The Steinbeck House

How many of you retired folk wake up one morning  and say, “I think I’ll buy me an old house, turn it into a restaurant, and get it registered as literary landmark”? Not your ordinary retirement activity, is it? Not quite sitting and staring at the middle distance waiting for a daughter to ring, or wandering down to the Old Folks’ luncheon club, or waiting for someone else to organise a daytime coach trip to the seaside, is it?

But that’s what eight civic minded, local-food passionates did. At breath taking speed they started the [Salinas California] Valley Guild in 1971, raised $80 000 in 49 days, bought the old Victorian Steinbeck house in 1973, had it re-modelled with fully equipped kitchen, and designed the rest of the house to give a flavour of what it must have been like when Steinbeck was born, lived as a boy, and wrote two of his novels.  Only a year later (1974, keep up with me) it opened as a lunch-only restaurant on Steinbeck’s birthday. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.  You can be led on a tour of the house: in order to get to the toilet you go through the room where the famous man was actually born.  But don’t worry if you didn’t take the tour, for the cellar gift shop has a huge doll house in perfect detail, where you can play to heart’s content.

The number of volunteers stands at 81 these days. Many are octogenarians, which seems to make no difference to their energy levels, their friendliness, their delight in good food, and their detailed knowledge of John Steinbeck’s early childhood. All (except the chef) are volunteers. Extra funds go to local charities.

cookbook

The turn-of-the-century house looks palatial, surrounded as it is by spacious well-kept lawns and gardens, but it’s really no bigger than my Aunt Harriet’s house was back in New York State, about the same vintage. As soon as we entered the Steinbeck parlour, the atmosphere, the scent, and all the furniture reminded me of her house, and I felt loved and at home.  We were greeted by a bank of silver-haired women in white lacy blouses, long dark skirts, full aprons, and sports shoes.  They sat us down to an elegantly laid table (lacy floor length tablecloths, flowers, glistening cutlery) and sumptuous food.

“Remarkable” is mild for such powerfully effective women.

Have a look at their website: www.steinbeckhouse.com .

Apricot Chiffon Pie

Their cookbook is full of recipes from bygone days when it wasn’t a sin to love cream and butter. It’s reminiscent of my Grandmother’s precious cooking notebook and my Aunt Harriet’s dinners.  This recipe is a great company-coming pie because you make it the day before and let it set in the fridge.   I made it for an evening supper meeting.  Further tasters gave this an anxiety-relieving thumbs up.

 

Crust

Pulverise (with rolling pin or liquidiser) 140grams (5 ozs) of ginger nuts (snaps) into a powder – about 14 of them make 1 ¼ cups.  Add  4 tablespoons (4 ozs) melted butter and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Stir.  Press the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie pan. Bake for 12 minutes (no more!) in a moderately slow oven.  Cool completely.

 

Filling

Soak 1 pkt gelatine in 2 tablespoons water, and set aside. Cook 1 cup dried apricots (160gms chopped) with a bit of water into mushy submission, leaving a few apricot chunks. Cool.  Combine in a saucepan ½ cup sugar (115 gms  4 ozs) ½ cup apricot juice (nectar 4 ozs)  ½ teaspoon salt, and 3 egg yolks.  Cook over low heat until thickened, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat, add soaked gelatine, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and cooled apricot mash.  Cool until mixture begins to set.

Meanwhile, beat 1 cup whipping cream (8 ozs) until thick.  In another bowl beat 3 egg whites until stiff with 2 tablespoons sugar. Fold the cream, then the egg whites into the apricot mixture.  Pile gently into the cooled crust, and chill overnight.  If you remove the pie from the fridge about half an hour before you serve it, the pie crust will attach to the filling, so that you don’t see it leering tauntingly at you, still in the pie dish after you’ve served yourself.

My comments:  Cut down the sugar in the egg whites to 1 tablespoon.  Unsulphured apricots may give a stronger flavour.   Or try it with intensely dried mango and thick mango drink, adding lime juice instead of the lemon…might be nice!

 

 

 

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A Make-Do Community

“And to top it all”, she wailed, “when I emptied the last tin of fruit cocktail into the bowl, it wasn’t fruit cocktail. It was cooked carrots.”

Tehran, Iran, early 1970s. I was pretty sure I knew how that could have happened.  I’d been in a favourite shop that week, and saw proprietor and minion sitting on the floor amid towers of unidentified tins, selecting labels from a pile between them.  Labels announced fruit and vegetables from Dole, Del Monte, several Chinese manufacturers, New Zealand, and Europe.  The men would pick up a tin, find a label that fit, and glue it on.  “How do you know what’s in the tin?” I had asked.  “It’s easy,” one replied: “just read the label”.

