In Memorium: Elvira Wojteczko, My Gram

05650017_2Lately people have been asking me, so how did you come to love food... As a person who's pretty obsessed with all things culinary, I had to scratch my head & think, so how did this all start? I was a picky eater as a kid, my most requested birthday dinner was Kraft macaroni & cheese and hot dogs, I wouldn't even touch a lobster on all our vacations to Maine (what a shame), and then there was my vegetarian phase.

But all while, even if I shunned the turkey at Thanksgiving or the honey ham at Easter, I made sure my plate was full of pierogi's, the traditional Polish dumplings I looked forward to all year on special occasions, I dove into the kraut with abandon, and made sure to save some room for apricot kolaczkis for dessert. And that is where my gram comes in... She loved her family so much, & her generosity was endless, just like the dishes on her table which always overflowed with food whenever we all got together. Even when I boycotted pork, she'd look at my plate & say, "No kielbasa??? But you LOVE kielbasa!" & I'd guiltily fork a link onto it.

My family moved to Schenectady when I was five, so while everyone else stayed in the Chicago area, we made a couple of pilgrimages a year to River Forest in the old wood-paneled station wagon, & later, flying into O'Hare, and I would look forward to entering the land of Bob's Big Boy along the road & Bill Knapp's where I could get my fix for chicken fried steak. But once we arrived in Chicago, Polish food was my soul food. And while my grandmother stopped making her own pierogi after my Busia (great grandmother) died, she sure knew where to find the best.

My mother speaks with reverance when she mentions their secret spot, known simply as "The Hole in the Wall". Apparently, she & my gram would show up to this place where there was no store front, only a hallway & a door, & when you rang the bell someone would appear, dart back in, & then deliver the goods like a pierogi gangster. I guess they weren't so secret, because when I finally begged to come along, "THITW" had become Old World Pierogi's (now Alexandra's) a shiny operation with a full-on menu & a line of customers on N. Central Ave. I loved everything about these excursions, they taught me the joy of entering a butcher shop where the air was thick with garlic, or the rich buttery aromas wafting from a family bakery where we'd pick up a round of bobka & boxes of cookies, and the pleasure of piling into the car with your hidden treasures.

And so food became the fastest way to find our way back home, to connect all the days apart after living so many miles away. I often envied my cousins who got to spend so much time with my grandparents, sleeping over the garage at their tudor house, & opening up the drawers on the nightstand where my grandfather would hide Cracker Jack toys for us on our visits. Later in life, when my grandparents sold the family home & moved into an assisted living facility, I would visit & cook up a storm for them to give them a break from the cafeteria--one time I almost set off the sprinklers trying to fry up some store bought pierogi's for them, but they ate every last burnt one & laughed.

My grandmother has always said that I remind her of her mother, who was apparently an amazing cook with a lovely smile & thick brown curly hair. "She could even make a pigeon taste good," my gram would say. Now that's quite a compliment.

I love you gram! I'll miss you! And I'll never turn down a plate of kielbasa again, I promise.

Your loving granddaughter,

Catherine


The Eagle Has Landed Part Deux: Tom & Connie Make a Marvelous Recovery

T_c_picsHow do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

For those of you who know me personally or have been following this blog for the past year, you invariably have heard about the saga of Tom & Connie Odegard, two of the dearest souls on this planet, my adopted west coast parents & mentors. Read on, the news is good!

For those of you who do not, let me introduce you to these two outrageously loving and wise beings who have helped me through thick & thin...

The tale began with a surreal call one morning last April from Tom's niece in Mt. Shasta--there had been an accident, near-fatal,  & the prospects were not good. A semi-truck plowed into them from behind & smashed their Jeep into the median. Oh, god. Both were in the ICU, but in separate hospitals due to the extreme severity of Connie's injuries. The wording at the end of the conversation was, "We don't think they're going to make it."

