Monthly Archives: March 2012

PIZZELLE

Special pizzelle iron

As Easter approaches, I remember a wonderful treat from my childhood.

Batter ready to be spooned into the baking iron

When I was about 10 years old, my family lived in an apartment in the midst of a big Italian family. The grandparents, known to all as “Ma and Pa”, lived in the “Big House” which was surrounded by the smaller homes of their many children and their families. Two unmarried daughters as well as the family of one of their brothers also lived in the Big House. It was clear that the Big House served as the social and communications center for the whole family.

Heating the pizzelle iron

Evening meals were a gathering of the famíglia, with the women serving the meal to the men who ate at a long wooden table in the kitchen. Then the children took their turn, and finally the women ate and cleaned up. This family tradition carried over into many other activities, especially near the holidays. In the spring, before Easter, there was a great deal of cooking and baking in preparation for the celebration ahead.

A spoonful of batter ready to bake

A favorite during this baking spree was the pizzelle. These delicate cookies were baked outside over a hot stove.  Kids clustered around to get them still warm from the griddle. That’s still the best way to eat them. You can spread them with butter or jam while they are still warm, and they are so good. You can also form them around a conical wooden dowel (like the plunger in a chinois) while they are still soft and warm. As they cool, they will firm up and make a perfect cone for your gelato or ice cream.

Nearly ready to take off the iron

You will need a special pizzelle baking iron, but you can find one in most specialty cooking stores or websites.

A crispy pizzelle

 Ingredients
1¾ Cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 eggs
½ Cup sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon anise extract
melted butter to brush the pizzelle iron

Wrapping a still-warm pizzelle to make a cone

1. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until pale yellow and smooth. Add the melted butter, vanilla, and anise extract and beat until completely combined.
3. Gradually stir in the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest mixture to form a smooth batter.
4. Heat the pizzelle iron on both sides until very hot. Brush both sides of the mold lightly with butter, spoon in about 1 tablespoon of batter, and close the iron. Trim off any batter that oozes out of the iron. Bake about 1 minute on each side or until the pizzelle is golden brown. Transfer the baked pizzelle to a cooling rack and repeat the process until the batter is used up.

A stack of pizzelles ready to eat

Yield: 24 to 30  5-inch cookies

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RICOTTA PIE WITH ASPARAGUS, MUSHROOMS, AND PROSCIUTTO

Our ovens recently went on the blink, and we had to do without baking for over two weeks while the repairman ordered parts. We made it through the crisis – with some withdrawal symptoms – and our ovens were finally restored to working order. To celebrate, I decided to make a couple of quiches using some shrimp and fresh Spring asparagus from the grocery store. I made the quiches only to discover that I had left out the asparagus. My fall-back plan was to use the asparagus the next night in something else. The plan wound up to be an exercise in cleaning out the refrigerator. I came up with what is not really a quiche, so I called it a ricotta pie. Regardless of the name, it turned out to be a good use for the asparagus.

RECIPES

Pie Crust

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 Cup vegetable shortening
  • 2 2/3 Tablespoons (8 teaspoons) ice water
  1. Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl
  2. Add the shortening and cut it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender until it resembles coarse corn meal
  3. Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the water, mixing with a table fork until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  4. Knead gently for just a few seconds, shape into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes

Pie Filling

Ingredients

  • 16 ounces low-fat ricotta
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tablespoon Pernod
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon finely ground white pepper
  • 1 pound fresh asparagus
  • 6 crimini mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
  • 3 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly and finely grated
  1. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, Pernod, salt, and pepper until smooth and well blended. Set aside.
  2. Wash the asparagus, trim the woody ends (saving them for stock), and cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.
  3. Clean and slice the mushrooms. Sauté them in olive oil until they have given up their liquid. Drain and set aside.

