Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shrove Tuesday

Mardi Gras, Carnival, Fat Tuesday, what have you... this is one of my favorite celebrations! I think Shrove Tuesday is more of a British term and means Pancake Tuesday. Since Lent customarily would have been a time for abstaining from meat, dairy, and animal fats, pancakes were a great way to use up all the eggs, milk and butter left in the house.
I have been making pancakes for the past few years for Fat Tuesday, this year though I decided to try crepes. Mr. W is such a francophile so I thought they'd be a nice touch. He isn't a big fan of breakfast for dinner so he requested savory crepes. We had a variety of cheeses left over from the Carnivale dinner party as well as an entire chicken breast from a weeknight dinner. I was determined to clean out the refrigerator of temptations!
I found a basic crepe recipe on line. I was so excited when I read at the end of the recipe that the 2 tbsp of melted butter went IN the batter and not in the pan. I'll admit that I was nervous about making crepes. I'm not the best at regular pancakes and crepes have a rep for being more difficult. I think I did a pretty good job though! Here the batter is swished around the pan to get even coverage.Flipped over, this browning looks good.I used baked chicken breast, mixed lettuce greens and Rogue River blue cheese for the savory crepes.Rolled up they are like a little frenchy burrito! Yum!I planned to make dessert crepes too, the littlest W had maple syrup on his dinner crepes. However we had to go to a meeting at 7 pm and drop off our son first. What a difference a decade makes... I used to celebrate Mardi Gras out, drinking heavily and dancing on the bar. This year we instead went to an orientation at the Reproductive Endocrinologist (RE). Another unsuccessful cycle and relatively normal results from the cooter x-ray and my doctor finally gave me a referral to the RE. Hopefully this will give us take us in a direction that allows us to bring home one more biological baby. The info night ran late though and by the time we picked up our boy and got home I wasn't in the mood to mix up another batch of crepes. We settled on a dessert of the last of the schiacciata.
The fridge is practically empty in preparation for Lent.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Happy Chinese New Year!

I was a little torn as to which holiday to celebrate today: President's Day or Chinese New Year? I hung the flag in the morning, but that was the end of it. I have a Tasha Tudor recipe for Washington pie that I have wanted to try for years, but decided to pass on it for another year, I already have enough sweets in the house and Lent is fast approaching.
Instead I planned for Chinese take out and Mah Jongg. My only problem was the stinkin' Olympics. All my regular Mah Jonggers were too wrapped up watching ice skating or whatever else was on so I ended up with no Jongg either. Although I believe technically the Chinese New Year celebrations extend for two weeks so I still have time to play.
Unfortunately I had to take the littlest W to the doctor for an unexpected visit and they couldn't fit him in until the end of the day. The clinic is in Hollywood so I realized this would be the perfect time to try out Chin's Kitchen. I have long admired the neon signage on this restaurant, but I'd never been inside. That might be because I grew up not liking Chinese food, largely in part to my dislike of rice. Why eat rice when you could eat a potato? I finally acquired a taste for Chinese food while living in NY. I almost exclusively dated Jewish young men while I was there; therefore, I was exposed to lots of Chinese take out. The dining area in Chin's is very small since they cater more to take out and delivery. Yay! Delivery! I have a hard time finding Chinese that will deliver in SE and the place within walking distance recently closed. I see more of Chin's in our future!
We had crab puffs, kung pao chicken, and sweet and sour shrimp. But no Mah Jongg.

