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December 30, 2017

Newport & Balboa Holiday Lights Cruise

For their present this year, I took my folks on a holiday lights boat tour given by Davey's Locker which toured Newport and Balboa.  Though it's my tradition to watch the Marina Del Rey Holiday Boat Parade from the shore each year, I'd never seen holiday lights like this - homes decked out on the shore, seen from a boat.  It was really something and a memory I won't soon forget.  

The tour was after dark, so I expected it to be especially cold out on the water.  We prepared by bringing blankets, hats, and scarves as well as mugs of soup, crackers and wine.  As it turned out, it worked well to have brought a light dinner with us, and we found a spot to sit inside, below deck, where we had a beautiful view but stayed nice and toasty.  Still, I was glad we had brought what we'd needed.  We took turns stepping up top to take some pictures, and enjoyed each other's company.  

I bought our tickets in a Groupon deal, then had to go to the company's website to make a reservation with my coupon code.  My parent's visit was actually after the holiday, so the event was not too competitive because of our timing so it was not hard to get the date and time we wanted; while the boat was full, it wasn't overly crowded.  The ride itself lasted about an hour, but you had to be there a bit early to check in and wait in line.  The boat company's staff was efficient and professional, but kind.  We needed to pre-board as my folks have some joint issues, and they had a place for us to sit and wait.  They let us take our time getting on and off as well.

Waiting for the boat to board.  That's our boat, the "Western Pride," behind my dad. 

Since the boat was rocking gently, most of my pictures were blurry.  I think that says more about my lack of professional equipment than my skills, or perhaps both.  I focused mostly on enjoying the moment, but thought I'd share a few shots with you to encourage you to add this to your calendar next year.   It was a great way to end our holiday season!

December 22, 2017

Crock Pot Cheesy Tomato Soup

What defines comfort food for you?  This soup is one of my favorites.  It's easy to make, simple, and delicious.  The ingredients are cheap too, though you can spruce it up with the addition of expensive pine nuts.  If you don't have them, substitute another nut, or leave them out.  The secret to the creaminess and flavor is the cream cheese, melted and blended in as the final step. 

The soup freezes well, so I often take it to work with me.  Its a staple in my weeknight cold-weather dinners.  And it makes a perfect football game night dish, or party appetizer.  

This recipe is an easy clean up--just one dish, made easier if you remember to use a crock pot liner bag.  I fill my kitchen sink with soapy water before pureeing the soup, so that I can run my immersion blender in the sink for a few seconds after the soup.  Because I don't let the blender sit around, it comes clean easily too. 

Crock Pot Cheesy Tomato Soup

2 lg (23 oz) cans Hunts whole steamed tomatoes
1 box veggie stock (about 4 cups)
2 cubes frozen basil (about 1/2 tsp finely minced fresh basil)
1/4 tsp minced garlic
1 8 oz package cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
1/4-1/2 c. pine nuts

Place all ingredients except cream cheese and nuts into crock pot on high for two hours, or low for four hours or more, with lid on.  About 15 mins before serving, cut cream cheese into large chunks and add to crock pot.  Use a fork to pierce any whole tomatoes floating at the top of the crock pot.  When the cream cheese has had a few minutes to soften, use an immersion or stick blender to puree the soup just before serving.  If you don't have an immersion blender, you can puree the soup in small batches in a regular blender.  Toast pine nuts in 325 degree oven for 3-4 minutes or use raw.  Mix pine nuts into the soup and add as garnish before serving. 

December 4, 2017

Gingerbread Bar Cookies with Eggnog Buttercreme Piped Icing

Do you have a group gathering that symbolizes the holiday season to you?  For me, its the yearly Food Bloggers Los Angeles cookie exchange and holiday party.  We had nearly twenty bloggers and bakers contribute their homemade goods.  The smells, warm ambiance and welcoming conversation of this event makes the season special to me, especially on the years I don't get to travel back to be with family. 
FBLA's 2017 Cookie Exchange Table
My plate for the 2017 FBLA cookie exchange
I try to do something different for my cookie exchanges every year; this year, the recipe was new, but it was also the first time I made buttercreme icing, and tried a piping bag.