Just out of the oven

Final Assembly

  1. Remove the chilled pie crust dough from the refrigerator and roll it into a circle large enough to line a 9 inch pie pan with enough to crimp the top edge.
  2. Ladle half of the ricotta mixture into the bottom of the prepared pie shell.
  3. Arrange the asparagus pieces over the filling. Then add the mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and prosciutto in layers.
  4. Cover with the remaining ricotta mixture and sprinkle with the grated Parmesan cheese.
  5. Bake in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 425° for 10 minutes. Then lower the oven temperature to 350° for an additional 60 minutes. Turn the baking pie front to back in the oven about half way through the baking. Watch carefully toward the end of baking and remove from the oven if the pie becomes too brown.
  6. Place the finished pie on a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Then slice into 6 or 8 pieces. Serve while still warm.

Ready to eat

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SANTA FE RESTAURANTS 4: REAL FOOD NATION SUPPER CLUB

We have been going to the Real Food Nation Café for years. The casual atmosphere and the creative food have always hit the spot for lunch or Sunday brunch. I have even been on a photo shoot in a workshop with Francesca Yorke, making images of the wonderful and beautiful herbs and vegetables they grow in their extensive on-site garden. But even though we have talked about it many times, we have never made it to their culinary other-half, the Supper Club. Last night we were able to fill that gap in our Santa Fe experience, and it was well worth the effort.

Maturing eggplant in the Real Food garden

Squash blossoms

Eggplant blossoms in the Real Food Nation garden

Travel to the restaurant is a scenic 2o-minute drive north on I-25 or on the crowded Old Pecos Trail. The café is in a converted gas station, and you might miss seeing the compact square building across the parking lot. That is the Supper Club with its own parking area and a welcoming front door. Inside you will find a small, well-appointed dining room and a friendly staff. It is small – only 22 seats including several at the bar overlooking the open kitchen – so reservations are highly recommended. The problem with that is that the Supper Club does not have its own number in the phone book, so when you call the café they have to transfer your call, sometimes to the consternation of the person answering the phone. During our visit we were granted our own key, so to speak. The direct line is 505-466-2440 and the email address is info@realfoodnation.biz. They’re not on Open Table, either, so a direct call for reservations is needed. The other little idiosyncrasy you need to be aware of is that they are open only Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 9 pm. All of that says plan ahead, but if you do, you won’t be disappointed

Dining room in the Supper Club

Water glasses

The dining room was pleasant, mostly two-tops with a couple of four-tops, comfortable leather chairs, and sunny windows with Roman shades if the sun gets in your eyes during Daylight Saving Time. The music would not be my choice – some Frank Sinatra and light jazz/pops – but it was not intrusive and certainly not so loud as to drown out your dinner companion’s conversation. The service was friendly and attentive. The wine list was small but well-chosen and well-priced with full-bottle, half-bottle, and by-the-glass selections. There was a good selection of beers, coffee and tea, soft drinks, and bottled waters as well.

All of that put us at ease in anticipation of a good meal. The bread got a mixed vote from me. The little ciabatta rolls were crisp on the outside with a flaky crumb and extremely tasty. The sliced French bread was dense and ok, not great. But we didn’t come for the bread, anyway.

Menu

Right now the restaurant has a prix fixe menu, three courses for $35. The menu changes frequently, so call ahead or check the web site. Last night there were two choices of appetizer, three choices of entrée, and two choices of dessert. Even at that, chosing was difficult because everything sounded delicious.

Carrot parsnip soup

Susan chose the carrot parsnip soup. The golden bowl came to the table laced with a pool of green-hued extra virgin olive oil.

Frisée salad with balsamic vinaigrette and guanciale

I chose the frisée salad which came with guanciale – little lardons of pork jowl lightly crisped

Sweetbreads

We both chose veal sweetbreads which, when well-prepared, is one of our favorite dishes and not commonly available. We were not disappointed. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and seasoned. They were complemented by tender Swiss chard and a “hash” of turnips, leeks, and carrots. The sweetbreads were sauced with a fragrant, flavorful mushroom demi-glace.

