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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

  Best wishes to you and yours! I hope you have many things to appreciate this year.

I hosted the feast at my place for my parents. The menu:

-Red lentil soup
-Mushroom and feta tart with oregano
-Butternut squash baked with leeks and garlic
-Green beans*
-Mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and basil-infused olive oil
-Green salad (romaine lettuce, avocado, cucumber, tomato)*
-Greek olives*
-Pumpkin pie
-Cranberry nut bread* (one of my Mom's specialties: * indicates Mom brought these).

It was very relaxing, and completely worth staying up until 1 a.m. baking, so I could sleep in this morning and start the other dishes late. :-) The tart and my mother's cranberry bread were the non-vegan items on the menu; I need to come up with additional vegan items that my parents will love for feasts like this.

I hope you get the rest of the weekend off, and can enjoy some quality time with the people you enjoy most!

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posted by Arlene (Beth)6:53 PM

Monday, December 29, 2008

Holidays, and How They Make Me Fat

  my nuclear family, Christmas Day 2008[Image at left: my family, Christmas Day, 2008]

Ordinarily you would have read several messages from me by now, outlining all of my plans for a vegan (or near-vegan) Christmas/Solstice feast. You may be wondering why I haven't been either boring you or making your mouth water, depending.

Well, this year I was a guest at my Mom's feast, and so all I had to do was show up! Although, since I couldn't imagine NOT making something, I had a baking frenzy on Tuesday night, at which I produced (a) a pumpkin pie (vegan - duh); (b) a cranberry-apple pie to bring to my mother's house, with extra cranberries (also vegan); and (c) eggless tart of spinach, feta, and artichoke hearts (merely lacto-vegetarian). (a) and (c) were instructed to wait for us at home while we were away.

iPhone Maps function indicating that we were in SalidaWednesday after work, S collected me, and we dragged out through central valley traffic to my mother's house. It's been a while since I visited, and there were so many new malls along Highway 99 that I didn't remember seeing that I actually whipped out my phone to be sure we were really hadn't missed our exit. The first generation iPhone has a gps-impersonating function that uses cell phone towers to determine your location, and it did a very good job of finding us, at least until we were in isolated places - and even then, it came pretty close in guessing where we were, it just missed the roads.

My mother plied us with a three-cheese ravioli dinner. I made myself a couple of Cape Cods to shake some of my work stress, but that wasn't really necessary: my father had put his Jacuzzi on high, and let us soak in it until we got too sleepy to stay in it.

Oh, how I slept. Better than babies sleep.

In the morning, I celebrated the arrival of Christmas with ANOTHER long soak in the Jacuzzi, followed by one of my father's fried potato-and-onion breakfasts. Oh, the glories of fried food!! The fries taste great, of course, but they lubricate my insides in a way that takes many days for my body to work through...

Just a few hours later came the feasting at my mother's. My family has never been especially fond of turkey, and my parents both loathe ham, so our family tradition is lasagna (also spelled lasagne, as if you care). My mother made a veggie one for her SF herbivore guests, and a ground beef version for the rest of the family. We also had an enormous green salad (red lettuce, a bit of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, marinated artichoke hearts, avocado, Italian dressing), garlic bread, sparkling cider, and my cranberry-apple pie.

It was a lot of food. A lot of very tasty food, but a lot of food.

We headed back to the City in the late afternoon, and for once were lucky enough to avoid traffic along the route everywhere but Tracy, where there is always traffic, and not for any obvious reason. Of course, when we were hungry again, we had the spinach and pumpkin pies waiting for us...

I'm getting full just thinking about it. And kind of tired. I'll have to gush about what I ate on my birthday some other time.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Halloween Redux, part three: pumpkin foods!

  fifteen inch long banana squashImage at left: fifteen inch, two dollar banana squash from Alemany farmer's market.

Dinner at my cousin's place was fabulous: he served a kabocha squash (the very dark, blue/green/black squash you see in the market, similar to hubbard but not as lumpy) that had been baked whole, pureed, simmered with coconut milk and mild curry spices, and then had more squash added later, so that the soup was thick and smooth, with chunks of firmer squash resting in it. It was soooo good! Rich, satisfying, and perfect for the cold, wet weather we have been having. (And vegan, which maximizes its perfection!)

I have been on a winter squash bender.

It's not like there is any lack of spring and summer food still available in this strangely warm, dry year. A week ago at the farmer's market, mounds of strawberries and plums confused what would have been an otherwise autumnal theme, with stalls filled with apples, winter squash, and persimmons.

Late summer is running especially late this year. My haul last weekend included: raspberries (three baskets for $8), red kuri squash (pictured below), banana squash (above), butternut squash, green beans, young red onions, cucumbers, pomegranates and fresh pomegranate juice, mixed sweet and hot peppers, sweet bell peppers, pluots (including the locally popular "flavor grenade"), guavas (!!), avocados, plums, limes, garlic, and a range of tomatoes, including some very intensely flavored, DEEP red dry-farmed tomatoes that make a heavenly, heavenly salsa.

