Mason jars

Spices in Mason jars

I’m back home in San Francisco now, and when I reached for my jar of za’atar to sprinkle on my hummus this morning, I thought of one more item to add to my list of benefits of Houston over San Francisco, which I posted about a few days ago, and that’s the better availability of my favorite Mason jars.

Star anise in a Mason jar

A few months ago I decided I needed a new solution for storing my spices, which were in metal tins that were starting to get rusted and bent, making them hard to use. I knew I wanted to use Mason jars, which I figured would stand up better to constant use and washing and would be easily replaceable when I needed more. The problem was, I wanted these super-cute squat half-pint pint jars that I found online

Spices in squat pint Mason jars

but they were nowhere to be found in San Francisco. I scoured every housewares, hardware, and cookware store I could think of and had no luck.I discovered that I could order them online from the few sellers who weren’t out of stock, but that the shipping would cost more than the jars themselves, so I wistfully gave up on my favorite jars and decided to go with these smaller, 4-ounce half-pint jars for most of my spices …

Spices stored in half-pint Mason jars

But then, lo and behold, my mom came across the magical squat half-pint pint jars, called “Ball Collection Elite Platinum Wide,” at her local Walmart. She bought me 8 of them  and sent them along. I am so in love with these jars. The wide mouth makes the jars easy to use, and they’re just the perfect size for most spices. And they’re so dang cute!

Saffron in a wide-mouth Mason jar

Unfortunately, when I was in Houston last weekend, and I was excited to stock up on more jars, I was informed that they were a “seasonal item” and wouldn’t be stocked again until next summer.

Until then I’ll have to stick with a combo of the two types of jars …

Spice jars

Though the obsessive-compulsive in me that needs all the jars to match can’t wait until I get a full set of the pint jars. But does that mean that I have to visit Houston in the summer? Oh dear …

Guilty pleasures

Tookie's Bean Burger

Tookie’s bean burger

For the last four days I’ve been enjoying some downtime in Houston while I recover from putting in two solid weeks of 12-hour workdays. I’m afraid all of my family in Texas consider me something of a snob, since whenever I’m there I fuss about not having access to my usual hippie grocery co-op or a large selection of highball and old-fashioned glasses in the cabinet. Still, I have to admit that Houston has its own charms—especially now that it’s February, and I don’t have to deal with the swampy, 100-plus-degree weather of summer.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the guilty pleasures I’ve been enjoying for the last four days.

1. Football … on a 60-inch TV no less

Superbowl on the big screen TV

I grew up watching football, but I haven’t been able to follow it properly for years since we don’t own a TV. So I was more than a little excited when I discovered that I would be at my parents’ house, which is equipped with a spanking-new 60-inch high-definition TV, for the Superbowl. Of course I made cocktails for everyone who gathered at the house for the game.

2. A yard full of fresh mint … and beautiful peaches in the freezer.

Mint in the back yard

I can’t grow mint to save my life. Everyone says it grows like a weed, but I have managed to kill it in pretty much every way possible. But at my parents’ house, the yard  is always overgrown with the mint and basil, no matter the season. Add in the beautiful peaches my mom froze last summer, and I had the makings for one of my favorite cocktails, the Kentucky Colonel, which was a huge hit at the Superbowl party. More on this drink later, when peaches return to the farmer’s market in San Francisco.

Kentucky Colonel ingredients

3. Tookie’s!

I grew up going to the roadhouse Tookie’s for hamburgers, onion rings, and old-fashioned cherry Cokes. Though it closed a handful of years ago, burger aficionados—and especially my mom—were thrilled when it reopened recently

Eating lunch there made me happy that I had been subsisting on veggies dipped in homemade hummus and bowls of steel-cut oatmeal for the previous few days, because there was no way I was going to pass up  ordering my favorite burger from my teenage days, the Squealer. Putting your average bacon burger to shame, the Squealer is made from beef and bacon ground together into a decadently awesome patty.

Tookie's Squealer

My mom’s choice is always the Bean Burger (shown at the top of this post), a hefty beef burger stuffed with refried beans, salsa, cheese, and Fritos. It’s totally too much, and yet somehow just right.

