Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Dinner Party Report

I had my first official grown-up dinner party this past weekend. I have given parties before, and much as I love the idea of a party, I often fret the entire time, wondering if everyone has enough to drink or has someone to talk to. I was curious to find out if the dinner party would cause me more anxiety or less.

For a party, as long as you've got snacks and a place to sit, people are pretty happy. For a dinner party, the stakes seemed higher. I wanted my guests to think I had some idea how to cook, that they had a meal in a clean and inviting environment, and to see me as a relaxed and pleasant hostess. The last part being the most challenging. Must envision calmness...

I chose a Mexican theme as I wanted to play with mole and my friend Allison's tortilla press. And, of course, I adore Mexican food. I'll have to write about my Mexican culinary experiences another time, as they could certainly take up several entries. So the question became, could I myself replicate anything close to my experiences in San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca or Puerto Escondido? The answer, yes and no.

I used Rick Bayliss' cookbook, Mexico: One Plate at a Time for many of the recipes. It's a good, thoughtful book that I'd recommend. He and Diana Kennedy are American cooks who are known for their Mexican cooking, although any Mexican would probably roll their eyes at these gringos. I also used some of the knowledge I gained from a wonderful one-on-one cooking class I had while living in Central Mexico two years ago.

The menu looked like this:
Garden salad with a home-made (improvised) cilantro pepino dressing.
Sopes -- little Mexican boat shapes which you top with black beans and cheese.
Chicken with Mole sauce -- roasted chicken and a sauce from Oaxaca
Chilaquiles (a tortilla casserole, recipe from Rick Bayliss' cookbook)
Black beans and rice (duh)
Fresh made tortillas -- using Maseca, an instant tortilla mix
Flan and chocolate sorbet -- flan recipe from Rick Bayliss
Decaf Coffee with Mexican cinnamon

Saturday was shopping day. Reflecting Boston's dearth of Mexican restaurants, we also do not have the bazillion Mexican tiendas like NYC does with the authentic ingredients, such as queso de campagne or even proper Mexican chocolate. (Though of course you can buy some of these online). However, I did find a Salvodorean place on Broadway in Somerville (Ball Square, next to the Portuguese Bakery with wonderful pan queso). There I was able to buy Maseca, crucial for tortillas, some imported queso blanco. When I found out the small block of cheese was $6.50, I cringed and the grocery store owner started offering me a lower price! This was a bit startling since we don't usually bargain up here in the Northeast. I tried to tell her it was OK, but she still charged me less. Guess that's the benefit of shopping from the little shops.

The chilaquiles were the most challenging while at the same time the least gourmet of the group. I mentioned to the grocery store owner that this was what I was making and she gave me a funny look. After learning more about chilaquiles from the cookbook, I realize it was because I said the Mexican equivalent of "Guess what, I'm having a fabulous dinner party and I'm going to serve tuna casserole!" You basically whip up a tomato sauce and some greens, add stale tortillas and serve. Not very fancy, but very authentic. Sadly, the chilaquiles weren't the biggest hit on the table. People weren't sure what they were or what to think of them. So, we'll cross that one off the list for future fiestas.

The flan was a really fun dessert to make. I didn't have little custard dishes, but Bayliss said you could use coffee mugs, which was not very elegant, but they worked wonderfully. Once I'd cooked up the flan, it was really fun to release it into the little bowls, listening for the sound of the flan pulling away from the sugared mugs and landing with a satisfying ker-shlump.

The chocolate sorbet is a very simple recipe: 3/4 cup sugar, 3/4 cocoa (must be high quality -- hershey's won't do), 2 cups water or coffee, vanilla. Throw it all in the ice cream maker and go. I also added a pinch of salt and a pinch of cayenne. It has this amazing consistency, almost like scraping the sides off a slightly melted chocolate bar. Everyone loved it.

A major factor at a dinner party is the conversation. We mostly ended up discussing the new Michael Moore movie (Farenheit 9/11), and did our standard bemoaning of the state of the world. Folks lingered over coffee until it was time to take the 8 year old home for her bedtime. At the end, I found I was exhausted but extremely pleased. I'd had a great time, and I think my guests did too. Despite the bemoaning over the state of the world, the fact that a group of 6 can still get together for a home-made meal and good company seems like a positive sign for civilization.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Duck goose goose

I ride my bike to work, about a 15 mile round trip ride through Arlington, Cambridge and then into Boston along the Charles River on the Storrow Drive side. It's a lovely ride, especially in the cool mornings before the trail is crowded with runners, bladers, and walkers. I also encounter the occasional urban wildlife: squirrels, mice, chipmunk, ducks, those freaky black cormorants that swim half underwater, two blue herons, and lots of geese. Being late spring, I've especially enjoyed spotting the baby animals that are following Mama Duck and Mama Goose around. They are so quintesentially cute that I can hardly stand it, all fuzzy and small and peeping like cartoon versions of Easter baskets. For a moment or two, I stand there in awe of the scene and then eventually ride off and let the panicked mother goose relax.