Hazelnut forestier with three chocolates

Profiteroles

Both desserts were beautifully presented, and a fitting end to the evening. The hazelnut financier came with three different kinds of chocolate. The profiteroles were classically done, and fortunately not too big as I could have eaten more than my diet allows.

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CORRECTION ABOUT SARAH AND EVAN’S KICKSTARTER

Mea culpa!!

I gave you the wrong URL for checking out Sarah and Evan’s Kickstarter page. Here’s the right information directly from Sarah and Evan:

If you haven’t heard already…we’ve signed a lease for our restaurant at 199 Gough St! We’ve been working hard for this for many years now and are so excited that it’s this close!

We thank you for all of the support you’ve given us, we wouldn’t be where we are now without it.

We’ve opened a Kickstarter project, so if you or your friends are interested in being contributors to our new restaurant you can find us at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1777795794/rich-table We’d love to get our supporters involved, and we’re offering great rewards.

We will be planning a future pop-up prior to opening and will let you all know more about that soon.

Thank you again,

Sarah and Evan Rich

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WEST TEXAS COWBOY SOURDOUGH BISCUITS

A few months ago I wrote about Carol’s favorite biscuit recipe, the Southern classic “Touch of Grace Biscuits”.  This post is about sourdough biscuits. When we lived in West Texas, for several years I attended an annual all-male overnight fishing trip held by some rancher friends  on the banks of one of the branches of the Brazos River running through a parcel of one of the legendary West Texas cattle ranches. Menus included classic ranch fare – grilled steaks, beans, fish (if we caught enough), hamburgers,  barbecue of all sorts, and of course lots of beer. The highlight, though, was a chuck wagon breakfast. The cooks would arise before everyone else, stir up the fires that had been stoked for the night, and begin to cook huge slabs of sliced bacon and scrambled eggs in surplus Army ammunition cans set over the open fires. They also stirred up the dough for sourdough biscuits to be baked in old-fashioned spiders (three-legged Dutch ovens with flat lids) that would be buried in the coals of the campfires. This was a feast for a king, or at least some satisfied West Texas cowmen.

Three-legged spider Dutch oven

Sourdough biscuits need to be started the night before you serve them at a cowboy breakfast out on the range, so be sure to get things going before the libations and campfire stories move into full pace. Hopefully you will have a sourdough starter that you have been treasuring and “feeding” for a long time, but don’t despair if you don’t. You can start your own in a week or two before the cookout. Yeast is a fall back, but it is definitely not viewed with favor out on the ranch. Depending upon how many mouths there are to feed, you will need to increase the recipe. Allow for at least three apiece, because even modern cowboys are hungry.  If you want to bake these at home, you don’t need to dig a fire pit, you can just use your oven. However, the instructions change a bit.

A pan full of biscuits about to go into the oven

A pan full of biscuits about to go into the oven

Cowboy Sourdough Biscuits

Sourdough biscuits fresh out of the oven

Ingredients

½ Cup                    sourdough starter

1 Cup                     milk

2 ½ Cups              all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon         salt

1 Tablespoon      sugar

1 teaspoon          baking powder

½ teaspoon         baking soda

                             bacon grease from bacon cooked earlier (or 2 tablespoons of salad oil and 2 tablespoons of melted butter)