4. Shooting heavy artillery at the gun range.

Mom with a Glock at the gun range

Until this week, I had shot a gun exactly  once, a relatively small .22. My parents, however, being proper Texans, have a concealed handgun license, and own a Glock 17. Being your usual San Francisco liberal, I have complicated feelings about my parents’ owning a gun, but when they suggested we go to the gun range, they didn’t have to ask twice.

The CocktailHostess at the gun range

The end of an era

 

A few weeks ago, my parents, who live in Houston, decided at the last minute to host not one but two different parties (on consecutive nights, no less) to celebrate my father’s retirement. It’s not clear whether it was their fondest wish to have their beloved youngest daughter (ahem, that would be me!) in town for the celebrations, or whether they simply didn’t want to be bothered manning the cocktail shaker for each of the  parties. Regardless, they flew me home for a quick two-day trip to join in the festivities. Though it was undoubtedly generous of them to spring for my last-minute plane ticket from San Francisco, at least it was cheaper than hiring a bartender two nights in a row, as I frequently reminded them during my short trip home.

I’ve written about having parties in Houston before. I like to whinge about how my parents’ suburban liquor store doesn’t stock Miclo creme de violette from France or my favorite brands of French Cognac, or about how I have to make do with my parents’ too-large tumblers instead of having access to my own collection of highball and old-fashioned glasses. The same was true this time, and so, mixologically speaking, these parties weren’t my finest moment of cocktail achievement. I tried to take advantage of the produce in my parents garden (at this point a bit wilted from weeks on end of 100+ degree heat), and I had to concede that half of the guests would rather have a Shiner Bock beer (Texas’s best brew) or vodka martini (the saddest “cocktail” ever, in my opinion) rather than take a leap with a cocktail concoction they had never heard of before. At least I turned my most loyal blog reader onto my own desert island cocktail, the Sidecar, which was initially a hard sell among the Houstonians.

Although the cocktails I made  (basil-gin gimlets, mojitos, sidecars, and the London Dry Sangria I worked out for a wedding a few weeks ago) weren’t particularly inventive, the parties were a great success … less because of the food and drink and more because of the occasion we were celebrating.

My father went to work for the U.S. space program, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, in 1966, two years before I was born. With his electrical engineering degree, he started working on the primitive computers that guided the Apollo rockets in their flight. I love these photos of my dad working for the space program during the Apollo program because in some ways they look so unlike him (he’s nearing his 70th birthday), and yet in other ways they are so clearly him.

Dad during an Apollo flight

Dad supporting an Apollo flight

Dad is on the right

Since Dad starting working for the space program not quite two years before I was born, it has been a part of my life all my years. My very first memory as a child is of watching one of the Apollo rockets lift off. We lived in Titusville, Florida, at the time, about 15 miles away from where the rockets launched. My father always had to be at work during the launches, which took place in the early morning, which meant that my older sister and I were always home alone with my mother. I remember our mother plucking us out of bed in our pajamas and sitting on the back of our Dodge sedan in the carport while we watched an Apollo rocket rise into the sky, looking for all the world as if it we could just reach out and touch it.

As much as the space program has been a part of my life, this was even more so for my parents. At one of my Dad’s retirement parties he mentioned that there had been 135 shuttle launches. Since he specialized, among other things, in launch support, he would always get up in the wee hours and go to work at Mission Control for each launch (actually, he was usually in the room next to Mission Control, where he and the other engineers would monitor the systems). I asked him how many of those 135 launches he had missed, and he said that he had been at Mission Control, or at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for all but three or four of them. Add in the 15 or so Apollo launches he participated in between 1966 and 1972 and he witnessed the arc of the U.S. space program for 45 years.

So even though Dad is more of a beer drinker than a sophisticated cocktail tippler (hey, at least he graduated from Schaefer Light to Heineken some years ago!), I raise a cocktail (maybe a Blue Moon, one of the few cocktails other than Aviation to use my beloved creme de violette) to Dad. Now all I need is one of these cocktail shakers for my next party in Houston.

A pie shake? Who’d have thunk?

lemon-buttermilk pie

Last night I went to Chile Pies & Ice Cream, the cutest little restaurant/dessert cafe I could imagine, where there were about 10 kinds of house-baked pie.

