Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Annie at High Ground Organics

It's winter now so the offerings at our weekly Farmers' Market are not as abundant as in the summer, but Bruce and I go every Sunday rain or shine.   We call ourselves die-hards, who can't live without our regular supply of fresh eggs from Lucy, wild salmon from Pat O'Shea,  red butter lettuce from Annie at High Ground Organics  and juicy, crisp apples from Sylvia and her orchards at Prevedelli Farms. 

I've been going to farmers' markets for more than twenty-five years, but never with the regularity and dedication as I have since Bruce started thinking organic about three or four years ago.  He used to question the amount of money I spent on buying pesticide free and organic, and wondered if it made any difference.   He seemed to think the produce from grocery stores was just as good,  until he watched the documentary film, Food Inc., an unflattering look at how much of our foods are processed by the corporate machines,  how animals are inhumanely raised and slaughtered, and the positive effects that buying locally and eating organic have on our health,  our environment and ultimately our pocketbooks.  Ever since seeing this movie,  Bruce has been a regular at our Farmers' Market,  shopping there when I'm out of town and even changing a flight to return home on a Saturday rather than a Sunday, so we don't miss a week of healthy eating.  Bruce always handles the money and carries the shopping bags, while I search, squeeze,  smell and select. 

As far as I know,  Lucy, the egg lady,  has never missed a week at our Mountain View market.   She is hard at work by 2:30 on Sunday mornings.   Single handedly she loads the back of her white paneled truck with containers filled with hen and duck eggs that she picks from her coop the day before.  She balances her load with heavy crates of other seasonal products, like oranges and kiwi in the winter and ripe tomatoes and sweet cantaloupe in the summer.  She drives three hours from Clovis, a farming town near Fresno in the Central Valley,  to our market in Mountain View, which claims to be the fifth largest in California.  We arrive at 9:00 a.m. when the market opens and make a beeline for Lucy's stand where we select a half dozen or so smooth browns and whites to last us the week.   After buying eggs laid by free-range hens who scratch,  peck and feed on  real food in an open field,  I will never eat store-bought eggs again.   Lucy's eggs have bright, yellow yokes that make the best scramble. 

Bruce at the Acme stand

  A few steps 
away, Bruce gets in line for chewy ciabatta rolls at Acme Bread Company,  while I visit Toby across the aisle at Farwest Fungi.    
Toby at Farwest Fungi

Acme bakes the bread of choice for many top-rated San Francisco restaurants,  so we are fortunate they have a bakery in our back yard.   At Farwest Fungi I pick out fresh shiitakes, which I put in a brown paper bag for proper storage in my refrigerator.   Did you know that shiitakes have four to ten times the flavor of common white button mushrooms?   In addition to their robust, pungent, woodsy, meaty flavor, they provide high levels of protein, potassium, niacin and B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.  I use this delicious form of multi-vitamin in my version of  Milanese risotto, fresh egg scrambles, and my sauteed chicken breasts with mushrooms and  fontina cheese.  

Pam's Delicious Chicken Breasts with Shiitake Mushrooms 

One boneless, skinless chicken breast cut in half to serve two people
a big handful of shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced
two slices of  fontina (or your favorite melting cheese), enough to cover each chicken breast

Lightly season chicken breasts with Kosher salt
Over high heat melt butter and olive oil in saute pan and cook mushrooms, set aside
In same pan heat olive oil and butter over high heat and quickly saute seasoned chicken breasts four to five minutes on a side, depending on thickness (don't overcook)
Remove cooked breasts and top each with sauteed mushrooms
Cover with fontina cheese and broil until cheese melts into mushrooms
Serve Immediately

Missison Fresh Fish

Just the right size for 2
Further on down the aisle, we buy the fish we need for the week from Pat O'Shea at Mission Fresh Fish. The salmon fillets sell quickly at
$17 a pound,  much cheaper than at Whole Foods, but if you buy a larger salmon roast for $12 a pound, they will fillet the fish at no extra charge.  