I don't think my hand has ever shaken as much as it did as I placed our phone back on the cradle. We'd expected Tom & Connie the night before as we're one of their pit-stops back to San Juan Island from Oakland, but thought perhaps that they were tired from the long drive and made an extra stop-over somewhere in Oregon, or maybe they decided to stay an extra day in Shasta. Tom is as old-fashioned as me, but bought a cell phone last year, not knowing how to work half the buttons. (We're two peas in a pod, that way.) I'd thought it odd that we hadn't heard from him, but I wasn't too concerned... How wrong I was.Img_4888_2

Over the next weeks I talked to Tom daily in the ICU as he was slightly better off, at least conscious. He faced difficult questions about Connie--what surgeries to approve or not--all under the influence of morphine & who knows what else. How far do you go to save the one you love? Is it for you, or for them?  And what will their quality of life be like if they pull through? 

During those terrible months of uncertainty last spring, Madeleine became a message post for all the friends of the Odegards--and there are many. Poets sent odes, strangers became family as they expressed their love & admiration for these two, prayers went out throughout the globe, a benefit was organized by the San Juan Fire Department to help pay for Connie's physical therapy... The outpouring of love was overwhelming and I am eternally thankful & anxious to report that their recovery has been nothing short of astonishing. Much of this is due to sheer tenacity on the part of both T & C, but I have to believe that the tremendous outcry of hope & support helped mend their broken wings. Thank you all for believing this could happen !!!

Img_4833 For Connie, it's been a long haul to find her way back to us. Months of painful rehabilitation, a loss of mobility & independence took its toll in the form of a deep depression that left her without appetite which seemed unfathomable considering her love of the culinary arts. For Tom, his role became full-time caretaker & nursemaid, a job he dutifully took up but which took a great toll on himself. They were alive, back on San Juan, but everything was much much different now.

And then--through the combined miracle of pharmaceutical pills, herbal concoctions, & TLC, something happened. Consuela Odegard woke up one morning, looked at her husband and said in plain English, "I want a steak."   

I've honestly been wanting to update you all on their progress for months, so I asked Tom to send a picture, any picture of Connie which you see at the beginning of this blog... But having seen this miraculous transformation I hardly felt it expressed the here & the now. So with great joy, I unveil a photo of Connie, one year later.

Img_5323Tah-dah! This is Connie at her finest, cooking  meatballs ala Lidia Bastianich for us last week after I had tired of sweating over a pot of "long-cooking sugo" that just wouldn't seem to thicken despite hours on the stove. I gave up & sat down to a glass of Pinot Grigio while Connie took over. Umm, she's in her early-70's, I'm in my late-30's... Something's wrong here.

We all have been through a lot of changes over the last year, & none of them have been easy. But what matters most is that we lived to tell the tale and it has a very happy ending indeed. I love you with all my heart T & C! It's so good to have you back...


An Old-Time Recipe Warms the Soul

Img_3228_1 Outside our window, little snow caps have formed on our fence posts, our boots have left glistening prints downwards & upwards on the steps up to our little house in Skyway where six inches of snow clings to the arms of our old birch tree, rhodendendroms, & fills abandoned flower pots, watering cans & the like. It is a winter wonderland if you can put behind the stressful drive home Wednesday night that left our vehicle stranded below a steep hill that had cars piled up for hours on the MLK exit that brings us home.

Tonight the windows are fogged with steam curtains as we prepare the evening's meal & onions are slivered into delicate half moons, da Pino's wonderous peppery pancetta is taken out of its sleeve and julienned, & a colorful can of San Marzano's are spun again & again by hand through the food mill's sieve to render the most silken texture a tomato can give. I think about what a friend said today, "When it snows, I hear more laughing in the street than cars..."

These are the times I enjoy cooking the most, when chopping is less a chore than a meditation. Not only did I feel good about putting a good cookbook to work on such an occasion, but I also realized that I had every ingredient stocked in our pantry, as if we had always been meant to bring them together. If at times the simplicity of Italian dishes evolved from sparceity of resources, tonight I felt rich indeed to smell onions melting away while Ray Baretto set the rhythm as cat & husband danced around the kitchen's smells & sounds while opening tins of tomatoes.

Bucatini all' Amatriciana adapted from Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

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  • One large can Italian San Marzano tomatoes
  • Salt
  • 5 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 6 oz pancetta
  • 1/2 tsp  crushed red pepper
  • 1 lb bucatini
  • 1 cup grated Pecrino Romano cheese, plus more for passing

Pass the tomatoes & their liquid through a food mill. Set aside. Img_3259_1 Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil.