This, however, is what truly blew my mind …

pie shake

This, my friends, is a pie shake. You pick your pie, you pick your ice cream, and then you watch them mash them up with some milk and top it with an outrageous quantity of whipped cream.

You want a slice of green chile apple pie swirled with Strawberry Je Ne Sais Quoi ice cream? That’s your prerogative. Apple chai pie with golden raisins mixed with a scoop of milk coffee? I don’t mind if I do! Just remember that you’re going to have to eat it with a spoon to get at the chunks of crust that are floating in the creamy substrate.

I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, so I asked for an entry-level combo: a slice of chocolate-peanut butter pie mixed with vanilla ice cream. And dang if the Cocktail Host and I didn’t polish it right off.

Grandma’s Molasses Cookies

I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by my collection of cookbooks from the early to mid-twentieth century. Reading recipes for dishes like chipped beef in aspic or drinks made with clam juice, strained ketchup, and nutmeg (nope, not making that up!), I feel like I’m watching a train wreck. I know nothing good will come of it, yet I can’t look away. And chapter intros that ask “Are you doing right by your man” by adding a “soupçon of spice” to your family dinner somehow make me want to smack someone upside the head and tie on my apron at the same time.

I have long wanted to host a dinner or cocktail party featuring nothing these old-school recipes, a huge percentage of which rely on lime Jello or canned vegetables or aspic and meat assembled in a ring mold. Still, my courage fails me every time. Will I discover that “Potted Pigeons” are much tastier than I would have imagined, or will my guests blanch at the prospect of “Jellied Fish”?

Today I hosted a lunch for my mother-in-law and a few other guests before we sat down to an afternoon of bridge. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out some of these old recipes, especially since I have been assured by one of my books from 1938, Thoughts for Food: A Menu Aid, that “Down six hundred points won’t be nearly as serious a matter after one of these two-course meals which are guaranteed to put all in a most affable mood.”

But a trip to the farmers’ market yesterday changed the game. With all that beautiful spring asparagus and tender baby Tuscan kale spread out before me, there was no way I could justify making a meal out of boiled mackerel and canned lima beans. So in the end I decided to make asparagus tips with a roasted garlic aioli, risotto with shiitakes and dried porcini (foraged by my mycologist friend), and a kale salad dusted with grated ricotta salata.

Still trying to capture something of the original spirit of my idea, I decided that for dessert I would make a recipe that I recently came across in my grandmother-in-law’s recipe box from around 1930.

Grandma's recipe box

Here’s the recipe, as it’s tidily typed on an index card in her box.

Grandma's recipe card

Molasses Drop Cookies

1/2 cup fat [I used butter]
1 cup sugar
1 egg
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup sour milk [I used low-fat buttermilk]
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup raisins

1. Cream fat and sugar thoroughly; add beaten egg.
2. Add sifted dry ingredients alternating with milk and molasses; add raisins.
3. Drop from teaspoon 3 inches apart on greased tin [I used parchment paper instead of greasing my baking sheet.]
4. Bake in a moderate oven.

Temperature: 375°F.                           Time: 12 to 15 minutes.

Once I gathered together the ingredients …

Molasses cookie ingredients

Everything came together in a jiffy.



Of course, I suspect grandma used a wooden spoon rather than a KitchenAid stand mixer, but there’s no reason to be a Luddite about baking, is there?

The result? Delicious molasses-scented treats that are soft and cakelike, almost more like gingerbread than a cookie.

 

All in all, they were just right for an afternoon of bridge, even if I did skip one book’s suggestion to precede dessert with a “a gelatin ring salad of vegetables or fruit and small finger sandwiches.” I’m still working up the nerve for that menu.

Mystery recipe for Orange Curaçao

Grandma's recipe box

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few days pawing through my late grandmother-in-law’s recipe box, which she compiled while she was teaching home economics at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s or ’50s studying home economics at the University of Minnesota around 1930 (she then taught high school home ec from roughly 1932 to 1937). More on this later, as I’m trying to drum up the courage to make some of the recipes in it, like a “Banana Meat Loaf,” which, I’m informed, is “a help to any budget.”

There aren’t any cocktail recipes in the box, if you discount a brandy-infused Cafe Brûlot, but I came across this one card that has me thoroughly bamboozled.