  1. The night before, dissolve the starter thoroughly in the milk. Be sure to use a large metal container that can be covered securely to keep out any varmints – human or otherwise – during the night.
  2. Thoroughly stir in one cup of flour, cover securely, and set in a warm place: not too close to the fire, but also not out in the cold night air.
  3. In the morning, combine the remaining 1½ cups of flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and soda.  Then add to the starter mixture from the night before, and using clean hands (!?), combine into a soft dough. Knead in the metal container for a few minutes and let rest.
  4. In the meantime, prepare the fire: quench any active flames and with a hoe or shovel pull the coals to the edge of the fire pit so that your spider or Dutch oven will fit easily into the hole.
  5. On a flat, lightly floured surface, pat the dough into a round about ½ inch thick. Then cut individual biscuits. If this is a high-class cookout use a 2½ inch biscuit cutter. Otherwise use your cleanest knife to cut 2 inch squares.
  6. Dip each biscuit in bacon grease and place it in the bottom of the cast iron pot until the pot is completely full. Put the lid on the pot and lower the whole thing into the prepared cooking pit using the bale attached to the pot and a hook or hoe.
  7. With the hoe or shovel, layer some of the coals on the top of the cast iron pot – enough to evenly cover the lid.
  8. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes.  It is very hard to check the baking, but you can try to remove the coals from the lid to check. Just remember to put them back on top if you bake some more. It is more likely that you will just have to take pot luck (so to speak), but my observation is that the usual crowd is just happy to get something to eat.
  9. If you are baking at home, dip each biscuit in melted bacon grease or a combination of oil and melted butter (bacon grease may be too strong a flavor for a home meal). Arrange the biscuits in a 10 inch cast iron frying pan. Bake in a preheated oven at 375° for 30 to 35 minutes.
  10. Serve immediately. Cold cowboy sourdough biscuits get as hard as a rock.

Yield: About 10 to 15 biscuits

Hot sourdough biscuits ready to eat

SOURDOUGH STARTER

Sourdough starter bubbling and ready to use

Sourdough starter can last a long time if it is properly cared for. We got one from a neighbor in Utah nearly forty years ago. That starter subsequently traveled to Texas, back to Utah, on to Louisiana, back to Texas again, and now New Mexico. Starter can be easily kept out-of-the-way in a closed jar in the back of the refrigerator for years. If you haven’t used it for several months it will have to be revived before using it.  If you can’t revive it, never mind. It is easy enough to start a new one. But don’t expect your friends to help.  Years ago we gave a starter to my brother and his wife.  They enjoyed it for some time and even gave some to their friends. Calamity struck and their jar of starter got thrown out when an unknowing individual cleaned out the refrigerator.  When my sister-in-law asked her friend for a new starter batch, the “friend” refused! It’s always better to be independent of others. Sourdough is slower than commercial yeast so breads made with it often do not rise as much. For that reason, breads made with sourdough alone require a long rise or fermentation, but starter can still be used for flavoring.  The most successful recipes are for biscuits, cornbread, pancakes, traditional country loaves, and French bread.

TRADITIONAL METHOD I

Ingredients

2 Cups   milk

2 Cups   all-purpose flour

  1. Mix the milk and flour together in a large ceramic bowl until smooth. Set uncovered in a warm kitchen for 2 to 5 days, stirring occasionally.  When the mixture is bubbly and has a yeasty, sour smell, the starter is ready.
  2. Store well covered in a glass or ceramic container on the counter or in the middle of the refrigerator.  Keep at least 3 cups on hand.
  3. Replenish by stirring in equal portions of milk and flour

 

TRADITIONAL METHOD II

Ingredients

1 Cup                     all-purpose flour

1 Cup                     water

  1. In a 4 cup or larger clear glass jar, mix the flour and water into a smooth paste. Set uncovered in a warm place. The kitchen is usually the best choice.
  2. Every day, check the mixture for bubbles, remove any tough skin that has formed on the top, pour off about half of the mixture, and add an additional ½ cup of flour and ½  cup of water, stirring to form a smooth paste.
  3. Repeat this process each day until the mixture is covered with bubbles and expands to double size or so. You should observe frequently during the day and evening because a good starter will eventually collapse from its own weight and lose volume.
  4. You will probably need to repeat the process for a week or more before you have established a good starter.
  5. After that, you should repeat the replenishment process for at least a couple of days before you plan to bake.
  6. You may store the starter in the refrigerator, but that is not necessary and even encourages less desirable things to grow and discolor the mix. If that happens, pour off the discolored top part, keeping just a few tablespoons of the starter to rejuvenate your stock.