I recently noticed a mother goose with her brood of maybe 5 gray goslings toddling along, and bringing up the rear, a lone yellow duckling. What happened? Did Momma Duck disappear? Get hit by an errant roller blader or eaten by a fast-fingered hungry homeless person? How did this duckling find this new family? And can he/she keep up with the geese when they fly south? If she does, will she always have some sort of complex from having grown up as the, er, odd duck? That whole ugly duckling story was suddenly a tableau vivant in front of me, and it brought a queer pang to my heart. I wanted to explain to the little duck that it would all be ok, it would all come out in the wash, not to worry. Sadly, however, I do not speak duck. I could only cluck in sympathy and ride on.

It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to figure out in about two seconds that the pang I was feeling was related to my own story. I'm the odd duck in my family, the black sheep, the weird bird, and my intense sympathy for the little peepers runs more than skin deep. I do wish someone had tried to point me in the right direction when I was floundering and perplexed at my differences. Someone to simply say, "It's ok little one, it will all come out in the wash. You're doing fine." And perhaps some tried, but I was too lost in my own flailings to notice. And I did do fine in the end, or at least I think I've turned out OK so far. So I guess that means I have more than my fair share of desire to connect to others in the same predicament. And I imagine you do too, reader, around the areas of your life where you have struggled. Where today you try to lend a hand even if you don't speak duck. I guess that is what humans do. After all, we're all some kind of black sheep and odd ducks in our own way, trying to figure out where we belong.

So I'll keep an eye on the little peeper if I can, not that I can do much in my twice daily visits to her little family. I'll keep my fingers crossed that she finds her place and her peace in the world.

UPDATE: 6/30/04 I'm still seeing my little friend, whom I named Bonita the Duck for no other reason than calling her that makes me laugh. Lately as I've ridden by on my bike, she is in a grassy area with the other geese, consuming enormous quantities of lawn which seems to be a favorite goose past-time. However, I don't think ducks really do this. It's a little alarming to see this fluffy yellow bird putting so much energy into keeping up with her siblings in eating ... grass. Hm. Future may not look so bright for Bonita the Duck.

The Little Photo that Launched a Career

Chairs at Bodie, photographed by dillard c2004 Posted by Hello

As I am learning how to write a blog, I wanted to figure out if I could include photos. So far, this is as fancy as I've been able to get. This is a photo I took about ten years ago in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, in a ghost town called Bodie. A stunning and eerie place. The day I visited I had one roll of film with me, and I just clicked away. Later, as I sorted through and shared my photos with friends, some commented that I should think about doing something with them. I didn't think much about it, but years later I enlarged a few photos and hung them in my apartment. As friends came over to visit, some began offering to purchase them, which always surprised me. With their encouragement and a little boost from the Stebbins Gallery at my church, I decided I could try selling a few at Somerville Open Studios, an annual artists event in my old town. When complete strangers started buying my work, I became more convinced that maybe I could do this after all. This launched my work in Boston as an artist, which now has expanded to painting and sculpture.

So I thought it would be fun to share my "signature" photo here. I tried to figure out how to put it up on the right hand corner of this page but I have yet to determine how that works. I'd be happy for hints! Stay tuned for more photos now that I know the trick!

Intro post

Thanks to a friend who encouraged me to check out how easy and fun this was, I have entered the world of blogging.

What do I have to offer the greater public in my own special little blog corner? Well, nothing more than my own interests and passions, my musing about things I bump into. I'm pretty sure I am what one smart woman called a renaissance soul, so I like to wander around various ideas.

I'm sure I'm not the first blogger to have this brilliant concept of blogging at will, but that's what it is going to have to be.

So maybe you'll get insights on any of the following, or maybe not.

Art and my life as an artist
Non-profit management
Herbs / Natural medicine
Religious studies
Perhaps a political note or two.

I hope at minimum this blog is fun to read. If it gives you something to think about or a new avenue to explore, well, that's great.