Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year: Remembering December 2011

My December was a busy one, filled mostly with meals and celebrations with friends and the added time-consumer of completing my final project for my Landscape Architecture Class.

As we start a new year, I share the highlights of December 2011.

We started the month off with what has become our annual "Remembering Ted" dinner.

It is now three years since our special longtime friend Ted was senselessly murdered. The evening of our dinner, we learned that his murderer's appeal was denied and that the man will remain in jail...thankfully.

Ray and Liz came to our house for dinner. What's most amazing about our little group of friends is that, while Liz was Ted's neighbor, she never met him. What brought her to us was that she found and rescued the one of Ted's two cats that survived the fire in Ted's house. Now the cat lives with Ray. Several times of year we get together to celebrate and remember Ted's vibrant life.

Then Jim and I celebrated his birthday for two days. On the day of his birthday, we had lunch at Sasa in Walnut Creek...a terrific Japanese California fusion Isakaya restaurant.

The next day we headed into San Francisco to look at Christmas decorations and to walk around Union Square. We first stopped at the Sheraton Palace where there was a display of Gingerbread Houses designed by local celebrities and charitable organizations. We got to vote on our favorite.

At Neiman Marcus their huge tree just about hit the historic domed ceiling by the main entrance.

The pastry chef at the St. Francis Hotel had created an enormous multistory Gingerbread Castle that was on display in the lobby.

The tree in Union Square was brightly illuminated and Macy's shone in the background.

We then had dinner at Le Central, a classic French bistro which has remained one of our favorites since in opened in 1974.

It's been a few years since our last visit. The food is as good as ever and the menu remains much the same.

Jim started with the Onion Soup Gratinée and followed with one of the day's specials, a stuffed Filet of Sole.

I ordered my favorites: the Celery Root Remoulade to start and the Cassoulet for my main course. Le Central keeps count of the number of days that the Cassoulet has been cooking. Right now it is more than 13,000 days!

Very few restaurants serve Buche de Noel despite it being a traditional French Christmas dessert. Discovering it on Le Central's menu, we could not resist sharing a slice. It was pure heaven!

My next home entertaining was my annual Ladies' Crab Dinner.

This party dates back to the early '80s when I left my San Francisco corporate job to start the Where-To-Guide. I missed regularly seeing some of my San Francisco friends and colleagues and came up with the idea of having a dinner for these friends. Because December is a busy month for me, I chose an "easy" menu: Cracked Crab, Salad, and Sourdough bread. The party continues on each year...some of the original guests still come and many new friends have been added. It's a lively evening and, for many who attend, a chance to connect and reconnect with women whom they've met at this dinner. And, in all these years, there has only been one year when crab was not available and I resorted to making lasagne, much to the dismay for all those who was good but they wanted their crab!!!

Christmas Day brought another dinner at home, this year with Barbara, Sue, and Starr as our guests.

Our main course was a Flank Steak & Swiss Chard Roulade on a bed of mixed grains.

To start, we had a Cauliflower Soup.

And for dessert, Buche de Noel.

This was one of my favorite Christmas meals and I've provided links to the Roulade and Soup recipes, should you wish to try them yourselves. The Buche came from Whole Foods who make a delicious version.

Of course we enjoyed an abundance of wonderful gifts as well.

Jim's gift from Barbara was a wine aerator which allows you to open a bottle of wine without needing to let the wine breathe. It aerates a glass at a time!

Louie received many fine toys.

One of his favorites was an entire stuffed toy lobster dinner. One it's serving plate is the lobster, an ear of corn, lemon and a baked potato. As you can see, the potato was his favorite, or, at least, what he grabbed first.

Eventually, he got around to literally trying to eat the lobster!

As so ends 2011!

Wishing you all good health and happiness in 2011. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Quick Arizona Visit

Right after Thanksgiving, I headed to Phoenix to spend a few days with Lois and Jim. Lois and I became friends about 15 years ago, having "met" through a friend's online blog. Fifteen years ago blogs hadn't really been invented, so to speak, but this friend...Frank...had a web site in the early days of the Internet, that he updated every week with the URLs of interesting web sites he'd discovered.

Lois and Jim are not in Phoenix all that often, so when they are there, I always try to visit.

My three-day visit was packed with what I like to do most: visit with friends, shop, and eat in restaurants.

These are highlights and good restaurant tips, should your winter travels be taking you to the Phoenix area.

It was Lois who introduced me to Last Chance, the one of its kind store in Phoenix where returns, overstocks, and other miscellany from all Nordstrom stores go to be sold at extraordinarily low prices.

She and I always spend the first and last days of my visit at Last Chance, getting there as close to opening as we can, and staying until we are either exhausted or satisfied that we have done an adequate search for clothing and other "treasures" that we can't live without. If we are still there at lunchtime, we walk over to Miracle Mile Deli in the same shopping center and share one of their New York Deli-style sandwiches.