 

NEW METHOD

Ingredients

2 Cups                   all-purpose flour

2 Cups                   water or milk

1 Tbsp                   sugar

½ pkg                    dry yeast

  1. Mix the flour, milk and sugar together into a smooth batter. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface and stir in. Allow to stand uncovered in a warm kitchen until the mixture is bubbly and with good aroma. The starter is ready.
  2. Store and replenish as above.
  3. If you have not used the starter for a long time, you may need to add milk and flour in equal amounts with a tablespoon of sugar, and let the mixture stand overnight before using.

 A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA (IN LOUISIANA IT’S LAGNIAPPE)

Sarah and Evan cooking at one of their popular pop-up dinners

For those of you who have been wondering about Sarah and Evan’s restaurant, it is moving closer to reality. They have signed a lease on space at 199 Gough in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Now they are waiting on the liquor license before they start renovation and moving in. You can read all about the venture on Kickstarter and at the same time have an opportunity to participate in the project. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1777795794/rich-table

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MORE SAUERKRAUT: THE REUBEN SANDWICH

A while back I wrote about making sauerkraut. The recipe called for two heads of red cabbage. Even that small amount of cabbage makes a lot of sauerkraut, especially if you are eating other things during the long winter.  Such surplus calls for creativity in what to do with all of the sour cabbage.

One thing comes to mind immediately: make some Reuben sandwiches. These are a real delicatessen classic, and if you have ever been close to the Lower Eastside in Manhattan, guaranteed you have had a Reuben. Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston is one of the most famous purveyors, but that is not where the sandwich got its start.

As a matter of fact, nobody is exactly certain as to the origins of the Reuben. There are at least three stories about the creation of the sandwich. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by  Andrew F. Smith and Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food contain the most authoritative descriptions of the history and the controversy surrounding the sandwich.

The most likely explanation seems tied to the famous New York delicatessen, Reuben’s Restaurant, on East Fifty-eighth Street. Arnold Reuben, the owner, reportedly created a huge sandwich for Annette Selo (variously described as making a Charlie Chaplin movie or as an out-of-work actress) who came in one day asking for something to eat. Reuben created a big sandwich which Annette suggested should be called an “Annette Special”. The reply came back something like, “Fat chance,” from Reuben, and the sandwich became so popular that it wound up on the menu as “Reuben’s Special”. It consisted of rye bread, Virginia ham, sliced roast turkey, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing..

The second explanation is that the original was created in the 1920’s for some hungry poker players at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha Nebraska, by Reuben Kolakofsky. The sandwich included corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. An  employee of the hotel or maybe one of the poker players entered the recipe in a sandwich contest, winning the contest and ensuring the fame of the sandwich.

The third explanation is that the sandwich was created in 1937 at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. The hotel has reportedly produced a menu which includes the name of the sandwich and its ingredients along with the date, thus providing the only written documentation for the creation of the sandwich.

Over time, the stories have become interwoven and the dates have changed in various tellings of the stories. So, it seems likely that the real origin of the Reuben sandwich will never be known with reliability. Still, there is no doubt that the Reuben has become one of the all-time favorite American sandwiches. These days, the ingredients usually include rye bread, Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and thinly sliced corn beef. Pastrami and Thousand Island dressing are common substitutes. The sandwich is often grilled and best when it is hot.

My version substitutes dark pumpernickel bread for the rye and pastrami for corned beef. Also, I am not a big fan of Russian dressing, so I have made my own sauce. The recipes that follow reflect those preferences.  But the sine qua non to me is the sauerkraut, so this is a perfect place to use that kraut you made in your own crock. I used our George Forman grill to toast the sandwiches, but you can use a panini press or a skillet. This recipe makes two large sandwiches.

RECIPES

Reuben Sandwich Sauce

Ingredients 

¼ Cup mayonnaise

2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 Tablespoons ketchup

2 teaspoons grated horseradish

2 Tablespoons dill pickle relish

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, mix, and set aside.