The loaded piping bag with tip.  The bag is just a regular ziploc!
I was inspired to try a gingerbread bar cookie this year by one that was sold at a fundraiser, but I wasn't able to meet the baker to ask for the recipe.  So I turned online and searched.  I was looking for the gingerbread flavor, but neither a rock-hard version, nor a cake.  I was attracted to the recipe I chose because it called for no eggs, so I thought it might make a denser, less cake-like bar cookie.  As it turned out I was right.  This recipe makes dense but not hard cookies.  It's almost a shortbread, so I cut the portions small.

Gingerbread Bars

1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup molasses  

1.  Mix brown sugar and butter together till creamed, scraping down the sides of the bowl well.
2.  Add spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and salt and beat to combine.  
3.  Gradually add the flour and baking soda while mixing.  Mixture will be dry.
4.  Add the molasses and beat to combine.
5.  Prepare an 8x8 pan by lining with aluminum foil and spraying with cooking spray.  
6.  Pour dough into pan and pat down to hard-pack it.  It will be crumbly but bakes together much like a shortbread.  
7.  Bake at preheated 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Center will be set and edges will be pulling away slightly from pan when done.  Bars firm up as they cool.  Store in airtight container or freeze.  

Eggnog Buttercreme Frosting

Approx 4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup butter, softened
4 Tbsp Eggnog

To softened butter in a stand mixer, slowly add powdered sugar, blending well.  Scrape down sides completely and blend again.  Add eggnog one tablespoon at a time as mixer is running till combined, observing the consistency.  For maximum eggnog flavor, add the full four tablespoons, but if you prefer a stiffer icing, use less liquid.  Load icing into ziploc piping bag with tip, and pipe as desired.  Let stand 10-15 minutes for icing to set, or refrigerate to set. 

My Notes:  I was out of cloves, and didn't miss them in the dough.  The original recipe said not to use blackstrap molasses in the dough as it would be too heavy, but it was all I had in the pantry, so I went with it and again, I liked the results, though I haven't tried it with the lighter version to see if it would come out better.  This really was like a gingerbread-flavored shortbread--high butterfat--so cut the cookie portions small.  Dust icing lightly with nutmeg if desired. 
Original recipes for bars and frosting credited to Averie Cooks and Two Sisters Crafting, respectively. 

September 12, 2017

Everything to Each Other: My Parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just a couple years ago.  They held an open house to mark the occasion, and each of us kids helped in some way to make it a memorable event.  It was a fun but somewhat informal affair at my mom's choosing; I made a photo slideshow that played on a side table, but there were no formal speeches.  Recently, I tried my hand at writing a toast.  Though this occasion had passed, the speech assignment was my opportunity to express what my parents have meant to me as role models, so I wrote a theoretical toast that I would have given had I been asked to speak at their golden anniversary celebration.  The parameter for the assignment was that the speech be no more than 4-6 minutes aloud, so I was practicing brevity even as my heart was full with all that I've learned from my folks.

Thank you all for being here tonight as we celebrate Jane & Curt's Golden Anniversary.  A wedding anniversary is the culmination of love, trust, partnership, tolerance, and tenacity, in no particular order - but most of all a celebration of laughter.  I'd like to tell you how my folks' marriage influenced their work, community life, and above all, their primary emphasis on family.

My mom, Jane, followed my dad, Curt, through three states and back as he was promoted and transferred up the corporate ladder in Human Resources at a large grocery chain.  We moved about every two years, from Chicago, IL, to Salt Lake City, UT, to Orange County, CA, and back to Utah.  They met at the University of Illinois, where their first date was to a St. Patrick's Day dance.  Jane supported Curt as he pursued an MBA, and in turn he supported her through nursing school, while raising three children.  I recall learning to count to a hundred in kindergarten by counting out a package of paper lunch sacks (which came in a pack of 100) in my parent's bedroom while mom was studying for nursing school.  I had the pleasure of taking a few courses with my mom, when she went back to school to get a bachelors at the same time I was in college.  Jane had her own career as a NICU nurse and grief counselor, always growing her skill set as she became a hospice chaplain.  We were never more proud of my dad than when he reinvented himself to head the local Catholic cemetery for the last chapter of his professional career.  My parents taught me to continue to reach for new boundaries in personal and professional growth and set the stage for me to follow my dreams.  