Earlier this year, Lois tipped me off to Renegade Canteen, one of Scottsdale's newer restaurants. I tried it last January with friends Silky and David and we all loved it. Recently, Jim took his sister and family there and they all enjoyed it. So, this visit, it was time to return to Renegade with Lois and Jim and we, once again, had a delicious and interesting dinner.

Lois ordered the Dr. Pepper Beef Short Ribs which are served with Chile Cheese Grits.

Jim chose the Pot Roast which is served like a beef stew with all the vegetables that cook with it.

And, I opted for the spicy Caesar Salad followed by the Green Chile Pork Stew which Renegade considers to be another starter, or light entrée. The stew was a more than generous main course.

For dessert, to have a little something sweet, we shared the Crème Brulée which is beautifully garnished with frozen blueberries and almond brittle...a delicious ending to a special dinner.

I highly recommend Renegade Canteen for its varied menu of American Western fare and comfort food classics at reasonable prices. They are open nightly for dinner and weekdays for lunch and serve Sunday brunch. They have a nice kid's menu (priced $4 – $6) and offer many menu dishes at reduced prices on their Happy Hour menu each evening in the bar seating area.

Over the years I've gotten to know many of Lois and Jim's friends who live year 'round in Arizona. On my second night, we dined at The Mission in Old Scottsdale with Pat and Gary.

Pat and Gary are fabulous cooks who love good food and who keep up on the local restaurants in between preparing their amazing meals at home. We went to The Mission on their recommendation and, as always, were not disappointed. The food is "Modern Latin" which is a total departure from chef Matt Carter's classic French dishes at his other excellent Scottsdale restaurant, Zinc Bistro.

We sat outside on the back enclosed patio which has the feel and decor of a courtyard in an old Spanish mission.

We started with the made-tableside Guacamole which was delicious...the addition of crunchy pumpkin seeds added that little something special.

We also shared an enormous order of the Mission Fries, as mix to sweet potato fries and white potato fries. The Fries are served with lime slices and two tangy dipping sauces.

We all ordered tacos which were beautifully presented on a rectangular serving dishes and tasted as good as they looked.

I chose the Vegetable Tacos which on this evening were made with corn, black beans, flavorful spices, and cotija cheese.

Other taco filling choices are Mahi Mahi, Skirt Steak, Pork Shoulder, and Chicken.

This was a perfect light meal for all of us, but another time, I plan to have less of the shared side dishes and perhaps try some of the larger dishes such as the Swordfish Veracruz, the Green Chile Duck Confit, or the Half Roasted Chicken (which is served with the Mission Fries.) I'm told that the Street Corn is a "must" as a side dish; its grilled on a skewer and seasons with butter, chile paprika, and cotija cheese.

The Mission is open every day for lunch and dinner and offers a special Afternoon Menu and Weekend Brunch. I'm looking forward to a return visit soon.

On another day, I got together with Shiela, Anita, and Sam for lunch at Wally's American Pub N' Grille in Gainey Ranch.

Shiela lives in Scottsdale, Anita and Sam, her daughter and grandson, respectively, live on the East Coast and were visiting for Thanksgiving. Wally's was a good place for us to visit.

It was warm enough to sit outside on their patio which was still in view of the TVs over the bar inside so Sam could keep up with the day's football games.

Wally's menu features a large selection of salads, sandwiches, burgers, Mac & Cheese, a daily Blue Plate Special, and typical pub fare. Our choices included the Havana Cuban Panini, the Fresh Fruit and Berry Salad, a Burger, and Fish and Chips.

Lois, who usually eats little for lunch, willingly joins me, who always eats lunch, for lunch when we are together. She and Jim introduced me to a lovely bakery café called Wildflower Bread Company.
Wildflower bakes its own breads, and serves breakfast, lunch and casual dinners every day. Order at the counter and your food is brought to you. A bowl of soup (each day different soups are features) is priced under $5 and most sandwiches, salads, and pastas are priced under $8. The Scottsdale Seville Wildflower location where we ate has seating indoors and on an outdoor patio.

Jim and I shared the Grilled Turkey Pastrami...a perfect light lunch for us.

Wildflower has close to a dozen locations in Arizona, most in the Greater Phoenix area.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Day After Christmas

It's been a busy December, leaving me with little time to blog...but now I'm in catch up mode, So keep checking in and I'll update you soon on my travels, dining, and entertaining these past several weeks.

Today, the day after Christmas, I was out shopping before 7 a.m.

Early in the day, there were crowds, but all was manageable.

At my local downtown, there were a few lines outside popular places like Crate & Barrel, Macy's, and H&M before they opened.

But only at the Apple Store was there a line outside long after the store had opened. And, Apple was marking nothing down!!!. There were no line outside the Gap on one side of Apple, where they were practically giving the merchandise away, nor was there a line at Tiffany's on the other side (no sales here either, for that matter).

But the Apple mystique continues with people patiently waiting to be allowed to enter the store to buy, exchange, return, or just look around.

Enjoy the last week of 2011!