With regular practice,  we can pretty much eyeball 
the perfect size for the two of us, but if we can't find it,  Teresa or Cynthia rummage through the big ice chests in the back and locate just what we are looking for.    I love watching determined customers forage through bins filled with fish heads and scraps, and then bargain over the cost if they think the odds and ends are priced too high.  

Sylvia from Prevedelli Farms

I learn so much from the farmers when I chat them up and taste their samples like honey crisp apples,  blenheim apricots and thomcord grapes.  Sylvia who owns  Prevedelli Farms in Watsonville grows many varieties of apples and berries like olala's and raspberries from which she makes jam.  Speaking from years of experience and bubbling with enthusiasm, she explains that being present at the market is more about educating her customers and less about making money.  She has been farming in Santa Cruz County for more than 40 years and is a fixture at our Sunday market. 

At $3 a pound,  summer heirloom tomatoes are extravagant, but the season is short,  so it's well worth the money.  Slice open a reddish-purple calabash, top with some fresh burrata cheese, a sprinkle of chopped basil,  a splash of aged Balsamic,  and you will think you are eating al fresca at a trattoria in the center of an Italian city like Rome. 

A Sonoma county rancher always draws a crowd as he answers questions about what makes grass-fed beef taste better, and an artisan cheese maker explains the importance of using high quality milk from her very own herd.   

Even though the prices are considerably higher than traditional grocery stores,  I'm impressed with the number of families who  shop regularly at Farmers' Market.   Parents make it a productive, educational event with mom pushing the stroller while dad carries a tiny tot on his shoulders for maximum views.   What a wonderful way for parents to teach their little ones about how food grows and encourage them to try different things.   Today I met an attractive couple pushing a dual stroller with their twins all bundled up.    The mom told me she was completing her degree in nutrition, and it's never too early to expose your kids to healthy eating.    

To provide some entertainment for the kids, there's a person dressed up in a clown suit, making cartoon characters by twisting balloons,  and there's always a crowd around the live music, maybe some blue grass strummers, a string quartet or a solo entertainer on the harp.  Bruce and I sometimes meet our good friends Sandi and Bob at the market and sit at the picnic tables to drink coffee, catch up, and people watch together.   

One of the things I've noticed about Farmers' Market is that the majority of the shoppers are slim and athletic looking, unlike  heavier people I tend to see at Costco.    I'm not drawing any conclusions, but it's certainly my observation.   And yes, it's definitely more expensive to shop at farmers' markets, but because the food is fresher,  I find it lasts longer in the refrigerator and doesn't go to waste.   Occasionally I shop at traditional grocery stores,  but mostly to buy non-perishables like aluminum foil and paper towels.   However, my market of choice sits in a train station parking lot where I rub shoulders with the dedicated farmers who grow our food and give me the confidence that I'm eating healthy every week. 

Monday, January 14, 2013


Back in the late 1950s when TV was still black and white, one of my favorite daytime programs was called "Queen for a Day."  The show opened with emcee Jack Bailey calling out to a mainly female audience,  Would YOU like to be QUEEN for a day, and contestants would come on stage one by one to tell their heartfelt stories.  The applause meter would determine whose tale was most worthy, and the winner would have her day of glory and perhaps take home the latest model washing machine or a brand new convertible, if she was lucky.  

Well, I definitely don't want a convertible,  but I do want to be Queen for a Day because January 15th is my 69th birthday.   When someone asks my age one year from now, I'm going to have to say the "S word" and that scares me.   People say your age is just a number or it's how you feel inside that counts.   While  I know this is all true, it's still unbelievable to me that next year  I will be categorized as elderly in my medical record, which means I shouldn't be surprised if my doctor suggests playing mind-related games to fight brain drain and aging.  