Community has always been central to my parent's way of life.  Their faith sustains their relationship.  Always active in their Catholic church parish, whether it be couples club, ladies' guild or Knights of Columbus, most of their friends have come from their church activities.  When they retired and moved to Nashville, they gave service to their new community by volunteering at the local hospital.  These activities showed me how to make friends, how to give back, and how to find a sense of belonging. 

But always, nothing has been more important to Curt or Jane than family.  There's a greeting card in my baby book, signed by my brother Gregg, that says "Welcome to the family, Eric."  Apparently my brother and sister had a bit of a betting war when I was in the womb.  My brother, having lost, thought he might change the outcome before "it" came home from the hospital if he addressed his card to a boy.  I like to think my folks taught him to love me.  As this story shows, our home has always been filled with humor.  Christmases have always been a huge deal in our house.  My mom loves to decorate and to entertain, and that holiday is one where she goes all-out.  Perhaps the greatest sign of love for their family was Jane and Curt's decision to return closer to their extended family after retirement by moving to Tennessee, where they could easily and regularly visit their siblings in Southern Illinois.  My parents' treatment of each other is the embodiment of the word "family."  Their devotion to each other continues to grow, as they've seen each other through health issues.  The way they cherish their relationships continues to instill their values in me and my siblings.

My parents have been my central role models throughout every stage of my life.  They continue to give me hope that the right match is out there for each of us.  Their work, community focus, and devotion to family have laid the groundwork for all of us to share in their happiness.  Please join me in a toast to their next decades of love and life together.  To Curt and Jane!

August 30, 2017

Culture and Education in Modern Art at the Broad Museum

Angry Because its Plaster Not Milk, 1965, Edward Ruscha

What do you do at a museum when you know you've only got an hour to cover the whole facility?  Take lots of pictures and read the signs at home in your photos....What do you do when the subject is one you're not entirely familiar with?  Take selfies for your facebook profile. 

The Broad Museum downtown Los Angeles is one of the newest cultural establishments that are free and open to the public.  It's been around long enough to gnaw at me that I haven't been, so I finally went online for tickets, thinking I would go in six or eight weeks.  To my surprise, I got a four pack of tickets for the following Saturday at 7pm!  Less than a week to wait.  Later I realized the museum closed at eight, so I might rather have waited a month or so for available tickets that were earlier in the day.  But we had the tickets, so my friends and I went, thinking we'd get an overview and learn how to schedule a repeat trip. 

To my surprise, I did make it around to all the exhibits, though I probably would have lingered longer if I were not concerned about the closing time.  My favorite, of course, was the Jeff Koons, both the Balloon Dog and the Tulips, but there were so many great installations.  Most of what spoke to me came from their permanent collection.  The lower floor was a temporary exhibit called "Oracle," about the complexity of the systems that underlie our world.  The middle floor of the Broad is composed of their vault, where they store the collections not on view.  Interestingly, this area is exposed through a glass elevator and portals in the wall of the stairwell, so that the public can see how their operations work.  The upper 3rd level houses the permanent collection on view.

Oracle Exhibit Summary
Review, 2016, Andreas Gursky, part of "Oracle" exhibit
Untitled (You are a Very Special Person), 1995, Barbara Kruger
Why?, 1990, Christopher Wool
Untitled (Men in the Cities Ellen), 1981, Robert Longo
Balloon Dog Blue, 1994-2000, Jeff Koons
Balloon Dog Blue, 1994-2000, Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons Artist Statement
Tulips, 1995-2004, Jeff Koons
Black Flowers, 1961, Roy Lichtenstein
Mirror No. 1, 1969, Roy Lichtenstein
Green Blue Red, 1963, Ellsworth Kelly
Hustle n Punch by Kaikai and Kiki, 2009, Takashi Murakami
Untitled (Your Body is A Battleground), 1989, Barbara Kruger
Campbell's Soup Can (Clam Chowder Manhattan Style), 1962, Andy Warhol
Two Marilyns, 1962, Andy Warhol
Under the Table, 1994, Robert Therrien
Artist Statement of Under the Table, 1994, Robert Therrien
Angry Because its Plaster Not Milk, 1965, Edward Ruscha
Broad Museum Vault, portal in staircase

August 29, 2017

Lemon Curd & Nutmeg Acorn Squash

Last week, the temperatures were in the high seventies and low eighties.  Today, we topped 108 degrees, according to the thermostat in my car.  I could taste fall last week, and imagined all the wonderful flavors coming so soon.  So I picked up an acorn squash at the grocery.  