Reuben Sandwich

Ingredients

4 slices pumpernickel bread

Reuben sandwich sauce

½ pound shaved delicatessen-style pastrami

1 Cup sauerkraut, preferably home-made, well-drained

6 slices Swiss cheese

½ Cup thinly sliced white onion

2 Tablespoons butter melted

  1. Spread sauce on each slice of bread, one side only
  2. Arrange half of the pastrami on two of the slices of bread, and top with half of the sauerkraut
  3. Arrange three slices of Swiss cheese over a bed of sliced onion on each of the remaining two slices of bread and form two sandwiches.
  4. Brush the tops of both sandwiches with half of the melted butter and place the sandwiches, butter side down, in a skillet over medium heat. Press down occasionally with a spatula until the bottom is well-toasted. Alternatively, butter both sides and toast in a George Forman grill or a panini press.
  5. Brush tops of the sandwiches with the remaining butter, turn the sandwiches in the skillet, and continue toast until the sandwich is well-done on both sides.
  6. Serve immediately, preferably with a large whole dill pickle and potato chips or potato salad.

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EATING OUR WAY THROUGH DEATH VALLEY

This last week we were visiting our daughter in Los Angeles. For some time, we had wanted to see Death Valley, so it turned out to be a pleasant turn of events when we learned that Carol and her children had already made plans to go there over the weekend.

Susan collected a whole stack of guide books before the trip and had plotted out an itinerary. Unfortunately we could not leave before school got out on Friday, so we steered across LA in the midst of early rush hour traffic (When isn’t it rush hour traffic in LA?) and got out to the desert just as it was turning dark.  Clearly it is better to stay in the park at Furnace Creek, but that would have been another two hours of travel at night so we wound up staying in the little town of Lone Pine.

We arrived after 8 o’clock, and the already limited choices for dinner became even more limited as most closed at 9 PM. We chose the Mt. Whitney Restaurant even though there were no other customers. That was our first clue that this would not be a transcendent dining experience, but with two very tired, hungry kids that seemed secondary.

Mt Whitney Restaurant green chile buffalo cheeseburger

Mt Whitney Restaurant green chile buffalo cheeseburger

The menu was extensive, including meatloaf, open-faced meatloaf sandwich, clam chowder (in the desert?!) and regular, ostrich, or buffalo hamburgers. In my misguided quest for the perfect green chile cheeseburger, I ordered the buffalo version. The server, with some heavy ink and dressed in his cut-offs, high school T-shirt, and Converse low-tops, strongly recommended that the burger should be cooked at least medium. I complied with his suggestion, although since then I have wondered whether there might have been some motive to his advice. The adults ordered wine, and soon enough we were all brought a mini-screw-top bottle and an empty wine glass. The meals arrived, and although the French fries were good, we saw that our overall expectations had been realized.

The next morning we loaded up and headed to Death Valley. The drive was long and dusty, and although the map showed stops at Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells, there was not much until we arrived at Furnace Creek. There, crowds milled around the restaurants, bars and gift shops at the Furnace Creek Ranch. We had a pleasant lunch in the busy but not crowded café. Service was fast, efficient, and friendly. The food was surprisingly good, plentiful, and not too expensive. I got the curry chicken salad wrap, and it hit the spot.

Furnace Creek curried chicken salad wrap

Furnace Creek curry chicken salad wrap

The real pleasure palace at Furnace Creek, though, is the Furnace Creek Inn. The elegant inn sits up on a hillside surrounded by an oasis of palm trees, flowers, and green lawns. After an afternoon of sight-seeing, we stopped in for cocktails for the adults and ice cream for the children. We sat in the beautiful lounge with amazing vistas of the desert floor. The staff was very pleasant to us even though we looked like desert rats. However, we also learned that shorts and T-shirts are not permitted in the dining room for dinner. The Inn is clearly the place to stay, just make sure your credit card is paid up before you book a room.

We drove back to Lone Pine in the twilight, cleaned up, and then went out to dinner. Our first choice, Seasons, clearly had the best menu along with white linens and a good wine selection, but reservations would have helped. After a long wait with two impatient kids, we left for the restaurant next door – the Merry-Go-Round.