But this was no time for amusement. My friend was distressed.  She was newly arrived and British.  It was confusing enough to be plopped into a strange country.    It was even more confusing to face the turbulent mixture of cultures and classes that represented people from her native land.  She was trying to fit in and not knowing if she was succeeding.  She longed for her own nondescript semi-detached house on a nondescript street in an English town, with neighbours she understood. This feeling occurred frequently in wives of husbands who had acquired lucrative overseas jobs for the government.   She had invited women to “luncheon”, had burned the crumble in her fickle unintelligible oven, and fruit cocktail was her make-do for afters.  By the time her first visitor arrived she was a wreck.

What she didn’t know, until she opened the door, was that people who live most of their lives overseas are accustomed to ambiguity, and accept any sudden quirk as a Given.  They make friends easily and quickly, and are relaxed and supportive.    Her guests, true to form, were delighted to meet each other. Later, as the unusual dessert was served, there was laughter and amusement.   Each had her own story to tell.  “You never know what to expect in Iran,” they told her, and all agreed.  In this lonely country far from all that was familiar, she had found friends.

Crab Casserole

In Iran, my Make-Do Spectacular was Crab Casserole.   Guests were astounded that I’d found tinned crab somewhere in the city. I hadn’t.  It was tuna.  But since the recipe said “crab casserole” that’s what it remained.  It’s only now, these many years later, that I suddenly wondered what the original actually tasted like.  So here, in honour of Sisters’ Day – the first Sunday in August,  is my sister Anne’s Crab casserole recipe.

Saute 1 lb (450 gms) sliced mushrooms

Add them in a bowl to 1 cup cooked cooled rice, 2 tins (cans) shrimp. (I used 200 gms +,  cooked peeled prawns ), 1 tin of white crab meat, 2 tins condensed cream of mushroom soup (see HINT*), a small onion finely chopped, and 4 ozs grated mature cheddar (sharp cheese).  Save some of the cheese for the top of casserole. Mix well.  Put in a greased casserole dish.  Bake at 375 degrees, mod. hot for an hour.  Serves 6 – 8.

too much cheese?

Note: Woops! I added twice as much cheese as the recipe instructed.  Ooh, it was handsome!

*HINT. A good substitute for  one tin of condensed soup  is a white sauce made with 3 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons plain flour, cooked gently stirring until it doesn’t smell raw.  Then slowly add 8 ozs (1 cup) milk or other liquid (for example, juice from the sautéed mushrooms.  Stir until thickened, about the same consistency as tinned condensed soup.  Add more liquid if necessary.

over cooked, but the crunchy edges were tasty

 

Three sisters — Anne is in the middle

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A Remembering Community

In Memory of Jo Cox

The neighbours get together

It’s a pity that the nation’s politicians don’t live in the trees lining our street. If so they could have received absolutely stellar advice that would have sent them scurrying back to their manifestos to make such changes that would set the nation on fire.

Or maybe not.

We were having an impromptu street party in memory of Jo Cox, a respected Member of Parliament and our Brexit murder victim. We were one of many across the nation honouring her life, and mourning her unnecessary death.  Conversation went on through the cocktail hour into the summer evening until a barbecue was wheeled over, meat and bread were produced, and before we knew it, it was 11 pm.

People analysed, rejoiced, didn’t rejoice, and picked apart nearly every detail of the June election. Some comments were strongly against, some strongly pro.   I could have put it down to the British spirit in their DNA, for loving to watch conflict, a spirit that has moved from mirthful jollity at a medieval public execution to the enjoyment of battling politicians on TV.   The only thing is, this same characteristic has been evident in each of the 11 countries I have lived in.  So, maybe it’s a universal frustration over politics.

Our neighbours talked at length about the WHO, the WHEN, the WHERE, the WHY, but seldom the HOW. What to do about it?  You can’t.  They’re all the same. It wouldn’t make any difference.  So we go on talking, frustratingly, because there’s “nothing else we can do, is there?”

Yes there is. In Britain, anyway.  Try reading Practical Politics by Titus Alexander, who advocates including an element of political education in every university course.  Or go to the non partisan  Democracy Matters website that keeps Britons updated on what’s happening in Parliament, with opportunities to get questions answered, to take responsibility  or get involved.  Political literacy, they tell us, is just as important as being able to read and write.

In other countries you may have to look more widely for your own support. My homeland, the USA, might be a little tricky these days.  I long to hear how you’re handling it all.