In a large skillet, heat 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion & cook, stirring, until wilted. Stir in the pancetta & cook 2 minutes. Add the red pepper & tomatoes & bring to a boil. Simmer & season lightly with salt. Cook the bucatini in boiling water for 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Bring the sauce & pasta to a boil & drizzle in 3 Tbs of grassy olive oil. Stir in the cup of Pecorino & season to taste. I always like a little dusting of Pecorino on top!

Note: This got a Mama Mia rating on its second day, so leave some leftovers for lunch the next day when the flavors really settle in...


Img_3187 New Year's Eve on Camano... We always have fantastic food adventures at our friend Lisa Yo's place (hostess with the mostest & part-owner of Mt. Baker's Urban Vines), but this time we pulled out all the stops. Ken said he hadn't had so much fun in the kitchen since his Mandalay days!

  • Our Menu del Dia:
  • Ginger, Red Chili, Tequila Teriyaki Sauce served with Kobe Beef Wrapped Asparagus Rolls
  • Modified Rover's Recipe Crab Cakes with Clam Aioli
  • Retrovo Walnut Sage Pesto- Stuffed Cremini & Field Mushrooms
  • Smoked Salmon Corn Blini's
  • Spanish Table Pimenton & Shrimp-Stuffed Eggs
  • Eggs Yolk & Romesco Montadito's
  • Korean-Inspired Chili Marinated, Grilled Rib Eye Steak
  • Chinese Five Spice & Paprika Dry-Rubbed Grilled Pork Ribs
  • Img_3176Bill's Traditional Chop Chop Salad
  • Coconut Curry-Marinated Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce
  • Sugar-Glazed Vietnamese Meatballs in Lettuce Cups with Sweet Chili Sauce
  • Pork & Shrimp Won Tons with a Sesame Seed Soy Sauce & Scallion Slivers
  • Pino's New Year's Cottechino with Beluga Lentil & Sage
  • A Slate of International Artisanal Cheese Img_3170

Many, many thanks go out to Lexie, my 10-year-old sous chef--you made my day a special one. How many kids can say they cooked this! If your soccer career doesn't work out, you've got a job in my kitchen!

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Cup o' Kindness

New Year's Day. A day that deserves capitalization, a day of reflection both on the past & present. Just as a televised prime-time Super Bowl tournament brings with it some of the most expensive commercials of the year, New Year's Day on the Food Network proved to be a deluge of premium-priced ads from Weight Watchers, Total Gym & Nicoderm. And while it's not that I haven't been googling "smoking cessation acupuncture" lately, & having guilt pangs about my newly purchased 200 lb treadmill we drunkenly lugged up the stairs with my x-mas bonus & have used three times. I have been challenged to use it thirty times in ninety days or else I have to bring it back--but truth is, I am too lazy to even think about dealing with getting it back down from the narrow meat locker of a room it sits in upstairs.

Everyone likes a clean start & that is why I think we put so much stock in the first day of a new, but brief era. A break from the past, we are able to refocus our energies & own up to our inner-demons, with supposed renewed energy after the OND (October November December madness as it's called in the retail trade) has come to pass. Perhaps a lament of lovers & friends lost, these days Auld Lang Syne is a cheery swaying tune that looks forward to a shiny future. The basic message is--things change.

Thinking back on the first year of married life & blogging life, I know I've got a lot to learn about both. This year, I hope to bring my incredible husband into the fold & put ideas into his own words. And I think you, the reader, if you stay with this adventure, have a lot to look forward to... I send out a hearty cheers to you who read my ramblings, but if I ever got a book deal, every first page would be dedicated to  Ken, the man & chef who I never dreamed of finding and makes my world complete. May we combine our talents together in 2007 & make you hungrier than ever for good food & writing!!!


Squash Blossoms & Pomegranate Seeds: The Food of Central Mexico

Img_2447 Okay, okay! I KNOW I should be focusing on finishing on cleaning house tonight (is there anyone else out there that takes three hours to pack & two weeks to unpack out there???) but I haven't really even begun to talk FOOD which for me is the focal point of any vacation...