Monday, February 15, 2010

St. Valentine's Day

We decided to let our son spend the night with his Grammy after our dinner party Saturday night. It made it much easier for us to clean up her house after she was kind enough to let us transport our party to her house on short notice. This meant we had a Sunday morning to ourselves.
I was very naughty and decided to skip Mass. I was already feeling to tired to get up and get ready when Mr. W tempted me with talk of biscuits. So after popping into Stumptown to get a bag of coffee, we walked over to Pine State Biscuits to get breakfast. We love that this little spot of heaven is so close to our house. It isn't doing my figure any favors though. They have added to their menu since the last time we were there, but Mr. W still likes to get the Reggie, which is a biscuit sandwich with egg, cheese, a piece of fried chicken and topped with gravy. I usually go for biscuits and sausage gravy, but decided to try a ham, egg, and cheese biscuit sandwich. I was happy to see that they finally offer hot tea. I always have to make my own at home and put it in a travel mug before we head over. They were down to one oven so it was a longer wait than usual and so crowded that we had to eat outside. It was a gorgeous day though so we didn't mind a bit.
We walked over to Hawthorne afterward. Mr. W picked out a Richard Scarry book for our little Valentine. I would have liked to go for a longer walk, but he kept insisting that we had to go home; I began to get suspicious. It turned out he had ordered flowers for me and didn't want to miss the delivery. My sorority sister Ms JH, who is also originally from Portland, has a floral business. This is her busy time of year as you can imagine, so I was very excited to have a little visit with her when she made the delivery. the two of them put together a great gift for me. he requests the color purple and she always arranges something lovely!
After Ms JH had to go on her way, Mr. W got down to the busy task of rooting out the dead animal. What a horrible way to spend St. Valentine's Day, but it couldn't be put off any longer. He is so good to me, he never accepts my offers of help in removing carcasses. Poor thing he had to remove some plywood panels in order to access the crawl space where that little effer had gotten in and they burrowed underneath the plastic sheeting to die. After he removed it he used cinder blocks and bricks to block off the access under the stairs. Hopefully that will keep wild and domestic animals out of there.
With the source of the odor removed and the house well aired out, I set to work preparing for our dinner at home. In the winter issue of Victoria Magazine I found the idea of setting up a dinnertable in front of the fireplace for a romantic dinner for two. I loved this idea and decided the 3 of us could fit around a card table in front of the fire. I set the table with peach colored linens I inherited from a great aunt and moss rose dishes from a great grandmother. The copper fondue set came from the Ws. The Waterford champagne flutes and bud vase were wedding gifts.Our very first St. Valentine's day was at the beginning of our courtship and Mr. W prepared fondue at his home. Now that we live here together we have kept this same tradition every year. We each had several fondue sets when we combined households so we are well prepared for a future of fondue parties. This year we only did a basic Neuchatel recipe; our dippers were bread, apples, carrots and broccoli. It was perfectly plenty! This year the littlest W was able to weild the fodue fork to do some of his own dipping. Afterward we exchanged Valentine letters and opened cards. We all enjoyed our fireside, candlelit meal.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Our friend Mr. F lived with us for a few months when he relocated to Portland from Brooklyn. As a thank you he gave us a couple's cooking class at Sur La Tabla. We were taught a winter menu filled with mushrooms and cheeses. We had such a wonderful time taking the class that we couldn't help but thank him back by making the meal for him and several of our other friends. A tradition was born. That was the year we were married so this is the seventh year we have prepared this winter menu.
Every year we have scheduled the dinner party to fall the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Since we have been together I have continued to add more things to sacrifice. For about 8 years after I turned 21 I religiously gave up alcohol for Lent, just to prove to myself that I had no issues. Then I added meat, and eventually chocolate, to the list of things to deny myself. Then one year after reading enough references pointing to the fact that my agrarian, Catholic ancestors likely had a winter/Lenten diet resembling what we would today consider a vegan diet, I decide to go all the way. Vegan is not easy at all for me. Vegan means I really need to cherish my Carnivale dinner party menu.
Carnivale, or "goodbye to meat" is a week long season that culminates on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. I've never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, although Mr. W has. I did spend 5 days in Venice for Carnivale while I was studying in Italy with Ms. H. I can never return to Venice unless it is for Carnivale because there was such a magical spell cast over the city then that I know I'll be disappointed if I return without it. Everyone was dresses impecably in beautiful costumes with elaborate maskes. thise is costumes were mostly in pairs and would promenade around Piazza San Marco through the crowd; whenever two costumed pairs would met they would silently, graciously bow to one another and continue on their stroll. We ended up in the piazza at dusk one night after it had flooded so we had to pick our way through the mist across cafe chairs to get out the other side to return to our hired flat. My memories of that time precious.
There is no delicate way to segue from Venice to the build up to Carnivale 2010. While most of the east coast has been shrouded in snowpocalyps since Groundhog day, we have been enjoying fine weather in the PNW. The problem with fine weather is that when the earth warms up after the frozen temperatures of winter, so do the smells. The house had been smelling foul. I couldn't put my finger on what the offending odor might be. I searched high and low for evidence of recent spraying by the cat in the house, but found nothing for which I could accuse him. I decided it must be the diaper pail and moved it outside. The litter box was empty. I had the windows open in the house for an afternoon to air out any old funk from being shut up all winter. I could find no success in all my hypothesies. And then I slowly realized what it must be.
Something must have died.
I was mortified! I was having a dinner party in two days and once I let the though of a rodent carcass into my head I knew immediately that that was the culprit and I couldn't find the source anywhere in the basement. I even had the Fs over with their dog to sniff out the carcass. I spent an afternoon calling exterminators trying to discover the existence of some high tech gadget that could locate the odor. I was quite literally freaking out. Among the guest list was a woman pregnant with twins. Pregnant women cannot eat a meal with the lingering aroma of death. Nor should anyone else for that matter. I would have to cancel. I couldn't post pone it until the varment was discovered and removed; it would be Lent by then and my chance at steak wrapped around bleu cheese would be gone. So I did what any responsible adult would do. I called my mommy and cried.
Would she mind very much if I borrowed her dining room and moved my entire dinner party to her house? And since I hadn't been able to connect with the middle school babysitter again this year, would she mind watching the three little boys while we ate? She is a saint and reluctantly agreed. She had wanted to take the littlest W for the whole weekend anyway, but we kind of wanted him too. So it was a practical way for us to salvage our dinner party and her to get in some time with her only grandson; her special Valentine. I owe her big time.
We called around to our guests and let them know about the change in venue and everyone was able to join us up in the hills this year. I think it turned out very well considering we had to pack up everything and haul it over the river and through the woods. Good thing we are so familiar with the recipes!
We served crab cakes with lemon aioli, mixed greens with oranges and goat cheese, flank steak stuffed with Rogue River blue cheese and portabello mushrooms and wild mushroom potatoes au gratin, and ended with chocolate hazelnut mousse.
My mother's dining room table decorated with Mardi Gras beads
Extra beads at everyone's place setting; who makes guests earn their beads?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