Orange Curasol?

If I’m reading it correctly (and I’m not sure I am), it says:

Orange Curasol

Suspend juicy orange (Cal.) orange above pt [pint?] alcohol (1/2 inch) in open bowl for couple of weeks or 3.

Add simple syrup when cool.

3 cups sugar
1 1/2 c water

Boil till thickness of a liquor.

Clearly it’s a recipe of sorts for orange curaçao, which is traditionally made by drying the peel of a relative of the Valencia orange, steeping it in alcohol, and then adding other spices, but I simply can’t imagine what she’s describing in the first part. How are you supposed to suspend the oranges above the alcohol, and what good would that do anyway? By “orange (Cal.) orange,” did she perhaps means “orange (Cal.) peel”? I suppose it’s possible she made some errors in this recipe, but most of the recipes in the box are fastidiously organized, right down to her description that one’s coffee should be “golden brown color without cream; distinct yellow tinge when cream is added; clear, mellow flavor, yet pungent; not strong or bitter of good body.”

On the back of the card is the following:

3 Bourbon
3 Gin
1 1/2 Rum
1 lime
1 lemon
2 orange
2 simple syrup

Was she trying to make the world’s deadliest punch? Was one of her university students turning her on to the latest in mixology at the time? Or maybe that’s what she was drinking when she wrote her enigmatic recipe for “Orange Curasol.” That would explain a lot.

Update: Not two hours after I posted this, the mystery was solved, at least in part. I was describing the problem to Mr. Manhattan as we were on our way to check out The Wilson, a.k.a. Wilson & Wilson, a sexy little speakeasy within a speakeasy attached to Bourbon and Branch. He immediately told me about a cookbook by Giuliano Bugialli that his mother had owned. In it, the author describes making limoncello by wrapping a lemon in cheesecloth, tying it up with kitchen string, and suspending it over alcohol in a sealed jar for a month. He’s promised to show me the book if he ever comes across it. The technique sounds odd to me, but all of a sudden grandma doesn’t sound so crazy.

As American as … grape pie?

Several years ago my husband, David, mentioned that he really loves grape pie, which he said he ate often as a kid. Surely not, I said. There is no such thing as a grape pie. One simply can’t make a pie from grapes! You must be confused, I insisted.

He then told me this story. Shortly after moving to California, he mentioned to his girlfriend his fondness for grape pie. Much confusion ensued, since said girlfriend was as convinced as I was that grape pie didn’t exist, while in David’s universe grape pie trumps apple and cherry as the most popular variety in the pie pantheon.

This being the early days of the interwebz, David went online to buy a grape pie to show his girlfriend, which is when he got his first inkling that maybe grape pie wasn’t quite as popular as he had thought. Undaunted, he ordered some grape pie filling and had it shipped from the East Coast. When it arrived, he baked it up in a piecrust, but before he showed it to his girlfriend he purchased an apple pie from the grocery store, hid the apple pie, and put the grape pie in the box. “See, it’s a grape pie! You can buy one at Safeway,” he told her. This fact will not surprise you in the slightest if you know Dave.

Grape pie is made with Concord grapes, which means that it’s very much an East Coast specialty. Says Wikipedia on the subject:

Grape pie made with Concord grapes is a regional specialty of Western New York, including the Finger Lakes region, Pennsylvania and other areas of the United States where the grape is grown. … Grape pie is a specialty and tradition of Naples, New York, host of the Naples Grape Festival and home to Angela Cannon-Crothersm, author of Grape Pie Season.

If you were reading my blog last summer, you would have seen my post about visiting David’s family’s vacation home in upstate New York. That would be in Western New York. In the Finger Lakes region. About 25 miles from Naples, New York. And thus Dave’s insistence that everyone eats grape pie suddenly makes sense.

Last time we were in New York we picked up a jar of grape pie filling from the world’s epicenter of grape pie-dom, Monica’s Pies in Naples. It’s been lingering in the back of the pantry ever since, since I don’t particularly care for grape pie, which to me is overly sweet and tastes like nothing more than pie crust smeared with some grape jam. But I do particularly care for my husband, and we’ve both had a crap week, so I think it’s time to bake some pie.