Sheila’s Earl Grey Punch

Our party gave me the chance to try this non alcoholic punch (alcohol an optional extra), a recipe that has slept dormant for decades in my scrappy ring binder. It comes from Sheila, a long-term friend and excellent cook.

Make a pint of hot Earl Grey tea. Pour it over 10 cloves  and 3 tablespoons sugar. Stir until dissolved.  Chill.  Quarter fill a jug with ice.  Remove the cloves and pour the tea over the ice. Add 1 pint clear apple juice and lovage or mint leaves. When it’s time to serve, add 1 pint dry ginger ale.  Decorate with apple slices.

Alcoholic option:   Calvados.

Reminder: an English pint is 20 ozs, around 600 ml.

My comments on this:  I should have replenished the ice cubes frequently.  Chilled is better.

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The Airport Community

Going everywhere except here.

Detroit Airport, Michigan USA,   May, 2017.

 A chance to be 10 hours in the airport on my way home to England. I spend it walking, reading, walking, singing, walking, sleeping, walking, and people-watching.  So many bodies are here with me, milling around, but their thoughts, hearts, and souls are somewhere else – Out There.

Coffee from Leon’s TO GO – the server can’t do the math when I offer $5.75 for a $2.75 Americano. But she has a sweet smile. Makes two syllables out of the three-letter word LID.  The coffee is an effete, watery,  liquid probably with added tea.  I watch the lukewarm substance glug down the drinking fountain drain. Throw the soggy cardboard cup away.  Never mind.  I’m in transit.  I’m not really here either.  Don’t have to go to Leon’s again.

Little birds fly around the ceiling, or drop to the floor to peck at human leftovers. Even they will leave the airport at dusk, and go home to roost.

The corridor to Concourse A and B takes me down steep escalators to a wide shallow tunnel with colored side panels.  They suddenly burst alive into music which dances the panels into reds, fuschias, and emeralds. I wander around in wonder, surrounded by a symphony of sound and light.  All this for the pleasure, of traversing to concourses A and B.  What a generous gift for people whose only presence is their physical bodies!

“May I help you ma’am?” a staff member asks as I gape amazed. Staff actually caring and offering support before I know my own need.  I’m not used to this. It happens frequently here.  Staff and volunteers take delight in serving people.

Groups travelling together, joking lightly to cover the anxieties of new adventure. Talking about the future where their holiday really begins.  Not here of course.  This is a Nothing Place.

Guarded greetings of “suits” gather for a 300 member business conference. Hands shaken.  A few wary “how’s it going?”s  suffice until the true meeting takes place in the airport hotel.

Bars with glowing back-lit bottles host strangers who open conversations on safe subjects.  Where from?  Where going?  Past and Future, in an invisible Present.

Echoing announcements warning of imminent departures in the airport’s chosen languages of English, Chinese, and is it Japanese? raise the stress levels even higher.  Messages of  phones and laptops left on board.  Did passengers even notice that they’d lost something as they pushed forward into their own futures?

Passersby talking and gesticulating into the air.  “But why are you never there?”  “Well, if you’re only going to get 400 tomorrow, why not…..”  “I saw the posters and they’re not good”.  “Goodby honey.  I love you.”  I think they’re attached to their hidden phones, but who knows?   Hearts, minds and souls disembodied.  Others, slumped in seats, head down, huddled closely to their tablets, somewhere else, blanking out the reality of their surroundings.

Crowds decanted from recently-arrived planes mix with pilots and flight attendants and interweave with crowds hurrying the other way, their roller suitcases grumbling behind.

Amidst it all, a mother sits on the floor against a wall at Gate 22 breastfeeding her baby, a visible pool of serenity in the surrounding rush. Mother and baby – who knows what their thoughts might be!

Suppertime. And the food that builds this community rejoices in alcohol, ice cream, and deep fried somethings in a bun. But tucked among them all is PLUM MARKET  LIVE WELL WITH TASTE, whose brown paper bags proclaim a thesaurus of mouthwatering adjectives:  “fresh, colorful, tender, organic, gourmet, unprocessed, quality, all natural, lean, authentic,  sustainable, zesty, pure TASTE, crisp, local, slow food, hearty, choice, succulent, classic, housemade, wholesome, traditional, savory, hormone-and-antibiotic free.”  Who could resist?  I choose curry cashew chicken salad and freshly cooked asparagus.  The bag speaks truth.

After a whole book’s worth in time, my flight number is called and I board a Delta jet at 10.25 pm. Seconds later the sun rises over London.  We touch down at 11.10 a.m.  There is husband John to welcome me – wonderful!

In our kitchen I find the outer wrapping of a prepared meal he’d bought: Chicken Dijonnaise.  Never heard of it before.  Have you?  Decide to try it myself.