Merry Go Round won ton soup

Merry Go Round won ton soup

That turned out to be a good choice. Otherwise we would not have gotten some of the laughs we enjoyed over the next couple of days. We walked into the circular dining room covered in mirrored tiles to be ushered by the young server to a too-small booth. Suddenly a stout, grey-haired older man with an apron appeared from the kitchen and announced that the booth would not do. He sent us to two tables in the middle of the room. We pushed them together only to have the old man declare loudly that we needed to pull them apart again so that he could cover them with two white tablecloths. After that, he plopped a stack of menus on the middle of the tables and announced that one menu was for Chinese while the other was for American, depending upon our wishes – and for that matter, we could order from both.

The young server then finished the table with paper placemats depicting the Chinese zodiac and promptly disappeared into a small room where he got into a loud discussion with another person accompanied by startling crashes. He reappeared but no longer had any interest in us until Susan called him over and asked him to take drink orders. I ordered some Chilean wines. He then asked, “Are you familiar with that wine? I would not recommend it.” He suggested another wine, but I chose a red from Paso Robles. Obviously, he was convinced that I had still made a bad decision, because when he brought out the wines – filled completely to the brim, he set a second glass at my place with just a swallow of the wine he had recommended. He pointed out to Susan that there was a bit of cork in her glass, but that the extra protein would do her good.  After a bit of a skirmish with the young waiter about the menu (Carol asked what vegetables were in a particular dish, and he asked in reply, “Do you really want me to have to go back into the kitchen to find out?”) – we ordered Chinese, which turned out to be surprisingly good. It was prepared by the mother in the kitchen. The gray-haired man was the boss, and the reluctant server was their son.

Throughout the entire evening, Susan kept saying, “I feel like I am in ‘The Twilight Zone'”. At one point I even thought I saw Rod Serling sitting in one of the booths. Since he died in 1975, that seemed unlikely. On the other hand, everything seemed possible by then. We finished our meal just as a couple in a nearby booth were getting ready to leave. The asked for a carry-out box for a huge plate of unfinished food. The waiter brought a tiny box which didn’t work, so he tossed it from about 10 feet onto a towering pile just behind the hapless couple.  Our bill was paid, and we returned to the motel marveling at our experience.

Still Life Café

Still Life Café

The next day we toured the Alabama Hills where all of the western movies of my childhood were made. I think I even recognized a rock where Gene Autrey hid from the bad guys. Then we drove as far as we could up the road to Mount Whitney. A tour of the National Historical Monument devoted to the Japanese internment during World War II completed the morning. The exhibit was worthwhile, and even the children got a lot out of the visit. But everyone was hungry so we stopped at a recommended restaurant in the tiny town of Independence. The Still Life Café is run by a French couple, and the menu is definitely French but also definitely good. My croque monsieur was outstanding, and the pommes frites were a cut above McDonald’s.

Still Life Café croque monsieur

Croque monsieur

With all of this food, I have failed to mention our itinerary:

First stop was the Mesquite Sand Hills. Although they are not as big as either the White Sands or the Great Sand Dunes, they are still impressive and quite beautiful in the desert setting.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Mesquite Sand Hills

Next stop was Salt Creek where we strolled along a boardwalk, watched the pup fish swimming in the salty stream, and enjoyed the desert scenery.

Salt Creek

Salt Creek

Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (-282 feet) so we had to go there, along with tourists from all over the world. The formations of mineral crystals on the surface of the water were impressive and beautiful.

Badwater (282 feet below sea level)

Badwater (282 feet below sea level)

We drove through the narrow, colorful canyon of Artists Drive and made it to Zabriskie Point just as the sun was reaching a good angle for photos. Zabriskie Point may be the most famous place in Death Valley because of the movie, but it is also one of the must-see stops.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

Our visit to Mount Whitney (highest point in the contiguous 48 states – 14,505 feet above sea level) was our final photo-op before we headed back to LA.

Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney

But we definitely plan to visit Death Valley again.

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