cream or gelato, optional but delicious

(another meal idea could be something retro and fun – and very very easy:  Triscuits with Yellow Cheddar Cheese,  Sloppy Joes served with iceberg lettuce topped with Blue Cheese Dressing  and Katharine Hepburn Brownies – and ice cream – for dessert.)

Continue reading

Lagniappe: Lawn Mowing and WC Breakfasts

A follow-up to the World of 1950’s grilling and lawn mowing – as mentioned in last week’s blog –  and to World Cup soccer:  a picture is worth a thousand words and an addendum to our World Cup Soccer predictions!

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Raise your hand if you used to get the Saturday Evening Post.  How we women and girls were duped by an ad like this!  Circa 1955.

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My first lawnmower.  My dad convinced me it would be fun to drive this Craftsman around.  Right.

And now about the World Cup: I was all ready to recommend favorite brunch recipes for a Belgium vs England final.   I would have said fix a Belgian gaufre de liège Waffle (a recipe from Smitten Kitchen’s blog – one of my most favorites) and a “stress free” recipe from the BBC for a full English breakfast.

Now we’re dealing with France vs Croatia, and I’ll be damned if I can think of a fun brunch recipe from Croatia.  I still recommend Chouquettes and French Toast, if you’re rooting for France.  If Croatia is your team, how about grilled oysters?  When Andy did research at LSU he studied the oyster harvesters in South Louisiana – and many were Croatian.  He laughed because someone said that if a fisherman’s name ended with the sound “itch” they were Croatian.  This was expected to be the starting line-up for Croatia vs England.  Lots and lots of “ic’s” (pronounced like itch):

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But for heaven’s sake don’t serve juice with your brunch!  Be sure to read the article – as well as some of the interesting comments – on why many experts say we should avoid that standard breakfast offering.  We recommend fresh fruit and yogurt instead.

And one final soccer-related note.  After we all breathed a universal sigh of relief that the young Thai soccer team had been successfully rescued from the cave, I read an article about the boys which said that what they really craved was spicy basil pork and rice.  Sounds delicious to me too – and here’s a quick and easy Thai recipe for that from a great blog – the Woks of Life.

You Go Girl. Grill.

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Grandma D going on a walk, apparently leaving their Schnauzer, Rocky, behind.  Love those bell bottom pants.

Seeing this photo has Andy thinking about dogs – and 1950s radio programs.  The photo makes me think of Andy’s mom.

“You go girl!”  I heard that often from my mother-in-law, Grandma D.  In addition to be about as kind and gentle as anyone could be, Grandma D was in there rooting for her girls when we needed it.   Adjusting to motherhood?  “You go girl!” Starting a new job?  “You go girl!”  Preparing for the empty nest?  “You go girl!” Tackling a complex recipe?  “You go girl!”  I’m sort of smug in thinking there wasn’t a comparable expression she used for the guys in the family.

I need her little push right now.  Grilling has always been, is, and probably forever more shall be the province of the man in this household, Andy.  But I consider myself a feminist and think that I should be able to do most anything.  So I decided to see what it’s like to grill, rather than bake or roast or saute.

Of course, first I had to try to figure out WHY Andy and I clearly agreed on this division of labor – years ago.  An article from Forbes offered up some plausible theories.  Especially interesting is the idea that 1950s suburbanization caused it: all of a sudden, after a move to the suburbs, men had to figure out what to do with their spare time and in their backyards.  So they started to mow the lawns and grill.  Mind you, I don’t believe my dad, a father in the 1950s, ever grilled, but we didn’t live in suburbia either; plus he was more than happy to have me mow our enormous lawn.

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According to Michael Pollan, in a 2009 NYTimes article, the only kind of cooking that is on the rise in the U.S. is grilling, and it’s being treated as a weekend sport, not as something that puts home-cooked food on our tables every day.  And, as weekend sport, it still tends to be men who grill, though the invention of the gas grill has apparently encouraged more women to find grilling approachable.    Mmmmmm.  Sounds chauvinistic to me.  My I-can-do-anything side makes me want to go build a big hunky wood fire and grill a huge bloody slab of meat, defying any stereotype.

But I’m scaling back (or chickening out?? :).  Andy showed me how to turn on our relatively-new petite gas grill.  And he showed me how to turn it off.  And how to hold my hand over the grill to see if it is hot enough (which, I might add,  I already knew!).  I’m not interested in learning how to clean it.  Or how to do a huge bloody slab of meat on it.  But I am willing to try some simple little grilled appetizers.

You go girl.  Grill. Continue reading

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