Chicken Dijonnaise

Heat 1 tablespoons olive oil and ½ tablespoon butter in a wide frying pan.  Fry 3-4 chopped spring (green) onions very gently, then add a cup of so of sliced mushrooms. Remove to a warmed serving dish when done. Leave the oil and any remaining mushroom juices in the pan.  Now very gently add 2 cut up chicken fillets on low heat.  Stir in 1 teaspoon tarragon.  Mix well. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon turmeric. Mix well (again).  When the turmeric no longer smells raw, add a cup of white wine, and poach the chicken, covered, until there’s only a bit of pink in the middle (Unless you’re psychic, you’ll have to cut a piece open to see.)   Remove chicken and vegetables with a slotted spoon to your warmed serving dish.  Boil away the wine until there’s less than half an inch of wine (this will thicken the gravy). Add ½ pint (8 – 10 ozs about a cup) double cream and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Mix well (a third time).  Bring to boil.  Taste for seasoning.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and mushrooms. Keep warm in a low oven. We served this over brown rice.  Worked well.

Home at last — where body, mind, soul, and heart are all in the same place. Hurrah!

 

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Apples — Part One

apples-helmuts-7

With many thanks to Helmut and Christel for sharing this information. 

What’s the connection between apples and your local Council? Plenty, if you happen to live in Rheinstetten, Germany.  Our friend Helmut has a buddy-buddy relationship with his town council – a very forward thinking lot, those people. Their public land is dotted with apple trees, each with a number.  In August Helmut and others sign up for the Apple auction.  Then, on a specified day, they bike over to the requested land, choose the trees they want to bid for, and the highest bidder can take all the apples from that tree. Bidding ranges from 1 to 15 Euros with an average of about €4 (about £3 or $4) depending on the amount of fruit, the accessibility of the tree, and the type of apple.

apples-helmuts-6

Michel (l) and Helmut (r) on their way

Michel (l) and Helmut (r) on their way

 

“The hired tree is yours for the year and one can do what he likes,” says Helmut. He dries some, stores some for winter, gives to friends, takes some to a place that produces apple juice, and also makes Schnapps.  I would guess that Christel, his wife an excellent cook, could find uses for them too.

And, considering that these trees can live to be 100 years old, it looks as if  Helmut will never run out of Council apples.

 

Different types of apples

Different types of apples

How about this tree?

How about this tree?

apples-helmuts-2

Helmut's "helpers"

Helmut’s “helpers”

 

Roman Apple Cake  From More with Less by Doris Longacre.

I’ve made this for a meeting of learning celebrators. We’ll have it as a dessert, warmed and served with a jug of cream nearby..

Mix together well 2/3 cup butter (6 ozs. 170 gms), 2 eggs, 2/3 cup milk (6 ozs. 195 ml) and 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla. Mix together 1 cup sugar (7 ozs. 190 gms) 2 ¼ cups plain flour (9 ¼ ozs, 265 gms) ¼ teaspoon salt, ½  teaspoon baking powder, 1/1/2 teaspoons bicarb of soda, ½ teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Combine with the first mixture and beat until smooth.  Fold in 3 cups  of peeled finely chopped apples.  Pour into greased and floured 9 x 13 pan, or use baking parchment to line the pan.

Topping. Melt one tablespoon of butter, and mix with 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 2 ½ tablespoons brown sugar, two teaspoon flour, 3 tablespoons chopped nuts and 4 tablespoons porridge oats.  Mix with your fingers.  Then sprinkle the topping on the cake batter.

Bake in an oven on moderate heat, about 35-40 minutes.  You can test for doneness by inserting a cocktail stick (toothpick) in the centre of the cake.  If it comes out clean, it is done.

Cake fresh from the oven

Cake fresh from the oven

More about apples next time.. What are your Apple experiences? How did you share them with your community? Send in your stories.  Real apples, mind you, not computers.

 

 

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Don’t start your diet yet

Most of us have had cook books given to us, and one I love was presented toffee-sauce-3to me back when I was a penniless and new  to England, trying to grasp the fact that I would never understand English English, and coping with its wonderfully weird horizon-opening customs.  At this time a friend we’d met in Iran presented me with Poor Cook, Fabulous food for next to nothing [ISBN 10: 1908337133 ISBN 13: 9781908337139 ] by Campbell and Conran.  It is full of truly English recipes unsullied by Americanisms.  If you are trying to get to grips with the UK, as I was in 1973 (and God bless your attempts), this might crack open the door a little way on the World of English culinary delight.