I was fortunate in that my parents supported me spending my junior year of University abroad. I spent the fall in London and the spring in Florence. The beauty of that semester in Italy was the amount of feast days and holidays that I was able to experience. Carnivale in Venezia, Lent in Firenze, and Easter in Roma. Because I was pursuing an degree in interior architecture my classes focused on Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. We spent countless field trips travelling by coach along narrow country roads to visit obscure little towns, enter the church or cathedral, look at a fresco for a few minutes, then hop back on the bus and journey to the next stop. I feel very lucky all the time that I was given that opportunity. The semester was made all the more special for me because I was there with one of my sorority sisters who was studying the same major. Homesickness is easier to cope with when you have a friend from home to experience it with you.
Ms. H and I love food. We were poor college students though so we only ate out in restaurants twice that I can remember while we were there. Once the first night I arrived and again on St. Valentine's Day. The rest of the time we would shop at the grocery store or the market. We took an Italian language class while there and that helped us when selecting food in cases. We also took an Italian cooking class as a non credit elective. Our teacher Martha gave us many contraband photocopies of recipes from her cookbooks as well as some of her own versions of old classics.
In late winter, during Carnivale, all the local bakery windows would be filled with Schiacciata alla Fiorentina. This is a low, flat cake flavored with oranges and dusted with powdered sugar in different designs. More often than not, that design is the lily of Florence, or a fleur de lis. We never bought one while we were there, but Martha did provide us with her own recipe for the cake. I have never forgotten this cake though. The word schiacciata also refers to low relief carving in stone so much of the art on sarcophoguses or baptismal fonts or niches on buildings was also called schiacciata. I have forgotten a lot of the Italian I learned then, but I have never forgotten the carving technique that shares a name with a baked good!
Since we are in the midst of Carnivale now, I decided it was about time I finally attempted to make this cake. Since I intend to go vegan for Lent again this year, I opted to go for the more decadent version of the cake which includes a layer of whipped cream.
Perfect peaksDusting the top with powdered sugarI didn't want to miss any steps on recreating this cake so I searched online until I found a template for the proper fleur de lis. I happily found one and blew it up to cover the rectangular shaped cake. I really ought to get some velum so I can make a template which I can reuse year after year. Now I have an excuse/reason to purchase a rectangular platter

Monday, February 8, 2010

Everyone and their dog was there

I've heard that expression many times before but I'd never actually seen it so perfectly displayed as I did on Friday. Our friends Mr. & Mrs. F live in South Waterfront, which Mr. W calls Caprica City, and suggested we take the boys to see the launch of the largest barge built in Portland. Zidell Marine built the boat which will be used as an oil tanker. Mrs. F had read that the launch would be accompnied by fireboats with colored water displays. What better way to burn off some toddler boy energy than a walk along the river to see boats in action? It was a gorgeous day too! So at the appointed hour we walked over with the boys and their dog. All the other residents of Caprica City seemed to be there too, all with dog on leash. Maybe it is because I am NOT a dog person, but I tend to avoid majorly dog friendly events so the amount of dogs there made me laugh. (Better than sending waves of fear through my body.)The launch was behind schedule so the littlest W was busy throwing rocks into a mud puddle and I had my back to the boat. I heard a faint whistle and wondered it it was related to the launch. Then Mrs. F shouted my name and I turned to see the barge rushing into the Willamette. Holy smoke that boat moved fast! We aren't sure if it was just gravity pulling it into the river but we were expecting a much more gradual decent. We were all kinds of impressed!Once the tanker was in the river the fireboat started up with their spray and the boys were pleased.There were several private boats that were upstream watching the launch. Suddenly a boat started racing full speed toward the barge. The patrol boat sound its horn over and over again and the boat didn't slow down so the partol boat maneuvered into its path and it finally slammed on its brakes. Do boats have brakes? I don't know, but it stopped short. Mr. F mused that the pilot was either completely unaware joyrider from Lake Oswego or someone from Greenpeace trying to save the earth from another oil tanker. We were glad that our outing did not include a massive boat collision.
Another beautiful winter day in Portland!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Candlemas Part II