Moving into a new decade enables one to look back and reflect and look forward and dream.  In 1965,  when I turned 21,  I thought the world was my oyster.  After all I had everything I ever wanted.  I was a new bride and content doing what I was doing, which was becoming an expert at hitching my wagon to my husband's star and thinking dependency was love.  

Turning 30 was another milestone, an age when younger people said you couldn't be trusted.  My birthday party invitations had a pencil drawing of a tombstone with my name on it, beckoning my friends to come and morn the passing of my lost youth.    In my mid thirties, I joined a women's group. Gloria Steinem had just published Ms. Magazine and feminism was a new word in our vocabulary.  Activists were burning their bras,  and being a part of a women's group seemed like the trendy thing to do.    At our first meeting I said,  "I don't need to be here because I have a husband to confide in."   Years later some of those same good friends told me how insecure that cocky statement made me sound.  A couple of years after that, an enlightened friend introduced me to EST, and I impulsively signed up for the mind-bending seminar, much to my husband's objections and hurtful words.  After two intense weekends, I started growing mentally.  I began to shift my state of mind and think about how I fit into the world.  I began to realize  I was putting up with life rather than living it.   A new person began to evolve, slowly but surely.   As critical as some people still seem to be of EST founder Werner Erhard,  I never thought of him as a fruit loop.  The EST training was not about not being able to go to the bathroom.    It was about personal growth and taking responsibility for yourself.   Afterwards, I bought self-help books written by gurus, psychiatrists, and highly evolved leaders.  Once a week for almost a year,  I met with a small group and discussed the meaning of life through a book we read entitled A Course in Miracles.     People, like my then-husband, began to notice I was making changes in my life, having my own opinions, for example.  I wanted my own credit card.   Instead of running for exercise like my husband and his friends, I found my own sport in lap swimming, made new friends of my own and didn't mind that sometimes my skin smelled like chlorine.  

In my 4th decade I felt like a real adult for the first time.    My marriage of 20 years ended just six months before my 40th birthday.   I tossed out the self-help books and began living my life  rather than just reading about how to do it.    I legally gave up the married name I thought sounded pretty and took back the beautiful name I was born with.   I had a new boyfriend who helped me believe in myself.  Others saw qualities in me that I didn't know were there,  and my career moved in the right direction.   I got married for a second time to a man who respected me and opened  a personal brokerage account at Charles Schwab.
Danskin Triathlon

Writing fifty on a passport application was hard to swallow,  but that's the year I started riding a bike.  I also completed a triathlon with a time I wouldn't brag about, but was something I could be proud of.    After nine years,  the second marriage ended abruptly and was not of my doing, but it was ok because I knew I could make being single again work out for me, and it did. 

 Turning sixty wasn't so scary.  In 2004 I was (and still am) in the most honest relationship of my life,  retired from many years of working,  the healthiest and skinniest I'd been in a long time, and financially independent, which was important to me.  Since then I've added a bunch of countries to my long list of places to visit, but I'm not as skinny as I used to be.  Over the last few years I've learned that a balanced life is about prioritizing and keeping perspective.  Not about how much you weigh.   

In 2013 I intend to laugh a lot, tell my friends and family how much I love them, ride my bike regularly,  hike some, swim a little,  swear as much as I want to,  try and be more patient, read good books, write daily,  cook and eat healthy,  drink less, and most important, snuggle often with my husband.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Dinner in 1963
If asked, I will say that cooking is not something I learned growing up.   As a kid, cooking meant licking the cake batter off a wooden spoon.  Early in my married life,  I cried a lot, especially when the stew beef I was browning caught the pan on fire, and I had to toss the smoking pot and burnt food out the front door into a snowbank to cool off.    As a 20- something student wife, I didn't enjoy cooking but learned some of the basics along the way, like boiling water.  I'm embarrassed to tell you this, but a college friend of my ex-husband still kids me about coming to our tiny apartment and being served cold cereal and bottled beer.    A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese was a staple in my cupboard, but eventually I progressed to making a casserole called hamburger surprise  --  ground meat and elbow macaroni mixed with canned tomatoes, and layered with  sour cream, diced green onions,  and grated cheddar cheese.    Back then I thought it tasted pretty good and served it to company.  No one had high expectations in those days.