For pumpkin carving at home, I had a simpler menu of pumpkin foods this year, to reflect the highly informal, spontaneous nature of the event. I still managed to serve four kinds of squash: long, yellow, orange-striped, ovoid delicata; kiss-shaped red kuri; pear-shaped, beige butternut; and yellow-orange banana. I baked all of these, halved and seeded, in casserole dishes with a bit of water in the oven for about an hour at 400 degrees Fahrenheit prior to adding them to the dishes below:

-Kopan pumpkin soup: a sweet and mildly hot soup of baked and pureed butternut squash, onions, chilies, cinnamon, and ginger root. It is an unusual way to have pumpkin, and is warming in several gentle, pleasant ways.

-pumpkin quesadillas: flour and corn tortillas filled with a sauté of sweet-hot peppers, onions, chunks of baked red kuri squash, cumin, cayenne, and basil. Served with homemade guacamole (this time just avocados, garlic, lime and lime juice), a salsa fresca (a chunky puree of dry-farmed tomatoes, onions, sweet-hot peppers, and red onions), and tortilla chips.

red kuri squash-pumpkin pie: a puree of delicata or butternut (one of each) with tofu, four pumpkin pie spices, succanat, and vanilla extract, served with whipped cream. This was an experiment: I usually make this pie according to this recipe, using a combination of honey and brown sugar. Succanat is basically evaporated cane juice, which hasn't been bleached or processed the way white and brown sugar have, and it has a lot more flavor of its own. It worked very well, and came out just as good as the honey/brown sugar combination usually does: the only catch was that the pies made with this recipe don't really have full flavor until they've had a chance to chill for a day, and I made these in the morning. They were okay that day, but have been fabulous ever since the day AFTER I had people over...

The delicata squash make a lighter colored, more delicately sweet pie; the butternut makes for a slightly redder, more classic "pumpkin" pie. I rarely use the classically round, orange "sugar pumpkins," just because these other squash are so insanely good.

As I am typing this, there is a spaghetti squash in the oven. Feign surprise...

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:14 AM

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Post Script to Merry Happy Whatever: Feast Menu.

Partly due to my inability to manage solids, we kept it very simple this year. We had:

-Winter Squash and Leeks Baked in Parchment (from the Greens Cookbook), which was a lovely mix of gold (from acorn squash) and the bright green of leeks and herbs
-a variation of Black Bean and Pepper Salad (also from the Greens Cookbook), which included sweet corn and omitted onion. This was a lovely burgundy/purple (the beans), yellow (corn), and red (sweet peppers), with flecks of green cilantro.
-rosemary mashed potatoes. This was a combination of unpeeled russet potatoes, mashed with a puree of tender, fresh rosemary leaves from the garden with extra virgin olive oil, soymilk, and a little salt. It was cream-colored, with flecks of brown and green.
-sparkling apple cider. (Though I am now more partial to sparkling pear cider.)
-chocolates, from our gifts to each other.

It took about an hour to prepare these dishes, which left us no real waiting time to assemble the cranberry apple pies. We decided that we'd rather lounge around in front of the fire than bake pies, so those will wait until later in the week.

(I was able to eat just a little of each dish before my stomach showed any sign of resistance.)


posted by Arlene (Beth)9:27 PM

Monday, November 26, 2007



infrared photograph of trees along the Tuolomne River in Modesto by A.E. GravesIt was another one of those gorgeous days that made me want to stay in the City, but it was also Thanksgiving, a good time to visit my parents.

My parents live in the town of Riverbank, California, a few hours away from San Francisco by car, and slightly longer by train. (Amtrak used to stop in Riverbank and a very old-fashioned, simple looking station stop, rather than in Modesto, the largest town in the area. Eventually, Modesto built a better station (this being quite relative), and the train started skipping the Riverbank stop. Vagrants moved into the tiny Riverbank building, and it was eventually burned to the ground. Now, when I take the train out to see my folks, they pick me up in Modesto.) They moved there about 14 years ago, after a struggle to sell my childhood home in a weak housing market. They sold the house and managed to get two (and for a time, three) separate, look-alike houses out in new developments in the Central Valley. They had sold the SF house, in part, to be able to live separately, yet somehow managed to purchase separate homes on the same block in Riverbank's River Cove development. For a time, my father moved into another house a town away, in Oakdale, but returned to Riverbank recently.

At the time they moved out of the City, they spoke of what 'my room' would look like when the houses were finished and they could move in. And I kept pointing out that I lived on my own in SF. Which did not deter them. It's nice that they wanted me to move with them. But... You know that saying about how you can take the girl out of the City, but you can't take the City out of the girl? It's wrong. You CAN NOT take the girl out of the City. Not if the girl is conscious. She will not go willingly.