Easy to make and lovely in presentation, this dish is so aromatic it will catch your attention long before it reaches the table.  It's a great side for a special occasion like Thanksgiving, but need not be saved for company. 

Lemon Curd & Nutmeg Acorn Squash

Cook the squash as you normally would - I typically slice lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, then invert into an 8x10 inch pyrex pan with about a quarter inch of water in the bottom.  I then bake at 325 degrees for about forty minutes. 

Once cooked, take the squash halves out of the water bath, turning them right-side up.  Add a pat or two of butter, a generous tablespoon of lemon curd, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.  Broil for 5 minutes until bubbly.  Top with toasted hazelnuts or pine nuts for extra decadence.

August 15, 2017

{Vegan} Bacon-Roasted Chickpea Snacks

Confession:  I don't love popcorn.  It gets stuck in my teeth.  It has little flavor, unless doused in butter.  I'd prefer to eat my butter straight, by the stick.  So I've been looking for a healthy movie snack.  And I think I might have found it:  Bacon-Roasted Chickpeas. 

I adapted a recipe from CoinnisseurusVeg.  Which is to say, I added Trader Joe's "Everything but the Bagel" seasoning because, Why not?  Seriously, don't you like your weekend breakfast bacon on an everything bagel?  The flavors are naturally complementary.  Although I don't eat meat, I've been growing accustomed to the umami flavoring of smoke.  This recipe utilizes it to its best effect.  I can absolutely see serving these as an appetizer on the back patio alongside a good Merlot and the traditional cheese and dried apricot tray. 

Another thing I love about this homemade snack is the scale.  One can of chickpeas makes just enough for one person to graze upon.  If you're making this for a family movie night, I definitely suggest tripling the recipe.  Or quadrupling it.  Or even just for yourself.  The original recipe suggested using a 9x13 baking pan or jelly roll sheet pan, but I found my small plate and toaster oven perfectly sized.  I first made the marinade/brine in a bowl large enough hold the beans.  As I rinsed the canned chickpeas and removed the coating, I dropped them into the brine, whisking every once in a while.  It took ten or fifteen minutes to de-hull the entire can, so by the time I'd finished, most of the chickpeas had been marinating for a while.  I think this "soaking time" made the snack extra flavorful.  My addition of bagel seasoning was mildly successful -- the sesames and chunky herbs didn't stick to the beans, but I do think they flavored them.  And the seasonings will be in the handful at the bottom of the bowl.  Next time I may add the bagel seasoning after the chickpeas are roasted so that they don't get burned. 

One final note:  I think this is the type of recipe that takes repeat practice to know your own oven and the level of crunchiness you like in your snack.  I don't like overly dry, hard nuts, so I tended towards under-baking these for the first time around.  Also, I thought they might (air) dry out a little more in the few days before I take them to the movie theater.  Having experimented, I think I'll roast them a little longer next time around.  But you may feel differently.  And you may be working with a regular oven, rather than my toaster version. 

Bacon-Roasted Chickpeas

1 Can Chickpeas, rinsed and drained 
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Tbsp Soy Sauce
1 Tsp Liquid Smoke
1 Tsp Maple Syrup
1 Tsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Tbsp TJ's Everything But the Bagel Seasoning

Mix all liquids in a bowl big enough to hold the beans.  Remove the hulls from the chickpeas after rinsing them, placing the beans in the marinade, and whisk occasionally.  Lastly, add the bagel seasoning.  Mix all to coat.  Dump the beans in a pan or plate with a lip.  Pour any remaining liquid over the beans.  Spread flat as possible.  Roast at 350 for about 40 minutes, stirring every ten minutes for the first half hour.  After 30 minutes stir at five minute intervals.  Let cool before storing in tupperware or glass jar. 
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