I had limited culinary exposure as a kid even though my Dad owned a restaurant in our small New Hampshire town.    He was better at giving directions to his cooks than donning a chef's toque himself.   I'm not sure why Greeks are known for running restaurants.  Maybe it's a cultural thing,  in the same way Koreans own dry cleaners, Sikhs drive Taxis and Vietnamese women do nails.   He didn't go to business school, but the restaurant business was in his blood.   Credit goes to Daddy for distinguishing different cuts of meat and knowing which ones were tender and could be broiled versus those that were tough and needed to be braised.  He made friends with all his suppliers and drank shots of whiskey with his favorites.       

This is a true story.  At the time of a severe potato shortage in the late 1940s,  my father was able to procure several bushels of Idaho potatoes the size of oranges to sell at his restaurant called the White Mountain Cafe.  Knowing that people always want what they can't have,  he came up with a clever idea.   On the  front window of his restaurant, an artist painted a picture of a steaming potato smothered in melting butter under which was written:    BAKED POTATO $1.99,  T-BONE STEAK FREE.    Somehow this bit of creativity was picked up by the Associated Press,  and for years after, my Dad proudly showed off the clippings he'd collected from newspapers  around the country.  

 At home my mother created a nuts and bolts menu that was hard to screw up -- spaghetti with tomato sauce,  broiled chicken,  and roast lamb for special occasions like Greek Easter.  We ate butter and sugar sandwiches on Wonder bread while other kids ate peanut butter and jelly on Pepperidge Farm.  My mother's idea of cooking a steak was to put it under the broiler and call my father because he could tell by poking the piece of meat with a fork that it was perfectly done, just the way we liked it -- medium rare.

When I moved to California in the mid 60s,  I joined the student wives' club at the university where my husband was getting a graduate degree.  There were many activities offered.  You could learn to play bridge,  find a tennis partner or go on day hikes in the coastal hills.     I chose to join the international cooking group because the wife of  a Peruvian student promised to teach me how to make the most delicious appetizer I'd ever tasted  --   pitted prunes filled with caramel made from sweetened condensed milk, wrapped in bacon and put under the broilder.  Many of the young wives represented  nationalities that were very exotic to a New England jejune like me -- India,  Spain, and China, just to name a few.  There were Jewish girls from New York who excelled at making matzoh ball soup and big-haired gals from Dallas who cooked Tex-Mex.   Before I left New Hampshire, my mother-in-law taught me how to make New England baked beans, so I had a traditional dish to contribute as well.

New England Baked Beans
I don't know when I morphed from being a food ignoramus to becoming a foodie, but most likely it began when I moved to California,  joined the international food group, and watched Julia Child on TV.   Over the next several years, I became more adventurous and open to tasting and cooking different kinds of exotic food.   A  student wife from New Delhi taught me to make a simple lamb curry, and together we made fruit chutney from fresh apricots that came from my neighbor's tree.  With instructions from a Spanish girl, we spent hours making traditional Paella using duck, chorizo sausage and shrimp mixed with rice that had been simmered in broth and infused with real saffron threads that someone's parents brought back from the Middle East.   I was  excited to meet a first-generation Greek girl like me who knew how to make baklava and explained about wrapping unused phyllo dough in wet linen cloths so the thin pastry sheets didn't dry out and become useless.  And when it finally became my turn to introduce a regional specialty to my international friends,  my fool-proof recipe for New England baked beans mixed with real Vermont maple syrup and layered with smoky salt pork was a big hit.  