My parents' ever-changing neighbors found their living arrangement to be a sign of (a) wealth, since my parents could mysteriously afford TWO $114k or so homes, and (b) peculiar. After my parents had been living there for some time, my mother introduced herself to a new neighbor who was just moving in and talking to the folks around her, seeking the gossip of her new block. She told my mother that she had just been informed that there was a married couple living separately on the block, their houses nearly (yet not quite) back to back, and that they had dug a secret passageway in between... Which made my mother laugh, because the story had to be about my folks. (Note: they do not have a secret passageway. Or a non-secret tunnel. Just so you know: they live separately because they do not get along very well.)

Even though they aren't very far away, I do not visit my parents very often. There are a few reasons for this. The main one is that their area becomes unbearably hot in summer. Wretchedly, praying-for-nightfall, shriveling up like a raisin hot. A college classmate of mine worked near Modesto, and ran a harvester all night, explaining that the grapes and other crops had to be harvested at night, because during the day, the workers would faint in the heat, and the machines would overheat and malfunction. You can imagine what that heat does to a native San Franciscan, whose maximum functional temperature is a mere 78. My earliest visit in summertime occurred during 112 degree weather. It was one of my last summer visits.

Also, I am not partial to the smell of fertilizer, natural or synthetic, and it appears to be a dominant regional fragrance. Also, I am allergic to... well, everything. During their first few years there, I would visit quite frequently, but was plagued by what I thought were weekend cases of the flu each time. Eventually, I figured out that it's grass seed and other things that are abundant there.

My parents aren't much hardier than I am: they've just adjusted their lifestyle to include cable television (Sci Fi!) and hiding indoors during daylight hours half of the year.

There is an oddness of visiting my parents in 'not-home.' When I visit, I am not going home. Home is HERE. Home is in the City by the Bay. When I visit, I am visiting my parents in their new houses, which is different. I feel sentimental about my dear parents, and my younger sister, and her sweet children... But I have no connection to the place where they live now aside from my visits. There are things that are familiar to me that they took with them from the City, but it's kind of like seeing your things on display in a museum: they've lost their context.

I have even had trouble photographing there. It took years before I could really get a camera out during my visit and point it at anything. I have lots of photos of my nieces, or my parents, but... they're all indoor photos. There was nothing outside that really attracted my attention. At night, I would step outside and look at the wide, starry sky, and marvel at how it stretched all the way from horizon to horizon... and then rush inside to avoid the mosquitoes. Or, I would walk around the development, and try to decide if there was any reason to photograph more than one of the houses, since they all looked alike...

Then my mother took me to Knight's Ferry. KF is a historic spot where people were able to safely cross the Stanislaus River back in the day. There is an old mill; the river, which is dammed about 7 times between the town and its headwaters, looks somewhat natural, in a lovely, rocky channel with deep pools; the river is surrounded by oak woodlands and pastures... It's just gorgeous. And it's especially gorgeous in infrared.

So I'm loosening up. I'm now dedicated to photographing the Stanislaus in the dozen or so parks run by the Army Corps of Engineers, who have apparently claimed the land downstream of their dams for public recreational purposes, which is novel. I've only photographed in three or so of the spots I'm interested in, and plan to explore more of them with my mother on future visits. (In temperate weather.) I can usually only photograph things I am sincerely interested in and/or have some affection for, so this is a pleasant sign that I'm forming a bond with their new home region.

My mom took us for a walk in the town of Modesto during this visit, along the Tuolumne River. The Tuolumne, whose Grand Canyon high in the Sierras is one of my favorite spots on the earth, is a completely different looking river by the time it reaches this section of the Central Valley, but there is a charming park along its banks which was nice to walk off some of our oversized meals in. And so, to even my surprise, I now have a set of the only photos I have ever taken in Modesto, California. I have never given Modesto much thought, aside from a brief analysis during a ride through town that involved comparing the number of fast food joints to the number of cardiac care facilities. But now I have visited a river I'm sentimentally attached to in town. Which gives the experience a strange context, but there it is.


Our Thanksgiving feast was great: a vegetarian lasagna (full of fresh spinach, fresh mushrooms, roasted sweet peppers, ricotta, and mozzarella, layered between pasta in a homemade sauce); a green salad with artichoke hearts; black and green olives; home made pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and Breyer's natural vanilla ice cream. My mother prepared everything and accepted little help in cleaning up, so it was luxurious for us.

We walked in a little park along the Stanislaus River after feasting, watched Transformers and Happy Feet, had more lasagna, went to bed... And woke up to my father preparing fried potatoes, pepper jack cheese omelets, and biscuits...

Then came the walk in Legion Park in Modesto. (Sights seen in passing: the Gallo Winery. The City-County Airport. A police action involving a public park and several police cars. Jacked-up trucks.) And then more pie, and ice cream.

Then we returned home, miraculously bypassing any sort of traffic jam in Tracy, to sleep away the afternoon while trying to digest all that food.

I really couldn't ask for more. Except perhaps to see my newest nephew, who is several months old. Or for my parents to move to a spa town, so I could spend every visit soaking in hot, gloriously sulphur-filled water. Or a million dollars and a pony. Oh, never mind - what I mean is, I had a pleasant visit.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:52 PM

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