Poor Cook, by Campbell and Conran

Poor Cook, by Campbell and Conran

I still cherish its curling yellow-edged pages, its food-splotched recipes. Why? The instructions are simple and easy to follow.  Better yet, my friend Anne, the donor, has written her comments on certain recipes.  When I see “v. tasty” or  “delicious hot, then we ate the beef cold, v tender” it gives me a clue to what I’m cooking. Besides, her distinctive hand writing reminds me of our long standing friendship.

I’ve just checked online.  The book is still available second hand.

Here’s its achingly simple toffee sauce for vanilla ice cream. I’ve adjusted the measurements so that all are by volume.  That means you can multiply the amounts by whatever container you choose.  I suppose you could make gallons of the stuff at a time.  But this one here will generously lavish its golden beauty on four bowls of ice cream. 

simple ingredients for a quick easy sauce

simple ingredients for a quick easy sauce

Toffee Sauce

In a small saucepan mix together: 1 tablespoon butter, 8 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons golden syrup, and 4 tablespoons thick cream.  Heat gently until all is melted, but not boiling.  Serve hot.  When the sauce hits the ice cream it thickens into a stretchy, mouth-wateringly gooey sauce.  Wonderful.

tasters

tasters

 

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A note about golden syrup. This is gloriously rich and, er, golden.  It’s delicious.  Probably more British than even I am aware.  As a child in a boarding school in India we used to mix it with hot chocolate granules and eat it by the spoonful. If you live in an area impoverished of golden syrup (ahhhh, poor you) you can use corn syrup and add a smidgeon of vanilla to pep it up.

Happy New year to all — may it be a year blessed with new discovery!

toffee sauce enough for 4

toffee sauce enough for 4

 

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Christmas Eve…..

….is a very lonely time for some people. I had to have this explained to me because Christmas Eve to me is the longest, busiest day in the calendar year.  But, I was told, in the world  there are those who are so organised that they have nothing left to do, and those who have nothing to do. That’s why our friend Gordon, who lives by himself, has Open House for his village on Christmas Eve.  “Many single people are invited out on Christmas Day, “ he says, “but Christmas Eve can turn out to be quite empty”.  So Gordon stokes up the fire in the ancient stone fireplace in his ancient house, brews up his secret recipe for mulled wine,   opens the door, and lets the party happen.

camembert-4

That’s the thing about parties. You can plan meticulously.  You can be so prepared that you even have time to apply lipstick before party time (it happened to me once).  But when the first foot of the first guest crosses the threshold, the party is no longer yours.  It doesn’t matter if the sink is piled high with dirty dishes, and half made fruit salad adorns the juice-stuck counters in the kitchen,  newspapers, dead socks, and strangely-placed cushions bedeck the front room.  Relax, smile, hug, offer a drink, and think, “The party has begun, hooray!”  Aside from the lipstick thing, Gordon’s hospitality is known world-wide (he travels a lot).  His village loves to come at this special time of year.

And like the three kings, they come bearing gifts! He told me about a baked camembert dip that was a hearty success.  So I’ve tried to Christmas-ify it a bit.  It’s an easy one, too.

gooey when hot...lovely!

gooey when hot…lovely!

 

keep the wooden frame on for ooze control, if you siwh.

keep the wooden frame on for ooze control, if you wish.

 

 

Christmas Baked Camembert.

Remove the wrappings of a whole camembert cheese, perforate the top in a few places, to help it puff up, place the cheese back in its wooden frame and place on a baking sheet.  Pre-heat oven to 220C or about 475F.  Place in hot oven for 12 minutes.  Remove from box and place in the centre of an attractive plate.  Garland with watercress, cover the top with cranberry sauce (see recipe below), and serve immediately.  The watercress initially was only to give the green for Christmas, but our tasters found the combination of cheese, cranberry and watercress very refreshing.  Serve with garlic bread, sturdy crackers, and,  for the carbo-phobes, sliced apple.  Nice!

Cranberry-Ginger Sauce. Empty one bag of whole cranberries into a slow cooker or heavy-bottom pan. Add a cup and a bit of sugar (yes I know, but it is Christmas), three finely chopped stem gingers, and 2 tablespoons cherry brandy.  In a slow cooker, this can be left alone until you feel like looking at it.  In a pan on very low heat give it a stir now and then,  but be careful of explosions.  Cranberries pop when they cook.  Optional:  when done,  add a couple of tablespoons of Grand Marnier.  It’s nicer if made the day before so that the flavours get a chance to “hold hands”, as the Persians say.

apples for the carbo-phobes

apples for the carbo-phobes

 

May all your Christmases be bright.

Judy Robinson

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