Img_2448 San Miguel, like Mexico City caters to more of an international palate, largely due to the bohemian expat community that's settled in & craves Thai, sushi, Spanish & a lot of Italian to mix up their dining options. While I was only there eight days & was deadset against ordering a bowl of fettucine carbonara, I would imagine my tastebuds might rebel against chiles en nogada eventually...

Img_2443 That being said, there are so many treasures in the cuisine of Central Mexico that seemed impossible to pass up in endless variations for a temporary citizen. Flor de cabaza (squash blossoms) as well as huitlacoche (a black fungus that grows on the ears of corn & is Mexico's version of truffles) were two items I searched for on every menu without remorse.

Img_2975 Our table at Rincon de Don Tomas was the perfect introduction to la comida, the long leisurely lunch Mexican's enjoy late in the afternoon before siesta, watching children stroll by with bobbing balloons or corn cobs doused with chile sauce & crema bought from vendors outside of the Parroquia, a striking centerpiece of barroque/neo-gothic architecture that marks the Catholic hub of this town. Take a seat in the open air evenings & you can be almost be guaranteed a show of mariachi's, saint's parades, or couples dancing to a norteno band without a cover charge...

Img_2597 But if you're feeling kind of splurgy, Azafran delivers top-rate mandarin margaritas, a decadent sopa de nopales, Img_2603_1

shrimp in a lagoon of huitlacoche, & flan that was too irresistable, well, to resist... Sorry, dim lighting does not make for the best photos!   

But hands down, Torta MundoImg_2881 

& the little fondas at the markets Img_2945 stole the show & my heart as the best food in show... Img_2647 This is the stuff that almost every travel book(except fot the People's Guide to Mexico) says not to eat--avoid every uncooked vegetable possible & stick with restaurants) & while we tried our best for a day or so, we had amazing meals & admittedly some stomach upset that was well worth it.Img_2492

Unfortunately, Ken has had a relapse & is under the sheets with Eek--perhaps a purring black cat is the best remedy for all ills--I wish he could travel with us. I best join them, don't you think?


Los Golondrinas: San Miguel Part III

Img_2441 Nothing whets my appetite for home cooking more than colorful ceramics & open air mercados... About an hour's bus ride away from our base lies neighboring town, Dolores Hidalgo, renowned for their ceramic production in all the brilliant colors of the town of San Miguel. Through Vacation Rentals by Owner, I found us an apartment for rent above a gorgeously restored hacienda complete with kitchen & maid service for a mere $50 a night & hoped for the best, only to find an ideal hideaway tucked up amongst the jaw-dropping homes in the hills. Img_2440

Los Golondrinas, the swallows, fast became our nest, recovering from altitude fatigue & grueling climbs (at least initially) back up, up & up for an afternoon siesta like a couple of burros laden down with grocery packs.Img_2551

This is our street, our home, our resting place for a glass of wine or una cerveza, an hour's nap--god bless the siesta! Many businesses traditionally close in the heat of the afternoon & since bare knees are a big taboo we were glad to strip down & put on shorts & flip flops the moment we got home & melt into a comfortable chair with a cool drink. If I could change anything about my world, it would be to have two days off with with husband & an hour lunch, so I didn't have to scarf down a barely palatable Lean Cuisine at my desk & dash through crowds of manatee-speed tourists at the market to do my shopping...Img_2621

But Mexico made me slow down--the first day we walked out to the edge of town & I thought what are we going to do in this place? On the last, I wondered how we could leave as there were hot springs yet to explore & unlimited tortas combinations left to enjoy... Img_2876More on the food to come!

Ken's stomach is unsettled tonight--too much Mexican food? I can't seem to get enough, hitting up Lupe's for lunch (Renton's newest taco truck) in the parking lot of Marilyn's Produce where avocados, chiles of all kind, cilantro & lettuce come close to Mexico prices..

With a fresh batch of posole resting in the fridge, the flavors of Mexico remain on the palate a few days longer... Img_2472

Casita de las Golondrinas (two other apartments are available on the estate--also check out vrbo.com's large list of Guanjuato listings if you like to cook & want to skip the B&B experience)

San Miguel de Allende, MX  773.326.2236 (US reservation line) $400 per week!