Ravi Shankar and his sitar
After tasting authentic Indian food at ethnic restaurants on my first trip to London, I wanted to go beyond using the conventional pre-mixed curry powder and learn how to cook with the real-deal spices imported from India.   I knew a Bengali woman who was married to a Hungarian man I worked with, and  approached her about teaching me how to cook Indian food.  Once a week for more than a year I went to her kitchen and learned how to create Indian breads like herb nan and puffed puri.  With whole spices like cardamon, cumin, coriander, and fenugreek which we ground ourselves, we made basmati rice biryanis,  meat curries,  spicy vegetable dishes like chopped cabbage sauteed with black mustard seeds and cooked with shredded coconut, along with many other specialty dishes using clarified butter called ghee.  After feeling reasonably confident with these new cooking techniques, I invited six food-loving friends to our home for an authentic Indian meal.    The only missing component was traditional sitar music playing in the background, so  I called a local alternative radio station and asked if they would play Ravi Shankar from 6 to 8 p.m., while my guests drank Taj Mahal beer and dipped deep fried pakoras in a spicy mustard sauce.  I'm still amazed that the radio station went along with my idea which resulted in a very successful Indian dinner party.   

Moroccan ladies showing off their home-made bastilla

Still cooking together a year later, my Indian friend's Hungarian husband taught me how to bone a whole chicken, stuff the cavity with a filling made with Roquefort cheese and flame it with brandy at the table as a spectacular finale.     After a delicious dinner at Marrakech, a famous 1970s Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco,  we mastered a recipe for bastilla, a traditional dish painstakingly made with shredded layers of chicken, an egg mixture, and ground almonds, wrapped and baked in phyllo dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  

My fettucini in gorgonzola sauce was so delicious that my freshly- departed husband of twenty years had the nerve to ask me to share the recipe with the woman he left me for, but I knew better than to comply.   Without a man to cook for and in my despair, I resorted to eating canned soup and  grilled cheese sandwiches until I found a boyfriend who loved my boneless pork roast simmered with sliced apples and served in a calvados cream sauce.

Several years later my new husband (not to be confused with my current one) proclaimed himself a vegetarian grazer and  announced that the elaborate meals I enjoyed making were no longer on his diet.  This meant that after our breakup,  I could resurrect my beloved cookbooks and eat a real meal with real food (and with a real man) again. 

When I read Bruce's ad on and saw a relationship developing around our mutual love of good food and exotic travel,  I knew I had met the man of my dreams.   The first time he came to my house,  he brought imported pate from a gourmet shop and complimented me on my dishes.   This was the beginning of a life that dreams are made of.   

But here in  2012,  people don't seem to cook or entertain the way we used to, spending hours researching a menu and cooking for days.   Friends are more inclined to spontaneously invite you to a potluck dinner and ask you to bring something simple.  Meals are more informal and focus on eating healthy with fewer calories and no fussy desserts.  Organic vegetables from Farmers' Market sauteed in extra virgin olive oil to accompany wild fish or free-range chicken are what I typically serve.   Salads made with right-out-of-the ground red butter lettuce, California avocados, and just-picked heirloom tomatoes are my specialty.   Non-fat Greek-style yoghurt from Straus Family Creamery in Sonoma County replaces sour cream and two percent milk works just as well as half and half without the extra calories.    I prefer to spend more time outside  riding my bike than being stuck in my one-butt kitchen.   The diversity of where I live offers a plethora of high quality ethnic restaurants, and the delicious Indian food I used to make at home is now available at a  Zagat-rated restaurant we can walk to.   Just a few miles from our house is a main shopping street where there are a dozen or more outstanding Asian, Italian, and tapas-style eateries.   Regardless of where I am on the cooking spectrum,  I will always keep the two volumes of Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in my cookbook collection, but have made a prominent place for Alice Waters Simple Cooking  on my kitchen shelf.   These days I've been known  to have cold cereal for supper,  but I add a handful of fresh berries and leave the beer in the refrigerator.