Things have been a little discombobulated this week, partly because we lost my uncle to cancer last week. I had invited two friends and their children over for our tamale fest, but both of them had to cancel due to unexected school functions. My parish priest and our sacristan intern were also on the guest list, but his mother is not well and he had to cancel too. Good thing tamales freeze well because I'd already ordered two dozen from Casa de Tamale! We had a nice dinner last night with just our little family. I lit every candle we had in the house to create an ultra candle lit meal.
I decided to post pone the Mexican hot chocolate until tea time today. We had 5 little boys in the house to make the candles and then had hot cocoa and cookies for tea. All the boys were rather well behaved given their youth.Formerly Candlemas was the close to the Christmas season on the old church calendar. Because the bleeding from the delivery was deemed unclean, women were to refrain from going to temple for 40 days. Candlemas was the Purification of Mary or the Presentation of Jesus at the temple. How could a nursing baby travel without his mother to go to the temple without her? I usually take the Christmas tree down after Epiphany but I wait until after Candlemas to take down the remainder of the Christmas decorations. I packed away the nativity yesterday, pitched two rather forlorn looking poinsettias, and disassembled the wreaths. I still need to put away all the golden pinecones, but already the mantle is looking quite bare. It is a good look for the austerity of Lent, but I think I'll display all the family photos I have. The upcoming funeral causes me to want to be surrounded by family any way I can.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


After I moved in with Mr. W and dug out the recipe for Rosca de los Reyes, I read the bit about the person who find the muneca in the bread has to host a party for Candlemas. I started celebrating Candlemas by making my own candles with an at home kit. It works out really well for votive candles and I save spent candles through out the year so I can reuse the left over wax. After a few years I deided to branch out votives and bought a mould for 3" pillars. Those ones are a little harder to fill the well that gets created in the center, but as the years pass I continue to learn from my mistakes and improve the process the following year.
The process for making candles is as follows:
1) Cover your work table with newspaper
2) Hack up the bock of wax into meltable chunks. Rather than contaminating our double boiler, I place a glass measuring cup in a pan filled with water. When we combined households we had lots of duplicates so these are pieces that I only use for candle making. The pour spout and handle help to get all the melted wax into the candle moulds. Early on I used to have lots of spills of wax not getting into the mould.3) Add in color to the wax once it has melted. A little goes a long way. If I am reusing wax from old candles I skip this step and the next.4) Once the wax is the color you want add in fragrance is desired.
5) Pour the wax slowly into the moulds. As it cools the wax will create a sink hole in the middle of the candle so make sure you save enough hot wax in the pitcher to refill the well.6) Once the wax is in the mould slowly insert the wick. I learned the hard way that this has to happen after the wax is first poured in otherwise the wax on the wick will get melted off and then the candle won't burn properly.7) As the wax cools and the well forms around the wick, insert a toothpick to help release any air bubbles.8) Pour in more melted wax into the well making sure to not pour in more wax above the original level of wax. While I am waiting for the candle to set up before I do the second pour, I put he pitcher back into the pan of water which I leave on simmer so the wax stays melted. Then I turn up the heat so that the wax reaches the proper temperature before doing the second pour.
9) Once the wax has completely cooled and the candle has been set up, remove the candle form the mould by pulling gently on the wick. It should pop right out. Trim down the wicks to 1/4" inch before burning.One of my sources listed tamales and Mexican hot chocolate as traditional dishes to serve for Candlemas. Everyone I know who has made or watched a family member make tamales has warned me that this isnot the type of food for the casual cook. I have heeded these warnings and have always bought the tamales. One year they were imported from my friend Ms. H in Tucson and other years Mr. W. bought them from his boss's favorite tamale stand in Hillsboro. Now that he isn't working that direction I have had to find a source closer to home. The last two years I have bought them from the Canby Asparagus Farm which has a tamale restaurant in downtown Milwaukie. It is still a little out there, but I don't have to cross the river to get there which is always a plus in my book.